Mauritania is an important but little-known country located in north-west Africa. It bridges the gap between Arab Maghreb and Western Sub-Saharan Africa, a geo-politically sensitive region. It is a large ethnically-diverse and resource-rich country nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and four neighbours – Senegal, Western Sahara, Algeria and Mali. Its two major cities, Nouakchott the capital and Nouadhibou, are situated along the coastline. Nouakchott, a former fishing settlement, has a population of 709,000 and Nouadhibou, infamous for being a key exit point for migrants fleeing the region in often desperate attempts to reach Europe, has a population of 80,000. Mauritania’s domestic political scene has been anything but stable since independence from France in 1960. Eleven coups have taken place since then, the most recent in 2008, when democratically-elected Sidi Ould Chiekh Abdallahi was ousted and Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz was installed as President. Elections were held later that year and Aziz emerged victorious with 52% of the overall vote. Critics have accused the post-2008 government of being a military regime masquerading as a democracy. Ethnicity plays a problematic and often divisive role in the country’s rigid social structures. Islam is the main religion, underpinning many of the country’s laws including the practise of Shari’a.
From the 3rd to 7th centuries, Berbers involved in the caravan trade traversed south and settled amongst the Bafour people. They were a hunting, pastoral and fishing people and the original inhabitants of present-day Mauritania. A second wave of migration took place when black populations from the southern kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhai expanded north. A third wave, again from the north, saw various Arab groups infiltrating southward pushing the Berbers and Africans before them. Portuguese and Spanish traders involved in the gum arabic trade first arrived in the 15th century. French traders followed, creating settlements along the Senegal River and later gaining control of the coastal region. Under France’s growing regional influence, Mauritania was assimilated and became a protectorate in 1904 and later a colony in 1920. Moktar Ould Daddah became the first President. He ruled from 1960 to 1978.
Relations between the country’s different ethnic groups remain complex for historical reasons which have involved subjugation, racism and slavery. Although banned in 1981 and then again in 2007, slavery still persists in Mauritania. 40% of the population is mixed Black/Moor, 30% is Moor and 30% is Black. Al Qaeda operatives within the Sahel have in recent years taken advantage of the unsettled domestic political and social situation. They were behind an attempt on President Aziz’s life in 2010. He is involved in the fight against terrorism. The country has a young population with a median age of 17.24 (2005 est). Urban youth unemployment is rife – 50.8% for men and 69% for women.
Mauritania had US$1 billion debt cancelled under the HIPC relief fund in 2000. Despite the abundance of mineral resources, most Mauritanians still depend on agriculture and livestock farming for their livelihoods. The country’s main exports include iron ore, fish and fish products. In recent years, foreign firms have been involved in exploring for gold and copper deposits. Offshore oil exploration has also taken off at Chinguetti and Tiof. Like many developing countries, Mauritania remains at risk of over-relying on commodity goods exposed to unpredictable external factors. 80% of its export earnings and 30% of its GDP came from natural resources in 2009.
Mauritania is a member of different regional and international organisations. These include the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the Arab League, the Islamic Development Bank, the African Development Bank, the Group of 77, among others.