What problems does Mauritania face?

Before the elections in MauritaniaThe political awakening of the slave children

One of the central squares of the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott is bustling with activity. Street vendors sell pants, shoes, and sunglasses. A man sits under a blue parasol with cigarette advertisements and sells fresh bananas, oranges and mangoes. Women with babies on their backs offer small fried dough balls and sticky-sweet hibiscus juice. There is nothing to suggest that the country faces one of the most important elections in its recent history.

If you want to understand why the election this Saturday means so much for the West African country with its around four million inhabitants, you have to go far. Out to one of the poor areas like Tarhil in the south-east of the capital.

As a city, Nouakchott was only founded in 1960 with the independence of Mauritania from the French colonial power. Since then, the former desert nest on the Atlantic coast has been growing inexorably, like a fresh ink blot on paper. House by house, the city eats its way deeper into the Sahara. Simple huts made of planks, cloth, and rusted car sheet; Unplastered houses, little more than unfinished buildings. In between nothing but sand.

Tarhil is one of the largest slums in the country. Aischa, housewife and mother of six children, is sitting in an open tent between her barrack and a wooden shed that serves as a toilet: "We are very far from the city center here. The infrastructure is weak."

Her neighbor Mariam, who sits a few doors down with a baby on her lap in the shade of her hut between several goats on the floor, says: "There are no doctors, no shops, no water and no electricity. There is nothing here. Not yet once streets. " Her husband adds, "If you look around Tarhil, you don't have to ask what is missing. Everything is just missing here."

Children play in the poor district of Tarhil in the capital Nouakchott towards the sunset (Deutschlandradio / Benjamin Moscovici)

The name Tarhil means something like "resettlement". This neighborhood is home to people who have been displaced by the government from informal settlements on the outskirts and resettled here. Like many cities in Africa, Nouakchott has grown enormously in the last few decades.

A little revolution

In the first half of the 20th century, the overwhelming majority of Mauritanians were still living as nomads. But a prolonged period of drought in the 1970s to 1990s forced more and more people to give up their way of life. Today Nouakchott has a population of over a million. But Tarhil is not just a slum where the city meets the Sahara - Tarhil is the pressure vessel of Mauritanian society. Far away from the hustle and bustle of the city center, it is fermenting. The government has tried long enough to ignore the problem.

"I have a message for our President Muhammad Oud Abdel Aziz: Why don't you want to accept that there is slavery in Mauritania? We are here! Why don't you acknowledge our suffering?" Habi Mint Rabah has spent most of her life as a slave to a man who abused and tormented her on a daily basis. She was only released in 2008. Today, ten years later, she is the first former slave to run for the Mauritanian parliament. In the West African country, this amounts to a small revolution.

Slavery in Mauritania is not a legacy of European colonialism, but of the Arab conquests in the eighth century. It was then that the fairer-skinned Arabs subjugated the indigenous black population. Slavery was common practice in Mauritania well into the 20th century. Officially, however, they no longer exist. Putsch after putsch, different governments have declared serfdom to be abolished in different wording. However, slavery was not made a criminal offense until 2007.

"When I was enslaved, I was still a child. Since then I have lived with my master. I was not allowed to pray or attend school. I was completely submissive. If my master had said I should put my hand in the fire - I would have Done, "says Habi Mint Rabah, while the desert wind lets the sheet metal parts from which her hut are patched rattle softly. "He abused and tortured us slaves. I have two sons from him. One is here with me, the other has died."

"There is still slavery in Mauritania"

The mid-forties is herself the daughter of a slave and her rapist. "My son always reminds me of my past as a slave. He's still young and doesn't yet know how he was conceived. But one day I'll tell him. I will never be able to forget my time as a slave. Never. Today I am." free, but every day I think about what was done to me - all the suffering, all the agony. "

It is a long way from slavery to parliament - if Habi Mint Rabah makes it in the election. She was helped by the human rights organization IRA, which was also instrumental in her liberation. Its leader, Biram Dah Abeid, is the most prominent fighter for the rights of slaves and their descendants. He has been in jail for a minor matter for weeks. Government critics are convinced that the regime is trying to block its election campaign. But that couldn't prevent his greatest coup: to make Habi Mint Rabah a candidate.

