Mauritania

Partly Free
35
100
PR Political Rights 14 40
CL Civil Liberties 21 60
Last Year's Score & Status
34 100 Partly Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who first came to power through a military coup in 2008 and won a second term in a deeply flawed 2014 election, stepped down peacefully after Mohamed Ould Ghazouani won the presidency in a relatively credible 2019 election. The poll came on the heels of successful legislative elections held in 2018, which were more pluralistic than past elections. A variety of media outlets operate, but journalists risk arrest for reporting on sensitive topics and many self-censor. Black Mauritanians, the Haratin population, women, and LGBT+ people face discrimination. The government has taken increased steps to implement laws that address the problem of institutionalized slavery and discrimination, but continues to arrest antislavery and antidiscrimination activists.

header2 Key Developments in 2020

  • The authorities quashed legal proceedings targeting three prominent critics of the former Ould Abdel Aziz administration in February. Arrest warrants against two of them, businessman Mohamed Bouamatou and Moustapha Ould Limam Chafi—who had advised former Burkinabè president Blaise Compaoré (1987–2014)—were suspended, and Ould Limam Chafi returned to Mauritania in October.
  • In July, a legislative inquiry publicized evidence of corruption and embezzlement during the Ould Abdel Aziz administration. The former president, who refused to appear before legislators that month, was questioned for a week in August and had his passport seized; his son in law was also questioned by authorities that month. Neither man was charged by year’s end.
  • Mauritanian authorities imposed a COVID-19-related overnight curfew and closed mosques in March, though the mosque-closure measure was reversed in May. Interregional travel was restricted in May, and a new curfew was introduced in December as cases rose. The government reported 13,642 COVID-19 cases and 324 deaths to the World Health Organization at year’s end.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 2.002 4.004

The president is chief of state and is directly elected to up to two five-year terms by popular vote. In June 2019, Mauritanians elected Mohamed Ould Ghazouani to replace Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, whose second term came to an end. Six candidates, including those from major opposition parties, competed in the election. Ould Ghazouani, who represented the ruling Union for the Republic (UPR) and is reputedly close to Ould Abdel Aziz, won 52 percent of the vote in the first round. Antislavery activist Biram Dah Abeid came second with 19 percent. Mohamed Ould Boubacar, the Islamist party Tawassoul’s candidate, won 18 percent.

The authorities dismissed opposition claims of electoral misconduct and fraud. Local and international observers noted irregularities, but praised the poll’s peaceful conduct and found it generally satisfactory. For the first time in its history, Mauritania experienced a peaceful transfer of power after the incumbent completed his term, signaling a departure from a history of military coups.

The prime minister is head of government and is appointed by the president. President Ould Ghazouani named Mohamed Ould Bilal, a longtime public official, to succeed Ismaïl Ould Bedda Ould Cheikh Sidiya in August 2020. Ould Bilal’s predecessor resigned after he and several other ministers were implicated in Ould Abdel Aziz–era corruption.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 2.002 4.004

Constitutional reforms adopted through a 2017 referendum dissolved the Senate, leaving the 157-seat National Assembly as the country’s legislative body. Members are directly elected to five-year terms in a mixed system of direct and plurality voting; four members are directly elected by the diaspora.

Ninety-eight political parties participated in the September 2018 National Assembly elections, including members of the opposition National Front for the Defense of Democracy (FNDU), a coalition that boycotted previous elections. The ruling UPR won 89 seats, while Tawassoul, the largest opposition party, won 14.

A coalition of opposition groups called the elections fraudulent, but most Mauritanian politicians as well as African Union (AU) observers deemed them credible. AU observers said “imperfections” in the process did not appear to have affected the polls’ credibility.

Abeid, a 2014 and 2019 presidential candidate and head of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement in Mauritania (IRA Mauritania), an antislavery group, won a seat in the parliament in 2018. However, Abeid was held in pretrial detention during the elections as authorities investigated claims that he had threatened a journalist. His arrest was reportedly carried out in the absence of a warrant. IRA Mauritania denied the allegations against him. In December 2018, Abeid was released after receiving a sentence shorter than time served.

