Mauritania: The Forgotten Genocide of Black Africans

By Yahaya Ba

Growing up, I knew West African families tended to be large. What I didn’t know was why my family seemed so much larger and more spread apart than others. I figured that because our ethnic group, the Halpulaar (a largely Islamic-leaning linguistic group which shares the language of Fulfudle) had originated in the Fouta region of Northern Senegal and Southern Mauritania, that was where we could still be found. Unlike our nomadic cousins, the Bororro, we were more urbanized and settled.  Yet we were scattered throughout West and Northern Africa. One day, my father explained to me how this happened. This led me on a journey of discovery, of speaking to Halpulaar survivors, of hearing their personal experiences, of researching the unknown history of black genocide in Mauritania. To summarize my father, “our black skin meant jail, torture, or even death were likely, so we had to leave.” The history of ethnic cleansing in Mauritania draws disturbing parallels to the worst cases of ethnic cleansing in history.

Situated on the West Coast of Africa, Mauritania is a country which benefits from its geopolitical location. Sandwiched between the Arab North and the Black African south, it is a meeting point of cultures.  Unfortunately, over time, Arabs, the country’s minority group, have come to dominate. The majority group of black Africans have long been marginalized, humiliated, and dehumanized.

Mauritania is a country situated on the borderlands between North Africa and West Africa

Prior to the colonialization period, Mauritania was inhabited by “Black” African groups.  Bambara, Wolof, Soninke, Pulaar, and Lebou made this area home.  When the Arab Islamic invasions occurred, the country’s fabric was drastically altered. When Desert Arabs intermixed with the local indigenous and slave population of the north, the ethnic group known as the Moors was produced. Also known as Bidane in the local dialect, the Moors would become the dominant social class at the expense of the black indigenous peoples. The anti-black ideology of Arabic Mauritania can be seen in the region’s poetry and art. But, the more sinister form of hatred is evident in the development of the Arab slave trade. This Arab enslavement of Africans can be traced back as far as the eight century. Later, slaving efforts were funded by the British and assisted by their Moroccan counterparts. Even up to today, crimes such as slavery, force feeding of women, and female genital mutilation are common place in Mauritania.

In the written memoirs I discovered in my journey of discovery, I found a history of suffering, including sexual torture involving rape and castrations. In one instance, an entire village of slaves burned themselves to death to avoid the horrors of slavery. Yet, an inspiring history of slave rebellion can also be found in Mauritania. The first abolitionist of slavery before the Haitian revolution is to be found in this region.  Chierno Sulayman Baal, a revolutionary Islamic scholar from the Fouta Tooro region, pushed the Moors back and fought against their slave incursions. When Baal was martyred, resistance fighters such as Abdel Kader Kane continued the fight against the Moors. The forgotten legacy of resistance in Mauritania can teach us the resiliency of continued dignity of African peoples. 

Forced feeding of women and girls is a common practice in Mauritania

During the European colonial period, the French came to dominate the country. When French colonialists put a halt to the Arab slave raids and the slave trade in 1905, many of the Africans that had fled the country returned. Black Mauritanians who had been educated in French and who joined the military in World War Two would eventually help lead the country to independence in 1960. But racial hierarchy was not eliminated under French colonialism. Similarly, the legacy of French domination and anti-blackness did not end with independence.   

To this day, nearly all of Mauritania’s leadership have been installed and/or backed by the French.  The French fear of a Black republic twice the size of their country still lingers. In 1960, the French installed dictator Mohktar Ould Daddah, a Moor, as the head of state. On the surface, Daddah preached African unity and invited African heads of state to Mauritania. In practice, Daddah enacted anti-black policies and pursued a mission of Arabization. Mauritania outlawed indigenous African languages in schools, while Arab and French were declared the only official state languages. In all high-level positions, Arabic would become the sole recognized language, a language many Black Africans did not know. What’s more, Islamic teachings were used by some religious clerics to justify slavery. When a military coup toppled Daddah in 1979, full on ethnic cleansing was in store for black Mauritanians.  By 1982, a fact finding mission by the Anti-Slavery Society in London reported as many as 400,000 African slaves existed in the country.

