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Mauritania - HISTORY

Mauritania - History


CONTEMPORARY OBSERVERS OF MAURITANIA, like the French colonizers of an earlier century, often have described the country as a bridge linking North Africa and West Africa. Certainly individual groups within Mauritania have maintained strong cultural and economic ties with their neighbors--to whom they were often related--in both regions. Yet although the country served as a geographical bridge, crisscrossed by merchants transporting gold, salt, and slaves between the northern and southern edges of the Sahara, it also marked a cultural boundary between sedentary farmers of sub-Saharan Africa and the nomadic Arab-Berber herders from the Maghrib. Throughout Mauritania's history, the interaction between the two cultures has been charged with social and political conflict that has defined and will continue to define Mauritanian politics. Even Islam, to which virtually the entire population adhered after the ninth century, provided but a veneer of unity.

The character of present-day Mauritania's population reflected the waves of immigration from north and south that had begun in the third century A.D. The first wave, Berbers from the north, migrated into what is now Mauritania in the third and fourth centuries and later in the seventh and eighth centuries. Local populations either became vassals in service to the Berbers or migrated farther south. In the ninth century, three Berber groups--the Lemtuna, Messufa, and Djodala--formed a loose confederation in order to better control the easternmost trans- Saharan trade route. The Sanhadja Confederation, as it came to be called, monopolized trade between the ancient empire of Ghana and the city of Sijilmasa. The historically important towns of Koumbi Saleh, Aoudaghast, Oualâta, Tîchît, and Ouadane flourished during this epoch.

In the eleventh century, following the breakup of the Sanhadja Confederation and a period of unrest and warfare among the Sanhadja Berbers, a small group of Sanhadja zealots established a religious center from which they preached a doctrine of Islamic reform and holy war. By 1090 the empire of the Almoravids--as the fundamentalist revolutionaries came to be known--extended from Spain to Senegal. Within forty years, however, the fervor and zeal of the original Almoravid reformers waned, and, at the same time, their foes to the north and south grew stronger.

The black Sudanic kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai eventually expanded over the next six centuries into what had been Berber strongholds and constituted the second wave of immigration. A third wave, again from the north, saw various Yemeni Arab groups infiltrating southward, pushing the Berbers and Africans before them. By the late seventeenth century, one Yemeni group, the Bani Hassan, came to dominate all of what is now Mauritania. As the Berbers moved south, they forced the blacks toward the Senegal River Basin.

Mauritania's social structure in the late twentieth century dated from the late seventeenth century, when the Bani Hassan defeated a Berber force seeking to expel them. The nomadic Arab warrior groups subsequently dominated the Berbers, many of whom became clerics serving the Arabs. At the bottom of the social pyramid were the black slaves. All three groups spoke one language, Hassaniya Arabic, and became known as Maures. Meanwhile, free blacks, culturally related to Africans in the south, settled in the Senegal River Basin.

Europeans became interested in Mauritania only in the second half of the sixteenth century. French traders at Saint Louis in what is now Senegal purchased gum arabic from producers in southern Mauritania. Until the mid-nineteenth century, and then for only a short period when French forces occupied the Trarza and Brakna regions in southern Mauritania, Arabs and Berbers paid little heed to the Europeans. At the start of the twentieth century, French forces under Xavier Cappolani moved back into Mauritania and through brute force and co- optation pacified refractory Arab chiefs. But in contrast to its colonial administration elsewhere in West Africa, the French administered Mauritania indirectly, relying on existing Arab- dominated institutions. This laissez-faire attitude persisted until the 1940s. Following World War II, at a time when other French colonies were agitating for independence or at least substantial reform, there was only minimal political activity in Mauritania. France nonetheless implemented changes that corresponded to reforms demanded and accorded elsewhere in francophone West Africa.

The new political freedom touched perhaps 10 percent of the population; yet even among this group, sharp divisions persisted and threatened the political independence of the colony. Some Arabs and Berbers with strong family ties in Morocco favored union with Morocco, while black Africans in the south wanted to join the nascent Mali Federation, which joined Senegal and Mali. Only by co-opting the country's traditional leaders with vague promises was Mauritania's leading political figure and first president, Moktar Ould Daddah, able to achieve the pretense of unity as Mauritania celebrated its independence on November 28, 1960.

During the first decades of independence, Mauritania remained deeply divided. Southern (non-Maure) blacks resented Maure domination of the political process, which led, among other things, to the disproportionate representation of Maures in the bureaucracy and officer corps of the armed forces, the imbalanced allocation of development funds, and the imposition of Hassaniya Arabic as the language of instruction in all secondary schools. With the support of students, the Mauritanian Workers Union (Union des Travailleurs Mauritaniens--UTM), Mauritania's first trade union, protested a salary scale by which some West European expatriates received wages almost 1,000 times higher than their Mauritanian counterparts. Finally, Mauritania's costly involvement in the Western Sahara conflict was part of a Maure agenda and held little for southern blacks, who made up the bulk of the fighting force and suffered most of the casualties.

In 1975 Mauritania allied with Morocco against the Polisario guerrillas of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), ostensibly to obtain Tiris al Gharbiyya. But by 1978, after several surprise attacks by the Polisario guerrillas against Nouakchott and the iron ore mines at Zouîrât, it had become apparent that Mauritania's military was no match even for the smaller guerrilla forces. Nonetheless, the government continued its costly involvement, in part to stave off a possible invasion by Moroccan troops should Mauritania curtail its effort and in part to satisfy the Maures who saw the annexation of Tiris al Gharbiyya as the first step toward a rejuvenated Greater Mauritania (see Glossary). Mauritania's blacks in particular opposed the war on several counts. First, it siphoned off scarce resources that might otherwise have supported greater agricultural development in the south; second, it paved the way for military officers, most of whom were Maures, to insinuate themselves into the civilian government; and, finally, the majority of the enlisted men were black, although most officers were Maure.

Pointing to the debilitating costs of the war and the subsequent political dissension in Mauritania, a group of military officers staged a coup in July 1978 that brought Colonel Mustapha Ould Salek to power as prime minister. Salek proved unable to extricate Mauritania from the conflict, and in April 1979 Colonel Ahmed Ould Bouceif and Colonel Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla seized power. Shortly thereafter, Bouceif was killed in airplane crash, and Haidalla became prime minister.

Ruling through the Military Committee for National Salvation (Comité Militaire de Salut National--CMSN), Haidalla arranged a cease-fire with the guerrillas and pledged to remain neutral in the Western Sahara conflict, although his government later accorded diplomatic recognition to the SADR. Meanwhile, Polisario guerrillas continued to transit Mauritanian territory with impunity, inviting cross-border reprisals from Moroccan troops.

In response to alleged corruption in government and a discernible and apparently unwelcome political tilt toward the SADR, Colonel Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Ould Taya staged a palace coup in December 1984. Proclaiming itself reformist, the Taya government was as anxious to institute the forms of democracy as it was to deflect responsibility for its inability to implement necessary economic and political changes and to defuse ethnic conflict. Taya pledged to hold elections for municipal offices in thirteen cities (which he did in December 1987), free political prisoners, uphold civil rights, and end corruption. A second round of elections, this time for approximately 500 town councillors (consillers) across the country, took place in December 1987 and January 1988. As important as the elections were to Mauritanians, they did little to reduce the ethnic tensions interfering with development.

In the late 1980s, Mauritania had six major ethnic groups: Maure, Toucouleur, Fulbe, Soninké, Wolof, and Bambara. The Maures included the white Arab-Berber descendants of the original Maghribi immigrants and blacks called harratin (sing., hartani), former slaves of white Maures who had assimilated Maure culture. The other ethnic groups consisted of black Africans, who lived in the south along the Senegal River or in cities. Given the large number of black Maures, the significant cultural distinction in Mauritania was not white versus black but rather Maure (white and black) versus black. But even black Africans had divergent responses, often class linked, to Maure hegemony.

The relative size of each group was in dispute both because census data were deficient and because the Maure-dominated government, to preserve its prerogatives, pretended to eschew ethnic labeling. According to Mauritanian government figures, however, Maures constituted 70 percent of the population, while blacks were said to be overrepresented in the bureaucracy and schooling. Others reported that blacks formed at least half the population but were intentionally undercounted and were underrepresented in high-level positions in the government. In any case, Maures openly discriminated against the black population, which, well into the twentieth century, was considered a source of slaves.

The most outspoken and resentful opponents of the Maure- dominated government were the Toucouleur. They constituted the leadership of the African Liberation Forces of Mauritania (Forces de Libération Africaine de Mauritanie--FLAM), an outlawed antigovernment organization based in Dakar, Senegal. In September and October 1986, the government arrested between thirty and forty suspected FLAM members, including thirteen prominent Toucouleur who were charged with sowing "hatred and confusion" and thereby "undermining the values and foundations of . . . society." Partly to protest those arrests as well as continued Maure domination of the government, a group of Toucouleur, some of whom had high-ranking positions in the military, reportedly plotted to overthrow the Taya government in October 1987. In all, 51 persons were brought to trial for the plot, although FLAM claimed that the government detained more than 1,000 people. Three of the defendants, all army lieutenants, were found guilty of attempting to overthrow the government and were executed on December 3, 1987. Subsequently, students in Nouakchott reportedly demonstrated to protest government racism, and violent clashes between supporters and foes of the government occurred in the capital and in Kaédi and Bogué.