"I am ready to fight this fight, to be the representative of the slaves in parliament. Because I am the proof: There is still slavery in Mauritania. Slaves have no rights in this country. With God's help I will be their voice and their face "says Habi Mint Rabah. In fact, cases like Habi Mint Rabah's have now become rather rare. In remote areas in the desert there are still people who live in conditions similar to slavery. But as a mass phenomenon, the issue of serfdom has been dealt with.

Simple huts and unplastered houses, in between nothing but sand: the slum district of Tarhil (Deutschlandradio / Benjamin Moscovici)

The drought in the second half of the last century not only destroyed the livelihoods of many nomads. It has also resulted in most of the once wealthy families no longer being able to afford their slaves, no longer being able to feed them - and therefore releasing them into freedom. Hundreds of thousands of the former serfs moved to the slums of the cities.

The result is a society that is deeply divided: On the one hand there is the minority of the so-called white Moors of Arab-Berber origin, who to this day occupy all important positions in politics and business. On the other side are the former slaves and their descendants, the Haratin. Without ever going to school, their release meant a plunge into total poverty for many. Quite a few soon hired their old masters again. Today most of them work as day laborers at the port or in construction, or they risk their lives in the gold and iron mines in the desert.

Many Haratins see this as a continuation of slavery behind a modern facade. "As before, we do hard work while the Moors make the money," they say. But now the Haratin are beginning to understand that they could be an important political force in the country, that in their numbers there is great power. According to estimates, they make up 40 to 60 percent of the population.

The former slaves emancipate themselves

Sociologist Sheikh Hassan al-Bambari says: "The last five to seven years have been the most important in Haratin history. People have started to speak the truth openly: that we live in a racist society where slavery still exists And they have said frankly: We don't want to accept that any longer. We want to be an equal part of this country. The Haratin are currently fighting for their rights in Mauritanian politics, society and economy. This is changing their role. Suddenly they want to too Become ministers or professors at the university. In the past they mainly worked in agriculture or on the fringes of society. But now they have started to demand social participation. "

Sheikh Hassan al-Bambari himself comes from the Haratin ethnic group. "This development means a tremendous upheaval for Mauritanian society and is related to a fundamental change in the thinking of the Haratin. In the meantime, Haratin say quite openly: We are the descendants of slaves and we claim our rights. Today I say with pride: Yes "I'm Haratin. But three years ago I would have resisted if someone had said I was Hartani. This is a hugely important change. There is awareness and something like a Haratin cultural identity has developed." . "

Saturday's election is not just about the National Assembly. Regional, local and mayoral elections also take place at the same time. And for the first time, numerous Haratins are running for candidates at all levels. Sadvi Ould Bilal wants to become mayor of Nouadhibou, the most important economic metropolis in the north of the country: "The schools in the Haratin districts are very poorly equipped. There is a lack of everything, there are classes with 80 or 100 students. The government does it, so that the Haratin remain forever uneducated and dependent. If we want our independence, we have to learn and rely on education. "

His friend Elmaaloum Oubeck, who is running for the city administration in Nouadhibou, is also convinced: "The progress of the Haratin is deliberately sabotaged. In particular through the education system. There are anarchic public schools for the poor, and then there are the good private schools for the children of the rich. It keeps those who have always been down and the elites in power. "

Both politicians have had their own experiences with exclusion and racism: "I cannot explain what it means to be the descendant of slaves. Nobody can understand that. I have no words to describe how it feels. But you have always in your head. One wonders how one can live in a society that tolerates slavery. I was born free. My father was free too. But my mother was a slave. "

"It was only relatively late that I discovered that my parents lived in slavery. At some point I found a slip of paper confirming my parents' release. It is a difficult legacy. To be Haratin means to always be in a pocket, never to yourself It is exclusion that starts in my own head. I used to discuss this topic a lot with my parents. I asked them: Why are we so poor? "

No support from Europe: Brussels looks the other way

Elmaaloum Oubeck does not only hold the own government responsible for the constant exclusion of the Haratin. He also sees Europe and the West as guilty: "The world is not exerting enough pressure on the Mauritanian government. The West could also change something in our situation. But without pressure there is no incentive for the government to change the living conditions for Haratin improve."

