MAURITANIA: SLAVERY, ETHNIC CLEANSING, DEMOCRATIC OPPOSITION
Voices of the African Liberation Forces of Mauritania (FLAM)
by Bill Weinberg
The Aug. 3 coup d'etat in Mauritania brought this West African nation briefly into the headlines. But the African Liberation Forces of Mauritania (FLAM) have been struggling for over a generation to bring democracy and equal rights for the Black African peoples of the country's south, who are disenfranchised from power by the ruling Arab political class. These peoples have been expropriated of their lands, forced into refugee camps, and even sold into slavery—a system which thrives with impunity. The situation mirrors that in Sudan, but has received far less media attention. Now, however, the stationing of US Special Forces troops in Mauritania to counter supposed Islamic terrorist networks, as well as the recent discovery of oil, give this suffering nation a new strategic importance.
On Aug. 9, Bill Weinberg spoke with Mamadou Barry and Abdarahmane Wone, North American representatives of the FLAM, over the airwaves of WBAI Radio in New York City. They spoke about the long struggle in Mauritania, the prospects after the coup, and the urgent need to bring the situation there to the world's attention.
Bill Weinberg (BW): Your country has been in the news recently because there was just a coup d'etat there, where the president who'd been in power more than twenty years, Maoya Sidi Ahmed Ould Taya, was overthrown exactly a week ago by an entity calling itself the Military Council for Justice and Democracy. And the new leader is apparently Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall. But the FLAM has been opposing the regime for more than twenty years now since it was founded in 1983. Can you tell us a little bit about your struggle and what the new developments in Mauritania might mean for it?
Mamadou Barry (MB): Good morning to everyone. My name is Mamadou Barry, general secretary of the FLAM. Yes, my organization was founded in March 1983, out of the need of answering the discrimination and slavery. It was targeted to fight the system of racial discrimination in Mauritania. Our country was colonized by France, but we got them out in 1960. But then the political and economic power was maintained by the Arab part of Mauritania. And the black population was subjected to racial discrimination. So from that time there was a need for blacks to do something to be liberated. Its not just one government but a system; we've had several governments from 1960 to today, but its almost the same people who are ruling the country. What the coup d'etat will mean for Blacks and really for all Mauritanians: it is the same situation as of today, because we have seen no signs to make us optimistic about what will happen in the new future.
BW: Are you at least guardedly optimistic about the change of government there?
MB: We are happy to see one of the most racist and dictatorial regimes gone, but there have been so many, its like a chain. But one gone may be a sign of hope for change. We'll see, we'll see...
BW: The new ruler, Col. Vall, seems to be from the same political elite class as the overthrown ruler Taya; they were very close until recently, in fact.
MB: What's amusing is that the new president was the former head of state security under Taya, so everything happening in Mauritania had to go through him.
BW: Right. There's been an awful lot in the news over the last year or so about Darfur, in Sudan, which is somewhat analogous, with an Arabized elite pushing the indigenous black Africans from their lands. Its been a similar dynamic in Mauritania, albeit in recent years perhaps with less violence. But there was a period in the late 1980s, I understand, when there where forced deportations, with over a 100,000 people displaced, villages burned...
Abdarahmane Wone (AW): There was a policy of building a system in which blacks would be second class citizens, since our independence in 1960 up to now, all the dictators have worked on building this system. And in 1989 what happened is in order to have fewer blacks in Mauritania and to keep the fertile land in the south, the racist government, helped by Saddam Hussein, decided to deport more than 120,000 people from Mauritania to Senegal and Mali. Those people, my people, are still living in refugee camps in those countries. And today we're talking about a change of president, but those people still can not come home.
BW: So 15 years later there are still over 120,000 in refuge camps?
AW: Its hard to say if the number is still 120,000. Part of the program was to deprive them of food to make them move, to go back to Mauritania, without their lands, and accept being second-class citizens. So it's very hard to say how many there are now. But there are many refugees in both Senegal and Mali.
BW: Still people living in camps?
AW: Still living in camps. Mauritania is facing three problems. The first is the deportations of native blacks from the south. The second is slavery. Thirty percent of our population are still slaves.
BW: Thirty percent!?
AW: Yes, thirty percent. They are descended from what we call Haratin. And nobody seems to care about it!
BW: Which means what?
AW: That is the Arab word—Haratin means you are a slave! And the further problem in Mauritania is dictatorship. How can you talk about democracy when a dictator like Taya has been in power since 1984? How can you talk about democracy when over 120,000 people cannot go back to their homes? Even, how can we talk about democracy when 30% of the population are enslaved?
