→ also: Al Jumhouriya al-Islamiya al-Muritaniya / République Islamique de Mauritanie

1. Natural space and geographical conditions

The traveller who crosses Mauritania by plane soon detaches his gaze from the image that spreads beneath him. The apparent monotony in the forms of the Sahara landscape and the restriction to the colours grey, brown and ochre, occasionally accentuated by some yellow, create boredom. This changes quickly when the pilot recommends looking at the “Eye of Africa”. From above, concentric circles appear on the ground, growing outwards at irregular intervals and losing their contours. The natural wonder with a diameter of 40 to 45 kilometres had led to speculations about its origin for many years. What remains are the opinions that it is a matter of a meteorite impact, eroded bulges of the earth’s surface or volcanic explosions. This natural phenomenon has made Mauritania famous.

Eye of Africa - Guelb er Richat - Richat structure - Eye of the Sahara - Mauritania
Eye of Africa – Guelb er Richat – Richat structure – Eye of the Sahara – Mauritania

In fact, Mauritania is characterised by four ecological zones. The hostile Sahara zone in the north comprises about two thirds of the country, which occupies 28th place worldwide with an area of 1,030,700 square kilometres. It expresses itself in seemingly endless fields of sand dunes and rough granite formations.

The sand dunes continue in the Sahel zone. However, this west-east belt also contains grassy savannahs, which serve as pastures for the nomads’ sheep, goats and cattle. Acacia trees are gratefully used as a source of shade. The rainy season lasts from June to October. Since the amount of precipitation increases slightly towards the south, sedentary agriculture is also settled there. Only the northern valley of the Senegal River and the coastal zone with its length of 754 kilometres remain for human existence. This is where most of the country’s 4.4 million inhabitants (2017) live. In the last five years to 2017, population growth was 2.7%. In 2018 it rose to 2.9%. As recently as 2000, a census had revealed 2.5 million inhabitants.

The vast Sahara dunes (El Djouf) also dominate in the east, while the rugged sandstone plateaus of Adrar, Tagant and Affollé tower up to 500 m in the west. The island mountains formed by erosion with their special characteristics can also be seen there:

  • the Kedia d’Idjil, with 915 meters the highest elevation of Mauritania;
  • the Ben Amira, the second largest monolith (after Ayers Rock, Australia) in the world, which stands as a gleaming   brown colossus in the middle of a golden-yellow sparkling sand field and attracts tourists from all over the world to the border region to Western Sahara;
  • the “Guelb er Richat” (“Island mountain of Richat”) with its concentric circles in the Adrar region (“Eye of the Sahara”; “Eye of Africa”; “Bull’s eye”). The only few meters high sedimentary rock structure with its rounded center is even used by astronauts for orientation.

On the ground, the monotony perceived from an aeroplane perspective transforms into an unforgettable natural spectacle with the migration of the sun when the dunes, which cover 40% of the country’s surface, are irradiated with varying degrees of brightness. Nevertheless, tourism is not very pronounced. There are about 12,300 km of roads, only a third of which are asphalted and suffer from constant sand drifts. Since the fertile areas are located exclusively on the west coast and in the catchment area of the Senegal River, about 80% of the population live on 15% of the land area. The national average is 4.0 inhabitants per square kilometre. The Senegal River, on the other hand, has a population of 633. In the capital Nouakchott alone, the number of inhabitants has risen to over one million.

Mauritania borders the Atlantic Ocean to the west and Western Sahara and Algeria to the north. In the northwest to the Democratic Arab Republic of Sahara proclaimed by the “Frente Polisario”, in the east and southeast to Mali and in the south to Senegal. The west-east extension is 1150 km, the north-south extension 1400 km. Its location makes Mauritania a distinct desert country in which the Sahara extends up to six kilometres further south every year. As a result, the number of nomadic livestock breeders fell from 75% of the population (1960) to today’s 10%. The desert climate is characterised by high temperatures, which are subject to only slight fluctuations in annual temperatures. The dry, hot north-eastern trade wind (“Harmattan”) blows in the Sahara the whole year over. Temperature rises reach up to 50° C. Occasional attenuations only occur in coastal areas when the cool sea air meets the hot Sahara air and fog develops. Rainfall during the rainy season (July to December) is 400 mm in the south and 100 mm in the north. The Senegal River also has 400 mm of precipitation.

Problems exist in the overgrazing of available land, deforestation, soil erosion and desertification, overpopulation. A reforestation programme is currently under way.

The government has taken measures to protect nature. In 1976 it declared a third of the coast a national park. The “Banc d’Arguin” extends over 12,000 km² and is a bird paradise. It is the winter habitat of the Eurasian migratory birds on the Eastern Atlantic Route. More than two million birds from 250 species stay there between autumn and spring. With 45,000 pairs of 15 species, the national park is the largest breeding colony of West African seabirds, although it is disturbed by passing tankers and oil mining in the sea. The government receives payments for the sale of fishing licences. The fisheries agreement with the European Union (2006) provided for annual payments of 86 million euros, of which 1 million was earmarked for the Banc d’Arguin park. /1/ The “Parc National Banc d’Arguin” with its gazelles, jackals and hyenas has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1989. In 1991 the “Parc National Diawling” was founded in the south at the border to Senegal. It encompasses the delta of the river and is famous for the huge deposits of storks, flamingos, pelicans and the diversity of fish species. In 2005 it was declared a World Heritage National Park.

Senegal is the only water-bearing river in Mauritania.

There are wadis in the plateaus where rainwater collects in lakes. The northern valley side of the Senegal River is up to 30 km wide, but the approaching desertification threatens fishing and agriculture.

Springs and wells can also be found in the Adrar and Tagant plateaus, which enable agriculture and the cultivation of date fruits.

The most fertile floodplains are those along the Senegal River. Palm trees, baobabs, bamboo as well as willows, acacias and jujubas thrive there. The oases are dominated by date palms.

The fauna is determined by the variety of bird species (see “Banc d’Arguin”) and the abundance of fish on the Atlantic coast. Elephants were exterminated after 1920. Especially in the river valley of Senegal, monkeys, crocodiles, lions and hippos have a favourable habitat. As speciality, the panthers occurring here (leopards with black fur-coloring) are considered. The climatic conditions and difficult travel routes allow only little tourism. Due to the murder of four French tourists on December 24, 2007, in the Adrar region, accused by the government of Al Qaeda from the Islamic Maghreb, the number of tourists dropped by half from 14,000 (in 2000). /2/ 2008 the Paris-Dakar car rally was cancelled due to possible terrorist attacks. This caused worldwide headlines because for the first time an organiser capitulated to the terrorist threat. No attacks have been registered since 2011.

Global climate change is causing the capital Nouakchott problems. Since some parts of the city are below sea level, they are threatened by rising water. The floods are increasing because the dune protection belt has been damaged. The sand was used as building material in the city. The sand dunes of the Sahara are approaching from the east. With the increase in the number of city dwellers, the degree of littering increased. To solve the wastewater problem, China built a 40 km long drainage tunnel to the Atlantic Ocean.

Mauritania. © OpenStreetMap contributors
© OpenStreetMap contributors

2. Historical development from pre-colonial times to independence

Findings indicate that there was human life in the region of present-day Mauritania about 20,000 years ago.

In ancient times, the North African Berbers were called Moors. They gave their name to the kingdom of Mauretania, which existed around 200 BC and included parts of the present-day states of Morocco and Algeria. Later it became dependent on the Roman Republic. Today’s Mauritania has no historical connection with this and is only the bearer of the ancient name.

In the 9th century Berber cattle breeders had settled in this part of West Africa. They came from the east and northeast and introduced the camel as a means of riding and transportation. The Sanhadscha Federation (formed from the union of the Berber tribes Messufa and Djodala) conducted trade and controlled the Western Trans-Saharan caravan trade (metals, precious metals, salt, slaves). Under their leader Tilantan they founded a kingdom. This disintegrated at the beginning of the 10th century. The missionary, theologian and legal scholar Abdallah Ibn Yasin, succeeded in uniting the tribes (Lamtuna, Masufa, Dschudala) into the Almoravid Battle League in the middle of the 11th century. He preached a Puritan Sunni Islam to the Berbers. /3/

The Almoravid Empire expanded in the following period (“Holy War”) to a territory of Mauritania, today’s Western Sahara, Morocco, Algeria and Zaragoza. Marrakesh became the capital. In the south the Ghana empire was conquered. The most serious consequence of the rule of the Berber dynasty of the Almoravids was the Islamisation of West Africa. In the middle of the 12th century, the Muslim Berber dynasty of the Almohads gained power over the Maghreb and the Spanish territories. It detached itself from the anthropomorphic ideas of God of the Almoravids.

