Mauritania Fights to End Racism

Since it gained its independence from France in 1960 Mauritania has struggled with ethnic tension between the Afro-Mauritanians and so called Arab-Mauritanians. But a new government is trying to reverse the pattern of ethnic division. Two familiar with the situation discuss the conflict.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, just in time for International Women's Day on Saturday, we talk about new efforts to help women achieve financial independence in Africa. And another voice from Kosovo. A filmmaker in the newly independent nation turns the spotlight on the Roma minority and how they fit in into this new country. But first, in our focus on international news, is the West African country of Mauritania.

Since it gained its independence from France in 1960, the country has struggled with ethnic tension between the Afro-Mauritanians and the so-called Arab Mauritanians. In 1989 thousands of black Mauritanians were forced to flee to neighboring Senegal and Mali. That story will be familiar to those who have followed the conflict in Darfur. But now a new government in Mauritania is trying to reverse this pattern of ethnic division and is trying to persuade thousands of those expelled to come back.

Here in the studio is Souleymane Sagna. He's been working with international aid organizations to assist the return of the black Mauritanians. He stopped by on a visit to Washington earlier this week to brief U.S. officials on those efforts. Welcome. Thanks so much for stopping in.

Mr. SOULEYMANE SAGNA (Aid Worker, Mauritania): Yeah it's a pleasure for me to come and exchange about the hot issue in Mauritania.

MARTIN: Yes. Absolutely. So if you would just give us some background for those who aren't familiar with this story. How were the so-called Afro-Mauritanians forced to leave the country? Were they like physically expelled or was it that conditions became so intolerable that they left?

Mr. SAGNA: The situation of those black Mauritania was quite particular, in that very often people are moving during a conflict, but in the case of the Negro Mauritanians, there have been many militarily deported through military trucks to Senegal and Mali.

MARTIN: How many people do you think were deported?

Mr. SAGNA: Figures are not very exact, but at least between 120 including 25,000 Senegalese and 80,000 Mauritania who have been deported. And by the '90s something like 40,000 people returned back to Mauritania.

MARTIN: What were the conditions that allowed people to start coming back?

Mr. SAGNA: One of the first conditions was that at a certain time they just make a balance. I am here in a country where I have no rights, where my movements are just limited. I can get back to my country because the government has said that I can get back. But indeed it's not easy. You get back but you are obliged to live in limbo, because if you claim back the right, you are assured that you will be taken and sent back to Senegal or maybe be the victim of torture or even summary execution.

MARTIN: Just to be clear. It's been almost 20 years since there was this mass sort of expulsion but what is it that changed, that started people coming back in numbers? There was a change in government. A change in regime or was it a change in sentiment, a change in public opinion? What is it that changed?

Mr. SAGNA: The former dictator have been swept out. A new government have been democratically elected and finally, this new government have taken this courageous measure to get back these population in dignity. And has also acceded to the claims of those who have been deported, including compensation for the goods they have lost and also reparation for those who have been victim of mass human right violation.

MARTIN: What do you think though, were the conditions that led the new government to want to take this step? I mean do you, was it a sense of kind of a moral obligation? Was it political pressure from within, were there enough sort of black Mauritanians left in Mauritania to advance this? What do you think were the conditions, because as I said, you know, we've heard the story. Historically in the United States there have been banishments where persons of different ethnic groups have been literally banished from communities and cleansed as it were. And we've seen this around the world. It is most unusual for a government to take this step to invite those citizens to come back. And so I would like to ask you what do you think led to that?

Mr. SAGNA: I think there is a kind of maturation of the situation. On one side, we have one regime that prevented any official return and some of the population felt that it was an injustice. And to build a new Mauritanian identity, there needed to be social justice. There is also another issue which is, the fact that Mauritania is in a critical juncture politically but also even economically because there have been some hope that oil was coming. So if the country is already divided, the best strategy is to get everything united so that the values of all the goods that have been discovered and this wealth can be profitable to everybody.

MARTIN: I want to bring in another voice now: Romana Cacchioli. She is the Africa program coordinator for Anti-Slavery International. Welcome. Thank you also for coming.

Ms. ROMANA CACCHIOLI (Anti-Slavery International): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Do you have a sense of what percentage of the population in Mauritania would be considered enslaved persons?

Ms. CACCHIOLI: It's very difficult to say, I'm afraid, but estimates put the people who have been enslaved over time, and assimilated into the Maur culture at about 40 percent. And of those who remain to be - remain enslaved today, estimates are of about 15 percent of those. So quite a large proportion of the population. What's important to understand is also that people who have had slavery within their ancestry are discriminated against in society. And so part of the accompanying measures that we are calling for is an anti-discrimination law which will protect people of slave descent but also that will protect the deportees that are coming back to ensure that they have equal access.

