The Islamic Republic of Mauritania

POPULATION: 3.970 million (2014)

AREA: 397,953 sq. mi. (1,030,700 sq. km)

LANGUAGES: Hasaniya Arabic, French (both official); Wolof, Pular, Soninke

NATIONAL CURRENCY: Ouguiya

PRINCIPAL RELIGIONS: Muslim, nearly 100%

CITIES: Nouakchott (capital), 735,000 (1995 est.); Atar, Zouérate, Kaédi, Nouadhibou

ANNUAL RAINFALL: Varies from less than 20 in. (500 mm) in the south to less than 4 in. (100 mm) in the northern desert region

ECONOMY: GDP $5.061 billion (2014)

PRINCIPAL PRODUCTS AND EXPORTS:

  • Agricultural: dates, millet, sorghum, root crops, livestock, fish, corn, rice, beans
  • Manufacturing: fish processing, petroleum refining, textiles, plastics and chemicals production
  • Mining: iron ore, copper, gypsum, gold

GOVERNMENT: Independence from France, 1960. Republic with president elected by universal suffrage. Governing bodies: Senate and National Assembly (legislative bodies), Council of Ministers and prime minister appointed by the president.

HEADS OF STATE SINCE INDEPENDENCE:

  • 1960–1978 Prime Minister Mokhtar Ould Daddah (elected president in 1961)
  • 1978–1979 Lieutenant Colonel Mustapha Ould Mohammed Salek
  • 1979–1980 Prime Minister Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed Khouna Ould Haidalla and Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed Mahmoud Ould Louly
  • 1980–1984 Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed Khouna Ould Haidalla
  • 1984– President Colonel Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya

ARMED FORCES: 15,700

EDUCATION: Compulsory for ages 6–12; literacy rate 38%

The Islamic Republic of Mauritania

A former French colony, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania is a large, thinly populated nation that borders the Atlantic Ocean in western Africa. Geographically, it connects the MAGHREB in North Africa and the coastal regions of West Africa. It also forms a link between the cultures of Arab North Africa and of sub-Saharan Africa.

Geography and Economy

The northern, central, and eastern regions of Mauritania—more than half of the country’s land area—are part of the SAHARA DESERT. These arid regions consist of vast stretches of sandy plains and dunes occasionally broken by rocky peaks and plateaus. South of the Sahara region is the SAHEL, a semidesert area of scattered grasses, low-growing bushes, and stunted trees. The most fertile and inhabitable region of the country is a small area in the extreme southwest along the Senegal River.

Mauritania’s dry climate makes agriculture very difficult, except in areas along the Senegal River and at oases in the desert. Fertile soil and water from the river support farming, although much of it is merely subsistence farming. Among the major food crops are rice, corn, dates, sorghum, and millet. At oases, scattered throughout the desert, groups of nomadic peoples who move from place to place with their livestock sometimes grow a few crops. The economy of Mauritania’s Sahel region is based primarily on the raising of cattle, sheep, goats, and camels.

Small-scale trading has always been an important economic activity in Mauritania, with goods generally moving between North Africa and the coastal regions of West Africa. Mining and fishing are the most important of the nation’s industrial activities. Much of the mining occurs in the Sahara region, which has plentiful deposits of iron ore and copper. The fishing industry, based along the Atlantic coast, accounts for about half of the country’s export income.

In recent years Mauritania’s traditional agricultural and livestock activities have failed to support the nation’s population. Moreover, much of the country suffers from periodic droughts, which have had a severe impact on agriculture. Since the 1970s Mauritania has been largely dependent on food imports to feed its people. The nation also relies heavily on other types of foreign aid and assistance.

History and Government

Mauritania was originally inhabited by BERBERS in the north and black Africans in the south. When the Muslim Arabs conquered North Africa, they established trade routes across Mauritania and spread Islam throughout the region. In the A.D. 1000s the center of the empire of Ghana was located in Mauritania, and in the 1300s and 1400s Mauritania was part of the empire of MALI.

