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From the 3rd century AD, the Berbers established trading routes all over the Western Sahara, including Mauritania. In the 11th century, the Marrakesh-based Islamic Almoravids pushed south and, with the assistance of Mauritanian Berber leaders, destroyed the Empire of Ghana, which covered much of present-day Mauritania. That victory led to the spread of Islam throughout Mauritania and the Western Sahara. The descendants of the Almoravids were finally subjugated by Arabs in 1674.

As colonialism spread throughout Africa in the 19th century, France stationed troops in Mauritania, but it was not until 1904 that, having played one Moorish faction off against another, the French finally managed to make Mauritania a colonial territory. Independence was fairly easily achieved in 1960 because the French wanted to prevent the country from being absorbed by newly independent Morocco. Mokhtar Ould Daddah became Mauritania’s first president.

Ould Daddah took a hard line, especially against the (mainly black African) southerners, who were treated like second-class citizens and compelled to fit in the Moors’ mould. Any opposition was brutally suppressed.

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.

In the 1990s the government became increasingly extremist. In 1991 Mauritania supported Iraq during the Gulf War, and aid dried up. To counter criticism, Taya introduced multiparty elections in 1992, which he won, but electoral fraud was massive. The harassment and arrest of opposition figures continued, and black Africans still faced discrimination.

Mauritania today

To everybody’s surprise (and relief), Ould Taya’s repressive regime came to an end in August 2005, when the president was toppled in a bloodless coup. This marked a symbolic turning point in the country. The new government, led by Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, is intent on putting the country back on its feet and on stamping out corruption. Mauritania seems on the way to democracy: the general elections that were held in November 2007 were fair and no incidents were reported, according to UE observers. But what could really give a new impetus to the country is the oil boom that began in 2006 with the exploitation of offshore fields off Nouakchott.