From the 13th to the 17th century, Arab tribes settled in the north of present-day Mauritania. In the south, the Songhay Empire on the Niger, which had existed since the 8th century, expanded. To the east, the Kanem-Bornu empire grew around Lake Chad, controlling trans-Saharan trade. This resulted in a loose link between the north of Mauritania and Morocco, while the south remained in contact with the Mali Empire.

From the mixture of the arrived Arabs with the Berbers and already resident black Africans the Moors emerged. In 1674 the Arabs triumphed over the Berbers, who now had to submit to them. Today’s social structure goes back to this event. At the bottom of the social hierarchy stood the black slaves who were submissive to both warriors and Islamic clergy. These three groups speak the Arabic dialect Hassanija. The black population remained the group most affected by the slave trade. Even when the Portuguese discovered the Mauritanian coast in 1411 on behalf of Henry the Navigator, this had serious consequences. On the island of Arguin (the only of 15 islands between Agadir and Senegal with freshwater resources) the transatlantic slave trade began. From there African slaves were shipped to America.

Islamization was a process that lasted almost 500 years. It began with the first contacts between Berbers and Arabs. Chinguetti is still one of the seven holy sites of Islam and the Sunni Moors. The city was the centre of Islamic education and teaching. Astronomy, mathematics and medicine were taught. Important medieval libraries were created. It had significance as a place of encounter and as a trading centre. On some days thousands of camels roamed the streets of the city. They wore salt, wheat, dates, gold, ivory and ostrich feathers. In Chinguetti the goatskin hoses were filled with water and the animals were soaked. Mecca pilgrims gathered and joined the protection of the caravans. On traditional routes they passed through golden dune mountains, sand plains, deep canyons with rocky soil and oases with date palms and evergreen mint fields.

The inaccessibility and impassability of its Sahara regions had led to little interest in this territory during the colonization of Africa. It was not until the end of the 19th century that France began its military conquest, since it was better able to secure its possessions in the north and northwest by appropriating this land. With Morocco and Algeria, Mauritania became the French colony of Upper Senegal in 1883/84. The Berlin Conference of 1885 on the division of Africa among the great powers confirmed France’s claim to ownership. After fierce battles against the opposing Moorish tribes, it took possession of the conquered territory as part of French West Africa in 1904. The resistance against it continued in some parts of the country until 1934. In 1920 Mauritania became a French protectorate and in 1921 a French colony. Since the 50s it has strived for independence. Within the framework of the new colonial policy in the 1950s, it initially became a French overseas province and thus part of the Union francaise. Mauritania was released from this short-term autonomy in the French Community and gained sovereignty on 28 November 1960. In the same period the city of Nouakchott was founded. The founding of the independent state of Mauritania was preceded by political quarrels. Morocco claimed the territory because in pre-colonial times the Almoravids ruled north-western Africa. Therefore, Mauritania, Western Sahara, parts of Algeria and Mali should be united to form Great Morocco. This led to an international conflict. Supporters of the Great Morocco Project included the leader of the Moroccan Istiqlal Party, Allal al-Fassi, Morocco’s King Hassan II, the Arab League and the member states of the Casablanca Group (1961: the Algerian Government in Exile; Egypt; Ghana; Guinea and Mali). The opposite interest of France was represented by President de Gaulle. /4/

In October 1961, Mauritania became a member of the UN against Morocco’s will. The Great Morocco project finally failed in 1963, when King Hassan II did not recognise Mauritania’s independence until 1969. This manifested itself in the adoption of the first constitution, which defined Mauritania as a republic with a presidential system. After the presidential elections, Moktar Ould Daddah became the first head of state.

3. Population structure

Almost 100% of the Mauritanian population belongs to Malikitic Islam, which originated around 800 AD from one of the four traditional legal schools of Sunni Islam.

In Mauritania, Berbers, Arabs and black African ethnic groups live together. Since independence and long periods of drought, feudal and racist structures that still exist have been in the process of dissolution, accompanied at the same time by increasing urbanization. 53% of the population live in cities today. The share of nomads has fallen from 90% (1960) to 10% (2000).

A census scheduled for 2011 had to be broken off after protests in 2012. It was envisaged that persons under 45 years of age who could not provide proof of their nationality would not be recognised as citizens of Mauritania.

Arabic is the official language of the country’s 4.4 million inhabitants. It is spoken in its Mauritanian variant Hassania. French plays the role of the ubiquitous working, commercial and educational language. The national languages Pular, Soninké and Wollof are also widely used.