Mohktar Ould Daddah

Due to the harsh desert climate, the land question has always been central in Mauritania. Due to their livestock and agricultural cultures, most of the good land was initially used by African groups. The country’s new leader, Maouiya Ould Taya, was a colonial military officer who had graduated from a French military academy and received strategic war training by the French in 1975. To start his reign of terror, black-owned land in the country’s South was seized. To Arabize the country, the government began granting citizenship to Tauregs, Sahrawi Arabs, and other Berber groups from neighboring countries and deporting and stripping Africans of their citizenship. Those who resisted faced strongmen who used violent means such as slaughtering livestock and exiling citizens to Senegal and Mali.  Blacks began rallying for their rights as citizens of the state and for the preservation of their culture and local dialects. In response, Ould Taya arrested countless citizens, sentencing them to long prison terms.  The regime’s violence spilled over into Senegal, with the killing and taking of hostage of Senegalese farmers near the border.

While slavery was banned on paper, it continued to thrive under Taya’s rule.  Black migrants such as Ghanaians, Nigerians, Guineans, and Ivorians were routinely rounded up, taken into detention camps, or killed. This operation received air transport help from Spain, France, Morocco, and Algeria and Taya’s troop were trained in Iraq and Qatar.  In the eyes of Pan-Arab intellectuals in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, Taya was a hero. Concurrently, Arab nationalists who were serving prison sentences were released from prison and used as muscle in the effort to turn Mauritania into an apartheid state, a fact the international community has long turned a blind eye towards.

In 1990, a Black opposition party known as Forces de liberation Africaine Mauritanie (FLAM) was born. Representing a serious challenge to Taya, the government cracked down on electoral freedom and upped efforts to stifle black dissent. In 1991, alleging that the mostly black army was planning to overthrow his government, Taya saw that black officers and their families were rounded up and shipped to concentration camps outside of the capital city, Nouakchott. Ould Taya defended his racial cleansing policies by saying, “Mauritania is a new tree; it’s time to shake off the old branches, and leaves.” The Moorish troops who carried out this shaking were once colleagues of their black infantrymen.  Perhaps out of fear for their own safety, former slaves who had adopted Moorish culture and names also assisted in this genocide against their black brothers.

Starvation and lack of sanitation was a tactic used by Moorish troops to break down arrested black citizens. Overcrowded cells, lack of toilets, and a lack of water led to the spread of deadly disease and lice infestations. Diseases such as scurvy and beriberi were common. Torture was also commonplace. Dragging prisoners behind trucks or beating them with electric chords were some of the more popular methods. Moorish soldiers also used a concoction of tea, and Chili pepper to burn the eyes of prisoners. Sexual terror was also routine. In keeping with age-old traditions of slavery, castrations of black prisoners were commonplace. Many prisoners met their deaths by hanging and firing squads.  Despite these horrors, the racist state terror of the Taya regime has been all but forgotten in the international community today.

The United Nations, the U.S., and France were not ignorant of the ethnic cleansing of black Mauritanians. Diplomats from France and the United States visited the country in this period, making them well aware of the atrocities. Yet, due to their interest in the vast gold, petrol, steel, copper, and fishing, the world turned a blind eye to Taya’s crimes.  Even other black African states failed to come to the aide of Mauritania’s victims.

The situation in Mauritania today is still dire. The country is all but Arabized. There is almost no black African representation at any level of government. FLAM is still the only black political party of the country. Ould Abdelaziz, Taya’s successor, is also a tyrant.  Another Arab element further destabilizing the region is Islamic terrorism. The Al Qaeda of the Maghreb has set up bases in Mauritania and offers training to other terrorist groups such as Boko Haram.  These perverted forms of Islam have less to do with religion and more to do with imperialism, barbarism, and White Supremacist ideologies.

The need for black Africans to launch a concentrated effort to emancipate ourselves still exists. Not just in Mauritania, but all over Africa. Imperialism takes many different forms. The episode in Mauritania was defined by the atrocities of Arab-supremacy. Pan-Africanism and unity amongst Africans remains our only chance for defeating imperialism on the continent in all its forms, whether perpetrated by Arabs or Europeans.

Yahaya Ba is a freelance writer based in the United States. He writes on self-determination and community development for Africa and African communities around the world.

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