A more immediate cause of the disturbances concerned landownership along the Senegal River. By permitting the government to cede otherwise fallow land to those committed to improving it, the 1983 Land Reform Act seemingly accorded Maures preference in acquiring irrigated land. Most blacks, and especially the Toucouleur, believed that wealthy Maures from Nouakchott or Nouadhibou would appropriate land along the river, displacing blacks whose families had lived in the area for generations. Complicating the issue was the fact that some wealthy black landowners living near the river supported the government's attempts to assemble large tracts of land for capital-intensive farming, even if the reforms dispossessed less fortunate blacks.

In the late 1980s, as other sectors of the economy stagnated or faded, irrigated agricultural land became extremely valuable. World prices for iron ore, long Mauritania's principal export, remained low. Fishing, which by 1983 had supplanted iron ore as the chief foreign exchange earner, appeared to be tapering off following years of overfishing by foreign fleets. Finally, as the worst effects of the drought attenuated, the government targeted agriculture for development. With encouragement and support from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the government raised producer prices by 40 percent and then expanded irrigation and flood control programs to bring more marginal land into production.

To finance its domestic investment, Mauritania relied on foreign assistance, which between 1980 and 1985 amounted to approximately US$170 per capita. Mauritania's principal benefactors included wealthy Arab states, France, and Japan. By 1985 Mauritania's foreign debt amounted to US$1.8 billion, or nearly 250 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), making Mauritania one of the most deeply indebted nations in the world.

One of the reasons for its dependence on foreign funding was the size of the military budget. As in many other Third World countries experiencing domestic turmoil, the military absorbed a disproportionate share of the budget--25 percent in 1985. Military spending distorted the economy by diverting funds from economic development. At the same time, however, the military provided personnel with technical and administrative expertise that could be transferred elsewhere within the government. The military also participated in road building, public health campaigns, and disaster relief. Meanwhile, the hope that the armed forces might foster a sense of national unity transcending ethnic peculiarities proved illusory because most of the officers were Maure, whereas most recruits were black. The attempted coup in October 1987 aggravated that disparity; in its aftermath, approximately 500 noncommissioned officers, most of whom were blacks, were dismissed from the army.

Mauritania in the late 1980s held little promise for its citizens. By 1987 desertification, perhaps Mauritania's greatest enemy, had claimed over 90 percent of the land that had been arable at independence. Competition for increasingly scarce resources--which might include land, education, or slots in the bureaucracy--intensified, pitting Mauritania's non-Maure blacks against Maures. In spite of its reformist intentions, the Taya regime perforce relied increasingly on coercion to maintain order. Only the prospect for a negotiated settlement between Algeria and Morocco in the Western Sahara afforded even the possibility of positive economic change. The redeployment of Moroccan troops from positions just north of Mauritania's border with the Western Sahara and the removal of SADR refugee camps from Tindouf in extreme western Algeria would allow Mauritania to reduce the size and cost of its military, thereby freeing additional funds for economic development. The savings would probably be slight, however, and the net effect unimportant. Only an end to desertification, over which Mauritania had little control, would allow resources to expand to meet the needs of all Mauritanians, both Maures and blacks.

In early April 1989, a minor border dispute involving Senegalese farmers and Mauritanian herders escalated by the end of the month into the slaughter in Nouakchott and Dakar of hundreds of citizens. The rioting in Senegal, in which hundreds of small neighborhood shops belonging to Mauritanian retailers were also looted, followed a period of inflation, rising unemployment, and strikes, all of which aggravated discontent. The violence in Mauritania appeared to be one more chapter in the longstanding conflict between Maures and black Africans, many of whom farmed in the valuable irrigated lands along the Senegal River. To quell the violence, several countries, including France and Morocco, arranged an airlift to repatriate nationals from the two countries back across their respective borders.

Subsequently, Mauritania repatriated or expelled as many as 100,000 people, many of whom had been born in Mauritania and had never lived in Senegal; Senegal repatriated a similar number that also included Maures, mainly the small shopkeepers, who had never lived in Mauritania. The elimination of the mauritanian retailers was expected to exacerbate economic hardship among poorer Senegalese. Among those leaving Mauritania were perhaps, 5,000 or more farmers and herders, all nominally Senegalese, who had been living for generations on the flood plain on the Mauritanian side of the river (which, according to a French colonial document dating from 1933, belonged to Senegal). According to reports, their villages were burned and their assets confiscated. Presumably their lands will be appropriated by Maures. Observers speculated that the government of Mauritania--or elements within the government--were taking advantage of the situation to expel blacks, Toucouleur in particular, in order to obtain valuable agricultural land and at the same time eliminate the clamor of those seeking equal rights for blacks. It was all the more ironic that the government used harratine to carry out operations against the southern blacks.


Mauritania - EARLY HISTORY


The early history of the west Saharan region is largely unknown. There are some written accounts by medieval Arab traders and explorers who reached the important caravan trading centers and Sudanic kingdoms of eastern Mauritania, but the major sources of pre-European history are oral history, legends, and archaeological evidence. These sources indicate that during the millennia preceding the Christian Era, the Sahara was a more habitable region than it is today and supported a flourishing culture. In the area that is now Mauritania, the Bafour, a proto-Berber people, whose descendants may be the coastal Imraguen fishermen, were hunters, pastoralists, and fishermen. Valley cultivators, who may have been black ancestors of the riverine Toucouleur and Wolof peoples, lived alongside the Bafour. Climatic changes, and perhaps overgrazing and overcultivation as well, led to a gradual desiccation of the Sahara and the southward movement of these peoples.

In the third and fourth centuries A.D., this southward migration was intensified by the arrival of Berber groups from the north who were searching for pasturage or fleeing political anarchy and war. The wide-ranging activities of these turbulent Berber warriors were made possible by the introduction of the camel to the Sahara in this period. This first wave of Berber invaders subjugated and made vassals of those Bafour who did not flee south. Other Berber groups followed in the seventh and eighth centuries, themselves fleeing in large numbers before the Arab conquerors of the Maghrib.




One of the Berber groups arriving in Mauritania in the eighth century was the Lemtuna. By the ninth century, the Lemtuna had attained political dominance in the Adrar and Hodh regions. Together with two other important Berber groups, the Messufa and the Djodala, they set up the Sanhadja Confederation. From their capital, Aoudaghast, the Lemtuna controlled this loose confederation and the western routes of the Saharan caravan trade that had begun to flourish after the introduction of the camel. At its height, from the eighth to the end of the tenth century, the Sanhadja Confederation was a decentralized polity based on two distinct groups: the nomadic and very independent Berber groups, who maintained their traditional religions, and the Muslim, urban Berber merchants, who conducted the caravan trade.

Although dominated by the Sanhadja merchants, the caravan trade had its northern terminus in the Maghribi commercial city of Sijilmasa and its southern terminus in Koumbi Saleh, capital of the Ghana Empire. Later, the southern trade route ended in Timbuktu, capital of the Mali Empire. Gold, ivory, and slaves were carried north in return for salt (ancient salt mines near Kediet Ijill in northern Mauritania are still being worked), copper, cloth, and other luxury goods.

Important towns developed along the trade routes. The easiest, though not the shortest, routes between Ghana and Sijilmasa were from Koumbi Saleh through Aoudaghast, Oualâta, Tîchît, and Ouadane. These towns along the route grew to be important commercial as well as political centers. The eleventhcentury Arab chronicler, Al Bakri, describes Aoudaghast, with its population of 5,000 to 6,000, as a big town with a large mosque and several smaller ones, surrounded by large cultivated areas under irrigation. Oualâta was a major relay point on the gold and salt trade route, as well as a chief assembly point for pilgrims traveling to Mecca. Koumbi Saleh was a large cosmopolitan city comprising two distinct sections: the Muslim quarter, with its Arab-influenced architecture, and the black quarter of traditional thatch and mud architecture, where the non-Muslim king of Ghana resided. Another important Mauritanian trade city of the Sanhadja Confederation was Chinguetti, later an important religious center. Although Koumbi Saleh did not outlive the fall of the Ghana Empire, Aoudaghast and particularly Oualâta maintained their importance well into the sixteenth century, when trade began shifting to the European-controlled coasts.


Mauritania - ALMORAVIDS


By the eleventh century, Islam had spread throughout the west Sahara under the influence of Berber and Arab traders and occasional Arab migrants. Nevertheless, traditional religious practices thrived. The conquest of the entire west Saharan region by the Almoravids in the eleventh century made possible a more orthodox Islamization of all the peoples of Mauritania.

The breakup of the Sanhadja Confederation in the early eleventh century led to a period of unrest and warfare among the Sanhadja Berber groups of Mauritania. In about 1039, a chief of the Djodala, Yahya ibn Ibrahim, returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca bringing with him a Sanhadja theologian, Abdallah ibn Yassin, to teach a more orthodox Islam. Rejected by the Djodala two years later, after the death of Ibn Ibrahim, Ibn Yassin and some of his Sanhadja followers retired to a secluded place where they built a fortified religious center, a ribat, which attracted many Sanhadja. In 1042 the al murabitun (men of the ribat), as Ibn Yassin's followers came to be called, launched a jihad, or holy war, against the nonbelievers and the heretics among the Sanhadja, beginning what later become known as the Almoravid movement. The initial aim of the Almoravids was to establish a political community in which the ethical and juridical principles of Islam would be strictly applied.

First, the Almoravids attacked and subdued the Djodala, forcing them to acknowledge Islam. Then, rallying the other Berber groups of the west Sahara, the Almoravids succeeded in recreating the political unity of the Sanhadja Confederation and adding to it a religious unity and purpose. By 1054 the Almoravids had captured Sijilmasa in the Maghrib and had retaken Aoudaghast from Ghana.

With the death of Ibn Yassin in 1059, leadership of the movement in the south passed to Abu Bakr ibn Unas, amir of Adrar, and to Yusuf ibn Tashfin in the north. Under Ibn Tashfin, the Berbers captured Morocco and founded Marrakech as their capital in 1062. By 1082 all of the western Maghrib (to at least present-day Algiers) was under Almoravid domination. In 1086 the Andalusian amirates, under attack from the Spanish Christian king Alfonso and the Christian reconquest of <"http://worldfacts.us/Spain.htm">Spain, called on Ibn Tashfin and his Berber warriors to cross the Strait of Gibraltar and come to their rescue. The Almoravids defeated the Spanish Christians and, by 1090, imposed Almoravid rule and the Maliki school of Islamic law in Muslim Spain.

In Mauritania, Abu Bakr led the Almoravids in a war against Ghana (1062-76), culminating in the capture in 1076 of Koumbi Saleh. This event marked the end of the dominance of the Ghana Empire. But after the death of Abu Bakr in 1087 and Ibn Tashfin in 1106, traditional rivalries among the Sanhadja and a new Muslim reformist conquest led by the Zenata Almohads (1133-63) destroyed the Almoravid Empire.

For a short time, the Mauritanian Sanhadja dynasty of the Almoravid Empire controlled a vast territory stretching from Spain to Senegal. The unity established between Morocco and Mauritania during the Almoravid period continued to have some political importance in the 1980s, as it formed part of the basis for Morocco's claims to Mauritania. But the greatest contribution of the Sanhadja and the Almoravids was the Islamization of the western Maghrib. This process would remain a dominant factor in the history of the area for the next several centuries.




Although the Almoravids had substantial contacts with the Maghrib, influences from the black Sudanic kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai played an important role in Mauritania's history for about 700 years--from the eighth to the fifteenth century. Ghana, the first of the great West African Sudanic kingdoms, included in its territory all of southeastern Mauritania extending to Tagant. Ghana reached its apogee in the ninth and tenth centuries with the extension of its rule over the Sanhadja Berbers. This large and centralized kingdom controlled the southern terminus of the trans-Saharan trade in gold, ivory, and salt.

The capture of Koumbi Saleh in 1076 by the Almoravids marked the end of Ghana's hegemony, although the kingdom continued to exist for another 125 years. The Mandé, under the leadership of the legendary Sundiata, founded the second great Sudanic kingdom, Mali. By the end of the thirteenth century, the Mali Empire extended over that part of Mauritania previously controlled by Ghana, as well as over the remaining Sahelian regions and the Senegal River Valley. Sundiata and his successors took over Ghana's role in the Saharan trade and in the administration and collection of tribute from vast stretches of the Sudan and the Sahel.

The slow decline of the Mali Empire that started at the end of the fourteenth century came about through internal discord and revolts by the inhabitants of vassal states, including the Songhai of Gao. By the end of the fifteenth century, the Songhai Empire had replaced the Mali Empire and extended to Mauritania and the upper Senegal River Valley. At the end of the sixteenth century, a large Moroccan force defeated the Songhai, bringing to an end the seven centuries of domination of the western Sudan (and a large part of Mauritania) by strong, centralized black kingdoms.




Beginning with the Arab conquest of the western Maghrib in the eighth century, Mauritania experienced a slow but constant infiltration of Arabs and Arab influence from the north. The growing Arab presence pressed the Berbers, who chose not to mix with other groups, to move farther south into Mauritania, forcing out the black inhabitants. By the sixteenth century, most blacks had been pushed to the Senegal River. Those remaining in the north became slaves cultivating the oases.

After the decline of the Almoravid Empire, a long process of arabization began in Mauritania, one that until then had been resisted successfully by the Berbers. Several groups of Yemeni Arabs who had been devastating the north of Africa turned south to Mauritania. Settling in northern Mauritania, they disrupted the caravan trade, causing routes to shift east, which in turn led to the gradual decline of Mauritania's trading towns. One particular Yemeni group, the Bani Hassan, continued to migrate southward until, by the end of the seventeenth century, they dominated the entire country. The last effort of the Berbers to shake off the Arab yoke was the Mauritanian Thirty Years' War (1644-74), or Sharr Bubba, led by Nasir ad Din, a Lemtuna imam. This Sanhadja war of liberation was, however, unsuccessful; the Berbers were forced to abandon the sword and became vassals to the warrior Arab groups.

Thus, the contemporary social structure of Mauritania can be dated from 1674. The warrior groups or Arabs dominated the Berber groups, who turned to clericalism to regain a degree of ascendancy. At the bottom of the social structure were the slaves, subservient to both warriors and Islamic holy men. All of these groups, whose language was Hassaniya Arabic, became known as Maures. The bitter rivalries and resentments characteristic of their social structure were later fully exploited by the French.




Despite the Almoravid domination of Spain in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, there seems to be little evidence of contact during that time between Mauritania and Europe. The inhospitable coastline of Mauritania continued to deter voyagers until the Portuguese began their African explorations in the fifteenth century. Lured by legends of vast wealth in interior kingdoms, the Portuguese established a trading fort at Arguin, southeast of Cap Blanc (present-day Ras Nouadhibou), in 1455. The king of Portugal also maintained a commercial agent at Ouadane in the Adrar in an attempt to divert gold traveling north by caravan. Having only slight success in their quest for gold, the Portuguese quickly adapted to dealing in slaves. In the midfifteenth century, as many as 1,000 slaves per year were exported from Arguin to Europe and to the Portuguese sugar plantations on the island of S#ao Tomé in the Gulf of Guinea.

With the merger of the Portuguese and Spanish crowns in 1580, the Spaniards became the dominant influence along the coast. In 1638, however, they were replaced by the Dutch, who were the first to begin exploiting the gum arabic trade. Produced by the acacia trees of Trarza and Brakna and used in textile pattern printing, this gum arabic was considered superior to that previously obtained in Arabia. By 1678 the French had driven out the Dutch and established a permanent settlement at Saint Louis at the mouth of the Senegal River, where the French Company of the Senegal River (Compagnie Française du Sénégal) had been trading for more than fifty years.

The Maures, with whom the Europeans were trading, considered the constant rivalries between European powers a sign of weakness, and they quickly learned the benefits of playing one power against the other. For example, they agreed simultaneously to give monopolies to the French and the Dutch. The Maures also took advantage of the Europeans whenever possible, so that when the French negotiated with the amir of Trarza to secure a monopoly on the gum Arabic trade, the amir in exchange demanded a considerable number of gifts. Thus began the coutume, an annual payment expected by the Maures for doing business with a government or a company. By 1763 the British had expelled France from the West African coast, and France recovered control only when the Congress of Vienna in 1815 recognized French sovereignty over the coast of West Africa from Cap Blanc south to Senegal.




Before the nineteenth century, the European powers in West Africa were interested only in coastal trading; they attempted no important inland exploration and established no permanent settlements (except Saint Louis). The European mercantile companies on the coast were charged with making the highest possible profit. Four such French companies enjoyed an official French-government monopoly of the Senegal River trade from 1659 to 1798. Contact with the Maures and the black inhabitants of the valley came about only in the course of trade. From the beginning, French influence, competing with traditional trading partners north and east of Mauritania, came through Senegal.

In 1825 the new amir of Trarza, Muhammad al Habib, sought to reassert his sovereignty over the French-protected Oualo Kingdom to the south of the Senegal River by marrying the heiress to the kingdom. This action, which French authorities viewed as a hostile threat, combined with the amir's efforts to sell gum arabic to the British, brought a strong French reaction. Although the Maures were able to lay siege to Saint Louis, a large French expeditionary force defeated the amir's forces. The French concluded that to secure the continuing profitability of the gum arabic trade, they would have to forcibly occupy the northern bank of the Senegal River.

Implementing this new policy was Louis Faidherbe, the French governor of Senegal from 1854 to 1861 and from 1863 to 1865. In 1840 a French ordinance had established Senegal as a permanent French possession with a government whose jurisdiction extended over all settlements then effectively under French control, including those in Mauritania. By undertaking the governance of these Mauritanian settlements, French rulers directly challenged Maure claims of sovereignty. Under orders from the new government of Louis Napoleon to end the coutume, to secure the gum arabic trade, and to protect the sedentary populations of the southern bank from Maure raids, Faidherbe conquered the Oualo Kingdom. He then turned his attention to the amirates of Trarza and Brakna that had united against him. The Maures attacked Saint Louis in 1855 and almost succeeded in reclaiming the settlement, but they were repulsed and defeated a year later, north of the Senegal River. The treaties ending the war extended a French protectorate over Trarza and Brakna, replaced the coutume with a 3 percent annual rebate on the value of gum arabic delivered, and recognized French sovereignty over the northern bank of the Senegal River.

