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Mauritanian Islamic Republic

[French] République Islamique de Mauritanie;
[Arabic] Al-Jumhuriyah; al-Islamiyah al-Muritaniyah

CAPITAL: Nouakchott

FLAG: The flag consists of a gold star and crescent on a light green field.

ANTHEM: Mauritania (no words).

MONETARY UNIT: The ouguiya (um), a paper currency of 5 khoums, issued by the Central Bank of Mauritania, replaced the Communauté Financière Africaine franc on 29 June 1973. There are coins of 1 khoum and 1, 5, 10, and 20 ouguiyas, and notes of 100, 200, 500, and 1,000 ouguiyas. um1 = $0.00380 (or $1 = um263.03) as of 2003.

WEIGHTS AND MEASURES: The metric system is the legal standard.

HOLIDAYS: New Year's Day, 1 January; Labor Day, 1 May; African Liberation Day, 25 May; Anniversary of the Proclamation of the Republic, 28 November. Movable religious holidays include Laylat al-Miraj, 'Id al-Fitr, 'Id al-'Adha', 1st of Muharram (Muslim New Year), and Milad an-Nabi.



Situated in West Africa, Mauritania has an area of 1,030,700 sq km (397,955 sq mi). Mauritania extends 1,515 km (941 mi) nesw and 1,314 km (816 mi) senw. Comparatively, the area occupied by Mauritania is slightly larger than three times the size of the state of New Mexico. It is bordered on the ne by Algeria, on the e and s by Mali, on the sw by Senegal, on the w by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the nw and n by the Western Sahara, with a total estimated boundary length of 5,828 km (3,621 mi), of which 754 km (469 mi) is coastline.

Mauritania's capital city, Nouakchott, is located on the Atlantic Coast.


There are three distinct geographic regions in Mauritania: a narrow belt along the Senegal River valley in the south, where soil and climatic conditions permit settled agriculture; north of this valley, a broad eastwest band characterized by vast sand plains and fixed dunes held in place by sparse grass and scrub trees; and a large northern arid region shading into the Sahara, advancing south several kilometers each year, and characterized by shifting sand dunes, rock outcroppings, and rugged mountainous plateaus that in a few places reach elevations of more than 500 m (1,640 ft). The high point, Mount Ijill at about 915 m (3,002 ft), is near Fdérik. The country is generally flat.


Although conditions are generally desertlike, three climatic regions can be distinguished. Southern Mauritania has a Sahelian climate; there is one rainy season from July to October. Annual rainfall averages 66 cm (26 in) in the far south; at Nouakchott the annual average is 14 cm (5.5 in).

Trade winds moderate the temperature in the coastal region, which is arid. The average maximum temperature at Nouadhibou for January is 26°c (79°f), and for October 32°c (90°f); average minimums are 13°c (55°f) for January and 19°c (66°f) for July.

Most of Mauritania north of Atarabout two-thirds of the countryhas a Saharan climate. Daytime temperatures exceed 38°c (100°f) in most areas for over 6 months of the year, but the nights are cool. Average annual rainfall at Atar is 10 cm (4 in).


In the desert there are some cacti and related species; oases support relatively luxuriant growth, notably date palms. In the south are grasses and trees common to the savanna regions, particularly the baobab tree, but also palms and acacias. The far south, in the Senegal River valley, has willows, jujube, and acacias. Lions, panthers, jackals, crocodiles, hippopotami, hyenas, cheetahs, otters, and monkeys survive in the south; in the north there are antelopes, wild sheep, ostriches and other large birds, and ducks. As of 2002, there were at least 61 species of mammals, 172 species of birds, and over 1,100 species of plants throughout the country.


Deforestation is a severe problem because of the population's growing need for firewood and construction materials. Slash-and-burn agriculture has contributed to soil erosion, which is aggravated by drought. The expansion of the desert into agricultural lands is accelerated by limited rainfall, deforestation, the consumption of vegetation by livestock, and wind erosion. The expansion of domestic herds onto grazing land formerly restricted to wildlife has also taken a serious toll on the environment, both in erosion and in encroachment on wildlife species. In 2003, only 1.7% of Mauritania's total land area was protected. The nation also has a problem with water pollution, resulting from the leakage of petroleum and industrial waste along with sewage into the nation's ports and rivers. A government-built dam on the Senegal River is expected to alleviate the country's water problems and stimulate agriculture.

According to a 2006 report issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), the number of threatened species included 7 types of mammals, 5 species of birds, 2 types of reptiles, 11 species of fish, and 1 species of invertebrates. Threatened species include the African gerbil, African slender-snouted crocodiles, and barbary sheep. The Sahara oryx has become extinct in the wild.


The population of Mauritania in 2005 was estimated by the United Nations (UN) at 3,069,000, which placed it at number 132 in population among the 193 nations of the world. In 2005, approximately 3% of the population was over 65 years of age, with another 43% of the population under 15 years of age. There were 98 males for every 100 females in the country. According to the UN, the annual population rate of change for 200510 was expected to be 2.7%, a rate the government viewed as satisfactory. The projected population for the year 2025 was 4,973,000. The overall population density was 3 per sq km (8 per sq mi), but varies significantly. More than 90% of the population lives in the southern quarter of the country, including the Senegal River Valley.

The UN estimated that 40% of the population lived in urban areas in 2005, and that urban areas were growing at an annual rate of 4.34%. The capital city, Nouakchott, had a population of 600,000 in that year.


In seasonal grazing migrations, cattle are moved every year and are led to neighboring Senegal for sale. The droughts of the 1970s and early 1980s led to mass migrations to the towns. The population was 12% nomadic in 1988, compared to 83% in 1963. Some tribesmen of the Senegal River valley go to Dakar in Senegal for seasonal work or to engage in petty trade. A few thousand Mauritanians live in France. In 2000 the number of migrants in the country was 63,000. In 2000 remittances were $2 million, down from $14 million in 1990.

There were 6,148 Mauritanian refugees in Mali as of 2004 and 2,364 Mauritanians applied for asylum in France. In that same year there were also 19,777 Mauritanian refugees in Senegal, all assisted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Between June 1995 and 1997, 36,000 Malian refugees in Mauritania returned home, with 6,782 Malian refugees still remaining. By the end of 2004, some 3,500 Malians remained in Mauritania, as did 26,000 Western Saharans. In 2004, there were 473 refugees and 117 asylum seekers in Mauritania. In 2005, the net migration rate was an estimated0.04 migrants per 1,000 population. The government views the migration levels as satisfactory.


Moors (Maures), the main ethnic group, are a Caucasoid people of Berber and Arab stock, with some Negroid admixture. The Moors are further divided into ethno-linguistic tribal and clan groups. Other groups, all black, are the Tukulor, Sarakolé, Fulani (Fulbe), Wolof, and Bambara. The black population is found largely in southern Mauritania and in the cities. About 40% of the total population are a Moor/black admixture, 30% are Moors, and 30% are black. There is also small numbers of Europeans, mainly French and Spanish (the latter from the Canary Islands), and a small colony of Lebanese traders. Freed slaves or the descendants of freed slaves are known as haratin.


Arabic is the official language. The Arabic spoken in Mauritania is called Hasaniya. Wolof, Peular, and Soninke are spoken in southern Mauritania and recognized as national languages. French is widely used, particularly in business, but its status as an official language was eliminated in the 1991 constitution.


The constitution declares Islam to be the religion of both the state and its people. As such, over 99% of the population is Muslim, most of whom are Sunnis. The Qadiriya and the Tijaniya are influential Islamic brotherhoods. The few thousand Christians and a very small number of Jews are mostly foreigners. Though proselytizing is not legally prohibited, it is discouraged, particularly through restrictions on the publishing and distribution of materials that contradict or threaten the tenets of Islam.


Modern forms of transport are still undeveloped. There are few paved roads, only one freight railroad, two deep-water ports, and two airports that can handle international traffic.

In 2002, of some 7,720 km (4,797 mi) of roads, only 830 km (516 mi) were paved. There were only three paved highways, from Nouakchott north to Akjoujt and south to Rosso, continuing to Saint-Louis, Senegal. A 1,000-km (620-mi) eastwest road between Nouakchott and Néma, started in 1975, was completed in 1985. A track continues north from Akjoujt to Bir Mogreïn, then branches northwest into Western Sahara and northeast into Algeria. Mauritania had about 11,450 passenger cars and 6,850 commercial vehicles in 2003.

As of 2004, Mauritania had 717 km (446-mi) of railway, all of it standard gauge, which linked the iron mines at Zouérate, near Fdérik, with the port at Point-Central, 10 km (6 mi) south of Nouadhibou. A 40-km (24-mi) spur was built in 1981 to accommodate the planned new mine at El-Rhein. There is a wharf at Nouakchott; work on the construction of a deepwater port, financed by China, was completed in 1986. This "Port of Friendship" is the main commercial port and receives about 90% of imported goods. Nouadhibou, also a port, underwent extensive reconstruction, restoration, and equipment renewal in 1991. Other important ports and harbors include Bogue, Kaedi, and Rosso. The Senegal River offers over 220 km (137 mi) of year-round transport.

In 2004, there were an estimated 24 airports, 8 of which had paved runways as of 2005. The only airports that can handle long-distance jets are at Nouakchott and Nouadhibou. There are smaller airports at Ayoûn-el-'Atroûs, Akjoujt, Atar, Fdérik, Kaédi, Kifa, and Néma. Air Mauritanie (60% state owned) provides domestic flights as well as service to the Canary Islands and Senegal. The multinational Air Afrique also operates within Mauritania. In 2003, about 116,000 passengers were carried on scheduled domestic and international airline flights.


Tens of thousands of years ago, the Sahara was both lush and filled with game. Desiccation eventually forced the inhabitants southward, a process that in the 3rd and 4th centuries ad was speeded by the Berbers, who had domesticated the camel. As the Berbers pressed down from the north toward the Senegal River valley, black Africans who lived in the path of the invaders moved further to the south. From the 9th century, a Berber tribe, the Lamtuna, and two other Berber groups cooperated in the control of a thriving caravan trade in gold, slaves, and ivory from the south. They took desert salt and north African goods in exchange.

The Almoravids, a group of fervent Muslim Mauritanian Berbers conquered northwest Africa and much of Spain in the 11th century. They had, in turns, hostile and peaceful trade relations with the black African empire of Ghana. Their authority in the Mauritanian region had declined by the late 11th century. After the Almoravid empire was destroyed in the 12th century, the Mali kingdom, successor to Ghana, extended over southeastern Mauritania and dominated trade in the area. Later Mali was succeeded by the Songhai of Gao, whose empire fell to Moroccan invaders in 1591. Meanwhile, during the 14th and 15th centuries, nomadic Arab tribes of Yemeni extraction, the Banu Maqil, moved into Mauritania. By the 17th century, they had been able to establish complete dominance over the Berbers. They called themselves the Awlad-Banu Hassan. The Arabs and Berbers in Mauritania have since thoroughly intermingled with an Arabized Mauritania.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive, attracted in the 15th century by the trade in gold and slaves; later, the gum arabic trade became important. Competition for control was keen among Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English traders. The issue was resolved in 1815 when Senegal was awarded to France in the post-Napoleonic war settlement. During the 19th century, the French explored the inland regions and signed treaties with Moorish chieftains. Penetration of the desert zone was accelerated around the turn of the century in attempts to thwart Moorish raids on the Senegal River tribes. A Frenchman, Xavier Coppolani, was responsible for the signing of many treaties, and played a key role in the extension of French influence in the area. By 1903, he was in control of Trarza, the Moors' main base for raids on the river tribes. Coppolani was killed in 1905, but his work was completed by Gen. Henri Gouraud, who gained effective control of the Adrar region by 1909. Mauritania was established as a colony in 1920, but its capital was located at Saint-Louis in Senegal. Mauritania thus became one of the eight territories that constituted the French West Africa federation.

In 1946 a Mauritanian Territorial Assembly was established, with some control over internal affairs. During the next 12 years, political power increasingly passed to local political leaders. Mauritania voted for the constitution of the Fifth French Republic at the referendum of 28 September 1958; it thus became a self-governing member of the French Community. The Islamic Republic of Mauritania was proclaimed in November 1958, while complete independence was attained on 28 November 1960.

Since independence, Mauritania has experienced three successful coups in up to 10 attempts. The grounds for these lay in part in the human and civil rights abuses committed by the government. The black minority, located largely in the south, has staged antidiscrimination protests and campaigned against slavery in Mauritania. Officially, slavery has been banned since 1981; but a law that makes slavery a punishable offence has yet to be implemented. As of 2006, the government had not gone forward with a ceremony at which hundreds of slaves were to be set free under an arrangement supported by international antislavery organizations.

In foreign affairs, the government has turned increasingly toward the Arab world. Mauritania joined the Arab League in 1973 and withdrew from the franc zone during the same year; but ties with Europe, especially France, and the United States remain strong. The disastrous drought that struck Mauritania and the rest of the Sahel region during 196874 elicited substantial aid from the EC, the United States, Spain, France, and the Arab countries.

On 14 November 1975, the governments of Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania reached an agreement whereby Spain agreed to abandon control of the Spanish Sahara by 28 February 1976 and to share administration of the territory until then with Morocco and Mauritania. On 14 April 1976, Morocco and Mauritania announced a border delimitation agreement under which Morocco received more than two-thirds of the region (including the areas with the richest phosphate deposits). Morocco in effect annexed Western Sahara.

Morocco's action drew condemnation from across the world. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia al-Hamra and Río de Oro (generally known as Polisario) even proclaimed Western Sahara as the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic. When Polisario forces, supported by Algeria, launched a war in the region, guerrilla raids on the Mauritanian railway, iron mines, and coastal settlements, including Nouakchott, forced Mauritania to call French and Moroccan troops to its defense. The effects of the war weakened the government both economically and politically, and in July 1978, Moktar Ould Daddah, Mauritania's president since 1961, was overthrown by a military coup. On 5 August 1979, Mauritania formally relinquished its portion of the disputed territory, except for the military base of LaGuera, near Nouadhibou. Morocco also occupied and then annexed that (Mauritania's) portion of the territory. Mauritania thereafter pursued a policy of strict neutrality in the Morocco-Polisario conflict, a policy that strained relations with Morocco.

In the wake of the 1978 coup, the constitution was suspended and the National Assembly and the ruling Mauritanian People's Party (PPM) were dissolved. After a period of political uncertainty, Lt. Col. Khouna Ould Haydalla became chief of state and chairman of the ruling Military Committee for National Salvation as of 4 January 1980. There were unsuccessful attempts to overthrow his government in 1981 and 1982. Amnesty International claimed in 1983 that more than 100 political prisoners, including a former president and former prime minister, were being held in total darkness in underground cells in the desert. These prisoners were freed shortly after a military coup on 12 December 1984 brought Col. Moaouia Ould Sidi Mohamed Taya to power as chief of state.

However, as the economy faltered, racial, ethnic, and class tensions increased and the society became polarized. The lines were drawn between the Maurs or Moorsaristocrats who have dominated governmentand black African slaves or descendents of slaves, who have adopted Moorish culture, but remain second-class citizens on the other. Although the government refuses to release census data, it is estimated that Moors account for 3060% of the population. The black population, which is concentrated along the Senegal River border, has organized an underground Front for the Liberation of Africans in Mauritania (FLAM); grievances were linked with an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1987.

Interethnic hostilities in 1989 exploded when a border dispute with Senegal led to race riots that left several hundred Senegalese dead in Nouackchott. The Moorish trading community in Senegal was targeted for retaliation. Thousands of refugees streamed across the border in both directions. Mass deportation of "Mauritanians of Senegalese origin" fueled charges that Mauritania was trying to eliminate its non-Moorish population. Africa Watch estimated that at least 100,000 black slaves were being held in Mauritania.

Against this backdrop, the military conducted a bloody purge from September 1990 through March 1991 during which some 500 mostly black soldiers were murdered. Taya legalized opposition parties in July 1991, but he also stepped up Arabization policies. Parliament granted the perpetrators of the purge legal immunity in May 1993.

On 26 January 1992, Taya was elected in Mauritania's first multiparty presidential election with 63% of the vote. Ahmed Ould Daddah, the strongest of the four rivals and half-brother of Mauritania's first president, gained 33% of the vote. However, the election was marked by fraud. The legislative elections that followed in March were boycotted by 6 of the 14 opposition parties. Taya's Democratic and Social Republican Party (PRDS) easily won 67 of 79 Assembly seats.

Multiparty municipal elections were held in 1994, and the PRDS won control of 172 of the nation's 208 administrative districts. Presidential elections were held on 12 December 1997. Main opposition parties claimed that campaign conditions favored the reelection of Taya to a second six-year term and called for a boycott of the elections. Kane Amadou Moctar, the first black African ever to run for the presidency, presented himself as a nonaligned candidate with a platform promising to fight slavery, assist the return of Mauritanian refugees from Senegal, and reform the fisheries policy. The elections took place without incident and Taya was declared the winner, taking 90% of the votes. Turnout was estimated at 70%, despite the opposition boycott. Moctar received less than 1% of the vote. Opposition leaders described the poll as a "masquerade," citing reports of widespread irregularities that included children casting ballots and polls remaining open as late as 11 pm.

Elections were held in April 1998 for 18 of the Senate's 56 seats. The PRDS won 17 of the 18 contested seats, with an independent gaining the remaining seat. In January 1999 the PRDS again won most of the 208 districts contested in municipal elections, though it is estimated that only 16% of the registered votes went to the polls.

Despite multiparty elections, Mauritania is far from a free society. Opposition politicians are harassed and arrested. In 1994 and again in 1998, Cheikh Sadibou Camara of the UDP was arrested for suggesting that the slave trade was continuingpublicly stating the suggestion is considered a crime in the country. Anti-Slavery International, based in London, presented an annual antislavery award to Camara in November 1998. The government also harasses journalists and has suspended publication of newspapers and magazines on numerous occasions in recent years. Since 1993, Mauritania has been denied US trade privileges because of its poor human rights record. Ahmed Ould Daddah had continued to confront the Taya regime; he was arrested in April 2000 but was released a few days later without charges. In May 2000 demonstrations by opposition parties in Nouakchott demanded an independent electoral commission.

Despite opposition protests, the PRDS has maintained its monopoly on power in the Senate and in the National Assembly. In Senate elections held 12 April 2002, the PRDS maintained its commanding majority of 54 seats to 1 for the RFD, and 1 for the UNDD. In National Assembly elections held 19 and 26 October 2001 (next to be held 2006), the PRDS garnered 79% of the vote, compared to 3.5% for the RDU, 3.5% for the UDP, 5% for the AC, 4% for the RDF, 3.5% for the UFP, and 1.5% for the FP. The breakdown by number of seats was as follows: PRDS 64, UDP 3, RDU 3, AC 4, RFD 3, UFP 3, and FP 1. The 2001 Assembly elections were generally considered free and fair by outside observers, but were subject to the usual incumbent advantages in sub-Saharan Africa.

In June 2003, the government was dealing with a coup attempt that nearly overthrew Taya. As many as 40 people were injured and six killed in two days of heavy fighting in the capital on 89 June. Sala Ould Henena, who was fired from the army because of his opposition to the government's ties with Israel, was accused of leading former and mid-ranking army officers in the putsch. In response to the coup, the United States sent a 34-member military assessment team to Nouakchott to analyze US Embassy security needs. Analysts suspected that the cabal may have been provoked by a government crackdown earlier in the month against 32 Islamic leaders for their alleged ties to a foreign network of Islamic extremists and to former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

In presidential elections held in 2003, Taya won reelection for a third term with 60.8% of the vote. But the opposition claimed that massive fraud marred the vote. There was little doubt though that Taya had been attracting opposition from among key segments of the population. In 1999, Mauritania became only the third Arab League state to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. Taya's links to Israel and his pro-Western, pro-US foreign policy had come under increasing criticism in the largely Muslim country. In September 2004, the government alleged yet another coup plotthe third in 15 months. In June 2005, an attack on an army base in the Sahara left 15 soldiers dead; it was blamed on insurgents from Algeria. All this seems to lend credence to allegations that Taya had been insensitive to the desires of Mauritanians, or that he had become too arrogant and too powerful to be bothered by what people thought about his government.

Thus, when Taya was deposed by a military coup on 3 August 2005, there was no public protest in his support. Dancing was reported on the streets of Nouakchott. On the other hand, opposition politicians welcomed the change; but they also vowed to intensify their watchdog function. Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall became chief of state and head of the new Military Council for Justice and Democracy. Col. Vall also promised to return to a constitutional order within two years, and vowed that no member of his caretaker administration would seek elective posts. Elections to the National Assembly were scheduled for November 2006, and to the Senate in January 2007. Presidential elections were scheduled for March 2007.


The constitution of 20 May 1961 declared Mauritania to be an Islamic republic. This constitution, which placed effective power in the hands of a president who was also head of the only legal political organization, the Mauritanian People's Party, was suspended in 1978 by the new military regime. Subsequently, executive and legislative powers were vested in the Military Committee for National Salvation. A draft constitution was published in 1980 but later abandoned; like the 1961 document, it called for a popularly elected president and National Assembly.

The July 1991 constitution delegates most powers to the executive. The president is to be elected by universal suffrage for a six-year term. The prime minister is appointed by the president and designated head of government. Parliament is composed of a bicameral legislature. The Senate, or Majlis al-Shuyukh, has 56 seats with 17 up for election every two years. Its members are elected by municipal leaders to serve six-year terms. The National Assembly, or Majlis al-Watani, has 79 seats with members elected by popular vote to serve five-year terms. These institutions pose no serious challenge and, moreover, are controlled by the president's party, although competing political parties were legalized in July 1991.

Since 2005, the military has controlled the levers of power, although in apparent consultation with politicians. On current reckoning, elections due from late 2006 through early 2007 might return politics and government in Mauritania to the democratic path. But a change in the transition time-table cannot be ruled out.


As elsewhere in French West Africa, formal political movements developed in Mauritania only after World War II. Horma Ould Babana, the leader of the first party to be established, the Mauritanian Entente, was elected to the French National Assembly in 1946. His party was considered too radical by the traditional chiefs, who organized a more conservative party, the Mauritanian Progressive Union (UPM). The UPM won 22 of 24 seats in the 1952 elections for the Territorial Assembly. In the 1957 elections, the first under universal adult suffrage, 33 of 34 persons elected to the Territorial Assembly were UPM members. In 1958, the UPM absorbed the weakened Entente into its organization, forming a single party, the Mauritanian Regroupment Party (PRM).

