Mauritania Table of Contents

Attitudes Toward the Political System

Attitudies toward the political system in Mauritania were like those found in other developing African countries undergoing a similar nation-building process. Mauritanian society had both a modern sector and a rural, traditional sector. Each nurtured vastly different expectations of the political system, a split that gave rise to two political subcultures. Although these two subcultures were often depicted as polar opposites, membership was not exclusive; in fact, most Mauritanians participated to varying degrees in each. Perhaps what most distinguished modern elites from those labeled traditional was the former's greater reliance on modern technology and its commitment to economic development.

The less educated, subsistence society offered little support to the modern, urban political system. Its members participated only insofar as government welfare programs, taxes, or laws impinged on their lives. To many Mauritanians, national government signified only President Taya and did not imply any further loyalty to government, state, or nation. For this sector, citizenship meant respect for tradition, maintenance of social status, and rigid rules of behavior. Accordingly, traditional injunctions against rising above one's inherited class stifled economic activity among black groups as well as among Maures. Maures of high status often viewed economic activity, such as earning a salary, with disdain. By the same traditions, women were accorded only a minor role in politics.

Although traditional elites dominated local politics in rural areas, a modernizing elite, which constituted approximately 10 percent of the population, greatly influenced national and urban politics. That elite comprised senior military officers, government workers, wealthy businessmen, union members (especially teachers), and students. Insofar as economic development was dependent on national unity and a less rigid social structure, the members of the modernizing elite were also committed to the progressive transformation, with its concomitant dislocations, of traditional society through the agency of the state. Among the modern elite, political consciousness remained high, even if military rule limited opportunities for participation.

The political goals of the modernizing elite were initially articulated by Daddah and were retained in 1987 under the Taya administration. These goals included cultural independence, economic development, and democracy. The conditions for cultural independence, according to Daddah, included bilingualism, a revitalization of Islam through a return to its original precepts, and a more prominent role for women. Cultural independence was not to be construed as a return to precolonial social mores, but rather as an adaptation of Mauritania's unique cultural heritage. Economic independence, according to Daddah, meant "mauritanization" of the labor force, restrictions on the repatriation of funds by foreign-owned firms, and diversification of Mauritania's sources of external aid, most of which came from France. Democracy, the third of Daddah's goals, meant popular participation, especially by women and youth, in the management of public policy.

The military rulers who succeeded Daddah have implicitly adopted his perspective. Since the 1978 coup, Mauritania has imposed bilingualism, incorporated the Islamic legal code, elevated women within the government, made the study of Arabic an educational requirement, borrowed from an ever-increasing list of donors, limited foreign participation in industry while replacing foreigners with Mauritanians, and held elections to promote participation in local politics.

Thus, in Mauritania in the mid-1980s traditional outlooks based on custom, family ties, and Islam were gradually giving way to a more modern set of political views based on codified laws and procedures, achievement, and a national consciousness. More and more, individuals tended to rely on the modern political institutions of society (government, interest groups, police, and the like) to satisfy their needs, rather than on traditional political and religious leaders. This process has been hastened by a protracted drought during the 1970s and 1980s. Over a period of approximately fifteen years, 60 percent of Mauritania's previously nomadic people, who constituted 80 percent of the total population, resettled in urban areas, with many becoming dependent on government aid programs. The resettlement in towns has markedly altered traditional economic patterns and political alliances.

Impediments to Change

In 1987 the pace of modernization remained slow in Mauritania, where much of the population was closely bound to traditional subsistence agriculture and pastoralism and where literacy in French or Arabic was limited to only about 18 percent of the population. Although the modernizing elite shared with the traditional elite and the Mauritanian masses a common history and religion that prevented the state from collapsing, centrifugal forces competed for scarce economic and political resources. These forces ranged from ethnic groups and tribes to occupational and social classes.

An even greater impediment to development and modernization was the cleavage between the Maures and Mauritania's black population, the size of which has never been precisely ascertained and may be either undercounted or overrepresented, depending on one's perspective. Historically, the Maures have discriminated against the black population, which, well into the twentieth century, continued to be a source of slaves. Different languages and a fairly uncomplicated geographic split tended to reinforce racial differences. Moreover, the black southern portion of the country, which was predominantly agricultural and until independence had generated much of the country's wealth, lost economic and political influence as mining and fishing investments in the Maure northern portion achieved far greater economic importance beginning in the late 1960s. By the mid-1980s, however, the economic pendulum began to swing back again as mining and fishing revenues leveled off or began dropping while the relentless process of desertification had increased the value of black-held lands along the Senegal River. Nevertheless, blacks still complained that the government allocated greater resources to projects benefiting the Maures than to those benefiting blacks.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress