Strategic Opinions

Slavery, Mauritania and the shame of a continent

By Osmund Agbo
In November 2017, the world watched in utter disbelief, some cringed-worthy footage aired by CNN where dozens of men in detention facilities were being auctioned off for as little as $400 each in Libya. If you think that was a fluke, the crew was also told of the existence of similar auctions taking place at nine other locations in the country. The victims? People that look like me that belong in the melanin-rich subset of Africans. The traffickers were our brothers, a shade or two lighter from the north. But that’s just a tip of the proverbial iceberg. Slavery is alive and thriving in Africa by Africans.
What if I tell you that the last country in the whole wild world to outlaw slavery is a country in the continent of Africa. Yes, that is Mauritania, in 1981. To put it in perspective, that was some 116 years after the US Congress ratified the 13th amendment which stated that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” Now, understand that there is a huge difference between having a paragraph or two in the statute that says it’s illegal to own slaves and the actual practice of enforcing it. For in Libya, Mauritania, and some other North African nations, setting free our other African brothers and sisters of darker hue commonly referred to as Haratins is one luxury they just cannot afford. After all, less melanin in the skin means that one is automatically on top in the value chain.
Mauritania, officially referred to as the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, is a sovereign state in Northwest Africa. About 90 percent of its territory is situated in the Sahara. Mauritania is a bridge between the Arab Maghreb of north Africa and darker-skinned sub-Saharan Africa. Of its 4.4 million population, about 40% is made up of indigenous dark-skinned Africans called the Haratins, a pejorative term that speaks to the dark color of their skin. But being referred to as such is the least of the problem of one of the most unfortunate people in the face of this planet. The same people who in Tunisia and Libya are called Chouachin, Chouachine or Chouchan.
Haratins in Mauritania are considered full property of their lighter-skinned Arab-Berbers who are their Masters. They don’t own land, live in poor, segregated communities and are only allowed to work in certain professions specifically designated for their caste alone, such as rubbish collection and butchery. They may be bought and sold, rented out and given away as gifts. Haratins are slaves.
There is a long history of slavery in Mauritania. Centuries ago, Arabic-speaking Moors invaded African villages, resulting in an immutable caste system where darker-skinned Africans are beholden to their lighter-skinned Masters. Like inheritance, slave status is also passed down from mother to child.
Slavery has been banned in Mauritania many times in the past but the problem persists because the enforcement has been in the breach. In 2014, UN Special Rapporteur reported that an estimated 50 per cent of Haratins face some form of slavery including as domestic servants and bonded laborers. Even with the adoption of a stronger anti-slavery law in 2015, there have been very minimal convictions and the sentences passed often lenient.
Mauritania is consistently ranked as the worst place in the world for slavery and it seems that the government in Nouakchott is more interested in concealing the atrocity instead of rooting out this evil. The regime will like to show you how a Haratin like Messaoud Ould Boulkheir got elected speaker of the National Assembly as a proof that slavery in Mauritania is only but a Jewish propaganda against an Islamic state.
The Islamic Republic of Mauritania joined the Organization of African Unity, the precursor of the African Union in May 25th, 1963. That means that every so often, the President of Nigeria will sit across the table, in fellowship with another in whose country, a Nigerian from a different generation is being held as a slave in the most inhumane condition. Then I ask again, of what value is the African Union if the body has the likes of Mauritania within her rank, pretending to subscribe to the idea of an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa eloquently stated as her motto?
There is something to be said about black people and our response to oppression and injustice. Just imagine for a moment that a certain European nation is holding some African slaves in the 21st century. I can bet you with my life that it would attract worldwide condemnation and inspire a new breed of freedom fighters. Okay, granted there has been some effort in that direction but too little, too late. Here we are, giving Mauritania a free pass to commit atrocities worse than apartheid against fellow Africans. It does seem that black people find injustice less egregious when committed by “one of our own”. Does it mean that the burden of it on the victim is made lighter upon the realization that pain is being inflicted from the home front?
If you think this piece is just some random musing about a foreign land far removed from home and with no bearing to the situation in Nigeria, think again. It’s been often said that every 2 out of 10 persons in the North are first generation immigrants, who might have come from Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Chad, Senegal, Niger like the father of President Buhari allegedly and yes, Mauritania. It was reported in one piece that the fire spitting Hakeem Baba-Ahmed of the Northern Elders Forum still has living relatives in Mauritania. Going by the color of his skin, his family most likely belong in the “Masters” category in that country. And so, when you analyze the speech and body language of the man regarding what he believes should be the relationship between northern and southern Nigeria, it makes you wonder if his worldview is a reflection of that background. 
A country where a big percentage of her citizens own slaves should not be admitted to an assembly of civilized people. Mauritania should be banned from African Union and the later push the campaign all the way to the United Nations to do same. African and African-American celebrities should beam a searchlight on this man’s inhumanity to man thriving in Mauritania and take up the cause of fighting for our brothers and sisters held in bondage for centuries. Western countries like the United States, European Union should apply tough economic sanctions against this shame of a country. Mauritania like Apartheid South-Africa should be treated as a pariah state, till she learns to treat every human being with dignity. Slavery has no place in the 21st century. Not even in Africa by Africans.
Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: [email protected]

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