Africa’s New Nelson Mandela?
While the kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls into slavery by the Islamic terrorist group, Boko Haram, received abundant media coverage, and deservedly so, the mainstream media regrettably failed to bestow similar attention on an equally newsworthy and globally important anti-slavery story occurring simultaneously nearby in Mauritania.
In a national election last June, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, a West African country like Nigeria, re-elected President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, a former army general, to a second five-year term with 81.94 percent of the vote despite accusations of extensive voter fraud. The dubious distinction of a Third-World ruler getting himself re-elected dictator is, unfortunately, nothing new. But what distinguished markedly this particular Mauritanian election from previous ones was Aziz’s main opponent, Biram Ould Dah Abeid, a remarkable and fearless Mauritanian anti-slavery activist whose Radicals For Global Action (RAG) party came second.
“We are the only ones to have a different ideological position,” said Dah Abeid in an interview with Le Courier de Sahara. “We are fighting against slavery, against racism, against government waste and against corruption. The true opposition, it’s us!”
Though largely unknown in the Western general public, Dah Abeid was recognized in 2013 by the United Nations (UN) as one of of the world’s foremost abolitionists, receiving the prestigious UN Human Rights Prize from Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon last year in New York. Reflecting his human rights stance and his Le Journal de Sahara statement, Dah Obeid’s RAG ran on an anti-slavery, anti-racism, anti-corruption platform in the recent election. Dah Abeid himself is the son of a slave; his father was freed by his grandmother’s master, but his grandmother and uncles remained slaves.
“I am from the servile community of Mauritania that makes up 50 percent of the population,” said Dah Abeid in a speech at the UN Human Rights Summit in Geneva earlier this year. “Twenty percent of the 50 percent have been born as property of other men. We were inherited by other people.”
And Mauritania is direly in need of such dauntless slavery opponents. Through his own research, Dah Abeid believes his country possesses the highest number of chattel slaves in the world, to which he estimates 20 percent of his country’s 3.3 million people belong (Most observers admit, however, that an exact number is difficult to determine).
Mauritania’s slaves are black and their owners are Arabs or Berbers, called “whites,” who constitute about 20 percent of the population and almost all of the political, business and military elite class that controls the country. Like most other Mauritanians, both slaves and masters are Muslim, enmeshed in a cruel, life-destroying institution that dates back centuries in Mauritania, with some slave families remaining trapped in this evil for generations.
“This is a state racism that has become institutionalised, that has caused pogroms, purges, bloody purges, murdering of the black population, of different groups like the Wolof (a black African people)…” Dah Abeid said in his Geneva speech.
Dah Abeid belongs to the Haratin class, an oppressed group of people composed of freed slaves and their descendants, while members of black African groups, like the Wolof, form another 20 percent of Mauritania’s population. But all “free” black Mauritanians suffer discrimination based on race and live in what Dah Abeid calls “sub-citizenship.” Some “free” black Mauritanians’ slave origins can be identified in their names, like Dah Abeid’s, whose last name is Arabic for “slave.”
“The proverbs of our masters say that the difference between a slave and one who is freed is the distance which separates the tail of a cow from the ground. In Mauritania, our cows have very long tails,” Dah Abeid said in a slate.com interview.
In 2013, indicating the extent of the slavery tragedy in Mauritania, Global Slavery Index ranked the country number one in the world for its prevalence there. Slavery was abolished in Mauritania in 1981 and criminalized in 2007, but only one person has ever been convicted and jailed for owning a slave. Local and foreign observers of Mauritania’s human rights situation generally regard these decrees as having been made solely for foreign consumption. The slavery situation remains the same despite government denials that only “vestiges” remain.
However, Dah Abeid, a constant thorn in the ruling Arab-Berber class’s side regarding slavery, used Global Slavery Index’s announcement to “congratulate” in a sarcasm-laden speech his government’s winning “the trophy and the title of the first slave state in the world.”
