Despite being rich in natural resources, Mauritania has a low GDP. A majority of the population still depends on agriculture and livestock for a livelihood, even though most of the nomads and many subsistence farmers were forced into the cities by recurrent droughts in the 1970s and 1980s.
Mauritania has extensive deposits of iron ore, which account for almost 50% of total exports. Gold and copper mining companies are opening mines in the interior.
The country’s first deepwater port opened near Nouakchott in 1986. In recent years, drought and economic mismanagement have resulted in a buildup of foreign debt.
In March 1999, the government signed an agreement with a joint World Bank-International Monetary Fund mission on a $54 million enhanced structural adjustment facility (ESAF). The economic objectives have been set for 1999–2002.
Privatization remains one of the key issues. Mauritania is unlikely to meet ESAF’s annual GDP growth objectives of 4%–5%.
Oil was discovered in Mauritania in 2001 in the offshore Chinguetti field. Although potentially significant for the Mauritanian economy, its overall influence is difficult to predict.
Mauritania has been described as a “desperately poor desert nation, which straddles the Arab and African worlds and is Africa’s newest, if small-scale, oil producer.”
There may be additional oil reserves inland in the Taoudeni basin, although the harsh environment will make extraction expensive.
United Arab Emirates government, via its pilot green city Masdar, announced it will install new solar plants in the city of Atar which will supply an additional 16.6 megawatts of electricity.
The plants will power about 39,000 homes and save 27,850 tonnes of carbon emissions per year.
Human rights in Mauritania
The Abdallahi government was widely perceived as corrupt and restricted access to government information. Sexism, racism, female genital mutilation, child labour, human trafficking, and the political marginalization of largely southern-based ethnic groups continued to be problems. Homosexuality is illegal and is a capital offense in Mauritania.
Following the 2008 coup, the military government of Mauritania faced severe international sanctions and internal unrest. Amnesty International accused it of practicing coordinated torture against criminal and political detainees.
Amnesty has accused the Mauritanian legal system, both before and after the 2008 coup, of functioning with complete disregard for legal procedure, fair trial, or humane imprisonment.
The organization has said that the Mauritanian government has practiced institutionalized and continuous use of torture throughout its post-independence history, under all its leaders.
Slavery in Mauritania
Still today, masters lend their slaves’ labor to other individuals, female slaves are sexually exploited and children are made to work and rarely receive an education.
Slavery particularly affects women and children, who are the most vulnerable among the vulnerable. Women of child-bearing age have a harder time emancipating because they are producers of slave labor and perceived as extremely valuable.
Slavery persists in Mauritania. In 1905, the French colonial administration declared an end of slavery in Mauritania, with very little success.
Although nominally abolished in 1981, it was not illegal to own slaves until 2007. According to the US State Department 2010 Human Rights Report, abuses in Mauritania include:
…mistreatment of detainees and prisoners; security force impunity; lengthy pretrial detention; harsh prison conditions; arbitrary arrests; limits on freedom of the press and assembly; corruption; discrimination against women; female genital mutilation (FGM); child marriage; political marginalization of southern-based ethnic groups; racial and ethnic discrimination; slavery and slavery-related practices; and child labor.
The report continues: “Government efforts were not sufficient to enforce the antislavery law. No cases have been successfully prosecuted under the antislavery law despite the fact that ‘de facto’ slavery exists in Mauritania.”
Only one person, Oumoulmoumnine Mint Bakar Vall, has been prosecuted for owning slaves and she was sentenced to six months in jail in January 2011.
In 2012, it was estimated that 10% to 20% of the population of Mauritania (between 340,000 and 680,000 people) live in slavery.
According to the Global Slavery Index 2014 compiled by Walk Free Foundation, there are an estimated 155,600 enslaved people in Mauritania, ranking it 31st of 167 countries by absolute number of slaves, and 1st by prevalence, with 4% of the population.
The Government ranks 121 of 167 on its response to combating all forms of modern slavery.
The government of Mauritania denies that slavery continues in the country. In an interview, the Mauritanian Minister of rural development, Brahim Ould M’Bareck Ould Med El Moctar, responded to accusations of human rights abuse by stating:
I must tell you that in Mauritania, freedom is total: freedom of thought, equality – of all men and women of Mauritania… in all cases, especially with this government, this is in the past.
There are probably former relationships – slavery relationships and familial relationships from old days and of the older generations, maybe, or descendants who wish to continue to be in relationships with descendants of their old masters, for familial reasons, or out of affinity, and maybe also for economic interests.
But (slavery) is something that is totally finished. All people are free in Mauritania and this phenomenon no longer exists. And I believe that I can tell you that no one profits from this commerce.
Obstacles to ending slavery in Mauritania include:
The difficulty of enforcing any laws in the country’s vast desert
Poverty that limits opportunities for slaves to support themselves if freed
Belief that slavery is part of the natural order of this society
In November 2016, an appeals court in Mauritania overturned the jail convictions of three anti-slavery activists and reduced the sentences of 10 others for their alleged role in a riot in June, Amnesty International said.
Another court had originally sentenced the 15 human rights activists and members of the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) to 15 years in prison.
Qur’an collection in a library in Chinguetti