Mauritania, Islamic Republic of

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Mauritania, Islamic Republic of


(République Islamique de Mauritanie, Al-Jumhuriya al-Islamiya al Muritaniya), a state in northwest Africa. It is bounded on the west by the Atlantic Ocean, on the north by Algeria and the Spanish Sahara, and on the east and south by Mali and Senegal. Area, 1,031,000 sq km. Population, 1.5 million (1972, estimate). The capital is Nouakchott. Administratively, the country is divided into nine regions and one capital district.

Constitution and government. Mauritania is a republic. The present constitution went into effect on May 20, 1961. The head of state and government is the president, who is elected to a five-year term on the basis of direct universal suffrage. The president appoints and dismisses ministers, civil servants, military officers, and high officials, promulgates laws passed by the National Assembly, issues ordinances having the force of law, grants pardons, ratifies international treaties, and is the commander in chief of the armed forces. The government, the Council of Ministers, consists of the president and ministers. The highest legislative body is the unicameral National Assembly, composed of 50 deputies popularly elected to a five-year term. All citizens who have reached the age of 21 may vote. The administrative regions are headed by governors. Elective bodies—regional assemblies and local councils—have been created in the regions and urban and rural communes.

The judicial system includes the Supreme Court, courts of first instance, and a number of special courts. There are also courts of Muslim law.


Natural features. Most òf Mauritania consists of the sandy and rocky deserts of the western Sahara. The Atlantic coast is low-lying and even, except in the north, with many offshore sandbars, shoals, and islands.

The territory forms part of the ancient African-Arabian platform, composed of Precambrian rocks gathered into folds and highly metamorphosed. Archean and Lower Proterozoic crystalline formations outcrop in the Rigaibat Shield region in the northwest. To the west the shield is bounded along a fault by the Mauritanian-Senegalese folded system of the Baikal age extending in a north-south direction and composed of Riphean sandstone, quartzite, tillite, and limestone. Southeastern Mauritania is occupied by the Taoudeni syneclise. At the base of its sedimentary cover lie terrigenous carbonaceous sediments of the Upper Riphean. Paleozoic deposits are well developed on the Adrar and Tagant plateaus. Mesozoic sandstones and conglomerates are widely found in the extreme northwest and south in depressions along the Atlantic coast.

Known mineral resources include copper deposits at Akjoujt, associated with the Precambrian formations of the Rigaibat Shield. Overall copper reserves, with a copper content of 0.7 to 2.8 percent, totaled 590,000 tons in 1970. There are iron-ore deposits in the Zouirat-Ijill region, and iron-ore reserves, with an average iron content of 65 percent, were estimated at 410 million tons in 1970. In the west are salt deposits, associated with the deposits in the depressions along the Atlantic coast. There are gypsum reserves north of Nouakchott, and ilmenite reserves, estimated at 200,000 tons in 1970, are found along the coast. Deposits of rare earth minerals occur in the Bou Naga region.

The terrain consists primarily of low-lying plains and low plateaus. The Adrar Plateau to the north has a hilly terrain rising to 732 m on Mount Amozzaga. To the south the sandstone plateaus of Tagant and Assaba, with elevations averaging 300-400 m, terminate in scarps. The plateaus are surrounded by sandy deserts with dunes extending northeastward. Large sand accumulations called ergs are found in the north and northeast (Erg Iguidi, Cheche, el-Djouf), continuing into the Algerian Sahara.

Mauritania has a tropical desert climate. The temperature averages 16°-20°C in January and 30°-32°C in July, with the maximum temperature exceeding 45°C. The ocean influences the climate only in the narrow coastal zone, where the temperature is lower and humidity higher (with frequent fogs). Desiccating east winds prevail. The average annual rainfall is less than 100 mm, and in the northeast, less than 50 mm. There are no permanent streams except the Senegal River, flowing along the southern border. The right bank of the Senegal lies in the Sahel zone, which receives 200-400 mm of rainfall annually. Here, the river’s floodwaters are used for irrigation. In the rest of the country, water is obtained primarily from underground sources and a few springs. Plans have been made to desalt seawater and saline groundwater.

Sparse scrub and grass vegetation and ephemerals (acheb) are found in the desert. The semideserts of the south support drought-resistant shrubs and acacias, including acacia yielding gum arabic.

Wildlife is represented chiefly by desert species. There are numerous reptiles and rodents, and predators include jackals and fennecs. In a few regions, ostriches, gazelles, and antelopes have survived. The coastal waters are rich in commercial fish, including sardines, tuna, and marlin.


Population. More than three-fourths of the Mauritanians are west Saharan Arabs (Moors). They speak Hassania, a dialect of Arabic. They are found throughout the country, forming a comparatively ethnically homogeneous, chiefly nomadic, population in northern and central Mauritania. A small group of Zenaga Berbers has survived in the south. The remaining Mauritanians are Negroid peoples—Toucouleur, Wolof, Fulbe (Peul), Sarakole, and Soninke. They are sedentary farmers living in the south, chiefly in the valley of the Senegal River. Foreigners, mainly French, number about 3,700. The official languages are Arabic and French. The dominant religion is Islam (Malikite Sunnism), and there are many sects.

Prefeudal social orders survive in some parts of northern and eastern Mauritania. New class relations are gradually superseding the division of the population into traditional social groups—Hassans (warriors), marabouts (clergy), and dependent classes, such as haratin farmers, servants, and payers of tribute.