In addition to his military ventures, Faidherbe sponsored an active program to undertake geographic studies and establish political and commercial ties. In 1859 and 1860, Faidherbe sponsored five expeditions, including one that mapped the Adrar, to all areas of western and southern Mauritania.

Faidherbe's successors were content to maintain his gains and did not embark on further military ventures. French colonial policy at this time can best be characterized by the warning given by the Colonial Ministry to the governor of Senegal in the late 1870s, "Let us not hear from you." With France's virtual abandonment of Senegal, the relative calm created in the Chemama and southern Mauritania through Faidherbe's efforts came to an end. The Maures resumed their traditional practices of internecine warfare and pillaging villages in the Chemama. In virtual control of the colonial administration, the commercial companies of Saint Louis sold arms to the Maures, while at the same time outfitting French punitive missions. Scientific expeditions into Mauritania became increasingly subject to attack, and their European leaders were killed or held for ransom. The obvious weakness of the French and their distraction with events elsewhere in the region emboldened the amirs to demand and secure the reinstatement of the coutume.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, after 250 years of French presence in Mauritania, the situation was little changed. The endemic warfare between different Maure groups may even have increased as French merchants made arms readily available, and colonial forces defended camps north of the Senegal River against Maure pillagers. Though formally under the "protection" of the French, the Maures were as fiercely independent as ever.


Mauritania - French Colony - Pacification


In 1901 the French government adopted a plan of "peaceful penetration" for the administrative organization of areas then under Maure suzerainty. The plan's author was Xavier Coppolani, a Corsican brought up in Algeria, who was sent to Mauritania as a delegate from the French government. Coppolani set up a policy not only to divide, weaken, and pacify the Maures but also to protect them. Although he served in Mauritania for only four years (1901-05), the French called Coppolani the father of the French colony of Mauritania, and the Maures knew him as the "Pacific Conqueror" of the territory.

During this period, there were three marabouts of great influence in Mauritania: Shaykh Sidiya Baba, whose authority was strongest in Trarza, Brakna, and Tagant; Shaykh Saad Bu, whose importance extended to Tagant and Senegal; and Shaykh Ma al Aynin, who exerted leadership in Adrar and the north, as well as in Spanish Sahara and southern Morocco. By enlisting the support of Shaykh Sidiya and Shaykh Saad against the depredations of the warrior clans and in favor of a Pax Gallica, Coppolani was able to exploit the fundamental conflicts in Maure society. His task was made difficult by opposition from the administration in Senegal, which saw no value in the wastelands north of the Senegal River, and by the Saint Louis commercial companies, to whom pacification meant the end of the lucrative arms trade. Nevertheless, by 1904 Coppolani had peacefully subdued Trarza, Brakna, and Tagant and had established French military posts across the central region of southern Mauritania.

As Faidherbe had suggested fifty years earlier, the key to the pacification of Mauritania lay in the Adrar. There, Shaykh Ma al Aynin had begun a campaign to counteract the influence of his two rivals--the southern marabouts, Shaykh Sidiya and Shaykh Saad--and to stop the advance of the French. Because Shaykh Ma al Aynin enjoyed military as well as moral support from Morocco, the policy of peaceful pacification gave way to active conquest. In return for support, Shaykh Ma al Aynin recognized the Moroccan sultan's claims to sovereignty over Mauritania, which formed the basis for much of Morocco's claim to Mauritania in the late twentieth century. In May 1905, before the French column could set out for Adrar, Coppolani was killed in Tidjikdja.

With the death of Coppolani, the tide turned in favor of Shaykh Ma al Aynin, who was able to rally many of the Maures with promises of Moroccan help. The French government hesitated for three years while Shaykh Ma al Aynin urged a jihad to drive the French back across the Senegal. In 1908 a Colonel Gouraud, who had defeated a resistance movement in the French Sudan (presentday Mali), took command of French forces as the government commissioner of the new Civil Territory of Mauritania (created in 1904), captured Atar, and received the submission of all the Adrar peoples the following year. By 1912 all resistance in Adrar and southern Mauritania had been put down. As a result of the conquest of Adrar, the fighting ability of the French was established, and the ascendancy of the French-supported marabouts over the warrior clans within Maure society was assured.

The fighting took a large toll on the animal herds of the nomadic Maures, who sought to replenish their herds in the traditional manner--by raiding other camps. From 1912 to 1934, French security forces repeatedly thwarted such raids. The last raid of the particularly troublesome and far-ranging northern nomads, the Reguibat, occurred in 1934, covered a distance of 6,000 kilometers, and netted 800 head of cattle, 270 camels, and 10 slaves. Yet, except for minor raids and occasional attacks-- Port-Etienne (present-day Nouadhibou) was attacked in 1924 and 1927--the Maures generally acquiesced to French authority. With pacification, the French acquired responsibility for governing the vast territory of Mauritania.


Mauritania - French Colonial Policy


From the time of the French Revolution in 1789, the two main characteristics of French colonial policy in West Africa were the quest for international prestige and the cultural assimilation of indigenous populations. France's efforts to build a colonial empire may be considered a reaction to British imperial successes: colonies were a necessary burden the French took on to maintain their international stature. These efforts were always subordinate to the considerations of continental politics. As a result, little attention was paid to the political, social, and economic development of the overseas territories.

The policy of assimilation had its origins in the French Revolution, when the Convention in 1794 declared that all people living in the colonies were French citizens and enjoyed all republican rights. Under Napoleon and the Consulate (1799-1804), the law was soon repealed. In 1848, at the outset of the Second Republic, citizenship rights were again extended, and representation in the National Assembly was provided for the four communes of Senegal (Saint Louis, Dakar, Rufisque, and Gorée). Although these rights were retained by the Senegalese, they did not apply to Mauritania or other French territories in West Africa. Elsewhere in West Africa, although assimilation was the theoretical basis of administration, a policy evolved that shared elements of British colonial practice. For example, Africans were subjects of France, not citizens, and had no political rights or rights of representation. The centralized and direct administration embodied in the doctrine of assimilation was maintained, however, and a functional collaboration between French rulers and an assimilated indigenous elite developed. Although by World War II colonial policy was still labeled assimilationist, only a very few Africans were assimilated. For the majority of Africans, the realities of French colonial policy were far from the spirit of French egalitarianism.


Mauritania - French Administration Through World War II


Mauritania, a long-time appendage of Senegal, was not considered worth the expense necessary to pacify and develop it until Coppolani succeeded in changing the attitude of the French government. In 1904 France recognized Mauritania as an entity separate from Senegal and organized it as a French protectorate under a delegate general in Saint Louis. With the success of the first pacification attempts, the status of Mauritania was upgraded to that of a civil territory administered by a commissioner of government (first Coppolani, later Gouraud). Although formally separate from French West Africa (Afrique Occidentale Française--AOF), which had been created in 1895, Mauritania was closely tied to its administrative structure and had its annual budget appended to that of the AOF. On December 4, 1920, by a decree of the Colonial Ministry in Paris, Mauritania was officially included in the AOF with the six other French West African territories--Senegal, the French Sudan, Guinea, Ivory Coast (present-day Côte d'Ivoire), Dahomey (present-day Benin), and Niger.

The AOF was organized pyramidally under a centralized federal structure in Dakar. Directly appointed by the president of the French Republic, the governor general of the AOF came to have a great deal of power because of the instability and short duration of Third Republic governments in Paris. The governor general was the head of a centralized administrative bureaucracy consisting of a lieutenant governor for each territory, the commandant of a cercle (a colonial administrative subdivision), and chiefs of subdivisions, cantons, and villages. The key figure in the system was the commandant in each cercle, who was almost always a European and who was closest to the indigenous population in his duties of collecting taxes, overseeing works projects, maintaining peace and security, and carrying out administrative decrees. Generally, the subdivisions subordinate to the commandant were manned by Africans. For these positions, the French relied to a great extent on the traditional hierarchy of chiefs or their sons. In keeping with their policy of direct, centralized rule, the French made it clear that these African chiefs exercised authority not by virtue of their traditional position but by virtue of their status as modern colonial administrators.

Before 1946 no legislative bodies existed in the AOF. The governor general was assisted by the Grand Council in Dakar, Senegal, which since 1925 had represented the federation's major interest groups (military personnel, civil servants, and businessmen). But the council had only consultative status, and its members were all appointed by the governor general. Similar administrative councils advised the lieutenant governors in all of the territories except Mauritania and Niger.

Mauritania's administrative structure conformed generally with that of the rest of the AOF territories. There were, however, some very important differences. Unlike the other territories (with the possible exception of Niger), most of the cercles still had military commandants because of the late date of the territory's pacification. The resultant conflicts between military and civilian authorities caused frequent administrative changes and reorganizations, including shifts in boundaries that tended to create confusion.