The introductory school year has been completed in Arabic since 1999. However, French is compulsory for all pupils and students. At the University of Nouakchott, all natural sciences are taught exclusively in French. The social tensions between Moors and black Africans are also expressed in the fact that the former prefer Arabic, while the latter prefer the French language.

The school enrolment rate is rising. While it was 33% in 1980, it had risen to 76.7% in 2014.

However, the illiteracy rate is still very high. It currently stands at 48% (women 59%, men 37%) and shows increasing progress (1982: 82.6%; 2002: 62.3%). /5/

In decline are the Berber languages of Zenaga and Imraguen (“Those who gather life”). The latter are about 1500 black Moors who live as coastal fishermen around the “Banc d’Arguin” National Park. In Mauritanian society they are integrated into the lowest social stratum and excluded. Their fishing methods are considered archaic. They go into the water and drum dolphins to help intercept mullets on their way to spawning grounds in the Gulf of Guinea. With the establishment of the National Park in 1989, they lost their fishing rights and livelihoods. Only after protests and when the government in Nouakchott realized that the Imraguen were not plundering their fishing grounds with traditional sailing boats did they regain the rights to use the sensitive ecosystem on the coast. They are the only one allowed to fish in the waters of the National Park. In the coastal waters outside the park boundaries, thousands of fishing boats are engaged in an inexorable battle for resources.

The Imraguen catch sharks and rays with their up to 12 m long boats.

In addition to fishing, they also act as park guards and tourist guides.

The Berber language Zenaga is only spoken by about 6,000 people in southern Mauritania. It is replaced by Hassania, which contains numerous loan words from Zenaga.

The Moors make up 70% of the population. 30% are the Bidhan, the light-skinned (white) Moors. They recruit the two upper classes of the hierarchically structured Mauritanian society: the Hassani (warriors) and the Marabouts (Islamic scholars). These Arab-Berber Moors prefer to speak Hassania. While they used to cross the country as nomadic cattle breeders, today they live in the middle and north of the country. 40% of the population are the Haratin, the dark-skinned Moors. They are the descendants of former slaves. They count themselves part of the Moorish-Arabic cultural circle. Black African ethnic groups make up 30% of the population: Wolof, Soninké, Bambara and Halpulaar (also known as Fulbe, Fulani, Peul, Fulfude). The Halpulaar form the largest group with about 20%. They are represented in 18 West African countries, where they became known as nomad shepherds through their close ties to their cattle and got into conflict with local farmers in search of grazing land. In Mauritania they settle in the southern regions of Trarza, Brakna, Gorgol and Guidimakha. They’re farming the Senegal River. /6/

The black African ethnic groups tend to use the French language, which contains conflict potential with increasing Arabization.

Islamic clergy and the government are fighting with growing success the still practised circumcision of girls and women.

The ethnic diversity of the Mauritanians ensures the preservation of their centuries-old culture. Thus the Khaima, a tent that emerged from the nomadic way of life, is even used by city dwellers in their leisure time. Goldsmiths, silversmiths, wood carvers and tailors are regarded as traditional producers. Malafa, worn in striking colours, is typical for women. Men dress in the boubou.

4. Economic structure

Mauritania is one of the poorest countries in the world. In the prosperity index of the population it occupies the 154th place of 175 judged. The Global Competitiveness Index – a measure of a country’s economic competitiveness – ranks Mauritania 137th out of 138 (2017). Overall it belongs to the group of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPCs). At the time of independence, Mauritania was characterised by extreme poverty and lack of infrastructure and administrative capacity. The country certainly has resources that promise a positive development.

At the beginning of the 1960s, iron ore mining in the “Black Sahara” near F’derik/Zouérate in the north of the country attracted international attention. According to current estimates, up to 12 billion tons of iron ore with a metal content of 65% can be found there, easily mined. The transport trains on the only railway line were and are the heaviest in the world. Since 1963, they have crossed the Sahara over a distance of 704 km from the Zouérate mining area to the natural harbour near the town of Nouadhibou (100,000 inhabitants). 200 wagons with 21,000 tons of iron ore are pulled by four locomotives. It was already reported enthusiastically in 1963: “Iron ore with over 65% iron content can be mined like in a quarry. It only has to be blown up, dumped onto chutes, loaded with mechanical shovels holding eight tonnes in wagons with a load capacity of 100 tonnes and … transported over the dunes, down a steep slope about 300 metres high, to a new port. … To exploit this deposit a new large company has been created, the Société des Mines de Fer de Mauretanie (MIFERMA), in which 50% French, 20% British, 30% West German and 30% Italian capital are involved. The World Bank has also entered … with a loan of 21 million pounds sterling.” /7/

