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Mauritania (11/01)


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: Capital--Nouakchott (pop. 612,000). Other cities--Nouadhibou (113,000), Selibaby (107,000), Kaedi (91,000), Kiffa (77,000), Rosso (63,000), Zouerate (36,000).
Terrain: Northern four-fifths barren desert; southern 20% mainly Sahelian with small scale irrigated and rainfed agriculture in the Senegal River basin.
Climate: Predominantly hot and dry.

Nationality: Noun and adjective--Mauritanian(s).
Population (2001): 2.5 million.
Annual growth rate: 2.6%.
Ethnic groups: Arab-Berber (White Moor or Beydane), Arab-Berber-Negroid (Black Moor or Haritine), Haalpulaar, Soninke, Wolof.
Religion: Islam.
Languages: Arabic (official), French, Pulaar, Wolof, and Soninke.
Education: Years compulsory--six. Attendance--Student population enrolled in primary school 86%. Adult literacy--42%.
Health: Infant mortality rate--88/1,000. Life expectancy--54 yrs.
Work force: Agriculture and fisheries--50%. Services and commerce-- 20%. Government--20%. Industry and transportation--5%. Other--5%.

Type: Republic.
Independence: November 28, 1960.
Constitution: Approved 1991. Military rule 1978-1992. Original constitution promulgated 1961.
Branches: Executive--president (chief 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: 15 (October 2001 elections).
Suffrage: Universal at 18.
National day: November 28, Independence Day.
Flag: Green with a yellow five-pointed star above a yellow, horizontal crescent; the closed side of the crescent is down.

GDP (2000): $935 million.
Annual growth rate: 4.0%.
Per capita income: $370.
Natural resources: Fish, iron ore, gypsum.
Agriculture (24% of GDP): Products--livestock, millet, maize, wheat, dates, rice.
Industry (30% of GDP): Types--iron mining, fishing.
Trade (1999) (40% of GDP): Exports--$370 million. Major markets--Japan 29%; Italy 14%; France 14%; Spain 10%, Belgium/Luxembourg 7%; Switzerland 5%. Imports--$469 million: foodstuffs, machinery, tools, cloth, consumer goods. Major suppliers--France 33%; U.S. 10%; Spain 9%; Germany 6%; Algeria 6%; Belgium/Luxembourg 5%; Italy 4%.
Currency: Ouguiya (UM)

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 which derives its name from the Beni Hassan tribe, became the dominant language among the largely nomadic population. Aristocrat and servant castes 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 Nouakchott was founded at the site of a small colonial village, the Ksar, and 90% 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 language and customs, many of these recent arrivals became clerks, soldiers, and administrators in the new state.

Moors reacted to this change by increasing pressure to Arabicize many aspects of Mauritanian life, such as law and language. A schism developed between those who consider Mauritania to be an Arab country (mainly Moors) and those who seek a dominant role for the S-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") but has since subsided. The tension between these two visions remains a feature of the political dialogue. A significant number from both groups, however, seek a more diverse, pluralistic society.

In October 2001, Mauritania held its third legislative and fifth municipal elections since the opening of multiparty politics under the 1991 constitution. In an effort to overcome widespread accusations of fraud and manipulation in previous elections, the government introduced new safeguards, including published voter lists and a hard-to-falsify voter identification card. Reversing a trend of election boycotts, 15 opposition parties nominated candidates for more than 3,000 municipal posts and the 81-member National Assembly. Four opposition parties won a combined 11 seats in the National Assembly and took 15% of the municipal posts. The ruling Republican, Democratic, and Social Party (PRDS), in conjunction with two coalition parties, won the remaining contests. Presidential elections are slated for 2003.

The PRDS, led by President Maaouya ould Sid'Ahmed Taya, has dominated Mauritanian politics since the country's first multiparty elections in April 1992 following the approval by referendum of the current constitution in July 1991. 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. The country's first president, Moktar ould Daddah, served from independence until ousted in a bloodless coup on July 10, 1978.

Politics in Mauritania have always been heavily influenced by personalities, with any leader's ability to exercise political power dependent upon control over resources; perceived ability or integrity; and tribal, ethnic, family, and personal considerations. Conflict between white Moor, black Moor, and non-Moor ethnic groups, centering on language, land tenure, and other issues, continues to be the dominant challenge to national unity.

The government bureaucracy is composed of traditional ministries, special agencies, and parastatal companies. The Ministry of Interior controls a system of regional governors and prefects modeled on the French system of local administration. Under this system, Mauritania is divided into 13 regions (wilaya), including the capital district, Nouakchott. Control is tightly concentrated in the executive branch of the central government, but a series of national and municipal elections since 1992 have produced some limited decentralization.

Political parties, illegal during the military period, were legalized again in 1991. By April 1992, as civilian rule returned, 15 political parties had been recognized. Although most are small, there are two main opposition parties--the Rally of Democratic Forces (RFD) and the Action for Change (AC)--traditionally considered the party of the Haritines. Most opposition parties boycotted the first legislative election in 1992, and for nearly a decade the parliament has been dominated by the PRDS. The opposition participated in municipal elections in January-February 1994 and subsequent Senate elections, gaining representation at the local level as well as one seat in the Senate. Noting procedural changes and opposition gains in municipal and legislative contests, most local observers considered the October 2001 elections open and transparent.

Principal Government Officials
President--Maaouya ould Sid'Ahmed Taya
Prime Minister--Cheikh El Avia ould Mohamed Khouna
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation--Dah ould Abdi
Minister of Economic Affairs and Development--Mohamed ould Nany
Minister of Commerce, Handicrafts, and Tourism--Isselmou ould Abdel Kader

Ambassador to the United Nations--Mahfoud ould Deddache
Ambassador to the United States--Mohamedou ould Michel

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.-Mauritania relations are excellent but have undergone 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.

Between 1983 and 1991, when the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) mission in Mauritania ceased operations, the United States provided $67.3 million in development assistance. The U.S. also provided emergency food assistance through bilateral channels until 1992 and, subsequently, through multilateral channels. Since 1981, the United States has provided about $100 million in economic and food assistance.

The 1989 rupture between Mauritania and Senegal (the "1989 Events") that resulted in Mauritania's deportation to Senegal of tens of thousands of its own citizens negatively affected U.S.-Mauritanian relations. 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 United States responded by formally halting USAID operations and all military assistance to Mauritania. Relations also suffered in the 1990s as a result of repeated but later discredited 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 Highly Indebted Poor Countries initiative. These changes were accompanied by improved relations with the U.S., including the return of military cooperation and training programs. In October 2000, Mauritania was among the initial group of countries named eligible for U.S. trade benefits under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act.

Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--John W. Limbert
Deputy Chief of Mission--John Olson
Military Assistance Officer (and Regional Security Officer)--F. John Bray
Economic/Consular/Commercial Officer--Peter T. Chisholm
Peace Corps Country Director--Kateri Clement

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.

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