Mauritanian anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Obeid, a much-jailed human rights protester on behalf of his country’s approximately 500,000 chattel slaves, took second place in contested presidential elections in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania last month.
Dah Obeid announced his candidacy for the president’s office only days after his being released from prison last December for once again angering the government. He had been incarcerated, and tortured, many times before.
Dah Obeid won 18.75 per cent of the vote last month for his Radicals For Global Action Party, an increase of 10 per cent over his 2014 election showing. Presidential elections are held every five years in Mauritania.
The third place opposition finisher, a former prime minister, backed by the country’s main Islamic party, received 17.87 per cent.
The winner was former defense minister Mohamed Ould Ghazouni, a retired general, with 52 per cent of the vote. Ghazouni was handpicked by outgoing president Abdel Mohamed Ould Aziz, another general, leading Mauritanians to wonder whether their country will always have a military figure as leader. Ould Aziz couldn’t run again because the Mauritanian constitution only allows two terms.
Ould Aziz seized power in Mauritania in a coup in 2008. He won an election in 2009 and again in 2014 -- where he received 82 per cent of the vote, not unusual in an African dictatorship. Dah Obeid hotly contested that result -- just as he is contesting the recent election.
“We are launching an appeal to the Mauritanian people …to resist, within the bounds of the law, this coup d’etat against the will of the people,” Dah Abeid said of last month’s alleged irregular vote.
Dah Abeid’s pronouncement against the 2014 results was just as vociferous.
“If these elections are held under normal circumstances, I would get between 35 per cent and 40 per cent of the vote” he said at that time.
Dah Abeid’s campaign position in 2014 was also just as valid in 2019:
“We are the only ones to have a different ideological position. We are fighting against slavery, racism, against government waste and against corruption. The true opposition, it’s us.”
Jeremy Keenan, a professorial research associate at the School of Africa and Oriental Studies at the University of London, agrees that previous elections in Mauritania were tainted.
“Mauritanian elections under President Mohamed Ould Abdul Aziz are neither free, fair nor transparent,” said Keenan in 2014.
And there is nothing to suggest things have improved in the 2019 vote. No foreign observers were allowed to monitor the election.
Nevertheless, the 2019 election represents the first peaceful transition in power since Mauritania gained independence from France in 1960. Another positive is that the opposition gaining substantially in voting percentage from the 2014 election. But no opposition party acquired more than 20 per cent of the vote necessary to force a second-round run-off.
Dh Abeid, a lawyer who was elected to the national assembly the last time he was behind bars, was born free as the son of a former slave. His father had been freed by his master but his grandmother and uncles remained slaves
“I am from the servile community of Mauritania that makes up 50 per cent of the population,” Dah Obeid said in a speech at the United Nations Human Rights Summit in Geneva in 2014. “Twenty percent of the 50 percent have been born as property of other men. We were inherited by other people.”
There have been several slavery bans in Mauritania. The first was under French rule in 1901 and the last in 1981. But slave-owning was only criminalized in 2007.
There have only been a handful of prosecutions since 2007 in a country where indigenous anti-slavery groups, like SOS-Esclaves, say there may be 500,000 slaves. African-American scholar Samuel Cotton called the slavery bans “woefully ineffective mandates” that “were never enforced and slavery continued to exist.” Abolition decrees, observers say, were made for foreign consumption.
All slaves in Mauritania are black Africans while their masters are Berbers and Arabs, or the “whites.” They are also, both masters and slaves, all Muslim.
The “whites” form about 20 percent of the population and occupy almost all important military, business and governmental positions. And that is the problem. One can’t get people to abolish slavery who own slaves themselves.
“The problem is that Mauritania’s Arabs sincerely believe that blacks are inferior and are born to be slaves” wrote Cotton in his book Silent Terror: A Journey Into Contemporary African Slavery, written after an exploratory trip to Mauritania. “They believe that a black man, woman or child’s place in life is to serve an Arab master…”
Cotton’s volume constitutes an excellent contribution to the fight against the scourge of contemporary black African slavery. It should be on every high school and university syllabus dealing with human rights. Black Lives Matter activists should also read it, if they truly wish to learn about a genuine and incredibly cruel, anti-black racism. But don’t hold your breath.
Like in 2014, Dah Abeid presented in the election last month an unusual presidential candidate to Mauritanians. He is the son of a former slave, just released from jail, who was once under sentence of death from a Sharia court as an apostate for opposing slavery.
Slavery is legal in all four Sharia law codes. The eminent historian of Islam, Bernard Lewis, said slavery is “elaborately regulated” under Sharia law. It is a centuries-old, ingrained Islamic institution that has created a racism against black Africans. It also allows slave owners to believe they are doing nothing illegal or immoral in owning slaves. As well, the Prophet Mohammed owned black slaves.
Dah Obeid was declared an apostate after an attention-grabbing demonstration by his anti-slavery organization Initiative for Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) before a mosque. There, the anti-slavery activist symbolically destroyed a copy of Sharia law after removing all references to the Prophet Mohammad and the Koran. Dah Abeid does not believe Sharia is divine law but simply outdated codes drawn up in the Middle Ages.
After this courageous demonstration, the government reaction, as to be expected, was as overwhelming as it was barbaric. Dah Obeid’s home was violently raided and he and other anti-slavery fighters were, as per usual, imprisoned and tortured. But due to the international outcry, Dah Obeid was released.
“There were TV programs broadcast that talked about how I was going to be hanged …,” Dah Obeid said. And they said on television “we will kill him, like we kill a cat.”
The extent of the slavery tragedy in Mauritania is symbolized by the fact that the country was named in 2013 by Slavery International Index the worst slave state in the world.
“We will never stop commending you on this enviable place on the international stage you have managed to achieve,” said Dah Obeid to his country’s rulers after this disgraceful designation.
In the same year, Dah Obeid was awarded the prestigious UN Human Rights Prize by Secretary Ban as the world’s foremost abolitionist. His IRA has been credited for releasing 2,000 slaves. Past award recipients include Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, who is Dah Obeid’s hero.
Dah Obeid finds it particularly difficult to understand the silence of western countries and the mainstream media on Mauritania’s terrible slavery situation. Western leftists and liberals, most of whom have never heard of Dah Obeid, worked themselves up into paroxysms of moral outrage over apartheid in South Africa, but remain hypocritically silent about Mauritania.
A main reason for this is that leftists/liberals want to maintain the image they have carefully constructed that Israel and America are the only oppressors in the wrold -- while Islam and Arabs are the victims. One such leftist hypocrite was Obama who, when visiting Senegal, mentioned only the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, while disgracefully and hypocritically saying nothing about Islamic slavery in neighboring Mauritania.
And while leftists/liberals and their media establishment smear President Trump as a “racist,” it is telling that the U.S. president has done what the black ex-president Barack Obama never did: he ended trade benefits to Mauritania last November “due to insufficient progress in eradicating forced labor and slavery.”
With or without international support, one thing is certain: like Nelson Mandela, Dah Obeid will never give up. During one of his incarcerations, he wrote in Churchillian fashion:
“I refuse to throw in the towel. I refuse to be silenced. I refuse to abandon …those who have been ruined by slavery.”