BW: What were the actual mechanics of the deportations in the late 1980s?
MB: You talked earlier about Darfur and Sudan, there are many similarities. There is a general philosophy among certain Arabs, that they must be the masters of blacks. In 1968 or '67 there was publicity in newspapers even in the Persian Gulf encouraging Arabs to go to Mauritania, because there is land there. Yes, there are blacks on that land, but the blacks there have no right to it. So its deep, its not just a Mauritanian philosophy but an idea going back to Arab nationalism and imported to Mauritania and Sudan. We can say that only Mauritania and Sudan are practicing slavery in all of Africa right now, and it is a system of Arab enslaving black. So that's something deep.
You asked about the deportations. There were two reasons: political and economic. First the political reasons. It was in 1986 that FLAM published a manifesto that showed all the problems of Mauritania—racial issues, slavery issues—and we asked that the government dialogue with the people to find solutions to those issues. From then on our leaders were arrested, and some of them died in jail. In 1987, some black military officers were accused of attempting a coup d'etat and three were executed. In 1989 a conflict between Senegalese farmers and Mauritanian cattle-herders escalated and Mauritanian soldiers began shooting Senegalese; it became a real war. Now, if the problem was just between Mauritania and Senegal, black Mauritanians would not have been deported. But the Mauritanian government used this conflict, and began the deportations. When black farmers began to be arrested in the south along with FLAM members, the education of the people began, and people began to talk about the cultural, social, and economic problems in Mauritania. So the Mauritanian government used this conflict and started to deport black Mauritanians into Senegal.
BW: Yes, but with what justification? What was the rationale for this?
MB: The Mauritanian government claims it deported no one. They said that to protect the Senegalese population, they had to send them back to Senegal to be safe.
BW: So these were people originally from Senegal who came across the border and began colonizing land in Mauritania?
AW: All the people who were deported were from Mauritania! The conflict between Mauritania and Senegal could have been worked out peacefully, but the Mauritanian military regime was looking for an excuse to deport its own population. They took advantage of the war to deport over 120,000 of our own people, people who'd historically lived in Mauritania since before the 11th century, which is to say...
BW: Before the arrival of the Arabs, in other words.
AW: Yes, before the arrival of the Arabs. We inhabited Mauritania at least seven centuries before the arrival of the Arabs. We do not see ourselves as superior to Arabs, we do not favor black supremacy; we just want equality between all Mauritanians. But unfortunately, coming back to pan-Arabism and the international Baath party—they want to see Arabic become the first language in all the world.
BW: You mean the Baath party as in Iraq and Syria?
BW: So you're using that as a sort of short hand for the ideology of Arab nationalism.
AW: Exactly. And Taya followed this ideology. They said everyone must speak Arabic and that everyone must be an Arab in Mauritania. That's why they have—and continue to deport blacks in the south, and to destroy their culture and identity, to Arabize them.
BW: And most of those deported were of the Fulani, Wolof, Bambara ethnicites...
AW: And Soninke. Listen, we are not against Arabs, but we believe the Mauritanian government is using Arabic supremacy to isolate and deport blacks. And at one time this dirty war was helped and made possible by Saddam Hussein. He was the one who economically, financially, and militarily supported the regime to achieve it. He said, after helping deport 120,000; you know what he said to our president? "You know what we'd do if we were smart? We'd kill these people instead of deporting them, because once they're deported they'll continue to claim their rights."
BW: Saddam Hussein said this?!
AW: Saddam Hussein said it. He said it in the 1990s when his ally was Taya. Taya was forced to switch because Saddam was defeated in the first Gulf War. That's why Taya dropped him as an ally, and gave up his pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism.
BW: Yes, and became much closer with the United States and Israel.
AW: Yes, but he only did it to save his skin, certainly not because he believes in democracy, liberty or equality.
BW: So it was under Taya that the deportations began.
AW: Yes. He came to power on Dec. 12, 1984, and from 1984 until last week he was the one leading, or misleading, the country and creating division between Mauritanians.
BW: One of the bitterest ironies of the 1980s deportations was that some of it was done under the guise of land redistribution and agrarian reform.
MB: Yes, that was the economic motivation. Since 1973 we've had the drought. And because of it, only the south of Mauritania is fertile. You can grow corn, sorghum, or anything like that. These lands where owned by blacks. How do you get the lands? You deport the blacks and redistribute the land to Arabs. They have access to money from Arabic banks and they could use the money to improve the land.
BW: Apparently there was an order #83-127 which was given by the regime the year before Taya came to power that said that unused land could be redistributed. This of course is an old trick used in many countries to steal indigenous lands. A field is left fallow for a year to recover, so the government claims it's unused. And I understand that that was the mechanism by which land was transferred from black Africans to Arabs. But what was the role of the banks? There were several prominent banks in North Africa that financed this transfer of land, but I don't imagine that the people whose land was stolen were reimbursed. How were the banks involved?
MB: The banks financed the plan, the system itself. The government told black farmers to use all their land, but many didn't have the resources to do so. Arab banks wouldn't lend money to black farmers, but would lend it to the Arabs who took the land.
BW: So the money was going to Arab farmers to whom the land had been redistributed, for fertilizer, seed, irrigation, that sort of thing.
MB: Its not even accurate to say the Arabs are farmers. They use their money to buy slaves, workers, overseers; they don't even see the farm, they just wait for the profits to come in.
AW: We don't have a problem with that order, but that it's been unequally applied. A black from the south can't go to the north and just claim a piece of unused land, but an Arab can go to the south and do so with the help of foreign Arab banks. So they take our historical lands, and then the blacks are kept as workers.
Two or three years after that, the deportations began, and now we can't even claim the land because it can only belong to those who can fully exploit it. And the blacks couldn't get money from Arab banks to fully use the land. So its basically another form of apartheid.
BW: And much of that land is still worked by slave labor. How is it possible that in the early 21st century the economy of southern Mauritania is still based on slavery and most of the outside world doesn't know anything about it?
MB: I think its difficult if you have no economic power in this world right now. Nobody sees an economical interest in helping the black farmers. I think foreign governments believe they don't have to act against their self-interest, and the Mauritanian government has been advantageous to foreign powers. The multi-nationals do not care about moral issues but about the money in their pockets. It's a shame, but that's how it works.
AW: Mauritania is little known and plays a very small role in international affairs. Second, it is French-speaking which removes it a little from the English-speaking world. Third, our government is doing everything possible to keep this from becoming known. The government says that Mauritania is a democracy and that we don't want foreign intervention. And that's why we are calling on all people who believe in justice, we are calling on all Americans to mobilize. We want the world to know that there are people in Mauritania in 2005 who still are slaves. And I believe the struggle against racism and slavery in Mauritania shouldn't be left to Mauritanians alone. It must be an international struggle.
MB: The Mauritanian government has used bribes and threats to keep other governments silent on the issue. They have militarily threatened Senegal, and they have threatened Mali with support for the Tuareg rebellion there. Its difficult to go to the UN because usually you need a government to have your voice heard, and right now the other black African nations don't say anything. And many government actively help the Mauritanian government at the UN—the other Arab nations, especially Morocco, and also China and France.
MB: China, yes. Why? Because they are violating human rights in Tibet.
BW: Ah, and they don't want to set a precedent. So what is the structure of slavery in Mauritania? You speak of the Haratin; is this an historical slave caste which continues to exist?
AW: Yes, one could say that. They are Black Africans who were captured by Arabs...
BW: We're going back several centuries now?
AW: Yes, several centuries ago.
BW: So you have people today whose ancestors have been in slavery for hundreds of years.
AW: That's the majority of the slave population. But the capturing of blacks is still going on today.
BW: Capturing by whom?
AW: By Arabs. They just come to villages and take people. Not the government exactly, but individual Arabs who believe they have the right to do this.
BW: So land-owners, local political bosses, what have you—and the government just tolerates it?
AW: They just tolerate it. When I was a child I was always warned to be very careful coming home so that I wouldn't be captured by Arabs. In the West, people think it's Muslims versus Muslims, so its not something they have to care about. But it is human beings being enslaved, and that every person must do what he or she can to try and free these people. Islam is used by the Arabs to enslave us. I am Muslim but I respect all religions. I am Muslim and I tolerate everybody. I am a Muslim and that's why I am fighting for my freedom. There is a misuse of religion in Mauritania.
And I was very surprised to read that the Taya regime was collaborating with the American regime to fight against terrorism. The terrorist number-one in this world is Taya!
