The Bafours were mainly agriculturalists, and they were among the first Saharan peoples to forsake their nomadic past. They moved south as the Sahara became more desiccated. Many Berber tribes claimed Yemeni (and sometimes other Arab) ancestors. Although there is no evidence to back such such assertions, a 2000 DNA analysis of Yemeni people indicated that the two peoples may have shared ancestors.
Other peoples also crossed the Sahara to reach West Africa. The ancient Ghana Empire was invaded and captured by Moorish Islamic warrior monks (Almoravid or Al Murabitun) in 1076. Over the following 500 years, Arabs conquered Mauritania, overcoming strong opposition from the indigenous people (both Berber and non-Berber).
The Char Bouba conflict (1644–74) was the peoples’ last failed attempt to resist Yemeni Maqil Arab invaders. The tribe of Beni Hassan commanded the invasion. The descendants of the Beni Hassan soldiers rose to the top of the Moorish social ladder. The mostly nomadic people adopted Hassaniya, a Berber-influenced Arabic dialect that takes its name from the Beni Hassan.
By generating the bulk of the region’s marabouts (those who preserve and teach Islamic heritage), Berbers maintained a niche influence.
Starting in the late 19th century, Imperial France progressively acquired the lands of modern-day Mauritania from the Senegal River basin and upwards. The imperial mission was taken over by Xavier Coppolani in 1901. He was able to expand French control over the Mauritanian emirates via a mix of political partnerships with Zawiya tribes and military pressure on the Hassane warrior nomads. Trarza, Brakna, and Tagant soon signed treaties with the colonial authority in 1903–04, while the northern emirate of Adrar resisted for longer, supported by shaykh Maa al-anti-colonial Aynayn’s uprising (or jihad). In 1912, Adrar was conquered militarily and included into the Mauritania territory that had been drawn out and planned in 1904. Since 1920, Mauritania has been a part of French West Africa.
Slavery was illegal under French control, and inter-clan fighting was abolished. 90% of the people remained nomadic throughout the colonial era. Mauritania started to see a resurgence of sedentary peoples whose forefathers had been exiled centuries before. Because the country’s former city, Saint-Louis, remained in Senegal when it achieved independence in 1960, Nouakchott, then nothing more than a walled hamlet (“ksar”), was selected as the new capital of Mauritania.
Following independence, Mauritania saw an influx of indigenous Sub-Saharan Africans (Haalpulaar, Soninke, and Wolof) who settled in the region north of the Senegal River. Many of these newcomers became clerks, soldiers, and officials in the nascent state after being educated in French language and traditions. This happened when the French were forcefully suppressing the most obstinate Hassane tribes in the Arabized north. This shifted the power balance, resulting in fresh wars between the southern peoples and the Moors. The Haratin, a huge community of Arabized slaves of Sub-Saharan African ancestry who lived inside Arab culture and were absorbed into a low-caste social position, positioned between these two groups.
In Mauritania, modern-day slavery is still practiced. Up to 600,000 Mauritanians, or 20% of the population, are still enslaved, according to some estimates. “Slavery’s Last Stronghold,” a CNN article by John D. Sutter from 2012, describes and documents the continuing slave-owning societies. In the northern portion of the country, tribal elites among “white Moors” (Beydan, Hassaniya-speaking Arabs, and Arabized Berbers) retain power, and this social prejudice is directed mostly at the “black Moors” (Haratin). Low-caste populations among southern Sub-Saharan African ethnic groupings are occasionally enslaved as well.
In Mauritania, the severe Sahel droughts of the early 1970s caused enormous damage, increasing poverty and strife. The Arabized ruling elites responded to changing circumstances and demands from outside for Arabization of many elements of Mauritanian society, such as law and language, by increasing pressure to Arabize many aspects of Mauritanian life. Various methods for preserving the country’s cultural variety have been proposed, but none have been adopted effectively.
Intercommunal violence erupted in April 1989 (the “1989 Events” and “Mauritania–Senegal Border War”), but has since decreased. In the late 1980s, Mauritania evicted 70,000 sub-Saharan African Mauritanians. Ethnic conflicts and the delicate subject of slavery – both past and current in certain regions – continue to dominate the political discourse in the nation. A large percentage of people from all walks of life want a society that is more varied and multicultural.
