Mauritania: No Country for Old Refugees

By Jacob Lindelöw Berntson

When most people hear the word ‘Mauritania’, they probably wonder: ‘where is that?’ Some may, perhaps, think of slavery. The country’s deep-rooted problems with slavery have caught the eyes of the outside world in recent years. Although Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981, as the last country in the world to do so, the phenomenon is so culturally and traditionally ingrained within the country that domestic and international organisations place the number of people living under slave-like conditions between 140,000 and 600,000, or between 4 and 17 % of Mauritania’s population.
This post will not talk about slavery in Mauritania (for a good one, try this long-read New Yorker piece). Rather, it will talk about a conflict that takes place within the ethnic mosaic that is Mauritania, and the geopolitical minefield that is the Sahel region – one in which the issue of slavery certainly plays a part.

The conflict Mauritania experiences today is about land ownership, one that sees two disenfranchised and discriminated communities quarrel over agricultural land and that dates back more than 25 years. Mauritania has many ethnic groups, each with different tribes and customs, but could be divided into three main groups: Moors (also called Beydan), Haratins, and Black African. The Moors, who put the ‘Maur’ in Mauritania, originate from Arabs and Berbers and have traditionally held power in the country. The Haratins are also called black Moors, and is the group that has been, and still is, enslaved by the Moors. It is important to note that this does not mean that every Haratin is a slave – there are many affluent Haratins – but that they do constitute the majority of modern day Mauritania’s slaves. The third group, Black Africans, mainly consists of people from the Wolof, Soninke or Halpulaar tribes, and inhabit the south of the country, close to the border with Senegal. Many of these tribes can be found and feel affinity towards people in Senegal as well. In many ways, there is a white-black divide between the mainly Moor north and the mainly black south.

This divide was further entrenched by the 1989 Border War between Mauritania and Senegal. Although the war did not leave very large casualty numbers, it created a massive refugee crisis, as many southern black Mauritanians were expelled or chased from the country into neighboring Senegal as some sort of collective punishment based on the presumption that they had more in common with the Senegalese enemy than with Mauritania. Consequently, 60,000 Mauritanians sought refuge in Senegal.

The deportees were to remain refugees until 2008, when a major repatriation scheme was put in motion as a result of a tripartite agreement between Mauritania, Senegal and the UN’s agency for refugees – UNHCR. The agency ANAIR (National Agency for Support and Resettlement of Refugees) was set up, and it is estimated that 24,500 people were resettled in Mauritania, whereas another 14,000 were resettled in Senegal. The refugiés had thus become rapatriés, but of course the story doesn’t end there.

As many of the returnees came back to their old farming lands, they found that it had been sold and was occupied by someone else. Even though many have been able to find a place to live, returnees, very dependent on agriculture, find it especially hard to support themselves without access to fertile land.

Part of the problem is that, officially, the state owned the land the refugees left behind in the 1980s and has then sold it or re-distributed it, partially to Beydan communities. The other group now having access to this land is the Haratins, many of which had previously been enslaved. To make matters even more complex, as a measure to match the ethnic cleansing methods employed by Mauritania, many Haratins residing in Senegal were expelled from Senegal at the same time as Black Mauritanians were fleeing from persecution in their homeland. These Haratins ended up in the lands vacated by the Mauritanian refugees. The Mauritanian government was quick to exploit the situation and put arms in the hands of the newly arrived Haratins in order to defend them from occasional attempts made by the Mauritanian refugees to cross the border and bring back their possessions across the border to Senegal.

When the refugees turned repatriated, they thus found Haratins living on the land that used to belong to them. Besides not having access to their old land, they also face bureaucratic difficulties as the Mauritanian government destroyed their ID documents, and has made the process of retaining an ID card into a Kafkaesque nightmare. This is partially due to the fact that President Sidi Ould Cheik Abdellahi, who signed the aforementioned agreement initiating the repatriation process, was ousted in a coup in 2008 by Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz. President Abdelaziz, recently in the headlines for ordering the final of the Mauritanian football Super Cup to conclude in penalties after being too bored after 63 minutes, has not shown the same enthusiasm to for the repatriation process as he has for football, and the process has suffered accordingly.

This has made some returnees resort to desperate measures. One man, who returned to his old village only to find a wealthy Beydan businessman living on his old land, decided to destroy the latter’s property after having tried to make his case to, and been neglected by, Mauritanian officials. Even though many do not resort to violent methods, there is a strong sense of grievance among many returnees. Simultaneously, many of the Haratins have now settled on their new land and do not want to be punished for mistakes that are not theirs. However, with rising prices of land, and with grievances felt within both the returnee and Haratin communities, the two disenfranchised groups in Mauritania, this is a conflict that is likely to continue for quite some time.

This complex conflict raises some interesting questions that are in no way unique to Mauritania. How long after you have left a place do you have the right to call it ‘yours’? Does land ever really belong to a certain group? How do you re-settle dispossessed groups without harming other innocent communities? More specifically, do the Haratins have a right, in the sense of some sort of historic compensation, to cultivate their own land as free men, and therefore deserve to keep the land that originally belonged to the returnees?
Given that this conflict is relatively new, it should be possible to find a solution before grievances turn into a long-lasting hatred. However, as the process is proceeding today, there is reason to believe that these land disputes may turn into an ethnic conflict in the future.


Photo: “Oase zwischen Aleg und Kiffa” by Toksave – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –




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