Mauritania - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

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Mauritania, officially the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, country in northwestern Africa. It is bounded on the north by Western Sahara and Algeria, on the east by Mali, on the south by Mali and Senegal, and on the west by the Atlantic Ocean. The country has a total area of 1,031,000 sq km (398,000 sq mi).


With the exception of a narrow strip in the south along the Sénégal River, the country lies entirely within the Sahara. The elevation varies from 150 m (500 ft) in the southwest to 460 m (1,500 ft) in the northeast. Daytime temperatures in much of the country reach 38°C (100°F) for more than six months of the year, but the nights are cool. Annual rainfall varies from less than 130 mm (less than 5 in) in the north to 660 mm (26 in) in the Sénégal Valley.

Natural Resources of Mauritania

Mauritania contains large deposits of iron ore in the Fdérik area. Other mineral resources of the country include deposits of phosphates, sulfur, copper, and gypsum. Significant offshore reserves of oil and natural gas were discovered in the early 21st century.

Plants and Animals in Mauritania

Upper Mauritania has little plant life and few animals. In the south, however, in a belt of steppe with trees of the genera Acacia and Commiphora, lions and monkeys are found.

Environmental Issues in Mauritania

Eighty percent of Mauritania lies within the Sahara, and years of drought combined with overgrazing and deforestation have increased the country’s risk of desertification. Agricultural production has been maintained in the face of water shortages (primarily through groundwater mining), although high population growth has meant that per capita production has declined significantly. A project to dam the Sénégal River would increase and regulate water availability, but some ecosystems would inevitably be adversely affected.


Two-fifths of the population is of mixed Moor and black African heritage. Another 30 percent of Mauritania’s people are Moors (of mixed Arab and Berber ancestry), many of whom lead nomadic existences. More than 90 percent of the population lives in the southern quarter of the country. About 30 percent of the people are black African farmers, who are settled in the Sénégal Valley.

Population Characteristics of Mauritania

According to the 1988 census, Mauritania had 1,864,236 inhabitants. The 2009 estimated population was 3,129,486, giving the country an overall population density of 3 persons per sq km (8 persons per sq mi).

Political Divisions and Principal Cities of Mauritania

Mauritania is divided into 12 regions, each administered by a council, and 1 district, which encompasses the country’s capital and largest city, Nouakchott (population, 2003 estimate, 600,000). Other principal towns are Kaédi (34,227), a farming center on the Sénégal, Nouadhibou (72,337), a fishing center and seaport, the exports of which include iron ore sent by rail from Fdérik, and Rosso (48,922).

Religion and Languages spoken in Mauritania

Islam, the state religion, is professed by nearly all of the people. Hasaniya Arabic (a Moorish dialect of Arabic) is the official language, and Fulfulde, Wolof, Soninke, and French are also widely spoken.

Education in Mauritania

The government of Mauritania attempts to provide free primary education. The effort, however, has been hindered by the nomadic character of the people. In 2006 some 79 percent of eligible children, or 483,800 pupils, attended primary school. Just 23 percent of secondary school-aged children were enrolled. Higher education is provided by the University of Nouakchott (1981) and by a college of public administration, also in the capital.


The Mauritanian economy is predominantly pastoral, with mining and fishing increasing in importance. Mauritania has depended heavily on foreign aid. However, the country has offshore reserves of oil and natural gas that may bring a more prosperous future. In 2007 the gross domestic product (GDP), which measures the total value of goods and services produced in the country, was $2,643,785,000, or $847.10 per inhabitant.

Agriculture of Mauritania

Animal raising is the most important agricultural activity. Livestock in Mauritania in 2007 was estimated to include 8.8 million sheep, 5.6 million goats, 1.7 million cattle, and 4.2 million poultry. Crop farming is mostly restricted to the south. The leading crops are millet, pulses, rice, dates, watermelons, yams, and maize.

Fishing in Mauritania

Mauritania has a large saltwater fishing potential, and the government has taken measures to protect its offshore fishing areas. In 2007 the country’s catch was 193,230 metric tons.

Mining in Mauritania

Production of iron ore, mainly from Mauritania’s rich deposits in the Fdérik area, totaled 7.3 million metric tons in 2006. Copper mining, once an important industry, was discontinued in 1978. Reserves of oil and natural gas were discovered in 2001 and 2005. The offshore fields are expected to yield hundreds of millions of barrels of oil once they are fully exploited.