The UPR posted a strong performance in concurrent municipal elections.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 2.002 4.004

In 2018, the government appointed a new Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) following a series of dialogues with some opposition parties. However, the FNDU, which had boycotted the dialogue process, rejected the commission and demanded its dissolution. That July, the government appointed a former FNDU member as CENI president. Despite the controversies over its composition, the new commission organized 2018 elections that were generally viewed as successful. In May 2019, prior to the presidential elections, government and opposition groups agreed to a compromise that allowed members of the opposition greater participation in the CENI.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 2.002 4.004

Several obstacles prevent parties from successfully mobilizing their bases. A 2018 decree commanded the government to dissolve all political parties unable to gain at least 1 percent of votes in two consecutive district elections. In March 2019, 76 parties were disbanded under the decree.

Demonstrations organized by political parties are often prevented or dispersed. Authorities have denied registration to activist parties, including the Forces of Progress for Change, which opposes racial discrimination. The party’s legal petition to gain recognition has been pending before the Supreme Court since 2015. The ruling party is frequently successful in efforts to co-opt leaders of smaller parties with comparatively fewer resources.

The environment for opposition figures did improve during 2020. In February, the government quashed legal proceedings against three prominent critics of former president Ould Abdel Aziz. Arrest warrants were withdrawn against two, businessman Mohamed Bouamatou and Moustapha Ould Limam Chafi, who previously advised former Burkinabè president Compaoré. Ould Limam Chafi, who had not resided in Mauritania since 2011, returned in October 2020.

Score Change: The score improved from 1 to 2 because the government dropped charges against political critics, and one exiled opposition figure returned to the country during the year.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 1.001 4.004

Most opposition parties lack an institutional base. Many are formed by splinter factions of the UPR that later rejoin it, sometimes because of active co-optation. After boycotting elections for years, opposition parties participated in recent presidential and legislative elections. Although the UPR benefitted from incumbency advantages in the 2019 presidential election, opposition parties managed to gain sizable number of votes, totaling over 47 percent.

Most opposition parties boycotted both the 2013 parliamentary elections and the 2014 presidential election, citing a system dominated by the ruling UPR, which since its creation in 2009 has won every election handily. Though opposition parties took part in the September 2018 elections, the UPR remained dominant, winning a large legislative majority. Opposition parties fared somewhat better in the municipal and regional elections.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 1.001 4.004

The political choices of Mauritanians are greatly influenced by the military, which plays a key role in the political system. Since 1978, Mauritania has either been under military rule or led by a military leader, with the exception of 18 months of civilian government between 2007 and 2008. President Ould Ghazouani is a former defense minister and general, though he was elected in a competitive and democratic poll. In recent years, the overt influence of the military in politics has receded somewhat.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 0.000 4.004

The Bidhan ethnic group dominates the Mauritanian government, while Black Mauritanians and the Haratin ethnic group are underrepresented in elected positions and in high-level government roles. Discrimination hinders the ability of these groups to gain power. Thousands of Black Mauritanians who were forced out of their villages by the military in 1989 have been allowed to return, but face difficulties when trying to enroll in the census and register to vote.

Women participate in politics at lower levels than men, largely due to traditional cultural norms, and women’s interests are poorly represented in national politics in practice. Women hold 31 National Assembly seats.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 1.001 4.004

The executive dominates the legislative branch. The president has the power to dissolve the National Assembly, but the legislature has no impeachment power over the president. The military maintains a great deal of influence on policymaking.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2.002 4.004

The government has adopted numerous anticorruption laws, and signed the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption in 2005. Money-laundering and terror-financing measures were adopted by the government and banks in 2019. Nevertheless, corruption remains widespread and laws are not effectively enforced. Public contracts are typically awarded in exchange for bribes or on the basis of patronage. Bribes are often necessary for ordinary government processes like obtaining licenses and permits.

The former Ould Abdel Aziz administration was suspected of corrupt behavior for several years. A 2017 report from Sherpa, a nongovernmental organization (NGO), documented multiple cases of corruption that had gone unpunished. In July 2020, a legislative inquiry publicized evidence of Ould Abdel Aziz–era corruption and embezzlement. Legislators founded a High Court of Justice to try presidents and ministers of “high treason” that month, after the former president refused to testify, and forwarded the inquiry’s findings to prosecutors in August. Ould Abdel Aziz was detained later that month and faced questioning for a week before he was released, and his passport was seized. The former president’s son in law, who was implicated in the inquiry, was also questioned by police in August. No charges were brought against either individual by year’s end.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 1.001 4.004

The government does not operate with transparency, particularly in granting mining and fishing licenses, land distribution, government contracts, and tax payments. The construction of a new airport in Nouakchott that opened in 2016 drew criticism—a company with no experience in airport construction won a contract to build the facility through an opaque procurement process.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 2.002 4.004

Mauritania has a vibrant media landscape, with several privately owned newspapers, television stations, and radio stations in operation. However, journalists who cover sensitive topics or scrutinize the political elite may face harassment and wiretapping. Criminal defamation laws remain on the books and are sometimes enforced against journalists. Most journalists practice a degree of self-censorship when covering issues such as the military, corruption, and slavery.

