Western Africa

Capital City:

total: 1,030,700 sq km
land: 1,030,700 sq km
water: 0 sq km

Land boundaries:
Total: 5,002 m

border countries (4):
Algeria 460 km,
Mali 2,236 km,
Senegal 742 km,
Western Sahara 1,564 km
Coastline: 754
Total: 5756 km



Mauritania 4

constantly hot, dry, dusty

mostly barren, flat plains of the Sahara; some central hills

mean elevation: 276 m
elevation extremes: lowest point: Sebkhet Te-n-Dghamcha -5 m
highest point: Kediet Ijill 915 m

Natural resources:
iron ore, gypsum, copper, phosphate, diamonds, gold, oil, fish

Land use:
arable land 0.4%; permanent crops 0%; permanent pasture 38.1%
forest: 0.2%
other: 61.3% (2011 est.)

Irrigated land:
450 sq km (2012)

Population – distribution:
with most of the country being a desert, vast areas of the country, particularly in the central, northern, and eastern areas, are without sizeable population clusters;

Natural hazards:
hot, dry, dust/sand-laden sirocco wind primarily in March and April;
periodic droughts


People and Society

As of 2016, Mauritania had a population of approximately 3.8 million. The local population is divided into three main ethnic tiers: Bidhan or Moors, Haratin, and West Africans. With a sustained total fertility rate of about 4 children per woman and almost 60% of the population under the age of 25, Mauritania’s population is likely to continue growing for the foreseeable future. Mauritania’s large youth cohort is vital to its development prospects, but available schooling does not adequately prepare students for the workplace. Girls continue to be underrepresented in the classroom, educational quality remains poor, and the dropout rate is high. The literacy rate is only about 50%, even though access to primary education has improved since the mid-2000s. Women’s restricted access to education and discriminatory laws maintain gender inequality – worsened by early and forced marriages and female genital cutting.

The denial of education to black Moors also helps to perpetuate slavery. Although Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981 (the last country in the world to do so) and made it a criminal offense in 2007, the millenniums-old practice persists largely because anti-slavery laws are rarely enforced and the custom is so ingrained. Up to 20% of Mauritania’s population is estimated to be enslaved, the highest rate worldwide.

Drought, poverty, and unemployment have driven outmigration from Mauritania since the 1970s. Early flows were directed toward other West African countries, including Senegal, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, and the Gambia. The 1989 Mauritania-Senegal conflict forced thousands of black Mauritanians to take refuge in Senegal and pushed labor migrants toward the Gulf, Libya, and Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Mauritania has accepted migrants from neighboring countries to fill labor shortages since its independence in 1960 and more recently has received refugees escaping civil wars, including tens of thousands of Tuaregs who fled Mali in 2012.

3,758,571 (July 2017 est.)


Ethnic groups:
black Moors (Haratines – Arab-speaking slaves, former slaves, and their descendants of African origin, enslaved by white Moors) 40%, white Moors (of Arab-Berber descent, known as Beydane) 30%, sub-Saharan Mauritanians (non-Arabic speaking, largely resident in or originating from the Senegal River Valley, including Halpulaar, Fulani, Soninke, Wolof, and Bambara ethnic groups) 30%

Arabic (official and national), Pular, Soninke, Wolof (all national languages), French

Muslim (official) 100%

Ethnicity, Language, and Religion

The Moors constitute almost three-fourths of the population. About one-third of the country’s population self-identifies as Bīḍān (translated literally as “white”; “White Moors”), which indicates individuals of Arab and Amazigh (Berber) descent. The remainder of the Moorish population has Sudanic African origins and is collectively known as Ḥarāṭīn (sometimes referred to by the outside world as “Black Moors”). The Ḥarāṭīn speak the same language as the Bīḍān and, in the past, were part of the nomadic economy. They served as domestic help and laborers for the nomadic camps, and, although some remain, they were the first to depart for urban settlements with the collapse of the nomadic economy in the 1980s. While there is a general correlation based on skin color, what determines status is a credible lineage that can document noble origins. Thus, one might encounter a black “white,” and some Ḥarāṭīn might pass for Bīḍān if their name or lineage is unknown.