The government of Mauritania was assured 50% of the profit on the basis of an agreement, but no ore to develop its own industry. The transnational corporation MIFERMA secured 80% of the state revenues and had strong political influence. Since the wandering Sahara sand constantly spills over the railway tracks and the trains and rails suffer from high wear and tear, it was necessary to set up stations 100 kilometres apart to remove the sand. With the establishment of the company for the import of sugar, rice and tea (SOMITEX) in 1966, the commercial monopoly of the French traders based in Dakar broke. With its own customs institution, it broke away from Senegal. In 1972, the Arab-Mauritanian bank received the foreign trade monopoly and became the central bank in 1973.  The most important step towards economic independence was taken in 1974/75 with the nationalization of mining. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Morocco provided economic support. During this period, this led to a stronger affiliation with the Muslim countries and inspired the entry into the Arab League. The sale of the iron ore initially ensured a balanced balance of payments. Since 2017, the trade balance has been negative at $1.64 billion net imports (exports $3.1 billion; imports $4.74 billion). Imports come from China, South Korea, Norway, France and the United Arab Emirates. Exports go to China ($715 million), Switzerland, Spain, Japan and Germany. In 2017, exports of iron ore accounted for $813 million, 26.3% of revenues, 19.9% ($618 million) of gold, 6.7% ($208 million) of copper ore, 14% ($421 million) of non-fillet Frozen Fish, 12% ($348 million) of processed crustaceans and 7% ($218 million) of molluscs. The most important imported goods were special ships ($1.03 billion), refined petroleum ($336 million), wheat ($181 million) and sugar ($179 million). /8/

Mauritania’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2017 was $5.02 billion, its per capita income $3950 (2005: $697). Among the three main economic branches, ore mining occupies the dominant position. It accounts for 29% of all state revenue. These are dependent on the ups and downs of world market prices for ores. There are approaches to a national mining strategy for a sustainable raw materials sector with stronger growth in value added. Mauritania is the second largest iron ore producer in Africa and ranks 15th in the world. At Akjoujt, copper is mined in small quantities. In 1976 10,000 tonnes were mined, but two years later only 2830 tonnes. In the following period mining was stopped due to unprofitability and copper production was resumed later. This also applies to gold, which produced 690 kg in 1976, but only 250 kg (estimated) in 1978. Oil has been produced from the Chinguetti oil field on the Atlantic coast since 2006. About half of the population works in agriculture, which can only satisfy a third of the demand for food. In the Senegal Valley, millet, pulses, rice and maize are cultivated for self-sufficiency. Livestock farming, still the main industry before 1960, supplies sheep, goats, cattle and camels. The positive growth rate in agriculture and fisheries was able to compensate at times for the sharp fall in world market prices for iron ore. The manufacturing sector is only marginally developed. From 1975, a state-controlled fishing industry was started and the fishing zone was extended to 200 miles. The state secured profits through joint ventures with fishing companies from Russia, China and European states. The main consumer of the fishery is Japan. The EU Fisheries Agreement is one of the main sources of foreign exchange. The four-year contract signed with the EU in 2015 secures annual revenue of around 60 million euros. Until 2006, Senegalese fishermen caught thousands of tons of sardines and hake on the Mauritanian coasts. The 400 fishing licences were not renewed in 2017. Senegalese workers were made redundant to secure jobs for Mauritians. The situation worsened when the Mauritanian coastguard shot illegal Senegalese fishermen in 2017.