The importance of the role of the traditional Maure chiefs in the administration was the most significant difference between Mauritania and the other AOF territories and has probably had the greatest continuing impact. The extent to which administrative practice in Mauritania contradicted the French policy of direct rule and resembled British indirect rule is noteworthy. From the time of Coppolani, the administration had relied heavily on the marabouts for support and administration. In recognition of the support given by Shaykh Sidiya of Trarza, the French placed the school of Islamic studies at Boutilimit under his control. Traditional administrators of Islamic justice, the qadis, were put on the French payroll without supervision, and administrative appointments of chiefs were subject to the approval of the traditional jamaa.

In an effort to maintain order throughout the turbulent territory, the French co-opted the leaders of certain warrior groups to serve the administration. Notable among these were the amirs of Trarza, Brakna, and Adrar, the three most powerful men in the colony, who were aided by 50 heads of smaller groups and the more than 800 chiefs of factions and subfractions. Although there was extensive French interference in the operations of the traditional authorities, the traditional social structure of Mauritania was maintained and thrust into the modern world.

With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, France's African territories were called upon to supply troops and provisions for the war effort. After France fell in 1940, Vichy gained control of the AOF and replaced the official policy of assimilation with a policy of racial discrimination in shops, trains, and hotels. Existing democratic institutions were repressed, and the administrative councils were abolished. Elements of French colonial policy, such as the indigénat and forced labor, were abused. The chiefs, on whom the Vichy government in Dakar relied, were increasingly seen as collaborators by their people as war-related demands for agricultural production and forced labor besieged them. Sporadic resistance to these abuses was met with summary punishment.

In recognition of the suffering of the people of the AOF territories during the war and of the AOF's contribution to the war effort of the Free French (at one time more than half the Free French forces were Africans), Free French officials convened a conference in Brazzaville, Congo, in June 1944 to propose postwar reforms of the colonial administration. The conference favored greater administrative freedom in each colony, combined with the maintenance of unity through a federal constitution. It also recommended the abolition of the indigénat and forced labor, the establishment of trade unions, the rapid extension of education, and the granting of universal suffrage. The conference was firmly opposed, however, to any concept of evolution outside the French bloc and called for the full application of the assimilationist doctrine. The Brazzaville Conference was the beginning of great political and social change that was to sweep Mauritania and other French African states to independence in less than seventeen years.


Mauritania - Postwar Reforms


Only slightly developed and long neglected, Mauritania played no role in the rising nationalism in the AOF after World War II. The 1946 constitution of the French Fourth Republic established the former colonies of the AOF as overseas territories of France integrally tied to the French Union. The French administration in Saint Louis retained jurisdiction in criminal law, public freedoms, and political and administrative organization; the Colonial Ministry could still rule by decree, if the decree did not violate a statute. The indigénat and forced labor were abolished, and French citizenship was extended to all inhabitants of French territories willing to renounce their local legal status.

Elective representation existed on three levels: territorial, federation (AOF), and national (French). A General Council (renamed Territorial Assembly in 1952) was established in each territory with extensive controls over the budget, but with only consultative powers over all other issues. The Mauritanian General Council comprised twenty-four members, eight elected by Europeans and sixteen elected by Mauritanians. Each territory had five representatives, elected from its General Council, on the AOF's Grand Council in Dakar, Senegal, which had general authority over budgeting, politics, administration, planning, and other matters for all of the AOF. Each territory also sent representatives to the National Assembly, the Council of the Republic, and the Assembly of the French Union in Paris.

The franchise created by the 1946 French constitution was small and restricted to government officials, wage earners, veterans, owners of registered property, and members or former members of local associations, cooperatives, or trade unions. Consequently, in the Mauritanian elections of 1946, there were fewer than 10,000 qualified voters. In 1947 individuals literate in French and Arabic were added to the electorate, and in 1951 heads of households and mothers of two children were made eligible. By 1956 suffrage had become universal.

Before 1946 the territory of Mauritania formed one electoral unit with Senegal, which was represented by a single senator in the French Senate. The 1946 constitution, however, separated Mauritania from Senegal politically, giving it a deputy to the French National Assembly. At the same time, the bicameral General Council, which was reorganized into the unicameral Territorial Assembly in 1952, was established in Mauritania. Nonetheless, political activity in Mauritania was minimal. The territory's first party, the Mauritanian Entente, was headed by Horma Ould Babana, who served as the first Mauritanian deputy to the French National Assembly.

The Mauritanian Entente was founded in 1946 under the auspices of Leopold Senghor and Lamine Gueye of the Senegalese section of the French Socialist Party. Formed specifically for the 1946 election, the Mauritanian Entente was neither well organized nor mass based. Yet on a platform calling for movement toward independence and elimination of chiefdoms, Babana easily defeated the candidate of the conservative French administration and the leading clerics. The new deputy, however, spent most of his five-year term in Paris, out of contact with politics in Mauritania. As a result, on his return for the 1951 elections, Babana was defeated by the Mauritanian Progressive Union, led by Sidi el Moktar N'Diaye and supported by the colonial administration and its allies, the traditional Maure secular and clerical ruling classes, who feared the Mauritanian Entente's "socialist" program. In the 1952 election for members of the Territorial Assembly, the Mauritanian Progressive Union won the twenty-two of the twenty-four seats.

The reforms of 1956, or Loi-Cadre (see Glossary), were even more sweeping than those of 1946. In the face of growing nationalism and the development of a political consciousness in the AOF, the Loi-Cadre ended the integrationist phase of French colonial policy and bestowed a considerable degree of internal autonomy on the overseas territories. Universal suffrage and the elimination of the dual college electoral system led to the creation of district and local representative councils and a great enlargement of the powers of the territorial assemblies. Each territory could now formulate its own domestic policies, although the territories continued to rely on France for decisions concerning foreign affairs, defense, higher education, and economic aid.

The most important provision of the 1956 Loi-Cadre was the establishment of a council of government to assume the major executive functions of each territory that until that time had been carried out by a Paris-appointed colonial official. The councils were composed of three to six ministers elected by the territorial assemblies on the advice of the dominant party. Each minister was charged with overseeing a functional department of government. The head of the ministers became vice president of the council and, in effect, if not in title, prime minister. In Mauritania that person was Moktar Ould Daddah, the country's only lawyer and a member of a prominent pro-French clerical family.


Mauritania - The Road to Independence


Mauritania's first government was invested in May 1957 and symbolically chose as its new capital Nouakchott, which by design was situated almost exactly between the Senegal River Valley, populated primarily by black farmers, and the Maure stronghold in Adrar. The choice represented a compromise between these two competing areas. It also set the tone for Daddah's approach to Mauritania's political conflicts: compromise and conciliation for the sake of national unity.

The greatest challenge to national unity was Mauritania's heterogeneous population. As in all the Sahelian states, Mauritania's southern regions were inhabited mainly by peasants who belonged racially and culturally to black Africa, while the population of its northern regions were desert nomads who identified with the Arab world. At independence, Mauritania's estimated 1.5 to 1.8 million people could be divided into three groups: one-third of the inhabitants were both racially and ethnically Maures; another third, although racially black or mixed Maure-black, were ethnically Maures (this group of black Maures was essentially a slave class until 1980, when slavery was abolished); and the remaining third were racially and ethnically black, resembling in many respects the populations in neighboring Senegal and Mali.

Achievement of national unity was impeded by the desires of some Maures, mostly from the northern sections of the country, to unite with Morocco, and the countervailing wishes of many blacks to secede from Mauritania and join the Mali Federation. The defeat of the Mauritanian Entente and Babana by the Mauritanian Progressive Union in the elections of 1951 and 1956, which established the Mauritanian Progressive Union's dominance, led Babana and several of his followers in the summer of 1956 to flee to Morocco, where Babana became head of the National Council of Mauritanian Resistance. With the support of many Maures inside Mauritania, this group supported Morocco's claims to Mauritania and, by extension, Morocco's opposition to Mauritanian independence.

To counterbalance the pro-Moroccan sympathies of many Maures, southern minority groups formed a regional party, the Gorgol Democratic Bloc, committed to the prevention of a Maghribi union and to the maintenance of close ties with black African countries. Intellectuals from various black minorities met in Dakar, Senegal, in 1957 and created the Union of the Inhabitants of the River Valley to fight for minority rights against Maure domination.

Further impeding national unity was the inclusion of French officials in the key ministries of finance and economic planning. Daddah was educated in France and, having just returned to Mauritania to form the government, had not been involved in the rivalries and struggle for power. His consequent congeniality toward the French alienated the Association of Mauritanian Youth, an important group advocated total independence and strict anticolonialism.

In this atmosphere of increasing fragmentation and political instability, Daddah, with the strong support of France, called for unity among all factions. At the Congress of Aleg in May 1958, the Mauritanian Regroupment Party was formed in a merger of the Mauritanian Progressive Union, elements of the Mauritanian Entente that had expelled Babana, and the Gorgol Democratic Bloc. This party was headed by Daddah as secretary general and Sidi el Moktar as president. Its platform called for Mauritania to join the French Community (francophone Africa) and to reject both Morocco's claim to Mauritania and a 1957 French proposal to unite Mauritania with francophone Saharan states in the joint Frenchdominated Common Saharan States Organization. The platform also proposed the systematic organization within the country of local party committees to involve all sectors of the population in the party. The party's program reflected the three main themes of Mauritanian unity: the rejection of federation with Mali or Morocco under any terms, the principle of balance between Maures and blacks within the party and government, and the preeminence of Daddah as the only person capable of holding the country together.

