Mauritania officially the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, is an Arab Maghreb country in West Africa. It is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean in the west, by Western Sahara (controlled by Morocco) in the north, by Algeria in the northeast, by Mali in the east and southeast, and by Senegal in the southwest.
Two years before gaining full independence from France, Mauritania's Constituent Assembly, a body completely dominated by Mokhtar Ould Daddah's Parti de Regroupement Mauritanien (PRM), met to draft a constitution for the embryonic state. However, the politicians who made up the assembly (all but one of whom were PRM loyalists) were not qualified for this task, so the Constituent Assembly did little but discuss and approve, by a unanimous vote held by 22 March 1959, a draft constitution that was the work of French colonial advisors and legal experts as well as some of Ould Daddah's aides.
Mauritania, physically among the largest countries in Africa, covers mainly arid land. Recurrent droughts have contributed to the transformation of a largely nomadic society to a sedentary one over the span of a single generation. Close to half of the estimated 2.2 million inhabitants now live in urban areas. Population growth is estimated at 2.7 percent and has outstripped GDP growth over the past decade, exerting pressure on a fragile environment. An underdeveloped road network and inadequate infrastructure hamper economic growth.
Mauritania is a country where life is ordered by the Sahara and where the camel is the most dependable form of transportation. Although it is one of the least-known countries in the world, it has a rich history. More than 1,000 years ago, Islamic civilization reached Mauritania and played a major role in its development. The country was ruled by France until independence in 1960, and the French influence can still be felt in many areas of life there today.
In 1946, a Mauritanian Territorial Assembly was established, with some control over internal affairs. During the next 12 years, political power increasingly passed to local political leaders. Mauritania voted for the constitution of the Fifth French Republic at the referendum of 28 September 1958. It thus became a self-governing member of the French Community, and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania was proclaimed in November 1958. Complete independence was attained on 28 November 1960.
Mauritania is a presidential republic. The government bureaucracy is composed of ministries, special agencies, and parastatal companies. The Ministry of Interior controls a system of regional governors and prefects modeled on the French system of local administration. Under this system, Mauritania is divided into 13 regions (wilaya), including the capital district, Nouakchott. Control is tightly concentrated in the executive branch of the central government, but a series of national and municipal elections since 1992 have produced some decentralization, and efforts to decentralize the government continue.
The issue of Western Sahara (Spanish Sahara) finally toppled the government. In 1975 the very sandy Spanish Sahara (a Spanish colony) was divided between Morocco and Mauritania. But the Polisario Front launched a guerrilla war to oust both beneficiaries from the area. Mauritania was incapable, militarily and economically, of fighting such a war. A bloodless coup took place in Mauritania in 1978, bringing in a new military government that renounced all territorial claims to the Western Sahara. A series of coups ensued. Finally, Colonel Maaouya Sid’ Ahmed Ould Taya came to power in 1984. For black Africans, this was even worse than under Ould Daddah. Ethnic tensions culminated in bloody riots between the Moors and black Africans in 1989. More than 70, 000 black Africans were expelled to Senegal, a country most had never known.
European colonization came relatively late to Mauritania, which at its independence from France in 1960 was still administered from St. Louis, Senegal. Today’s capital, Nouakchott, was a small outpost midway between that city and Port Etienne, now called Nouadhibou, Mauritania’s commercial capital. At independence, much of the country’s population followed a nomadic lifestyle or worked in agriculture in remote areas mostly untouched by colonial administration. Traditional slavery was formally abolished in 1980. As a result of centuries of this practice, Mauritanian society is characterized by former slave-owning groups of Arab-Berber origin, known as White Moors, and the Black Moor descendants of their liberated slaves who generally lived in the northern and eastern regions. Black African communities, also marked by slavery, traditionally resided in the southern part of the country near the Senegal River.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive, attracted in the 15th century by the trade in gold and slaves; later, the gum arabic trade became important. Competition for control was keen among Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English traders. The issue was resolved in 1815 when Senegal was awarded to France.
Mauritania was first inhabited by blacks and Berbers, and it was a center for the Berber Almoravid movement in the 11th century, which sought to spread Islam through western Africa. It was first explored by the Portuguese in the 15th century, but by the 19th century the French had gained control. France organized the area into a territory in 1904, and in 1920 it became one of the colonies that constituted French West Africa. In 1946, it was named a French overseas territory.
Mauritania, three times the size of Arizona, is situated in northwest Africa with about 350 mi (592 km) of coastline on the Atlantic Ocean. It is bordered by Morocco on the north, Algeria and Mali on the east, and Senegal on the south. The country is mostly desert, with the exception of the fertile Senegal River valley in the south and grazing land in the north.