5. Current Political Development

In 1975, 3000 Mauritanian and 10,000 Moroccan soldiers had occupied Western Sahara with French military support. In the Madrid Agreement of November 14, 1975, Spain transferred the administration of its former colony of Western Sahara to both countries on June 28, 1976. This agreement prompted the independence movement POLISARIO to proclaim the Democratic Republic of Sahara. Morocco did not recognise this and in 1976 annexed the northern two thirds. Mauritania claimed the southern third, based this on family ties and the intention to exploit the phosphate deposits there. Mauritania could not cope with the financial burden resulting from this situation. Rising military expenditures for the army, which had been increased from 3000 to 17,000 soldiers, falling prices for iron ore and the continued drought of the Sahel were the result of Mauritania’s economic, military and domestic ruin. Its dependence on the extractive sector made the country vulnerable to fluctuating commodity prices. It was not until Mauritania was no longer able to afford its military expenditure that the ceasefire and the peace treaty with POLISARIO were signed on July 30, 1979. The years between 1978 and 1984 were marked by political instability, military coups and revolts. Sharia law formed the basis of the legislation. Domestic instability manifested itself in the change of political leaders. From 1961 to 1978, President Daddah ruled. In 1978, he lost his office to a military regime that took power in 1979 as the Comité Militaire du Salut National (CMSN), producing Presidents Moustapha Ould Salek (1978/79), Mohammed Ould Louly (1979/80) and Khouna Ould Haidallah (1980 to 1984). From 1984, the Chief of General Staff and former Prime Minister Mouawiya Ould Sid´Taya took over the function of Head of State. At the beginning of 1991 he announced a democratic transformation of the country. After the referendum of July 12, 1991, a new constitution of the Islamic Presidential Republic was adopted with 97.9% of the votes cast. Based on the French model, it provided for a separation of powers, a multi-party system and a bicameral parliament. The President shall be directly elected for a term of six years. In 1997 Ould Taya won the elections for the second time after 1992. During his reign in 1989 there was a border conflict with Senegal and subsequently unrest and violent excesses against black Mauritanians. Senegal had claimed the right bank of the river. There were progroms on both sides. 200,000 Moors fled from Senegal to Mauritania, 60,000 black Africans from Mauritania to Senegal. Mauritania established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1999. The military coup of August 3, 2005, ended Taya’s twenty years of authoritarian rule. This led to a change towards more democracy and the founding of new parties. The constitutional referendum of June 25, 2006, on the modification of the 1991 constitution received 96.9% approval. The term of office of future presidents was limited to two terms. Parliamentary elections were held in 2006 and President Abdallahi took over the government. He stood up for the end of the tabooing of the slavery problem in Mauritania and had state control over imports and the distribution of food. He also supported the return of refugees from Senegal. Thus he secured the support of the hitherto marginalized black population, the Haratin. The democratisation process was interrupted by the coup d’état of August 6, 2008, under General Abdel Aziz. The Front National de Defense de la Democratie (FNDD), which acted on the side of the overthrown president, emerged as a counterforce. The European Union, the USA, the African Union and the Arab League condemned the coup. Mauritania’s membership of the African Union has been suspended. Previous donors such as the European Union, the USA and the World Bank stopped making payments. The UN representative for West Africa called on President Aziz to engage in dialogue with the opposition in order to overcome domestic stagnation. The international pressure led to negotiations under the leadership of the Senegalese president with the result of new presidential elections on July 18, 2009.

The amended constitution of July 02, 1991, in the version of January 10, 2012, declares Islam the state religion, guarantees separation of powers and political pluralism as well as human and civil rights. Since the parliamentary elections of 2018, the National Assembly has 157 members from 15 parties and 8 independent deputies. 20 seats are reserved for women. The largest opposition party won 14 seats. In 2018, the Law on the Creation of Regional Councils was enacted, which includes the formation of six administrative regions. It serves the further development of Mauritania’s decentralisation policy. Since independence, the military has had a decisive influence on politics. That doesn’t seem to continue. From 2010, military expenditure amounted to 3.9% of the national budget (about 150 million US dollars). Since 2015, the Mauritanian army has been supported by NATO in training for counter-terrorism operations.

Mohamed Ould Ghazouani won the presidential elections of June 22, 2019, with an absolute majority (52.01%). His party Union pour la République (UPR) won 89 of the 157 seats in the National Assembly. Democracy in Mauritania still stands on insecure feet. The opposition has been boosted. Demonstrations of anti-slavery activists are being held at home and abroad. Pressure is being exerted on the government to express itself and take a stand on this issue. Police operations against demonstrators and arrests of members of the organization IRA-Mauritanie find the disapproval of human rights organizations. The Mauritanian government still faces international criticism because slavery continues in the country. A UN representative confirmed the government’s efforts to abolish slavery at the end of 2009. Officially, a ban has been in force since 1980, but threats of punishment have only existed since 2007. The structural changes necessary to eliminate the ban have not yet been implemented. In court, the slaves stand in the burden of proof and slave owners are favored. The lack of an internationally valid and recognised definition of modern slavery makes it difficult to combat it. In general, the definitions include forced labour in the private sector and debt bondage, forced marriage of women and children of both sexes, child slavery. Forced prostitution, serfdom and human trafficking are also mentioned, as are forms of historical slavery with a recognised ownership of enslaved persons. They work without or almost without pay as domestic workers or agricultural workers for “masters”. In Mauritania, the slaves usually recruit themselves from the Haratin. Today, it is particularly true when “a person is under the control of another person for the purpose of economic exploitation, who uses force and means of power to maintain that control”. /9/