MARTIN: One of the other significant developments in Mauritania is that the parliament has passed a law making slavery a criminal offense, punishable by up to ten years in prison as I understand it. And I think it might be a surprise to some people to know that there is a need for a law outlawing slavery anywhere in the world. But if you would tell us first of all why there's a need for such a law and how remarkable is it that a country is willing to take this step at this time?

Ms. CACCHIOLI: Indeed, it is remarkable. Michel, you have to understand that slavery has been practiced in Mauritania for the past two-three hundred years. It was initially abolished by the French colonial power in 1905. But in practice, society continued to practice what is known as chattel slavery but in fact today we call it slavery by descent. It was further again abolished during post-independence when the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were incorporated in the constitution. But again, there was no effective means to bring prosecution to slavery.

MARTIN: And when you talk about slavery by descent, what does that mean?

Ms. CACCHIOLI: It means that at birth, you are ascribed a social status from which you cannot move. So people are born into a slave caste if you like. And that slave caste is inherited.

MARTIN: And so in essence there was no vehicle to free people from this status.

Ms. CACCHIOLI: Absolutely.

MARTIN: How controversial was it to pass this law? How difficult was it?

Ms. CACCHIOLI: Well I think there was a consensus in the country. I think as Suliman was saying that the elites were aware that they were at an important juncture in Mauritanians' history and all political parties during the campaign for the last election agreed that slavery now, that they had to face up to their responsibilities with respect to slavery. I have to just explain that slavery is a practice which is really deeply embedded within that society. So the problem is that a law in itself isn't quite enough. So we are really encouraging the government of Mauritania to apply accompanying measures such as affirmative action policies to ensure that education is targeted at children of slaves and former slaves.

MARTIN: But when you say that the practice is widespread, what are you saying? Are you saying that among most members of the elite for example, that there will, there will be members of their household whom they consider to be slaves?

Ms. CACCHIOLI: That's right. Within the household, but also working in agriculture. But definitely, the ruling elite are the main slaveholders.

MARTIN: How, Mr. Sagna, how are the two tied together, this move to outlaw slavery and this move to invite, encourage the formerly expelled citizens, people who were expelled to come back? Do you think that the two are related?

Mr. SAGNA: My understanding is that a nation is a body, and if you have to heal, you have to heal all parts of the body that are aching. You cannot build a new nation, a new identity if one layer of the population is set aside. We have these free black Mauritanians have been claiming that they have no effective political rights. At the same time, you have this issue of slavery. So if you don't settle this problem, then all your project of building a nation where citizenship is equal for all is problematic. So I think it was necessary for the new government to show its commitment to erase all injustice in that society.

MARTIN: Do you have any sense of how many people have been, have come back to Mauritania? This has only been going on since what, last April, that the process of trying to reverse this expulsion began.

Mr. SAGNA: Yes. Ninety-nine person came back to Mauritania in an operation that have been called a test phase.

MARTIN: But that's not very many people. Ninety-nine people against 30,000…

Mr. SAGNA: Yeah, that's why…

MARTIN: …is not very many at all.

Mr. SAGNA: Yeah, that's why I said it is a test.

MARTIN: Romana Caccholi, just in the couple of minutes we have left, I wanted to ask you, do you have any sense of whether embracing formerly enslaved persons or changing the way the sort of elites think about the formerly enslaved persons is taking root?

Ms. CACCHIOLI: It's going to take time. I think this first courageous step is just but a first step. And we will need the government really to proactively now campaign so that the public itself can learn that slavery is no longer an acceptable practice.

MARTIN: And finally, Suliman, if I may ask you the same question, what is your sense of how it's going? How are the initial returnees doing? And how are they being accepted?

Mr. SAGNA: It was very difficult for them because when they came, as I said earlier, they had to act very clandestinely. They were, they did not have enough courage to confront with the same regime that expelled them out. But now they will be returning in a very organized manner and very official manner, and this entitle them to claim openly their rights, and they will be aided by a civil society that is now free. Since 2006, almost all civil society that used to be outlawed by the former regime have now full status.

MARTIN: Well, I do hope you'll come back and keep us posted on how things are going.

Ms. CACCHIOLI: Thank you very much.

Mr. SAGNA: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Souleymane Sagna is former deputy coordinator of the West African Refugees and Internationally Displaced Persons Network. We were also joined by Romana Cacchioli of Anti-Slavery International, and they were both kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. CACCHIOLI: Thank you.

Mr. SAGNA: It was a pleasure.

Ms. CACCHIOLI: Thank you very much.

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