Arabic is the official language. The Arabic spoken in Mauritania is called Hasaniya. Wolof, Peular, and Soninke are spoken in southern Mauritania and recognized as national languages. French is widely used, particularly in business, but its status as an official language was eliminated in the 1991 constitution. The Moors speak Ḥassāniyyah Arabic, a dialect that draws most of its grammar from Arabic and uses a vocabulary of both Arabic and Arabized Amazigh words. Most of the Ḥassāniyyah speakers are also familiar with colloquial Egyptian and Syrian Arabic due to the influence of television and radio transmissions from the Middle East.

Mauritania is nearly 100% Muslim, with most inhabitants adhering to the Sunni denomination. The Sufi orders, the Tijaniyah and the Qadiriyyah, have the great influence not only in the country but in Morocco, Algeria, Senegal and other neighboring countries as well. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Nouakchott, founded in 1965, serves the 4,500 Catholics in Mauritania (mostly foreign residents from West Africa and Europe). On 27 April 2018, The National Assembly passed a law that makes the death penalty mandatory for anyone convicted of “blasphemous speech” and acts deemed “sacrilegious”. The new law eliminates the possibility under article 306 of substituting prison terms for the death penalty for certain apostasy-related crimes if the offender promptly repents.



The acceptance of modern education in Mauritanian society did not take off until 1985 when enrolment rate finally hit the 100,000 enrollee barrier as Mauritanians adhere strictly to secular education. The main factor that eventually pushed parents to enroll their children at the schools put up by the French during that time was that secular education was not offering enough to groom their children in the fast-modernizing world. All children from ages 6 to 14 are required to attend school to increase the literacy rate of the country. As of 2002, gross enrollment has penetrated to 88%. Sad to say though that the actual number of enrollees were actually 68% only. Most likely, the reason that gross enrollment and net enrollment seems to have a wide gap could be too sheer poverty.

Although the school is free, the government can only offer free primary schooling. After the age of 14, the students actually have nowhere to go. Poor families would not send their children to secondary schools as they cannot merely afford to. This is the reason why the skilled labor force is in shortage and has somewhat contributed to the country’s stagnation. To those lucky enough to step into secondary education, they would be completing a 7-year course program. The first four years in secondary school is the called the first cycle and the last three years as the second cycle or Lyceé. In the second cycle, students are made to choose a specialization or “Series.” If one is inclined to learn Arabic, the best course is the Serie LO (Lettres Originalles). Those who excel in this usually go on to become an Islamic Laws legislator or could perhaps teach Islamic Studies.

Mauritania has the University of Nouakchott and other institutions of higher education, but the majority of highly educated Mauritanians have studied outside the country. Public expenditure on education was at 10.1% of 2000–2007 government expenditure. The National Institute of Higher Islamic Studies was established in Boutilimit in 1961 and the National School of Administration was founded in 1966 at Nouakchott. As of 2003, public expenditure on education was estimated at 4.1% of GDP or 16.6% of total government expenditures.



Mauritania’s economy is dominated by extractive industries (oil and mines), fisheries, livestock, agriculture, and services. Half the population still depends on farming and raising livestock, even though many nomads and subsistence farmers were forced into the cities by recurrent droughts in the 1970s, 1980s, 2000s, and 2017. Recently, GDP growth has been driven largely by foreign investment in the mining and oil sectors.

After decades of sluggish performance, Mauritania’s GDP growth has accelerated over the last 15 years but is now cooling down with the end of the commodity super-cycle. Mauritania experienced robust GDP growth, averaging 5.5% between 2003 and 2015 when international commodity prices rose to historic levels. Growth performance was close to the average for Sub-Saharan Africa and represented a marked improvement over the 1990s when annual growth averaged only 2.7%. After proving resilient to the end of the commodity super-cycle in 2014, GDP growth in 2015 receded to 3% on the back of a negative term of trade shock and a drop in mining and oil production of 15.7% and 11.0%, respectively, year-on-year.

