At opposite ends of Africa’s Sahel, Sudan and Mauritania hold the distinction of being two nations where the practice of slavery remains intact at the dawn of the 21st century. Sudan is in the headlines now, due to the crisis in Darfur, and mounting calls for foreign intervention. Mauritania remains in the shadows-despite the fact it is still reckoning with the consequences of a Darfur-style wave of ethnic cleansing that began in 1989, with little note from the international community.
On Sept. 19, two days after the Save Darfur rally in New York’s Central Park, Bill Weinberg spoke with Mamadou Barry and Abdarahmane Wone, North American representatives of the African Liberation Forces of Mauritania (FLAM) over the airwaves of WBAI Radio in New York City. They spoke about the continuing struggle in Mauritania one year after a coup d’etat which promised to bring democratic rule to the impoverished nation, and about the ethics and politics of multinational military intervention in the Sahel region.
Bill Weinberg (BW): Abda, I ran into you on Sunday at the rally for Darfur in Central Park. And then yesterday, the African Liberation Forces of Mauritania held a rally of your own at the United Nations.
Abdarahmane Wone (AW): Yes, our rally was to let the world know what’s going on in Mauritania. Since many world leaders were at the UN yesterday, as a political movement we thought it would be a good idea to go to protest, and let them know that something ought to be done-not only to free Mauritanians from racism and slavery, but also to build a more democratic country. We came with our declaration, and we were covered by NY1 television. We had the chance to explain that we are not for Black supremacy, we just want to be respected in our country.
BW: The struggle in Mauritania very rarely makes headlines, while Darfur is in the headlines a lot at the moment-because of the calls for military intervention. But, for different reasons, people on both the left and right in this country are very wary of intervention in Darfur.
AW: What is happening in Darfur is mass killing, and something has to be done. But let me make clear that calling for the UN to intervene is not the same thing as calling for NATO to go there. I am against any kind of imperialism. But at the same time there must be an end to the killing. It is time to do something.
My brothers are suffering in Sudan as a consequence of the  Berlin Conference to divide the continent of Africa. And they put together two groups who are not the same-Arabs from the northern part and Blacks from the southern part of Sudan. And that is exactly the situation in Mauritania. I am glad many Americas, many Westerners are now aware of what is going on in Sudan, and trying to do whatever they can to save people in Darfur. But nobody talks about Mauritania. It is our duty to inform the world about what is going on in Mauritania, and let them know that in both Mauritania and Sudan, Blacks are still treated as second-class citizens.
BW: The man who has been in power in your country for a little over a year now, Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, actually failed to show up at the UN General Assembly debate that just opened.
AW: Yes, we let him know that where-ever he shows up, we will do our best to have justice. Since we cannot have justice in our own country, we will do our best to have justice in the United States or in Europe or elsewhere in Africa. When he first came to power in August of last year, I was really hoping he would be the Frederik de Klerk of Mauritania. Frederik de Klerk was the South African leader who understood that different races should talk in South Africa, and he agreed to talk with Mandela. But Vall failed to be the de Klerk of Mauritania. He never wanted to talk about what’s going on in Mauritania, and how to bring peace.
BW: In August of last year, he overthrew the PW Botha of Mauritania, so to speak, Ahmed Ould Taya, who had been in power since the 1980s. And despite your hopes at the time, you are saying that he has failed to initiate a national dialogue…
AW: Yes. And because he doesn’t want to bring justice, or talk about all the people still living in refugee camps, we will continue to struggle and let the world know what’s going on in our country. Because nobody is going to free Mauritania in our place. That’s what we know. We are convinced of this.
BW: There are two major issues that you’ve said need to be addressed. First is the more than 100,000 refugees who were pushed from their homes into the neighboring states of Senegal and Mali in a wave of so-called ethnic cleansing that began in 1989-fairly analogous to what’s happening in Darfur right now. And the other issue, which is also analogous to what we’ve seen in Sudan in recent years, is the system of slavery that persists in Mauritania.
AW: Exactly. More than 30% of Mauritanians are descendants of slaves. And among them, more than 500,000 people are still enslaved today.
BW: So there’s an hereditary slave caste in Mauritania that goes back hundreds of years.
AW: Yes. And among them, many are still enslaved by light-skinned Arabs. And nobody seems to care. In 2006, there are people who own other people. In this country, when children wake up, the first thing they do is have breakfast and go to school. In my country, when a young Haratin wakes up, the first thing that he or she has to do is to carry water for his or her master, to dedicate his or her day to his or her master.
BW: You use the word "Haratin." This is the hereditary slave caste…
AW: Yes. They are the majority ethnic group in Mauritania, and 500,000 are still enslaved today.
BW: Out of a total population of…?
AW: We are some two-and-a-half to three million in Mauritania today.
BW: So, quite a large chunk of the population. And these 500,000 are completely excluded from education and political rights? Has there been some progress, at least, in recent years?
