Half A Million African Slaves Are At The Heart of Mauritania’s Presidential Election

More than half a million slaves are at the heart of a presidential election battle in the former French colony of Mauritania.

by Nick Meo in Nouakchott, Mauritania
Published: 8:30AM BST 12 Jul 2009

A year after she ran away from her master, Barakatu Mint Sayed prays that the election on July 18 will mark the beginning of the end of slavery in Mauritania.

Her nation is one of the last places on Earth where large numbers of humans are still kept as property.

And like thousands of other slaves and freed slaves across the Saharan country, her hopes are fixed on an inspirational candidate, a man born to slave parents who has sworn to put an end to the practice of “owning” humans if he is elected president.

That candidate is Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, a 66-year-old former civil servant with a strong resemblance to the film actor Morgan Freeman. Mr Boulkheir has vowed that in power he would punish slave owners and do everything he can to free their human property.

His prospects of winning power are growing by the day – and he is being hailed as Mauritania’s brightest star by his supporters.

“He is the Obama of Mauritania,” said Boubacar Messaoud, an architect and veteran anti-slavery campaigner in the northwest African desert state. “He is going to bring change, and he represents social justice and equality.”

Officially, slavery has long been abolished in Mauritania, but the law has never been enforced and there are an estimated 600,000 slaves, almost one in five of the country’s 3.2 million people, almost 150 years since the American civil war.

Change will come too late to heal Mrs Sayed’s ruined life. But she knows that victory for Mr Boulkheir could transform the future for the daughter and grandchildren whom she had to leave behind in captivity when she finally summoned the courage to escape.

A black African of Mauritania’s Haratine caste, she was born into slavery about 40 years ago – she is illiterate and has only a hazy idea of time – and grew up as the property of an Arabic-speaking Berber family, in an oasis town deep in the desert.

While her master’s children went to school, she was cooking, cleaning and washing from dawn to dusk. She slept on the floor, and suffered beatings.

“Sometimes I was too tired by the end of the day to eat my food,” Mrs Sayed said at her new home in the capital, Nouakchott, where she now works as a paid housekeeper.

Aged about 10, she was separated from her mother by being given to a cousin of the master as a wedding gift. She remembers crying uncontrollably when they moved to a different town, where she was forbidden from leaving the master’s house.

Another 20 years later she was separated from her own daughter, Mulkheir, when the girl was given away as a teenager – a common trauma for slave families.

Mrs Sayed has never seen her three young grandchildren or met her daughter’s husband. In fact she is not sure whether her daughter even has a husband, or whether Mulkheir’s children were fathered by her master.

It is the kind of life that has been endured for centuries by Mauritania’s slaves, since the first marauding Berber raiders rode out of the desert from the north in the 3rd century to carry off African villagers.

The former slave who would be president believes he can finally bring such suffering to an end.

“All that is needed to free the slaves is willpower,” Mr Boulkheir told The Sunday Telegraph at his modest home in the capital.

A quietly spoken man with a commanding presence, he has a clean reputation in an Islamic nation which has suffered years of corrupt rulers.

The acting president and head of the senate, Ba Mamadou Mbare, is not contesting the election. Of his nine rival candidates, the man Mr Boulkheir has to beat is the self-appointed president of the Higher State Council, General Mohammed Ould Abdelaziz, who led a military coup last year and is the most powerful man in the country. He is the Arabic-speaking former head of security for Ould Taya – the deposed dictator who was driven out by an earlier coup in 2005 and now lives in exile.

Gen Abdelaziz – who has removed his uniform to contest the election in line with the constitution – and his political opponents including Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, the president he deposed last year, agreed to the polls in a deal brokered by Senegal.

The junta and its opponents had come under intense pressure from the international community to re-establish a democratic government, with the United Nations, European Union and African Union co-sponsoring the mediation.

Gen Abdelaziz’s enemies stop short of claiming that he owns slaves – he was in fact born in poverty and inherited nothing. But they insist that there are slave-owning masters among the ranks of his wealthy supporters.

The two candidates despise each other. Their electoral battle, a novelty in a ramshackle capital which is more used to coups, has enthused its residents, as much as anyone can be enthused in temperatures of 43 degrees centigrade.

Its streets, where sand drifts across the tarmac, are plastered with posters, and nomadic-style tents have been erected in every suburb. Blaring loudspeakers praise the rival candidates at such volume that passing camels and donkeys pulling carts are sent into a panic. With six days to go, diplomats consider the race too close to call.

The votes of slaves who have been registered by their masters may make a critical difference. But campaigners fear that in the great swathes of the country’s dusty hinterland where most of the slaves are kept, thousands will be compelled to cast their votes for Gen Abdelaziz.

Mr Boulkheir’s camp hopes it can pull ahead by energising the freed Haratine – the slave caste which has grown in size and clout in recent years, especially in the cities, as slaves have gradually been freed or run away. Once free, they can join the workforce. Fishing, desert agriculture and iron and gold mining and are the main sources of income for Mauritanians, who on average earn little more than $2 a day, although that could rise if offshore oil exploration ever proves fruitful.

Mr Boulkheir also enjoys the kudos of having being jailed three times by Mauritania’s former military dictatorship for advocating democracy when that looked impossible in the 1990s.

Arabic-speakers as well as black Africans back his bid for power, attracted by his promise of building democracy after years of economic stagnation under military misrule and a chaotic series of coups. He is regarded as the candidate with the best chance of ending conflict between the black majority and the Berber ruling elite. Slave-holding has been abolished three times, first by the country’s former French overlords and then twice by different rulers of the independent state, most recently in 2007. But the law has never been enforced and no slave owner has ever been prosecuted.

“Many slaves have been freed in Mauritania now, and if I am elected I will speed up the process,” Mr Boulkheir said. “Slave owners will be punished, for the first time in our history. Justice will be implemented.

“I will do everything in my power to end this curse of slavery.”

In this, he has a deeply personal motivation. Soon after he was born his mother was beaten almost to death by the master from whom his parents had run away. They only managed to escape to freedom because of help from the French authorities.

Their son overcame the handicap of his birth to find a job as a civil servant and rise to a senior rank.

He knows that ending slavery will not prove easy, especially in the vastness of the Sahara where pastoralists and nomads endure a harsh existence which has barely been touched by the modern world.

Not all slaves suffer abuse. If they are lucky, masters feed and care for them as if they are family members, albeit inferior ones, and they will eat and pray with their slaves.

In bondage, the Haratine work as labourers: herding animals; working in date groves; or doing the household chores while the master’s family laze around.

Centuries of indoctrination have persuaded the Sahara’s captives that slavery is religiously ordained – slaves are taught that if they run away they will be barred from heaven. As a local saying puts it: “Paradise is under your master’s foot.” In some remote places a runaway will still be hunted down by nomad masters.

If they are brave enough, boys do often escape when they reach their late teens, but for women and children it is much harder. They know that with no skills or education a life of hunger or prostitution is the realistic alternative to captivity, and many escaped slaves return to their masters to beg forgiveness.

In the oasis towns of the desert masters are still powerful, but after 20 years of international pressure – and encouraged by such Western organisations as Anti-Slavery International, which help local campaigners to challenge the entrenched culture – few are prepared to discuss slavery openly.

A Berber driver, who would only give his first name, Mohammed, defended slavery. “It is our religion and custom,” he said.

“Why does the international community try to stop it? The slaves are better off with their masters. This is their fate. When they leave, they starve.”