Mauritania migrants in France yearning for elusive freedom

Mauritanians protests against slave trade in North Africa. Photo, CAJ News

Mauritanians protests against slave trade in North Africa. Photo, CAJ News

from DIALLO TEGUEDI in Nouakchott, Mauritania
NOUAKCHOTT, (CAJ News) – ALONG the street that leads to the Eiffel Tower, they filled it side to side, stretching back through the famous Trocadero district of Paris.

Human-rights lawyers next to former soldiers and some from the Haratin tribe who make up the majority of slaves in Mauritania.

This week, they’ve been busy with protest late in the afternoon when the exiles have finished work. Saturday 2 December marks the United Nations annual day to end slavery.

Most of UN events will be around forced labour in sweat shops or factories where workers are locked up to make footballs or soccer boots.

Also the women and an increasing number of men forced into the sex trade.

“In Mauritania it’s more like the dark ages,” says Thomas Ndiaye who has been involved from the start in the Paris protests. “Ours was the last country on earth to criminalize slavery just a decade back, but we still have thousands in bondage.”

There’s a scale for most things: corruption, press freedom, torture and oppression. Mauritania does badly in all of them, but on the Global Slavery Index it’s scored top place the past five years.

In the 1300s, the Arabs colonized much of West Africa, setting off a leap in everything from books and medicine to roads and astronomy. They also brought the Koran and, today, it is the official religion of Mauritania.

Converting to another faith brings the death penalty.

But the original black inhabitants are still the majority, even though few reach officer level in the police or army and they are largely absent from government in the provinces, or in the capital, Nouakchott

Protests happen late afternoon when exiles have finished work. It’s winter, dark comes early, rain is common and the temperature close to freezing.

But no one seems deterred as they follow a set route, winding from the Eiffel Tower to the Mauritanian Embassy in Paris as Ndiayewalks at the front on his crutches.

“At two I was struck with polio. It left me like this,” he said. “It also taught me that life is worth fighting for. So is freedom.”

The African Union may be silent on most things, but they don’t like coups, as the Zimbabwe army found when they placed former president Robert Mugabe under house arrest.

The AU had put up for decades with political murder and stolen elections in Zimbabwe, but within 24 hours they condemned the military action in Harare and called for a return to order.

For their part, the army never actually deposed Mugabe, but waited until, stripped of power, he resigned.

And the AU was just as vocal in 2008 when General Mohamed Aziz overthrew the democratically elected government in Nouakchott.

Aziz promised elections but his critics say the ballot was rigged and, at the most recent poll in 2014, he won 82 per cent of the vote.

He served as president of the AU in 2014, succeeded by Mugabe.

“We have to be careful about slavery,” said Ndiaye as the marchers carried a Mauritanian flag upside down, global code for a ship in distress.

“Yes, it’s wrong, but there is so much else that also needs fixing. We need free elections and an end to jailing bloggers, journalists and anyone who disagrees with the state.

“In short, we need Aziz to go.”

There are an estimated 100 000 Mauritanians exiled in France with thousands more across Europe and Africa.

With help from Paris, the Aziz government has issued a biometric identification card, but exiles say the Embassy won’t register them. Inside Mauritania, those suspected of supporting the opposition also claim to have been excluded from the process, leaving them unable to vote or get a job.

They accuse France of “complicity and collaboration with a dictator”.

Sergeant Maurice Mohamed fled the country when he heard that his entire unit was about to be arrested for plotting against the state.

“I had been forced to watch other soldiers being shot or tortured for the same thing,” he said.

“It’s how they instill fear. When I heard that my unit was suspect of treason, I made for the coast and managed to get aboard a freighter sailing to Spain.”

He turns up at every demonstration.

Another non-commissioned officer, Jonnie Saul, had a similar tale.

“I was arrested and held in prison without anyone telling me the charge. But from other cells I could hear people crying. Some screamed, but I couldn’t tell what was going on.”

His family brought money to bribe a prison officer and Saul crossed into Morocco and made his way to France.

It’s a difficult matter for both Paris and Washington. Mauritania covers more than a million square kilometres where Islamic radicals are active.
President Aziz has been more than co-operative in the War on Terror, allowing allied troops free movement across his country.

If the major powers speak out on human rights or rigged elections, let alone slavery, it would almost certainly anger their host. Allegations of corruption linked to the president are just as difficult.

And so the protests in Paris continue. Mauritania is a country many around the world have probably never heard of. And the United Nations is largely silent.

Most Mauritanians speak a local black language, Arabic and French and find it hard to access the main human-rights blogs that tend to be in English.

But as the crowd, now outside the embassy, yelled, “End our tyranny,” and “Aziz go now!” Thomas Ndiaye was optimistic.

“Aziz has served his two terms as allowed by the constitution and he needs to step down at the end of 2018,” he said.

“We will campaign against any change that might allow him a third term. With him gone, maybe there is a way forward.”

The senate in Nouakchott was also against a third term, so Aziz abolished the upper house of parliament, and senators who objected are either in prison or in hiding.

“African countries must speak out,” Ndiayesaid. “So must the big powers at the UN, led by France and the USA, but also Britain. Russia and China need to add their voice.”

While a terror threat remains in West Africa, it won’t be that easy.

But the Mauritanians say they won’t give up either. By the end of the march it’s zero degrees. Posters bearing photos of Mr Aziz are set alight and those without gloves warm their hands on the fire.

More demonstrations are planned, on free speech, elections, redress for past killings, crimes against humanity, corruption and slavery.

UN days to free those in chains — real or political — may come and go, but it seems the exiles and their demands for justice and an end to the Aziz government are something Paris and the Mauritanian embassy will have to get used to.

– CAJ News

 

 

 

 

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Posted by on Dec 5 2017. Filed under Africa & World, Exclusive, Featured, News, Regional. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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