The first Europeans to visit Mauritania were the Portuguese, who established forts and trading posts along the Atlantic coast in the mid-1400s. Later the Dutch, French, and British joined in the competition for trade in the region. France finally gained control of Mauritania in the 1800s, and in 1903 it became a French protectorate.

At first Mauritania was governed as part of the French colony of SENEGAL, and the Senegalese town of St. Louis served as the colonial capital. In 1920 Mauritania became a separate colony within the administrative federation of FRENCH WEST AFRICA. Throughout the colonial period, the French did little to develop the economy of Mauritania or to educate its people.

After World War II INDEPENDENCE MOVEMENTS arose in Mauritania, and in 1958 France granted the colony self-government. Two years later Mauritania gained full independence from France and adopted a system of government headed by a president. The nation’s first president, Mokhtar Ould Daddah, ruled from 1961 until his overthrow by the military in 1978. Between 1978 and 1992 Mauritania was governed by a succession of military regimes. Some attempts at political and social reform took place during this period, but for the most part the nation’s rulers pursued harsh policies that restricted freedoms.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Mauritania faced several problems, including tensions between black Africans in the south and the Arab-Berber population in the north. These tensions arose primarily from a rivalry between the two groups as each sought to dominate the country’s government and its economy. In the 1970s Mauritania became involved in a conflict over the fate of Spanish Sahara (now known as WESTERN SAHARA). Mauritania and MOROCCO each laid claim to different portions of the former Spanish colony, provoking a highly destructive guerrilla war. Armed by ALGERIA, groups fighting for the region’s independence waged a devastating campaign across Mauritania. Focusing their attacks on the country’s iron mines and railroads, the rebels effectively crippled the nation.

Beginning in the 1970s, a source of great conflict in Mauritania has been the policy of “Arabization,” by which the government took steps to strengthen Arab culture and increase links with Arab nations in North Africa. This policy has been bitterly resisted by the nation’s black population. It contributed to growing political unrest that erupted in violence several times in the 1980s and early 1990s. In 1989 the racial and ethnic tensions in Mauritania spilled over into a crisis with neighboring Senegal. Several hundred Mauritanians and Senegalese were killed and tens of thousands of people fled the two countries to avoid the violence.

Increasing demands for political reform led to the adoption of a new constitution in 1991 and to multiparty elections the following year. The newly elected government began taking steps to bring greater political and economic stability to the nation and to improve its relations with Senegal and other neighboring countries. Despite these efforts, many problems remain and Mauritania still faces political and social unrest as well as economic uncertainty. The country’s Arabization policies continue, and Mauritania remains more closely linked to the Arab nations of North Africa than to the countries of sub-Saharan Africa.

People and Culture

More than two-thirds of Mauritania’s population are Moors. Half of them are of mixed Arab and Berber ancestry; the other half are black Africans. Traditionally, the Moors have been nomads, moving from place to place with their cattle, camels, and other livestock. The remainder of Mauritania’s people are black Africans, including members of the FULANI, Tukulor, Soninke, and WOLOF groups.

Most live in the southernmost part of the country. For the past few decades, Mauritania has faced serious racial and ethnic conflicts between Moors and black Africans. These conflicts grew out of a history of blacks being held as slaves by the Moors, which ended only in the 1960s. Nearly 80 percent of Mauritania’s population live in the southwest, where the capital city of Nouakchott is located. About one-quarter of the people are still nomads. Traditionally, the nomads, farmers, and ranchers have depended on one another for trade and food. Several factors, including changes in agricultural patterns and serious droughts in the Sahel, have caused the number of nomads to decline in recent years, and many have settled permanently in farming villages, towns, and cities. (See also Colonialism in Africa, Deserts and Drought, Islam in AfricaLivestock Grazing, North Africa: History and Cultures, Sudanic Empires of Western Africa.)