For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.
Islamic Republic of Mauritania
Area: 1,030,070 sq. km. (419,212 sq. mi.); slightly larger than Texas and New Mexico combined.
Cities (2004): Capital--Nouakchott (pop. 708,000). Other cities--Nouadhibou (72,000), Rosso (50,000), Kaedi (34,000), Zouerate (34,000), Kiffa (33,000), Atar (24,000).
Terrain: Northern four-fifths barren desert; southern 20% mainly Sahelian with small-scale irrigated and rain-fed agriculture in the Senegal River basin.
Climate: Predominantly hot and dry.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Mauritanian(s).
Population (2007): 2,961,000.
Annual growth rate: 2.5%.
Ethnic groups: Arab-Berber (White Moor), Arab-Berber-Negroid (Black Moor), Haalpulaar, Soninke, Wolof (Black African Mauritanians).
Languages: Arabic (official), Hassaniya (Arabic dialect), French, Pulaar, Wolof, and Soninke.
Education: Years compulsory--six. Attendance (student population enrolled in primary school)--82%. Adult literacy (% of population age 15+)--59%.
Health: Infant mortality rate--67/1,000. Life expectancy--64 yrs.
Work force: Agriculture and fisheries--50%. Services and commerce--20%. Government--20%. Industry and transportation--10%.
Independence: November 28, 1960.
Constitution: Approved 1991. Original constitution promulgated 1961.
Branches: Executive--president (head of state). Legislative--bicameral national assembly, directly elected lower house (81 members), and upper house (56 members) chosen indirectly by municipal councilors. Judicial--a supreme court and lower courts are nominally independent but subject to control of executive branch; judicial decisions are rendered mainly on the basis of Shari'a (Islamic law) for social/family matters and a western style legal code, applied in commercial and some criminal cases.
Political parties: 21.
Suffrage: Universal at 18.
National day: November 28, Independence Day.
GDP (2007): $2.8 billion.
Annual growth rate (2007): 1.9%.
Per capita income (2006): $952.
Natural resources: petroleum, fish, iron ore, gypsum, copper, gum arabic, phosphates, salt and gold.
Agriculture (13% of GDP 2007): Products--livestock, traditional fisheries, millet, maize, wheat, dates, rice.
Industry (47% of GDP 2007): Types--mining, commercial fishing.
Services (41% of GDP 2007).
Trade: Exports (2006, f.o.b.)--$1.4 billion: iron ore, fish and fish products, gold, copper, petroleum. Export partners (2007)--China 30.5%, France 9.5%, Italy 8.6%, Spain 8.5%, Japan 5.5%, Netherlands 5.3%, Belgium 5%, Cote d'Ivoire 4.7%. Imports (2006)--$1.5 billion: machinery and equipment, petroleum products, capital goods, foodstuffs, consumer goods. Import partners (2007)--France 16.7%, China 8.2%, Spain 6.8%, U.S. 6.2%, Belgium 5.8%, Brazil 5.5%.
Currency: Ouguiya (UM).
USAID: Total FY 2008 USAID humanitarian and development assistance to Mauritania--$21,106,735.
From the 3rd to 7th centuries, the migration of Berber tribes from North Africa displaced the Bafours, the original inhabitants of present-day Mauritania and the ancestors of the Soninke. Continued Arab-Berber migration drove indigenous black Africans south to the Senegal River or enslaved them. By 1076, Islamic warrior monks (Almoravid or Al Murabitun) completed the conquest of southern Mauritania, defeating the ancient Ghana empire. Over the next 500 years, Arabs overcame fierce Berber resistance to dominate Mauritania. The Mauritanian Thirty-Year War (1644-74) was the unsuccessful final Berber effort to repel the Maqil Arab invaders led by the Beni Hassan tribe. The descendants of Beni Hassan warriors became the upper stratum of Moorish society. Berbers retained influence by producing the majority of the region's Marabouts--those who preserve and teach Islamic tradition. Hassaniya, a mainly oral, Berber-influenced Arabic dialect that derives its name from the Beni Hassan tribe, became the dominant language among the largely nomadic population. Within Moorish society, aristocratic and servant classes developed, yielding "white" (aristocracy) and "black" Moors (the enslaved indigenous class).
