Location: Large desert country in north-west Africa
Population: 1,735,000 (est. 1986)
% of population: Bidan (white) Moors 34%, “black” Moors 26%, other blacks 40% (est.)
Religion: Islam (Malekite rite)
Language: French (official language) Arabic (Hassaniya dialect) Peul, Soninke and Wolof

Ethnic violence in Mauritania in 1989 and the expulsion of both Senegalese and black Mauritanians in large numbers which followed, signalled a grave crisis in Senegal-Mauritania relations, and in the ethnic power balance within the country. The seeds of this crisis lie in the legacy of colonial rule, which brought ethnically diverse peoples and ecologically contrasting regions under one administration. The Sahelian drought since the early 1970s has increasingly forced nomadic Moors, who have dominated political power since independence, out of desert and arid zones into urban areas and the fertile Senegal river valley, where the country’s black minorities are concentrated. Competition over the limited amount of viable agricultural land, with the ruling elite using state power to dispossess black settlers, is one major underlying cause of the crisis. Arabization policies pursued since independence, and alignment with the Maghreb, rather than black Africa, have added to the alienation of blacks from the system. Purges of blacks within the administration and army have occurred following each major outbreak of ethnic unrest. Detentions and death penalties have been imposed on blacks, who have no legitimate political voice, opposing the system by illegal means. In addition, slavery is still prevalent, and the Haratine (former slave) community suffer severe discrimination. They have often been caught in the middle of the black-Moor conflict, creating further ethnic tensions and divisions.

Ethnic and class divisions

Mauritania is a geographically large country with a small population, which is highly unevenly distributed. At least two-thirds of the country consists of desert: in some places there is not even enough vegetation to graze camels, traditionally the main livelihood of northern and central nomads. The Sahelian belt is gradually being pushed south by the desert.

The Moors, if considered as one, are probably the largest ethnic group. Of Arab and Berber origin, they speak dialects of Hassaniya related to Beduin Arabic. However, Moor society is traditionally divided on social and descent criteria. “White”, Bidan or Beydane Moors historically enslaved by the “black” Moors, sometimes called Haratine, and slavery at differing levels is still much in evidence in contemporary Mauritania. (The words “black” and “white” are misleading in this context in that they do not denote colour, but rather paternal descent). The Moors are, by tradition, nomadic peoples, but the last century and particularly the last 25 years have seen a rapid decrease in nomadism. In 1963 about 83% of the population was nomadic and 17% sedentary; by 1980 only 25% remained nomadic, whilst 75% were settled, many in the larger towns.

The Bidan are further divided into warriors (Hassan) and holy men (Zawya or marabouts), the former said to be of Arab origin and the latter of Berber origin, although this distinction is somewhat blurred. The “warrior” role of the Moor elite has diminished since the French colonial conquest: they are now mainly traders and herders. The marabout strata have continued to be influential within the Muslim brotherhoods and the administration.

As well as enslaving the “black” Moors, the Bidan also dominated other groups, through exacting service or tribute. Hundreds of years of regional inter-ethnic conflict brought into being the defeated Zenaga or tributary groups. The pastoral, nomadic tributaries are considered Bidan Moors, while the Imraguen fishermen, and the Aghazazir salt miners, are clearly of mixed (probably African/Berber) origin. The common form of tribute, the horma, consists of goods or services handed over once a year: though imposed by one group upon another, the tribute is usually paid individually. Debt bondage also still exists in the salt-mining area. Below the tributaries in the social order, come the artisans (mu’allmin) and the musicians (ighyuwn), who were once nomadic but are now increasingly sedentary. These castes are subject to the Bidan. A few hundred white, Hassaniya-speaking hunters — the Namadi — inhabit the El Djouf desert area.

