Slavery Convictions In Mauritania: Real Reform Or Deliberate Deception?

World’s worst slave state sends two slaveholders to jail while releasing two anti-slavery activists.

A window slightly opening or simply more window dressing?

That is the question anti-slavery activists are asking after a court in the West African country of Mauritania surprisingly jailed two persons last month for owning slaves. 

“Two men were… handed five-year prison sentences – one year to be served and four years suspended - and ordered to pay compensation to two victims in only the country’s second ever prosecution for slavery since it was criminalized in 2007,” reported a Thomson Reuters story. 

The activists’ hesitation to heap praise on Mauritania for the recent legal decision is understandable. Mauritania is regarded as the world’s worst slave state, achieving this number one ranking on the Global Slavery Index in 2013. It was also the last country in the world to outlaw this obscenity in 1981, while declaring it a crime against humanity only last year. 

The one person successfully prosecuted since criminalization in 2007 served only four months of a two year sentence for owning two boys, aged 10 and 11. In last month’s case, the maximum prison sentence the slaveholder could have received was ten years. This was doubled to 20 years in 2015.  

While Mauritania’s top ranking as a slave state is not in dispute, the actual number of slaves in this largely desert country is. Some are owned by nomadic tribes that are often on the move, which makes it difficult to determine a true figure. But the estimated number is about 140,000 in a country of 3.5 million people. Indigenous anti-slavery organizations say the number may even be as high as 600,000.

The slaves in Mauritania are all black Africans, called the Haritin class. They are chattel slaves, belonging body and soul to their masters, who can buy and sell them at will. Children born to slaves also become property of their parents’ masters. 

But unlike the slaves of Boko Harem or in Sudan, most of Mauritania’s black African slaves were not captured in violent, murderous slave raids, but are inherited as property from generation to generation. As a result, some Haritin families have been slaves for centuries and, according to African scholar Garba Diallo, “are so brainwashed, that they would consider it a sin to escape from their masters.” 

“Their ancestors were kidnapped into slavery and long ago, and their offspring have been brought up to believe that Allah created two groups of people: slaves and masters, each playing specific and eternal roles in society.”   

The masters are all Arabs and Berbers, called the “whites,” who constitute about 20 percent of the population. Both slaves and masters are Muslim.

The “whites,” like Mauritania’s president, make up almost all of the commercial, political and military elite class that controls the country. And therein lies the problem. As Mauritania’s slavery record indicates, it has been very difficult to get this elite class to make and enforce laws that would abolish slavery, when many of its members own slaves themselves. Besides resentment, abolishment would cause masters a loss of status that comes with owning slaves as well as a financial loss from freeing their human property.

But this inaction in Mauritania is partly based on an even greater problem, shared by other countries like Mali, Sudan and Saudi Arabia where chattel slavery is prevalent: Arab racism against black Africans. 

African-American writer and journalist Samuel Cotton encountered this deadly racism when he went to Mauritania in the 1990s to explore the slavery issue. Afterwards, Cotton wrote his disturbing findings in a book, Silent Terror: A Journey Into Contemporary African Slavery.  

“The problem is that Mauritania’s Arabs sincerely believe that blacks are born to be slaves,” Cotton concluded. “They believe that a black man, woman or child’s place in life is to serve an Arab, and it does not matter whether that black is a Christian, or a fellow Muslim.” 

Cotton’s volume constitutes an excellent contribution to the fight against the scourge of contemporary black African slavery. It should be on every high school or university syllabus dealing with the subject or human rights in general. Black Lives Matter activists should also read it, if they truly wish to learn about a genuine, and incredibly cruel, anti-black racism. But don’t hold your breath.

The other part of the problem that stands in the way of slavery’s eradication in Mauritania is that slave owners believe they are doing nothing illegal or immoral. After all, the prophet Muhammad owned slaves and Islam’s legal code, sharia law, regarded as divine, justifies the practice. The eminent scholar of Islam, Bernard Lewis, wrote “…the institution of slavery is not only recognized but is elaborately regulated by Sharia law.  

Mauritania’s most prominent and fearless anti-slavery activist, Biram Ould Dah Abeid, a black African, was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison in 2012 when he and other activists from his anti-slavery organization, Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA,), staged a sensational, anti-sharia demonstration outside a mosque on a Friday. There, Dah Obeid symbolically destroyed a copy of the sharia law code that keeps his people enslaved, after first removing the pages referring to the Koran and the prophet Mohammad. This incredibly brave man does not believe sharia is divine law, saying it is outdated codes drawn up during the Middle Ages. 

This was not Dah Obeid’s first arrest and imprisonment for anti-slavery activities. Besides torture and other forms of mistreatment both in and outside of jail, it was also announced on Mauritanian television “we will kill him, like we kill a cat.” His most recent arrest occurred in 2014 for protesting the dropping of charges against a master for raping a slave girl. The anti-slavery activist received a two-year prison sentence. 

Dah Obeid himself comes from a Mauritanian slave family (his last name, ‘Abeid’, means slave in Arabic). He is the son of a slave; his father was freed by his grandmother’s master, but his grandmother and uncles remained slaves. The Mauritanian abolitionist’s hero is Nelson Mandela, and like Mandela, was also honoured by the United Nations (UN) with its Human Rights Prize. Dah Obeid received his in 2013. 

“I am from the servile community of Mauritania that makes up 50 percent of the population,” Dah Obeid said in a speech at the United Nations Human Rights Summit in Geneva in 2014. “Twenty percent of the 50 percent have been born as property of other men. We were inherited by other people.” 

The fact Dah Abeid, along with the IRA vice-president, was released from prison last month after serving 18 months of his 2014 two-year sentence has also helped fuel hope that Mauritania’s slavery situation is improving. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon welcomed the release, commending the Mauritanian authorities, while urging them “to investigate the circumstances that led to the arrests of the activists.”

It is encouraging that the special court set up to prosecute slaveholders is reported to have eight more cases on the books. Some anti-slavery activists, though, were disturbed by the leniency of last month’s sentences, believing they could send slave owners “the wrong message.” But one anti-slavery activist, IRA Europe co-ordinator Abidine Merzough, struck a positive note.

“They should have been convicted for longer, but it’s better than nothing,” Merzough said. 

But as long as no abolitionist movement develops among the slave-owning, Arab/Berber elites, similar to IRA and SOS Esclaves among Mauritnia’s former black African slave class, it is difficult to foresee the abolishment of Mauritanian slavery any time soon. 

Unfortunately, no large abolitionist movement has ever taken root in an Islamic society, similar to that in the United States before the Civil War or in England. Pressure to abolish slavery in Islamic countries has mostly come from the outside and not from within, such as with Saudi Arabia in 1962.

And Mauritania appears to be no different. The elites indicate little desire for change as the paucity of trials since the 2007 law attest. And those few that have taken place were probably a response to foreign pressure, window-dressing for foreign consumption. Which means that Mauritania, sadly, will likely remain among the world’s worst slave states for years to come.