The Bafours were primarily agricultural, and among the first Saharan people to abandon their historically nomadic lifestyle. With the gradual desiccation of the Sahara, they headed south.
Many of the Berber tribes claimed Yemeni (and sometimes other Arab) origins. There is little evidence to support such claims, but a 2000 DNA study of Yemeni people suggested there might be some ancient connection between the peoples.
Other peoples also migrated south past the Sahara to West Africa. In 1076, Moorish Islamic warrior monks (Almoravid or Al Murabitun) attacked and conquered the large area of the ancient Ghana Empire.
Over the next 500 years, Arabs overcame fierce resistance from the local population (Berber and non-Berber alike) to dominate Mauritania.
The Char Bouba war (1644–74) was the unsuccessful final effort of the peoples to repel the Yemeni Maqil Arab invaders. The invaders were led by the Beni Hassan tribe.
The descendants of the Beni Hassan warriors became the upper stratum of Moorish society. Hassaniya, a bedouin Arabic dialect that derives its name from the Beni Hassan, became the dominant language among the largely nomadic population.
Berbers retained a niche influence by producing the majority of the region’s marabouts: those who preserve and teach Islamic tradition.
Colonial history and present day
Imperial France[vague] gradually absorbed the territories of present-day Mauritania from the Senegal River area and northwards, starting in the late 19th century.
In 1901, Xavier Coppolani took charge of the imperial mission. Through a combination of strategic alliances with Zawaya tribes, and military pressure on the Hassane warrior nomads, he managed to extend French rule over the Mauritanian emirates.
Trarza, Brakna and Tagant have been occupied by the French armies in 1903–04, but the northern emirate of Adrar held out longer, aided by the anti-colonial rebellion (or jihad) of shaykh Maa al-Aynayn, as well by insurgents from Tagant and the other regions.
Adrar was finally defeated militarily in 1912, and incorporated into the territory of Mauritania, which had been drawn up and planned in 1904. Mauritania was part of French West Africa from 1920, as a protectorate and, then, a colony.
French rule brought legal prohibitions against slavery and an end to inter-clan warfare. During the colonial period, 90% of the population remained nomadic. Many sedentary peoples, whose ancestors had been expelled centuries earlier, began to trickle back into Mauritania.
The previous capital of the country under the French rule, Saint-Louis, was located in Senegal, so when the country gained independence in 1960, Nouakchott, at the time little more than a fortified village (“ksar”), was chosen as the site of the new capital of Mauritania.
After gaining independence, larger numbers of indigenous Sub-Saharan African peoples (Haalpulaar, Soninke, and Wolof) entered Mauritania, moving into the area north of the Senegal River.
Educated in French language and customs, many of these recent arrivals became clerks, soldiers, and administrators in the new state. This occurred as the French militarily suppressed the most intransigent Hassane tribes in the north.
This changed the former balance of power, and new conflicts arose between the southern populations and Moors.
Modern-day slavery still exists in different forms in Mauritania. According to some estimates, thousands of Mauritanians are still enslaved. A 2012 CNN report, “Slavery’s Last Stronghold,” by John D. Sutter, describes and documents the ongoing slave-owning cultures.
This social discrimination is applied chiefly against the “black Moors” (Haratin) in the northern part of the country, where tribal elites among “white Moors” (Bidh’an, Hassaniya-speaking Arabs and Arabized Berbers) hold sway. Slavery practices exist also within the sub-Saharan African ethnic groups of the south.
Nouakchott is the capital and the largest city of Mauritania. It is one of the largest cities in the Sahara.
The great Sahel droughts of the early 1970s caused massive devastation in Mauritania, exacerbating problems of poverty and conflict. The Arabized dominant elites reacted to changing circumstances and to Arab nationalist calls from abroad by increasing pressure to Arabize many aspects of Mauritanian life, such as law and the education system.
This was also a reaction to the consequences of the French domination under the colonial rule. Various models for maintaining the country’s cultural diversity have been suggested, but none were successfully implemented.
This ethnic discord was evident during inter-communal violence that broke out in April 1989 (the “Mauritania–Senegal Border War”), but has since subsided. Mauritania expelled some 70,000 sub-Saharan African Mauritanians in the late 1980s.
Ethnic tensions and the sensitive issue of slavery – past and, in some areas, present – are still powerful themes in the country’s political debate. A significant number from all groups seek a more diverse, pluralistic society.
Issue of Western Sahara
The International Court of Justice has concluded that in spite of some evidence of both Morocco’s and Mauritania’s legal ties prior to Spanish colonization, neither set of ties were sufficient to affect the application of the UN General Assembly Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples to Western Sahara.
Mauritania, along with Morocco, annexed the territory of Western Sahara in 1976, with Mauritania taking the lower one-third at the request of Spain, a former imperial power.
After several military losses from the Polisario – heavily armed and supported by Algeria, the regional power and rival to Morocco – Mauritania withdrew in 1979. Its claims were taken over by Morocco.
Due to economic weakness, Mauritania has been a negligible player in the territorial dispute, with its official position being that it wishes for an expedient solution that is mutually agreeable to all parties.
While most of Western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco, the UN still considers the Western Sahara a territory that needs to express its wishes with respect to statehood.
A referendum is still supposed to be held sometime in the future, under UN auspices, to determine whether or not the indigenous Sahrawis wish to be independent, as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, or to be part of Morocco.
Ould Daddah era (1960–1978)
Mauritania became an independent nation in November 1960. In 1964 President Moktar Ould Daddah, originally installed by the French, formalized Mauritania as a one-party state with a new constitution, setting up an authoritarian presidential regime.
Daddah’s own Parti du Peuple Mauritanien (PPM) became the ruling organization in a one-party system.
The President justified this on the grounds that Mauritania was not ready for western-style multi-party democracy. Under this one-party constitution, Daddah was reelected in uncontested elections in 1976 and 1978.
He was ousted in a bloodless coup on 10 July 1978. He had brought the country to near-collapse through a disastrous war to annex the southern part of Western Sahara, framed as an attempt to create a Greater Mauritania.
CMRN and CMSN military governments (1978–1984)
Col. Mustafa Ould Salek’s CMRN junta proved incapable of either establishing a strong base of power or extracting the country from its destabilizing conflict with the Sahrawi resistance movement, the Polisario Front. It quickly fell, to be replaced by another military government, the CMSN.
The energetic Colonel Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidallah soon emerged as its strongman. By giving up all claims to Western Sahara, he found peace with the Polisario and improved relations with its main backer, Algeria.
But relations with Morocco, the other party to the conflict, and its European ally France deteriorated. Instability continued, and Haidallah’s ambitious reform attempts foundered.
His regime was plagued by attempted coups and intrigue within the military establishment. It became increasingly contested due to his harsh and uncompromising measures against opponents; many dissidents were jailed, and some executed. In 1981 slavery was formally legally abolished by a specific law, making Mauritania the last country in the world to do so.