The death of the Black American George Floyd in May at the hands of a white police officer is forcing the United States to confront a legacy of slavery and systemic racism. The conversations that followed Floyd’s murder have sparked similar reckonings in countries that have their own history with colonialism and the slave trade, from Belgium to Brazil.
Few states demonstrate this trend better than Mauritania, the last country in the world to ban slavery. The practice remains widespread there despite human rights groups’ efforts.
Though Mauritania outlawed slavery in 1981, Mauritanian officials have often only paid lip service to enforcing the ban: estimates put the number of slaves in Mauritania at between 340,000 and 680,000, a range that encompasses 10 to 20 percent of the country’s population. The practice has targeted Black Mauritanians, who account for over half of the population according to some estimates. The Haratin, the descendants of Mauritanian slaves, even compose their own ethnic group.
After photographs of Mauritanian police kneeling on a Black man’s neck began circulating in June, Mauritanian human rights defenders accused security agencies of racism.
Human rights activists have tried for decades to call Mauritania to account for its failure to stop slavery, but the worldwide social movement against racism that followed Floyd’s death gave their push renewed momentum. After photographs of Mauritanian police kneeling on a Black man’s neck began circulating in June, Mauritanian human rights defenders accused security agencies of racism and compared the incident to Floyd’s final moments. “They behaved like the American police,” argued the Mauritanian human rights activist Brahim Bilal Ramdhan.
The global outrage at the kind of institutional racism that led to Floyd’s death has created plenty of parallels between Mauritania and the United States. Both countries are wrestling with records of police brutality and slavery that continue to harm their Black populations.
“Without George Floyd, this incident might have gone unreported,” Hamza Jaafar, a member of the Sahel Foundation for Human Rights, told France 24 in reference to the arrest of the Black Mauritanian man. “The security forces here make a habit of assaulting citizens during arrests. Even this time, blogs with close links to the authorities justified this brutal arrest by saying that the man was a criminal who had attacked the officers before trying to flee. They even posted photos that they claimed showed how one of the officers had sustained a hand injury.”
Despite the overlap between Mauritania and the United States’ ongoing battles with systemic racism, Mauritania’s ambiguous demographics have complicated the conversation about race in the country. Mauritanian officials claim that Arabs comprise 70 percent of the population. Black Mauritanians challenge this assertion, though, counting themselves as two-thirds of Mauritania’s population. Black Mauritanians have long accused the country’s leadership of favoring Arabs.
As elsewhere, race in Mauritania has often proved fluid. Many Black Mauritanians identify as Arabs, and the subtleties of ethnicity in Mauritania rarely lend themselves to neat categorization. Nonetheless, Mauritania’s leadership has taken pains to intertwine an Arab national identity with the country’s self-image. In addition to making Arabic the official language and joining the Arab League, Mauritanian officials have tried to Arabize the country’s school system at the expense of French-speaking Black Mauritanians, who describe it as a policy of “comprehensive Arabization.”
Rather than focusing on facilitators of the country’s slave trade, Mauritanian officials have harassed human rights activists.
Mauritania’s apparent reluctance to enforce its own laws on slavery has fueled further allegations of institutional racism. Rather than focusing on facilitators of the country’s slave trade, Mauritanian officials have harassed the human rights activists fighting the practice. Mauritanian authorities arrested two leaders of the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement in 2018 and detained the anti-slavery activist Ahmedou Ould Wediaa just last year.
Mauritanian courts have sentenced only four participants in the slave trade since 2007, when Mauritania attempted to strengthen the ban on slavery by enacting criminal penalties to punish slave owners. Mauritanian officials, meanwhile, have upheld a narrative that slavery vanished from Mauritania as soon as the country outlawed the practice 40 years ago. Earlier this year, however, a range of Mauritanian and international human rights groups opposed Mauritania’s ascent to the United Nations Human Rights Council because of the country’s record on slavery.
Mauritania has only managed to avoid becoming a pariah state by building partnerships with key members of the international community. Mauritanian leaders cemented an alliance with Western world powers by supporting their campaign against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the country endeared itself to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates by joining their boycott of Qatar. Recent events may force Mauritania to reckon with its racism, though.
In 2019, Mauritania completed the first democratic transition of power in its history after a presidential election, a sign that the country may be heading toward the kind of representative government necessary for Black Mauritanians to achieve true equality. Another sign of accountability appeared this August, when Mauritania’s prime minister and his cabinet resigned after allegations of corruption. In light of the global push against systemic racism that followed Floyd’s death, Mauritania may be turning into a more welcoming environment for antiracism efforts.
In 2019, Mauritania completed the first democratic transition of power in its history after a presidential election.
Mauritanians across the world are challenging institutional racism. In the United States, Mauritanian immigrants who fled racial brutality in their homeland are now protesting police brutality. In France, the children of Mauritanian immigrants have spearheaded rallies in support of Black Lives Matter. As the invocations of Floyd’s name in Mauritania have showed, the global reckoning with racism has inspired Mauritanians to combat it at home and abroad.
The ongoing international conversation on institutional racism has provided American and Mauritanian leaders alike with an opportunity to address the legacy of slavery in their countries. As Mauritania edges toward democracy, implementing the ban on slavery and promoting racial equality will prove paramount.
Hundreds of thousands of Black Mauritanians remain enslaved, and anti-slavery activists and other Black Mauritanians continue to face pressure from security agencies. The widespread impact of Floyd’s death is compelling Mauritania to address this social inequality.