After independence, Prime Minister Moktar Ould Daddah in May 1961 set up a presidential system of government, and in the subsequent presidential election he was the only candidate. In December 1961, a new single party was formed, the Hizb Shab, or Mauritanian People's Party (Parti du Peuple MauritanienPPM). The PPM included minority parties as well as the PRM. By 1965, the single-party system had been established by law. President Ould Daddah was reelected in 1966, 1971, and 1976, but the PPM was dissolved after his ouster in 1978. No political parties functioned openly from 1978 until the 1991 military coup.

The Front for the Liberation of Africans in Mauritania (FLAM) was instrumental in stirring the 1989 unrest that ultimately led to multiparty elections. During this period of partisan organization, Taya formed the Democratic and Social Republican Party (Parti Republicain et Democratique SocialPRDS).

Chief among some 14 opposition parties has been the Union of Democratic Forces (UFD), which supported the runner-up in the January 1992 presidential election and boycotted the March parliamentary election. In May 1992, the UFD changed its name to UFD-New Era. In March 1993, it was weakened by the departure of eight centrist leaders to form a new political grouping. Also active are the Rally for Democratic and National Unity (RDU), the Union for Progress and Democracy (UPD), the Mauritanian Renewal Party (PMR), the People's Progressive Party (PPP), the Socialist and Democratic People's Union (SDPU), the Democratic Center Party (DCP), the Popular Front (FP), and El Har, a 1994 splintering of the UFD-New Era. The technically illegal Islamist party, Ummah, is very popular. The Action for Change (AC) party, which held four seats in the National Assembly following the October 2001 elections, was banned in January 2002.

After Taya won reelection in 2003, the Assembly was overwhelmingly dominated by his party, the PRDS. Since Col. Vall took power, opposition politicians appear to have become more involved, at least indirectly, in public decision making. For many years following 1998, Cheikh El Avia Ould Mohamed Khouna served as prime minister. On 8 August 2005 Sidi Mohamed Ould Boukakar became prime minister.

The Party of Democratic Convergence was banned in October 2005 because it was regarded as having breached Mauritanian law.


Mauritania is divided into the city of Nouakchott and 12 regions, each with a governor and a commission. The regions are subdivided into 49 departments. Elections to municipal councils were held in December 1986 and again in 1992. The JanuaryFebruary 1994 municipal elections led to PRDS control of around 170 of the 208 municipalities, a majority retained by the PRDS in 1999.

Local elections were held in 2001. But the polls were marred as much by opposition boycott as by charges of massive fraud. All results for Nouakchott were annulled and a rerun orderedalthough the reasons for such action remained unclear, given the boycott by opposition.


The 1991 constitution completely revised the judicial system, which had previously consisted of a lower court in Nouakchott, labor and military courts, a security court, and a Supreme Court in addition to qadi courts, which handled family law cases.

The revised judicial system includes lower, middle, and upper level courts, each with specialized jurisdiction. The security court was abolished, and 43 department-level tribunals now bridge the traditional (qadi ) and modern court systems. These courts are staffed by qadis or traditional magistrates trained in Koranic law. General civil cases are handled by 10 regional courts of first instance. Three regional courts of appeal hear challenges to decisions at the department level. A Supreme Court, headed by a magistrate named by the president to a five-year term, reviews appeals taken from decisions of the regional courts of appeal.

The 1991 constitution also established a six-member constitutional court, three members of which are named by the president, two by the national assembly president, and one by the senate president.

While the judiciary is nominally independent, it is subject to pressure and influence by the executive, which controls the appointment and dismissal of judges. The system is strongly influenced by rulings and settlements of tribal elders based on Shariah and tribal regulations.

The Codes of Civil and Criminal Procedure were revised in 1993 to bring them into line with the guarantees of the 1991 constitution, which provides for due process of law.


In 2005 the active armed forces of Mauritania numbered 15,870. The Army had 15,000 personnel armed with 35 main battle tanks, 70 reconnaissance vehicles, 25 armored personnel carriers, and 194 artillery pieces. The Navy had an estimated 650 active personnel. Major naval units consisted of 10 patrol/coastal vessels. The nation's Air Force had 250 active memembers. The aircraft inventory was limited to 2 reconnaissance, 12 transport, and 4 training aircraft. Paramilitary personnel numbered an estimated 5,000 personnel, with 3,000 in the gendarmerie and 2000 in the National Guard. The defense budget in 2005 totaled $20.1 million.


Admitted to the United Nations on 27 October 1961, Mauritania is a member of ECA and several nonregional specialized agencies, such as the FAO, IFC, IMF, the World Bank, UNESCO, UNIDO, and the WHO. It is also a member of the ACP Group, the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa, African Development Bank, the Council of Arab Economic Unity, the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), G-77, the Arab League, the African Union, the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), the Arab Maghreb Union, and the WTO. Mauritania has joined with Senegal and Mali to form the Organization for the Development of the Senegal River (Organisation pour la Mise en Valeur du Fleuve SénégalOMVS). Mauritania is a member of the Nonaligned Movement.

In environmental cooperation, Mauritania is part of the Basel Convention, the Convention on Biological Diversity, Ramsar, CITES, the Montréal Protocol, MARPOL, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and the UN Conventions on the Law of the Sea, Climate Change and Desertification.

The country is also a member with neighboring states of the Interstate Committee to Combat Drought in the Sahel (CILSS).


While Mauritania is an agricultural country, historically largely dependent on livestock production, its significant iron ore deposits have been the backbone of the export economy in recent years. The droughts of the 1970s and 1980s transformed much of Mauritania, as the herds died off and the population shifted to urban areas. In 1960, 85% of the population lived as nomadic herders. By 1999, that percentage had fallen to 5%, and nearly one-third of the population lives in the district of Nouakchott. Offshore oil reserves have been identified and are estimated at one billion barrels. Substantial oil production and exports were expected to begin in 2006 and were projected to average 75,000 barrels per day for that year. Gold and diamond prospecting hold potential as growth areas.

Most of Mauritania is desert or semiarid. Less than 1% of Mauritania receives sufficient rain for crop production, and that 1% is drought-prone. Leading staple crops are millet, sorghum, rice, corn, sweet potatoes and yams, pulses, and dates. The country is not agriculturally self-sufficient and this situation has been aggravated by increasing urbanization.

In 2006, iron ore sales accounted for approximately 40% of exports. Fish exports account for 60% of foreign earnings. The contribution of livestock herding and agriculture was 25% of GDP and employed about half of the workforce in 2001, but covered only a small percentage of the country's needs. The droughts of the 1970s and 1980s devastated the herds, but the FAO estimates that they had returned to pre-drought numbers by 1991. The recomposition of the Mauritanian herd and the development of water supplies have been a prime objective of the government.

The droughts have led to a buildup of foreign debt leaving the country dependent on financial aid flows from international donors. Mauritania became eligible for debt relief under the IMF/World Bank's Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative in 2000, and debt service relief reached $1.1 billion by 2002, which almost halved Mauritania's debt burden. Foreign assistance accounted for 90% of investment from 19982001. In 2005 the GDP growth rate was estimated at 5.5%.


The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports that in 2005 Mauritania's gross domestic product (GDP) was estimated at $6.2 billion. The CIA defines GDP as the value of all final goods and services produced within a nation in a given year and computed on the basis of purchasing power parity (PPP) rather than value as measured on the basis of the rate of exchange based on current dollars. The per capita GDP was estimated at $2,000. The annual growth rate of GDP was estimated at 5.5%. The average inflation rate in 2003 was 7%. It was estimated that agriculture accounted for 25% of GDP, industry 29%, and services 46%.

According to the World Bank, in 2003 remittances from citizens working abroad totaled $2 million or about $1 per capita and accounted for approximately 0.2% of GDP. Foreign aid receipts amounted to $243 million or about $85 per capita and accounted for approximately 20.9% of the gross national income (GNI).

The World Bank reports that in 2003 household consumption in Mauritania totaled $852 million or about $299 per capita based on a GDP of $1.2 billion, measured in current dollars rather than PPP. Household consumption includes expenditures of individuals, households, and nongovernmental organizations on goods and services, excluding purchases of dwellings. It was estimated that for the period 1990 to 2003 household consumption grew at an average annual rate of 4.1%. It was estimated that in 2004 about 40% of the population had incomes below the poverty line.


The estimated labor force in Mauritania numbered 786,000 in 2001. In that year it was estimated that agriculture provided work for 50% of the labor force, with services accounting for 40% and 10% by industry. In 2004, the estimated unemployment rate was 20%.

Trade unions are grouped into three federations, of which the oldest is the Union of Mauritanian Workers (Union des Travailleurs de Mauritanie), which is affiliated with the ICFTU. The newer ones are the General Confederation of Mauritanian Workers, formed in 1994, and the Free Confederation of Mauritanian Workers. Approximately 90% of the formal segment of the economy is unionized. The right to strike is guaranteed by law. Collective bargaining is also permitted.

Children under the age of 14 are prohibited by law from engaging in nonagricultural work. In practice this regulation is not enforced. The guaranteed minimum workweek for most nonagricultural laborers is 40 hours with guaranteed overtime pay. However, domestic employees may work for up to 56 hours per week. The minimum wage was $38.71 per month in 2002 for adult workers. There are minimum occupational health and safety standards, but they are inadequately enforced due to a lack of government funding.


Settled agriculture is restricted to the strip of land along the Senegal River and to oases in the north; only 0.2% of Mauritania's total land area is classified as arable. In general, landholdings are small. Overall agricultural development has been hampered not only by unfavorable physical conditions but also by a complicated land-tenure system (modified in 1984) that traditionally rested on slavery, inadequate transportation, and the low priority placed on agriculture by most government developmental plans. The country's traditional dependence on food imports has been heightened by drought. Agriculture's share of GDP has been steadily falling; in 2003 it stood at 19%, down from 29% in 1987.

Corn and sorghum production reached 6,000 and 68,000 tons, respectively, in 2004. Other crop production in 2004 included paddy rice, 77,000 tons; and millet, 400 tons. Date production was 24,000 tons in 2004.

The Mauritanian government is encouraging agricultural development of the Senegal River valley. The OMVS began in 1981 to build a dam at Manantali, in Mali, for purposes of river transport, irrigation, and hydroelectric power. In conjunction with this OMVS project, Mauritania initiated an irrigation and development scheme in 1975 for the Gorgol River valley, involving construction of a dam; the scheme would increase arable land by over 3,600 hectares (9,000 acres). This project was to be followed by other dams that together would add 30,000 hectares (74,100 acres) for food production. Another OMVS project, begun in 1981, was designed to block salt water from entering the fertile Senegal River delta. From 1989 to 1991, a series of measures aimed at stimulation and rationalization of agricultural production were initiated, including producer price increases, marketing and distribution liberalization, and streamlining of government-owned agricultural organizations.


Animal husbandry, a major activity in the traditional economy, grew rapidly during the 1960s because of a successful animal health campaign and, prior to 1968, favorable weather conditions. Indeed, cattle herds grew well beyond the number that could be supported by the natural vegetation. Thus, the land was already vulnerable when the drought years of 196874 reduced the cattle population from 2.6 million head in 1970 to 1.6 million in 1973. There were only 1.6 million head in 2005, while sheep and goats numbered 14.5 million and camels 1.3 million.

The Moors tend to regard their cattle as symbols of wealth and prestige; this attitude discourages the herders from selling or slaughtering the animals. Total meat production in 2005 was estimated at 89,349 tons, with mutton accounting for 28% and beef for 26%. Reported figures are incomplete, however, since animal smuggling is common and much trade is unrecorded.


With a potential catch of 600,000 tons, fishing employs 1.2% of the labor force and contributes about 5% to GDP. It is estimated that more than $1 billion worth of fish is netted each year within the 320-km (200-mi) exclusive economic zone, but little of this sum benefits the treasury because the government lacks means of control and enforcement.

Since 1980, any foreigners wishing to fish in Mauritanian waters have been required by law to form a joint venture in which Mauritanian citizens or the government holds at least 51% of the capital. All of the catch must be landed in Mauritania for process and export, and each joint venture must establish an onshore processing facility. By 1987, over a dozen fishing companies had been established in Nouadhibou, including public and private interests from Algeria, France, Iraq, the Republic of Korea, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Romania, Spain, and the former USSR. In May 1987, Mauritania signed a three-year fishing agreement with the EC, allowing all EC members to fish in Mauritanian waters; in return, Mauritania received approximately $23 million. Since the mid-1980s, however, depletion of the stocks has made Mauritanian fishing increasingly uneconomical. Mauritania's boats have been in poor condition. In spite of the ship repair service in Nouadhibou, which opened in 1989, only about 50% of the fleet was up and running in 1992.

Traditional fishing is carried out along the Senegal River and traditional sea fishing at Nouakchott and Nouadhibou. The national catch was estimated at 80,000 tons in 2003. Principal species caught included octopus, sardine, squid, and hake. Exports of fish products were valued at $103.4 million in 2003.


Sizable tree stands found in the southern regions are not fully exploited. The principal forest product is gum arabic, which is extracted from wild acacia trees that grow in the south. Until 1972, private traders collected and exported the gum; since 1972, it has officially been a monopoly of the state trading company, Société Nationale d'Importation et d'Exportation (SONIMEX). Nevertheless, much gum continues to be smuggled across the borders, particularly to Senegal. Roundwood removals were estimated at 1.6 million cu m (56 million cu ft) in 2004, 99% for fuel.


Iron ore mining and processing accounted for more than 44% of Mauritania's export earnings in 2003, which totaled $388 million. Iron ore output (metal content) was estimated at 6.9 million metric tons in 2003. Iron ore production by gross weight that same year totaled 10.6 million metric tons.

Gypsum output, from some of the greatest reserves in the world, was estimated at 100,000 metric tons in 2003. In 2003, Mauritania also produced cement, salt, crude steel, sand and gravel, and stone. Mauritania was rich in copper; in the 1980s, the mine at Akjoujt was estimated to contain 100 million tons of ore averaging 2.25% copper, with trace amounts of gold. In 1996, gold recovery from tailings at the mine was discontinued because the stockpile was depleted. The nearby Guelb Moghrein Project, which contained resources of 23.7 million tons (144 grams per ton of cobalt, 1.88% copper, and 1.41 grams per ton of gold), continued to be delayed, because of low gold and copper prices, and problems at the pilot plant. Phosphate deposits, and reserves of platinum, palladium, and nickel, have been identified, and prospecting continued for petroleum, tungsten, and uranium. Mineral exploration efforts were focused on diamond (on the Archean Reguibat craton), gold (in the Inchiri region), oil (offshore), and continued evaluation of copper-gold, kaolin, and peat deposits.


Mauritania, as of 1 January 2005, had no proven reserves of crude oil, natural gas, coal, or petroleum refining capacity. But this may change in 2006. Mauritania's Chinguetti oilfield, discovered in 2001, is estimated to have reserves of 100 million barrels. In addition, the country has a number of other offshore gas and oil fields that are seen as promising.

In 2002, Mauritania imported and consumed an average of 22,750 barrels per day of refined oil products. There was no recorded demand for coal or natural gas in that same year.

Electric power is the country's primary energy source. In 2002, installed generating capacity was 115,000 kW, of which 56.5% of capacity was dedicated to hydropower, and the rest to conventional thermal sources. In 2002, electric output totaled 174 million kWh, of which almost 85% was generated by conventional thermal plants, with hydroelectric facilities accounting for the remainder. Consumption of electricity in 2002 came to 162 million kWh.


Fish processing, the principal industrial activity, is carried out in Nouadhibou. By far the largest fish processor is Mauritanian Fish Industries (IMAPEC), a Spanish company in which the Mauritanian government acquired a 51% share in 1980. IMAPEC has facilities for salting, drying, canning, and freezing fish, and for producing fish flour; virtually all of its output is exported. Overfishing is a problem, however, as is mismanagement of the fishing sector and the lack of an effective governmental fisheries policy. The government is modernizing the fisheries sector, through port extension and the development of warehouses. Other small industries include chemical and plastic plants, food and beverages, metal products, building materials, and cookie factories.

The first desalination plant in Africa was completed at Nouakchott in January 1969, with a capacity of 3,000 cu m (106,000 cu ft) a day. A rolling mill at Nouadhibou, built in 1977, produced small quantities of iron rods and steel. A petroleum refinery in Nouadhibou, with an annual capacity of 1 million tons, opened in 1982, shut down in 1983, and resumed operation in 1987 with help from Algeria. Algeria also helped revitalize a sugar refining plant. Similarly, Kuwaiti and Jordanian interests reopened the steel mill after a shutdown. Each of these operations represents a drain on state revenues, and the government has shifted policy toward the promotion of less ambitious industrial development.

The government has signed exploration contracts with the Canadian Rex Diamond Mining Corporation, the American BHP Minerals and Bab-Co, the French La Source, and the Australian Ashton West Africa Property Limited in order to find gold, oil, phosphate, aluminum, and copper in Mauritania. Mauritania as of 2006 had an estimated one billion barrels of proven oil reserves. A national oil company, GPC, was created in 2004. Mauritania is one of four countries in West Africa with an operating oil refinery.


A research institute for mining and geology, founded in 1968, is at Nouakchott. The Economic Community of West Africa has an institute in Nouadhibou-Cansado conducting research in the fisheries industry. The Higher Scientific Institute, founded in 1986 at Nouakchott, has departments of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, computer studies, natural resources, and ecology. In 198797, science and engineering students accounted for 41% of college and university enrollments.


Most trade is done at or near the "Friendship Port" of Nouakchott. The seaport of Nouadhibou is a main center for fishing operations. Most consumer goods are sold through small shops or boutiques, although some medium-sized supermarkets are becoming more common. There are a number of small and medium-sized family-owned retail and wholesale firms. Private exchange offices were created in 1994 and 1995. A new investment code put into place in 2001 is expected to attract foreign investment. Arabic is the official language, but French is the business language. Normal business and banking hours are from 7:30 am to 3 pm, Sunday through Thursday, though it is somewhat common for businesses to open a little later in the morning than scheduled.


Iron ore and fish products are the primary exports (98% of export revenue in 2005). The leading imports are foodstuffs, consumer goods, petroleum products, and capital goods. In 2004, Mauritania's principal export partners were: Japan (13.1%), France (11%), Spain (9.7%), Germany (9.7%), Italy (9.6%), Belgium (7.5%), China (6.1%), Russia (4.6%), and Côte d'Ivoire (4.1%). Principal import partners that year were: France (14.1%), the United States

Country Exports Imports Balance
World 347.9 373.5 -25.6
France-Monaco 67.0 106.2 -39.2
Italy-San Marino-Holy See 61.0 29.1 31.9
Spain 53.8 16.4 37.4
Belgium 42.4 29.3 13.1
Japan 31.1 8.7 22.4
Areas nes 27.8 125.3 -97.5
Germany 25.5 23.0 2.5
Nigeria 15.8 15.8
Russia 12.2 12.2
United Kingdom 7.2 7.2
() data not available or not significant.
Current Account 77.2
     Balance on goods 40.0
         Imports -318.7
         Exports 358.6
     Balance on services -118.5
     Balance on income -31.5
     Current transfers 187.5
Capital Account
Financial Account -25.9
     Direct investment abroad
     Direct investment in Mauritania 0.1
     Portfolio investment assets
     Portfolio investment liabilities -0.4
     Financial derivatives
     Other investment assets 190.1
     Other investment liabilities -215.7
Net Errors and Omissions -8.1
Reserves and Related Items -43.2
() data not available or not significant.

(7.6%), China (6.4%), Spain (5.8%), the United Kingdom (4.6%), Germany (4.3%), and Belgium (4.2%).


An external debt of $2.6 billion in 1998 resulted in debt servicing that rose 38.5% from 1997 to 1998, causing a leap in the balance of payments deficit. External trade increased in the late 1990s, due to the creation of private exchange offices and the liberalization of exchange systems. Foreign investment began to resume as well. The country's outstanding foreign debt in 2000 was estimated at 220% of GDP, but due to debt cancellation and rescheduling, debt service payment problems were somewhat alleviated. Mauritania's external debt had declined to $1.6 billion by 2000. In the same year, Mauritania qualified for $1.1 billion in debt service relief from the IMF/World Bank Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, and in 2001 it received strong support from donor and lending countries. In 2002, Mauritania received $305.7 million in economic aid from donor countries. In 2003, the IMF approved a three-year $8.8 million loan to the country. In 2005, exports were valued at an estimated $784 million, and imports at $1.124 billion.


At independence, Mauritania became a member of the West African Monetary Union (Union Monétaire Ouest AfricaineUMOA), but withdrew in 1973 to demonstrate its independent economic identity. When it withdrew, the government also relinquished membership in the African Financial Community (Communauté Financière AfricaineCFA), whose currencythe CFA francwas freely convertible to French francs. Mauritania then created its own currency, the ouguiya, and a national bank, the Central Bank of Mauritania (Banque Centrale de Mauritanie), which was established in 1973.

After privatization in 1989, banks in Mauritania included Banque Arbe Libyene-Mauritanienne pour le Commerce Extérieur et le Développement (BALM). BALM, founded in 1990, was 51% owned by Libyans and 49% owned by the state. Other banks included Banque Al-Baraka Mauritanie Islamique (BAMIS), Banque Mauritanie pour le Commerce Internationale (BMCI), and Banque Nationale de Mauritania (BNM). BAMIS, established in 1990, was 50% Saudi owned and 10% BCM owned. BMCI, founded in 1990, was 10% BCM owned, and 90% of the bank was held by private interests. BNM, established in 1988, was 50% state owned.

In 2001, there were seven commercial banks, among them BAMIS, BMCI, BNM, Generale de Banque de Mauritanie (GBM), and the World Bank Representative in Mauritania. There are also three credit agencies and four insurance companies. The Saudi Al-Baraka firm owned 85% of BAMIS and the Belgium Belgolaise bank was the second-largest shareholder in commercial banks. There was also one bank specializing in housing construction and three credit agencies (Credit Maritime, Credit Agricole, and Mauritanie Leasing).