Historical slavery exists in Mauritania mainly in the form of hereditary slavery. There are only estimated numbers about the number of traditional slaves. The Global Slavery Index assumes about 160,000 people. The Mauritanian organization SOS Esclaves estimates them at up to 600,000. /10/

The Amnesty Report Mauritania (May 23, 2018) criticised the limited freedom of expression, association and assembly. Foreign human rights activists had been refused entry. He accused the use of torture. In April 2017, security forces in the capital violently disbanded a demonstration by young people calling on political leaders to take action against youth unemployment. In November 2017, a court in Nouadhibou converted the death sentence against blogger Mohamed Mkhaitir into a two-year prison sentence. He had been found guilty of “apostasy” in 2014. In 2017, US anti-slavery activists did not receive entry visas.

The UN Special Rapporteur accused the police of using torture in March 2017. At the same time, he confirmed the government’s progress in the fight against poverty. However, for large sections of the population, they are still to be expanded in terms of access to food, education, drinking water, sanitation and health care.

Since 2005, the domestic political situation has been marked by internal conflicts and military coups. The security situation deteriorated with the activities of radical Islamic groups such as Al Qaeda. By making it more difficult for African migrants and refugees to gain access to Mauritania by closing off its external borders, Europe is increasingly transforming Mauritania from a transit country to a lead country for these groups. Border controls in desert regions, on national borders and on the Atlantic coast were only possible to a limited extent. This encouraged criminal activity such as drug smuggling and human trafficking. However, since 2014 under President Aziz there have been efforts to modernize the police through reforms and to focus them on their most essential services. In cooperation with Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad, Mauritania is working in the G5-Sahel (“G5 du Sahel”) group to strengthen security and is involved in the “Joint Intervention Force”. The participating states each invest 10 million euros in the multinational anti-terrorist unit. In addition to the 12,000 West African security forces, French soldiers also support the United Nations peacekeeping mission. In addition to French aid for military equipment, there is financial support from the European Union.

Algeria opened its 460 km border with its neighbouring country in August 2019 to improve civil transport, trade and security. The state of democracy in Mauritania is expressed, among other things, in the large number of existing parties. In March 2019, 76 of the 107 existing parties were declared invalid. This decision was based on a law passed in 2012, which was revised in 2018. After that, a party is automatically dissolved if it received less than one percent of the votes in the local elections in 2013 and 2018.

The reflection on historical values was expressed in the 2017 newly created national anthem and the national flag. The latter borders the moon crescent with star on green ground by two red bars. They symbolize the blood shed during the struggle for national independence.

The Mauritanian Ouguiya (MRO) has been the national currency since 1945. The country was therefore spared integration into the CFA franc system. New banknotes were issued in 2018 to keep the currency stable. Ten Ouguiyas became one Ouguiya. At the same time, this was intended to reduce the quantity of banknotes in circulation. The largest banknote, the 5,000 Ouguiya note, was made from durable polymer paper. This was intended as a suggestion to exchange hoarded cash with banks. As a result of the changeover, the prices of some products rose.

Internationally, Mauritania enjoyed the reputation of a tolerant country. Radical Islamism was considered a marginal problem. That is why it caused a worldwide sensation when Islamic terrorists attacked Israel’s embassy in Nouakchott in early 2008. Due to the resulting safety concerns, the thirtieth edition of the Dakar Rally was cancelled in the same year.

Since 2006 there have been repeated dramatic events on the Mauritanian coast caused by refugee boats on their way to Spain. In March 2006, the Spanish Navy found 24 bodies of Africans who had left Mauritania for the Canary Islands. Aid organisations in Mauritania spoke of one thousand deaths in four months. The northwestern Mauritanian port city of Nouadhibou developed into one of the main landing places for refugee boats on their way to Europe. The Spanish government offered Mauritania support to stop the refugee dramas on their way to the Canary Islands. Already in 2005 3900 people had been arrested. In 2007 the damaged ship “Marin 1” with 400 refugees from Pakistan reached the port of Nouadhibou. Two months later 12 Africans died and 90 inmates of a refugee boat were rescued by a Spanish fishing boat after the Mauritanian authorities refused to help those in distress. For some years now, Spain and Frontex have been preventing boats from leaving the port of Nouadhibou. Mauritania has become a dead end for migrants. The European Union is sealing itself off by moving its borders forward to Africa. Their development aid payments serve to ward off migrants. Mauritania is using the millions it has received to secure its borders.

