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Country Profile


Country profile

Where is Mauritania? The colonial French used to call Mauritania ‘The Vacuum’. In part this was simply a description of the desert land. In part it was an arrogant dismissal of another culture: the town of Chinguetti, for example, is ranked as the seventh city of Islam and scholars, poets and marabouts (priests) have converged on its libraries for centuries. But the term also reflected the difficulties the French had in consolidating their power. Though Mauritania was ‘given’ to them in the 1817 Treaty of Paris it took them until 1858 to invade it and until 1934 finally to pacify its independent-minded inhabitants.

Those inhabitants are predominantly Moors or Maures (hence the country’s name), a nomadic group which arose from the collision between light-skinned Berbers and dark-skinned Africans from farther south.

Mauritania has a racial divide between the dominant Maures and the black peoples of the south such as the Fulani, Soninké and Wolof, who have traditionally been enslaved by them. Slavery was only legally abolished in Mauritania in 1980 and there are still thousands of slaves.

Political power has always been firmly in the hands of the Maures since independence from France in 1960. The country’s first civilian President, Mokhtar Ould Daddah, presided over an ‘Arabization’ program which provoked great hostility in the African south, took Mauritania out of the French-dominated African franc zone (CFA) to create its own currency, and laid military claim to the south of Western Sahara when the Spanish colonists withdrew in 1975. The military adventure caused economic chaos and resulted in military defeat by Western Sahara’s Polisario Front. Ould Daddah was removed by a military coup in 1978 and a succession of further coups ended when Colonel Maaouiya Ould Sidi Muhammad Taya – the current President – assumed power in 1984.

International pressure has resulted in a shift towards nominal multi-party democracy and elections took place in 1992, though fraud was widely suspected. Five main opposition parties formed a front to prepare for the next presidential election in January 1998 but have since announced that they will boycott them on the grounds that ‘fraud makes participation in any election absolutely vain and futile’.

The problems facing any Mauritanian Government would be vast. The economy is utterly dependent for its foreign exchange on fish and on iron ore, which is shipped to the sea by rail in reputedly the longest freight trains in the world (150 wagons stretching 2.5 kilometres). But the richest iron-ore deposit is already worked out. The Sahara continues its relentless march over the previously fertile areas of the country – the belt of arable land in the south narrows with every passing year.

Nouakchott, the capital, contains a quarter of the country’s population and is a byword for shanty-town settlement. The poor have not escaped the ravages of structural adjustment, which has been imposed at IMF/World Bank behest since 1992. They are in desperate need of a new deal.

Thémon Djaksam


At a glance LEADER: President Maaouiya Ould Sidi Muhammad Taya

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $480 (France $23,420)
Monetary unit: Ouguiya
Main exports: Fish and fish products (60%), iron ore (40%)
Main imports: Foodstuffs (35%), petroleum products (25%), transport equipment (10%), consumer goods (10%).
Mauritania is a member of the Arab Maghreb Union along with Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. Less than three per cent of the total land area is arable with ten per cent suitable for pasture. The fishing areas off the coast are among the richest in the world and joint-venture fishing has become the most important foreign-exchange earner.

PEOPLE: 2.3 million

HEALTH: Infant mortality 112 per 1,000 live births (Ireland 6 per 1,000)

CULTURE: Three-quarters of the population are Maures, with a nomadic heritage. The other quarter are black African groups from the south, including the Peul/Fulani, Soninké, Wolof and Bambara.

LANGUAGES:: Arabic and French are the official languages. The Maures speak Hassaniya, a dialect of Arabic reputed to be ‘purer’. The southern groups also speak their own languages such as the Soninké’s Sarakolé.
Religion: Islam

Sources The World Guide 1997/98; State of the World’s Children 1997; Africa Review 1997.

Previously profiled July 1984


[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Ordinary people have been affected most by structural adjustment.
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[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown]
38%. Still poor, though 69% of children now enrol in primary school.
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[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Despite notable domestic efforts, especially in the fishing sector, the country remains heavily dependent on outside assistance.
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[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown]
Despite a proliferation of political parties, a recent sustained wave of arrests of political opponents have been an index of repression.
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[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Still precarious amid strong Islamic currents.
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[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
53 years (Australia 78 years). Has improved from 44 years in 1984.
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[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown]
President Maaouiya’s regime is showing increasing intolerance of dissent and political opposition that bodes ill for its flirtation with democracy, which has been more show than substance. The poor have been ill-served by their governments ever since independence and badly need at least the possibility of political change.

NI star rating

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Contents page

© Copyright New Internationalist Magazine 1997

New Internationalist issue 295 magazine cover This article is from the October 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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