Are there still slaves in Mauritania? Legally, no. Are large numbers of ex-slaves and their descendants still trapped in exploitative systems? Yes.
"Slavery is alive and well in Mauritania" - Messaoud ould Boulkheir, President of Mauritania's Parliament, May 2013.
Google 'Mauritania and Slavery' and it is clear that Boulkheir's assertion above is public knowledge.
References to NGOs dealing with Mauritanian slavery - such as SOS Esclaves (SOS Slaves) and Association des haratine de Mauritanie en Europe (Association of Mauritanian haratin in Europe) - are widespread.
Mauritania's Initiative de résurgence du mouvement abolitionniste (Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement [IRA]) recently received international acclaim when its founder and leader, Biram ould Dah Abeid, was named UNPO's (Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization) 2013 recipient of the 'Front Line Defenders' award for his battle against slavery.
But slaves and slavery in 2013?
In 1948, in the aftermath of the Second World War, Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated that "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude: slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms". So, 65 years later, how do we explain the seeming anachronism that is Mauritania?
Setting the scene
The Islamic Republic of Mauritania straddles the 'white-black' West African divide between Arab/Berber desert and African sub-Sahara/Sahel. The desert bizan ('white') people speakthe Arabic/Berber dialect of hasaniyya; the Sahelian sudan ('black') Halpulaar, Soninke and Wolof people mirror the ethnic and linguistic mosaic of neighbouring Senegal.
Mauritania, like its Sahelian neighbours Senegal and Mali, has a long history of slavery. During its half-century as a French colony (1903-1960), 'trading in slaves' was suppressed, as was the institution of slavery across the Sahel.
In the Sahara, however, 'household slavery' was seen as an integral cultural element. The French reasoned that without trade to supply new slaves, the institution would die a natural death; in the meantime, they pragmatically decided they could afford to uphold their promise to bizan 'masters' to respect local custom.
But in this Muslim society, slave marriage and reproduction was widely encouraged; slave children belonged to masters and ensured future generations of slaves. Additionally, there was a formally recognised category of 'freed slaves': haratin.
In Mauritania, all former slaves and their descendants are haratin. When manumission (freeing a slave) followed Islamic law, the resulting relationship (wala) created an ongoing interdependence: former masters owed material, moral and legal assistance, while haratin shared in familial social obligations and religious payments.
The French strongly defended this institution which assured workers to their colonial economy and simultaneously supplied a built-in social security system.
A (not so) black and white story
In 1961, when President Moktar ould Daddah signed the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the newly-created Islamic Republic of Mauritania remained rooted in traditional social hierarchy, including slavery. The black-white divide between the south - which had gravitated towards French culture, education and economy, and the north - which had resisted Christian colonial influence in favour of its Arab, nomadic character - grew wider than ever.
Real change came in the wake of the Sahelian drought (1968-74) that drove thousands from the desert into urban centres like Nouadhibou, the Atlantic port, and Nouakchott, the new capital. Most were haratin or slaves whose masters could no longer support them.
In the late 1970s, the political group El Hor ('The Freeman') argued for improved conditions for these groups. Its success in publicising their plight internationally forced the government to formally abolish slavery in 1980. Between 1981 and 1983, additional legislation followed by land reform buttressed the historic announcement.
But religiously-sanctioned relationships such as slavery and wala were not jettisoned so easily, especially as few amongst slaves, haratin and masters found sufficient material compensation in the new reforms to risk leaving/rejecting the traditional security of slavery. The institution thus continued in all but the most public contexts.
El Hor's international campaign also continued. But it increasingly simplified and dramatised Mauritania's complex racial and social mosaic, seeking support from audiences familiar with American-style slavery. The campaign thus translated the situation into black and white, and by the late 1980s, Mauritania was known to the West as an 'Apartheid' regime in which 'a free-white elite' apparently exploited 'a black-slave underclass'.
The violent 1989 border war with Senegal reinforced this image. Between 1989 and 1991, 80,000 to 90,000 'free black' Mauritanians (mostly Halpulaar) were forced to flee the country.
Possessions were stolen, identification papers destroyed, women raped, and men tortured. Among the perpetrators of what some termed genocide, haratin police and army personnel were conspicuous in their numbers. But internationally, a different tale was told. Media reports spoke of 'black slaves being driven from their homes by white masters'.
And so, as Mauritania became defined by its own 'Apartheid regime', and the violence became seen as a 'civil war fought over slavery', distinctions between slave, haratin, refugee and black became permanently blurred. The main difference today is that now the country is the 'democratic'Islamic Republic of Mauritania, with colour and class alliances evolving accordingly.