Mauritania | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2008

2008 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Mauritania’s political rights rating improved from 5 to 4 due to the election of President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdellahi in March 2007, which was deemed free and fair by observers.

Mauritania’s two-year, military-led transition from authoritarian rule culminated in March 2007 with the victory of Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdellahi as the country’s first democratically elected president, in polls that were judged to be free and fair by observers. In July 2007, Abdellahi invited tens of thousands of Mauritanians expelled to Senegal and Mali nearly 20 years earlier to return, and at year’s end, the government was finalizing plans for their repatriation expected to begin in early 2008. Although media freedoms have improved since 2005, independent journalists continued to face threats of detention, imprisonment, and physical harm for content that was considered libelous, and private broadcasting remained forbidden. Tens of thousands of black Mauritanians remained effectively enslaved, and while legislation was passed in August 2007 to criminalize slavery, it had yet to be tested in practice.

Following independence from France in 1960, Mauritania was ruled by a series of civilian and military authoritarian regimes. In 1984, Colonel Maaouya Ould Sidi Ahmed Taya ousted President Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidallah. Although Taya introduced a multiparty system in 1991, the absence of an independent electoral commission and the abuse of state resources devalued his presidential electoral victories in 1992 and 1997. The main opposition parties boycotted the 1996 legislative and 1997 presidential elections.

In 2001 legislative elections, Taya’s Democratic and Social Republican Party (PRDS) was the only party to field candidates for all of the National Assembly’s 81 seats, and the electoral law was modified to ban independent candidates. The PRDS won 64 seats, while opposition parties won 17.

A failed coup attempt triggered two days of fighting in the capital in June 2003. Although a number of electoral reforms were implemented prior to the November 2003 presidential election, media coverage favored Taya, civil society groups were barred from monitoring the polls, and most foreign observers declined to participate after the main challenger, former president Haidallah, was briefly detained on the eve of the vote. Taya was declared the winner with 67 percent of the ballots.

In September 2004, the government accused Burkina Faso and Libya of backing disgruntled soldiers in another foiled coup attempt. Three opposition leaders, including Haidallah, were detained in November and put on trial for coup plots, along with 170 military personnel. Although Haidallah and most of the others were acquitted in February 2005, four soldiers received life sentences.

Military officers led by Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall overthrew Taya’s government in August 2005. Although the international community initially condemned the ouster, domestic support for the coup was strong. Soon after taking power, the Military Council for Justice and Democracy (CMJD) pardoned and released approximately 100 political prisoners, including a number of Islamists, while dozens of political activists returned from exile. In October 2005, the CMJD set out a timeline for holding elections and established an Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to administer the process. It also convened a five-day public debate with representatives from political parties and civil society groups to discuss the transition. Voters in June 2006 approved a constitutional amendment that limited presidents to two five-year terms in office. Legislative and municipal elections were held in November and December 2006, with independent candidates—mostly former Taya supporters and PRDS members—securing a majority of the seats.

Senate elections were held in January and February 2007, and independents again secured a majority. Campaigning for three Senate seats reserved to represent Mauritanians living abroad took place in May, and the posts were filled in June. Nineteen candidates contested the first round of the presidential election on March 11, which led to a March 25 runoff between Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdellahi, running as an independent, and Ahmed Ould Daddah, the candidate of the main opposition party, the Rally of Democratic Forces (RFD). Abdellahi secured the presidency with slightly over 52 percent of the final vote.

In July, Abdellahi announced his intention to allow the return of black Mauritanians who had been expelled to Senegal and Mali following a 1989 border dispute that led to widespread ethnic violence and the killing of many black Mauritanians. Around 65,000 black Mauritanians had been expelled, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated in late 2007 that approximately 24,000 were still living in Senegal and 6,000 were living in Mali. The governments of Mauritania and Senegal signed a repatriation agreement in November 2007, and in December, the government established an office to coordinate the repatriation of refugees expected to begin in early 2008. However, no mechanism providing reparations for state violence or compensation for expropriated property was established.

Mauritania is one of the world’s poorest countries, and approximately three-quarters of the population depend on subsistence agriculture and livestock production. Flooding that began in late August 2007 displaced thousands of people and left some 500,000 at risk of food shortages. Mauritania is a source and transit point for economic migrants seeking access to Europe. In 2006, the government signed an agreement with Spain to improve border controls, leading to a drop in the number of migrants reaching Spain’s Canary Islands in 2007.

Also in 2007, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council and the Francophonie Parliament, in April and July respectively, lifted suspensions that had been imposed on Mauritania following the 2005 coup.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Mauritania is an electoral democracy. The presidential election in March 2007 was assessed as largely free and fair by independent observers. Elections during the 2005–07 transitional period in general were significantly more open than any held since independence, though there were problems including a lack of mechanisms regulating campaign spending. The 2007 Senate elections were compromised by vote buying and prone to manipulation because of the relatively small pool of electors. Although voting was generally peaceful, two soldiers guarding a polling station in the southwestern town of Kaedi were killed by unidentified gunmen in March 2007.

Under the 1991 constitution, the president is responsible for appointing and dismissing the prime minister and cabinet. In addition to imposing a limit of two five-year terms, the 2006 constitutional referendum banned the president from leading a political party. However, the government and opposition in August 2007 began discussions on the creation of a political movement backing the president.