Issue of Western Sahara
In 1976, Mauritania and Morocco seized Western Sahara, with Mauritania seizing the bottom one-third of the region at the request of Spain, a former imperial state. Mauritania withdrew in 1979 after repeated military defeats to the Polisario, which was well equipped and backed by Algeria, the local hegemon and competitor to Morocco. Morocco has taken up its claims.
Mauritania has been a minor participant in the territorial issue due to its economic weakness, with its stated stance being that it seeks a quick resolution that is acceptable to all sides. Despite the fact that Morocco has seized most of Western Sahara, the UN still considers it a region that needs to declare its desires about statehood. A referendum to decide whether the indigenous Sahrawis want to be independent as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic or part of Morocco is still scheduled to take place under UN auspices at some point in the future.
Ould Daddah era (1960–78)
In November of 1960, Mauritania declared independence. In 1964, President Moktar Ould Daddah, who had been appointed by the French, legalized Mauritania as a one-party state and established an authoritarian presidential system with a new constitution. In a one-party system, Daddah’s own Parti du Peuple Mauritanien (PPM) became the governing party. The President defended this by claiming that Mauritania was not ready for multi-party democracy in the Western manner. Daddah was re-elected in 1976 and 1978 in uncontested elections under this one-party system.
On July 10, 1978, he was deposed in a bloodless coup. Through a catastrophic campaign to acquire the southern portion of Western Sahara, disguised as an effort to establish a “Greater Mauritania,” he had pushed the nation to the brink of collapse.
CMRN and CMSN military governments (1978–84)
Col. Mustafa Ould Salek’s CMRN junta failed to create a solid foundation of authority or to free the nation from its destabilizing war with the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi rebel organization. It was soon deposed, and another military administration, the CMSN, took its place.
Colonel Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidallah, a dynamic leader, quickly rose to the top of the organization. He made peace with the Polisario and restored ties with Algeria, the Polisario’s major supporter, by relinquishing all claims to Western Sahara. However, ties with the other warring party, Morocco, and its European backer, France, worsened. Instability persisted, and Haidallah’s bold reform efforts failed. Attempts at coups and intrigue within the military establishment plagued his reign. It grew more disputed as a result of his strong and uncompromising tactics against opponents; many dissidents were imprisoned, and several were killed. Slavery was officially abolished in Mauritania in 1981, making it the world’s last nation to do so.
Ould Taya’s rule (1984–2005)
Colonel Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya removed Haidallah in December 1984, while maintaining strict military control and easing the political environment. Mauritania’s prior pro-Algerian attitude was tempered by Ould Taya, who re-established relations with Morocco in the late 1980s. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, as part of Mauritania’s effort to gain assistance from Western and Western-aligned Arab nations, he strengthened these relationships. Mauritania has not withdrawn its endorsement of Polisario’s Western Saharan exile government, and relations with Algeria are still cordial. Since the 1980s, it has maintained a strict neutrality in the Western Sahara dispute.
Ordinance 83.127, which took effect on June 5, 1983, began the process of nationalizing any land that was not obviously the property of a recorded owner, thus ending the old system of land tenure. The notion of “dead land,” or property that has not been developed or on which apparent development cannot be observed, was used to justify potential nationalization. The government seized customary community grazing grounds, which had a practical impact.
Political parties, which had been banned during the military era, were re-legalized in 1991. When civilian government was restored in April 1992, 16 major political parties were recognized; 12 major political parties were active in 2004. After the country’s first multi-party elections in April 1992, after the adoption of the present constitution by referendum in July 1991, the Parti Républicain Démocratique et Social (PRDS), previously headed by President Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya, dominated Mauritanian politics. In 1992 and 1997, President Taya was re-elected. In 1992, the majority of opposition parties boycotted the first parliamentary election. The PRDS controlled the parliament for almost a decade. The opposition won representation at the local level, as well as three Senate seats, in municipal elections in January–February 1994 and successive Senate elections – most recently in April 2004.
During this time, there was a lot of ethnic violence and human rights violations. Against a backdrop of Arabization, interference with blacks’ association rights, expropriation, expatriation, and enslavement, a campaign of especially severe violence took place between 1990 and 1991. The majority of the slaves were black.