A significant drawback for the Mauritanian economy, partly due to the small number and low income of the population, was a dearth of domestic capital. The poor reputation of the domestic banking system, notwithstanding its recent overhaul, discouraged local savings. In 1997, the government encouraged the creation of popular saving agencies to revitalize the financial sector; and in 1998, the government introduced incentives to encourage fish exporters to keep their assets in the country. The International Monetary Fund reports that in 2001, currency and demand depositsan aggregate commonly known as M1were equal to $108.6 million. In that same year, M2an aggregate equal to M1 plus savings deposits, small time deposits, and money market mutual fundswas $151.4 million.


Insurance was handled by 13 foreign companies until July 1974 when the Mauritanian government assumed full control of insurance and reinsurance. All insurance business was controlled by the Mauritanian Insurance and Reinsurance Co. There were two insurance companies in 1999.


Mauritania's budget is habitually in deficit. Mismanagement of public enterprises and an abundance of public sector employees led to large deficits in the early 1980s. In 1985, the government began an IMF-sponsored adjustment program to stabilize the economy and diminish the role of the public sector. The overall fiscal cash deficit (excluding debt forgiveness) fell from 12% GDP in 1985 to 5.4% in 1989. From 1989 to 1992, however, due to the Persian Gulf Crisis and turmoil with Senegal, the adjustment effort was set back. In 1994, the government instituted fiscal reform designed to broaden the tax base and reduce exemptions. Goals in 1999 included increasing public revenues, decreasing spending, and increasing the performance of public companies. Privatization continued through the 1990s, and state-owned companies accounted for approximately 20% of GDP at the end of 1997.

The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimated that in 2002 Mauritania's central government took in revenues of approximately $421 million and had expenditures of $378 million. Revenues minus expenditures totaled approximately $43 million. Total external debt was $2.5 billion.


Mauritania has a corporate income tax rate of 20%, with a 4% minimum rate on turnover. Capital gains are taxed at the corporate rate. However the tax may be deferred if the gains are used to acquire new fixed assets in the country in the following three fiscal years. Dividends are subject to a 10% withholding tax, which can be deducted if the recipient of the dividends is subject to corporate income tax. The major indirect taxes are import duties, a turnover tax on exports and mining companies, a value-added tax (VAT), excise levies on petroleum, tobacco, a service tax, and a tax on vehicles. As of 2005, the standard VAT rate was set at 14%. Wages and salaries are also subject to an income tax.


Along with other members of the West African Economic Community (CEAO), Mauritania imposes a revenue duty (droit fiscal ) and a customs duty (droit de douane d'entrée ) on most imported goods. The average tax rate for imports was 43% in 1999. Customs duties ranged from a minimum of 9% to a maximum of 27% for essential goods or nonluxury goods. Imports are also subject to the 14% VAT. Exports were not restricted, although both imports and exports require a license. The government planned to reduce taxes on imports to an average of 25%, and was considering the creation of free trade zones.

Since 1970, Mauritania has had a trade agreement with Senegal, allowing primary products to be traded between the two countries duty-free. Mauritania is also a member of ECOWAS.


With the nationalization of the mining sector in 1974, private foreign investment dropped drastically. Extension of government control over imports and domestic trade further curtailed the activity of foreign capital, as did ethnic clashes in 198991. In 1993, the government started to privatize parastatals, and by 1999, only 17% of GDP was accounted for by state-owned companies; 20% of Mauritanian companies were state-owned, including the telephone and postal services, utilities, transportation, radio and television, and mining production.

An investment code, approved in 1979, provided for tax holidays of up to 12 years on exports, imports of raw materials, and reinvested profits. The 1989 Investment Code guaranteed equal and free movement of capital in and out of Mauritania, in all sectors. It also provided incentives to new enterprises like a temporary tax reduction. Amendments have been made to the code to require hiring of Mauritanians. Tax preferences are offered for using local materials and investing in priority sectors, like agriculture, minerals, and fish processing.

Foreign investment has been small since the ethnic violence of 1989 to 1991. However, in 1999 the government introduced new initiatives to attract foreign investment. From 1997 to 1999, the average annual inflow of foreign direct investment (FDI) was negligible, ranging from $100,000 to $900,000. In 2000, inflows increased to $9.2 million and then, in 2001, to $30 million. Foreign private investors include Mobil Oil of the United States, NAFTAL of Algeria, and Elf Aquitaine of France, in the petroleum sector; MINPROC, IFC of Australia in the gold sector; and CNF of China, the Al-Baraka Group of Saudi Arabia, and IFAFOOD of France, in the fishing sector.

Foreign investment climbed from 200104, particularly in the petroleum, mining, and telecommunications sectors, as well as tourism (especially hotels). In 2003 the government introduced a new investment code, designed to encourage foreign investment as well as local entrepreneurs.


Until the export earning capacity of Mauritania improves, its economy will remain fragile. External deficit management dominates the public investment horizon. In 1999, Mauritania obtained financing from the IDA, AFESD, and World Bank, for its economic and social development projects. The IDA funded a mining sector capacity building project, with $500,000 cofinancing from the government. The AFESD gave an $11.6 million loan to upgrade and develop small dams. The World Bank approved a $15 million loan to support access to the country's mining sector.

In 2000, Mauritania was approved for $1.1 billion in debt service relief under the International Monetary Fund (IMF)/World Bank Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative. That year, the country withdrew its membership in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and increased commercial ties with Morocco and Tunisia (members of the Arab Maghreb Union), particularly in telecommunications. In 2003, the IMF approved an $8.8 million three-year Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF) Arrangement, to support the government's economic reform policies geared to reduce poverty. The IMF stressed the need for banking and exchange rate reform, and improved governance.

As of 2006, the development of Mauritania's one billion barrels of proved petroleum reserves held promise for the economy. The government emphasized the reduction of poverty, improvement of health and education, and privatization of the economy as policy priorities.


The National Social Security Fund administers family allowances, industrial accident benefits, insurance against occupational diseases, and old age pensions. Pensions are paid for by 1% contributions from employees and 2% contributions from employers. Employed women are entitled to a cash maternity benefit and payable up to 14 weeks. Workers and their families who are covered under the labor code are entitled to medical benefits. There is also a family allowance and a birth grant.

Opportunities for Mauritanian women are severely limited by social and cultural factors. Although they have the right to vote, women face considerable legal discrimination. According to Shariah law, the testimony in court of two women equals that of one man. The law mandates equal pay for equal work, and in the public sector, this law is respected and applied. Most young girls undergo female genital mutilation by the age of six months, although the incidence is decreasing among the urban population. Education is not compulsory and dire financial circumstances force many children to work. Laws prohibiting child labor are rarely enforced.

Slavery was abolished many times in Mauritania, the most recent law having been passed in 1980. Despite this, as of 2004 there are still slaves in the rural areas where a barter economy thrives. Some human rights abuses are reported including the use of excessive force to disperse demonstrators and inadequate prison conditions.


Mauritania's public health system consists of administrative units and health facilities organized in pyramid style. Total health care expenditure was estimated at 4.8% of GDP. In 2004, there were an estimated 14 physicians, 62 nurses, 2 dentists, 4 pharmacists, and 10 midwives per 100,000 people. In the mid-1990s, there were approximately 300 basic health units at the village level, about 130 health posts, and some 50 health centers. The health system is mostly public, but liberalization of private practice in the past several years has led to marked increase in the number of practitioners in the private sector. Mauritania's only major hospital is in Nouakchott. Only about 63% of the population had access to health care services. Private participation in the pharmaceutical sector has increased since 1987. Public facilities receive stocks from the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs. Drugs are distributed to patients at public facilities at no cost, but only 40% of demand can be met. Importation of narcotics is prohibited. Approximately 37% of the population had access to safe drinking water and 33% had adequate sanitation.

The main health problems include malaria, tuberculosis, measles, dysentery, and influenza. Guinea worm remains a major problem. Pregnancy complications are common due to unhygienic conditions and lack of medical care. In nondrought years, the staple diet of milk and millet is nutritionally adequate, if somewhat deficient in vitamin C. Immunization rates for children up to one year old were: tuberculosis, 93%; diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus, 50%; polio, 50%; and measles, 53%. The rates for DPT and measles were, respectively, 40% and 62%. Forty-four percent of children under five were malnourished. The goiter rate was 31 per 100 school-age children.

The average life expectancy is among the lowest in the worldan estimated 52.73 years in 2005. The fertility rate was 5.7 in 2000. Only 3% of married women aged 1549 were using some form of contraceptive. As of 2002, the crude birth rate and overall mortality rate were estimated at, respectively, 42.54 and 13.34 per 1,000 people. The infant mortality rate was 70.89 per 1,000 live births in 2005. The maternal mortality rate was 550 per 100,000 live births. Twenty-five percent of women underwent female genital mutilation and no specific law has been issued against it.

As of 2004, there were approximately 9,500 people living with HIV/AIDS in the country. The HIV/AIDS prevalence was 0.60 per 100 adults in 2003.


Construction accounts for a small fraction of GDP. The chief construction company, the Building Society of Mauritania, is hampered by inadequate manpower and capitalization. To encourage housing development, the government introduced new regulations in 1975 to encourage builders and to compel civil servants to purchase their own property and thus relieve the demand for public housing. The phenomenal growth of Nouakchott and the effects of rural migration, impelled by drought, have strained housing resources. In 1998, over 25% of residents in Nouakchott lived in substandard housing, such as tents, huts, or shacks, as did about 35% of Kiffa residents and 44% of Aioun residents.


Six years of basic education are compulsory. A three-year lower secondary (college) program offers general education. Following this stage, students may choose to attend a three-year senior secondary school (lycee ) or a technical school program of three or five years. The lycee programs offer specializations in arts and literature; natural sciences; mathematics, physics, and chemistry; or Koran (Quran) and Arabic studies. The academic year runs from October to June.

Primary school enrollment in 2003 was estimated at about 68% of age-eligible students. In 2001, secondary school enrollment was about 14.5% of age-eligible students. It is estimated that about 42.9% of all students complete their primary education. The student-teacher ratio for primary school was at about 42:1 in 2000; the ratio for secondary school was about 26:1.

The National Institute of Higher Islamic Studies was established in Boutilimit in 1961 and the National School of Administration was founded in 1966 at Nouakchott. The University of Nouakchott, founded in 1981, has a faculty of letters and human sciences and a faculty of law and economics. In 2003, about 4% of the tertiary age population were enrolled in some type of higher education program. The adult literacy rate for 2004 was estimated at about 51.2%, with 59.5% for men and 43.4% for women.

As of 2003, public expenditure on education was estimated at 4.1% of GDP, or 16.6% of total government expenditures.


The National Library at Nouakchott (10,000 volumes) and the National Archives (3,000) were both founded in 1955. The National Library is the depository for all the country's publications. There is a small library at the University of Nouakchott in the capital, as well as a French cultural center. The National Museum is also located in Nouakchott and has archaeology and ethnography collections. There are several Arab libraries in the major towns.


Many of Mauritania's post offices have telephone or telegraph services. There are direct telephone communications from Nouakchott to Paris. Administrative contact within the country is maintained by radiotelephone. Two earth-satellite stations came into service in 198586. In 2003, there were an estimated 14 mainline telephones for every 1,000 people. The same year, there were approximately 128 mobile phones in use for every 1,000 people.

The government operates all national radio and television networks, broadcasting in French, Arabic, and several African languages. In 2001 there were 1 AM and 14 FM radio stations, with 1 television station reported in 2002. Residents with satellite receivers and dish antennas receive television broadcasts from France and other Arab countries. Telecasts are in French and Arabic. In 2003, there were an estimated 148 radios and 44 television sets for every 1,000 people. The same year, there were 10.8 personal computers for every 1,000 people and 4 of every 1,000 people had access to the Internet.

In 2004 there were about 25 privately owned newspapers with a regular publication schedule, usually weekly. A government-operated daily, Ach Chabb, is published in French and Arabic. Horizon, another government daily, is published in French.

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press; however, by law copies of every newspaper must be submitted to the Ministries of Interior and Justice for approval before distribution.


The Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Agriculture, and Ranching is in Nouakchott. Youth organizations include the National Union of Students and Pupils of Mauritania and the Association of Scouts and Guides of Mauritania. Several sports associations are active within the country. The Lion's Club has active programs. The International Association of French-Speaking Women has a base in the country. The World Conservation Union has an office within the country. The Red Crescent Society and Caritas are active as well.


Tourists are attracted to Atar, the ancient capital of the Almoravid kingdom, and Chinguetti, with houses and mosques dating back to the 13th century. Popular sports are rugby, surf fishing, tennis, football (soccer), basketball, and swimming.

There are few facilities for tourists, except in the capital, and travel is difficult outside of Nouakchott. Most visitors need a valid passport and visa; the visa requirement is waived for French and Italian nationals. A certificate of vaccination against yellow fever may be required if traveling from an infected area. Precautions against typhoid are recommended.

In 2005, the US Department of State estimated the daily cost of staying in Nouakchott at $202.


Abu Bakr ibn Omar (Boubakar), paramount chief of the Lemtouna, defeated Ghana in 1076. His lieutenant and cousin, Yusuf ibn Tashfin, conquered Morocco in 1082 and most of Spain in 1091. The best-known contemporary Mauritanian is Moktar Ould Daddah (19242003), president from 1961 until 1978; after being ousted, he was eventually allowed to go to France. Lt. Col. Khouna Ould Haydalla (b.Spanish Sahara, 1940) became prime minister and chief of staff of the armed forces in 1978 and assumed the presidency in 1980. Col. Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya (b.1941), who had been prime minister (198184), was president from 1984 to 2005. Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall (c.1950) became the new military leader of Mauritania in 2005.


Since relinquishing its claim to Western Sahara, Mauritania has no territories or colonies.


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Cotton, Samuel. Silent Terror: A Journey into Contemporary African Slavery. New York: Harlem Rivers Press, 1998.

Handloff, Robert E. (ed.). Mauritania, a Country Study. 2nd ed. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1990.

Pazzanita, Anthony G. Historical Dictionary of Mauritania. 2nd. ed. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1996.

Robinson, David. Paths of Accommodation: Muslim Societies and French Colonial Authorities in Senegal and Mauritania, 18801920. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2000.

Zeilig, Leo and David Seddon. A Political and Economic Dictionary of Africa. Philadelphia: Routledge/Taylor and Francis, 2005.

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Islamic Republic of Mauritania

Major City:

Other Cities:
Atar, Boutilimit, Chinguetti, Kaédi, Nouadhibou, Ouadane, Rosso, Zouérate


This chapter was adapted from the Department of State Post Report dated June 1997. Supplemental material has been added to increase coverage of minor cities, facts have been updated, and some material has been condensed. Readers are encouraged to visit the Department of State's web site at for the most recent information available on travel to this country.


The Islamic Republic of MAURITANIA has been a recognized political entity with defined borders for just over 30 years. From the beginning of this century until independence was achieved in 1960, it was a part of the larger region known as French West Africa; prior to that time, portions of the present-day republic were included in political systems based in northwest Africa and in the Niger Basin.

One of the few truly exotic places left in the world, Mauritania is the traditional homeland of the Moors, nomadic herdsmen and warriors who, for centuries, roamed the desert and semi-desert areas of Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, and the Western Sahara. The country is distinct from the ancient African province of Mauritania, which existed in Roman times.



Nouakchott was a small village of mud brick houses on the edge of the Sahara in 1957. It was selected that year as the future site of the capital of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania over larger, historically more important towns because of its relatively moderate climate and central, coastal location. Nouakchott's name derives from the Berber expression "place of the winds."

After rapid and unplanned growth, some 694,000 people now live in Nouakchott and its surrounding tent and shanty suburbs. Most of this growth is the result of prolonged drought, which has forced masses of nomadic people to abandon their way of life and move to the city for food and the slim hope of finding work.

The city, covering some 10 square miles, is bounded on three sides by desert, and on the fourth by the Atlantic coastline, approximately 3 miles from town. Maximum daytime temperatures average in the low 90's (F), with average minimum temperatures in the high 60's (F). Precipitation in Nouakchott is less than three inches annually. The city's water supply is piped some 40 miles from the nearest reliable aquifer.

The airport is located near the older section of town, known as Ksar.


Many of the food products that Americans are accustomed to are expensive on the local market. Almost all such food is imported, including fresh fruits and vegetables such as apples, oranges, and potatoes. Availability, quality, and variety fluctuate widely. Locally produced, good quality, vegetables are always available in winter. During the summer, fresh produce is scarce, and even meat, butter, and cheese can be in short supply due to fewer imports as foreign residents depart. Nouakchott is blessed with delicious fresh, locally caught fish, shrimp, and rock lobster in season at reasonable prices. Beef and lamb, chickens, eggs, and a few vegetables (lettuce, tomatoes, tubers, mint, and parsley) are produced locally at costs about 30 to 50 percent higher than U.S. prices. There are many imported fruit juices available at about twice the price of comparable U.S.-made products. Items such as lunch meat, cheese, ice cream, and turkey are imported either from neighboring countries or Europe and are correspondingly expensive.

Supermarkets, butcher shops, numerous smaller shops, several open-air markets, several bakeries producing good baguettes, door-to-door vendors, and the fish market are the local sources of supply for groceries in Nouakchott. Shopping frequently, stocking up on sometimes scarce items, scouring the vegetable stands for fresh items, advance planning (but flexibility in menu planning), and befriending certain vendors enables foreign residents of Nouakchott to live adequately, albeit expensively, on the local market.


The weather in Nouakchott ranges from cool to very hot, so warm weather clothing is needed. Cotton clothing is best. Some cool-weather clothing such as sweaters and long-sleeved shirts are needed during the winter, when evening and nighttime temperatures can drop as low as 45 °F. Sweatshirts or light windbreakers are useful for the beach in the evening. Bring washable clothing, since there is only one quality dry-cleaning establishment in Nouakchott.

Men: Normal office attire for men includes slacks, short-sleeved shirt, with or without tie, and occasionally, a sports jacket or blazer. Men who like lightweight, short-sleeved safari suits or jackets find these comfortable for day and evening. Jeans and shorts are worn on the beach and for recreational activities.

Women: Office attire for women is a simple cotton dress or blouse and skirt. Out of respect for Islamic custom, skirt length is conservative, and shorts are not worn on the street. Bare arms and sundresses are acceptable for foreign women. Local tailors can make dresses and skirts from local tie-dyed or batik fabric. A long-sleeved dress and shawl or dressy jacket are useful for outdoor receptions on chilly evenings. Stockings are rarely worn outside the cool season.

Children: Boys and girls wear shorts or jeans and shirts to school. For the few occasions when they must dress up, boys need a nice polo shirt and cotton pants and girls need a simple dress. Children wear tennis or running shoes, best brought, and "flip-flops," which may be purchased here. The local selection of shoes for children is extremely limited and expensive.

Men and women use sandals for casual wear, and women wear them to the office. All shoes wear out quickly in Mauritania's sandy streets and yards. Bring all sports shoes. Tennis shoes wear out quickly on hard-surfaced courts. Softball cleats may not be necessary in sand, but cleats help rugby and soccer players.

Comfortable clothing for any type of sport or recreational activity in Nouakchott should be brought in quantity. Swimwear, tennis, jogging, basketball, soccer, rugby, and aerobics clothing all wear out much more quickly here from excessive perspiration and dust, and consequent tough washing. Hats and caps are necessary for any outdoor activity. Sweatbands and plenty of cotton socks are helpful.

Supplies and Services

Supplies: Few American products are sold on the local market. Some French products are available, but the prices are high, and the selection is limited. Among French products are some toiletries, patent medicines and drugs, common household items, insect sprays, paper products, hardware, and some cleaning equipment.

Basic Services: Most shops are open from 8:30 am to 12:30 pm, and 4 pm to 7 pm, Saturday through Thursday. Services including basic tailoring and dressmaking, and simple electrical and automotive repairs are also available, but the quality of workmanship varies. Most Americans patronize two unisex hairdressers. Massages, facials, manicures, or haircuts are available as home services. Specialty shops carrying items such as pet supplies and English-language books or magazines do not exist. Private veterinarians are available to attend to the needs of American pets. (Ticks and fleas can plague animals during certain seasons and are difficult to control.)

Religious Activities

Islam is the state religion in Mauritania. Non-Mauritanians may attend the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Joseph. Mass is in French. Protestant services (in English) are held on Fridays in the Parish Hall on the Cathedral compound.


The American International School of Nouakchott (AISN) is an accredited, nonprofit, private, coeducational school, which provides an American educational program for pre-kindergarten through grade 8, depending on enrollment. The school was founded in 1978 and moved into a new facility in 1981. Current American texts are used. The school year runs from Labor Day until mid-June. Classes are held from 7:30 am to 1:30 pm, Sunday through Thursday. Preschool is offered for 3-and 4-year-olds if there is sufficient enrollment. In addition, ninth grade can sometimes be offered by using correspondence courses.

All kindergarten through grade 8 teachers are certified, either in the U.S. or another country. The school is accredited in the U.S. through the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools.

Students in grades kindergarten through grade 8 are grouped as follows: K-1, 2-3, 4-5-6, and 7-8.


Outdoor recreation centers around the Atlantic beaches and the soft-ball/soccer/rugby fields (in season). The unspoiled beaches are the greatest benefit to Nouakchott. The white sand beach is 3 miles from town by paved road.

With four-wheel-drive vehicles, many Americans drive up the beach at low tide or cross dunes to reach private spots north or south of town for fishing, camping, and picnics. The Atlantic often has high surf, strong currents, and undertows, so vigilance and caution when swimming are necessary. Jogging, shell collecting, motorcycling, and surf fishing are also popular.

Mauritania enjoys good surf fishing year round, along the entire coast. Among the fish in these rich waters are tuna, sea bass, sole, parrot fish, squid, and lobster. Surf fishing rod, reel, tackle, and line all should be brought, as when available; they are expensive, and a fair amount of tackle may be lost to rocks and tenacious fish. Fishing licenses are not required, but a permit is required to fish from a commercial wharf.

The community softball team is organized loosely according to season and interest, and all participation is eagerly welcomed. The team sometimes travels to other capitals of the Sahel for tournaments.

Touring and Outdoor Activities

Travel outside of Nouakchott is interesting and enriching but requires thorough preparation and proper equipment. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are necessary in any direction outside the city. A good selection of spare parts, tools, sand ladders, extra fuel, water, and food must be carried for travel off the main roads.