Booming revenue from the narrow extractives sector has been the main driver of higher economic growth. The value of mineral exports jumped from US$318 million in 2003 to US$2,652 million in 2013, despite generally stagnant mining production. Extractives represented, on average, 25% of GDP, 82% of exports, and 23% of domestic revenue. The terms of trade improvement are estimated to have brought, on average, 2.5% additional national income per year. The mining boom translated into large foreign investments in the extractives sector and significant state-driven public investments.

Mauritania’s extensive mineral resources include iron ore, gold, copper, gypsum, and phosphate rock, and exploration is ongoing for tantalum, uranium, crude oil, and natural gas. Extractive commodities make up about three-quarters of Mauritania’s total exports, subjecting the economy to price swings in world commodity markets. Mining is also a growing source of government revenue, rising from 13% to 30% of total revenue from 2006 to 2014. The nation’s coastal waters are among the richest fishing areas in the world, and fishing accounts for about 15% of budget revenues, 45% of foreign currency earnings. Mauritania processes a total of 1,800,000 tons of fish per year, but overexploitation by foreign and national fleets threaten the sustainability of this key source of revenue.

GDP (purchasing power parity):
$17.37 billion (2017 est.)
$16.74 billion (2016 est.)
$16.45 billion (2015 est.)
note: data are in 2017 dollars

GDP (official exchange rate):
$4.985 billion (2017 est.)

GDP – real growth rate:
3.8% (2017 est.)
1.7% (2016 est.)
0.9% (2015 est.)

GDP – per capita (PPP):
$4,500 (2017 est.)
$4,400 (2016 est.)
$4,400 (2015 est.)

Gross national saving:
28.1% of GDP (2017 est.)
24.7% of GDP (2016 est.)
18.9% of GDP (2015 est.)

GDP – composition, by sector of origin:
agriculture: 22.5%
industry: 37.8%
services: 39.7% (2017 est.)

Agriculture – products:
dates, millet, sorghum, rice, corn; cattle, camel, and sheep

fish processing, oil production, mining (iron ore, gold, copper)

Population below poverty line:
31% (2014 est.)

revenues: $1.248 billion
expenditures: $1.301 billion (2017 est.)




Settled agriculture is restricted to the strip of land along the Senegal River and to oases in the north; only 0.2% of Mauritania’s total land area is classified as arable. In general, landholdings are small. Overall agricultural development has been hampered not only by unfavorable physical conditions but also by a complicated land-tenure system (modified in 1984) that traditionally rested on slavery, inadequate transportation, and the low priority placed on agriculture by most government developmental plans. The country’s traditional dependence on food imports has been heightened by drought. Agriculture’s share of GDP has been steadily falling; in 2017 it stood at 22%, down from 29% in 1987.

The Mauritanian government is facilitating the agricultural development of the Senegal River valley. The OMVS began in 1981 to build a dam at Manantali, in Mali, for purposes of river transport, irrigation, and hydroelectric power. Mauritania initiated an irrigation and development scheme in 1975 for the Gorgol River valley where the dam would increase arable land by over 3,600 ha (9,000 acres). This project was to be followed by other dams that together would add 30,000 ha (74,100 acres) for food production. Another OMVS project, begun in 1981, was designed to prevent salt water from entering the fertile Senegal River delta. Between 1989 and 1991, the Mauritanian government sought to rationalize agricultural production.

Historically, cattle herding was Mauritania’s most important economic activity. In the 1980s, with a cattle-to-people ratio of three to one, the highest in West Africa. Herding provided subsistence for up to 70 percent of the country’s people. Herding has been dramatically affected by chronic drought and the attendant rapid advance of the desert. These events have forced shifts in patterns of movement, herd composition and ownership, and increased pressures on lands also occupied by sedentary farmers in the south.

Although it is a large country, most of Mauritania is desert. In the late 1980s, arable land was scarce, and, except for some Oases, crop production was limited to a narrow band along the southern borders with Senegal and Mali. Farmers practiced four types of agriculture: rain-fed dryland cropping, called Dieri; flood recession cropping along the Senegal River and its seasonal tributaries, called Oualo; oasis cultivation, the least important; and modern irrigated agriculture.