The slave community can be divided into three levels: firstly, there is the adb, who is a total subject. Then, there is the part-slave, who has obtained a degree of freedom by favour, payment, or other means, usually going to live in an edebaye, with other part-slaves, but close to the masters, for whom they cultivate, or work as herders, sometimes travelling seasonally to Senegal or Mali, or even as far afield as France. Finally, there are the true Haratine: the government has long described all forms of slave as Haratine or “newly freed” to imply the end of slavery. The Haratine become freed either by favour, by purchase, or perhaps most commonly by escape. Urbanization, internal and international migration have to some extent broken down the slave system and certain districts of Nouakchott have become “havens” for escaped slaves. These escapees form the basis of the emancipation movement El Hor (Freedom), formed in 1974. In 1980, slavery was formally abolished. However, in 1981, the Anti-Slavery Society (UK) estimated that there were around 100,000 people still enslaved, plus approximately 300,000 Haratine.

Once free, however, ex-slaves are subject to continuing discrimination, by the elite moors and the smaller black elite, from whom they are distinguishable in appearance (Haratine Moors may range all the way between black and white), language and culture. The Haratine Moors share language and culture with their Bidan oppressors, although they have their own folklore. Haratine commonly find it difficult to obtain employment, and if they do, it is usually of the most menial kind. Women escapees often work as street vendors and sometimes become prostitutes. There are also numerous cases of escaped slaves being recaptured, by their masters, with discreet connivance from the Bidan-dominated police and authorities.

Other than the Haratine Moors, Mauritania also has a significant black African population. By tradition, the Peuls (Fulbe, Fellata or Fulani), are nomadic pastoralists, although this may be changing. Closely related to the Peuls in language and culture, to the extent that they are sometimes referred to as a single group, are the Toucouleur (Tukulor, Tocolor, Tekoror, Tekrur or Halphoolaren), who are basically sedentary, as are the majority of the black groups. The Sarakolle (Soninke, Swanik, Azer) are currently concentrated in Guidimakha, Assaba and Hodh in southern Mauritania, and speak their own language of the Manding group. The above-mentioned groups traditionally had highly stratified social structures, encompassing warrior, scholar, farmer, artisan and slave castes. Even today, slavery is not the exclusive preserve of the Bidan. All the black groups are at least nominally Muslim, but each has its own distinct language, culture and lifestyle.

The most densely populated area in Mauritania is the fertile Chemama land on the Mauritanian bank of the River Senegal in the south-west, where the black population is concentrated. However, in spite of substantial investment in irrigation schemes to increase the area of land available for cultivation, the river has been at record low levels in recent years and riverine cultivation is therefore reduced. Competition over these lands, brought about by the undermining of the nomadic economy during the long drought from the early seventies into the eighties, is one of the major underlying factors in ethnic conflict in Mauritania today. Many blacks claim to have been forcibly dispossessed of their lands and assert that legislation has been enacted to this end.

Another less numerous black group are the Wolof (Djolof), who are one of the major groups in neighbouring Senegal. Ethnically, the southern blacks are closer to populations across the borders in Senegal and Mali, than to other groups within their own national boundaries.

Demographic statistics are problematic in Mauritania, a common breakdown in the past being Moors (Bidan and “black”), 75%; other blacks, 25%. The 1977 census results were not officially released, leading to suspicions among the black opposition that the ruling Bidan elite was trying to cover up for the relative decrease in their own numbers: the growth rate of the black population is known to be significantly higher than that of the “white” Moors. A new headcount was conducted in 1988 but figures are not yet available. It has been estimated that the relative proportions in 1980 may have been: Bidan 34%; “black” moors 26%; other blacks 40%. Based on the 1965 census, the populations of the various black communities were as follows: Toucouleurs 66,400; Peuls 40,000; Sarakolle 31,000; Wolofs 8,800; various 2,800.

The ethnic and social boundaries described above are not completely rigid, and economic, demographic and political factors in recent times have created new divisions and alliances, which interact with the old ones.