But so far the descendants of the slaves have been waiting in vain for support from Europe. The EU needs the country on the western edge of the Sahel as a partner in the fight against illegal migration and Islamist terrorism. Therefore, when it comes to human rights, Brussels is turning a blind eye to the regime under President Muhammad Ould Abdel Aziz, who came to power almost exactly ten years ago.

An ally for Europe in the fight against terror: Mauritania's President Muhammad Ould Abdel Aziz (dpa / picture alliance / Aliou Mbaye)

Politicians and activists like Habi Mint Rabah, Sadvi Ould Bilal and Elmaaloum Oubeck are on their own. Will they get the support they need from the descendants of the slaves in the elections? The sociologist Sheikh Hassan al-Bambari explains:

"The Haratin's role in the election has two faces: there are quite a number of Haratins who are educated, politically sensitive and who know what they want. But the majority of the Haratins are poor. And for them the elections are above all one Possibility to simply earn money. Someone might sell their vote, the other take part in political rallies for ten euros. Those who are poor need money now. Today. Those who are poor cannot think about political projects that are just beginning show results for a few years. That is why people here sell their voting cards for ten or twelve euros. Sometimes even for one fifty euros. "

Lack of awareness of the importance of elections

There is great hope among activists and politicians that the elections will bring about great change. Some even assume that 50 percent of the Haratin will be represented in the next parliament, which would force the regime to ensure a fairer distribution of resources. Mauritania has the most fish-rich waters on earth and huge iron deposits. A few years ago, oil, gas and gold were also found.

But so far the money has mainly flowed into the pockets of the powerful, while the rest of the country continues to live in abject poverty. In ten years, President Aziz went from being a simple military man to being the richest man in the country. For him, the elections are also a test run: How great is the support for him and his party? Can he run for a third time in the presidential election next year, even though the constitution forbids it?

Election campaigns in Mauritania only take place after dark - when it's a little cooler (Deutschlandradio / Benjamin Moscovici)

"The elections on Saturday are very important. But unfortunately the Haratin are not particularly sensitized. A maximum of five percent understand what significance and what potential these elections have. They ask themselves: Why should I choose a Hartani when a white man offers me money for it that I give him my vote? "

If you ask the people in Tarhil, this cautious assessment of the sociologist Sheikh Hassan al-Bambari is confirmed: "I don't know whether there are Haratin candidates who are standing for election. Nobody came by here." - "In the election campaign not a single candidate from the Haratin community came to us. There was once a candidate who was here who promised us projects to improve our situation. But he never came back."

Other residents also report rather questionable methods of voter mobilization: "The candidates haven't even made promises here. They just came to pick up our voting cards." - "Someone came by and collected the voting cards from all over the neighborhood. I have no idea who our votes will be used for in the end." - "I registered for the election. At some point someone came by and took all the voting cards. The man said he would come by on election day and drive us to the next polling station. I have no idea which party it was from."

Others, like the kiosk owner Yussuf, did not even register for the election: "In my opinion, the elections are not important. The results are already certain: the government will win."

Warning of a social revolution

And there is another important problem for the Haratin movement: its organizations, NGOs and parties are at odds with one another. "We lose many voters through such divisions. In addition, mandates through which the Haratin could be represented in parliament are lost," says sociologist Sheikh Hassan al-Bambari.

In his view, however, these weaknesses do not change the general trend: "In the current situation, Mauritanian society is changing. The other ethnic groups will have to accept that the Haratin will become an important social factor. What the Haratin need now is social, political and economic participation. If they are not granted that, the country is heading for a revolution. "

Should there be a violent uprising and the first deaths occur, a conflagration could hardly be prevented. Too many people would probably take the opportunity to take revenge on the old man: "Sociologists say: A person can accept a lot. Except poverty in the face of wealth. Nobody can watch their children have nothing to eat How your own wife has nothing to wear while your neighbors live in luxury. In an ethnically divided country like Mauritania, nothing is as dangerous as a social revolution. The government knows that. That's why I believe: if you want to change something in this country : Now is the moment. "