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Nearly three decades ago deep in the hinterland, I had my first encounter with slavery in Mauritania.
Playing soccer with my peers, one black boy never finished a game. He was always in a rush.
My first clue as to why he could not, was someone referring to him as an “Abd” which is Arabic for slave. Later, I found out the boy was in fact “inherited” as property between three siblings and had to divide his time between them tending their palm groves and herding goats for no pay.
Asking adults about this was no easy task. Curt and sometimes evasive answers were all I could get.
“Slavery is part of the natural laws of society and is sanctioned by religion,” I was told. In fact, I came to understand that the two black families who were euphemistically referred to as “our relatives” and resided just outside our compound used to be our slaves. They were freed by my father upon acceding to his inheritance – an act of rebellion in the 1960s that I came to appreciate only much later.
Yet, we could not have an open discussion about their condition. That was Mauritania’s paradox – silence was the only accepted response to this painful legacy.
In fact, Mauritania’s first official attempt to address slavery came in the 1981 Orwellian law stipulating that slaves should be freed – but only after compensating the slave-owners for their “property loss”. In the meantime, the first abolitionist manifesto was clandestinely written by Haratin (descendants of slaves) activists, who became known for a phrase in the manifesto: “Akhouka al-Hartani”. (your brother the Haratin).
It demanded an end to slavery, equal treatment socially and official recognition of the reality of slavery and its legacy in my country of birth.
The Arab establishment’s reaction was swift. Abolitionists were vilified as imperialist agents or, in some of the country’s most reactionary Arab nationalist and Islamist circles, as apostates. Many were jailed and some co-opted by the system in order to deny the reality of slavery. The international community remained largely passive and indifferent.
Over the next two decades, this state of play did not change much, except for the emergence of a new generation of dissidents, including Arab, Haratin and Afro-Mauritanian activists who, in 1995, founded SOS Slaves which became the main flag-bearer of the abolitionist cause in Mauritania and overseas. This led to members of ethnic groups in Mauritania working together for the first time and waging a war of ideas against both slavery and military dictatorship.
Their work paid off in 2007, when Mauritania’s first democratically elected parliament, presided over by a descendant of slaves, passed unanimously a law criminalising slavery.
This success was largely homegrown and did not involve much foreign interference. The discourse leading to it carefully avoided stigmatising Islam and, in fact, managed to win over clerics and conservatives alike.
But the fight is far from over, as many abolitionists rightly complain that the 2007 law is rarely enforced. Haratins and slaves remain at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.
The government has recently taken two important steps: changing the mandate of the country’s National Agency for The Struggle Against Slavery Vestiges (formerly dedicated to refugee resettlement) and the creation of a separate court specifically to deal with slavery cases.
This shows the debate in Mauritania is no longer about whether slavery exists or not, but rather how best to deal with it.
Some abolitionists, however, are still suspicious, wondering whether these measures are sincere or merely cosmetic and designed to placate the international community.
Mauritania’s North American and European partners must take a more active role in assisting both sides of the debate to move on and form a pragmatic partnership to tackle the problem from both ends of the social spectrum. The stakes are high. Social injustice, the country’s volatile regional environment (notably the implosion of neighbouring Mali), and the rise of terrorist groups create a fertile ground for extremism – as we have painfully learned elsewhere.
Mauritania’s Haratins, like their US counterparts two centuries ago, should not wait another century to receive their mule and 40 acres.
Nasser Weddady is a Mauritanian-American activist, co-editor of The Arab Spring Dreams Anthology and a member of SOS Slaves Mauritania.
You can follow him on twitter @weddady