Mauritania

Partly Free
35
100
PR Political Rights 14 40
CL Civil Liberties 21 60
Last Year's Score & Status
35 100 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 and won a second term in a deeply flawed 2014 election, stepped down peacefully after 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 2021

  • In January, police in Nouadhibo arrested journalist Salem Kerboub and two others who helped Kerboub gather information for his reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic. Kerkoub had posted on Facebook denouncing fraud in the government's management of COVID-19 funds.
  • In March, former president Ould Abdel Aziz was charged with corruption, money laundering, and misappropriation of public funds. He had been under house arrest since August 2020 and was taken into custody in June 2021 for noncompliance with his house arrest requirements and for disturbing the public order.

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 Ould Abdel Aziz, whose second term came to an end. Ould Ghazouani, of the ruling Union for the Republic (UPR), 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 a corruption case.

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 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, he was arrested allegedly without a warrant and held in pretrial detention during the elections as authorities investigated claims that he had threatened a journalist, which IRA Mauritania denied. Abeid was released later that year after receiving a sentence shorter than time served.

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 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 Progressive Forces for Change and the Radical Party for a Global Action, which oppose racial discrimination and slavery. The Progressive Forces for Change’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 has improved since President Ould Ghazouani came to power. Ould Ghazouani has met with opposition leaders and civil society activists, and in February 2020, the government quashed legal proceedings against three prominent critics of former president Ould Abdel Aziz. One of the critics who had not resided in Mauritania since 2011, Ould Limam Chafi, returned in October 2020.

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. Some 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.

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. Opposition leaders may face repression for criticizing government policies.

 

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. Though in recent years the overt influence of the military in politics has receded somewhat, the influence of religious leaders has grown stronger.

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 groups 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. Civil society activists have denounced the increasing importance of tribal affiliation in government appointments.

Women participate in politics at lower levels than men, largely due to cultural norms, and women’s interests are poorly represented in national politics in practice. Women hold 31 of the 157 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

Despite numerous anticorruption laws and anti-money-laundering and anti-terror-financing measures, 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 Ould Ghazouani government has ostensibly prioritized combating corruption. In December 2021, the government increased the number of state auditors. However, critics claim the government at times uses anticorruption efforts to target political opponents.

In March 2021, former president Ould Abdel Aziz was charged with corruption, money laundering, and misappropriation of public funds. He had been under house arrest since August 2020 and was taken into custody in June 2021 for noncompliance with his house arrest requirements and for disturbing the public order. Fourteen other high-profile members of Ould Abdel Aziz’s government are under investigation. In May, several civil society organizations created an anticorruption alliance to help the government recover funds stolen during Ould Abdel Aziz’s tenure.

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, wiretapping, and occasional arrest. Several repressive laws remain on the books, including those criminalizing defamation, the dissemination of “false” information, cybercrime, and blasphemy.

Authorities routinely arrest journalists for critical content they publish. Among other cases during 2021, in January, police in Nouadhibo arrested journalist Salem Kerkoub and two others who helped Kerboub gather information. Kerkoub had posted on Facebook denouncing fraud in the management of COVID-19 funds.

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 not generally targeted with persecution.

Though no one has been executed for apostasy, it is punishable by death. In 2018, the parliament passed a law strengthening capital punishment for certain blasphemy offenses and removing the possibility of repentance to avoid a death sentence. In June 2020, journalist Eby Ould Zeidane was accused of blasphemy after he called for Ramadan to be held on fixed dates. He was released and officially repented the next month.

In July 2021, the government and the religious authorities decided to cancel the Eid al-Kebir prayer, a collective prayer held during a Muslim annual holiday, amidst a surge of COVID-19 cases. In March 2020, authorities ordered the closure of mosques in response to COVID-19, though they were allowed to reopen that May. An imam accused of violating the closure order was arrested in Nouakchott in April 2020, though he was released from detention while awaiting trial the next month.

 

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

In November 2021, the parliament passed a law aiming to protect national symbols. The law criminalizes acts associated with the violation of the principles and sanctity of the Islamic religion and the prestige of the State and its symbols, as well as the honor of citizens. The law punishes such acts whether they are committed using media, social media, or other digital communication technology. The opposition criticized the law, arguing that it may serve to further restrict free speech. Individuals have faced reprisals for expressing views critical of the government on social media, including termination of employment from government agencies.

In June 2020, the parliament approved legislation punishing the dissemination of purportedly false news, the creation of false identities online, and other offenses. Offenders can receive prison sentences of up to five years and fines ranging from 50,000 to 200,000 Ouguiya ($1,400 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 2021, the government reintroduced some public gathering restrictions during two separate rises in coronavirus cases but lifted those measures as case numbers subsided.

In 2021, residents of several villages in southern Mauritania, including Ferallah and Ngawlé, in the Brakna and Trarza regions, respectively, protested against what they view as an unlawful expropriation of their land by the government and other powerful investors. Police harshly repressed participants of a November protest by Ngawlé villagers, arresting nine people.

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

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), particularly antislavery organizations, frequently encounter intimidation, violence, and repression in carrying out their activities. In January 2021, the parliament passed a new law to replace the Law of Associations of 1964, considerably easing the process to create and register an organization by allowing associations to automatically gain legal status after filing their bylaws with the government. However, the Interior Ministry would be allowed to temporarily suspend associations without notice. In December 2021, the government announced the creation of an online platform for registering associations.

In December 2021, Biram Dah Abeid, the leader of the antislavery movement IRA Mauritania, announced that authorities had officially recognized the movement as a human rights organization. Since its creation in 2008, IRA Mauritania had repeatedly been denied permission to register as an NGO.

The Alliance for the Refoundation of the Mauritanian State, which opposes the country’s caste system, has faced government scrutiny. Authorities arrested 14 people who attended its inaugural meetings on two occasions in February 2020. Five were kept in pretrial detention and convicted of “violating the sanctity of God” that 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.

In May 2021, the police broke into former president Ould Abdel Aziz’s residence in search of evidence of embezzlement. Although they reportedly had a search warrant issued by a judge, the search occurred illegally, while neither Ould Abdel Aziz nor his lawyer was present.

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. Children are sometimes held with the adult prison population.

In December 2021, several people who had been arrested in Rosso went on a hunger strike to denounce prison overcrowding and inadequate food. Police frequently beat suspects following their 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 persecution. 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 2020, after police had described them as “sodomizers” to the court. In early March of that year, an appeals court upheld their convictions but suspended the sentences of seven men and reduced the sentence of the eighth. Racial and ethnic discrimination remains a serious problem.

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.

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 without government identity cards are not allowed to travel in some regions, which disproportionately affects Black Mauritanians.

COVID-19-related restrictions on movement were imposed periodically from March 2020 through 2021 during spikes in the number of coronavirus 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. Residents of villages in southern Mauritania, including Ferallah and Ngawlé, in the Brakna and Trarza regions, respectively, have pushed back against what they see as unlawful expropriation of their land by the government and other powerful investors.

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. 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. Parliament has rejected a bill sanctioning gender-based violence (GBV).

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

Despite 2015 amendments to the antislavery law, slavery and slavery-like practices remain a challenge, 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. However, 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.

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  • Global Freedom Score

    35 100 partly free