Skidmore College

Slavery, military intervention and oppression of the press: three barriers to democratic growth in Mauritania by: Isabelle Bertolozzi @ Skidmore College

The government in Mauritania, while in theory a presidential republic, is, in reality, not even close to being democratic. In fact, Mauritania is listed as an authoritarian regime by the Economist Intelligence Unit and Polity IV, and “Not Free” by Freedom House. Mauritania has many attributes of a democratic country— legislative, executive and judicial branches, elections and political parties. While these systems are incredibly flawed none of them are the most glaring issue preventing democratic growth in Mauritania. The three largest barriers to democratic growth in Mauritania are: the presence of slavery, military intervention and the oppression of the press.


Mauritania, in 1981, was the last country in the world to abolish slavery. Today, however, it is estimated that between 10-20% of the population is still, in some way, enslaved, which is the highest proportion of individuals in slavery in the world. That 10-20% roughly translates to somewhere between 340,000 and 680,000 people.

Slavery in Mauritania was not criminalized until 2007, and in 2015, Mauritania finally declared slavery a “crime against humanity” which is punishable by 20 years in jail. Since the enactment of this law only four individuals have been convicted— two men were sentenced to five years each in 2016, and on March 30th of this year one woman and one man were jailed for ten and twenty years respectively.

The presence of slavery in Mauritania necessitates a lack of democracy according to Robert Dahl. Dahl, in his book Polyarchy, states that an essential characteristic of democracy is that all citizens must be considered to be political equals. In addition, citizens must be able to come up with political preferences, voice their opinions to the government and have their preferences weighted equally against the preferences of another. It is clear, that in Mauritania, not all individuals are considered political equals— as 10-20% of the population is illegally enslaved, and, essentially, have no rights. The government, however, denies that slavery exists in the country and does little to stop it.

Military Intervention

In addition, Mauritania is plagued by political unrest— driven primarily by the military. Mauritania became independent of French rule in 1960. At that time the French installed Moktar Ould Daddah as president. Daddah quickly ushered in an era of authoritarian rule and a de-facto one party state. His rule came to an end by way of a military coup in 1978. Colonel Maaouya Sid Ahmed Taya eventually became junta chairman, however his regime was again toppled by a military coup in 2005. After the coup it appeared as if Mauritania was on the road to becoming a more democratic country, but that growth was stymied by yet another military coup in 2008. The current president is Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who was the general responsible for orchestrating the coups in 2005 and 2008. While he was questionably elected to a second term there is fear in Mauritania that he will refuse to step down at the end of his second term.

Mauritania can not become more democratic while the military supports leaders with authoritarian tendencies. While the military was essential for bringing about democratic growth following the coup d’etat in 2005 it quickly destroyed that progress when the elected president sought to take power from the military— resulting in the 2008 coup.

Oppression of the Press 

Lastly, another barrier to democratic growth is the government oppression of the press. Dahl also states that democracy requires the “availability of alternative sources of information.” This is lacking in Mauritania. While the constitution guarantees the freedom of the press this freedom is not respected in practice. Private newspapers are constantly threatened with closure by the government, journalists and editors are often convicted of crimes against the state, and the only networks given licensees to broadcast are pro-government entities. All newspapers must also submit their articles to the government for approval before they are published, which only further censors an already paralyzed press. This oppression of the press is a clear barrier to democratic growth and signals the impossibility of possessing any thoughts that are anti-government.

Slavery. Military Intervention. Oppression of the Press. Three distinct pieces that add up to one thing: a lack of democracy in Mauritania.



Image by Todofai, “Flag of Mauritania” (Flickr)

1 Comment

  1. Hannah Hoey

    April 29, 2018 at 6:24 pm

    It was interesting and enlightening to learn about the political situation in Mauritania from your post, and the significant barriers to democracy that exist there. I was appalled to learn about the continued existence of slavery; that up to 20% of the population are still illegally enslaved is abhorrent, as is the lack of accountability and conviction rate for people guilty of this crime against humanity. You mention here that the government denies the existence of slavery in the country, and does little to stop its practise, but I think it would also be useful to note how the international community has responded. Mauritania is a member of both the African Union and the United Nations, and in fact the President of Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, served as Chairperson of the AU from 2014 to 2015. To me, this suggests a gross lack of accountability and intervention by these overseeing organisations, although I do recall you noting how difficult it is for NGO officers to gain access to the country in your presentation to our class. Nonetheless, I think it is paramount that international bodies are frank and unforgiving on such transgressions as this, as when national governments fail their people so badly, international interventions could be the only chance for the oppressed to be represented. Do you agree that institutions such as the AU and the UN have duty, or even the right, to intervene on domestic issue such as this?

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