New data released this week reveals that Mauritania has lost its unenviable title as the world’s slavery capital – the country with highest number of slaves as a percentage of its total population. Statistics from the Walk Free Foundation’s slavery index shows the number of Mauritanians living in modern slavery has fallen from 4 percent to 1 percent of the population. Past estimates by the organization SOS Slavery had put the number of slaves at 600,000 or about 17 percent of Mauritania’s population of 3.5 million.
Mauritania is bordered by Algeria, Senegal and Mali in the northwestern corridor of Africa. Its vegetation is made up of mostly dry, desert wastelands, with 90 percent of its land mass in the Sahara. Mauritania has remained one of the last outposts of slavery in the world. Up until recently, the practice of slave holding was deeply entrenched in everyday Mauritanian society. To put it in perspective, many of us remember that slavery was largely abolished all around the world by the late 19th century. In contrast, Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981 and only reluctantly enacted laws to criminalize it in 2007, after much pressure from the international community.
The structure of slave holding in Mauritania is quite simple, and it hasn’t changed much since the days of the trans-Saharan slave trade. The slaves, mostly black Moors, are owned by white Moors, also known as Arab Berbers. It is basically a form of chattel slavery, where the slaves and their descendants after them are the property of their masters. Typically there are more women enslaved than men.
It must be stated that slavery in Mauritania today, just like all other forms of modern slavery in other parts of the world, does not appear exactly like the depictions of slavery we see in popular culture like “Roots” or “Django.” Modern slaves are not held down by restraints, with fetters or shackles around their bodies; instead, they are subdued and “imprisoned” by a range of socioeconomic and psychological factors. Modern slavery is typically characterized by the following: a lack of opportunities, education and information; working by coercion for little or no pay; and being permanently indebted to or controlled by an employer. In a nutshell, modern slavery is characterized by a total loss of agency and a complete vulnerability of the victim.
As the spotlight shines on Mauritania and its progress towards ending all forms of slavery within its borders, the rest of Africa would do well to also rid itself of all pockets of modern slavery that continue to exist in the form of early marriage, trafficking in persons, child labour and indentured servitude.