The Mauritarian Regroupment Party represented a union of modern and traditional elements as well as a balance between north and south. The dominance of traditional elements favoring close ties with France led, however, to the end of unity. Progressive youth leaders, excluded from decision making at the party congress convened at Nouakchott in July 1958, defected and formed a new opposition party, the Mauritanian National Renaissance Party (Nahda) with Ahmed Baba Ould Ahmed Miske as secretary general. The Nahda platform called for total and immediate independence from France and a rapprochement with Morocco. Although the program was designed to rally diverse opposition to the traditional Mauritanian Regroupment Party, the call for rapprochement with Morocco caused Nahda's opponents to label it a Maure party, which cost it the support of the black minorities. But former Mauritanian Entente members, including Babana, supported Nahda. Its anticolonial nationalist platform also attracted many young Maures.




The political crisis in France that saw the birth of the French Fifth Republic in 1958 necessitated a new French constitution. Also adopted by the people of Mauritania in a referendum in September 1958, this new constitution provided for a French Community whose members would be autonomous republics. But status as an autonomous member of the French Community quickly lost its appeal as Mauritania witnessed the wave of nationalism sweeping the African continent. As soon as the Islamic Republic of Mauritania was proclaimed in October 1958, the Territorial Assembly changed its name to the Constituent Assembly and immediately initiated work to draft a national constitution; the document was unanimously adopted by the Constituent Assembly in March 1959 in place of the French constitution, and on November 28, 1960, Mauritania declared its independence.

The molding of a new political entity was a challenge in a country in which the gradual breakdown of a well-entrenched tribal hierarchy and its authority was still under way. Also, Mauritania's predominantly nomadic society did not lend itself to the establishment of administrative agencies; consequently, numerous political parties formed around those leaders who already exercised tribal authority. Most of the population, who observed democratic nomadic traditions--in which influence did not always pass directly from father to son, land was not owned by individuals, and material wealth was widely distributed rather than concentrated in a few hands--eventually accepted a centralized government.

With the advent of independence, party leaders recognized the need to consolidate to ensure the establishment of a strong and independent government that also represented Mauritania's regional and ethnic diversity. Consequently, there was a tendency on the part of some to try to put aside their differences. Daddah was able gradually to gain the support of numerous opposition parties because of his demonstrated willingness to include in his government those who previously had opposed him. Thus, even after Daddah charged Nahda with corruption, banned the party from participation in the elections to Mauritania's first National Assembly in May 1959, declared the party illegal, and placed five of its leaders under arrest, Nahda still responded to Daddah's urgent appeal to preserve unity and independence.

In a new election, held in accordance with provisions of the new constitution in August 1961, Nahda campaigned for Daddah, who won the election with the additional support of the black party, the Mauritanian National Union. The new government formed in September 1961 included representatives of both Nahda and the Mauritanian National Union in important ministries. This electoral, then governmental, coalition was formalized in October 1961 with the consolidation of the Mauritanian Regroupment Party, Nahda, the Mauritanian National Union, and the Mauritanian Muslim Socialist Union into the Mauritanian People's Party (Parti du Peuple Mauritanienne--PPM). On December 25, 1961, the PPM was constituted as the sole legal party. Its policies included a foreign policy of nonalignment and opposition to ties with France.

In accordance with the new government's objective of acquiring support from blacks, Daddah included two blacks in his cabinet. Also, the National Assembly, headed by a black, comprised ten blacks and twenty Maures. As a final development in the emergence of a dominant single party, Daddah, the party's secretary general, further concentrated power in his hands. The PPM proclaimed Mauritania a one-party state in 1964, and the National Assembly passed a constitutional amendment in 1965 that institutionalized the PPM as the single legal party in the state. Organized opposition was henceforth restricted to channels within the party.

Emerging Tensions

Tight control of political life by the PPM reinforced the highly centralized system. The imposition of single-party rule over a highly diverse population caused underlying tensions to emerge, especially among the southern black population, who feared Arab domination. Their fears were exacerbated by the 1966 decision to make the study of Hassaniya Arabic compulsory in secondary schools and the decision in 1968 to make Hassaniya Arabic, as well as French, an official language. Differences over linguistic and racial issues subsequently caused strikes and demonstrations by students and trade unionists in 1968, 1969, and 1971; all demonstrations were harshly repressed by the government, which in 1966 had banned discussion of racial problems. Other tensions existed among black Maures, who were still considered members of a slave class even though slavery had been outlawed under the French and by the Mauritanian Constitution.

Political divisions within the trade union movement also erupted, causing the movement to split in 1969 into two factions, one favoring integration into the PPM and the other lobbying for an independent form of trade unionism. The PPM, ignoring the latter faction, integrated the trade unions in 1972. Their action followed a series of strikes in late 1971, including a two-month shutdown of the iron mine operated by the Mauritanian Iron Mines Company (Société Anonyme des Mines de Fer de Mauritanie-- MIFERMA). Soon after the integration of the trade unions, an unofficial trade union movement was formed, and in 1973 a clandestine leftist political party, the Mauritanian Kadihine Party, was created. Another clandestine group, the Party of Mauritanian Justice, was formed in 1974 and called for more political freedom.

Time of Radicalization

In 1969 following Morocco's official recognition of Mauritania, the government pursued a more radical political agenda to reduce its economic dependence on France. The first major step toward this aim was taken in 1972, when the government announced that it would review the agreements signed with France at independence and would sign new, more stringent agreements on cultural, technical, and economic cooperation in 1973. New agreements on military and monetary cooperation were pointedly eliminated, and Mauritania soon declared its intention of leaving the West Africa Monetary Union and its Franc Zone and introducing its own currency, the ouguiya, with the backing of Algeria and other Arab countries. In 1974, MIFERMA, which was controlled by French interests and provided 80 percent of national exports, was nationalized and the name changed to National Mining and Industrial Company (Société Nationale Industrielle et Minière-- SNIM). Also in 1974, Mauritania joined the League of Arab States (Arab League). Finally, during the August 1975 congress of the PPM, Daddah presented a charter calling for an Islamic, national, centralist, and socialist democracy. The charter was so popular that both the Mauritanian Kadihine Party and the Party of Mauritanian Justice withdrew their opposition to the Daddah government.

In the early 1970s, the Daddah government made some progress toward achieving national unity and economic independence. These gains, however, were more than offset by the economic hardship caused by a Sahelian drought that lasted from 1969 to 1974. Thousands of nomads migrated to shantytowns outside the cities, increasing urban population from 8 percent of the total population to 25 percent between 1962 and 1975. But other problems forced Mauritania's leaders to shift their focus from internal to external events: the decolonization of the neighboring Western Sahara at the end of 1975; the subsequent occupation of that former Spanish territory by Morocco and Mauritania; and the liberation struggle of the indigenous people of the Western Sahara, which embroiled Mauritania in a long and costly war.




Until the late nineteenth century, the Western Sahara, a land inhabited by the nomadic Sahrawi people, had remained largely free of any central authority. But when competing European colonial powers embarked on their division of Africa, Spain claimed the Western Sahara. Spain historically had had an interest in the territory, primarily because it lay near the Spanish-owned Canary Islands. In 1884 Spain occupied the Western Sahara and remained until 1976.

For the first fifty years after the occupation, intermittent Sahrawi resistance to Spanish rule in what was then called the Spanish Sahara effectively forced the Spanish occupiers to limit their presence to several coastal enclaves. It was not until the 1950s, following the discovery of vast phosphate deposits at Bu Craa, that Sahrawi nationalism developed. For the first time, the Spanish Sahara appeared valuable to the indigenous population as well as to the governments of Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania. The discovery of the deposits also renewed the historic rivalry between Algeria and Morocco, both of which encouraged Sahrawi aggression against the Spanish occupiers. In 1973 a number of indigenous Spanish Sahara groups formed an organization called the Polisario, the purpose of which was to secure independence from Spain.

By the mid-1970s, the government of Spain appeared willing to relinquish the territory, which was becoming more costly to administer. In addition, the sudden collapse of Portugal's empire in Africa and the ensuing liberation of Mozambique and Angola had strengthened the determination of the Polisario to shake off Spanish colonial rule, and attacks on Spanish settlements and forts had become more intense. Morocco, Mauritania, and Algeria also orchestrated international opposition in the United Nations to continued Spanish occupation. The Spanish government finally terminated its claim to the Spanish Sahara in February 1976 and bequeathed the territory--renamed the Western Sahara--jointly to Morocco and Mauritania, both of which consented to allow Spain to exploit the Bu Craa phosphates. Spain excluded Algeria from the withdrawal agreement, largely because Algeria intended to prevent Spain from exploiting the Bu Craa deposits, a decision which contributed considerably to the growing discord in an already troubled area.


Mauritania - Background to Mauritanian Policy


The Moroccan Factor

Mauritania's role in the Western Sahara conflict was heavily influenced by perceived and real threats of Moroccan expansionism. In the 1950s, Morocco advanced its concept of Greater Morocco, which included all Mauritanian territory, based on an historic (if currently moribund) allegiance to the Moroccan sultan as a political and religious leader. To make matters worse, most of the Arab League states, the Soviet Union, several progressive African states, and groups within Mauritania, as well, supported that position. For example, Mauritanian Entente leader Babana had claimed that a union with Morocco would protect the rights of the Maures from encroachments by the black population.

Even after Morocco finally had recognized Mauritanian independence in 1969--nine years after it had been granted by France--and had withdrawn its claim to Mauritanian territory, the Daddah government remained suspicious of Moroccan intentions. Thus, Mauritania favored using the Western Sahara as a buffer between it and Morocco, either by controlling all or part of the Western Sahara or by creating an independent state.

Internal Factors

From independence until the mid-1970s, Mauritania's policy on the Western Sahara vacillated as the government sought to balance its own interests against those of a more powerful Morocco. Until 1974 the Daddah government supported self-determination for the Western Sahara, to be exercised by means of a referendum, under the assumption that the Sahrawis would choose to join with Mauritania. This assumption was reasonable: there were close ethnic ties between the Sahrawis and the Maures; a large number of Sahrawi nomads had migrated into Mauritania; and many Maures were living in the Western Sahara. During the period from 1974 to 1975, however, after Morocco had made clear its intention of occupying the Western Sahara, Mauritania pursued policies fraught with contradictions. To please the international community, on which Mauritania depended for economic aid, Daddah continued to support policy of self-determination for the Sahrawi population. But to please the dominant Maures of Mauritania, the government reintroduced the concept of Greater Mauritania (see Glossary), asserting the country's rights over all of the Western Sahara. A third policy, acknowledging the reality of Moroccan power, called for a partition of the Western Sahara, which led Mauritania into a long and costly guerrilla war with the Polisario.

The Mauritanian campaign to annex Tiris al Gharbiyya (the southern province of the Western Sahara) did not have much support within Mauritania. Some Mauritanians favored instead the full integration of the Western Sahara, while others, who identified themselves as Sahrawi refugees, supported independence. Adamantly opposing absorption was Mauritania's southern black population, which viewed the resultant increase in the number of Maures as a threat. To the blacks, the Western Shara conflict was an Arab war.

Madrid Agreements

In early 1975, both Morocco and Mauritania agreed to abide by the decision of the International Court of Justice on the status of the Spanish Sahara, but when the court ruled in October 1975 that neither country was entitled to claim sovereignty over the territory, both governments chose to ignore the decision. In November 1975, they concluded the Madrid Agreements with Spain under which Morocco acquired the northern two-thirds of the territory, while Mauritania acquired the southern third. The agreement also included the proviso that Spain would retain shares in the Bu Craa mining enterprise. Mauritania acquiesced to the agreements under the assumption, probably correct, that Morocco, with its superior military power, would otherwise have absorbed the entire territory.


Mauritania - Fighting the Desert War


In 1976, when Mauritanian troops occupied the Western Sahara province of Tiris al Gharbiyya, as per terms of the Madrid Agreements, they were immediately challenged in fierce fighting with Polisario guerrillas. The fighting would drag on for two years, draining an already improvised economy, provoking ethnic conflict, and causing large numbers of casualties. The direct cost of Mauritania's colonial venture proved exorbitant. Mauritania rapidly increased its armed forces from only 3,000 at the beginning of 1976 to about 12,000 at the beginning of 1977; by mid-1978 the Mauritanian armed forces numbered between 15,000 and 17,000. Between 1975 and 1977, the government's expenditures increased by 64 percent, most of which was allotted for defense. This military buildup placed a heavy burden on the weak economy and diverted funds badly needed development projects. Further alienating the population was a special defense tax, which the government levied against the entire population; despite the tax, the country was on the verge of bankruptcy by late 1977. Moreover, as the war progressed, the power of the Mauritanian military grew, contributing to internal disunity and a weak civilian government unable to solve the problems of nation buildings.

Having more than 6,400 kilometers of undefended borders with Mali and Algeria, Mauritania was highly vulnerable to attacks by Polisario guerrillas, who were armed and supported by Algeria. The government's inability to protect Mauritania's major towns, even Nouakchott, which was attacked in June 1976, raised fears that Moroccan troops would move into Mauritania, ostensibly to interdict the guerrillas but also as an expansionist vanguard. There was also fear of a possible plan on the part of Morocco's enemy, Algeria, to replace the Daddah government with a puppet regime.

Involvement of Foreign Countries

For their part, Polisario strategists sought first to remove Mauritania from the conflict and then to direct their efforts against the far stronger Moroccan forces. In mid-1977 the Polisario launched a general offensive against Mauritania to cripple its economy and incite internal opposition to the war, hoping thereby that the government either would withdraw from the conflict or would be overthrown by one more sympathetic to the Polisario cause. In May Polisario guerrillas attacked the SNIM operations at Zouîrât, killing two French technicians and capturing another six. The remaining expatriates at Zouîrât immediately left, and Mauritania promptly requested aid from Morocco. In June 1977, Morocco's military command merged with Mauritania's in the Supreme Defense Council, and 600 Moroccan troops arrived to protect Zouîrât. Following further attacks against the railroad linking the SNIM iron ore mines with the port at Nouadhibou, the Mauritanian government reversed an earlier position and requested--and received--military aid from France. In December 1977, French aircraft, in their first action, attacked Polisario guerrillas returning from raids into Mauritania.

Several wealthy Arab oil-producing states, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Abu Dhabi, also provided Mauritania with significant aid to contain the revolutionary fervor advocated by the Polisario. Between 1976 and 1978, Saudi Arabia, in particular, provided funds amounting to twice Mauritania's annual budget.

In spite of the military aid it received, Mauritania was not able to prevent the Polisario from bombarding Nouakchott for a second time, in July 1977. The rocket attack against the capital stunned Daddah, who immediately reorganized both the army and the government, appointing for the first time a military officer to the post of minister of defense. Daddah previously had resisted bringing the military into his civilian government for fear of a military takeover.

By the end of 1977, Daddah faced growing opposition to the war and to his administration. In the military, black recruits from the south, who had joined the army because they lacked other employment opportunities and who formed a majority of the ground troops, had little interest in fighting Polisario guerrillas in the north. Moreover, black civilians resented having to pay a tax to support a war between Arabs. In addition, many Maure soldiers sympathized with the objectives of the Polisario, with whom they shared ethnic ties. Finally, anti-Moroccan nationalists within the PPM opposed the war on the grounds that it afforded Morocco opportunities to expand its influence.

Overthrow of the Ould Daddah Regime

Economic hardship also weighed heavily on the Daddah regime. During 1977, defense expenditures increased as international demand for iron ore (Mauritania's major source of foreign exchange) fell. Drought conditions that devastated crops and herds further strained the economy. Mauritania survived only with the help of grants and loans from Saudi Arabia, France, Morocco, and Libya.

In January 1978, during a special congress of the PPM, Daddah unsuccessfully tried to seek a path out of the Western Sahara war; however, the increasingly isolated leader proved unable to undertake any diplomatic or political initiatives. In addition, relations between Daddah and senior army officers were strained because the president constantly shifted senior officers from posting to posting to guard against a possible coup.

In February 1978, in a desperate move, Daddah appointed Colonel Mustapha Ould Salek to be army commander. In the late 1960s, Daddah had relegated Salek, who was suspected of proFrench leanings, to the reserve corps. (Salek had reentered active duty only in 1977, when he was made commander of the Third Military Region, at Atar, and relations between Daddah and Salek were still strained.) On July 10, 1978, the newly appointed army commander led a group of junior officers in the bloodless overthrow of the eighteen-year-old Daddah government.


Mauritania - Military Withdrawal from the Western Sahara


Under Salek, a twenty-man junta calling itself the Military Committee for National Recovery (Comité Militaire de Redressement National--CMRN) assumed power. The CMRN was a centrist, moderate, pro-French and pro-Moroccan regime, whose first mandate was to bring peace to Mauritania. The Polisario, which believed Mauritania would withdrew from the war if given the opportunity, declared a unilateral cease-fire, which the CMRN accepted at once.

Salek and the CMRN then directed its collective diplomatic attention to Morocco, whose troops were still thought necessary to protect SNIM operations and thus enable the Mauritanian economy to recover. Following Morocco's lead, the CMRN opposed the creation of a new, independent state in the Western Sahara, although Salek did not rule out the possibility of a federated state with limited autonomy. In the meantime, while Polisario guerrillas and Moroccan troops continued to fight, the Mauritanian Army withdrew from active participation in the war, although the CMRN was constrained from signing a peace treaty in order to placate Morocco. Within a short time, however, Polisario leaders had become increasingly impatient with Mauritania's inability to make a conclusive commitment to peace, and in April 1979 they demanded the evacuation of Mauritanian troops from Tiris al Gharbiyya as a precondition for further talks.