Electricity access:
population without electricity: 2,800,000
electrification – total population: 28%
electrification – urban areas: 47%
electrification – rural areas: 2% (2013)
Electricity – production:
1.191 billion kWh (2015 est.)
Electricity – consumption:
1.108 billion kWh (2015 est.)
Electricity – exports:
0 million kWh (2015 est.)
Electricity – imports:
0 MW (2015 est.)
Electricity – installed generating capacity:
412,000 kW (2015 est.)
Electricity – from fossil fuels:
63.8% of total installed capacity (2015 est.)
Electricity – from nuclear fuels:
0% of total installed capacity (2015 est.)

Telephones – fixed lines:
total subscriptions: 53,191
subscriptions per 100 inhabitants: 1 (July 2016 est.)
Telephones – mobile cellular:
total: 3,614,172
subscriptions per 100 inhabitants: 96 (July 2016 est.)

Internet country code:
Internet users:
total: 661,913
percent of population: 18.0% (July 2016 est.)

Industry and Mining

Mauritania’s mineral sector was dominated by iron ore mining and beneficiation. Other mineral commodities produced in the country included cement, copper, gold, gypsum, petroleum, salt, and steel. The Ministère des Mines et de l’Industrie was the Government agency responsible for enacting the Mining Code and for the coordination of all activities in the mining sector. The Direction des Mines et de la Géologie was the entity responsible for promoting the mineral sector and for providing geologic and mining information to potential investors; the Direction des Hydrocarbures was in charge of the development of the petroleum sector; and the Office Mauritanien des Recherches Géologiques was the governmental entity responsible for evaluating areas of mineral potential for exploration. Société Nationale Industrielle et Minière (SNIM) was responsible for iron ore production and beneficiation.

Mining, which was one of the country’s most important sectors to the national economy, contributed about 12% of the gross domestic product (GDP) and represented more than one-half of the country’s export earnings in 2005. according to the Ministère des Mines et de l’industrie (MMi), the development, diversification, and promotion of the mining sector have become the government’s priority in recent years. the number of foreign companies applying for prospecting licenses was increasing, and projects were at various stages ranging from grassroots exploration to mine development.

Mauritania began producing its first petroleum from the Chinguetti oilfield in February 2006. the Chinguetti oilfield was owned by a consortium of companies that included BG group plc, Hardman resources Ltd., Premier Oil plc, Roc Oil Ltd., government-owned Société Mauritanienne de Hydrocarbures, and Woodside Petroleum Ltd. At least two companies were exploring for uranium during the year. Perth-based Murchison united nL was granted five uranium exploration licenses covering an area of 6,766 square kilometers (km2) in Bin en nar and in Bir Moghrein and was awaiting approval of three other uranium exploration licenses by the government. the company conducted ground reconnaissance work to perform detailed radiometric studies on five anomalies.

Mauritania bank

Banking and Finance

At independence, Mauritania became a member of the West African Monetary Union (Union Monétaire Ouest Africaine— UMOA) but withdrew in 1973 to demonstrate its independent economic identity. When it withdrew, the government also relinquished membership in the African Financial Community (Communauté Financière Africaine—CFA), whose currency—the CFA franc—was freely convertible to French francs. Mauritania then created its own currency, the ouguiya, and a national bank, the Central Bank of Mauritania (Banque Centrale de Mauritanie), which was established in 1973.

After privatization in 1989, banks in Mauritania included Banque Arbe Libyene-Mauritanienne pour le Commerce Extérieur et le Développement (BALM). BALM, founded in 1990, was 51% owned by Libyans and 49% owned by the state. Other banks included Banque Al-Baraka Mauritanie Islamique (BAMIS), Banque Mauritanie pour le Commerce Internationale (BMCI), and Banque Nationale de Mauritania (BNM). BAMIS, established in 1990, was 50% Saudi owned and 10% BCM owned. BMCI, founded in 1990, was 10% BCM owned, and 90% of the bank was held by private interests. BNM, established in 1988, was 50% state-owned.