Camping is possible both on the beach and in the desert. One popular trip involves driving up the beach at low tide along the water's edge toward Cap Timiris. Others enjoy camping in the desert or along ancient caravan routes, searching for archaeological artifacts and exploring ancient towns.

Accommodations for travelers in the interior of the country are rudimentary, if available. Travelers to all but a few cities usually take camping gear or stay with Mauritanian families. Most regional capitals have government rest houses ("gites d'etapes") and a few have tourist hotels. Travel and accommodations require considerable advance planning.

In this country of vast open space, the population is as sparse as the vegetation. Wherever one camps, there are few signs of people. You can enjoy sleeping in the open during favorable seasons, but a tent is useful as protection against wind and sandstorms and as a sunscreen.

The following cities and towns of Mauritania make interesting destinations:

Akjoujt, 3 hours from Nouakchott, is the site of a former copper mining industry.

Atar, 4 hours beyond Akjoujt, was one of the ancient capitals of the Almoravid Kingdom and a caravan base for the trans-Saharan salt trade.

Chinguetti, the seventh holy city of Islam, lies some 72 miles east of Atar. Some of the houses and mosques in its fascinating stone-built quarter date back to the 13th century.

Nouadhibou, accessible from Nouakchott by air or a 2-day drive up the beach at low tide, is a fishing and commercial port, and the terminus of the railroad from the Zouerate iron mines. Air Afrique operates a fishing camp nearby.

Boutilimit, some 2 hours by paved road from Nouakchott, is one of the religious centers of the country and the site of an Islamic institute. The ruins of a French military post are visible atop a dune near town.

Kiffa is 10 hours east of Nouakchott, and an important regional trading center and crossroads. The oases and escarpments around Kiffa offer an interesting change of scenery.

Aioun is 3 hours east of Kiffa, with houses of beautiful blocks of local stone. The interesting rock formations to the south are reminiscent of the American southwest.

Oulata, located in the southeast near the Malian border, was a famous religious center, and is known for its unique style of decorated houses and courtyards. UNESCO is interested in undertaking historical preservation programs in Oulata, Tichitt, Chinguetti, and Ouadane.

Rosso is a border town on the Senegalese River, reflecting the ambience of Senegal, some 3 hours from Nouakchott.

Keur-Massene is a hunting and fishing camp operated by Air Afrique 60 kilometers west of Rosso, in the delta area of the Senegal River, near the Banc de Diawling National Park, a large bird refuge on the Atlantic coast.

The Banc D'Arguin National Park, a 4-5 hour drive north of Nouakchott along the beach at low tide, is large natural estuary rich in bird and animal life. The park is reputed to be one of Africa's best for watching migratory birds.

Other places of interest easily accessible from Nouakchott include the Canary Islands, several different islands, each with its own character. The largest of these resort islands, Gran Canaria, is only a short flight from Nouakchott and features duty-free shopping, international resorts, and Spanish culture. The other islands can be reached by local Spanish airlines or boat.

Senegal offers alluring destinations for residents of Mauritania, including:

Saint Louis, the administrative capital for Mauritania during the colonial period, is a 4-5 drive from Nouakchott. This picturesque island town was one of the earliest French settlements in Africa. The former slave trading port near the mouth of the Senegal River today offers comfortable hotels and good dining.

Dakar, the capital of Senegal and former capital of French West Africa, is a cosmopolitan city with good shopping, beaches, hotels, restaurants, and night life. Frequent 1-hour flights or an 8-hour drive make this seaport city a popular destination from Nouakchott.


Few commercial forms of entertainment are found in Nouakchott. The French cultural center offers occasional live productions, exhibitions, and films all in French. A few but growing number of local restaurants offer varying quality in food and service. A large sports stadium, built by the Chinese Government, hosts sports events featuring Mauritanian, African, and European sports teams. Occasional art shows or musical concerts take place and are widely attended.

Social Activities

The American community in Nouakchott includes personnel of the U.S. Mission, Peace Corps volunteers, and other resident Americans, most of whom are affiliated with religious or international organizations. AERAN is the focal point for many American community activities, with dining service and bar and grill. Social life is relaxed and usually casual, centered around dinners at the Club, and an occasional tennis or volleyball tournament.

Many opportunities exist to develop friendships with members of the international and Mauritanian communities, but French proficiency is essential. The French Racing Club offers evening dinners and dancing as well as tennis tournaments. Entertaining in the international community is similar in style to the American community.


ATAR , one of the ancient capitals of the Almoravid Kingdom about 300 miles northeast of Nouakchott, was a caravan base for the trans-Saharan salt trade. The town is an oasis that produces dates and grains and supports cattle, sheep, and goat grazing. Atar is also known for its rugs.

BOUTILIMIT is the religious capital of the country and the site of an Islamic Institute. It is about 100 miles southeast of Nouakchott.

CHINGUETTI , in west central Mauritania, is the seventh holy city of Islam, and has houses and mosques dating back to the 13th century.

KAÉDI , capital city of the Gorgol administrative region, is situated on the Senegal River in southern Mauritania. The city exports the skins and hides of cattle, goats, and sheep. Its population is about 21,000.

NOUADHIBOU (formerly called Port-Étienne) is a seaport town in the northwest corner of Mauritania, 225 miles north of Nouakchott. Warm currents make this area an ideal breeding zone for valuable fish species. About a dozen fishing companies operate here. However, Nouadhibou lacks the infrastructure to enable it to compete with other fishing ports in the area. Nouadhibou is the site of Mauritania's largest international airport.

OUADANE , just northeast of Chinguetti, is an old caravan center, and the site of several oases.

ROSSO , with a population of about 16,500, lies on the Senegal River in southwestern Mauritania, 110 miles south of Nouakchott. The city produces melons, beans, corn, millet, gum arabic and livestock.

ZOUÉRATE (also spelled Zouîrât) is located in north central Mauritania. As the country's iron-mining center, the city accounts for most of Mauritania's export income. Zouérate is linked by rail to the port city of Nouadhibou and has a population of over 25,000.


Geography and Climate

The Islamic Republic of Mauritania is situated on the Atlantic Ocean in northwest Africa. It is bounded on the northeast by Algeria, on the east by Mali, and on the south by Senegal. Mauritania shares its long northern border with the former Spanish Sahara. Spain relinquished control of this area in 1975, but its political status is still unresolved. A UN-sponsored mandate to decide whether residents prefer independence or annexation by Morocco is still being negotiated.

Mauritania has three distinct geographic regions in its surface area of 419,000 square miles. The riverine zone, a narrow belt of rich, well-watered alluvial soil stretching along the Senegal River Valley in the south, is the sole center of settled agriculture. Rainfall averages 10-25 inches annually.

The Sahelian Zone is a broader east-west band that extends from the riverine zone to just north of Nouakchott. Until recently, annual rainfall has averaged some 4-18 inches, enough to support savannah grasslands suitable for nomadic cattle and sheep herding. However, diminished rainfall, in recent years, has resulted in scantier vegetation, forcing many inhabitants to move south or migrate to larger towns. What rain there is occurs mainly in heavy, localized thunderstorms. Nouakchott, at the northern extreme of this zone, experiences such storms several times each year.

The Saharan Zone comprises the northern two-thirds of Mauritania. This vast, sparsely populated region is characterized by beautiful shifting dunes, rock outcroppings, and rugged mountain plateaus with elevations higher than 1,500 feet. Irregular, scant rainfall permits little vegetation, although date palms are cultivated around larger oases and on some of the higher plateaus in the east. Herds of camels, goats, and sheep, which formerly ranged in this area were depleted during successive droughts in the 1970s and 1980s. With only a brief respite, pre-drought conditions have returned in the mid-1990s.

Modifying these conditions is the Atlantic coastal area, which includes Nouakchott. The ocean breezes provide periodic relief from the heat, although desert winds may bring flies, locusts, and sand-storms with consequent discomfort and annoyance. The Sahara is a young, growing desert. The severe droughts of the Sahel in the 1970s-80s have accelerated desertification. Thus, the southern edges of the Saharan and Sahelian Zones creep inexorably southward.

Mauritania's climate is hot and arid, except in the far south, which has higher humidity. In Nouakchott, daytime temperatures reach 85°F in the winter, although at night sweaters and blankets are needed. Summer temperatures regularly reach over 100°F during the day, but because it is a dry heat, they are more bearable than the same temperatures at high humidity. Summer evenings can be considerably cooler.

The area's fine sand makes beach-going one of the highlights of a tour in Nouakchott; however, winds can also stir this sand into enervating sandstorms that last from a few hours to several days. These sand-storms can occur throughout the year, although they are less frequent during the summer and fall.


Mauritania's population of some 2.7 million is unevenly distributed. It ranges from an average of 91 persons per square mile in certain sections of the Senegal River Valley to an average of 19 persons per square mile in the Sahelian Zone and less than one person for every 4 square miles in the Saharan Zone.

Although Mauritania is a country of cultural and ethnic diversity, its many ethnic groups have co-existed essentially peacefully for centuries. Arabic-speaking Moors comprise the largest group, about 70 percent of the population. Among Moors there are two major subgroups, the Bidan, or White Moors, who are mainly Arab-Berber herders, traders, and oasis farmers and the Haratin, mainly descendants of tributary (slave) black groups who practice extensive dryland agriculture and herding. As a result of centuries of intermarriage, the terms black and white Moor now indicate patrilineal ancestry rather than racial characteristics. The Moors have been traditionally nomadic, roaming the deserts of Mali, Algeria, Morocco, western Sahara, and Senegal. Today, the majority live in sedentary agricultural communities or in larger towns and cities. They remain highly mobile, with more than 20 percent of the adult male population away from their settlements at any given time either trading or herding.

The remaining 30 percent of the population live primarily as sedentary farmers and herders in the Senegal River Valley, though their numbers are rising in urban areas. Their major ethnic groups include the Haalpulaar, the largest; the Soninke (Sarakolle); the Peulh (Fulbe, Fula, Fulani); and the Wolof. The French are the largest foreign national group, numbering more than 2,000. Most of the Americans who reside in Nouakchott work for the U.S. Government or for relief and development organizations.

Arabic is the official language for government and, with French, is a working language for commerce. Hassaniya, the local Arabic dialect, is spoken to some degree by 75 percent of the population; however, each ethnic group speaks its own language. The national literacy rate is about 47 percent but rising, now that 80 percent of the school-age population receives a basic primary school education.

Mauritanians are Muslim. Dietary restrictions common to Muslims, such as prohibitions against consumption of alcoholic beverages and pork, are observed strictly. No alcohol is sold in Mauritania; however, imported pork is occasionally available at local shops. Social restrictions, particularly for women, are less noticeable here than in the most conservative of Arab countries, e.g., Saudi Arabia. Mauritanian women cover their hair but rarely their faces in public, and many are active in business and some in government.

Mauritania has been a recognized political entity with defined borders since independence in 1960. From early in this century until independence, it was part of the larger region known as French West Africa. Prior to that, some of present-day Mauritania was included in political systems based in northwest Africa and in the Niger River basin.

The southward migration of the Senhadja Berber confederation of tribes first brought the Islamic faith to what is now Mauritania in the seventh century. By the 11th century, indigenous black African people had been driven south to the Senegal River or enslaved by the nomadic Senhadja. Southern Mauritania was overrun in about 1040 by Islamic warrior monks (Almoravid or Al Murabitun) who, subsequently extended their empire northward into Morocco and into much of southern Spain.

As the Almoravid Empire eroded, the Arabs overcame fierce Berber resistance to dominate Mauritania. Several groups of Yemeni Bedouin Arabs occupied north Africa and spread into what is today Mauritania. Their disruption of trans-Saharan caravan trade caused an eastward shift in the routes, resulting in a decline of Mauritanian trading towns. By the end of the 17th century, the Beni Hassan group dominated much of what is now Mauritania. The last effort by native Berbers to oust the Arab invaders was the unsuccessful Mauritanian Thirty Year War (1644-74).

The social structure established as a result of that war has been maintained intact to the present day. The descendants of the Beni Hassan warriors became the upper stratum of Moorish society, and Arabic gradually replaced Berber dialects. Many of the Berber groups, however, remained social equals, even as they became political vassals. They turned to clericalism and produced most of the region's Marabouts: the men who serve as repositories and teachers of Islamic tradition. At the bottom of the social hierarchy were the Zenaga (the poor Moor tributaries), the Haratin, often called Black Moors, and the Abid (slaves).

The country's other ethnic groups do not share the tribal structure of the Moors, but are organized as clans, extended families, or villages. Their traditional hierarchical structure, however, is very similar.

Under French colonial rule the population was obliged to give up slave trading and warfare, although armed clashes between French soldiers and Beni Hassan warriors continued through the 1930s. Also during the colonial period, sedentary black African peoples began to trickle back into southern Mauritania from which they had been expelled in earlier years by aggressive Moorish nomads.

This influx of non-Arabic-speaking black peoples from the south has caused a major modification of the social structure in this century. Many Haalpulaar, Soninke, and Wolof moved into the area north of the Senegal River at the time of independence. Educated in the French language and customs, large numbers became clerks, soldiers, and administrators in the new state.

Moors reacted to this change by increasing pressure to Arabize many aspects of Mauritanian life (law, language, etc.). A schism resulted between those who consider Mauritania to be an Arab country (mainly Moors) and those who seek a dominant role for the ethnic sub-Saharan peoples. 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. The discord between these two conflicting visions of Mauritanian society was evident in language disputes of the 1960s and during the intercommunal violence that broke out in April 1989.

Public Institutions

Mauritania became self-governing as the Islamic Republic of Mauritania in November 1958, and shortly thereafter began the process of transferring its administrative services from St. Louis, Senegal to the new capital at Nouakchott. Mauritania became independent on November 28, 1960. The constitution, adopted in 1961, replaced the former parliamentary type of government with a presidential system. Moktar ould Daddah, elected the first President in 1961, was reelected in 1966, 1971, and 1976.

On July 10, 1978, ould Daddah was overthrown in a bloodless coup d'etat; power was then assumed by the Military Committee for National Recovery (CMRN). For the next 2 years, power shifted among various members of the military group, culminating in January 1980 with the newly formed Military Committee of National Salvation (CMSN). In December 1980, a civilian prime minister, who formed a government of civilian ministers, was appointed, but the military committee retained policy oversight. This government was dissolved in April 1981 when the military reestablished itself as the sole ruling body of the nation.

In 1984, Colonel Maaouiya ould Sid'ahmed Taya led a successful, bloodless coup and declared himself Chief of State. He soon called for gradual movement toward a democratic system. A constitution was approved in a general plebiscite in 1991, and presidential elections were held in 1992. Taya was elected to office for a 6-year term, then reelected in 1998.

Mauritania is divided into 12 regions and the district of Nouakchott, each administered by a governor responsible to the president. Municipal elections were first held in 1986-88. Second municipal elections in 1994 were the first that saw multi-party participation in races for municipal councils and mayors. In 1995, the government, with support from international and bilateral donors, began seeking to decentralize authority by giving more responsibility to municipalities.

Although the constitution provides for the independence of the judiciary, the executive branch exercises significant pressure on the courts through its ability to appoint and to influence judges. The system includes lower, middle, and upper level courts, each with its own jurisdiction. A dual system of courts, one based on modern law and one based on Shari'a, has been replaced by a single system as the country moves to a modernized legal system that is in conformity with the principles of the Shari'a.

Arts, Science, and Education

Mauritania, a nomadic society until independence, lacked large market centers or sedentary populations that help generate traditional arts and crafts. Limited basic raw materials and restraints on possessions associated with mobility contributed to only a limited crafts tradition focused on utilitarian goods such as decorated leather pillows, woven leather and straw mats, and silver jewelry (which doubled as a portable savings account).

In recent decades, woven rugs, gold and inlaid jewelry, and decorated teapots (so ubiquitous as to be nearly a national symbol), have been developed as crafts. Workmanship varies and vigorous bargaining is necessary to attain a reasonable price. Two types of rugs are available: the "Boutilimit rug," made of camel, goat, and sheep hair, adapted from traditional wool tent weaving methods; and new, tight, hand-knotted carpets with traditional motifs. Both are made at the Artisanat de Mauritanie in Nouakchott.

Nomadic life is not conducive to the establishment of institutions of higher education and science. From ancient times, however, traditional Koranic schools were founded in special encampments as well as religious caravan centers such as Chinguetti, Tichit, and Oualata. In addition to religion and language, these schools taught rhetoric, law, mathematics, and medicine. Curriculum was based largely on Greco-Roman scholarship. Some traditional schools still exist, but that system now coexists with public schools, including the University of Nouakchott with its faculties of letters, law, economics, and science.

Research facilities and programs remain in a formative stage. The Mauritanian Institute of Scientific Research in Nouakchott is a gathering place for a limited number of scholars interested in history, poetry, or archeology. It supervises the National Museum which has two large public rooms, including a small standing exhibit of traditional life in Mauritania, displays of archeological materials found in the country, and some interesting visiting shows. The National Health Center, the National Center for Agricultural Research and Development, and the National Center for Livestock and Veterinary Research perform limited studies, all generally dependent on foreign support.

Commerce and Industry

Many Mauritanians are engaged in subsistence farming or nomadic herding. Settled agriculture is confined mainly to the Senegal River Valley, where millet, sorghum, and smaller quantities of other cereals and rice are the main crops. Some 13,000 tons of dates are produced annually from date palms cultivated in the mountainous regions of Adrar, Tagant, and Assaba, and at the larger desert oases. Most agricultural produce is consumed locally, and Mauritania is a net importer of foodstuffs.

The most important sector of the economy is based on the rich fishing waters that lie off the Atlantic coast. The government levies fees on foreign fleets that fish in Mauritanian waters and requires that a percentage of the catch be processed in Nouadhibou. In 1994, the country exported more than 306,000 metric tons of frozen and canned seafood products worth about $223 million. Fishing by foreign companies, however, threatens this important source of income.

Mauritania's other major income-producing sector is mining. High-grade iron ore is found in the Zouerate region in the northwest. Iron ore exports in 1994 totaled over 10 million metric tons with a value of approximately $160 million. In recent years, however, a decline in demand has led to production cutbacks. The slag heaps of mined copper near Akjoujt, about 135 miles northeast of Nouakchott were reprocessed to extract remaining gold in the early 1990s.

The Societè Nationale Industrielle et Miniére (SNIM), a parastatal corporation established in 1972 when the French mining company was nationalized, controls the country's iron mines (copper and gold mining are private sector efforts). The government also oversees gypsum mining and the administration of the industrial explosives factory at Nouadhibou. More recently, SNIM has been studying the feasibility of sulphur and phosphate exploitation.

Other income sources for Mauritania include traditional exports of salt and gum arabic, still often carried over ancient camel caravan routes into Morocco, Algeria, and Mali. There is no current ongoing exploration for oil in the country, although such sources may exist. Exploration has begun in the diamond and petroleum markets.

Mauritania has been a member of the U.N. since 1961 and of the League of Arab States since 1973. In 1972, Mauritania, Senegal, and Mali formed the joint Senegal River Development Organization (OMVS) to develop the agricultural and hydroelectric potential of the Senegal River and to foster economic cooperation among the three countries. Mauritania also belonged to the 16-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) until the country withdrew in 2000. Mauritania is a signatory of the Lome Convention. In 1989, Mauritania joined Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco to form the Arab Maghreb Union.



Limited bus service is available in Nouakchott and local point-to-point taxis are plentiful, but the vehicles are dilapidated, overcrowded, and rarely used by Americans. Irregular, long-distance taxi service, "taxi-brousse," is available between Nouakchott and many regional capitals. This is a colorful, if slow, way to experience the local scene.


Travel within Mauritania is via a small network of roads, air, or over the beach at low tide to coastal destinations. The only railroad, from the port of Nouadhibou to Zouerate, is used primarily to transport iron ore to the coast. Travel by boat along the Senegal River is possible during the rainy season. No passenger service by ship exists along the Atlantic coast.

Mauritania's road network includes the main north-south trunk line, which passes from Bir Moghrein through Atar and Akjoujt, and then south through Nouakchott to Rosso, on the Senegal border.

Another paved road extends east from Nouakchott to Nema, close to the Malian border, but large sections of the roadway have badly deteriorated. Other paved roads go into Boghe and Kaedi along the river. The rest of Mauritania's roads are unpaved. Because of deep, drifting sand, interior roads (both paved and unpaved) are only regularly passable in four-wheel-drive vehicles. Even paved roads may be in such poor condition that four-wheel-drive vehicles forge parallel tracks over the desert. Many roads in the south along the Senegal River are flooded during the July-September rainy season, when normally dry watercourses, called marigots, often flood and impede travel. No road connects Nouakchott with Mauritania's business capital and port, Nouadhibou, but four-wheel-drive vehicles and heavy trucks ply the beach between the two cities during low tide.

Vehicular border crossings to Senegal can be made via the ferry at Rosso and by land over the Diama Dam to St. Louis, Senegal. Other crossing points at N'Diago, Diana, Jerd El Mohguen, Tekane, Lekseiba, Boghe, M'Bagne, Kaedi, Tifounde Cive, Maghama, and Goraye are made in pirogues, small boats plying the river, but not capable of taking cars. During the rainy season, the dam is not recommended, as heavy mud makes the road impassable.

The government-owned airline, Air Mauritania, provides weekly service to most regional capitals; twice daily service to Nouadhibou; twice weekly flights to Dakar; and weekly flights to Las Palmas, Grand Canaries, and Casablanca. Air Afrique, Air France, and Sabena Airlines fly direct between Paris or Brussels and Nouakchott four times weekly, and Nouakchott usually has frequent direct flights to Dakar, only 1 hour away. Air Afrique has direct flights five times weekly from Dakar to New York. During sand-storms, the Nouakchott airport occasionally closes, and certain airlines decline to land.


Telephone and Telegraph

Telephone service exists between Nouakchott and most regional capitals, and Nouakchott has direct-dial international long-distance service. However, it is not possible to contact the international access numbers for commercial operators such as AT&T, Sprint, or MCI. It is also not possible to dial 800 numbers directly from Mauritania. It is less expensive to call Nouakchott from the U.S. than vice-versa. Telephone and telex facilities operate 24 hours daily.