Currency and Foreign Trade in Mauritania

The monetary unit in Mauritania is the ouguiya, which is divided into five khoums (259 ouguiyas equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). The Central Bank of Mauritania (founded in 1973) is the bank of issue.

In 2007 exports totaled $1,343 million. Imports amounted to $1,198 million. Iron ore is the principal export; imports typically consist of food products, machinery, construction materials, petroleum, and consumer goods. Leading purchasers of exports are Japan, France, Italy, and Belgium and Luxembourg (which operate together as a single trading unit). Chief sources for imports are France, Algeria, Spain, China, and the United States. Mauritania also exports cattle to Senegal.

Transportation and Communications in Mauritania

Transportation facilities include air routes and 7,660 km (4,760 mi) of roads and tracks. The 1,100-km Trans-Mauritanian highway was completed in 1985. A 670-km (416-mi) railroad links Nouadhibou to the Fdérik ore fields. Deep-water port facilities and international airports are located at Nouadhibou and Nouakchott. The country has 3 daily newspapers; the Chaab is published in French and Arabic in Nouakchott.

Manufacturing and Energy in Mauritania

Manufacturing accounts for only 5 percent of Mauritania’s economic base and is limited primarily to fish processing and the production of other foodstuffs. In 2006 the country generated 410 million kilowatt-hours of electricity, 87.80 percent of which was produced in thermal facilities.


A 1961 constitution, promulgated soon after Mauritania became an independent republic, was suspended in 1978 following a coup d’état. Subsequently, legislative and executive power was vested in what became known as the Military Committee for National Salvation. The committee was headed by a chairman, who served as president of the country, and included 23 other permanent members in the late 1980s. A council of ministers, appointed by the committee, consisted of 22 members and included the prime minister. A new constitution was approved by referendum in July 1991. All citizens aged 18 and older may vote.

Executive and Legislature of Mauritania

The 1991 constitution provides for an executive president, who is limited to two five-year terms under constitutional amendments approved by voters in 2006. The president appoints a prime minister to head the government. Mauritania has a legislature with two chambers, the National Assembly and the Senate. The 95 members of the National Assembly are directly elected to serve five-year terms, and the 56 members of the Senate are indirectly elected by municipal leaders to serve six-year terms.

Judiciary in Mauritania

The highest court of appeal is the Supreme Court, which sits in Nouakchott. The High Court of Justice, whose members are elected by the parliament, adjudicates cases involving the executive branch of government. Islamic law plays an important role in the Mauritanian judicial system. The High Council of Islam advises the president on matters of religion and law. The Constitutional Council, established in 1992, rules on all matters relating to the constitution.

Defense of Mauritania

In 2006 Mauritania had an army of 15,000 persons, a navy of 620, and an air force of 250.


Remnants of Stone Age cultures have been found in northern Mauritania. Berber nomads moved into the area in the 1st millennium AD and subjugated the indigenous black population. The newcomers belonged to the Sanhaja Confederation that long dominated trade between the northern parts of Africa and the kingdom of Ghana, the capital of which, Kumbi Saleh (Koumbi Saleh), was in southeastern Mauritania. Under Almoravid leadership, the Sanhaja razed Kumbi Saleh in 1076, although Ghana survived until the early 13th century. The Berbers, in turn, were conquered by Arabs in the 16th century. The descendants of the Arabs became the upper stratum of Mauritanian society, and Arabic gradually displaced Berber dialects as the language of the country. French forces, moving up the Sénégal River, made the area a French protectorate by 1905 and a colony in 1920. In 1946 Mauritania became an overseas territory of the French Union. Under French occupation, slavery was legally abolished.

The Islamic Republic of Mauritania was proclaimed on November 28, 1958, under the constitution of the Fifth French Republic, and on November 28, 1960, it became fully independent. It joined the United Nations in 1961. That same year Moktar Ould Daddah was elected its first president; he was reelected in 1966, 1971, and 1976.

Mauritania was severely affected by a drought in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Nevertheless, its economy expanded as newly discovered iron and copper deposits were exploited. In 1976 it annexed the southern third of adjacent Spanish Sahara (see Western Sahara), which at that time was ceded by Spain; Morocco received the rest of the territory. A Saharan nationalist movement, the Polisario Front, seeking to make the Western Sahara an independent nation, weakened Mauritania with guerrilla warfare. In July 1978, President Daddah was ousted in a coup led by Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Ould Salek. After he was replaced by another army officer, Mohamed Ould Louly, Mauritania agreed, in August 1979, to withdraw from the Western Sahara.