In October 1987, the government reportedly discovered a plot to overthrow the government by a group of black army officers supported by Senegal, according to the authorities. Fifty-one policemen were detained and tortured during their questioning. A dispute in Diawara between Moorish Mauritanian herders and Senegalese farmers over grazing rights sparked the Mauritania–Senegal Border War, which began as a consequence of heightened ethnic tensions. Two Senegalese were murdered by Mauritanian guards on April 9, 1989.
Following the event, riots occurred in Bakel, Dakar, and other Senegalese cities, aimed at the mostly Arabized Mauritanians who controlled the local retail trade. The riots, which exacerbated already high tensions, sparked a terror campaign against black Mauritanians, who are often mistaken for ‘Senegalese’ by Beidanes, regardless of their nationality. The Mauritanian authorities participated in or supported acts of violence and property seizures aimed towards blacks as the conflict with Senegal lasted through 1990/91. The conflict ended with Senegal and Mauritania agreeing to an international airlift under international pressure to avoid further bloodshed. Thousands of black Mauritanians were exiled by the Mauritanian government. The majority of these so-called ‘Senegalese’ had no connections to Senegal, and many of them are still living in refugee camps in Mali and Senegal. Although the precise number of expulsions is unknown, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) believes that 52,995 Mauritanian refugees lived in Senegal and at least 13,000 in Mali as of June 1991.
Mauritanian government troops murdered or tortured to death between 500 and 600 Fula and Soninke political detainees between November 1990 and February 1991. Between October 1990 and mid-January 1991, 3,000 to 5,000 blacks, mostly military and government employees, were detained. On the basis of suspected participation in an effort to topple the government, some Mauritanian exiles think the number was as high as 5,000.
The government launched a military inquiry, but the findings were never made public. In June 1993, the Parliament proclaimed an amnesty covering all crimes perpetrated by the military forces, security forces, and civilians between April 1989 and April 1992, in order to ensure impunity for those guilty and to prevent any efforts at responsibility for previous atrocities. Families of victims were given compensation by the government, which a few accepted in lieu of a settlement. Despite the amnesty, some Mauritanians have criticized the government’s role in the arrests and executions.
Ould Taya had developed tight ties with Iraq in the late 1980s, and had taken a firmly Arab Nationalist stance. After taking a pro-Iraqi stance during the 1991 Gulf War, Mauritania became more isolated internationally, and tensions with Western nations skyrocketed. Mauritania changed its foreign policy in the mid-to-late 1990s, focusing on greater cooperation with the United States and Europe. It was rewarded with normalization of diplomatic relations and assistance programs. Mauritania joined Egypt, Palestine, and Jordan as the only Arab League countries to recognize Israel on October 28, 1999. Ould Taya also began cooperating with the US in anti-terrorism efforts, a strategy that has been condemned by certain human rights groups.
On June 8, 2003, a group of current and retired Army officers attempted a violent and failed coup. The attempted coup leaders were never apprehended. On November 7, 2003, Mauritania held its third presidential election since embracing the democratic process in 1992. Six candidates, including the first female and Haratine (descendant of former slaves) candidates in Mauritania, represented a diverse range of political objectives and backgrounds. According to official statistics, incumbent President Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya won reelection with 67.02 percent of the vote, with Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla coming in second.
August 2005 military coup
Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall staged a military coup on August 3, 2005, ending Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya’s twenty-one-year reign. The military, including members of the presidential guard, took control of critical sites in the capital Nouakchott, taking advantage of Taya’s presence at Saudi King Fahd’s burial. The coup was carried out without any casualties. The officers, who dubbed themselves the Military Council for Justice and Democracy, issued the following statement:
“The national armed forces and security forces have unanimously agreed to put a stop to the defunct authority’s repressive actions that our people have been subjected to for years.”
Colonel Vall was subsequently named president and head of the national police force, the Sûreté Nationale, by the Military Council. Vall, who was previously considered a staunch friend of the now-deposed president, had helped Taya in the coup that put him in office and subsequently worked as his security head. Sixteen additional officials were mentioned as Council members.
