The Islamic Republic of Mauritania was proclaimed in November 1958, and shortly thereafter France began transferring Mauritania's administrative services from Saint-Louis, Sénégal to the newly created capital, Nouakchott. Two years later, Mauritania became an independent state. In June 1961, it signed agreements with France defining post-independence relations with the former colonist. Mauritania officially withdrew from the French Community in 1966.
From independence until 1978, Mauritania was governed by a civilian regime dominated by Moktar Ould Daddah, a white Moor lawyer from the Boutilimit region, who became the country's first and only civilian president. Ould Daddah emphasized Mauritania's Arab heritage and moved the country toward a nonaligned stance in international affairs. He created a single-party regime in which the official Mauritanian People's Party coopted or suppressed all open political opposition. In 1973, foreign interests (primarily French) in Mauritania's iron ore mining industry were nationalized, and Mauritania withdrew from the West African franc zone. Ould Daddah fell from power when his agreement to involve Mauritania in the partition of the former Spanish Sahara led to military defeat in the conflict.
The bloodless coup, which ended the Ould Daddah regime in July 1978, ushered in a succession of military governments. Mauritania's constitution was suspended, and the National Assembly and the Mauritanian People's Party were dissolved. After several "palace coups" in 1979, the Military Committee for National Salvation (CMSN) was established, and Lt. Col. Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla emerged as the leading military figure and chief of state. As drought and economic problems mounted in the early 1980s, the CMSN became increasingly ineffectual, repressive, and corrupt. Haidalla's policy of friendship with the Polisario guerrillas, culminating in official Mauritanian recognition of the Saharan Democratic Arab Republic in early 1984, also elicited strong opposition.
On December 12, 1984, Chief of Staff, Lt. Col. Maaouiya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya, led a bloodless coup that ousted Haidalla. Most members of the CMSN remained in government, although many were given different responsibilities or sent into exile. Over the next several years, tensions eased and amnesties were granted to many members of the previous military government. Still, organized opposition to the government was kept to a minimum and political parties were banned. In 1988, an upsurge in activity by the pro-Iraqi Ba'ath movement provoked a suppression of political expression.
In 1988, Amnesty International published a report that commented on the mistreatment of a number of prisoners in Mauritania, mainly those who were black Africans. Mauritania's black community had long complained of racial discrimination. These protests came to a head in early 1989, when riots in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou brought violent attacks on the Senegalese community, provoking closure of the frontier and mass deportations of "Mauritanians of Senegalese origin" in retaliation for the expulsion of Berbers living in Sénégal. This issue has yet to be fully resolved as tens of thousands of black Africans remain displaced to this day. The late 1980s were marked by prolonged government instability in general. Six major cabinet reshuffles in less than three years brought changes to every single ministerial office.
In June 1991, President Ould Taya proposed a new constitution, which was approved by referendum a month later. Political parties were legalized once again and the first presidential and legislative elections were held in early 1992. The president's party (PRDS) won large majorities in both houses due to a boycott by opposition parties, who were claiming fraud. Elections in 1994 solidified the PRDS' hold on power.
Mauritania is an independent Islamic republic with executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Much of the current political structure dates from 1991, when the constitution was approved after being suspended in 1978 and political parties werelegalized. The constitution provides for the president to be elected by universal suffrage for a six-year term. Legislative power is vested in a bicameral legislature, with a 79-member National Assembly (lower house) being directly elected and a 56-member Senate being indirectly elected. The ruling party (PRDS), controls the presidency and holds a majority in both houses. Most opposition parties have boycotted the two presidential elections held since the reinstatement of a constitution.
The transitional to a constitutional democracy has not been easy for Mauritania (as evidenced by repeated election boycotts and occasional politically motivated demonstrations). Tensions do occasionally flare up. Peace Corps/Mauritania works very closely with the American Embassy in Nouakchott to keep apprised of these situations and communicates changes to the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington.
Sparsely populated and with most of its land covered by the Sahara desert, Mauritania is one of the least developed countries in the world. Below the endless sands lies the country’s main natural resource, iron. Currently, the extraction of iron ore generates almost all export revenues, 30 percent of GDP and about 10 percent of employment. Besides the mining industry, only the fishing industry has any real presence in the Mauritanian commercial economy. With such a narrow economic base, the economy remains extremely vulnerable to external shocks, including climatic changes and fluctuations in world prices for its principal exports.
During the mid-1980s and throughout the 1990s, Mauritania has implemented a series of economic reform programs seeking to diversify the economy. While the early programs focused on improving the national infrastructure, later programs have concentrated on the development of the economic institutions. In terms of GDP growth, these programs had been successful, with the economy growing by an average of almost five percent per annum since 1992. On the other hand, rapid population growth and government mismanagement have obstructed the improvement of the standard of living among the Mauritanian people. At the close of the century, agriculture, mainly subsistence farming and herding, remains the main source of livelihood for the population.
People and Culture
The two things that Mauritanian culture is most renowned for, hospitality and Islam, are apparent to the visitor almost immediately upon arrival.
Most first-time visitors to Mauritania are amazed at the level of friendliness and openness that most Mauritanians exhibit. Greetings (even between strangers) are prolonged and a means for expressing respect for the person being greeted. You will also find that conversations with strangers on the street often lead to repeated offers to come to their house, meet their families, and share a meal and tea. Regardless of age, wealth, or ethnicity, Mauritanians value hospitality and manifest it most often through tea. Through an enchanting process, guests in a Mauritanian household are served three small glasses of strong green tea. The tea is minty, and the first glass is quite bitter. Subsequent glasses get progressively sweeter.