In 2001, there were seven commercial banks, among them BAMIS, BMCI, BNM, Generale de Banque de Mauritanie (GBM), and the World Bank Representative in Mauritania. There are also three credit agencies and four insurance companies. The Saudi Al-Baraka firm owned 85% of BAMIS, and the Belgium Belgolaise bank was the second largest shareholder in commercial banks. There was also one bank specializing in housing construction, and three credit agencies (Credit Maritime, Credit Agricole, and Mauritanie Leasing).

A significant drawback for the Mauritanian economy, partly due to the small number and low income of the population, was a dearth of domestic capital. The poor reputation of the domestic banking system, notwithstanding its recent overhaul, discouraged local savings. In 1997, the government encouraged the creation of popular saving agencies to revitalize the financial sector; and in 1998, the government introduced incentives to encourage fish exporters to keep their assets in the country. The International Monetary Fund reports that in 2001, currency and demand deposits—an aggregate is commonly known as M1—were equal to $108.6 million. In that same year, M2—an aggregate equal to M1 plus savings deposits, small time deposits, and money market mutual funds—was $151.4 million.


Hard-pushed to pinpoint Mauritania on a map? You’re not alone. It’s south of Western Sahara and north of Senegal, on the West African coast. And it’s enormous (nearly twice the size of France). And this is a country where you can explore the Sahara without breaking the bank, by camping and staying in guesthouses. It makes the ideal family holiday: the spaces are huge and there’s no malaria in the central Adrar region. Nouakchott, the capital, is a sprawl of low-rise candy-colored buildings that seem to grow haphazardly out of the desert. It’s on a quiet street and full of colorful furniture, with a haima (Moorish tent) in the leafy courtyard.

The country is immediately exotic, with men dressed in sky-blue bobos (long robes) billowing in the ever-present wind, their eyes peering from beneath turbans. The golden and creamy white sand of the desert is pure and silky to the touch. There are no scraggy bushes or even footprints; it curves up into huge peaks, carved into troughs by the wind. The culture remains vehemently nomadic, with tents plonked in the middle of the city and camels wandering about.

Place of Attraction

Mauritania’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed Banc d’Arguin National Park (pnba.mr) is one of the best places in the world for bird-watching. UNESCO describes it as one of the planet’s most important zones for nesting birds and migratory waders, with more than 2 million birds arriving annually from northern Europe, Greenland, and Siberia.

Called the“jewel in Mauritania’s crown” by Lonely Planet, the Adrar region of northern Mauritania is a desert dotted with oases and ancient Saharan towns. Among the Adrar’s notable settlements are Ouadane, Chinguetti, Tichitt, and Oualata, which are jointly listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, is short on tourist attractions, but its fish market, Port de Peche, is a destination in its own right, as are the numerous seafood restaurants in the area. Visit in the late afternoon when the fishing boats return to port to watch the fishermen bringing in their hand-knotted nets.


  • Prehistory

    The early history of the west Saharan region is largely unknown. There are some written accounts by medieval Arab traders and explorers who reached the important caravan trading centers and Sudanic kingdoms of eastern Mauritania, but the major sources of pre-European history are the oral history, legends, and archaeological evidence. These sources indicate that during the millennia preceding the Christian Era, the Sahara was a more habitable region than it is today and supported a flourishing culture. In the area that is now Mauritania, the Bafour, a proto-Berber people, whose descendants may be the coastal Imraguen fishermen, were hunters, pastoralists, and fishermen. Valley cultivators, who may have been black ancestors of the riverine Toucouleur and Wolof peoples, lived alongside the Bafour.

    In the third and fourth centuries A.D., this southward migration was intensified by the arrival of Berber groups from the north who were searching for pasturage or fleeing political anarchy and war. The wide-ranging activities of these turbulent Berber warriors were made possible by the introduction of the camel to the Sahara in this period. This first wave of Berber invaders subjugated and made vassals of those Bafour who did not flee south. Other Berber groups followed in the seventh and eighth centuries, themselves fleeing in large numbers before the Arab conquerors of the Maghrib.

    One of the Berber groups arriving in Mauritania in the eighth century was the Lemtuna. By the ninth century, the Lemtuna had attained political dominance in the Adrar and Hodh regions. Together with two other important Berber groups, the Messufa and the Djodala, they set up the Sanhadja Confederation. From their capital, Aoudaghast, the Lemtuna controlled this loose confederation and the western routes of the Saharan caravan trade that had begun to flourish after the introduction of the camel. At its height, from the eighth to the end of the tenth century, the Sanhadja Confederation was a decentralized polity based on two distinct groups: the nomadic and very independent Berber groups, who maintained their traditional religions, and the Muslim, urban Berber merchants, who conducted the caravan trade.

  • Sanhadja Confederation

    Although dominated by the Sanhadja merchants, the caravan trade had its northern terminus in the Maghribi commercial city of Sijilmasa and its southern terminus in Koumbi Saleh, capital of the Ghana Empire. Later, the southern trade route ended in Timbuktu, capital of the Mali Empire. Gold, ivory, and slaves were carried north in return for salt (ancient salt mines near Kediet Ij ill in northern Mauritania are still being worked), copper, cloth, and other luxury goods.

    Oualata was a major relay point on the gold and salt trade route, as well as a chief assembly point for pilgrims traveling to Mecca. Koumbi Saleh was a large cosmopolitan city comprising two distinct sections: the Muslim quarter, with its Arab-influenced architecture, and the black quarter of traditional thatch and mud architecture, where the non-Muslim king of Ghana resided. Another important Mauritanian trade city of the Sanhadja Confederation was Chinguetti, later an important religious center. Although Koumbi Saleh did not outlive the fall of the Ghana Empire, Aoudaghast and particularly Oualata maintained their importance well into the sixteenth century, when trade began shifting to the European-controlled coasts.

    By the eleventh century, Islam had spread throughout the west Sahara under the influence of Berber and Arab traders and occasional Arab migrants. Nevertheless, traditional religious practices thrived. The conquest of the entire west Saharan region by the Almoravids in the eleventh century made possible a more orthodox Islamization of all the peoples of Mauritania.

  • The Almoravid

    The breakup of the Sanhadja Confederation in the early eleventh century led to a period of unrest and warfare among the Sanhadja Berber groups of Mauritania. In about 1039, a chief of the Djodala, Yahya ibn Ibrahim, returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca bringing with him a Sanhadja theologian, Abdallah ibn Yassin, to teach a more orthodox Islam. In 1042 the Murabitun (men of the ribat), as Ibn Yassin’ s followers came to be called, launched a jihad, or holy war, against the non-believers and the heretics among the Sanhadja, beginning what later become known as the Almoravid movement. The initial aim of the Almoravids was to establish a political community in which the ethical and juridical principles of Islam would be strictly applied.

    With the death of Ibn Yassin in 1059, the leadership of the movement in the south passed to Abu Bakr ibn Unas, amir (see Glossary) of Adrar, and to Yusuf ibn Tashfin in the north. Under Ibn Tashfm, the Berbers captured Morocco and founded Marrakech as their capital in 1062. By 1082 all of the western Maghrib (to at least present-day Algiers) was under Almoravid domination (see fig. 2). In 1086 the Andalusian amirates, under attack from the Spanish Christian king Alfonso and the Christian reconquest of Spain, called on Ibn Tashfin and his Berber warriors to cross the Strait of Gibraltar and come to their rescue. The Almoravids defeated the Spanish Christians and, by 1090, imposed Almoravid rule and the Maliki (see Glossary) school of Islamic law in Muslim Spain.

    In Mauritania, Abu Bakr led the Almoravids in a war against Ghana (1062-76), culminating in the capture in 1076 of Koumbi Saleh. This event marked the end of the dominance of the Ghana Empire. But after the death of Abu Bakr in 1087 and Ibn Tashfin in 1 106, traditional rivalries among the Sanhadja and a new Muslim reformist conquest led by the Zenata Almohads (1 133-63) destroyed the Almoravid Empire. For a short time, the Mauritanian Sanhadja dynasty of the Almoravid Empire controlled a vast territory stretching from Spain to Senegal. The unity established between Morocco and Mauritania during the Almoravid period continued to have some political importance in the 1980s, as it formed part of the basis for Morocco’s claims to Mauritania.

  • The Kingdoms

    Although the Almoravids had substantial contacts with the Maghrib, influences from the black Sudanic kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai played an important role in Mauritania’s history for about 700 years—from the eighth to the fifteenth century. Ghana, the first of the great West African Sudanic kingdoms, included in its territory all of southeastern Mauritania extending to Tagant. Ghana reached its apogee in the ninth and tenth centuries with the extension of its rule over the Sanhadja Berbers. This large and centralized kingdom controlled the southern terminus of the trans- Saharan trade in gold, ivory, and salt.

    The capture of Koumbi Saleh in 1076 by the Almoravids marked the end of Ghana’s hegemony, although the kingdom continued to exist for another 125 years. The Mande, under the leadership of the legendary Sundiata, founded the second great Sudanic kingdom, Mali. By the end of the thirteenth century, the Mali Empire extended over that part of Mauritania previously controlled by Ghana, as well as over the remaining Sahelian (see Glossary) regions and the Senegal River Valley. Sundiata and his successors took over Ghana’s role in the Saharan trade and in the administration and collection of tribute from vast stretches of Sudan and the Sahel.

    The slow decline of the Mali Empire that started at the end of the fourteenth century came about through internal discord and revolts by the inhabitants of vassal states, including the Songhai of Gao. By the end of the fifteenth century, the Songhai Empire had replaced the Mali Empire and extended to Mauritania and the upper Senegal River Valley. At the end of the sixteenth century, a large Moroccan force defeated the Songhai, bringing to an end the seven centuries of domination of western Sudan (and a large part of Mauritania) by strong, centralized black kingdoms.

  • The European Contact

    Beginning with the Arab conquest of the western Maghrib in the eighth century, Mauritania experienced a slow but constant infiltration of Arabs and Arab influence from the north. The growing Arab presence pressed the Berbers, who chose not to mix with other groups, to move farther south into Mauritania, forcing out the black inhabitants. By the sixteenth century, most blacks had been pushed to the Senegal River. Those remaining in the north became slaves cultivating the oases.

    Despite the Almoravid domination of Spain in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, there seems to be little evidence of contact during that time between Mauritania and Europe. The inhospitable coastline of Mauritania continued to deter voyagers until the Portuguese began their African explorations in the fifteenth century. Lured by legends of vast wealth in interior kingdoms, the Portuguese established a trading fort at Arguin, southeast of Cap Blanc (present-day Ras Nouadhibou), in 1455. The king of Portugal also maintained a commercial agent at Ouadane in the Adrar in an attempt to divert gold traveling north by caravan. Having only slight success in their quest for gold, the Portuguese quickly adapted to dealing in slaves. In the mid-fifteenth century, as many as 1,000 slaves per year were exported from Arguin to Europe and to the Portuguese sugar plantations on the island of Sao Tome in the Gulf of Guinea.

    With the merger of the Portuguese and Spanish crowns in 1580, the Spaniards became the dominant influence along the coast. In 1638, however, they were replaced by the Dutch, who were the first to begin exploiting the gum arabic trade. Produced by the acacia trees of Trarza and Brakna and used in textile pattern printing, this gum arabic was considered superior to that previously obtained in Arabia. By 1678 the French had driven out the Dutch and established a permanent settlement at Saint Louis at the mouth of the Senegal River, where the French Company of the Senegal River (Compagnie Francaise du Senegal) had been trading for more than fifty years.

    The Maures, with whom the Europeans were trading, considered the constant rivalries between European powers a sign of weakness, and they quickly learned the benefits of playing one power against the other. For example, they agreed simultaneously to give monopolies to the French and the Dutch. The Maures also took advantage of the Europeans whenever possible, so that when the French negotiated with the amir of Trarza to secure a monopoly on the gum arabic trade, the Amir in exchange demanded a considerable number of gifts. Thus began the costume, an annual payment expected by the Maures for doing business with a government or a company. By 1763 the British had expelled France from the West African coast, and France recovered control only when the Congress of Vienna in 1815 recognized French sovereignty over the coast of West Africa from Cap Blanc south to Senegal.