Though the coup was closely monitored by the international world, it was eventually recognized, with the military junta holding elections within the two-year time frame specified. Mauritanians overwhelmingly (97 percent) adopted a new constitution on June 26, 2006, which restricted the length of a president’s term in office. Col. Vall, the junta’s commander, pledged to follow the referendum’s results and transfer power peacefully. Mauritania’s relationship with Israel was preserved by the new government, despite significant condemnation from the opposition. It is one of only three Arab nations to recognize Israel. They saw this as a result of the Taya regime’s efforts to win favor with the West.
On the 19th of November and the 3rd of December 2006, Mauritania held parliamentary and municipal elections.
2007 presidential elections
On March 11, 2007, Mauritania held its first completely democratic presidential elections. Following a military coup in 2005, the elections marked the ultimate transition from military to civilian administration. This was the first time since Mauritania’s independence in 1960 that a multi-candidate election was held to pick a president.
Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi won the elections in a second round of voting, with Ahmed Ould Daddah coming in second.
2008 military coup
The president’s palace in Nouakchott was taken over by the head of the presidential guards on August 6, 2008, a day after 48 legislators from the governing party quit in protest of President Abdallahi’s policies. After the president dismissed top officers, including the head of the presidential guards, the army encircled critical government buildings, including the state television headquarters. The President, Prime Minister Yahya Ould Ahmed Waghef, and the Minister of Internal Affairs, Mohamed Ould R’zeizim, were detained.
General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, the former chief of staff of the Mauritanian Army and the commander of the presidential guard, was in charge of the coup. The President, Prime Minister, and Interior Minister of Mauritania have been arrested by rogue Senior Mauritanian army officers and are being kept under house arrest at the presidential palace in the city, according to Abdoulaye Mamadouba, the presidential spokesperson. “The security agents of the BASEP (Presidential Security Battalion) came to our house and took away my father,” Abdallahi’s daughter, Amal Mint Cheikh Abdallahi, said of the ostensibly bloodless takeover. Abdel Aziz, General Muhammad Ould Al-Ghazwani, General Philippe Swikri, and Brigadier General (Aqid) Ahmad Ould Bakri were among the coup plotters, who were all fired by a presidential order soon before the coup.
After the coup
Mohammed Al Mukhtar, a Mauritanian legislator, stated that many people in the nation supported the overthrow of a government that had devolved into “an authoritarian regime” led by a president who had “marginalized the majority in parliament.” Ahmed Ould Daddah, Abdallahi’s election opponent in 2007, supported the coup. Abdel Aziz’s government, on the other hand, was isolated abroad and faced diplomatic penalties as well as the termination of certain assistance programs. It had few sympathizers (including Morocco, Libya, and Iran), while Algeria, the US, France, and other European nations condemned the coup and continued to refer to Abdallahi as Mauritania’s rightful president. Domestically, a coalition of parties rallied behind Abdallahi to continue opposing the coup, which prompted the junta to outlaw protests and clamp down on opposition activists. Abdallahi was ultimately released after international and domestic pressure, and he was instead put under house arrest in his native village. Israel’s ties were severed by the incoming administration. Mint Hamdi Ould Mouknass, Mauritania’s female foreign minister, declared in March 2010 that the country has severed relations with Israel “completely and definitively.”
Abdel Aziz insisted on conducting fresh presidential elections to replace Abdallahi after the coup, but was forced to postpone them owing to internal and international resistance. The junta reached an agreement with certain opposition leaders and foreign groups in the spring of 2009. As a consequence, Abdallahi officially resigned in protest, as it became apparent that significant opposition groups had defected from him and that the majority of foreign actors, including France and Algeria, had allied themselves with Abdel Aziz. Although the US continued to condemn the coup, it did not aggressively block the elections.
With Abdallahi’s resignation, Abdel Aziz was elected civilian president on July 18 with a 52 percent majority. Many of Abdallahi’s erstwhile followers denounced the move as a political stunt and refused to accept the results. They claimed that the election was rigged as a result of junta rule and that the international world had failed the opposition. Despite minor objections, Western, Arab, and African nations nearly universally recognized the elections, lifting sanctions and resuming ties with Mauritania. Abdel Aziz seemed to have solidified his position by late summer, with broad foreign and domestic backing. Some others, such as Senate Chairman Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, refused to accept the new arrangement and demanded Abdel Aziz’s resignation.
The Arab Spring swept into Mauritania in February 2011, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets of the city.
Mauritania was invited to the G20 meeting in Brisbane as a non-member guest country in November 2014.