Radio and TV

The radio station in Nouakchott broadcasts music, news, and commentary, mostly in Arabic, but also in French, and several African languages. Separate government-run radio stations exist in Boghe and Nouadhibou. Radio France International (RFI) broadcasts 24 hours a day and is available on the FM band. Shortwave reception is usually good.

Mauritanian TV service is limited to evening hours and includes news in French and Arabic, a few imported TV series dubbed in Arabic and French, as well as some Arabic music programs. On clear nights, Senegalese TV can be picked up in Nouakchott. Both Senegal and Mauritania use the SECAM (European) system, which is incompatible with U.S. system sets.

Newspapers, Magazines, and Technical Journals

The Government of Mauritania publishes a daily newspaper in French and Arabic editions. French paperbacks, newspapers, and periodicals are available from vendors and in shops. There are about a dozen independent weekly Mauritanian papers published in French and Arabic.

Health and Medicine

Medical Facilities

Local medical facilities are limited. The single government-run hospital in Nouakchott, staffed by Mauritanian and expatriate physicians, is used only in the case of life-threatening emergencies. Nursing care and hygiene do not meet U.S. standards. A few Mauritanian and expatriate physicians have private practices or clinics.

Bring prescription medicines taken regularly (such as those for high blood pressure, skin problems, hormone replacement, etc.). Although many pharmacies stock French drugs, supplies are not reliable, and exact duplicates of American prescriptions are unobtainable.

Home pharmaceutical items such as cold remedies, home first-aid kit items, digestive aids, eye washes, sunscreens, and insect repellents should be brought in ample supply.

A local ophthalmologist has modern equipment, and an optician is available, but bring extra pairs of prescription glasses. Many people have trouble with contact lenses in Nouakchott because of dust and the dry climate. Several pairs of sunglasses are also recommended.

Dental facilities are limited. Expatriates rarely use a local dentist, and the most exceptional cases are referred to Dakar or Europe. However, a very well-trained dentist just opened a practice in Nouakchott and has been judged reliable and safe. Complete all routine dental work before arrival. Orthodontia is available in Dakar, but the French system used by orthodontists there is not compatible with U.S. practices.

Community Health

Public health measures in Nouakchott are limited. Personal hygienic standards are low, and household trash often is thrown in the streets and vacant lots. Most illnesses are related to bacteria spread by Mauritania's prodigious fly population, contaminated tap-water, or improper food handling. The desert climate of Nouakchott is healthier than that of tropical regions, but polio, typhoid fever, hepatitis, tuberculosis, malaria, meningitis, and a variety of parasitic illnesses are endemic.

Preventive Measures

Because medical facilities are limited, those assigned to Nouakchott must place a high priority on the prevention of illness and maintenance of good health. Health promotion measures include keeping immunizations current; proper treatment of food, water, and personal environment; maintaining good nutrition; and paying close attention to your need for exercise, rest, and relaxation.


An entry visa is required for all Americans traveling to Mauritania. Proof of current vaccination, or a stamp in your World Health Organization (WHO) card, for cholera and yellow fever also are needed. Arriving travelers not holding diplomatic passports should fill out a currency declaration form at the entry port and retain this form until time of departure in order to facilitate exit formalities.

Rabies is prevalent in Mauritania. All dogs and cats must have a valid health certificate showing current rabies inoculation.

The local currency is the ouguiya (UM), valued in December 2000 at about 251=$1.00. Mauritania uses the metric system of weights and measures.


Jan. 1 New Year's Day

May 1 Labor Day

May 25 Africa Day

Nov. 28 Mauritanian Independence Day

Hijra New Year*

Id al-Adah/Tabaski*


Id al-Fitr/Korite*

Mawlid an Nabi*

Lailat al Kadr*

*variable, based on the Islamic calendar


These titles are provided as a general indication of the material published on this country. The Department of State does not endorse unofficial publications.

American University. Area Handbook for Mauritania. U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C., 1973.

Baduel, Pierre Robert. Mauritanie, entre arabite et africanite. 1990.

Bouill, E.W. The Golden Trade of the Moors. Oxford University Press: London, 1978.

Clarke, Thurston. The Last Caravan. G.P. Putnam's sons, 1978.

Gerteiny, Alfred G. Historical Dictionary of Mauritania. African Historical Dictionaries Series, no. 32. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1981.

. Mauritania. Frederick A. Praeger: New York, 1967.

Goudie, A. and J. Wilkinson. The Warm Desert Environment. University Press: Cambridge, 1977.

Handloff, Robert E. Mauritania! A Country Study. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990.

Huddson, Thomas. Travels in Mauritania. 1988.

Kritzeck, J. and W. Lewis. Islam in Africa. Van Nostrand-Reinhold Co.: 1969.

La Mauritania: un Tournant Democratique? Politique Africaine no. 55, pages 2-109. October 1994.

Mauritania. Department of State in Country Reports of Human Rights Practice for 1991: February 1992.

Mauritania's Campaign of Terror: State-Sponsored Repression of Black Africans. Human Rights Watch/Africa: April 1994.

Mohamed Mahmoud ould Mohamed Salah. Droit des Contrats en Mauritanie: Tome 1 Theorie Generale du Contrat. L' Ordre National des Avocats: Mauritania, May 1996.

Mohammad-Mahmoud Mohamedou. Societal Transition to Democracy in Mauritania. 1995.

Norris, H.T. Shinguiti Folk Literature and Song. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1968.

Pitte, Jean Robert. Nouakchott: Capitale de la Mauritanie. Paris, 1977.

Renaudeau, Michel. La Republique Islamique de Mauritanie. Editions Delroisse: Paris.

Rezette, Robert. The Western Sahara and the Frontiers of Morocco. Nouvelles Editions Latines: Paris, 1975.

Trimingham J.S. Islam in West Africa. Oxford University Press: 1959.

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Mauritanian Islamic Republic
Al-Jumhuriyah al-Islamiyah al-Muritaniyah
République Islamique de Mauritanie



Located in northwestern Africa, bordered by Western Sahara (occupied by Morocco) and Algeria on the north, by Mali on the east and south, by Senegal on the southwest, and by the Atlantic Ocean on the west, the country has an area of 1,030,700 square kilometers (398,000 square miles), making it slightly larger than 3 times the size of New Mexico. Its total estimated boundary length is 5,828 kilometers (3,622 miles), including 754 kilometers (469 miles) of coast on the Atlantic Ocean. The capital, Nouakchott, is situated on the Atlantic coast in the southwest.


The population of Mauritania was 2,667,859 in 2000. Its average population density was 2 inhabitants per square kilometer (5.18 per square mile) in 1994, or the third lowest in the world. Deserts occupy 90 percent of the territory; 90 percent of the population lives in the south, along the Senegal River and the Atlantic Ocean. In 2000, the birth rate was 43.36 per 1,000 population, while the death rate equaled 13.97 per 1,000. With a fertility rate of 6.29 children born per woman, the population growth rate was 2.94 percent. The rapidly growing population is very youthful, with 46 percent below the age of 15 and 2 percent 65 or older.

Arabic-speaking Moors of Arab and Berber ancestry form 30 percent of the population, Arabic-speaking descendants of former slaves of mixed Moor and black African stock comprise 40 percent, and black Africans of the Wolof, Toucouleur (Peul), and Soninke groups constitute 30 percent. While the Moors are traditionally nomadic herders, the black Africans are engaged mostly in agriculture along the Senegal River. Communities are organized in some 150 distinct clans or tribes. Virtually all Mauritanians are Sunni Muslims. Arabic is the official language, though French and several African languages are also widely spoken. Sixty percent of the people lived in urban areas in 2000. The population of Nouakchott, the capital, was 1,070,000 in 1999; other major cities include Nouadhibou, Zouérat, and Kaédi.


Mauritania is among the world's poorest developing countries with a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of just $478 in 1998, according to the United Nations Development Program . Since attaining independence from French colonial rule in 1960, primitive and low-productivity subsistence farming and herding continue to provide livelihood for the majority of the people. However, most nomads and many farmers have fled to the cities since the 1970s due to the spreading desertification of the land, caused by water depletion and locust attacks. Mauritania has deposits of iron ore, which contribute nearly half of its exports, and also copper ore, gypsum, and phosphates. The decline in demand for those products, however, has led to a decline in mining output and income in the 1990s. The coastal Atlantic has a rich fishing area but it is exploited by foreign interests.

Over the 1990s, drought, mismanagement, and waste of resources have contributed to the amassing of a large foreign debt (US$2.5 billion in 1997, or 226 percent of 1996 GDP) and the country remains dependent on foreign aid (US$227.9 million in 1995) and assistance. Debt service is a heavy burden; Mauritania has been qualified by the international community for debt relief as a heavily indebted poor country and seeks cancellation of US$620 million of its debt. Foreign investment is scarce; France and Arab countries (mainly Algeria) are its largest sources. Since 1998, the government has pursued a reform initiative to cut budgetary costs, reduce the waste of resources, and reform the tax system. In 1999, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a US$57 million enhanced structural adjustment loan to support its program.


Mauritania won independence from France in 1960, and is now ruled under a republican constitution of 1991 which resembles that of France, with elements of Islamic sharia law. The constitution legalized opposition parties, but the 2 presidential elections since 1991 were flawed. Mauritania remains under an authoritarian, single-party regime. The president (Colonel Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya, in office since 1984, and reelected in 1997), is elected by popular vote for a renewable 6-year term. He appoints the prime minister and Council of Ministers (cabinet), who are subject to control by a bicameral parliament. The parliament consists of a 56-seat Senate, or Majlis al-Shuyukh, whose members are elected by municipal leaders to 6-year terms, and a National Assembly, or Majlis al-Watani, whose 79 members are elected by popular vote to 5-year terms.

The ruling party, the nationalist and formerly socialist Democratic and Social Republican Party (PRDS) of President Taya, controls 71 of the 79 seats in the National Assembly (as of early 2001), and 8 deputies represent other parties. The Union of Progressive Forces (UFP) is the most important opposition group but domestic politics is still tribally based. Mauritania experiences tensions between its black African minority and the Arabic-speaking Moor majority and has a generally ambivalent attitude towards neighboring black Africa.

The government's role in the economy is significant; economic growth and poverty reduction are key objectives of its policy, including privatization and reform in the banking sector, liberalization of the exchange rate , and reduction of trade and investment barriers. Since 1998, the government has also stressed market liberalization, sustainable development, poverty alleviation, education, and health improvement. It plans to modernize the administration, attract foreign investments, increase exports, and develop agriculture, mining, and fishing. Some state-owned companies (such as fish export marketing, petroleum, and insurance) have been privatized, and private initiative has been encouraged. Corruption is still a major problem, particularly in taxation, bank loans, government procurement , project management, traffic and vehicle control, and administrative services.

Given the poverty of the population, taxes on businesses form the bulk of the government's revenue. Since 1999, the number of taxes has been reduced from 5 to 4, with the introduction of a law that replaced 2 existing taxes that applied to imports. Customs formalities have been simplified, but the tax system is reckoned business-unfriendly. The import tax rate varies between 9 percent and 43 percent, and imports value-added tax (VAT) rates are from 5 percent to 14 percent. Importers consider import taxes high in comparison to other countries.


Mauritania's infrastructure is poor compared to its neighbors. The roads are dilapidated, particularly in the countryside; long distances and the difficult desert climate make their maintenance difficult. There are about 7,660 kilometers (4,760 miles) of roadways, 866 kilometers (538 miles) of which are paved, and 704 kilometers (460 miles) of railroad line for carrying iron ore from Zouérat to Nouadhibou. Several roads are under construction, and land conversion and road construction are a top priority for the government.

Country Newspapers Radios TV Sets a Cable subscribers a Mobile Phones a Fax Machines a Personal Computers a Internet Hosts b Internet Users b
1996 1997 1998 1998 1998 1998 1998 1999 1999
Mauritania 0 151 91 N/A 0 1.7 5.5 0.00 13
United States 215 2,146 847 244.3 256 78.4 458.6 1,508.77 74,100
Nigeria 24 223 66 N/A 0 N/A 5.7 0.00 100
Morocco 26 241 160 N/A 4 0.7 2.5 0.28 50
aData are from International Telecommunication Union, World Telecommunication Development Report 1999 and are per 1,000 people.
bData are from the Internet Software Consortium ( and are per 10,000 people.
SOURCE: World Bank. World Development Indicators 2000.

The Chinese-built seaport in Nouakchott receives 85 percent of the country's imported goods. The second seaport in the northern center of Nouadhibou serves fish and iron exports. Other ports include Bogué, Kaédi, and Rosso on the Senegal River; there is ferry traffic on the Senegal River.

The air transport company, state-run Air Mauritanie, provides domestic and international services between Nouakchott, Casablanca, Dakar, Las Palmas, Bamako, and Banjul. With international airports in Nouakchott, Nouadhibou, and Néma, Mauritania is served by Air France, Air Afrique, Moroccan, Tunisian, Algerian, and Senegalese carriers.

Electricity production was 152 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) a year in 1998, with 80 percent coming from thermal plants and 20 percent from hydropower installations. Most companies have their own generators. Electricity consumption is 141 million kWh (1998). Public-sector energy output increased 25 percent between 1993 and 1997 to meet demand in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou. Mauritania relies on imports of fuel; alternative energy production, such as solar, is limited but growing. It receives 15 percent of electricity output from the Manantali dam on the Senegal river. The Societe Nationale d'Eau et d'Electricite, the state-run electricity and water monopoly , is improving its management, and the government plans to privatize it and has hired a consortium headed by the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation to prepare the process. Power projects under construction include the extension of the Nouakchott electricity grid. Firewood fulfills one-half of household fuel demand but the European Union (EU) is promoting the distribution of gas bottles and burners to encourage people to convert to gas. To satisfy its demand for potable water, the government plans to renovate the sanitation network, encourage new well drilling in the countryside, and increase of Nouadhibou and Nouakchott's reservoir capacity.

Mauritania has a poor telecommunications system with only 9,000 main lines in use in 1995, but it has undergone considerable expansion in the late 1990s. The first GSM wireless telephone system with 50,000 lines covering the Nouakchott and Nouadhibou areas was launched in 2000. The system operator, Mauritela joint venture between the Tunisian Telecommunications Company and local companieswon the $28 million license in competition with France Telecom and Spanish Starcelle. Privatization of the former state monopoly OPT (postal and telecommunications company) was launched in 1999 with the intention to create 3 separate units run by private operators. The Canadian company Sogema has been hired to reorganize telecommunications, and French Alcatel has captured market share with the installation of a new 10,000-line phone exchange in Nouakchott worth US$4.5 million. In 2000, the World Bank approved a US$10.8 million loan to the government for assistance in privatization and expanding access to communications.


Mauritania's GDP composition by sector in 1997 was as follows: agriculture, 25 percent; industry, 31 percent; and services, 44 percent. The relative stability of the various sectors over the years, however, disguises significant changes within those sectors. In agriculture, for instance, there was a 30 percent rise in crop output between 1993 and 1997, while livestock and fishing declined by 40 percent. Mining production peaked in 1994 and has since dropped back to the 1993 level. Mining and fisheries contribute for 99.7 percent of the exports. The low population density does not support a diversified manufacturing sector, and industrial activities are located almost solely in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou, where the production growth rate was 7.2 percent in 1994. Growth in commerce, transport, and communications in the late 1990s compensated for declines in public sector services.


Agriculture and herding employ 47 percent of the workforce, although its contribution to GDP is 25 percent due to its inefficiency. Most farmers are engaged in subsistence agriculture and never buy food outside their households. Farms produce dates, millet, sorghum, and root crops, while herders raise cattle and sheep. Fishing is the second largest foreign revenue source after mining. Along its 754 kilometer (469 mile) Atlantic coast, Mauritania has some of the richest fishing grounds in the world. The sector, however, is harmed by the lack of effective government policy, mismanagement, and limited technical ability to monitor and control the resources. In 1997, the government launched a reform to strengthen its control, increase the fishing areas, and encourage joint ventures with foreign companies.

There is very little arable land in Mauritania, while permanent pastures occupy 38 percent of the territory and forests and woodland cover just 4 percent. Mauritania's cereal production covers 35 percent of the country's needs (527,297 metric tons) and the food situation in 1999 called for massive imports and donor aid. The Senegal River valley has attracted local investors to regional dam projects relevant also to navigation, power generation, and distribution. The World Bank supports an irrigation program aimed at rehabilitating 11,000 hectares along the Senegal River and diversifying the crops. In 1998, the government adopted a long-term development strategy to guarantee food security and conserve natural resources by promoting private investment and introducing irrigation.


The mining of iron ore and gypsum and fish processing form the backbone of Mauritanian industry. In 1998, mining exports equaled $214 million, or 56 percent of total exports, a 23 percent increase from 1997, making the state-run mining company the largest foreign exchange generator. Mining is of greatest interest to foreign investors, and suppliers of mining equipment and services. Mauritania is trying to develop new natural resources, notably gold and oil. In 1998 and 1999, research contracts were signed with Canadian Rex Diamond Mining Corporation and Australian Ashton West Africa Property. Researchers have confirmed the presence of gold, phosphate, aluminum, and copper in several regions, and Australian Woodside Petroleum has reported positive results at its offshore drilling in Mauritanian waters.

The domestic market's lack of scale, skilled labor, and infrastructure, and its high utility costs and poor credit make Mauritania unattractive for foreign manufacturers. Manufacturing and handicrafts accounted for 4.4 percent of GDP in 1998 and are concentrated in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou. They include food processing, chemicals and plastics, building materials, and paper and packaging materials. Six companies account for 57 percent of investment and 40 percent of the 1,100 jobs in the sector. Of the 10 companies established in the 1980s in fish processing, 8 have failed due to high water and electricity costs, skilled labor shortages, poor infrastructure, and low hygiene standards.


Mauritania's financial sector is underdeveloped, although it has been restructured and privatized over the 1990s. It includes the Banque centrale de Mauritanie (the central bank, which issues currency and oversees monetary policy ), and 5 commercial banks, the Banque nationale de Mauritanie, the Banque mauritanienne pour le commerce et l'industrie, the Banque al baraka mauritanienne Islamique, Chinguetti Bank, and the Generale de banque de Mauritanie. All banks are burdened by bad (irrecoverable) loans in the struggling fishing sector. The Saudi Al-Baraka firm, owning 85 percent of Al-Baraka Bank, and Belgium's Belgolaise bank, holding a stake at Generale, are the largest foreign shareholders in local banks. Government participation in the other banks is significant, but 2 of them are negotiating partnerships with foreign investors. There is 1 bank specialized in housing construction, 3 credit Agencies (Credit Maritime, Credit Agricole, and Mauritanie Leasing), and 2 private insurance companies. Since 1997, the government has encouraged popular saving agencies to diversify the sector and mobilize small savers' assets to promote investment.

Mauritania's retail trade is mostly traditional, represented by small family enterprises. It has a good tourist potential as the Banc d'Arguin reserve and ancient towns such as Chinguetti were declared World Heritage Sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. There are, however, very few facilities and the only international hotels are in Nouakchott.

Trade (expressed in billions of US$): Mauritania
Exports Imports
1975 .176 .161
1980 .194 .286
1985 .374 .234
1990 .447 .220
1995 N/A N/A
1998 N/A N/A
SOURCE: International Monetary Fund. International Financial Statistics Yearbook 1999.


Mauritania imports food, fuel, vehicles and spare parts, building materials, and clothes, and exports mainly iron ore, fish, and some gold. Its exports amounted to US$425 million in 1997, and are shipped mostly to Japan (24 percent), Italy (17 percent), France (14 percent), and Spain (8 percent). Imports in 1997 worth US$444 million, mostly machinery and equipment, petroleum products, capital goods , foodstuffs, and consumer goods , were purchased from France (26 percent), Spain (8 percent), Germany (7 percent), and the Benelux countries (7 percent). Mauritania's economic ties to black Western African countries have lost relative importance over the 1990s compared to those with the Arab countries of Northern Africa.

Mauritanians benefitted in the 1990s from the abolition of import monopolies on rice, wheat, flour, sugar, tea, and powdered milk, which improved the accessibility of food throughout the country. Credit restrictions, import taxes, and interest rates still hinder most importers. Mauritania is trying to promote trade, particularly with Arab countries. A trade deficit of 6.6 billion ouguiyas is growing, however, and reflects not only the weakness of the domestic economy but also increased debt repayments and the decrease in money transfers from Mauritanian workers abroad.


Banking supervision has been strengthened during the 1990s to encourage bank solvency and the stability of local currency (with the support of the World Bank and the IMF) but interest rates have discouraged private investment. The government pursues price stability through fiscal and monetary restraint, promotes private credit agencies and institutional reform, encourages domestic and foreign investment, and encourages poverty reduction through higher wages. The foreign exchange system was liberalized in the 1990s and currencies can be obtained freely, but the central bank fixes exchange

Exchange rates: Mauritania
ouguiyas (UM) per US$1
Dec 2000 250.870
2000 238.923
1999 209.514
1998 188.476
1997 151.853
1996 137.222
SOURCE: CIA World Factbook 2001 [ONLINE].

rates through a basket of currencies of the principal trading partners. In 1998, the central bank introduced incentives to encourage fish exporters to bring back their foreign currency and change them for ouguiyas, increasing the availability of foreign currencies, mainly U.S. dollars and French francs, in the market.


Mauritania ranks among the least developed countries in the world with widespread chronic poverty among the nomadic herders, subsistence farmers, and the unemployed urban masses. Poverty is manifested not only in low income but also in limited access to basic services such as safe water, health care, and education. In 1990, it was estimated that 57 percent of the population lived below the poverty line and the country's Gini index (measuring economic equality, with 0 standing for perfect equality and 100 for perfect inequality) was close to 39, lower than the one in the United States but higher than in Europe. With the lowest 10 percent of earners responsible for 0.7 percent of the consumption and the highest 10 percent for 30.4 percent in 1988, Mauritania is still more equal than many of its African neighbors. The inflation rate was 9.8 percent in 1998. The country is heavily dependent on foreign aid and poverty reduction programs while corruption creates some large illicit fortunes. Economic inequality adds to interethnic and intertribal tension to

GDP per Capita (US$)
Country 1975 1980 1985 1990 1998
Mauritania 549 557 511 438 478
United States 19,364 21,529 23,200 25,363 29,683
Nigeria 301 314 230 258 256
Morocco 956 1,114 1,173 1,310 1,388
SOURCE: United Nations. Human Development Report 2000; Trends in human development and per capita income.
Distribution of Income or Consumption by Percentage Share: Mauritania
Lowest 10% 2.3
Lowest 20% 6.2
Second 20% 10.8
Third 20% 15.4
Fourth 20% 22.0
Highest 20% 45.6
Highest 10% 29.9
Survey year: 1995
Note: This information refers to expenditure shares by percentiles of the population and is ranked by per capita expenditure.
SOURCE: 2000 World Development Indicators [CD-ROM].

produce a very low level of human development, according to United Nations sources.