Another change of leadership occurred in 1980, when the prime minister, Mohamed Ould Haidalla, assumed the presidency. He subjected the nation to strict enforcement of Islamic law. Haidalla survived a coup in 1981 but was deposed by his chief of staff, Colonel Maaouya Ould Sidi Ahmed Taya, in 1984.

Taya’s Years in Power

Tensions with Senegal in 1989 resulted in the repatriation of 100,000 Mauritanian nationals from Senegal and the repatriation or expulsion of 125,000 Senegalese nationals from Mauritania. Faced with rising domestic pressures and international criticism of his human rights record, Taya implemented a new constitution and legalized opposition parties in 1991. He was elected executive president in 1992. Opposition parties claimed the vote was rigged, charges that were repeated when Taya was reelected in 1997.

Starting in the mid-1990s, Taya sought to limit the influence of Islamist groups in Mauritania and improve relations with Israel and Western powers. Mauritania established full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1999, becoming one of only a few Arab states to do so. The 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq (see U.S.-Iraq War) sparked widespread protests and popular unrest in Mauritania. The government responded by cracking down on pro-Iraqi and Islamist political groups. Taya survived a coup attempt in June 2003 and was reelected in a disputed election in November.

Military Coup

A military coup in August 2005 ousted Taya while he was out of the country attending the funeral of Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd. Many Mauritanians welcomed the coup, which ended Taya’s repressive regime of 21 years. The Military Council for Justice and Democracy declared it would rule the country for a two-year transition period but promised to relinquish power following democratic elections. The leader of the coup and president of the military council, Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, had been the head of national security. Analysts said Taya had alienated many Islamic leaders in the country by establishing diplomatic relations with Israel and dealing harshly with his political opponents. Former president Mohamed Ould Haidalla, who had ruled Mauritania by strict Islamic law, was among 200 people who were put on trial in early 2005 for allegedly fomenting coup attempts against Taya.

Democratic Elections

In June 2006 Mauritania held a referendum on amendments to the 1991 constitution. Mauritanians voted overwhelmingly to limit the president’s mandate to two five-year terms. (The constitution had allowed the president to serve an indefinite number of six-year terms.)

Mauritania held its first fully democratic elections since independence with voting in November and December 2006 for a new National Assembly. No single party or coalition won an absolute majority in the elections. The Coalition of Forces for Democratic Change, comprising the Rally of Democratic Forces and other parties that had formerly opposed Taya, won 41 of the 95 seats. Independent candidates won 39 seats, the Renewed Republican Democratic Party (formerly Taya’s ruling Democratic and Social Republican Party) won 7, and smaller parties won the remainder. Many Islamist candidates stood as independents because Islamist parties and movements were banned. Members of the military junta were also banned from contesting the elections.

Presidential elections followed in March 2007, as the final phase in the transition to civilian and democratic rule. The independent candidate, Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, won the runoff election with 53 percent of the vote against Ahmed Ould Daddah, leader of the Rally of Democratic Forces. Abdallahi, a former minister in Taya’s government, was considered the favorite candidate of the military. His candidacy was reportedly promoted by Colonel Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, one of the coup leaders in 2005. An election observation mission of the European Union (EU) determined that Mauritania’s historic elections were free and fair, and for a time Mauritania was held up as a model of democracy in Africa.

After the election Colonel Abdelaziz became the head of the presidential guard and was promoted to general. Abdallahi later attempted to fire Abdelaziz, however, and in August 2008 General Abdelaziz responded by staging a coup that ousted Abdallahi. France and the United States immediately ceased nonhumanitarian aid to Mauritania to protest the coup, and the African Union (AU) automatically suspended Mauritania from membership.

In September 2008, Abdelaziz announced plans to hold a presidential election within 12 to 14 months. Four months later, in January 2009, the military government announced that the election would take place in June 2009. Abdelaziz resigned from the military in April 2009 in order to run in the elections. However, the military junta’s opponents refused to participate in the election; this threatened the credibility of the elections and restoration of normal diplomatic relations with countries that had condemned the coup. Negotiations between the junta and the opposition led to an agreement in June 2009 in which Abdallahi resigned as president and that a national unity government would take charge of the country until the election was held in July 2009.

In the July election, Abdelaziz was elected president with 52 percent of the vote. Opposition groups immediately filed protests with the Constitutional Court over the results, but the Court confirmed the results of the election. Foreign observers, including the African Union, found no evidence of fraud. Abdelaziz was sworn into office in August 2009.

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