In January 2020, blogger Mohamed Ali Abdel Aziz was arrested for publishing a social media video criticizing President Ould Ghazouani; authorities claimed the video included insulting and racist language. Later that month, journalist Cheikh Ould Mami and video producer Abdou Ould Tajeddine were arrested in connection with the video’s publication. All three were released later that month.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 2.002 4.004

Mauritania is an Islamic republic. Non-Muslims cannot proselytize or become citizens, and those who convert from Islam to another religion lose their citizenship. In practice, however, non-Muslim communities are generally not targeted for persecution.

Apostasy is a crime punishable by death. To date, no one has been executed for the crime. However, in 2018, the parliament passed a law strengthening capital punishment for certain blasphemy offenses. The new law removes the possibility of repentance to avoid a death sentence for committing some forms of blasphemy. In June 2020, journalist Eby Ould Zeidane was accused of blasphemy after he called for Ramadan to be held on fixed dates. Ould Zeidane was released that month and repented in July.

In March 2020, authorities ordered the closure of mosques in response to COVID-19, though they were allowed to reopen in May. An imam accused of violating the closure order was arrested in Nouakchott in April, though he was released from detention while awaiting trial in May.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 3.003 4.004

Academic freedom is largely respected. However, in 2018, the government instituted a new rule prohibiting high school graduates aged 25 and above to register in public universities. The rule was suspended in late 2019, after police violently dispersed a protest against the policy.

The increasing use of Arabic as the language of instruction in universities has hindered access to education for Black Mauritanians, who mainly speak other languages. Student activists sometimes face pressure from university administrators, including threats of expulsion and intimidation.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 2.002 4.004

Individuals have faced reprisals for expressing views critical of the government on social media, including termination of employment from government agencies. In 2019, two bloggers were arrested and then imprisoned for over two months for sharing on Facebook information about a corruption scandal that implicated individuals close to then president Ould Abdel Aziz.

In 2018, the government adopted a new law that mandated severe penalties for discrimination and racism. In mid-April 2020, IRA Mauritania activist Mariem Cheikh was arrested and charged with making “racist comments through social media” for commenting on racial discrimination and slavery, but was released later that month.

In June 2020, the parliament approved legislation punishing the dissemination of purportedly false news, the creation of false identities online, and other offenses. Offenders could receive prison sentences as long as five years and fines ranging from 50,000 to 200,000 Ouguiya ($1,380 to $5,500).

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 1.001 4.004

While the constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, organizers are required to obtain consent from the government for large gatherings, which is often denied. While the government imposed COVID-19-related restrictions on assemblies in March 2020, protests did occur as the year progressed. In November, relatives of Mauritanians who died during the 1989–91 period of unrest called for the repeal of an amnesty law in Nouakchott and Bababe protests. Authorities arrested over 40 people, who were later released.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 1.001 4.004

NGOs, particularly antislavery organizations, frequently encounter intimidation, violence, and repression in carrying out their activities. Under the Law of Associations of 1964, associations required government approval to register, which could be denied for a variety of reasons. The cabinet sent a draft bill meant to replace this legislation to the parliament in September 2020; the bill would allow associations to automatically gain legal status after filing bylaws with the government, though the Interior Ministry would be allowed to temporarily suspend associations without notice. The bill remained under consideration as recently as November.

IRA Mauritania has repeatedly been denied permission to register as an NGO. In 2018, Abeid, its leader, spent five months in prison awaiting trial on charges of incitement to hatred and violence following a complaint by a journalist he allegedly threatened. He was released that December.