AW: There has been some progress, because the FLAM and some Haratin organizations have been fighting to bring justice. But the response has been very timid. We want a free country, where there are no slaves, so we can move on and try to build democracy. I think Africa as a continent has suffered enough. It is time to stop the mass killing, it is time to stop the dictatorship and build a more democratic and sustainable society.
BW: So the majority of these 500,000 are still in slavery as we understand the word, excluded from all political rights…?
AW: They are excluded because they vote for their masters. They are denied education. They belong to other people. They do what their masters want them to do.
BW: Not even rudimentary education?
AW: No. If they are slaves, they are slaves.
BW: The Haratin are a distinct ethnicity. What language do they speak?
AW: They speak Arabic. Let me make it clear. Some 20% of Mauritanians are light-skinned Arabs, and 30% are Haratin. So Arabic is the largest language in Mauritania. But that doesn’t mean that the majority is not Black in Mauritania. The majority is Black. And among the Black population you have Fulani, Soninke, Wolof, Bambara and Haratin.
BW: So the Haratin are a Black African people, but they’ve adopted the Arabic language.
AW: They’ve adopted the Arabic language because they are enslaved and have been forced to learn the language of their masters.
BW: Hundreds of years ago…
BW: A year after Col. Vall’s coup, which was supposed to usher in a democratic transition, you are moving towards elections in Mauritania. There was a constitutional referendum in June which instated term limits for presidents, as a measure against another presidency-for-life situation such as existed under Taya. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for November, and presidential elections for January. And I understand the FLAM is participating in the elections.
AW: That’s actually FLAM-Renovation. They are our ancien comrades. We respect their point of view. They returned to Mauritania to try to participate in the democratic transition. They are trying to do their best. But Ely Ould Mohamed Vall is not welcoming them. We respect their view, but that is not our position. The Arab-dominated regime does not want to do anything to bring peace in Mauritania. We cannot really talk about democracy when 120,000 refugees are left behind, and we cannot talk about democracy when people are enslaved. Before organizing elections in Mauritania, we must free those who are still enslaved, and bring the refugees back. That is our position.
Mamadou Barry (MB): Since Ely Mohamed Vall came to power, we have been waiting for him to say something about racial discrimination and slavery in Mauritania. He just says he will surrender power in the elections. But the Haratin will vote however their masters tell them to under the current system. So we don’t believe voting is the way to tackle this. Even if slavery is not stopped right now, today, there has to be a decision taken on this issue, letting all of Mauritania know this issue needs to be addressed.
Similarly, the regime says any refugee can come back if he can prove he is Mauritanian. But they know that when these people were deported, all their papers were taken. So we say the burden of proof should be on the government, not on this weak population.
AW: Between 1948 and 1994, there were elections in South Africa. But the Black majority was excluded. So those elections were not free and fair. And that is the situation we face in Mauritania. In order to have a real democracy, we have to have a constitution that gives guarantees to everybody.
But the problem of Mauritania is not just the constitution or the written document. The problem, as in many African countries, is to make what is written apply. Slavery has been abolished three times in Mauritania. But it is still going on. It was abolished under the [French] colonial regime, then again in the ’60s, and the last time was in the ’80s.
BW: Before Taya came to power?
AW: Yes, before Taya. But he helped slavery to flourish, because he didn’t do anything to stop it. He encouraged it.
BW: And in the June constitutional reform the issue was not addressed at all?
AW: Not at all.
MB: We believe this constitutional reform was done just because Mohamed Vall wanted something to show after one year in power.
BW: Well, European Union observers have just arrived. There does seem to be a possibility that Col. Vall will step down after these elections, no?
MB: He said he will not run. But we believe whoever wins will be his puppet. Whoever wins will not say anything about the past, about the deportations, about the exiles. They say the elections will be impartial and they are not helping anybody, but we don’t believe that.
BW: Is Taya’s party still around, or has it been disbanded?
MB: The people are still around, and they hold all the important positions in the government. They just changed the name.
AW: And even the name change was not that big. It used to be the PRDS. Now it is PRDR.
BW: Sounds very subtle. And what do these two acronyms stand for, respectively?
MB: It was the Democratic and Social Republican Party-they put all these nice things together. [Laughs]
BW: And now they’ve dropped the word "social," very fashionably, to show they are post-socialist I suppose. So what is the new name?
AW: Parti Républicain pour la Démocratie et le Renouveau
BW: Some of the same international players are involved in both Sudan and Mauritania. The Chinese National Petroleum Company, which has come under great criticism for its investments in Sudan, is now beginning exploration in Mauritania. There’s more and more talk that West Africa is going to be very strategic in the coming century as a new source of global energy. And the Pentagon also has a presence-Taya had invited in a detachment of US Special Forces to train the Mauritanian army to stop supposed terrorist infiltration from the Sahara. And as far as we know, the Special Forces are still there. So it seems the new regime is playing ball with both sides.