The legendary inhabitants of Mauritania are the Bafours, said to be related to the contemporary Sarakolle. It is thought that the Berbers conquered the Bafours and in the first millennium AD the Berber Sanhadja nomads controlled the area down to the Senegal River. Islam filtered southwards from the seventh century onwards. In the fourteenth century the Hassan Arabs began their invasion, and gradually gained the upper hand, imposing Arabic language and culture on the Berbers, who were already Islamised. Most nomads claim an Arab origin; however, Berber origins and words are still discernible in the people and language in some areas. From the seventeenth century onwards, the Emirates were established at Trarza, Brakna, Tagant, Adrar and Hodh, dominated by the Hassan. The Sanhadja became scholars and leaders of the Muslim brotherhoods.

The French were responsible for joining the river valley and the desert — and the Moors and black populations — under a single administration. A combination of inhospitable terrain and fierce resistance meant that large areas of Mauritania did not come under the control of the French colonisers until well into the twentieth century. The military conquest of Mauritania began in earnest around 1850, led by Faidherbe, with resistance led by El Hadj Omar, until 1860. Defeats in the 1850s and 1860s led to the signing of treaties with the Emirates of Trarza and Brakna. In 1891, the southern bank of the river was annexed to the Senegalese colony. The French military occupation as far north as Idjil began in 1901 and by 1910 most of the territory was brought under French control through a series of campaigns and punitive expeditions extending northwards. “Pacification” was not complete until 1934 however, and even after this, isolated pockets of resistance remained up until the eve of independence.

Officially, Mauritania was a French possession from 1904, administered from St Louis, in Senegal. (Nouakchott was established as the capital just before independence.) The black population of Mauritania, being sedentary, and more accessible from the south, were exposed to mission education from the early twentieth century. They thus became instrumental in assisting the French administration. In order to control the vast desert areas effectively, the French needed co-operation from the Moor and black elites, so their decrees abolishing individual slavery and inter-tribal tribute were never seriously implemented. Co-operation was also encouraged through sedentarization: land titles and financial aid were distributed to the elite who, using slave labour, set up the oases, and the dams and cultivation plots of the south, sowing the seeds for future conflict over land rights. Some slaves were able to take advantage of colonial rule to flee southwards, but more often than not ended up as slaves of the southern land-owning (primarily Toucouleur) elite. To a certain extent, the French attempted to control the ensuing struggles over slave possession, by allocating plots in groups to escaped slaves: the origin of some edebaye villages.

Mauritania became an independent Islamic Republic in 1960, and was ruled by Moktar Ould Daddah, who had become Prime Minister in 1959, until the bloodless coup of 1978. After independence, all parties merged with the ruling Parti du Peuple Mauritanien (PPM). The 1961 constitution of the Republic created an executive Presidency, to which Daddah was elected, and Mauritania became a one-party state in 1965. After 1978, a succession of unstable military governments followed. The current regime, led by Colonel Maawiya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya, who came to power in 1984, is the fourth, and has proved more durable than previous ones. However, recent troubled experiments with local democracy, on top of the economic crisis which feeds into entrenched ethnic positions, have led to outbreaks of unrest followed by repression.

Arabization and ethnic violence (1960s)

Due to the legacy of early French contact and education, a large number of southern blacks — particularly Toucouleurs — work in the educational sector and the second level of the administration. Since the takeover of state control by the Bidan on independence, the upper echelons of the military and administration have been controlled by the Moors. Although every government has contained a minority of blacks, the southerners feared Moor domination.

The mid-1960s saw ethnic violence, in response to policies of Arabization. The first crisis came with the decision in 1966 to make Arabic compulsory in secondary schools. Strikes of black school students ensued, supported by black civil servants. The protests culminated in inter-ethnic riots in Nouakchott. Haratine were used by the Bidan to attack blacks and crush the revolt. The fighting, resulting in six dead and 70 wounded (although these official figures are thought to be underestimated), was only brought to a halt by army intervention. Several ministers and black civil servants were purged from the government and administration. At this stage, discussion of ethnic problems was banned

The Western Sahara conflict (1975-79)

When Spain withdrew from the Western Sahara in 1975, the territory was split between Mauritania and Morocco. From 1975 onwards, Mauritania was at war with the Saharawi, who are ethnically close to the Bidan. The war was unpopular in Mauritania, including with many of the Moor elite, and caused a severe drain on the ailing economy. Blacks and slaves were drafted into the army in large numbers, which expanded from a mere 1,500 to 17,000 during the war. The black population, moreover, was not generally in favour of the Mauritanian expansion into Saharawi territory, which would increase the Moor majority. The war was only popular with the conservative pro-Moroccan tendency. Moreover, the Mauritanian forces did not achieve military success despite foreign support.