French colonization at the beginning of the 20th century brought legal prohibitions against slavery and an end to interclan warfare. During the colonial period, the population remained nomadic, but sedentary black Africans, whose ancestors had been expelled centuries earlier by the Moors, began to trickle back into southern Mauritania. As the country gained independence in 1960, the capital city of Nouakchott was founded at the site of a small colonial village. Ninety percent of the population was still nomadic. With independence, larger numbers of ethnic Sub-Saharan Africans (Haalpulaar, Soninke, and Wolof) entered Mauritania, moving into the area north of the Senegal River. Educated in French, many of these recent arrivals became clerks, soldiers, and administrators in the new state.
Moors reacted to this change by trying to Arabicize much of Mauritanian life, such as law and language. A schism developed between those who considered Mauritania to be an Arab country (mainly Moors) and those who sought a dominant role for the Sub-Saharan peoples. The discord between these two conflicting visions of Mauritanian society was evident during intercommunal violence that broke out in April 1989 (the "1989 Events").
The country's first president, Moktar Ould Daddah, served from independence until ousted in a bloodless coup on July 10, 1978. Mauritania was under military rule from 1978 to 1992, when the country's first multi-party elections were held following the July 1991 approval by referendum of a constitution.
The Democratic and Social Republican Party (PRDS), led by President Maaouiya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya, dominated Mauritanian politics from April 1992 until he was overthrown in August 2005. President Taya, who won elections in 1992 and 1997, first became chief of state through a December 12, 1984 bloodless coup which made him chairman of the committee of military officers that governed Mauritania from July 1978 to April 1992. A group of current and former Army officers launched a bloody but unsuccessful coup attempt on June 8, 2003.
On November 7, 2003, Mauritania's third presidential election since adopting the democratic process in 1992 took place. Incumbent President Taya was reelected. Several opposition groups alleged that the government had used fraudulent means to win the elections, but did not elect to pursue their grievances via available legal channels. The elections incorporated safeguards first adopted in 2001 municipal elections--published voter lists and hard-to-falsify voter identification cards.
On August 3, 2005, President Maaouya Ould Taya was deposed in a bloodless coup. Military officers, led by first cousins and tribesmen Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall and Colonel Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, staged a coup while President Taya was attending the funeral of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd. Colonel Vall established the ruling Military Council for Justice and Democracy, a military organ responsible for running the country. The council dissolved the Parliament and appointed a transitional government, which quickly adopted a timetable for the establishment of democratic rule within two years that led to successful parliamentary elections in November 2006, and free and transparent presidential elections in March 2007. A new democratically elected government under President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi--the first in 29 years--was inaugurated on April 19, 2007.
