Slavery in Mauritania and the Shame of a Continent, By Osmund Agbo
In November 2017, the world watched in utter disbelief as newsworthy footage aired by CNN showed dozens of men in detention centers being auctioned off for just $400 each in Libya. If you think it was a fluke, the crew was also made aware of similar auctions taking place in nine other locations around the country. The victims? People who look like me and belong to the subset of melanin-rich Africans. The traffickers were our brothers, a little 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 told you that the last country in the savage world to ban slavery is a country on the African continent. Yes, that’s Mauritania, in 1981. To put things in perspective, that was some 116 years after the U.S. Congress ratified the 13th Amendment which stated that “No slavery or involuntary servitude, except as punishment for ‘a crime of which the party shall have been duly convicted, must exist in the United States’. Now understand that there is a huge difference between having a paragraph or two in the law that says it is illegal to own slaves and the actual practice of enforcing it. For in Libya, Mauritania and some other North African countries, freeing our other darker colored African brothers and sisters commonly known as Haratins is a luxury they simply cannot afford. After all, less melanin in the skin means that one is automatically at the top of the value chain.
Mauritania, officially called the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, is a sovereign state in North West Africa. About 90 percent of its territory is located in the Sahara. Mauritania is a bridge between North Africa’s Arab Maghreb and darker-skinned sub-Saharan Africa. Of its 4.4 million inhabitants, about 40% are made up of dark-skinned indigenous Africans called Haratins, a derogatory term that evokes the dark color of their skin. But being designated as such is the least of the problems of one of the most unfortunate peoples facing this planet. The same people who in Tunisia and Libya are called Chouachin, Chouachine or Chouchan.
The Haratins of Mauritania are considered the full property of their lighter-skinned Arab-Berbers who are their masters. They own no land, live in poor and segregated communities, and are only allowed to work in certain professions specifically designated for their caste alone, such as garbage collection and butchery. They can be bought and sold, rented and given as gifts. The Haratins are slaves.
There is a long history of slavery in Mauritania. Centuries ago, Arabic-speaking Moors invaded African villages, resulting in an unchanging caste system where darker-skinned Africans are beholden to their lighter-skinned masters. Like inheritance, slave status is also passed from mother to child.
Slavery has been outlawed in Mauritania several times in the past, but the problem persists as law enforcement has been in violation. In 2014, the UN Special Rapporteur reported that approximately 50% of Haratins faced some form of slavery, including as domestic servants and bonded laborers. Even with the passage of a stronger anti-slavery law in 2015, convictions have been very minimal and the sentences handed down often lenient.
Mauritania is consistently ranked as the worst place in the world for slavery and it seems the government in Nouakchott is more interested in covering up the atrocity than eradicating this evil. The regime will love to show you how a Haratin like Messaoud Ould Boulkheir got himself elected president of the National Assembly as proof that slavery in Mauritania is nothing but Jewish propaganda against an Islamic state.
The Islamic Republic of Mauritania joined the Organization of African Unity, the forerunner of the African Union on May 25, 1963. This means that from time to time the President of Nigeria will sit at the table, in communion with another in whose country, a Nigerian of a different generation is being held as a slave in the most inhumane conditions. So I ask again, what is the value of the African Union if the body has in its ranks people like Mauritania, claiming to subscribe to the idea of an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa eloquently stated as its motto ?
There is something to be said for black people and our response to oppression and injustice. Imagine for a moment that a certain European nation held African slaves in the 21st century. I can bet you with my life that it would draw worldwide condemnation and inspire a new breed of freedom fighters. Okay, okay, there have been some efforts in that direction, but too little, too late. Here we are giving Mauritania a free pass to commit atrocities worse than apartheid against its fellow Africans. It seems that black people find injustice less blatant when it is committed by “one of us”. Does this mean that the victim’s burden is lightened when they realize that the pain is being inflicted from the home front?
If you think this piece is just a random reflection on a foreign country far from home and unrelated to the situation in Nigeria, think again. It is often said that 2 out of 10 people in the North are first generation immigrants, who could be from Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Chad, Senegal, Niger like President Buhari’s father allegedly and yes, from Mauritania. It was reported in an article that fire-eater Hakeem Baba-Ahmed of the Northern Elders Forum still has relatives living in Mauritania. Based on the color of his skin, his family most likely belongs to the “Masters” category of this country. So when you analyze the man’s speech and body language regarding what he thinks is the relationship between northern and southern Nigeria, you wonder if his worldview reflects that context.
A country where a large percentage of its citizens own slaves should not be allowed into an assembly of civilized people. Mauritania should be banned from the African Union and later push the campaign to the United Nations to do the same. African and African American celebrities should shine the spotlight on this man’s inhumanity to the man thriving in Mauritania and take up the cause of our brothers and sisters who have been held in bondage for centuries. Western countries like the United States, European Union should apply severe economic sanctions against this disgrace of a country. Mauritania, like apartheid South Africa, should be treated like a pariah state, until it learns to treat every human being with dignity. Slavery has no place in the 21st century. Not even in Africa by Africans.
Osmund Agbo, a public affairs analyst, is the coordinator of the African Center for Transparency and organizer of the Save Nigeria project. Email: [email protected]
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