The overthrow of Daddah in the July 1978 coup, by which time the economy was in ruins, ended civilian rule. The Constitution was suspended and the government dissolved. A military committee headed by Lt-Col Ould Salek assumed control. Less than a year later, following various reshuffles, Mohammed Khouna Haidalla took over as Prime Minister and in August 1979 he ended Mauritania’s involvement in the Western Sahara conflict and renounced territorial claims. In early 1980, Haidalla assumed the presidency.

The resurgence of ethnic unrest and the opposition (1979-80)

A resurgence of ethnic unrest began in early 1979, again centring on the Arabization issue. The suppression of results from the 1977 census also led to suspicions that the Moors were trying to play down the size of the black population. The immediate issue was the poor examination results of black students in their 1979 end of year exams: the introduction of Arabic into the curriculum in the ’60s and the subsequent weighting of marks in favour of Arabic subjects were blamed. Black teachers and pupils demonstrated and the police intervened. Senegal threw its weight behind demands for autonomy for Mauritania’s blacks, although the motives for this were probably as much concerned with territorial expansion of Senegal into the River valley, as with solidarity. Black opposition in the form of the Union Démocratique Mauritanienne (UDM) was based in Senegal.

Minor concessions were made on the linguistic front, with the announcement in October 1979 that French would remain on a par with Arabic in schools, and the establishment of an Institute of National Languages, whose staff later became the targets of government repression. However, in 1980, pre-emptive arrests of blacks were made, presumably to prevent further actions. The full implementation of Shari’a law in Mauritania in 1980 — perhaps as a condition for financial aid from Saudi Arabia — was perceived by some members of both black and Haratine communities as an unwelcome measure, which could be manipulated to oppress the slave and poor black communities in general.

In 1980, fearing links between the Haratine movement El Hor and the black opposition, the government pronounced the abolition of slavery, and a system for compensation of slave owners. Despite the ban on political parties, El Hor was permitted a degree of freedom. However, no serious economic or social measures, such as land reform, were undertaken to back up the formal abolition, which rendered it largely symbolic and ineffective. Moreover, compensation was bitterly opposed by some members of the Haratine movement who felt that they were the ones owed some form of redress.

Rising ethnic tensions and attempted coup (1986-88)

In April 1986, the Dakar-based black opposition group, Forces de Libération Africaine de Mauritanie (FLAM), which was established in 1983, published the “Oppressed Black Minorities Manifesto”. The distribution of this document provoked the arrest of up to 30 prominent blacks in September, 20 of whom were sentenced to prison terms. A wave of civil disturbances across the country followed in October. The military regime responded with further arrests. Eighteen of the alleged perpetrators of the violence were tried in March 1987, and 13 received prison sentences. In late 1986, municipal elections held in the 13 regional capitals raised the ethnic question again, when lists of black candidates were overruled in favour of government-sponsored lists and blacks were allegedly intimidated when trying to vote. Reports that three or four of the 1986 detainees had died at the notorious Oualata jail began circulating in 1988, as did reports of torture — although these were denied by the Mauritanian authorities.

In October 1987 an attempted coup by black officers failed and 51 Toucouleur officers were arrested. Of these, three received death sentences, while most of the others were given prison terms, some life sentences. The remaining defendants, including a former minister, Lt.-Col. Babaly, were acquitted. The executions were considered extreme in many quarters, but particularly among the black population. Riots occurred in Nouakchott, Boghe and Kaedi: for six months following the executions, a state of emergency existed in Boghe and local elections were boycotted. Purges of blacks from the police began and black candidates were barred from applying to join. According to FLAM, in early 1988, up to 500 black NCOs were dismissed from the Army.