The labor force was estimated at 465,000 in 1981, but only 45,000 wage earners were reported in 1980, indicating that a vast number of people are employed in subsistence agriculture. By occupation, agriculture employed 47 percent, services 39 percent, industry 14 percent. Mass exodus to cities, low economic growth, and a growing uneducated young population are generating unemployment while there is a shortage of skilled workers, technicians, and managers in most sectors. The unemployment rate was officially 23 percent in 1995. But fully 50 percent of high school and university graduates are unemployed due to government hiring restraints and the stagnating private sector .

Workers have the right to associate and strike, but strikes are rare. There are 3 union confederations, Union of Mauritanian Workers (UTM), General Confederation of Mauritanian Workers (CGTM), and Confederation of Free Mauritanian Workers (CLTM). An employer-employee agreement, the 1974 Collective Labor Convention, establishes many employee benefits, including paid maternity leave. The workweek is 40 hours and the minimum wage is revised periodically by the unions, the employers, and the government. In 1998, the minimum wage was US$54 per month but in the private sector it was US$81.


c. 1-1000 A.D. Berber nomads conquer the indigenous black population, dominating trade with the African kingdom of Ghana across the trans-Saharan trade routes.

c. 1100-1674. Almoravid Dynasty controls the trade in gold, slaves, and salt.

1674. Muslim Arabs conquer the country, becoming the upper class of society. Arabic becomes the official language.

1905. Mauritania becomes a French protectorate and later colony; slavery is legally abolished.

1958. The Islamic Republic of Mauritania is proclaimed.

1960. Mauritania gains independence from France; M. Ould Daddah is elected president.

1960s-70s. The economy expands thanks to newly discovered iron and copper deposits.

1975. Spain cedes the Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania, sparking a continuing conflict over the status of the region.

1978. President Daddah is toppled in a coup, and in 1979 Mauritania withdraws from the Western Sahara. Prime minister, later president, Mohamed Ould Haidalla institutes strict enforcement of Islamic law.

1984. Haidalla is deposed by Colonel Taya.

1989. Mauritania joins the Union of the Arab Maghreb, a North African political and economic union whose members include Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria.

1989. Tensions with Senegal over agricultural rights along their border result in the repatriation of 100,000 Mauritanians from Senegal and the expulsion of 125,000 Senegalese from Mauritania.

1991. A new constitution is adopted, and opposition parties are legalized.

1997. President Taya is reelected president in a landslide election victory.


Improving economic management is expected to gradually bring about positive developments in the economy, the infrastructure, and in the alleviation of poverty. The ruling PRDS party will likely win the October 2001 parliamentary elections and real GDP is expected to grow in 2001 at an annual rate of 6 percent. Mauritania's economic ties will be further redirected from West Africa to the Union of the Arab Maghreb (Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia). Economic policies oriented toward liberalization and additional bank reforms are expected to improve the investment climate. The success of the telecom privatization is expected to attract new private funds and new businesses. Good relations with the IMF and the World Bank will continue to bring in international funds for poverty reduction and development projects and strengthen the economy.

Prospects for increased mining output capacity, along with an increase in iron ore prices and the development of new mineral resources, may bring steady growth in mineral exports. The health of the fisheries industry depends to a large extent on market conditions in East Asia, particularly Japan, and may suffer from economic recession in that country. Domestic food production may benefit from occasional good seasons of rains but is still in jeopardy due to active desertification processes and will require extensive international aid. Environmental degradation, poor water supply and health services, unemployment, and a lack of basic education will continue to pose the most serious problems to the government in the foreseeable future.


Mauritania has no territories or colonies.


Economist Intelligence Unit. Country Profile: Mauritania. London: Economist Intelligence Unit, 2001.

Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. <>. Accessed August 2001.

Handloff, Robert E. Mauritania: A Country Study. 2nd ed.Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1996.

"Mauritania." MBendi: Information for Africa. <>. Accessed August 2001.

United Nations Development Program. Human Development Report, Mauritania. New York, 2000.

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. World Factbook 2000. <>. Accessed August 2001.

U.S. Department of State. Country Commercial Guides for FY2000: Mauritania. <>. Accessed August 2001.

Valentin Hadjiyski




Ouguiya (UM). One ouguiya equals 5 khoums. There are coins of 1 khoum and 1, 5, 10, and 20 ouguiyas, and notes of 100, 200, 500, and 1,000 ouguiyas.


Fish and fish products, iron ore, gold.


Machinery and equipment, petroleum products, capital goods, foodstuffs, consumer goods.


US$4.9 billion (purchasing power parity, 1999 est.).


Exports: US$425 million (f.o.b., 1997). Imports: US$444 million (f.o.b., 1997).

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Basic Data

Official Country Name: Islamic Republic of Mauritania
Region (Map name): Africa
Population: 2,667,859
Language(s): Hasaniya Arabic, Pular, Soninke, Wolof, French
Literacy rate: 37.7%

Background & General Characteristics

Mauritania is a primarily desert country in northwest Africa, situated south of the Western Sahara, southwest of Algeria, west and north of Mali, and north of Senegal. The country's western border is the Atlantic Ocean. The capital of Mauritania is Noakchott. A country of 2.5 million people, Mauritania's population is composed of Arab Berbers in the north and darker-skinned Africans in the south. Many of the people are nomads. The language groups in the country include Arabic (the official language), French, and local languages. Most Mauritanians practice Islam.

Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya is the president of Mauritania, a highly centralized, constitutional Islamic republic with a strong presidency. Although the 1991 constitution provided for a civilian government with an executive branch, senate, and national assembly, President Taya exerts considerable political power over the rest of the government. He came to power in 1984 as the leader of a military junta and was officially elected president of the republic in 1992 during the country's first multi-party election under the new constitution. Taya was reelected in 1997 by 90 percent of the vote, winning out over four other candidates in an election boycotted by a five-party coalition, the Opposition Front. General and local elections held in October 2001 were won by the president's Republican Democratic Party, enabling President Taya to keep firm control over Mauritanian politics and governance.

Newspapers in Mauritania are tightly controlled by the state, which reviews all copy to be published two or three days in advance of the publication date. Five copies of all newspaper issues must be presented to the Ministries of Justice and of the Interior for this pre-publication review. Material deemed insulting to Islam or a risk to national security cannot be published. All newspapers must be registered with the Ministry of the Interior.

The principal newspapers in the country are in French and Arabic, and a wide variety of newspapers exists. Over three hundred newspapers and journals are registered with the government but only about a third of these publish on a regular basis; some have never published an issue. Only about twenty-five private newspapers publish regularly, most of them weeklies printing a maximum of three thousand copies for any one edition.

Key newspapers include Al'Sha'b, a government-owned paper published in Arabic; Horizon, also government owned, but published in French; Journal Officiel, the official gazette published in French; Le Calame, appearing in both Arabic and French; l'Eveil-Hebdo, a French bi-weekly; and Rajoul Echaree, published in Arabic and French.

Those campaigning to end the practice of slavery in Mauritania, which was officially stopped in 1981 but purported to still exist, despite government denials, have sometimes found it difficult to publicize their cause and their campaign activities via the media. As Amnesty International stated in their 2002 annual report, "Human rights organizations, including those campaigning against slavery, remained illegal, and freedom of expression remained limited." In September 2001 the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for improvements in specific human rights situations in Mauritania, including an end to slavery and greater guarantees for freedom of expression. In November 2001 independent journalist Gilles Ammar and his cameraman were expelled from Mauritania, allegedly for attempting to produce a report on slavery.

Economic Framework

Mauritania's economy is based on fishing and mining. The principal exports are fish and fish products, iron ore, and gold. The average per capita annual income is only about US$370.

Certain financial benefits apply to those who publish mass media. Publishers and printers of newspapers, journals, and privately printed books do not have to pay government taxes on the materials they use to produce their publications.

Press Laws

The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press. However, government control of the media involves pre-publication censorship made possible by Article 11 of the Constitution, which states that content and media can be banned if they threaten national sovereignty, security, or unity or the territorial integrity of Mauritania or if they insult Islam or foreign heads of state.


Censorship is a problem for journalists in Mauritania, though conditions for the press appeared somewhat better in 2001 than in the previous year, based on the annual report of Reporters Without Borders. Papers produced by non-governmental organizations and by the private press are more open in their criticism of government officials and policies and of the opposition parties than are the state-owned papers. As the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor expressed it in their annual report for January through December 2001, "Antigovernment tracts, newsletters, and petitions circulated widely in Nouakchott and other towns."

The U.S. State Department reported that in December 2000 one weekly newspaper, Al Alam, was banned. In 2001 seven issues of various journals were seized by the authorities as objectionable material under the censorship laws. In July 2002 an issue of Le Renovateur, one of the country's bi-monthly newspapers, was seized by the Ministry of the Interior, Posts and Telecommunications despite the fact that the issue had been properly registered. The seizure was likely related to an article it contained on rising prices of essential goods and on foreign exchange, according to the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) in Accra, Ghana. MFWA issued an alert on August 9, 2002, requesting that letters be sent to Mauritania's president and the Minister of the Interior to protest frequent seizures of newspapers in the country.

State-Press Relations

Besides the requirement that newspapers must all register with the government, all journalists must carry government-issued press cards to participate in official press events.

The general atmosphere surrounding the press in Mauritania appears to be cautiously positive but restrictive, particularly in terms of the continuing prohibition of private radio broadcasting licenses. Moreover, state-controlled media voice views that favor the government, so it cannot be said that Mauritania enjoys a very large measure of press freedom.

One example of government interference with journalistic reporting was the detention and questioning in July 2001 of reporter Mohammed Lemine Ould Mahmoudi, a contributor to the weekly Le Calame and managing editor of the weekly Hasad Al-Ousbou'é. Mahmoudi was arrested due to suspicions that he knew something about who had produced anti-government graffiti and who had committed acts of sabotage during an official visit to one of the country's regions. After a few hours of questioning, Mahmoudi was released.

Attitude toward Foreign Media

Mauritanian correspondents for foreign broadcasters have occasionally had problems with government repression. For example, in April 2001 the Minister of Communications temporarily banned journalist Mohammed Lemine Ould Bah, Mauritania's correspondent for Radio France International and Radio Monte Carlo, from practicing journalism and working with these broadcasters after Bah reported on conflict between Mauritania and its southwestern neighbor, Senegal.

Mauritanians can access foreign television programs from France and Arab countries through satellite receivers and dish antennae. Although the government had interfered with certain broadcasts of Radio France International and the Qatar-based Arabic television station, Al-Jazeera, due to programs of theirs that had been critical of the Mauritanian government, no such interference reportedly occurred in 2001, according to the U.S. State Department's report on human rights practices.

News Agencies

Mauritania's official news agency is the Mauritanian News Agency.

Broadcast Media

The state owns all domestic television and radio broadcasting services, whose coverage typically provides a favorable picture of the government. The political opposition has limited access to radio broadcasting, although during the last election the opposition candidates were allowed much greater access to the media than at other times. Foreign broadcasts from France, Arab countries, and other locations, such as Africa No. 1 from Gabon can be received via FM in the country. However, private radio stations within Mauritania are unable to obtain broadcast licenses. Domestic rebroadcasting on FM stations of Radio France International programs is permitted, enabling listeners in Mauritania to hear news of the opposition parties.

The national broadcasting network is the Office de Radiodiffusion-Television de Mauritanie (ORTM). Mauritanian TV broadcasts throughout the country on one channel but can be picked up by satellite in eleven regional capitals. Its programs are produced in Arabic, French, and various local languages. Radio programs by the national broadcaster are transmitted on FM and short wave and by Arabsat 2B satellite. Radio France International is transmitted on FM in Nouakchott, the capital city. No domestic radio stations exist, due to government refusal to grant licenses to private radio broadcasters within the country. However, radio is the most popular form of media in the country.

Electronic News Media

About 300 persons accessed the Internet regularly in 1999. Five domestic Internet service providers operate in Mauritania, unrestricted by the government. Internet connections were improved in 1999 to make Internet access available in Nouadhibou, the country's principal commercial city. The Internet is now available there and in five regional capitals. Internet sites are maintained by some of the privately owned newspapers in the country, and in 2001 these sites were able to operate without government censorship.


Although Mauritania has a ways to come before its press can be called free, some positive conditions appear to exist in the relations between the press and the state, such as permissiveness regarding Internet service provision and the reception of foreign television and radio broadcasts in the country. However, the amount of media control exerted by the government, particularly in terms of government bans on private radio broadcasting and the required government pre-publication reviews of press materials, is restrictive compared with basic international standards for free expression and public debate and dissent. Hopefully, a reduction in government tensions over border disputes with Senegal involving the use of the Senegal River, mixed with domestic and international efforts to promote more multi-party democratic political activity, will eventually change this situation and make Mauritania a more positive environment for journalistic practice.

Significant Dates

  • 1997: President Taya reelected with 90 percent of the vote.
  • 1999: Internet access made available in Nouadhibou, the country's principal commercial city.
  • December 2000: Al Alam, a weekly newspaper, is banned and stops publishing.
  • April 2001: The Minister of Communications temporarily bans journalist Mohammed Lemine Ould Bah, Mauritania's correspondent for Radio France International and Radio Monte Carlo, from practicing journalism in the country.
  • September 2001: The European Parliament passes a resolution calling for improved human rights in Mauritania, including an end to slavery and better guarantees for freedom of expression.
  • October 2001: General and local elections won by Republican Democratic Party, President Taya's party, allowing him to stay in firm control of politics and the government in Mauritania.
  • November 2001: Independent journalist Gilles Ammar and his cameraman are expelled from Mauritania, allegedly for attempting to produce a report on slavery.
  • August 2002: The Media Foundation for West Africa issues an alert on August 9, 2002, requesting that letters be sent to Mauritania's president and the Minister of the Interior to protest frequent seizures of newspapers.


Amnesty International. "Mauritania." Amnesty International Report 2002. London: Amnesty International, 2002. Available from

BBC Monitoring. "Country profile: Mauritania." Reading, UK: British Broadcasting Corporation, 2002. Available from

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State. "Mauritania." Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2001. Washington, DC: Bureau of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of State, 2002. Available from

Committee to Protect Journalists. "Mauritania." Attacks on the Press in 2001: Africa 2001. New York, NY: CPJ, 2002. Available from

Media Foundation for West Africa. "Another Newspaper Publication Seized." Press release. Accra, Ghana, August 9, 2002. Available from

Reporters Without Borders. "Mauritania." Africa Annual Report 2002. Paris, France: Reporters sans frontiéres, 2002. Available from

Barbara A. Lakeberg-Dridi

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Mauritania (môrĬtā´nēə), officially Islamic Republic of Mauritania, republic (2005 est. pop. 3,087,000), 397,953 sq mi (1,030,700 sq km), NW Africa. It borders on the Atlantic Ocean in the west, on Western Sahara in the northwest and north, on Algeria in the northeast, on Mali in the east and southeast, and on Senegal in the southwest. Nouakchott is the capital and largest town. Other towns include Atar and Kaédi.

Land and People

Most of Mauritania is made up of low-lying desert, which comprises part of the Sahara. Along the Senegal River (which forms the border with Senegal and is Mauritania's only perennial river) in the southwest is the semiarid Sahel with some fertile alluvial soil. A wide sandstone plateau (rising to c.1,500 ft/460 m) runs through the center of the country from north to south. In the southeast is the Hodh, a large basin in the desert.

The majority of the population is of Berber, Arab, Tuareg, and Fulani descent, and many still live a nomadic or seminomadic existence. Those of Berber, Arab, and mixed Berber-Arab background are sometimes called Moors, Maurs, or Maures. The remainder of the population mostly belong to the Tukolor, Soninke, Bambara, and Wolof ethnic groups and live as sedentary agriculturalists near the Senegal River. Recurrent droughts in the late 20th cent. forced many nomads from the countryside into the urban area of Nouakchott.

Virtually all the inhabitants of the country are Muslim, and many belong to the Qadiriyya brotherhood. The great majority of Mauritanians use Hasaniya Arabic, which, along with Wolof, is an official language. Other indigenous languages such as Pular and Soninke are also widely spoken. The country has a complex social caste system, with light-skinned Moors usually in positions of power and black Africans often at the bottom of the social ladder. In 1981, Mauritania became the world's last nation to officially ban slavery. Nonetheless, the United Nations and other groups report that slavery persists, with thousands of Haratines, the Arabicized Africans known as black Moors, held in involuntary servitude. In 2007 legislation was enacted that, for the first time, provided for criminal penalties for keeping slaves.


Mauritania's economy is sharply divided between a traditional agricultural sector and a modern mining industry that was developed in the 1960s. About half of the country's workers depend on either raising crops or pasturing livestock for their livelihood and are unaffected by the mining industry. The principal agricultural products, produced chiefly near the Senegal River and in scattered oases, are dates, millet, sorghum, rice, and corn. In times of drought food production levels can drop dangerously low. Cattle, sheep, goats, and camels are raised. There is an important fishing industry based in the Atlantic and on the Senegal River. Since 1980, all foreign commercial fishing in Mauitanian territorial waters must be carried out jointly with Mauritania; this policy has increased export earnings, but overfishing now threatens this source of revenue.

A large deposit of high-grade iron ore was discovered in N Mauritania in the late 1950s, and production for export began in 1963. Foreign sales of iron ore account for about 40% of the country's export earnings. Gypsum, gold, copper, and salt are also mined. The difficult mining conditions with respect to the country's large copper ore reserves and low world commodity prices at times lead to occasional mine closures. There are also offshore oil deposits, which the country began exploiting in 2006. Fish processing is also important, and there is light manufacturing. The Trans-Mauritania highway connects the capital with the southeast regions. There is a deepwater port at Nouakchott.

The chief exports, in addition to iron ore, are fish and fish products, gold, and cattle (the latter sent mainly to Senegal); the leading imports are machinery and equipment, petroleum products, capital and consumer goods, and food. The principal trade partners are France, Belgium, Japan, and Spain. Mauritania has a large foreign debt.


Mauritania is governed under the constitution of 2006. The executive branch is headed by a president, who is popularly elected for a five-year term and is eligible for a second term. The prime minister is appointed by the president. The bicameral parliament consists of the 56-seat Senate, whose members are indirectly elected for six-year terms, and the 95-seat National Assembly, whose members are popularly elected for five-year terms. Administratively, the country is divided into 12 regions and the capital district.


Early History through Colonialism

By the beginning of the 1st millennium AD Sanhaja Berbers had migrated into Mauritania, pushing the black African inhabitants (especially the Soninké) southward toward the Senegal River. The Hodh region, which became desert only in the 11th cent., was the center of the ancient empire of Ghana (700–1200), whose capital, Kumbi-Saleh, located near the present-day border with Mali, has been unearthed by archaeologists. Until the 13th cent., Oualata, Awdaghost, and Kumbi-Saleh, all in SE Mauritania, were major centers along the trans-Saharan caravan routes linking Morocco with the region along the upper Niger River.

In the 11th cent. the Almoravid movement was founded among the Muslim Berbers of Mauritania. In the 14th and 15th cent., SE Mauritania was part of the empire of Mali, centered along the upper Niger. By this time the Sahara had encroached on much of Mauritania, consequently limiting agriculture and reducing the population. In the 1440s, Portuguese navigators explored the Mauritanian coast and established a fishing base on Arguin Island, located near the present-day boundary with Western Sahara.

From the 17th cent., Dutch, British, and French traders were active along the S Mauritanian coast; they were primarily interested in the gum arabic gathered near the Senegal River. Under Louis Faidherbe, governor of Senegal (1854–61; 1863–65), France gained control of S Mauritania. The region was declared a protectorate in 1903, but parts of the north were not pacified until the 1930s.

Until 1920, when it became a separate colony in French West Africa, Mauritania was administered as part of Senegal. Saint-Louis, in Senegal, continued to be Mauritania's administrative center until 1957, when it was replaced by Nouakchott. The French ruled through existing political authorities and did little to develop the country's economy or to increase educational opportunities for the population. National political activity began only after World War II. In 1958, Mauritania became an autonomous republic within the French Community.

An Independent Nation

On Nov. 28, 1960, Mauritania became fully independent. Its leader at independence was Makhtar Ould Daddah, who in 1961 formed the Mauritanian People's Party (which in 1965 became the country's only legal party) and was the leading force in establishing a new constitution. Ould Daddah was elected president in 1961; the same year Mauritania became a member of the United Nations.

The 1960s were marked by tensions between the black Africans of the south and the Arabs and Berbers of central and N Mauritania, some of whom sought to join Mauritania with Morocco. By the early 1970s the main conflicts in the country were over economic and ideological rather than ethnic matters, as dissident workers and students protested what they considered an unfair wage structure and an undue concentration of power in Ould Daddah's hands. The long-term drought in the semiarid Sahel region in the south, which lasted from the late 1960s into the 1980s, caused the death of about 80% of the country's livestock, as well as extremely poor harvests in the Senegal River region.

Ould Daddah attempted to act as a bridge between N Africa and black Africa and in the early 1970s was on good terms with Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco as well as with the black African nations of Senegal and Liberia. In 1973, Mauritania became a member of the Arab League. In the same year the country began to loosen its ties with France by withdrawing from the Franc Zone and establishing its own currency. In 1976, when Spain relinquished control of Spanish Sahara, the territory became Western Sahara and was partitioned between Morocco and Mauritania. This move left Mauritania (as well as Morocco) in conflict with the Polisario Front, a group of nationalist guerrillas fighting for independence for Western Sahara.