BW: This brings us to the final point which is the ongoing dictatorship. You know it's very interesting—Taya started out with a very strong anti-West posture; he was very close to Saddam and Mommar Qadaffi in Libya. And then some time in the 1990s he flipped, he betrayed Saddam and got very close with the US and Israel, which was very unpopular with the Islamists. In fact, there has recently been a crackdown on Islamists in which several have been arrested, although I believe some of them were released by the new regime just last week. He also invited in a contingent from the US 10th Special Forces Group in 2003 to train the Mauritanian military to patrol the vast open spaces in the north, which is supposedly being used to infiltrate in terrorist groups from Algeria and so on. So it's an interesting game he's played to remain on top. It seems like it hasn't worked out that well for him at the moment. But just yesterday he made a statement from Niger, where he's in exile, asking the military to rise up and have a counter-coup, and put him back in power. And of course the African Union is refusing to recognize the new junta, and I don't believe the US has recognized it either. So its going to be interesting to see what happens next.
MB: Everything Taya did was in response to the opposition. He held an election in 1991-2. Why? Because France said that Africa must become democratic and because FLAM was starting to influence people outside the country for reform. He said that FLAM was supported by Israel to discredit us; he had to stop saying that after he flipped and established diplomatic relations with Israel! After 9-11, Taya saw the opportunity to make friends with the US. Every US State Department report from 1990 on painted Mauritania as a slave state, so they knew they had do something to improve their image. I think they made up the terrorist threat in the north; it is a creation of the regime to win the support of the United States. I think if there is terrorism in Mauritania it's sponsored by the government, because nothing can happen there without government approval. Its not a big country, it has about three million inhabitants.
BW: And yet several people have been jailed for ties to Islamic militancy recently...
AW: Those who were jailed were just his ex-comrades! He just picked a few of them to jail as terrorists in order to save his own skin. What I want to explain is that the government and those is jail were both against us. When it comes to protecting the slave system and depriving us of our land and rights, they are all together. We are struggling against them without violence. Why? Because they want FLAM to become violent, or to have a war with a neighboring country so they'll have an excuse to exterminate all the blacks in Mauritania. That's why we keep calling for a peaceful resolution.
BW: And it should be pointed out that there have been no terrorist attacks in Mauritania; what they're claiming is that terrorist groups are recruiting for the insurgency in Iraq and so on. Why don't you tell us about the history of FLAM. You were founded in 1983, correct?
AW: Exactly, in 1983. FLAM is a coalition of four political organizations that came together in 1983 to defend our agenda.
BW: What are the four political organizations?
AW: Movement des Eleves Noir, L'Organization Pour la Defence des Interets des Negro-Africans de Mauritanie or LODINAM, Organization Popular des Africans de Mauritanie, and Lignee Democratique de Mauritanie. They were all fighting against racism. I was only 10 years old. The FLAM manifesto was a call, a call not to violence but for a discussion, for all Mauritanians to talk about what's happening. We believe Arabs and blacks must sit down together and discuss what kind of country must be built. Unfortunately, the regime responded by saying, "Wow, now blacks are claiming something in this country, they need to be jailed." And that was the reaction, they sent our leaders to a bad prison named Walata and many of them died there. The best Mauritanian writer lost his life in prison. His name was Tene Youssouf Gueye, and he died in prison.
BW: Just due to the harsh conditions?
AW: The harsh conditions led to his death, as for many others.
BW: He was a poet?
AW: He was a poet, a writer, an educated man who loved his people, and who never talked about violence. The violence was always done to us. By the way, I should thank an American scholar whose named Samuel Cotton whose been to Mauritania and has written a good book about the slavery and racism. Sadly he's passed on.
BW: Do you know the name of his book?
AW: Silent Terror. It's a very interesting book. Unfortunately he died recently.
BW: In 1989 when the deportations began, what was FLAM doing in this period?
MB: At that time the main leaders were in jail, and it was the students who went to Senegal and began educating people about what was going on in Mauritania and using the deportations to demonstrate the nature of the Mauritanian government. In 1982 when we started, we were talking about how few blacks were in government, how language was used as a weapon against us. But after the land law was passed in 1983, the racist nature of the government was very obvious. That was the issue that brought our four constituent organizations together to fight racism and slavery. 1989 was just a further step in the same process. From then on if you said "apartheid in Mauritania" people understood what it was,
BW: So was there armed was resistance to the deportations in 1989?
MB: No, not in 1989. Maybe a year later, because the people were so desperate. The government said FLAM was an extremist organization calling for armed struggle. But it is a principle of morality and of international law that at some point if you cannot get your rights, you use whatever you can. Many of the deported left their cattle behind in Mauritania and wanted to go back to recuperate them, so at there were small confrontations. Some of the violence was used to discredit FLAM. But the armed resistance has been suspended.
