On March 5, the Africa Program and the Open Society Institute co-hosted a discussion on slavery in Mauritania. Panelists included <Boubacar Ould Messaoud, President and Founder of SOS Slaves, H.E. Ibrahima Dia, the Mauritanian Ambassador to the United States, and Romana Cacchioli, Africa Program Coordinator for Anti-Slavery International. Akwe Omusu, Senior Policy Analyst for Africa at the Open Society Institute in Washington D.C. served as moderator.
Akwe Omusu opened up the event by describing the new Mauritanian government's efforts to eradicate slavery in the country. This has notably included the passing of a new law criminalizing slavery.
Cacchioli who spoke on behalf of the London-based Anti-Slavery International, one of the oldest human rights organizations in the world to have fought against the transatlantic slave trade, explained that today, while in theory, slavery is abolished in most countries in the world, in practice, many countries are still struggling to have it eradicated. She added that Anti-Slavery International has been working closely with Boubacar Ould Messaoud and with a broad range of people in Mauritania including sons and daughters of slaves.
A former slave who has been fighting slavery for almost 50 years, Messaoud recounted his journey from being the first in his family to go to school to eventually being a co-founder of one of the first organizations in Mauritania to publicly denounce slavery. He recalled fighting with other children at school because of his status as the son of a slave. He also said that he always made it a point of denouncing slavery and refusing to join student organizations which did not recognize that slavery was a reality in Mauritania. In 1978, along with other friends he started the first association to publicly denounce slavery: the Organization for the Liberation and the Emancipation of the Haratins. The Haratins who make up 40% of the Mauritanian population, also represent the largest proportion of slaves.
Messaoud also gave a detailed description of the nature of slavery in Mauritania. He said that "this is not modern slavery which conjures images of chains and trafficking. It is traditional and passed on from generation to generation through the mother." All slaves in Mauritania today are descendants of slaves. They have accepted their status and although they have some freedom of movement, they are intrinsically linked to their masters on whom they depend financially. It is only when the masters are unable to support their slaves that the latter are able to leave. For instance, in the mid 1970s, due to a severe drought, many slaves left their masters who could no longer afford to keep them.
Slavery in Mauritania is tied to Islam which makes it even harder to break the practice. According to Messaoud, Muslims in Mauritania and other parts of the world have used Islam to justify slavery. Slaves learn that the more obedient or submissive they are, the more likely they are to be rewarded when they die. They are rarely beaten or sold particularly because they are a sign of wealth. Only when a master is in great need will he/she sell a slave secretly as it is a great dishonor. Additionally, contrary to popular belief, slavery is not racial. It is practiced by whites and blacks even though slaves tend to be predominantly black. Messaoud added that the most vulnerable groups in this system tend to be women and children. Women do more work and still have to be responsible for their families. Men can leave more easily because their filial ties are not as strong.
Messaoud commended the work of the current Mauritanian government. Looking to the future, he said that there needs to be more policies to completely eradicate the practice of slavery as well as integrate slaves into society by enabling them to become economically independent. In conclusion, he said that "slavery in Mauritania is subdued but is still slavery."
Dia, who served as discussant, recognized that historically Mauritania has often denied the existence of slavery. However he said, today, the current government has acknowledged the persistence of the stigma of slavery as a historical practice in the country. He added that most slaves in Mauritania today are free but still have the status of being former slaves, particularly in the large cities. Reinforcing Messaoud's earlier point, Dia said that slavery is often justified through a wrong interpretation of Islam which makes it harder to abolish as both masters and slaves accept their unique relationship as religiously ordained. However, he said, the Mauritanian government is determined to deal with the problem. Passing legislation criminalizing slavery was the first step, now the law must be transformed into action on the ground through social and economic reforms. There are plans to start an affirmative action initiative for former slaves and an inter-ministerial committee has been set up to ensure that the new legislation is understood by all Mauritanian citizens. At the moment the Mauritanian government is soliciting the international community to help provide necessary resources to support its projects.
During the question and answer session, most of the questions pertained to the actual implementation of the new law. One question asked was to know if anyone has been prosecuted for having slaves. To this Messaoud responded that although there have been some legal cases, no one has actually been found guilty or prosecuted yet. He attributed this to the reluctance of the judicial community to fully implement the new law. Dia explained that it would take some time for the mentalities to change on all sides and that one had to take into account the fact that slavery has just recently been criminalized. Another question focused on the challenges that might arise from the reluctance of slaves themselves to be separated from their masters. Dia and Cacchioli both agreed that this is why it is very important to set up various mechanisms such as quality education that will eventually enable former slaves to survive on their own. According to Cacchioli slaves have been excluded from quality education for generations. She also added that it is necessary to have large scale campaigns to spread awareness of the new law in order to make it clear to all that slavery will no longer be tolerated and also to train the police and judiciary on the issue. Finally, there needs to be an anti-discrimination law that will ensure that there is no stigma associated with being a former slave.
Drafted by Medesse R. Sonou, Intern and Roseline F. Tekeu, Program Assistant, Africa Program.