Mauritania in the 1990’s
The Mauritania has a total area of 1,030,700 km 2 ; from an administrative point of view, the country is divided into twelve regions and the district of Nouakchott, the state capital, whose population is around 400,000 residents. The total population amounts to 2,114,000 residents (1992 estimate) and corresponds to a very modest density (equal to about 2 residents / km 2), strongly conditioned as it is by the physical environment, which in the north-central belt is mainly constituted by the southwestern offshoots of the Sahara desert region. The best settlement conditions are recorded in the coastal and southern sections, where the aridity of the climate is mitigated by the presence of the Senegal River, the country’s only water resource. The desertification process, aggravated by the recurring droughts that have occurred over the last thirty years, has repercussions on economic activities in which significant production contractions are recorded, especially in the agricultural and pastoral sector. The country’s economy is still heavily backward and dependent on the primary sector; 1991 World Bank estimates attributed the country to a per capita income about 500 US dollars.
Nomadism, which affects almost 25% of the residents and which is practiced above all in the northern areas by the Mauritanian populations (which represent 81% of the ethnic groups present in the country), is matched by farming, one of the historical cornerstones of Mauritanian economy. Cattle amount to 1,263,000 heads (1990), sheep and goats exceed 7.5 million, followed by birds (4 million), camels (820,000), horses and donkeys (169,000). In 1990 the sector housed just under two thirds of the active population and contributed about 25-26% to the formation of the GDP.
According to indexdotcom, the sedentary population of black origin (the Tacruri – in French, Toucouleurs – prevail over Peul, Wolof and Sarakole) is dedicated to the actual agricultural activity, to which just 0.2% of the national surface is destined. Typical products (millet, corn, dates, potatoes, rice) are not able to meet internal needs: therefore the flow of food imports is high. The most likely to develop is deep-sea fishing (92,612 t in 1989): the fish potential of the continental shelf (estimated at 520,000 t per year) has prompted the Mauritanian government to fully use the 200-mile limit of the “ economic zone ” exclusive ” from the baseline. Overall, primary activity employed 64% of the active population in 1990 and contributed 26% to the formation of the gross domestic product.
The contribution of the extractive industry to the national economy is different (which estimates from the end of the Eighties estimated at about one tenth of the GDP): built on the rock salt deposits, it is today centered on the iron ones of the F’Dérik region, of Zouèrate and Guelbs. Production amounts to 6.5 million tonnes of iron and feeds 50% of the country’s exports. The copper deposits of Akjoujt, the uranium resources of Bir-Mogherein, the phosphates of Gorgol, the ilmenite of Trarza and the salt should also be mentioned. The collection of gum arabic, a historic forest resource of Mauritania, is modest, and has never been able to contribute to the development of a useful commercial exchange.
The manufacturing apparatus of Mauritania is poorly developed and is concentrated in the capital: in Nouakchott, in addition to an oil refinery, there is an important plant for processing fish, a sugar factory and some production units for the production of copper and cement. These industries suffer from a lack of water, energy (installed power is 114,000 kW and production was around 123 million kWh in 1989) and a suitable communications network. The latter, in particular, rests on minimal infrastructures: a 690 km railway line connects the iron and copper mines to the country’s two main ports; Point-Central, a seaport located about ten km south of Nouadhibou, is the great iron port, while the port of the capital is mainly engaged in fishing activity. The road network extends for about 8150 km and connects the main centers of the country. The international airport is in Nouakchott.
The sharp increase in demographic pressure on the main urban centers is reinforcing the degradation of these areas, not only due to the lack of suitable productive and settlement structures, but above all due to the hygienic-sanitary deficit aggravated by the absence of water. The illiteracy rate is still high, affecting 66% of the adult population.
The rise to power of col. Ould Salek in July 1978 coincided with the unilateral proclamation of the ceasefire by the Polisario. The new Mauritanian regime initiated successive contacts with the Sahrawi independence movement, but without obtaining positive results. In June 1979 the leadership of the country passed to col. Mauritania Mahmoud Louly, and the following month the Polisario resumed the fighting against the Mauritanian forces. Faced with the new emergency, the prime minister col. Mauritania Khouna Haidalla imposed himself as the strongman of the regime, and on his initiative the Algiers agreement was reached (5 August 1979) which marked the end of the hostilities between Mauritania and Polisario. In January 1980, Haidalla replaced Louly at the head of the state. Despite the Algiers agreement, the Western Sahara affair remained central to Mauritania. The government of Nouakchott admitted the legitimacy of the Polisario, but did not diplomatically recognize the Sahrawi Arabian Democratic Republic (RDAS) born from the struggle of the Polisario. It was an ambiguous position which gave rise to two failed subversive movements: the first, in December 1980, of Libyan inspiration; the second, more serious, carried out in March 1981 by people supported by Morocco with whom Mauritania broke diplomatic relations in retaliation.
1984 was a turning point. In February, Mauritania diplomatically recognized the RDAS; in March Haidalla increased his powers by taking over the government after having removed his col. Moaouia Ould Sidi Ahmed Taya. However, he reacted in December by carrying out a coup d’état that led him to lead the country. Taya aimed to strengthen the regional position of Mauritania succeeding, after having restored relations with Morocco (April 1985), to become a credible interlocutor for both parties that remained in conflict in the Saharan affair.
As the international emergency subsided, however, the traditional tension between the Mauritanian (Arab-Berber) majority of the population and the Negro minority resumed within the country. Serious were the incidents that shocked Nouakchott in October 1986. The government tried to mitigate the Negro discontent against the excessive cultural and political Arabization of the country by promoting a process of Islamization in which the Negro-Mauritian antagonism could be diluted. But the attempt was unsuccessful. In October 1987, dozens of black civilian and military officials were arrested for conspiracy and three of them were later sentenced to death. Since then, the tension has only grown until it escalated into a bloody tragedy in April 1989, when a massacre of blacks took place in the capital. The homicidal violence, first directed against Senegalese immigrants but then also extended to Mauritanian blacks, was triggered by the news of an equally ferocious massacre that took place days earlier in Senegal to the detriment of the local Mauritanian community. A bitter confrontation ensued between Senegal and Mauritania, which for a few weeks seemed on the verge of escalating into open conflict, so much so that the two countries broke off diplomatic relations. The tension, which in 1991 also involved brief military clashes, subsided and in 1992 the interrupted diplomatic relations were restored. On the internal level, however, the inter-ethnic clashes continued causing among other things a great exodus of Mauritanian blacks to nearby Mali. Taya tried to stem the instability by launching a democratic-inspired constitution.