Ould Daddah's regime was overthrown in 1978, and Lt. Col. Mustapha Ould Mohamad Salek assumed power, promising to end involvement in the war. Salek's proposed Arabization of the country's educational system made him many enemies in the African community. He resigned and was succeeded by Lt. Col. Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Louly in 1979. In that year, Mauritania, under pressure from the Polisario Front, renounced all claims to Western Sahara. In 1980, Ould Louly was overthrown and replaced by Prime Minister Lt. Col. Mohamed Khouna Ould Heydalla. In 1981, Mauritania severed diplomatic relations with Morocco after it appeared Morocco had engineered a coup attempt against Heydalla. In 1984, Lt. Col. Maaouiya Ould Sidi Ahmed Taya overthrew Heydalla's regime. Taya restored relations with Morocco in 1985.

In 1989, racial tensions between blacks and Moors reached new heights as 40,000 black Senegalese workers were driven out of the country. Rioting resulted, tens of thousands of black Mauritanians were forced from their land by the military (many of whom fled to Senegal), and Mauritania broke off diplomatic relations with Senegal. In 1991 a new constitution providing for multiparty rule was approved by referendum. President Taya was reelected in 1992 and 1997, amid allegations of fraud. In 1993 the United States stopped development aid to Mauritania in protest against the country's oppression of its black citizens and its support of Iraq during the Persian Gulf War; the government subsequently moved toward a pro-Western position.

Taya survived a coup attempt in June, 2003. In the Nov., 2003, presidential elections he received 66.7% of the vote; his nearest challenger, former president Heydalla, almost 19%. Despite new voting safeguards designed to prevent vote-rigging, there were again accusations of fraud. Heydalla was arrested after the election on charges of plotting a coup, which he denied. He received a suspended five-year sentence in December, and as a result of the sentence he lost his political and civil rights for five years. In Aug. and Sept., 2004, Mauritanian officials said they had foiled two more coup plots. At the same time, locusts ravaged a large portion of the nation's agricultural land, leading to concerns of a possible food crisis.

In Aug., 2005, while President Taya was abroad, the long-time national security chief, Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall led a coup that replaced Taya with a 17-member military council headed by Vall. The coup was quickly denounced by the African Union, United States, and others, but after the council promised to hold democratic legislative elections within two years the objections ended. Mauritanians generally greeted the Taya's overthrow with celebration, and opposition groups with qualified approval.

In 2006 voters approved a new constitution limiting a president to two five-year terms in office. In the legislative elections (Nov.–Dec., 2006) a coalition of former opposition parties won the largest bloc of seats, followed by independents, but no group won a majority. Senatorial elections were held in Jan., 2007, and in March Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, a former government minister who ran as an independent but was supported by former government parties and was regarded as the military's candidate, was elected president after a runoff. In 2008, however, increasing food prices and concerns over the government's overtures to Islamists led to government instability beginning in May and tensions between the president and parliament. In August, after the president dismissed several military and security leaders, one of them, Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, overthrew the president and replaced the presidency with a military-dominated council; a new cabinet was appointed in September. Mauritania saw an increase in Islamic militant attacks in the months following the coup, and fighting between Islamist and government forces continued sporadically into subsequent years, at times spilling across the border into Mali.

Aziz resigned from the military and the government in Apr., 2009, in order to run for president; Senate President Ba Mamadou Mbare became interim head of state. In June, 2009, a settlement negotiated as a prelude to new elections led to the formation of a power-sharing government that included military- and opposition-appointed members. As part of the agreement Abdallahi appointed the interim government and then officially resigned as president.

The presidential election in July, 2009, resulted in a victory for Aziz, with more than 52% of the vote, but the main opposition candidates rejected the results. The president was injured in a shooting in Oct., 2012, reportedly accidentally, though some reports suggested it might have been an assassination attempt. The president's party, Union for the Republic, won a majority of the seats in the legislature in the Nov.–Dec., 2013, elections, with its allies winning additional seats, but all but one of the parties in the 11-party opposition alliance boycotted the vote. The opposition also boycotted the June, 2014, presidential election, in which Aziz was easily reelected.


See R. N. Westebbe, The Economy of Mauritania (1971); A. G. Gerteiny, Historical Dictionary of Mauritania (1981).

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Basic Data
Official Country Name: Islamic Republic of Mauritania
Region: Africa
Population: 2,667,859
Language(s): Hasaniya Arabic, Pular, Soninke, Wolof, French
Literacy Rate: 37.7%

History & Background

Early public schools in Mauritania were established when the west African nation was colonized by the French. A particularly nomadic people, the Mauritanians quite often ignored these new schools and continued to send their children to the existing Islamic schools, which favored religious instruction based on the teaching of the Koran. Boys typically received seven years of education, beginning at age eight, while girls remained in school for a much shorter duration.

When World War II ended in 1945, the French colonial administration began setting up mobile "tent" schools as a means of reaching these nomadic communities. However, in the mid-1960s, only 14 percent of all school-age children had enrolled in the public schools. It wasn't until the Mauritanians themselves began to view traditional religious education as inadequate to prepare their children for the future that enrollment levels at secular schools began to climb, reaching roughly 35 percent by the mid-1980s. At that time, 878 primary schoolsemploying 2,900 teachersand 44 secondary schoolsemploying 1,563 teachers, more than one-fourth of whom were from other countrieswere in operation.

Constitutional & Legal Foundations

After achieving independence in the mid-1960s, Mauritania began experimenting with ways to mold its educational system to the specific needs of its students. In 1966 the government passed legislation that mandated schools to offer instruction in both the French and the Arabic languages. A similar bill passed early in the 1980s required that instruction be offered in the languages of Pulaar, Azayr, and Wolof. A plan conceived in the late 1970s to completely eliminate French in the schools was dissolved by the end of the following decade after vehement resistance by Mauritanians who already spoke French.

Educational System

Education in Mauritania is mandatory from ages 6 to 16. The school year runs from October to June. Primary and secondary education is divided into three quarters, the first one lasting 11 weeks and the remaining two lasting 13 weeks. Higher education is split into two six-month periods. The languages of instruction are both Arabic and French.

Preprimary & Primary Education

Primary education begins at age six and lasts for six years. General studies include arithmetic, science, and language. Upon successful graduation from Ecole Fondamentale, students are awarded a Certificat d'Etudes Primaires. Despite efforts to make primary education more accessible to girls, large disparities still remain among the sexes. Primary school enrollment reached 61 percent for males and 53 percent for females in 1997.

Secondary Education

Secondary education consists of three years of basic studies at a college. Students must pass a final examination to receive the Brevet d'Etudes du Premier Cycle (BEPC) certificate. Those wishing to continue their studies may enroll in a lycée to take an additional three years of courses to earn the Baccalaureat de l'Enseignement du Second Degre with a focus in either mathematics, arts and literature, chemical and physical sciences, natural sciences, or Koran and Arabic. Students may also opt for three years of technical education, which culminates in either the Brevet d'Enseignement Professionnel (BEP) degree or the Brevet de Technicien degree.

Higher Education

The University of Nouakchott, established in 1981, offers higher education degrees in economics and law, arts and humanities, and science and technology. It employs 254 instructors and serves more than 8,500 students. Other institutions include the National College of Administration and the National College of Sciencesboth founded in 1982and various teaching and technical academies, such as Ecole Normale Superieure and Centre Superieur d'Enseignement Technique, which offers mechanical and electrical engineering programs. Students who successfully complete a two-year higher education program are awarded the Diplome d'Etudes. After an additional two years of study, students receive the Maitrise. Those wishing to pursue postgraduate work must do so outside of Mauritania.

Administration, Finance, & Educational Research

The Ministry of Education, based in Nouakchott, oversees the educational policies and procedures of Mauritania. In 1993 roughly 7 percent of the national budget was allocated to education. In both 1994 and 1995, this was reduced to 4 percent, forcing the schools to stretch their limited dollars even further. Education officials spent most of the 1990s working on developing a data processing system for the nation's educational system.

Nonformal Education

Literacy rates in 1985among the lowest in Sub-Saharan Africa at roughly 20 percentprompted the government to examine ways to establish a more educated base of workers. As a result, Mauritania established the State Secretariat of Culture, Information, and Telecommunications (SSCIT) to oversee the nation's largest adult literacy campaign to date. By increasing the number of classes offered, as well as the expanding the areas in which they were offered, the SSCIT saw literacy rates increase to 52 percent for adult males (older than the age of 15) and 31 percent for adult females in 1997.

Teaching Profession

Primary school teachers are required to hold a Diplome de Fin d'Etudes. To earn this degree, candidates with a BECP must gain entrance to a teaching academy and complete three years of courses, while those with a Baccalaureat need only complete one year of teaching classes. Those who wish to teach in a college must complete a one-year program at Ecole Normale Superieure. Lycée teachers are required to pass an external examination and complete a two-year program at Ecole Normale Superieure; students who opt to take an internal examination must complete a four-year program there.


A major issue facing Mauritanian education officials in the twenty-first century is the debate over the relevance of curriculum; many education officials in the late 1990s were calling for expanding basic studies to cover such topics as family education, nutrition, the arts, and manual labor. Other areas of concern are inadequate funding, coupled with the need for additional infrastructure, and the disparities in the educational level of boys and girls and among the various regions of the nation.


U.S. Library of Congress. "MauritaniaA Country Study." Prepared by the Federal Research Division. Washington, DC: 1990. Available from

World Data on Education. "Education Profiles: Mauritania." Prepared by the International Bureau of Education, June 2000. Available from

World Higher Education Database 2000. "MauritaniaEducation System." Paris: International Association of Universities/UNESCO International Centre on Higher Education, 1998-1999. Available from

AnnaMarie L. Sheldon

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Official name: Islamic Republic of Mauritania

Area: 1,030,700 square kilometers (397,953 square miles)

Highest point on mainland: Mount Ijill (915 meters/3,002 feet)

Lowest point on land: Sebkha de Ndrhamcha (3 meters/10 feet below sea level)

Hemispheres: Northern and Eastern

Time zone: Noon = noon GMT

Longest distances: 1,515 kilometers (941 miles) from northeast to southwest; 1,314 kilometers (816 miles) from northwest to southeast

Land boundaries: 5,074 kilometers (3,153 miles) total boundary length; Algeria 463 kilometers (288 miles); Mali 2,237 kilometers (1,390 miles); Senegal 813 kilometers (505 miles); Western Sahara 1,561 kilometers (970 miles)

Coastline: 754 kilometers (469 miles)

Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles)


Mauritania is an arid country in western Africa. It forms a transitional zone between the Islamic, Arab-sh2aking countries of North Africa's Maghreb region and the sub-Saharan countries to the south. With an area of 1,030,700 square kilometers (397,953 square miles), it is more than three times the size of the state of New Mexico.


Mauritania has no territories or dependencies.


The northern two-thirds of the country has an extremely hot, arid, Saharan climate. After-noon high temperatures in the hottest months average 38°C (100°F), and often exceed 46°C (115°F) in the interior. The southern part of the country has a semidesert, Sahelian climate. Average summer temperatures at Kifa, in this region, are around 26°C (79°F). The coastal region, although still arid, has the most moderate temperatures due to trade winds blowing in from the Atlantic Ocean. The average temperature in the coastal city of Nouakchott is around 24°C (75°F) during September, which is the hottest month in this region.

Northeasterly winds and the harmattan wind from the east keep Mauritania's climate dry, especially in the north. Rainfall increases gradually from north to south as the rainy season becomes longer. Average annual rainfall at Nouadhibou is between 1 and 2 inches, and rain falls only between September and November. (Farther north and east, rainfall is too rare and sparse to be measured.) At the opposite end of the scale, Sélibaby in the southern Senegal Valley region averages about 64 centimeters (25 inches) of rainfall annually, with a rainy season that lasts from June to October.


Approximately one-third of the Sahara Desert is in Mauritania. The Saharan region, a generally flat plain with occasional ridges and rocky outcroppings, covers roughly the northern two-thirds of the country. It includes a series of sandstone plateaus spanning the center of Mauritania from north to south. The southern third of the country and the coastal plain to the west are mostly semidesert, and there is a narrow strip of fertile land on the plain of the Senegal River in the southwest.


Mauritania borders the North Atlantic Ocean.

Seacoast and Undersea Features

The waters off the coast of Mauritania are among the richest fishing areas in the world.

Sea Inlets and Straits

The Baie de Lévrier lies between Cap Timiris and the long peninsula of Cap Blanc, bordering the northern third of Mauritania's coast. This bay is one of the largest natural harbors on the west coast of Africa.

Islands and Archipelagos

The major island is Île Tidra, which lies close to shore in the Baie de Lévrier.

Coastal Features

Mauritania's Atlantic coast is sandy, flat, and dotted with the saltwater pools known as sebkhas. The coastline is smooth south of Cap Timiris, the only significant promontory. Cap Blanc is the northernmost point on the coast.


Lake D'Aleg, Lake Rkiz, and a few other salt-water lakes are scattered throughout Mauritania. None are of considerable size, and due to recurrent droughts in recent decades they are even smaller than they once were.


Most of Mauritania has little or no drainage to the sea. The Senegal River, which forms the boundary between Mauritania and Senegal, is the only permanent river between southern Morocco and central Senegal. Rising in Guinea, it flows north and west to the sea at Saint-Louis in Senegal. Its tributaries drain the fertile southwestern corner of Mauritania.


The northern two-thirds of Mauritania is true Saharan desert, with vegetation other than cacti found only in oases. Sand dunes cover about half of Mauritania. Many are arranged in long ridges extending from northeast to southwest, with heights of up to 91 meters (300 feet). In the far eastern part of the country, known as El Djouf, the terrain encompasses both rocky and sandy desert.


The Banc d'Arguin National Park, Mauritania's only national park, is a wetlands reserve on the coastline bordering the Baie de Lévrier. It is known for the wide array of migratory birds that winter there. Variously known as the Che-mama or the Pre-Sahel is the Senegal River Valley zone on the country's southwestern border. This region consists of a narrow, fertile belt of land which is 400 kilometers (250 miles) long and extends from 16 to 32 kilometers (10 to 20 miles) north of the Senegal River. The Affollé Hills mark the south-central region of Mauritania along the border with Mali.


Mauritania is largely flat, but in places its rocky plateaus attain heights of over 457 meters (1,500 feet). Its highest point is an enormous block of hematite (a red mineral), Mount Ijill in the northwest, topping out at 915 meters (3,002 feet).


Cave paintings have been found near Chinguetti, in central Mauritania.


Mauritania is nearly bisected by the sandstone plateaus that extend down the center of the country on a northsouth axis, rising to elevations of over 300 meters (1,000 feet).


The Manantali Dam on the Bafing River was constructed in the 1980s for irrigation, navigation, and electric power generation. It is 1,460 meters (4,790 feet) long and 65 meters (213 feet) high.


The nineteenth-century shipwreck of the frigate Meduse, immortalized in a famous painting by Théodore Géricault, occurred off the coast of Mauritania. Many of those who did not die aboard the fragile life raft built by the passengers perished onshore during a futile trek across the desert.



Celati, Gianni. Adventures in Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Hudson, Peter. Travels in Mauritania. London: Virgin, 1990.

Morocco Handbook with Mauritania. Footprint Handbooks. Lincolnwood, IL: Passport Books, 1997.

Web Sites

Lonely Planet World Guide: Destination Mauritania. (accessed April 24, 2003).

Miftah Shamali Mauritania. (accessed April 24, 2003).

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constitutional republic located in northwest africa.

The Islamic Republic of Mauritania covers an area of 398,000 square miles and is bordered by Western Sahara and Algeria on the north, Mali on the east, Mali and Senegal on the south, and the Atlantic Ocean on the west. The population in 2002 was about 2.6 million people (United Nations estimate). Nouakchott, the capital and largest city, has more than 800,000 people. The second largest city is Nouadhibou, a maritime commercial center in the northwest, with a population of about 100,000. Mauritania has twelve administrative regions plus the district of Nouakchott.

Climate and Resources

Mauritania has three major geographic and climatic areas. The northern Sahara region is more than 65 percent of the country. Covered by arid plains, plateaus, and sand dunes, it receives almost no rainfall and is subject to severe fluctuations in temperature. To its south is the Sahel, a wide area consisting of steppes and meadows. On Mauritania's southern border is the Senegal River region, a narrow strip of cooler temperatures and higher rainfall that supports considerable plant life.

The national economy has suffered from a lack of natural resources. Climatic conditions limit agriculture to the Senegal River region, where millet, sorghum, rice, and dates are grown. In the Sahel, livestock raising supports much of the rural population. Oil was discovered in 2001 56 miles southwest off the coast of Nouakchott, and although findings were modest, Mauritania's economy can expect a large boost when it acquires the means to extract and export its oil.

To date, however, iron ore, gypsum, and copper constitute the only major mineral exports. Mauritanian waters are considered to be among the richest fishing areas in the world. In the 1980s offshore fishing grew rapidly, making fish the country's chief export. The small manufacturing sector is based largely on fish processing. Food and capital goods account for the bulk of imports.

Population and Culture

Mauritania boasts a unique mixture of North African and West African culture, and it struggles to unite them. Approximately 66 percent of the population are Maures of Arab, Berber, and black African descent who speak Hassaniya, a dialect of Arabic and one of the two official languages of Mauritania. The remaining population is ethnically black African, composed of Halpulaar, Fulbe, Soninké, and Wolof (speakers of Pulaar, Soninké, and Wolof). French is the other official language of Mauritania, spoken in the marketplace as a common second language. Almost all Mauritanians are Sunni Muslims.


In the early 1800s amirs and Islamic religious leaders controlled the area that is now Mauritania. France gradually expanded its military and economic presence from Senegal into Maure areas. Between 1901 and 1912 France gained control of all major regions of Mauritania and declared it a protectorate, ruling indirectly through traditional leaders. After World War II, nationalist parties became active. Under the leadership of Mokhtar Ould Daddah and his Mauritanian Regroupment Party, Mauritania declared its independence from France in 1960. Since independence, Mauritania has faced severe problems with national unity, desertification (enlargement of desert areas), and economic stability. In 2000 the Heavily Indebted Poor Country Initiative qualified Mauritania for debt relief programs. In 2002 Mauritanians wrestled with a severe drought that led to food shortages and the slaughtering of livestock.

Mauritania also faced disputes with its neighbors to the north and south at the end of the twentieth century. In August 1976 the armed POLISARIO Front of Western Sahara invaded Mauritania and forced it to give up its claims to one-third of Western Saharan territory. Morocco quickly took over the land as Mauritanian forces withdrew.

A conflict between Senegal and Mauritania in 1989 intensified to a near-war situation as tens of thousands of Senegalese in Mauritania were expelled or killed, and more than 200,000 white Mauritanians in Senegal were forced to return to Mauritania. In 1991 Senegal and Mauritania resolved their differences and resumed their diplomatic relationship.

In 2000 Mauritania withdrew from ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West Africa) and aligned itself more with the Arab Maghreb Union.

Based on the 1991 constitution, the government is headed by a president elected by universal suffrage, who appoints a prime minister and a constitutional council. The legislature is composed of the National Assembly with seventy-nine members and the Senate with fifty-six members. The constitution guarantees the right of political parties to form. The government is controlled by the Parti Républicain Démocratique et Social (PRDS), whose leader Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya has been the president since his self-appointment in 1984. Amid claims of election fraud Taya was elected to the presidency in 1992 and again in 1997. Mauritania's 2001 legislative elections were internationally recognized as free and open.

see also arab maghreb union; daddah, mokhtar ould; ould sidʾahmed taya, maʿouiya; polisario; western sahara war.


U.S. Library of Congress Federal Research Division. Mauritania: A Country Study, 2d edition, edited by Robert E. Handloff. Washington, DC: Author, 1990.

bradford dillman
updated by naomi zeff

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1,025,520sq km (395,953sq mi) 2,548,157

capital (population):

Nouakchott (611,883)


Multi-party Islamic republic

ethnic groups:

Moor (Arab-Berber) 70%, Wolof 7%, Tukulor 5%, Soninke 3%, Fulani 1%


Arabic (official)


Sunni Muslim 99%


Ouguiya = 5 khoums

Republic in nw Africa; the capital is Nouakchott. The low-lying Sahara Desert covers most of Mauritania. A sandstone plateau runs n to s through the centre of Mauritania. In the se lies the Hodh basin. The majority of Mauritanians live in the semi-arid sw region of Sahel. Tropical savanna covers much of the rainier south.

History and Politics

Berbers migrated to the region in the first millennium ad. The Hodh basin lay at the heart of the ancient Ghana Empire (700–1200), and towns grew up along the trans-Saharan caravan routes. Mauritania was the cradle of the Almoravid dynasty, which spread Islam among the Saharan tribes. In the 14th and 15th century, the region formed part of the ancient Mali Empire. Portuguese mariners explored the coast in the 1440s, but European colonialism did not begin until the 17th century, when trade in gum arabic became important. Britain, France, and the Netherlands were all interested in this trade, and France set up a protectorate in 1903. In 1920, the region became a separate colony within French West Africa. In 1958, Mauritania became a self-governing territory in the French Union. It achieved full independence in 1960, and Mokhtar Ould Daddah was elected president. He was re-elected in 1966 and 1971. Mauritania became a one-party state. Devastating drought increased dissatisfaction with Ould Daddah's regime. In 1973, Mauritania withdrew from the franc zone and joined the Arab League. In 1976, Spain withdrew from Spanish Sahara: Morocco occupied the n 66% of the territory, while Mauritania took the rest. Nationalists, led by the guerrillas of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saharan Territories (POLISARIO), began an armed struggle for independence that drained Mauritania's resources. In 1978, an army coup overthrew Ould Daddah, and a military committee assumed control. In 1979, Mauritania withdrew from Western Sahara, and Morocco assumed sole authority (for political developments, see Western Sahara). In 1984, recognition of Western Sahara's independence provoked civil unrest, and Ould Taya came to power. A new constitution was adopted in 1991, and Ould Taya became president in 1992 multi-party elections. He was re-elected in 1997 after a boycott by opposition parties. Tension continues between the black African minority in s Mauritania and Arabs and Berbers in the n.


Mauritania is a low-income developing country (2000 GDP per capita, US$2000). The chief resource and export is iron ore. Agriculture employs 69% of the workforce. Droughts forced many nomadic herdsmen to migrate to the urban areas. Farmers in the se grow crops such as beans, dates, millet, rice, and sorghum.