  • Colonial France

    Before the nineteenth century, the European powers in West Africa were interested only in coastal trading; they attempted no important inland exploration and established no permanent settlements (except Saint Louis). The European mercantile companies on the coast were charged with making the highest possible profit. Four such French companies enjoyed an official French government monopoly of the Senegal River trade from 1659 to 1798. Contact with the Maures and the black inhabitants of the valley came about only in the course of trade. From the beginning, French influence, competing with traditional trading partners north and east of Mauritania, came through Senegal.

    In 1825 the new amir of Trarza, Muhammad al Habib, sought to reassert his sovereignty over the French-protected Oualo Kingdom to the south of the Senegal River by marrying the heiress to the kingdom. This action, which French authorities viewed as a hostile threat, combined with the amir’s efforts to sell gum arabic to the British, brought a strong French reaction. Although the Maures were able to lay siege to Saint Louis, a large French expeditionary force defeated the amir’s forces. The French concluded that to secure the continuing profitability of the gum arabic trade, they would have to forcibly occupy the northern bank of the Senegal River.

    Implementing this new policy was Louis Faidherbe, the French governor of Senegal from 1854 to 1861 and from 1863 to 1865. In 1840 a French ordinance had established Senegal as a permanent French possession with a government whose jurisdiction extended over all settlements then effectively under French control, including those in Mauritania. By undertaking the governance of these Mauritanian settlements, French rulers directly challenged Maure claims of sovereignty.

    In 1901 the French government adopted a plan of “peaceful penetration” for the administrative organization of areas then under Maure suzerainty. The plan’s author was Xavier Coppolani, a Corsican brought up in Algeria, who was sent to Mauritania as a delegate from the French government. Coppolani set up a policy not only to divide, weaken, and pacify the Maures but also to protect them. Although he served in Mauritania for only four years (1901-05), the French called Coppolani the father of the French colony of Mauritania, and the Maures knew him as the “Pacific Conqueror” of the territory.

  • Independent Mauritania

    As the country gained independence on November 28, 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. With independence, larger numbers of ethnic Sub-Saharan Africans (Haalpulaar, Soninke, and Wolof) entered Mauritania, moving into the area north of the Senegal River. As before independence, the sedentary lifestyle of these groups made them more receptive to and useful in state formation, and they quickly came to dominate state administration, even if the Moorish groups built up by the French remained in charge of the political process. Moors reacted to this change by increasing pressures for Arabization, to Arabicize many aspects of Mauritanian life, such as law and language, and ethnic tension built up – helped by a common memory of warfare and slave raids.

    President Moktar Ould Daddah, originally helped to the post by the French, rapidly reformed Mauritania into an authoritarian one-party state in 1964, with his new constitution. Daddah’s own Parti du Peuple Mauritanien (PPM) became the ruling organization. The President justified this decision on the grounds that he considered Mauritania unready for western-style multi-party democracy. Under this one-party constitution, Daddah was reelected in uncontested elections in 1966, 1971 and 1976.

    Opposition parties were legalized and a new constitution approved in 1991 which put an end to formal military rule. However, Ould Taya’s election wins were dismissed as fraudulent by both opposition groups and external observers. In 1998, Mauritania became the third Arab country to recognize Israel, despite strong internal opposition.On August 3, 2005, the Mauritanian military, including members of the presidential guard, seized control of key points in the capital of Nouakchott, performing a coup against the government of President Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya who was out of the country attending the funeral of Saudi King Fahd.

    After AZIZ deposed President Sidi Ould Cheikh ABDELLAHI, he installed himself as president in August 2008; he subsequently retired from the military, stepped down from the appropriated presidency in April 2009 to run for the legitimate presidency; he was elected president in July 2009 and reelected in June 2014.