AW: There is no way to discuss with the government. We kept asking them, but they never were willing to sit down and talk. So we said, Now its our duty to defend ourselves. The deportations were accompanied by human rights violations. You cant watch your wife or sister be raped by soldiers without doing anything. So the armed resistance was just to say, "No, enough is enough!"
Later, in 1992, when the regime began talking about democratization we said, "Good, we're in favor of democratization!" Unfortunately the democratization was just another bait and switch so he could keep ruling the country, so that he wouldn't have to address the real issues which are slavery, racism, deportation, and mass killing. The deportees can't return to the country because all their identification documents were taken. We have no documents to take to court to reclaim our property. The regime just playing with us, and that's what they did until last week.
As for this new regime, we don't know yet. I always say that the situation in Mauritania is similar to the situation in South Africa. If Ely Ould Mohamed Vall is smart enough he will try to be the Mauritanian de Klerk and not the Mauritanian PW Botha. But I'm still very pessimistic because he didn't call for the resolution of this matter. We still need all the deported to be able to come home, and to be paid.
BW: Paid meaning reparations.
AW: Yes, reparations for the deported, for the enslaved. And we want a discussion between all Mauritanians about what kind of country we want to build.
BW: Does FLAM have any presence within Mauritania, or is it mostly the exile community?
AW: We have an open presence in the exile community. Mauritania is our country, but we are underground there. But still today FLAM is the organization that has been fighting racism, slavery, and dictatorship the longest, and we will keep fighting through successive regimes until Mauritania accepts to build a democratic country. What is democracy? Complete equality between all Mauritanians.
And what we want is to have peace. I believe Africa is too tired. It is time to free our country and to go to work. We don't want violence, we don't want hunger—we have a lot of things to do. We are far, far, far behind! Our continent is far behind! It's time to stop it!
BW: Another unfortunate reason that this area, the West African Sahel, has been in the headlines recently is the threat of mass starvation. It seems that Niger has been hit hardest, where crops were wiped out by locusts. Aid groups are also saying that assistance is urgently needed for Mali and Mauritania as well. I wonder what you've heard about how bad this is? I'm guessing its mostly in the arid region in the north, but how badly has the south been affected?
AW: I've just come from the refugee camps in Senegal where people are suffering. The agriculture throughout the region is still very primitive, and depends on the rain, and it hasn't been raining. But I believe the problem of Africa in general is a problem of leadership. We have to have the leaders we deserve, leaders who will really be there for everybody and not just for themselves. There are many leaders who really don't care about their people being hungry. We have lots of resources in Africa, these resources just need to be well-organized.
MB: As to the hunger, unfortunately people never hear about it until people are dying. And it is the refugees who suffer the most because they don't have any help or any land. They have no means to get food. They used to get help from the UN, but ever since 1992 the governments of Mauritania and Senegal have been trying to cut off all outside help to the refugees, including food, medicine, education. They hope that if they cut the refugees off they'll cross back into Mauritania.
The UN helped from 1989 to 1992. But then Mauritania promised democratic reforms and convinced the UN the refugees could return. That's why we don't know the exact number of refugees. They send people to the camps to do counts, but if you're absent for five minutes your name will not be taken.
BW: So the regime was legitimized with an election in 1994?
MB: Yes, in 1992 they began to speak about democratic reforms, but they kept doing the same thing. This allowed the Western governments and other African countries to imagine there was some kind of close in this situation and that the refugees could return to Mauritania. But what wasn't mentioned was that when elections were held FLAM wasn't accepted as a party.
BW: FLAM was barred from running candidates.
MB: Yes, the excuse they gave was that FLAM was an extremist organization and only black people are members. And FLAM said that the elections weren't acceptable before you address the question of the refugees, and give people their lands and their jobs back. Then the main opposition candidate, a former president, was arrested a few days before the election, on charges of plotting a coup. So of course Taya won.
To return to the famine, if there is starvation in the region the refugees will be the most affected. I think what the Senegalese are trying to do is to force the refugees to take citizenship, which is also what the Mauritanian government wants. But the refugees want to go home to Mauritania because that's their home.
BW: We should also point out that this part of the world which hasn't received very much media attention is becoming more strategic. In addition to the US military coming in, there's also the oil that's just been discovered off the coast of Mauritania, and foreign companies are bidding for rights in the offshore zone. And they say West Africa could become very strategic in the 21st century in terms of global oil resources.
AW: Yes, that's right. The oil should be a way to help those who are starving and to keep our country safe, democra