The Alliance for the Refoundation of the Mauritanian State, which opposes the country’s caste system, has also faced government scrutiny. Authorities arrested 14 people who attended its inaugural meeting on two occasions in February 2020. Five were kept in pretrial detention and were convicted of “violating the sanctity of God” in October; two received prison sentences shorter than their detention and were released, while the other three were released later that month. Another three received sentences and fines in absentia.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 2.002 4.004

Workers have the legal right to unionize, but unions require approval from the public prosecutor to operate and often confront hostility from employers. The right to collective bargaining is not always respected, and the government sometimes pressures union members to withdraw their membership. The right to strike is limited by notice requirements and other onerous regulations.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 1.001 4.004

Mauritania’s judiciary lacks independence. The president has the power to unilaterally appoint many key judges, including three of the six judges on the Constitutional Court and the chair of the Supreme Court. The courts are subject to political pressure from the executive branch. Instances of judges facing retaliatory measures for issuing rulings against the government have been reported.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1.001 4.004

Due process rights are often not respected in practice. Suspects are frequently arrested without being informed of the charges against them. Lengthy pretrial detentions are common. Arbitrary arrests of opposition politicians, journalists, and human rights activists occur with some frequency.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 1.001 4.004

Torture and abuse at Mauritania’s prisons and detention centers remain problematic, and perpetrators are rarely held accountable. Prisons are plagued by violence, are overcrowded, and lack basic sanitation. Food shortages are also common in prisons. Children are sometimes held with the adult prison population.

Police frequently beat suspects following arrest. In May 2020, three police officers were dismissed for assaulting a group they had arrested in Nouakchott, after one of them published a video of the incident online.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1.001 4.004

Same-sex sexual activity is illegal in Mauritania and punishable by death for men. LGBT+ individuals generally hide their sexual orientation or gender identity due to severe discrimination. Racial and ethnic discrimination remains a serious problem. In January 2020, eight men attending a birthday celebration in a Nouakchott restaurant were arrested for “imitating women,” along with a woman, who received a suspended sentence, and the restaurant’s owner. The owner was acquitted, but the eight other defendants received two-year sentences for charges including indecency in February, after police had described them as “sodomizers” to the court. In early March, an appeals court upheld their convictions but suspended the sentences of seven men and reduced the sentence of the eighth.

Sharia law as it is applied in Mauritania discriminates against women. The testimony of two women is equal to that of one man. Female victims of crime are entitled to only half the financial compensation that male victims receive. In the past few years, the parliament has twice rejected a bill that aimed to sanction gender-based violence (GBV).

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 1.001 4.004

While the Bidhan population is relatively free to make personal decisions about residence, employment, and education, the choices of Black Mauritanians and the Haratin are often constrained by racial and caste-based discrimination. People lacking government identity cards are not allowed to travel in some regions, which disproportionately affects Black Mauritanians.

COVID-19-related restrictions on movement were imposed in March 2020, when the government introduced an overnight curfew. Interregional travel was restricted in May. Another curfew was introduced in December, after an increase in cases.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2.002 4.004

Though the law guarantees property rights, these rights are not always enforced in practice, as it can be difficult to get property disputes fairly adjudicated in court. Complex laws and an opaque bureaucracy present challenges to starting a business.

Many Black Mauritanians who left their homes in the Senegal River Valley in the wake of the 1989 conflict have returned, but have been unable to regain ownership of their land. Local authorities reportedly allow the Bidhan to appropriate land used by the Haratin and Black Mauritanians.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 1.001 4.004

Many girls are married before the age of 18. In 2017, the government sent the parliament a bill that would ban marriage for girls under 18. The bill failed in the National Assembly, largely due to pressure from religious leaders.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is illegal, but the law is rarely enforced and the practice remains common. Domestic violence and rape remain problems, victims rarely seek legal redress, and convictions for these crimes are rare. Laws banning adultery and morality offenses discourage sexual-assault survivors from reporting incidents to police.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 0.000 4.004

Despite amendments to the antislavery law passed in 2015 meant to address the problem more robustly, slavery and slavery-like practices continued in 2020, with many former slaves still reliant on their former owners due to racial discrimination, poverty, and other socioeconomic factors. The government cracks down on NGOs that push for greater enforcement of the law and rarely prosecutes perpetrators, but has shown an increased commitment to enforcing antislavery laws. In July 2020, two slave owners received 10– and 15-year sentences, while a third received a suspended sentence. The court also ordered the government to ensure the legal status of the former slaves and their relatives.

On Mauritania

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  • Global Freedom Score

    35 100 partly free