On August 6, 2008, President Abdallahi was overthrown in a bloodless coup. General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz seized power after President Abdallahi issued a decree dismissing General Aziz and three other senior military officers. The country was officially run for eight months by a 12-member High State Council (HSC) composed entirely of military officers. For the first time in the history of Mauritania, the coup encountered considerable opposition both nationally and internationally. On April 15, 2009, Aziz resigned from the government and the army and announced his presidential candidacy for elections on June 6, 2009, which were boycotted by main opposition leaders and ultimately rescheduled. A Government of National Unity was instituted on June 27, 2009, followed by President Abdallahi's voluntary resignation in compliance with the Dakar Accord negotiated under the aegis of Senegalese President Wade, the African Union, and an International Contact Group and signed on June 4. Aziz scored a first-round victory in elections organized on July 18. The results of those elections were recognized by the international community, and President Aziz was inaugurated on August 5, 2009.GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
Politics in Mauritania have always been heavily influenced by the military and by "strong men" or personalities. A leader's ability to exercise political power depends upon control over resources; financial means; perceived strength; and tribal, ethnic, and family considerations. Conflict among White Moor, Black Moor, and Black African Mauritanian groups, centering on unequal access to power, government, education, and land tenure, continues to be a major challenge to national unity. Slavery, and the repatriation and compensation of victims from the 89-90 purges of Afro-Mauritanians known as the "passif humanitaire," are still socio-political issues awaiting resolution. Political parties, illegal during the military period, were legalized again in 1991.Principal Government Officials
Mauritania maintains an embassy in the United States at 2129 Leroy Place NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-232-5700, fax 202-232-5701) and a Permanent Mission to the United Nations at 211 East 43rd Street, Suite 2000, New York, NY 10017 (tel. 212-986-7963, fax 212-986-8419).U.S.-MAURITANIAN RELATIONS
The United States strongly condemned the 2008 military coup that overthrew President Abdallahi, the legitimate and democratically elected president. U.S.-Mauritania relations were strained due to the U.S.'s principled position in defense of democracy; its rejection and active denunciation of the coup; the suspension of all development and cooperation programs; its call for international sanctions; and the imposition of travel restrictions on the junta and its supporters. The Dakar Accord signed on June 4, 2009 was a significant diplomatic achievement, as it succeeded in bringing radically opposed positions closer together in the best interest of Mauritania. President Abdallahi’s return to sign the Government of National Unity decree and his own voluntary resignation, two conditions crucial to the U.S. for a return to constitutionality, were unprecedented. The United States, along with the Government of National Unity and the international community, accepted the July 18, 2009 election of former General Aziz as reflecting the general will of the Mauritanian people. The U.S. congratulated President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz on his victory and called on all Mauritanian political leaders to continue to work together constructively and respectfully in the interest of their people.
Before the 2005 coup, U.S.-Mauritania relations were excellent, but underwent several transformations since Mauritania gained independence. From 1960 to 1967, the United States maintained cordial relations with Mauritania and provided a small amount of economic assistance. During the June 1967 Middle East war, Mauritania broke diplomatic and consular relations with the United States but restored ties 2 years later and maintained relatively friendly relations until the late 1980s, despite disagreement over the Arab-Israeli issue.
The 1989 rupture between Mauritania and Senegal (the "1989 Events") that resulted in Mauritania's deportation of tens of thousands of its own citizens to Senegal, negatively affected U.S.-Mauritanian relations. (The Mauritanian Government, assisted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), began repatriating refugees in early 2008.) Moreover, Mauritania's perceived support of Iraq prior to and during the 1991 Gulf war further weakened the strained ties.
Relations between the U.S. and Mauritania reached a low in the spring of 1991, as details of the Mauritanian military's role in widespread human rights abuses surfaced. The U.S. responded by formally halting USAID operations and all military assistance to Mauritania. Relations also suffered in the 1990s as a result of repeated reports that slavery continued in some parts of Mauritania despite legal proscriptions.
By the late 1990s, the Mauritanian Government: adopted policies facilitating the return of those expelled or who fled during the 1989 Events; turned away from Iraq and toward the West; and initiated a poverty reduction strategy while securing debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative. Improved relations with the United States, including the return of military cooperation and training programs, accompanied these changes. Mauritania formally opened diplomatic relations with Israel in 2000 and remains one of only three Arab League member-nations to have done so.
Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--Mark M. Boulware
Deputy Chief of Mission--Dennis Hankins
Regional Security Officer--Robert Castro
Political Officer--Nitza Sola-Rotger
Public Affairs Officer--Heather Fabrikant
Management Officer--Susan N'Garnim
Peace Corps Country Director--Obie Shaw
The address of the U.S. Embassy in Mauritania is Rue Abdallaye, BP 222, Nouakchott, Islamic Republic of Mauritania. Tel. (222) 525-2660/525-2663; fax (222) 525-1592.