Mauritania: A racial pyramid seemingly resistant to change

Photo of a traditional wedding in Atar in Mauritania by Radosław Botev, in free use on Wikipedia

In ethnically diverse Mauritania, the government appears to have turned deaf ears to the demands of the global Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, continuing policies which reproduce systemic anti-Black racism.

The shocking image of the “Mauritanian George Floyd”

As the world continues to express outrage at the death of the African-American George Floyd, a photo dated June 23, 2020, showing two policemen restraining a black man by putting a knee on his neck in the El-Minaa region in the south-western suburb of Nouakchott, Mauritania's capital, has been reported by many media, including France24. The shocking image was also featured in numerous tweets:

Whatever the reasons for this individual's arrest by police officers, this image was also shocking because it took place in Africa, and recalled the method used by American police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, to restrain George Floyd.

A racial pyramid seemingly resistant to change

Many observers attribute the behaviour of the Mauritanian police officers in part to systemic racism which is still present in the country. In Mauritania, where slavery was not abolished until 1980, it is often the colour of a person’s skin that determines their place.

The Bidhân, or “White Moors”, are of Arab-Berber origin, constitute 53 per cent of the population, and are politically dominant. In the army, “almost all of the thirty-four Mauritanian generals are White Moors.” At the bottom of the heap are the Haratin, or “Black Moors”, who make up 34 per cent of the population. The Haratin are descendants of those once enslaved by the Bidhâns, and speak the same dialect of Arabic. There are also various other ethnic groups of black sub-Saharan African origin who make up about 13 per cent of the population.

These divisions have a serious and pervasive effect on the non-Bidhân peoples, who represent 47 per cent of the population. Ciré Ba, a Mauritanian human rights activist living in Paris, has addressed the issue on the Malian website

L’exclusion au sein de l’armée n’est jamais que le reflet du racisme systémique qui est l’essence même de l’Etat mauritanien. On peut l’observer à tous les autres échelons de la vie nationale, qu’il s’agisse de la fonction publique et notamment la haute administration, de l’enseignement, de la santé, de l’information, de la vie économique. La politique d’assimilation par la langue arabe n’en est qu’une manifestation en format réduit.

The exclusion within the army is only ever a reflection of the systemic racism that is the very essence of the Mauritanian state. It can be seen at all other levels of national life, whether in the civil service, particularly the senior civil service, education, healthcare, information or economic life. The policy of assimilation by means of the Arabic language is only one small example of this.

The authorities appear to have no intention of changing the situation and are instead seeking to consolidate their power. The recruitment of 47 officer cadets, none of them black, should be seen in this context, as highlighted in a comment on the Denouncing Racism Facebook group in September 2019:

L’annonce du recrutement de 47 élèves officiers l’armée nationale sans aucun Haalpulaar, Soninké, ou Wolof [trois des principales ethnies noires du pays] est un énorme scandale. Et, au regard du principe de l’égalité, entre les citoyens, ce recrutement est une continuité de la politique du sabotage à l’encontre de la quiétude sociale. À travers de tels agissements, de ces décisions iniques et des politiques injustes, on pousse à certains à sentir qu’ils n’ont pas de place dans ce pays

The announcement of the recruitment of 47 officer cadets for the national army without any Haalpulaar, Soninke, or Wolof [three of the country's largest black ethnic groups] is a huge scandal. And, regarding the principle of equality among citizens, this recruitment is a continuation of the politics of undermining social harmony. Through such actions, unfair decisions and unjust policies, some people are pushed to feel that they have no place in this country

Izzo Wane, a former Silicon Valley researcher from Mauritania, told of his experience of racism in a blog post on 6 June:

La discrimination raciale est toujours présente dans mon pays d’origine. Je l’ai remarqué pendant mon dernier séjour au pays il y’a quelques mois alors que beaucoup de gens proches me disaient que c’était « normal » et que j’avais « juste trop duré à l’étranger ». Je suis certain que presque chaque Mauritanien noir a vécu dans sa vie un incident, souvent traumatisant, lié à sa couleur de peau… Il y’a quelques jours à peine, Abass Diallo, un Mauritanien noir a été assassiné par l’armée.

Racial discrimination is still prevalent in my home country. I noticed it during my last visit to the country a few months ago when many people close to me told me it was “normal” and that I had “just been abroad too long.” I am sure that almost every black Mauritanian has experienced an incident in their life, often traumatic, linked to their skin colour… Just a few days ago Abass Diallo, a black Mauritanian, was murdered by the army.

Many Mauritanians reacted on Twitter to the killing of George Floyd:

Mauritania: the arrest of the “Mauritanian George Floyd” outrages the black community

Commenters also called for pan-African solidarity, with some calling on African leaders to take a stand:

I experienced this in Nouakchott. I was at the counter of a phone shop to get a local sim when a Moorish lady pushed me to take my place. I was going to react, but a young black man implored me: “Don't do that, you can get lynched here.”
I was appalled

Mauritania is a slaving and racist country.
Inhumane treatment in the region even beyond its borders is a custom. If there is a country where the lives of black people do not count, it is the Islamic slaving republic of Mauritania.

Other leaders must speak out on this… they are Charlie but they close their eyes to this injustice/intolerance which is happening on their continent. This is not the Africa of Lumumba, Nyobe, Cabral and Sankara. Let's wake up and sanction Mauritania.

The Ivorian web site iciabidjan (@iciabidjancom) observed that in Mauritania, slavery remains a common practice:

Following the death of George Floyd in the…United States, the AU and ECOWAS reacted and expressed their indignation. That’ s good. Do these two institutions know that on the continent itself, in Mauritania among others, slavery is a common practice? Let's clean up our own backyard…

For the Mauritanian authorities, being situated between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa is a distinct advantage that they could turn into real opportunities. But to do so they would have to end the policies that exclude and discriminate against almost half their population.

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