As a developing country, Mauritania is supported by international donors. These include the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development (with offices in Kuwait and China), the European Union, the Islamic Development Bank, the World Bank, Spain and Saudi Arabia. There is also bilateral development cooperation with Germany and France.

The European Union is Mauritania’s main trading partner. China, which is pushing ahead with the expansion of its infrastructure, is playing an equal role. The Chinese are expanding ports and sewers, building government buildings and stadiums. There are close connections to Russia and the USA (security issues). Algeria and Morocco play an important role as trading partners. Mauritania has been associated with Germany since 1960 via the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). Since 1991, the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) has had an office in Nouakchott to support reform processes in Mauritanian politics.

Mauritania’s foreign policy is aimed at integration into the international community. The country is a member of the UN, the African Union (AU), the Arab League (AL), the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). In 2014 it held the presidency of the African Union. This ended the suspension of membership due to the military coups in 2005 and 2008. In 2018 the meeting of the African Union took place in Nouakchott. Already in 2016 the summit meeting of the Arab League in Nouakchott had caused a sensation. There, the fight against terrorism was particularly fought.

The Democracy Status Index gave Mauritania 86th place out of 129 in 2018. /11/

In March 2018, the heads of government of the African states signed the agreement on the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTFA) in Rwanda’s capital Kigali. This project of the African Union is intended to better position the continent in world trade in the future. Mauritania is hoping for an economic upturn with the largest free trade area in the world that it has created. However, since Africa’s share of world trade has not exceeded 2.5% for many years, rapid development is not to be expected. For this reason, the initial focus is on expanding African domestic trade.

Mauritania is a member of the “Organisation internationale de la Francophonie”, which (as of 2018) comprises 30 full members and associate members as well as 2 countries with a monitoring function.

The Mauritanian Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who had been imprisoned in the US Guantanamo camp in Cuba since 2002, became known throughout the world. The USA accused him of being involved in the planning of the September 11, 2001, attacks and an attack on Los Angeles airport. There was no evidence of that. There were no charges. He had been interrogated for more than nine months in Jordan and Afghanistan. Then he was tied up, twisted and stunned and flown with a hood over his head to the prison camp in Cuba. From 2005 he had written down his experiences and made the torture practices in the camp public worldwide with his “Guantanamo Diary” published in 2014.

6. Literature

/1/ Sturmhoebel, Elke: Die Luft ist voller Trri-trri. In: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Nr. 27. 1. Februar 2007. Seite R 5.


/3/ Ronart, Stefan; Ronart, Nandy: Lexikon der arabischen Welt. Ein historisch-politisches Nachschlagwerk. Artemis-Verlag. Zürich 1971.


/5/ Bissio, Robert Remo; Baptista, Artur: Guia do terceiro mundo. Tricontinental Editora. Lisboa 1986. Editora Terceiro Mundo – Rio de Janeiro.


/7/ Woddis, Jack: Afrika. Kontinent im Morgenrot. Dietz Verlag. Berlin 1963. Seite 483.



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Further representative titles:

Hofmeier, Rolf; Institut für Afrika-Kunde (Hrsg.): Afrika. Jahrbücher 1993 bis 2001. Politik, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft in Afrika südlich der Sahara. Leske + Budrich.

Mauretanien. In: Harenberg Länderlexikon. Alle Staaten der Welt auf einen Blick. Harenberg Lexikon Verlag. 2002.

Krings, Thomas: Sahelländer: Geographie, Geschichte, Wirtschaft, Politik. Mauretanien, Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger (Länderkunden). wbg Academic in Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. 2006.

Grajek, Rainer: Mauritania / Al Jumhouriya al-Islamiya al-Muritaniya / République Islamique de Mauritanie. In: Markus Porsche-Ludwig, Ying-Yu Chen (Eds.): Handbook Near and Middle East States Geography – History – Culture – Politics – Economy. LIT. 2022.

ISBN:  978-3-643-91136-0

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Last Updated on 2022-02-05