Mauritania, officially the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, is a country in Western Africa. It is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the west, by Senegal on the southwest, by Mali on the east and southeast, by Algeria on the northeast, and by the Morocco-controlled Western Sahara on the northwest. It is named after the Roman province of Mauretania, even though the modern state covers a territory far to the southwest of the old province. The capital and largest city is Nouakchott, located on the Atlantic coast.
The civilian government of Mauritania was overthrown on 6 August 2008, in a military coup d'état led by General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. On April 16, 2009, General Aziz resigned from the military to run for president in the July 19 elections, which he won. In Mauritania about 20% of the population live on less than US $1.25 per day.
At 397,929 square miles , Mauritania is the world's 29th-largest country . It is comparable in size to Egypt.
Mauritania is generally flat, its 1,030,700 square kilometers forming vast, arid plains broken by occasional ridges and clifflike outcroppings. A series of scarps face southwest, longitudinally bisecting these plains in the center of the country. The scarps also separate a series of sandstone plateaus, the highest of which is the Adrar Plateau, reaching an elevation of 500 meters . Spring-fed oases lie at the foot of some of the scarps. Isolated peaks, often rich in minerals, rise above the plateaus; the smaller peaks are called guelbs and the larger ones kedias. The concentric Guelb er Richat (also known as the Richat Structure) is a prominent feature of the north-central region. Kediet ej Jill, near the city of Zouîrât, has an elevation of 1,000 meters and is the highest peak.
Approximately three quarters of Mauritania is desert or semidesert. As a result of extended, severe drought, the desert has been expanding since the mid-1960s. To the west, between the ocean and the plateaus, are alternating areas of clayey plains and sand dunes , some of which shift from place to place, gradually moved by high winds. The dunes generally increase in size and mobility toward the north.
From the fifth to seventh centuries, the migration of Berber tribes from North Africa displaced the Bafours, the original inhabitants of present-day Mauritania and the ancestors of the Soninke. The Bafours were primarily agriculturalist, and among the first Saharan people to abandon their historically nomadic lifestyle. With the gradual desiccation of the Sahara, they headed south.
Following them came a migration of not only Central Saharans into West Africa, but in 1076, Moorish Islamic warrior monks attacked and conquered the ancient Ghana Empire. Over the next 500 years, Arabs overcame fierce resistance from the local population (Berber and non-Berber alike) and came to dominate Mauritania. The Mauritanian Thirty-Year War was the unsuccessful final effort to repel the Yemeni Maqil Arab invaders led by the Beni Hassan tribe.
The descendants of the Beni Hassan warriors became the upper stratum of Moorish society. Berbers retained influence by producing the majority of the region's Marabouts—those who preserve and teach Islamic tradition. Many of the Berber tribes claimed Yemeni origin: there is little evidence to suggest this, though some studies do make a connection between the two. Hassaniya, a Berber-influenced Arabic dialect that derives its name from the Beni Hassan, became the dominant language among the largely nomadic population.
French colonization gradually absorbed the territories of present-day Mauritania from the Senegal river area and upwards, starting in the late 1800s. In 1901, Xavier Coppolani took charge of the colonial mission. Through a combination of strategic alliances with Zawiya tribes and military pressure on the Hassane warrior nomads, he managed to extend French rule over the Mauritanian emirates: Trarza, Brakna and Tagant quickly submitted to treaties with the colonial power , but the northern emirate of Adrar held out longer, aided by the anticolonial rebellion of shaykh Maa al-Aynayn. It was finally defeated militarily in 1912, and incorporated into the territory of Mauritania, which had been drawn up in 1904. Mauritania would subsequently form part of French West Africa, from 1920.
French rule brought legal prohibitions against slavery and an end to interclan warfare. During the colonial period, the population remained nomadic, but many sedentary peoples, whose ancestors had been expelled centuries earlier, began to trickle back into Mauritania. As the country gained independence in 1960, the capital city Nouakchott was founded at the site of a small colonial village, the Ksar, while 90% of the population was still nomadic.
The great Sahel droughts of the early 1970s caused massive problems in Mauritania. With independence, larger numbers of indigenous Sub-Saharan African peoples entered Mauritania, moving into the area north of the Senegal River. Educated in French language and customs, many of these recent arrivals became clerks, soldiers, and administrators in the new state. This occurred as France militarily suppressed the most intransigent Hassane tribes of the Moorish north, shifting old balances of power, and creating new cause for conflict between the southern populations and Moors. Between these groups stood the Haratin, a very large population of Arabized slaves of black African origins, who lived within Moorish society, integrated into a low-caste social position. Modern day slavery is still a common practice in this country. According to some estimates, up to 600,000 Mauritanians, or 20% of the population, are still enslaved. This social discrimination concerns mainly the Haratin ("black Moors) in the northern part of the country, where tribal elites among "white Moors" hold sway, but low-caste groups within the black African communities of the south are also affected by similar practices.
Moors reacted to the change, and to Arab nationalist calls from abroad, by increasing pressure to Arabize many aspects of Mauritanian life, such as law and language. A schism developed between those Moors who consider Mauritania to be an Arab country and those who seek a dominant role for the non-Moorish peoples, with various models for containing the country's cultural diversity suggested, but none implemented successfully.
This ethnic discord was evident during intercommunal violence that broke out in April 1989 but has since subsided. Some 70,000 black African Mauritanians were expelled from Mauritania in the late 1980s. The ethnic tension and the sensitive issue of slavery – past and, in some areas, present – is still a powerful theme in the country's political debate. A significant number from all groups, however, seek a more diverse, pluralistic society.
The government bureaucracy is composed of traditional ministries, special agencies, and parastatal companies. The Ministry of Interior spearheads a system of regional governors and prefects modeled on the French system of local administration. Under this system, Mauritania is divided into thirteen regions , including the capital district, Nouakchott. Control is tightly concentrated in the executive branch of the central government, but a series of national and municipal elections since 1992 have produced limited decentralization.
Mauritania, along with Morocco, annexed the territory of Western Sahara in 1976, with Mauritania taking the lower one-third at the request of former colonial power Spain. After several military losses to the Polisario – heavily armed and supported by Algeria, the local hegemon and rival to Morocco –Mauritania retreated in 1979, and its claims were taken over by Morocco. Due to economic weakness, Mauritania has been a negligible player in the territorial dispute, with its official position being that it wishes for an expedient solution that is mutually agreeable to all parties. While most of the former Spanish or Western Sahara has been woven into Morocco, the UN still considers the Western Sahara a territory that needs to express its wishes with respect to statehood: a referendum is still supposed to be held sometimes in the future, under UN auspices, to determine whether or not the “saharaouis” wish to remain part of Morocco. The Moroccan authorities, on their part, wish the saharaouis to remain part of Morocco and therefore have made significant investments in the area.