Opposition within the ruling elite also surfaced when hundreds of pro-Iraqi (and pro-Moroccan) Ba’athists, who form one of two loose groups around the ruling military council, were arrested, and allegedly tortured, from mid-1988 onwards. The other main grouping are the dominant Nasserists, who are sympathetic to Polisario. In October 1988, a former army officer of the Ba’athist tendency, was sentenced to four years for attempting to destabilize the Bidan ruling group. By the later ’80s, economic and political power were increasingly becoming concentrated among the Semassida (the northern Mauritanian Bidan) who tend to be anti-Ba’athist.

Senegal-Mauritania ethnic violence (1989)

In April and May 1989 several hundred people (estimates vary between 100 and 1,000) were killed in a spate of looting, rioting and reprisals in both the Senegalese capital Dakar and the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott, as well as in other towns on both sides of the border. In each case, local people attacked migrants or settlers from the neighbouring country. Prior to the violence, there were thought to be around 30,000 Senegalese traders, migrant workers and students in Mauritania, and between 200,000 and 300,000 Mauritanians in Senegal, who controlled up to 80% of the petty commercial sector.

The clashes were ostensibly sparked off by a border incident on April 9, at Diaware, in which two Senegalese farmers were allegedly shot by Mauritanian border guards in a dispute over grazing rights. On news of the border incident reaching Dakar, looting of Mauritanian businesses by Senegalese began. This was followed, in turn, by much larger-scale violence in Mauritania, with some reportedly very brutal attacks. When the first batch of 160 fleeing Senegalese returned from Mauritania on April 28, with graphic accounts of their experiences, looting turned to murder in Dakar, leaving 40-60 dead. By early May, as many as 100,000 people had been airlifted in both directions assisted by Moroccan, Algerian, French and Spanish aircraft, with more undertaking the perilous journey overland.

These events, which caused a drastic deterioration of Senegal-Mauritania relations, verging on fears of war at one stage, related to domestic ethnic tensions. Although the killings in Mauritania, estimated at between 100 and 400, with many more injured, affected mainly Senegalese, it is reported that Mauritanian blacks — particularly from the Peul-Toucouleur communities — were also targets. Haratines are said to be mainly responsible for the killings. Mauritanian Interior Minister Djibril Ould Abdullahi is considered the architect of repression of southern blacks in recent years and has sought the support of Haratines, promoting individuals from the Haratine community. In the aftermath, the Senegalese government accused Mauritanian authorities of encouraging, or at least not acting to prevent, the violence in Nouakchott, Nouadhibou and Rosso.

On May 3, 1989, the Mauritanian government announced that it would begin repatriating those Senegalese remaining in the country, who had settled there since 1986. However, the expulsions of Senegalese blacks seemed also to be affecting the Mauritanian black population, according to aid workers and other officials who visited refugee camps over the Senegalese border. Of around 80,000 who appeared to have fled or been forced to leave Mauritania by July 1989, at least 30,000 are thought to be Mauritanian, a minority of whom are middle-class blacks including a handful of senior government officials. The Mauritanian government claimed that all those expelled are Senegalese, some of whom had “fraudulently” obtained Mauritanian nationality. Fleeing and forcibly repatriated people from both sides were dispossessed of property and belongings. The conflict and ensuing repatriations reportedly left 100,000 to 200,000 Bidan and Haratine Moors destitute in Mauritania. Many from the repatriated settler and migrant communities have only tenuous links in their “home” countries, having been long-term residents in the neighbouring state. In August 1989, Senegal referred grievances over the crisis to the UN Security Council, demanding a settlement which would resolve border disputes and end the expulsions of blacks.

(See also Chad; Sahelian Nomads; Western Saharans)