AW: What matters for the new regime is to save their skin. Whoever can help them save their skin, they will go with. Everybody knows that during the first Gulf War in 1991, Mauritania was one of the few countries to support Saddam Hussein. And after Saddam was defeated, Taya just changed his position to save his skin…
BW: Rather completely. In fact, he became one of the few governments in the region to recognize Israel.
AW: Yes, he was the one who said he would never acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as a state, and he just changed his policy completely. That’s how they play the game in our country. Its time to stop it.
BW: So Vall didn’t show up for the General Assembly session, but sent his foreign minister. Do you have a sense of why?
AW: He wanted to come to show the world that he is the peacemaker and the man who brought democracy to Mauritania. But that is not true, he is just continuing what Taya started. We were hoping he would come so we could face him and let the world know who he really is. He is just a dictator who came to power by means of a coup. He is not a hero; if I were to speak French, I would say he is a zéro.
MB: My sources tell me that he wanted so bad to come, but when he heard we were organizing a demonstration he was worried and decided to send somebody else. You mentioned China earlier. In the UN, there are clubs. China, Sudan, Mauritania and all those countries which are practicing discrimination within their own borders form a club. China has their problem in Tibet, and they do not want any other country which doing this sort of thing to be sanctioned…
BW: …because it would set a precedent for them.
MB: Yes, so they don’t want Mauritania to be sanctioned in the UN and they always vote with the Mauritanian government.
BW: And economics apparently follow politics. It seems that China is trying to beat the US to the punch in securing the oil resources of the Sahel.
MB: Yes, world policy now is designed by economics. Soon, all the world will know about Mauritania because of our oil resources. And we want the regime to know that they have to take us into account. Even if we are not in power, we can make it difficult for people to get the oil…
BW: How so? Just by embarrassing the investors and protesting and so on?
MB: That’s one thing. But, well, everything is open…
BW: Oil seems to play a role in the Darfur conflict. Just as the Chinese National Petroleum Company has investments in Sudan, Exxon has signed a deal with Chad, the country immediately to the west, and the World Bank is funding a new pipeline to deliver Chad’s oil to the Atlantic Ocean. The conflict in Darfur began two years ago when guerilla groups emerged there. They felt Darfur had been left out of the peace deal that ended the north-south civil war in Sudan, and they took up arms to demand autonomy and local rights for the Fur and other Black African ethnicities in the region. There have been allegations that the government of Chad backed the guerillas. And it was in response to this guerilla uprising that the government of Sudan, in turn, began backing the so-called Janjaweed militias, which have now apparently been responsible for the deaths of some 200,000 people.
So, as in many conflicts around the world, the people on the ground may think they are fighting for ethnic supremacy or cattle grazing lands, but these conflicts are exploited by those with interests in resources far more fundamental to the global economy-like oil. So while there were a lot of idealistic and good-intentioned young people at the Darfur rally on Sunday, I was very disturbed when I found out that former Secretary of State Madeline Albright spoke there…
AW: My opinion is that in a situation like Darfur everybody must come together because its is human beings being killed. It is time to stop seeing Africans as people who are always manipulated by others, by the left or by the right. We have our own brains, we think, we are educated. Of course, whoever comes first to help us is the person with whom we will ally our forces.
BW: There are currently African Union troops in Darfur, but this has apparently been insufficient to stop the violence, so there are now calls for a UN force-and even NATO has had a hand in air support for the African Union force. So fears have been raised about the re-colonization of Africa. On the other hand, it is a lot easier to have your anti-imperialist or pacifist ideals intact when there aren’t any paramilitary troops coming to burn down your village. So I don’t feel like I’m in a position to be too judgmental of the people in Darfur who seem very eager for some kind of outside intervention.
MB: It is sad, but my feeling is that there will be resolution after resolution at the UN and nothing will change. Unless the conflict begins to affect Western governments, no-one will act.
BW: The world paid little note to what happened in your country in 1989. Perhaps it was carried out with less violence than in Darfur, but still, over 100,000 displaced…
MB: I think those two governments went to the same school-the school of Arabization. The professor was Saddam Hussein, and the doctrine was developed in Egypt by Nasser. They follow the pattern of Baathism and Nasserism. In the color of their skin they may not be Arabs, they may be Black. But they want to be Arab, and they follow this policy of Arabization in Mauritania and Sudan.
AW: The problems of Sudanese and Mauritanians shouldn’t be left to Sudanese and Mauritanians alone. My message to the left in this country is to stop asking who is behind us and assuming that Africans must be always manipulated. It is time to help Black Mauritanians who live in refugee camps to have a better life, and in the long run to help them go back to their country. It is time to stop slavery and mass killing in Africa.
Originally Published at WW4Report.com
African Liberation Forces of Mauritania (FLAM)
"Mauritania: Slavery, Ethnic Cleansing, Democratic Opposition
Voices of the African Liberation Forces of Mauritania (FLAM)"
by Bill Weinberg, WW4 REPORT #113, September 2005
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