Members of the 95-seat National Assembly, the lower house of the bicameral legislature, are elected by popular vote to five-year terms in single-member districts using a two-round runoff system. Fifty-three members of the Senate, the upper house, are elected by mayors and municipal council members, and three are chosen by other senators to represent Mauritanians living abroad. All senators serve six-year terms, with one-third elected every two years.

Approximately 25 parties competed in the 2006 legislative and municipal elections, and 19 parties competed in the 2007 presidential election. However, Mauritania lacks a developed party system. Independents won over 40 percent of the National Assembly seats, and debate among parties and candidates in the presidential election was weak. Islamist parties remain banned.

The transitional government took a number of steps to reduce corruption, including the creation of an inspector general’s office in 2005. Measures were also introduced to develop a transparent framework for managing oil revenues, which is critical given the start of oil production in February 2006. Mauritania joined the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) in 2005. President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdellahi’s government has been publicly committed to improving transparency, and in May 2007, it announced that the president, the prime minister, and cabinet members would be required to declare their assets. Mauritania was ranked 123 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The transitional government relaxed many of the former regime’s censorship rules, although several restrictive laws remain in place. Journalists continue to practice self-censorship, and newspapers are subject to closure for publishing material seen to undermine Islam or threaten national security. There are no private radio or television stations licensed in the country, which is especially notable given the literacy rate of only about 50 percent and shallow newspaper penetration. Media coverage of the 2007 presidential election was relatively balanced, with free newspaper space and airtime allotted to each candidate. However, journalists still face the threat of detention, imprisonment, and physical harm for content considered insulting to the government or libelous. In March, supporters of presidential candidates eliminated in the first round of the election threatened to kill staff in the local office of Qatar-based television station Al-Jazeera. The board chairman of the credit union Mutpeche in April threatened the editor of the independent weekly Tahalil Hebdo with physical harm following the newspaper’s accusations of corruption. In May, the editor of the daily Al-Aqsa, Abdel Fettah Ould Abeidna, spent four days in prison following charges of defamation by a businessman he had accused of drug trafficking. Abeidna was sentenced in November to a year in prison, although he is appealing the conviction from outside the country. In August, a journalist with the state-owned Radio Mauritanie was assaulted by two of the prime minister’s bodyguards, who were each later jailed for 30 days. A correspondent with the private daily Nouakchott Info was assaulted by two bodyguards working for the president’s wife, who also accused the editor of the private daily El Bedil Athalith of libel. The government does not restrict internet access.

Mauritania is an Islamic republic, and distributing non-Islamic religious material and proselytizing Muslims is prohibited. However, in practice, non-Muslim communities observe their faiths without fear of social ostracism and are not targeted by the government. Muslim extremists are monitored by the government. In June 2007, more than 20 suspected Islamic radicals, many of whom had been imprisoned since 2005, were acquitted after a court dismissed confessions it said had been extracted by torture. In October, three suspected militants with alleged ties to al-Qaeda were imprisoned. Academic freedom is not restricted.

The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, and conditions have improved since the transition. Although laws require groups to gain permission from local authorities to hold demonstrations, authorization was generally obtained. In October and November 2007, police used force to break up several unsanctioned rallies in protest of rising food prices, leaving one person dead and over a dozen injured. Laws also guarantee freedom of association, although organizations formed on a racial or religious basis are still banned, and political parties are required to register with the Interior Ministry. Nevertheless, the government allowed an Islamist party to register during 2007.

Workers have the constitutional right to unionize and bargain for wages, and all except members of the military, police, and judiciary are free to do so in practice. Although only about one-quarter of Mauritanians are formally employed, the vast majority in the industrial and commercial sectors are unionized. The right to strike is limited by arbitration requirements.

The judicial system is heavily influenced by the government. Many decisions are shaped by Sharia (Islamic law), especially in family and civil matters. Prison conditions are harsh, and security forces suspected of human rights abuses operate with impunity. There are reports that prisoners, particularly terrorism suspects, are subject to torture by authorities.

Mauritania’s citizens are divided into three main ethnic groups: the politically dominant, light-skinned Maurs of Arab and Berber descent; black descendents of slaves, also known as Haratines or black Maurs; and black Africans closer in cultural and linguistic heritage to the peoples of neighboring Senegal and Mali. Slavery has existed in Mauritania for centuries; despite the passage in 1981 of a law banning the practice, as many as half a million black Mauritanians are believed to live in conditions of servitude. In August 2007, both legislative houses passed a law making slavery a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The legislation was welcomed by human rights advocates, although some groups like Anti-Slavery International argued that its scope was too narrow in not covering practices such as forced marriage or indentured labor. Racial and ethnic discrimination persists in all spheres of political and economic life, generally to the disadvantage of Haratines and black Africans. Much of the country’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of the Maur elite, who control iron-ore exports and fishing.

Under rules established during the transitional period, parties are required to submit National Assembly candidate lists that include a certain number of women depending on the size of each district. At the municipal level, women are guaranteed 20 percent of all seats. In the most recent elections, women won 17 seats in the National Assembly and 30 percent of all municipal council seats. However, discrimination against women persists. Under Sharia, a woman’s testimony is given only half the weight of a man’s. Legal protections regarding property and pay equity are usually respected only in urban areas, among the educated elite. It is estimated that three-quarters of women have been subject to female genital mutilation, and although the government has initiated an awareness campaign against the procedure, it remains legal. Abortion is prohibited in all circumstances.

Mauritania is a source and destination country for children trafficked for forced labor and sex. Although a 2003 law prohibits trafficking, the government lacks resources to restrict the trade and has been slow to prosecute suspected traffickers.