500,000 Blacks Are Slaves in Africa’s Mauritania: Are We Their Hope?

June 30, 2011  |  

By Alexis Garrett Stodghill

Mauritania is a north African country in which 20% of the population, 500,000 people, are living in forced servitude. Deprived of even simple rights like having a last name, or retaining control over their children, the slave class is largely made up of black Africans who have been displaced due to a history of tragic events. Colonialism, drought, civil war, and economic power plays (notably China’s recent grasp for control of Mauritania’s fishing industry) have combined to make slavery persistent and nearly impossible to eradicate.

Mauritania’s unstable government fails to intervene in the lives owned by the ruling class in part because it is is dependent on the wealthy for survival. The result is that weak tactics are employed such as creating laws that protect “servants,” which dilute acknowledgement of the horrific truth with euphemisms. This allows everyone to turn a blind eye. The government also claims superficially that slavery has been outlawed, while doing nothing to enforce these laws. The Atlantic reports on how this hypocrisy came to be the norm:

Mauritania could have been designed to be a modern-day slave state, so perfect are the conditions for entrenching this cruel habit. An artificial creation of the end of colonialism, the European-drawn, largely arbitrary borders cut across ethnic groups that are black African, black Arab or Berber, and white Arab or Berber. French colonialism rapidly centralized much of what was once a heavily nomadic population, forcing ethnic groups that had once been separated by geography to coexist and to compete. In the 1970s, widespread droughts forced many of the country’s farmers and rural peoples into cities, creating new classes of destitute and jobless citizens who have been unable to adapt to this new reality. Because 50 percent of the economy is still based in agriculture, urban job opportunities are scarce. Lacking other options, faced with an economy unable to help them and an ethnic hierarchy that tells them they are worth less than their white-faced or Arab counterparts, they become slaves. Many of the displaced were children in need of a guardian. Many of those guardians became masters. The cycle repeated in the late 1980s, when an estimated 70,000 black Africans were expelled from the country, leaving behind masses of children, many of whom were enslaved.

Even though there are local groups fighting to end this injustice, they are blocked by a fragile government concerned that organized political groups could become the source of the next military coup. In a nation racked by sudden violent changes, the issues important to slaves — the least powerful — are of little importance to those grasping for power.

Hope lies only in a relationship with the West, as Mauritania seeks to build alliances with foreign investors. We weigh human rights issues highly when doing business, so awareness of the plight of blacks in their own land needs to spread. Citizens of Western democracies need to be armed with the knowledge that slavery persists there, so we can pressure the Mauritanian government to end it now if they want American capital.

Mauritania needs to break away from what many perceive as a highly exploitative relationship with China, so will likely be reaching out to us.  Americans must demand social reform in exchange for investment, and consider economic sanctions against this and all countries that accept human bondage.

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