Political map

Physical map


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Culture Name



Identification. The name of the country is derived from the Latin Mauretania, meaning "west," which corresponds to the Arab name of North Africa, Maghreb. The Romans referred to the Berber people as Maures.

The French occupied the country in 1860 in close cooperation with Maur religious leaders. Mauritania became a nation after the destruction of the kingdoms of Fouta Toro and Walo Walo and the Arab-Berber emirats of Trarza, Brakna, Taganet, and Adrar. As a result, the country has two main ethnic groups: black Africans and Arab-Berbers. The black African group includes the Fulani, Soninke, and Bambara. The Maurs include the Arab-Berbers (Beydan) and the black Maurs known as Haratin. The Haratins are black Africans who were enslaved by white Maurs. White and black Maurs consider themselves Arab, whereas black Arabs see themselves as African. The most important common denominator is Sunni Islam.

Location and Geography. Mauritania encompasses 400,385 square miles (1,037,000 square kilometers), more than three quarters of which is made up of the Sahara desert and the semiarid Sahelian zone. The remaining portion lies along the Senegal River Valley in the extreme south and southeast. The terrain consists of a plateau with vast sand dunes. The climate is hot and dry with frequent sandstorms. The country borders Senegal to the south, Mali to the southeast, Algeria to the northeast, and the Western Sahara to the north. In the southern region, most people engage in agriculture and livestock raising. The people in the south are settled black African farmers, whereas in the north the people have a nomadic lifestyle.

The capital, Nouakchott, is on the on the Atlantic coast. It was chosen a year before independence in 1960. Because the French wanted to transfer power to their Arab-Berber allies, the idea of having a major cities such as Rosso or Kaedi as the capital was ruled out.

Demography. As a result of ethnic clashes between pro-arabization groups and black Africans, the authorities have banned discussion of population issues to maintain the myth that Mauritania is the land of the Maurs with a tiny minority of black Africans. The most recent estimate of the population is 2.5 million. Because population growth in the black African communities in the south is much higher, white Arab-Berbers have become a minority. According to the latest estimates of ethnic distribution, the Haratin community accounts for 40 to 45 percent of the total population, while the white Arab-Berbers account for 25 percent and black Africans 30 percent.

Linguistic Affiliation. There are four national languages. Hassaniya is a mixture of Arabic and Berber and is the language of the white Maurs and the Haratin. Pulaar (Fulani) is spoken on the Atlantic coast and across the sahel-savannah zone. Soninke (Sarakolle) is spoken on the borders with Mali and Senegal. Wolof is widely spoken. Bambara is spoken in the southeast. At independence, French became the official language and, in 1965, the Arab-Berber regime made Arabic compulsory in primary and secondary education. This resulted in ethnic confrontation over the national language. The clashes intensified until 1999, when Colonel Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya decided to resurrect French and downgrade Arabic. Black Africans' determination to resist Arabization resulted in the official recognition of Fulani, Soninke, and Wolof as national languages in 1980 and the creation of a national institute to teach those languages in public schools. That experiment was sabotaged by a palace coup in 1984.

Symbolism. All Mauritanians self-identify themselves as Sunni Muslims of the Malkite rite and believe that their society is the most Islamic in Africa. Mauritania is an Islamic republic whose basic law is the sharia, and the flag (green with a yellow crescent and stars) symbolizes Islam. Mauritanians believe that they have a mission to promote Islam and Islamic values throughout black Africa, and most symbols are linked to Islam.

Religious leaders and people from immigrant families symbolize power, intelligence, respect, and holiness. There are three important religious brotherhoods and subsects whose leaders symbolize supernatural knowledge and insight: the Tjjaniya, Qadriya, and Hamaliya. The founders of these brotherhoods are venerated. Ancestors are honored, and cemeteries are respected and feared. There are no national monuments, museums, secular national heroes, poets, or artists. Only the few people who are educated know what the national flag, national anthem, and national day symbolize. Some black intellectuals want the national day to be observed as a day of mourning for the martyrs of ethnic cleansing in 1990 and 1991.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. Mauritania did not exist as an independent political unit before 1960. The country was created by colonial France in close alliance with the Arab-Berber theocracy in the Trarza region. The motives for creating the country was to build a bridge between French black West African colonies and Algeria and block the expansionist aspirations of proponents of a greater Morocco.

National Identity. Ethnic conflict has sharpened ethnic, tribal, and caste identities. Because the French conspired to keep political power exclusively in the hands of the Arab-Berber aristocracy, a sense of national identity has not developed.

Ethnic Relations. In the past, ethnic relations were characterized by conflicts, shifting alliances, and some cooperation. The more settled black Africans dominated in the south, whereas the nomadic Arab-Berbers controlled the desert north. The different communities were able to function without contact with each other. Gradually, drought and the ensuing environmental degradation pushed the nomads toward the south, and conflicts over decreasing resources arose. With the creation of the state, competition over political power and access to public funds, jobs, and privileges aggravated this situation. In 1989, when ethnic conflict reached a violent level, West African and black citizens became the target of government pogroms. Mauritania then was drawn into the ethnic conflict between the government in Mali and the Maur and Tuareg tribes. Thus, while Mauritania was deporting its black citizens to Mali and Senegal, it was welcoming Maur and Tuareg refugees from Mali. The main political groups and parties are divided along cultural and ethnic lines. The Arab population is sponsored by Iraq, Libya, and Saudi Arabia, and FLAM, the black political party, is based in Senegal.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

Without coherent national planning policies, construction in modern towns and cities is anarchic. Thus, architecture in Nouakchott is a mixture of traditional French concrete building with Spanish and Asian influences. Because of the fragile and sandy terrain, buildings are low.

As a result of drought and the attraction of urban centers, most residents have become totally or party urbanized. Colonization, rapid urbanization, modern education, technology, and mass communication have led to the emergence of two cultures. The modern elite live in Western-style houses, which have replaced thatched-roof houses and tents. Houses are used to shelter extended families and guests. Even in modern houses, there is little furniture and few wall decorations. Many houses have colorful traditional pillows and mats, teapots, trays, and carpets. Mattresses are placed along the walls with traditional pillows. Houses are crowded because of strong family bonds. An urban house normally is open to relatives and friends.

Apart from mosques, government buildings follow Western styles. Some Arab-Berbers put up tents in the courtyards of their villas. Normally, there are no plants inside the house.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. Food has important social and psychological functions. People eat together in groups from a large bowl or calabash, using the right hand. People eat first and then drink cold water or sour milk mixed with cold water, juice from the hibiscus flower, or baobab juice. After lunch and dinner, it is customary to drink small glasses of green tea with sugar and mint. The tea is served by younger persons, women, and slaves.

The diet consists mostly of meat, millet, rice, fish, and sweet potatoes and potatoes. The main meal is lunch among black Africans, whereas Arab-Berbers have the main meal in the evening. Breakfast consists of milk and cereal with French bread and butter. People use a lot of oil in cooking and sugar in drinks. Eating almost always takes place at home. It is not acceptable to eat with or in the presence of one's in-laws, and eating with the left hand is forbidden.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. People are expected to slaughter an animal according to the number of wives and the wealth of the husband. At the end of Ramadan and at the sacrificial feast that ends the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, a married man is expected to offer a lamb. The meat must be eaten up within three days or it is thrown away. It is customary to offer an animal in connection with name-giving, initiation, marriage, and funeral ceremonies and when people return from Mecca or other important places. Only circumcised adult men are allowed to slaughter animals.

Basic Economy. While the public and private sectors depend on foreign sources such as development aid and the exportation of iron ore and fish, the vast majority of citizens engage in traditional subsistence agriculture. The informal economic sector is increasing in importance. People do not expect much from the government and rarely pay taxes. Mauritania is one of the largest recipients of foreign aid in the world and is deeply in debt. Despite abundant livestock, one of the world's richest fishing zones, and a huge agriculture potential, the country is not self-sufficient in food and other basic necessities.

Land Tenure and Property. Traditionally, individuals could not own land, which was owned collectively by the community. The head of the clan or community was responsible for the allocation and leasing of communal land. In a society organized according to hierarchical caste, land was controlled by the aristocracy, and the lower classes rented, borrowed, or worked the land according to a sharecropping system. A land ordinance of 1983 stipulated that land belongs to the state and abolished traditional ownership. Black citizens were quick to label the ordinance racist.

Commercial Activities. Animals, meat, and hides are exported to neighboring countries, and iron ore, copper, gypsum, and fish are sent to the European Union nations and Japan. White residents dominate retail trade with the West, and black Africans trade with Central Africa.

Major Industries. Mauritania is one of the least industrialized countries in the world. The few industries involve the production and partial processing of iron ore. There is a fish processing plant and an oil refinery in Nouadhibou and a sugar refinery in Nouakchott as well as a meat processing factory in Kaedi. Traditional crafts are produced in Nouakchott. There is a textile factory in Rosso.

Trade. Iron ore, copper, and fish are sent to the European Union and Japan, and animals are sold to Senegal. Imports consist of food, machinery, and weapons. There is much informal trade with neighboring African countries. Gum arabic and salt also are sold abroad.

Division of Labor. Most people work as farmers, cattle herders, and traders. Regulations regarding child labor are not enforced, and most school-age children work.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. Society is organized along strict ethnic lines, with a rigid system of castes; every caste has its own internal hierarchy. In both ethnic groups, the division of labor is clear. At the top are the religious and warrior caste, followed by the skilled caste, which consists of smiths, carpenters, weavers, fisherfolk, and leather workers. Historians or court bards, musicians, and court advisers form a lower caste, followed by the theoretically freed slaves and current slaves at the bottom of the social order.

Symbols of Social Stratification. Dress style, comportment, and speech are dictated by the climate and ethnic heritage. Putting on one's best clothing is important in black African communities to express one's social status. Women decorate themselves with gold, silver, and amber to display their wealth and change clothes several times during a party. People in the higher castes to tend to be quiet and generous toward those below them, whereas the lower castes tend to be talkative, outgoing, and "greedy," with less concern about shame. Generally people are kind and hospitable to foreigners.

Political Life

Government. Mauritania is an Islamic republic with a highly centralized government in which power is vested in the executive president as head of state, aided by a prime minister who acts as the head of government and a council of ministers. Since 1992, direct presidential elections have been scheduled every six years. Universal suffrage occurs at age eighteen years. The legal system is derived from Islamic sharia law and modern Western law. The legislative branch includes a bicameral legislature consisting of the fifty-six-seat Senate elected by municipal mayors for six-year terms and a seventy-nine-seat National Assembly elected by popular vote for five-year terms. The judicial branch has lower courts, appeals courts, and a supreme court. Administratively, the country is divided into twelve regions.

A multiparty system functioned from independence until 1965, followed by a one-party civilian regime that was overthrown by the army in 1978. Between 1978 and 1991, the country was ruled by decree, with no citizen participation. With the end of the Cold War and after Mauritania's alliance with Iraq in the Gulf War, the government was forced to transform the military committee into a political party.

There are twenty-two political parties, including the Democratic and Social Republican Party (PRDS), the Union of Democratic ForcesNew Era (UFD/EN), and Action for Change (AC). The PRDS is a continuation of the military committee. Parties are tribal and personal rather than ideological. Action for Change is closely linked with the antislavery movement El Hor. Forces de Liberation Africain des Mauritania (FLAM) is illegal and operates from exile in Senegal. Founded in 1983, FLAM works for ethnic equality, social justice, democracy, and development. It has called for federalism and regional autonomy.

Leadership and Political Officials. Ethnicity and caste membership have caused political positions to be monopolized by religious warrior upper-caste clans and families. Gender, age, wealth, and region also are important factors in attaining and maintaining power. No ruling party has ever lost power to the opposition. Individuals are expected to vote for leaders from their ethnic group, clan, family, and region. Ideology and political programs have minimal relevance and people who cross ethnic and tribal lines are considered traitors. People are afraid of government representatives, especially those in uniform.

Social Problems and Control. Apart from Arab-Berber slave raids, Mauritania was relatively free of crime. With the creation of a neocolonial state, formal mechanisms for dealing with crime have been based on the violent colonial system. Crime management is now provided by repressive police forces in the cities and towns and a gendarmerie in the countryside and a national guard in remote areas. People fear men in uniform, who harass, rape, confiscate cattle, and terrorize the population. Informal social control mechanisms are effective because of strong family and kinship ties and the collective shame associated with committing a crime; people tend to punish criminals on the spot. In the past, the most common crimes were kidnapping children from the south for slavery in the north, stealing cattle, and illegal grazing. Today the most common crimes are official corruption, stealing, political murder, and rape.

Military Activity. The military has become a prestigious institution. The army is huge relative to the population and the nation's poverty. The armed forces number 18,500 men divided into an infantry, a navy, an air force, paramilitary forces, border guards, and auxiliary troops of the Interior Ministry. At independence, the army had fewer than one hundred black officers who had served in the colonial army. Arab-Berbers were exempted from military service by the French, who considered them superior to black Africans. After the Saharan war the army mushroomed in size, staffed mainly by black Africans and Harantin abandoned by their white masters, but most of the commanders were white. After the 1978 coup, ethnic and tribal competition plagued the armed forces. A campaign of ethnic purging of black armed personnel, whom the regime accused of belonging to FLAM and plotting a coup began in 1986. The government then passed a blanket amnesty for the armed forces for any crimes committed in the period 19891993. As a result, the national army has become an ethnic army of racist repression.

Social Welfare and Change Programs

Social welfare is provided for within the family and kinship system. Government-supported welfare is nearly nonexistent because of a lack of funds, nepotism, and corruption.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

A few nongovernment organizations (NGOs) work on human rights issues. One of the most important is the Association Mauritanienne des Droits de l'Homme (AMDH), which was created in 1991 after a government massacre of more than five hundred black army officers and civilians in custody. Comité de Solidarité avec les Victimes de la Répression en Mauritanie (Solidarity Committee of with Victims of Repression in Mauritania, or CSVRM) was created by the widows, mothers, and sisters of victims of racist extrajudicial killings in 1990 and 1991.

SOS-Esclaves (SOS Slaves) was founded in 1992 by a former slave. SOS fights for the emancipation of the nearly one million former and current slaves of the ruling white Maurs. Ligue Mauritanienne des Droits de l'Homme (Mauritanian Human Rights League, or LMDH) was created when political parties and NGOs were not allowed in the country after the campaign of terror against black intellectuals in 1986. It is considered a front for the government.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. Culturally, women's importance is recognized, but men dominate in the economic, political, social, and religious spheres. In the south, men provide for the family and women process and cook food and take care of children. In the Arab-Berber north, women are not supposed to perform physical work, which is seen as degrading. Work there is the domain of slave women.

The Relative Status of Women and Men. Although people honor and obey their mothers, women suffer on the account of their gender. In Islamic-run courts two women count as one witness, polygamy is widespread in the black communities, and female circumcision is practiced by all the ethnic groups except the Wolof. Women inherit half the share that their brothers receive. Children take the father's clan name. When women marry, they tend to join the husband's household. Many marriages are forced or arranged. During racial pogroms, women are targets for rape and terror. There is more illiteracy and unemployment among women than men. Female slaves are sexually exploited. Forced feeding to fatten young girls for marriage is common among the Maurs and Haratin.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. Marriages usually are arranged, especially the first marriage. Illiterate rural individuals have less choice than do people with a modern education. People tend to marry for the sake of their parents and community and usually marry within their community and clan. There is a lot of marriage between cousins, but it is not permissible to marry someone with whom a person has shared breast milk. When it is discovered that a husband and wife shared milk earlier in life, they are obliged to divorce even if they have children. Muslim women are not allowed to marry non-Muslim men, but Muslim men can marry Christian or Jewish women. Polygyny is allowed, but polyandry is forbidden. According to the prevailing value system, all adults must marry and have many children but it is not unusual to find unmarried women, particularly among the white Maurs.

Economic aspects of marriage are very important. Men are responsible for the economic sustenance of their wives and for brideprice, along with lavish gifts to the parents, relatives, friends, and associates of their wives. Divorce is not common, especially in the black communities. Couples are allowed to divorce twice, and the third divorce is final. If divorce is the fault of the man, the wife keeps the brideprice. According to tradition, children follow the father, but small ones remain with the mother and the husband is obliged to support her and the children until they grow up.

Domestic Unit. The basic household unit consists of a husband and his wife or wives plus their children and the family of the husband, but household units in urban centers are getting more compact. The man has authority in the household because the couple lives with his kin and he is normally older and richer than the wife. Even though the household is an extended family, tasks are sharply divided according to gender and age.

Inheritance. Inheritance is based on Islamic law and local "economic calculation." When male and female relatives are equally close to the deceased, the male relatives gets a double portion. Because the woman joins her husband's family, she often is pressured to renounce her inheritance, especially if it consists of land. All kinds of property including slaves are inheritable by relatives. Sometimes a man inherits the wife or wives of his brother because the family wants to keep the children and property within the household.

Kin Groups. In this extremely traditional society, belonging to a group is very important, and the larger the group, the better. People use clan names rather than family names. When the climate and economic conditions allow it, larger kin groups form a village or neighborhood. Clan members interact by sharing land and engaging in interclan marriage. The male leader, normally the oldest and "most competent" man, manages communal property and affairs.


Infant Care. Child care is provided by the older members of an extended family and the first born child is looked after by the grandmother and aunts. Women, including older sisters and cousins, take care of children, and men come into the picture as a child grows up. Infants are not separated from adults and are nearly always carried.

Child Rearing and Education. Education is based on a combination of three overlapping philosophies: indigenous, Islamic, and Western. In the first system, the objective is to prepare the young to be useful members of the local community. Education is thus inward-oriented and functional and is provided by parents, elder siblings, peers, and specialized traditional teachers. The key values are belief in God, honor, respect, and service to the community, generosity, hospitality, endurance, and patience, Islamic teaching prepares Muslims to serve Allah and the community of believers by learning the Koran and practicing the five pillars of Islam. The most important qualities in a "good" child are respect and service to the parents and the community, truthfulness, learning, prayer, and politeness. Parents believe that children are what they inherit and learn from their parents. If the mother is of good character, her children will be good.

Higher Education. Before independence, there were few schools and illiteracy was close to 100 percent. Sons of the black aristocracy were sent to a special school established by the French in Senegal. After power was transferred to the Arab-Berbers, the new rulers built schools in their areas and neglected the south.


The upper castes give, and the lower castes serve and obey. Maur women do not shake hands with foreign men, and people do not eat in front of their in-laws or address older persons by name. People stare at passing strangers and greet each other with a handshake and ask about a person's health and wealth. People stand very close to each other.


Religious Beliefs. Mauritania is 100 percent Muslim. The people are Sunni Muslims who belong to the Khadria and Thiyania brotherhoods. Religion is a mixture of Islam and local African beliefs. People believe in supernatural spirits, feeling that every thing and being has life and presents potential danger. Taboos are observed, and charms and amulets are used for protection.

Religious Practitioners. Each brotherhood has a founder who acts as a spiritual medium and is venerated and considered to have healing powers. People can receive a blessing through spiritual contact with these spiritual leaders. The founders' power increases with their age. Traditional spiritual medicine men and women have an authority based on the local experience and value system.

Rituals and Holy Places. Rituals often are linked to Islamic prayers. Tombs and graveyards are seen as holy places. People avoid going to those places during certain times of the day and avoid cutting wood near a graveyard. Certain forests and trees are considered holy, and people use them for healing. Daily religious ceremonies take place in a mosque or in open fields. For more important weekly ceremonies, prayers take place in open fields or in the larger mosques in urban centers.

Death and the Afterlife. People believe that after death they will be judged and go to hell or to paradise. Old people are buried directly in the ground without coffins. Only those who die from a contagious disease are cremated. Among the nomadic Arab-Berbers, only the graves of holy people are marked. After a burial, Berbers leave the area for fear of bad spirits. Black people have fixed graves and venerate the burying places of their ancestors. Funerals often are occasions for celebrations and family reunions. Because of the climate, the deceased are buried almost immediately. Bodies are washed seven times and then wrapped in white cloth and carried to the graveyard. The deceased is placed in a grave facing Mecca. Only men attend funerals. After the burial, the guests do not turn back toward the graveyard. Normally, the personal belongings of the deceased are given to the poor.

Medicine and Health Care

People believe that disease is caused by destiny, bad magic, or breaking taboos and seek help from traditional and Islamic healers who combine modern medicine with traditional methods. Very few people have access to medical care, which is concentrated in the urban centers. The rudimentary public health care has crumbled, and the rich have set up private health units and pharmacies.

There are many tropical diseases, but there is a low incidence of psychological disorders, and AIDS is almost nonexistent. Life expectancy is low, and infant mortality is high, partly because of a lack of clean water.

Modern doctors are treated as important personalities, especially if they are white. Traditional practitioners are respected and feared. Traditional medicine men and women use herbs and touching as well as healing words.

Secular Celebrations

There are very few secular celebrations with the exception of the national day on 28 November and Constitution Day on 12 July. Some of the Westernized elites celebrate Christmas and the New Year. Farmers celebrate the harvest and marry at that time. Herders' dispersed families gather and celebrate the rainy season with sumptuous meals. The returns of family members from abroad is celebrated.

The Arts and Humanities

Support for the Arts. There is little appreciation of and support for artists. The little support that is given is ethnically biased and oriented toward entertainment. The arts are functional and cannot be distinguished from crafts.

Literature. The oral tradition includes epics, storytelling, riddles, puzzles, and Islamic poetry and prose.

Graphic Arts. Wall drawings, paintings, some sculpture, textiles, and pottery are produced. Artists are thought to have a secret knowledge that they hand down from generation to generation.

Performance Arts. People attend popular and democratic performances held in the open air.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

The state of the physical and social science is deplorable because of the lack of interest among the authorities. A university established in 1981 teaches law, literature, and economics. There are fewer than three thousand students, and the university lacks qualified teachers and researchers, books, facilities, and buildings.


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Cotton, Samuel. Silent Terror, A Journey to Modern Day African Slavery, 1998.

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Garba, Diallo. Maritania: The Other Apartheid, 1993.

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Garba Diallo

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The people of Mauritania are called Mauritanians. Members of the main ethnic group, the Maures (also called Moors or Maurs), speak Hassaniyya Arabic (a dialect of Arabic). They make up about 70 percent of the population.

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