The Country & People of Mauritania
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Mauritania, officially Islamic Republic of Mauritania, republic (1995 est. pop. 2,263,000), 397,953 sq mi (1,030,700 sq km), NW Africa. It is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean (W), Western Sahara (N), Algeria (NE), Mali (E and SE), and Senegal (SW). Nouakchott is the capital. Most of the country is low-lying desert, forming part of the Sahara, but some fertile soil is found in the semiarid Sahel of the southwest, along the Senegal R. The economy is divided between a traditional agriculture sector and a modern mining industry developed in the 1960s. Irrigated crops include millet, dates, rice, and sorghum. Stock raising (cattle, sheep, goats, and camels) was sharply reduced by the great drought of the 1970s and 80s. There is a growing fishing industry, based in the Atlantic, and fish processing is important. Shipments of iron ore account for a large portion of export earnings. Nearly a third of the population are nomadic Moors, of Berber and Arab background; another third are mostly Africans, many of whom live as agriculturalists near the Senegal R.; and the rest are of mixed Moor and African descent. Islam is the state religion; Arabic and Wolof are official languages.
Settled by Berbers in the 1st millennium AD, the region was the center of the ancient empire of Ghana (700–1200) and later became part of the empire of Mali (14th–15th cent.). By this time the Sahara had encroached on much of Mauritania, limiting agriculture and reducing the population. In the 1440s Portuguese navigators established a fishing base, and from the 17th cent. European traders dealt in gum arabic along the southern coast. France gained control of S Mauritania in the mid-19th cent., declared a protectorate over the region in 1903, and made it a separate colony in French West Africa in 1920; however, little was done to develop the economy.
Nationalist political activity began after World War II, and Mauritania gained full independence in 1960. A Muslim state was created in 1961 under Makhtar Ould Daddah as president. His rule was troubled by ethnic tensions between the Fulani and the Arab-Berber group, by economic problems aggravated by the severe drought in the Sahel, and by worker-student protests. The military deposed Ould Daddah in 1978, and military governments subsequently ruled the country.
A 1975 agreement with Spain and Morocco giving Mauritania control over the southern third of the Spanish (Western) Sahara ignited a conflict in the former colony. The Polisario Front, a proindependence guerrilla group backed by Algeria, waged war against Mauritanian troops until 1979, when Mauritania renounced its claims to the area and signed a peace treaty with the front. Slavery was only officially abolished in 1980, and racial unrest erupted in the late 1970s and persisted into the 1990s, aggravated by government repression of black Mauritanians.
In 1984 Col. Maouiya Ould Sidi Ahmed Taya became president after a coup. A new constitution approved in 1991 called for an elected president and national assembly, and the government legalized political parties. Taya won election as president in 1992 and 1997, in balloting widely considered to be unfair. In 1993 the United States ended development aid to Mauritania in protest against the country’s oppression of its black citizens and its support of Iraq during the Persian Gulf War; the government subsequently moved toward a pro-Western position.
Taya survived a coup attempt in June, 2003. In the Nov., 2003, presidential elections he received 66.7% of the vote; his nearest challenger, former president Heydalla, almost 19%. Despite new voting safeguards designed to prevent vote-rigging, there were again accusations of fraud. Heydalla was arrested after the election on charges of plotting a coup, which he denied; he received a suspended five-year sentence in December, and as a result of the sentence he lost his political and civil rights for five years. In Aug. and Sept., 2004, Mauritanian officials said they had foiled two more coup plots. At the same time, locusts ravaged a large portion of the nation’s agricultural land, leading to concerns of a possible food crisis.
Copyright (c) 2003 Columbia University Press.
Used by permission of Columbia University Press.
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