Mauritania is 100% Muslim, and as a result, Islam has a profound effect on the society as a whole, as well as on the lives of individual citizens. Tenets of the religion are woven into the educational system, and much of the legal system is based on the sharia (Koranic law). In more everyday life, visitors quickly become accustomed to prayer calls echoing throughout a city or village five times a day (although the one at 4 AM can be a little difficult!). You will probably also be amazed at how much speech and language are influenced by religion. Many common interjections and exclamations are religious in nature.
Mauritania is situated on the Atlantic Ocean in northwest Africa. It is bounded on the northeast by Algeria, on the east by Mali, and on the south by Senegal. Mauritania also shares a long border with the former Spanish Sahara, control of which is contested by Morocco and an insurgent movement, the Polisario, supported principally by Algeria. Mauritania's climate is hot and arid except in the far south, which has higher humidity. In Nouakchott, daytime temperatures reach 85 °F in the winter, although sweaters and blankets are needed at night. Summer temperatures regularly reach over 100 °F during the day. Sandstorms can strike anywhere at any time and last from a few hours to several days.
Climatic conditions continue to dramatically change the character of Mauritania. The recurring drought couple with population growth, threatens the remaining oases and serves to push the once nomadic herders into the ever more crowded shanty towns of Mauritania's largest cities. Thus the population has shifted from being 70% nomadic herdsmen to 70% sedentary farmers in less than two decades. The increased demand for limited resources far outstrips Mauritania's regeneration capacity and has caused increasingly marginal land for intensive cultivation in the southern zones. Traditionally, Mauritania is divided into four zones/regions: the Saharan, Coastal, Sahelian, and Senegal River Valley Zones.
The far north, once the domain of the nomadic herdsmen, is now often referred to as the "empty lands." This vast, sparsely populated region is characterized by beautiful shifting sand dunes, rock outcroppings, and rugged mountain plateaus with elevations higher than 1,500 feet. Irregular, scant rainfall permits little vegetation, although date palms are cultivated around larger oases. To the southwest of the "empty lands," is the mining industry (iron) and the country's only railroad, a 400 mile track from the iron mining operation at F'Derik to the industrial port at Nouadhibou.
The Coastal Zone extends the length of the 400-plus mile long Atlantic coast. This zone starts near the center of the country, at Nouadhibou, which boasts the largest natural harbors on the West Coast of Africa, and stretches south to the marshy areas around the mouth of the Senegal River. Here, the ocean breezes provide periodic relief from the heat, although desert winds may bring flies and sandstorms with consequent discomfort and annoyance.
Resource List for Further Information
We offer a list of Web sites for you to search for additional information about the Peace Corps and your country of service, or connect you to returned Volunteers and other invitees. It is difficult to track information as it is moved around on the Web, so please keep in mind as you conduct your search that we try to make sure all these links are active and current, but we cannot guarantee it. If you do not have access to the Internet, visit your local library. Libraries offer free Internet usage and often let you print information to take home.
A Note of Caution: As you surf these sites, please also remember that you will find bulletin boards and chat rooms in which people are free to give opinions and advice based on their own experiences. The opinions expressed are not those of the Peace Corps or the United States government. You may also find opinions of people who were unhappy with their choice to serve in the Peace Corps. As you read these comments, we hope you will keep in mind that the Peace Corps is not for everyone, and no two people experience their service in the same way.
General Information About the Countries:
On this site, you can learn anything from what time it is in Tashkent to information about converting currency from the dollar to the ruble. Just click on your country of service and go from there.
Visit this site to learn all you need to know about any country in the world.
This site is part of the State Department, which issues background notes periodically about countries around the world. Find your country of service and learn more about the social and political history.
This site includes links to all the official sites for governmnets of countries around the world.
This online World Atlas includes maps and geographical information about countries around the world. Each country page contains links to other sites, such as the Library of Congress, that contain comprehensive historical, social, and political backgrounds.
This United Nations site allows you to search for statistical information for member states of the UN.
This site provides an additional sources of current and historical information about 225 countries worldwide.
Connect With Returned Volunteers and Other Invitees
This Yahoo site hosts a bulletin board where prospective Volunteers and returned Volunteers can come together.
This is the site of the National Peace Corps Association, made up of returned Volunteers. On this site you can find links to all the Web pages of the "friends of" groups of most countries of service, made up of former Volunteers who served in those countries. There are also regional groups who frequently get together for social events and local volunteer activities. Or skip straight to the Friends of Mauritania (FORIM ) site:
This site is known as Peace Corps Crossroads. It says it's a comprehensive guide to Peace Corps-related sites on the Web. It is maintained by Jonathan Muehl, a former Volunteer who served in Togo from 1976-78.
This site is known as the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Web Ring. It is maintained by a former Volunteer who served in Kenya. Browse the Ring Hub and see what former Volunteers are saying about their service.
This site is hosted by the father of a Volunteer in Russia. Although most of the information on the site is about the Peace Corps in Russia, his goal is to make this the invitee/Volunteer meeting place.
This site is hosted by a group of returned Volunteer writers. It is a monthly online publication of essays and Volunteer accounts from countries around the world.
Online Articles/Current News About Mauritania
Aid Organizational Sites About Mauritania:
Riding the Demon: On the Road in West Africa. Peter Chilson. Athens, OH: University of Ohio, 1999.
- Lonely Planet Guide: West Africa. David Else. Oakland, CA: Lonely Planet Publications, June 1999.
- The Western Saharans. Virginia McLean. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1980.
- Mauritania in Photographs. Joseph Murphy. Minneapolis, MN: Crossgar Press, 1999.
- Historical Dictionary of Mauritania, 2nd ed. (Series: African Historical Dictionaries) Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1996.