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Mauritania - History

Mauritania History

It's difficult to imagine now, but Mauritania once had large lakes, rivers and enough vegetation to support an abundance of elephants, rhinos and hippos. There is also evidence of human habitation in the form of arrow heads and rock drawings linked to the ancient Bafour people. This all came to a grinding halt when the Sahara began spreading about 10,000 years ago.

Around the 3rd century the camel was introduced to the Berbers in Morocco. For Mauritania, this significant event meant the arrival of the nomads, who were able to cover longer distances with camels as they traded salt - and later gold and slaves - throughout the Western Sahara. In the 9th and 10th centuries the first empire in West Africa emerged. Known as the Empire of Ghana, it had its capital in southwest Mauritania. The Berbers who had settled in the region were reduced to vassals by their nomadic rulers.

Islam began spreading throughout the region at this time also. One group, the Almoravids, gained control over the Berbers and established a capital in Marrakesh from where they ruled all of north-west Africa as well as southern Spain. In 1076 they pushed southwards and, with the assistance of Mauritanian Berbers, destroyed the Empire of Ghana. Islam then spread more quickly and freely than before. So vast was the new empire that it effectively split in two with one centre in Morocco and the other ruled by the Berbers of Mauritania. This southern Empire was defeated by the Arabs in 1674; the mix of cultures gave rise to the Moors, and to their stratified caste system.

From the 15th century on, Africa suffered much abuse at the hands of Europeans who were hungry for gold, slaves and other resources. Mauritania escaped relatively unscathed - no depopulation due to slavery, no reorientation of the economy to cash crops, no stripping of precious minerals. Sand, it seems, wasn't a hot commodity. In 1814, France gained the right to control the Mauritanian coast and, after playing one Moorish faction off another, established the colonial territory of Mauritania in 1904.

The French were so busy attempting to subjugate the Moors in the north and worrying about colonialism in other parts of the world that they totally missed Mauritania's huge iron ore deposits until just before Mauritania gained independence in 1960. With independence came the declaration of an Islamic republic, the establishment of a new capital and an increase in industrialisation. The iron mines were operated by an overseas consortium, but they paid the local workers handsomely. A two month strike in the late 1960s resulted in a clash involving the army, leaving eight miners dead. This led to the formation in 1973 of a clandestine Marxist union. Facing increased challenges from left-wingers in 1974, President Ould Daddah nationalised the mining company and introduced the nation's own currency, the ouguiya, in place of the CFA (African franc).

Another crisis, involving the breaking up of Spanish Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania, led to the toppling of the government in the late 1970s. Production of iron fell sharply, the army was increased from 1800 troops to 17,000, and acts of sabotage by the Polisario Front (a guerrilla group backed by Algeria, Libya and Cuba supporting an independent Western Sahara) became commonplace. Following a coup in 1978, all Mauritanian claims to Western Sahara were renounced, although the region remains in some dispute to this day. The new regime was unable to kick-start the economy again, and, in 1984, another coup occurred with military support.

With the land struggle as a backdrop, Mauritania also had an ugly internal battle in the late 1980s. After Moorish camels were seen grazing on land owned by Soninké, Africans of Senegalese origin, a fight occurred in which two Soninké were killed. Riots broke out in Senegal with Mauritanian shops attacked. In Mauritania the Moors retaliated with a program of rape, genocide, maimings, seizure of land, deportations and Gestapo-style raids. Senegalese nationals were the main target, but Mauritanians of Pulaar descent were fair game as well, and many took refuge in embassies and with the UN. Entire villages were rounded up and deposited in the desert without food or water. Morocco, France, Algeria and Spain sent planes to rescue these now-homeless Mauritanians, who were then 'sent home' to Senegal - a country most had never visited. In total, almost 100,000 people crossed the border to Senegal.

As the government became more xenophobic, closing the Senegal border, aid organisations packed their bags. Only Islamic neighbours continued to assist a Mauritania in its self-imposed exile from the rest of the world. In the early 1990s, with Iraq as its closest ally, Mauritania's government became increasingly extremist, stripping power from and effectively ridding itself of its main rivals, the Black Africans. International condemnation was widespread.

To thwart international criticism, a new constitution permitting multiple parties was established in Mauritania in 1992 (the process has been termed 'controlled democratisation') and the incumbent, Colonel Maaouya Sidi Ahmed Ould Taya, was re-elected, making Mauritania the first member of the Arab League to have elected a head of state by direct universal suffrage. In December 1997 presidential elections were held with Taya winning comfortably after the election was boycotted by the four main opposition groups who feared massive vote-rigging - the reported scale of Taya's victory was questioned by foreign observers.

In 2003, 750,000 people were facing food crisis after consecutive drought. In June that year, there was an attempted coup and two days of violent riots in the capital. Rebels were led by disaffected army chiefs. They managed to take over the presidential palace and several TV and radio stations, but were crushed within a couple of days. It’s thought that the war in Iraq partly provoked the uprising – the government had arrested numerous suspected Islamic extremists a couple of months before, and this served as a trigger. Other factors were discontent over Mauritanian relations with Israel and the US, and the suffering as a result of the famine. Perhaps the ongoing offshore oil exploration (by foreigners, of course) will one day produce a crutch for Mauritania’s economy.

Repatriation of exiled Black Mauritanians haunts the current government. Although attacks on this minority have ceased, they continue to struggle getting jobs, identity cards, loans and their land back. It will be a long road back to political and economic stability for Mauritania, especially if the current régime continues to virtually ignore the problem.

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