“We (anti-slavery activists) have been working towards the re-foundation of a Mauritania without masters and servants but, once again, you have beaten us,” he said. “We will never stop complimenting you on this enviable place on the international stage that you have managed to achieve, after a hard fight, for our country…Your leader, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz deserves to be re-elected in the first round of the presidential election in 2014…”
With other members of the Mauritanian anti-slavery group Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) he founded in 2008, Dah Abeid has undertaken several public actions to embarrass the government into freeing slaves and to abolish slavery. In 2011, for example, he and several others staged a protest demonstration to obtain a ten-year-old slave girl’s freedom from her mistress. The Mauritanian government reacted accordingly for a pro-slavery regime. It didn’t arrest the mistress under its 2007 law and free the girl but rather punished the protesters with jail terms.
In 2012, Dah Abeid and other IRA activists staged a sensational (for Mauritania) anti-slavery protest on a Friday outside a mosque. There, Dah Abeid symbolically destroyed a copy of the Sharia law code used by Mauritania’s ruling class to justify slavery. According to the eminent scholar of Islam, Bernard Lewis, “…the institution of slavery is not only recognized but is elaborately regulated by Sharia law.”
Dah Abeid said he made sure he first removed the pages referring to the Koran and those containing the names of the Prophet Mohammad and Allah before carrying out this provocative and symbolic act. The anti-slavery activist does not believe Sharia is divine law, as more fundamentalist Muslims do, saying it is simply outdated codes drawn up during Islam’s Middle Ages.
“In the Constitution of Mauritania, they are the primary source of law. But it completely contradicts the letter and spirit of the actual Quran, which is in its nature egalitarian,” he said.
The government reaction to the anti-Sharia demonstration was as overwhelming as it was barbaric. Dah Obeid’s home was violently raided and he and other anti-slavery activists were imprisoned and tortured. But due to the international outcry, President Aziz had him released from jail. A Sharia court, however, declared Dah Abeid an apostate and he is currently under sentence of death.
“There were TV programs transmitted that talked about how I was going to be hanged…,” he said. “And they said on television we will kill him, like we kill a cat.”
But Dah Abeid says what disturbed him the most about this grisly affair was the silence of “ambassadors of democratic countries” who “did not speak up about freedom of speech and worship.”
Dah Abeid and other Mauritanian anti-slavery activists have been arrested, imprisoned and tortured multiple times. Both his anti-slavery group and political party were banned almost the moment they were announced. Dah Obeid’s non-violent protest activities, sense of justice and self-sacrifice for the most powerless in his country remind one of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela, who, Dah Obeid says, is his role model. Fittingly, both Mandela and King were previous recipients of the same UN human rights award bestowed on Dah Abeid. But Dah Abeid’s struggle is probably fraught with more obstacles, since he is confronted with an established slave system, backed by Sharia law, and a slave-owning political class that supports both.
So it is all the more remarkable, and probably unprecedented, that the son of a slave, under sentence of death and heading a banned party, ran in a presidential election against the incumbent representative of his country’s slave-owning class. Despite the alleged voter fraud, RAG still managed to receive 8.72 percent of the vote. The other three presidential candidates all received under five percent. Some opposition parties boycotted the election to protest expected voting irregularities.
“If these elections were held under normal circumstances, I would get between 35 and 40 percent of the vote,” said Dah Abeid after the election.
Jeremy Keenan, a professorial research associate at the School of Africa and Oriental Studies at the University of London and author of several books on Africa, agrees. Before the election, Keenan wrote that “Mauritania’s elections under President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz are neither free, fair nor transparent.”
“If all Haratin (freed black slave class) and blacks were registered on the voters role, which they are not, and if Mauritanian elections were 100 per cent free and fair, which they are not, and if all Haratin-blacks voted on racist-ethnic lines, which is conceivable, then Biram Dah Abeid would be president,” wrote Keenan.
The mainstream media’s neglect regarding Dah Abeid and the Mauritanian election story is all the more curious when one considers the story’s heroic nature as well as its far-reaching implications that could eventually end the suffering of hundreds of thousands of enslaved black African Mauritanians, whose same sad fate the young Nigerian women are now experiencing. Already, Dah Abeid’s and IRA’s efforts are reported to have led to the release of two thousand slaves.
And that, definitely, is news worth reporting.
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