The difficulties facing the Salek government multiplied and soon proved to be insurmountable. His regime failed to overcome Morocco's resistance to any settlement of the Western Sahara conflict. The death of Algerian president Houari Boumediene in December 1978 further heightened tensions. Also, Senegalese president Leopold Senghor, who was displeased with Salek's ties with Morocco, instigated a press campaign that highlighted racial problems in Mauritania. Salek did little to ease the racial problem when, in March 1979, he named eighty-one Maures and only seventeen blacks to his new national advisory committee. Finally, the French government lost confidence in Salek's ability to extricate Mauritania from both the Western Sahara war and Moroccan influence. Isolated and weak, Salek's government was overthrown on April 6, 1979, by Colonel Ahmed Ould Bouceif and Colonel Mohamed Khouna Haidalla, who formed the Military Committee for National Salvation (Comité Militaire de Salut National--CMSN). Salek, however, was permitted to remain in the government as a figurehead president. In late May, Bouceif was killed in an airplane crash; Haidalla was designated prime minister, and Colonel Mohamed Louly was named president.




Like its predecessor, the CMSN sought first to negotiate peace with the Polisario without sacrificing its friendly ties with Morocco and France. In its domestic policies, the Mauredominated CMSN embittered both black and Maure civilians because it refused to share power with either group. In addition, the government insisted on using Arabic exclusively in the secondary schools, provoking a wave of student protests in April 1979.

In July 1979, its patience exhausted, the Polisario ended its cease-fire. Confronted with endless warfare and total economic collapse, the CMSN on August 5 signed a peace treaty in Algeria with the Polisario, according to which Mauritania renounced all territorial and other claims over the Western Sahara. The Polisario, in return, renounced all claims regarding Mauritania. Most significant, Mauritania recognized the Polisario as the sole legitimate representative of the people of the Western Sahara, although in an effort to convince Morocco of its neutrality in the conflict, it did not recognize the Polisario's governing arm, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). The CMSN government also agreed to withdraw from Tiris al Gharbiyya. However, just a few days after the signing of the peace treaty, Morocco occupied Tiris al Gharbiyya, rendering the issue moot and threatening the peace.

Consolidation of Power

In Mauritania, Haidalla was faced with the daunting task of consolidating power. To his credit, in January 1980 he proclaimed Mauritanian neutrality in the Western Sahara conflict and convinced Morocco to evacuate all its troops from Mauritanian soil. From the beginning of his regime, however, Haidalla was viewed with hostility by the southern black population; a native of the Western Sahara, he was perceived by the blacks as an Arab and a northerner. He was also mistrusted by pro-Moroccan political groups because he had signed the peace treaty with the Polisario. To ensure strict Mauritanian neutrality in the ongoing conflict, he reshuffled the top echelons of the government, removing both pro-Moroccan and staunchly pro-Polisario factions. He also assumed the title of president and removed Louly and CMSN vice president Ahmed Salem Ould Sidi from office, thereby eliminating all serious political competitors.

Haidalla initiated several important policy changes to broaden his base of support. In 1980, to further strengthen his position with Mauritania's blacks and to undercut black opposition groups in Senegal, he officially abolished slavery. In December 1980, in the face of growing apprehension among CMSN members, he formed a civilian government, naming Ahmed Ould Bneijara prime minister. He also initiated steps to draft a constitution establishing a multiparty, democratic state.

Among Mauritanians both inside and outside the country, however, political opposition to Haidalla grew. In May 1980, following Haidalla's dismissal of Louly and Sidi, a number of foreign-based opposition movements joined together in France to form an opposition group called the Alliance for a Democratic Mauritania (Alliance pour une Mauritanie Démocratique--AMD). The AMD wanted to restore civilian rule and introduce a multiparty democracy in Mauritania. Its principal political supporter was former President Daddah, who as a result of French pressure had been released from prison in August 1979. Also joining the AMD was former Vice President Sidi. The AMD received financial support from those Arab states of the Persian Gulf that opposed Haidalla's anti-Moroccan leanings--he had moved to eliminate proMoroccan members of the CMSN--and his support of selfdetermination for the radical SADR. The same Arab states also reduced their aid to Mauritania, which only encouraged Haidalla to strengthen ties to more radical Arab countries like Libya and Iraq.

Meanwhile, relations with Morocco continued to deteriorate. Discord between the two countries had been mounting since early 1981, when Morocco accused Mauritania of sympathizing with the Polisario and harboring its fighters. Morocco was also responsible for rumors suggesting that Libya was shipping arms to the guerrillas via a landing strip at Chegga in northeastern Mauritania. On March 18, 1981, pro-Moroccan members of the AMD led by Sidi and former air force commander Mohamed Abdelkader attempted to topple the government. The coup failed, and both were subsequently executed. In April, following the attempt, Haidalla and the CMSN decided to abandon civilian rule and replaced the fledgling constitutional government with a six-member military government headed by Colonel Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Ould Taya.

As Mauritania's relations with Morocco worsened, its ties with Algeria improved. Algeria cultivated a friendship with Haidalla and supplied him with sophisticated military equipment, ostensibly to deter invasion from Morocco. In June 1981, in an effort to restore diplomatic relations with Morocco, Haidalla agreed to a summit meeting to be arranged and hosted by Saudi Arabia, one of Mauritania's largest aid donors. At the summit, Morocco's King Hassan II and Haidalla signed an agreement restoring diplomatic relations and prohibiting the transit through either country of forces hostile to the other. This last provision alluded to both the Polisario and the Moroccan branch of the AMD. The reconciliation, however, was short lived. On the one hand, Morocco refused to expel AMD members, and on the other hand King Hassan accused Mauritania of allowing Polisario guerrillas to launch attacks against Morocco from Mauritanian base camps. Subsequently, Moroccan aircraft bombed the Mauritanian city of Bir Aidiat near the border with the Western Sahara, where Polisario guerrillas had taken refuge, and threatened further reprisals against Mauritania.

In February 1982, former CMSN president Salek and former Prime Minister Bneijara, among others, tried unsuccessfully to oust Haidalla. Having survived a second coup attempt, Haidalla relied on his forceful personality, self-discipline, and integrity to gain the respect of many of his countrymen. The eleven-month period between February 1982 and January 1983 gave the regime the opportunity to politicize the population. Haidalla hoped that by establishing a working foundation of civilian politics he could abolish the military regime and be elected to office as a civilian. Accordingly, in 1982 the government organized what were labeled Structures for Educating the Masses (Structures pour l'Education des Masses--SEM), which acted on a range of public issues through elected delegates. Haidalla also pursued his goal of national reconciliation by releasing some of the political prisoners incarcerated since the overthrow of the Daddah regime.

Domestic peace was shattered briefly in January 1983, first when Haidalla discovered a coup plot supported by Libya and, later, when a Moroccan gunboat attacked a Mauritanian garrison near La Guera, the only Western Sahara territory still occupied by Mauritania. Although neither incident caused any casualties or serious diplomatic repercussions, the Moroccan attack demonstrated Mauritania's continuing vulnerability. Haidalla responded to these incidents by strengthening relations with France; the latter had already been instrumental in reestablishing communication between the Mauritanian and Moroccan governments following their 1981 break. The more significant diplomatic movement, however, saw Haidalla develop warmer relations with Algeria and the SADR. During the June 1983 summit meeting of the Organization of African Unity in Ethiopia, Haidalla joined Senegalese president Abdou Diouf and Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam in drafting a resolution calling for a cease-fire and peace negotiations in the Western Sahara. Morocco failed to comply with the resolution by the end of the year, and Haidalla recognized the SADR in February 1984.

The January 1983 Libyan-supported coup plot had soured relations between Mauritania and Libya; however, Libyan leader Muammar al Qadhaafi, a strong supporter of the Polisario, took advantage of Mauritania's break with Morocco and began a new campaign to reestablish cordial ties with Haidalla. Haidalla's warming relations with Libya, Algeria, and the Polisario, however, alienated the conservative Arab countries on which Mauritania depended for most of its economic aid and also factions in his own government, which favored ties to Morocco, and those who opposed the existence of the SADR. Moreover, Haidalla angered many CMSN members by his decision to recognize the SADR without consulting them.

More ominous was Morocco is movement of troops toward Mauritania's northern border in the aftermath of Mauritania's recognition of the SADR. The presence of thousands of Moroccan soldiers on the Mauritanian border, only four kilometers from Mauritania's key economic center at Nouadhibou, again raised the possibility of another Moroccan attack on La Guera. In addition, Morocco had begun to construct a berm near the Mauritanian border that would restrict Polisario guerrillas to Mauritanian territory for their rear bases, thus providing Morocco with justification for attacking northern Mauritania.

Political Disintegration

By 1984 the Haidalla regime was under siege not only for its regional policies but also for corruption and mismanagement, especially within the SEMs, which were viewed by the population as vehicles for advancing the president's own interests. Furthermore, upheavals in the military compromised the loyalty of key officers, particularly at a time when the army was being asked to perform the impossible task of protecting Mauritania's vast northern regions from Morocco's attacks across the border. A severe drought compounded the regime's difficulties, forcing much of the population into the country's few urban areas and increasing Mauritania's dependence on foreign economic aid.

In the third ministerial purge in six months, Haidalla named himself prime minister in March 1984 and took over the defense portfolio. Taya, who had held both positions, was demoted to chief of staff of the armed forces. The move infuriated Taya's allies on the CMSN. As chairman of the CMSN, Haidalla was supposed to represent a collective body. Instead, he attempted to amass considerable personal power and alienated many in the top echelons of government. On December 12, 1984, while Haidalla was out of the country, Taya, in a quiet and bloodless coup d'état, became Mauritania's president, a position he continued to hold in late 1987.


CITATION: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

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