Four months after the passing of a law criminalising slavery in Mauritania, anti-slavery activists hope newly-announced funding for the reintegration of former slaves will address the many problems they continue to face in Mauritanian society.
“Quite obviously, we’re very pleased with the announcement,” said Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, member of the anti-slavery organisation SOS Esclaves, which has been leading the fight against slavery in Mauritania for years. “The government is sending slaves a strong signal and it is also proof that the authorities have heard our calls.”
When slavery was criminalised in August, human rights and anti-slavery organisations urged the government - as they had been doing for years - to adopt accompanying measures for the law to be effective.
Officially abolished in 1981, slavery continues to be practiced in all Mauritanian communities, mostly in rural areas, by upper-class lighter-skinned Moors (Berber Arabs) as well as black Africans. One estimate by the Open Society Justice Initiative places the number of slaves and former slaves at 20 percent of the population - or about 500,000 people - but the numbers are difficult to confirm.
On 23 November, Mauritanian Finance Minister Abderrahmane Ould Hamma Vezaz announced 19 million euros (US$27.8 million) for reintegration programmes for former slaves.
“This sum will be used in the framework of the fight against the repercussions of slavery and against poverty,” Ould Hamma Vezaz said. The sum has been allotted in the 2008 budget, which must be definitively adopted by parliament by the end of the year.
Since Mauritania’s first democratically elected president came to power in March 2007, signs of progress have emerged on this issue.
“For the first time in the history of the country, a master was put in prison in mid-October for the crime of slavery against two young children,” Ould Dah Ould Abeid said, adding that the case was judged before the regional tribunal of Kiffa, in the Assaba region.
But he said the government must go further still. “From now on, slaves need a recasting of the administration and the justice system, so that the institutions have a multi-class and citizen image,” he said. “The courts still do not treat slavery cases as they should.”
Despite changes in the law, slaves continue to be bound by their masters and suffer discrimination.
Nowhere to go
At a house in the Riyad neighbourhood of Nouakchott, Hanna Mint Salem tells of fleeing her masters in the Trarza region. She is around 30, but looks 15 years older. She fled so abruptly she had to leave behind her two children, aged two and eight.
Today, a slave who tries to flee his master has nowhere to go. In the absence of welcome centres or reintegration infrastructure, they often find refuge with sympathisers of SOS Esclaves.
“I looked for help at the military brigade of R’Kiz, [a district of the Trarza],” Mint Salem whispered. “They sent me to the president of the regional tribunal, who didn’t want to deal with me. So I went back to the brigade and they threatened to throw my husband in jail if we kept coming to talk to them about slavery.
|...I no longer have faith in the justice system...|
“Today, I’m here. I don’t know where to go. But I no longer have faith in the justice system.”
Algerian anthropologist Malek Chebel, author of the recently published book Slavery in the Land of Islam, says despite the government’s efforts, practices in Mauritania are stubborn and hard to eradicate. “Despite the denials, slavery remains a glaring reality,” he told Jeune Afrique magazine.
In certain villages of Guidimakha in southern Mauritania on the border with Senegal, slaves are still buried in separate cemeteries. There are mosques for nobles and mosques for slaves. “Spatial segregation, even within residential neighbourhoods, remains extremely strong,” said Demba Marico, geography professor at the University of Nouakchott.
If not taboo, the subject remains highly sensitive, especially among black masters.
The land question
Following the adoption of the new law, freed slaves are slowly beginning to speak up and claim rights - but they continue to face resistance.
Messaoud Ould Meybi is a member of the Haratine caste, which includes slaves, freed slaves and the descendants of slaves. In Kiffa, capital of the Assaba region, he has been banned from his village, after he tried to exercise his rights and take possession of land he had been cultivating for years.
“The former master managed to turn everybody against me - the Moors as well as the Haratines. Today, I am alone and I am even told to watch out as I move around because bad things could happen to me.”
Many say the question of land is at the heart of Mauritania’s slavery problem.
“The cultivatable lands are monopolised by the former masters. And yet it’s us who farm them,” said Yeslim Ould Warmit, a Haratine farmer in the village of Leuceïba.
“Indeed for them: slaves we were born, slaves we will always be,” added Abdallahi Ould Mohamed Salem, another freed sleeve. “That will not change as long as the local administration backs the former masters.”
That is why anti-slavery activists say accompanying measures remain essential, despite adoption of the law.
“This land question is crucial,” said Mamadou Sarr, executive secretary of the forum of national human rights’ organisations in Mauritania. “Because today, no one is playing the game. Not the mayors, not the prefects, not even the governors. They still obey the big landowners.”
For Ould Dah Ould Abeid of SOS Esclaves, the 19 million euros granted by the government must be invested in two fundamental directions:
“There must be measures for the economic emancipation of the slaves. But the government must also inspire a cultural revolution to deconstruct social mentalities. Because the slaves themselves remain prisoners of this archaic conception of life, especially in the countryside.
“Everything cannot change from one day to the next. All this requires support,” he said. “And I hope this money will be used wisely.”