The official calendar is the Gregorian.

Between 1963 and 1971 the population increased at an average annual rate of 2.2 percent. Out of an economically active population of 500,000, only 17,000 were wage earners in 1973. Agriculture employs 90 percent of the work force, and industry, fishing, and other sectors 10 percent. About three-fourths of the population is engaged in nomadic and seminomadic livestock raising and various crafts. Almost four-fifths of the population lives in the southern part of the country, where the density in some places reaches 35 persons per sq km, as compared with an average density of 1.1 persons per sq km. Urban dwellers accounted for 10 percent of the population in 1973. The most important cities are Nouakchott, with a population of 130,000 in 1973, Nouadhibou, Zouîrât, Kaédi, Rosso, and Atar.


Historical survey. The ancient and medieval history of Mauritania has been little studied. From the seventh to the llth century southern Mauritania was part of the medieval West African states of Ghana and Takrur, and the Sanhajan Berbers formed states in the north.

In the mid-11th century there arose the powerful Almoravid state, which included, besides Mauritania, Morocco and western Algeria. In the Almoravid period (to 1146) medieval Mauritania reached the height of its cultural development and power. During the 13th and 14th centuries southern Mauritania came within the sphere of influence of the medieval state of Mali, but continued to maintain close ties with Morocco. In the 14th and 15th centuries Mauritania was invaded by the Arab Maqil tribes, who hastened the Islamization and Arabization of Mauritania that had begun in the llt h century. The Arabs became the dominant element in Mauritania, ruling over the Sanhajan Berbers and haratin, the mixed agricultural population of the oases. The Chinguetti oasis became the chief religious and political center of Mauritania. The country itself was called Tarb al-Bidan (Land of the Whites) or Chinguet (from Chinguetti). The Hassania dialect of Arabic was widely spoken.

The penetration of Mauritania by Europeans began in the 15th century. The Portuguese and Spanish established strongholds along the coast at Arguin and Portendick to export slaves, gold, and gum arabic. The Dutch, English, and French began to compete with them, and the French established trading posts, mainly along the Sénégal River. Under the Versailles Peace Treaty of 1783, signed by Great Britain, France, and Spain, the Mauritanian coast was recognized to lie within the French sphere of influence, and intensive French colonialization began in the mid-19th century. In 1855-58 the French governor of Senegal, Faidherbe, undertook military operations against the Arab tribes in the Sénégal basin, compelling them to accept treaties of “protection” and “free” trade. However, by the late 19th century these “treaty” relations had been undermined by the Mauritanians’ resistance to the colonialists.

In 1900, France and Spain agreed to demarcate their spheres of influence in the western Sahara. Using diplomacy and troops, the French in 1903 established a protectorate over the Arab Trarza and Brakna tribes, whose region was incorporated into the “civil territory of Mauritania” within French West Africa in 1904. The resistance of the Trarza and Brakna was suppressed in 1905-06, and the French strengthened their hold over central Mauritania. In 1909, after fierce battles with the Mauritanian nomads, the French took the Adrar region, the Mauritanians’ main stronghold in their struggle for independence. In 1920 the country was proclaimed a colony within French West Africa with its administrative center in St. Louis, but armed resistance by the Mauritanians continued until the mid-1930’s.

The colonialists introduced a system of direct rule, but the traditional chiefs retained considerable influence by occupying posts in the colonial administration. The people’s loss of basic human rights, the imposition of heavy taxes, the use of forced labor, the frequent requisition of livestock, and the prohibition on grazing in the northern regions caused Mauritanians to flee to neighboring regions, particularly Río de Oro, where not only Mauritanian but also Moroccan resistance forces were gathering.

After World War II the struggle to liberate Mauritania gained momentum, and the first political parties emerged. The Mauritanian Entente (EM), a party founded in 1946, was led by Horma Ould Babana, and the Mauritanian Progressive Union (UPM), established a year later, was headed by Mokhtar Ould Daddah. The national liberation movement, accompanied by armed uprisings, intensified after Morocco achieved independence in 1956; disturbances broke out in Adrar in 1956–57 and Fort Trinquet in 1958.

The French government was obliged to grant Mauritania autonomy within the French Community in 1958 and the right to create constitutional bodies for internal self-government. On Nov. 28, 1960, the independent Islamic Republic of Mauritania was proclaimed in Nouakchott. The EM and UPM clashed over the problem of the country’s future, a conflict that had existed prior to independence. The EM advocated union with Morocco, and the UPM called for Mauritanian independence and close ties with France. The UPM prevailed, and after Horma Ould Babana and other EM leaders fled to Morocco, the bulk of the EM merged with the UPM to form the Mauritanian Regroupment Party (PRM) in 1958.

Despite Mauritania’s dependence on France (which imposed an unequal “cooperation” agreement in June 1961) and despite growing tribalism and extensive territorial claims by certain neighboring states (Morocco sought to annex Mauritania), the PRM took a number of important measures to strengthen the country’s independent development.

The Mauritanian constitution went into effect in May 1961, and the leader of the PRM, Mokhtar Ould Daddah, was elected president in August 1961. At the Congress of Mauritanian Unity, held in December 1961, all political parties merged with the PRM to form the Mauritanian People’s Party (PPM). By an amendment to the constitution in 1965 the PPM became the sole and ruling party. The PPM’s domestic policy, worked out at its national congresses, was aimed at “ensuring social progress and national unity.” The Mauritanian government set out to abolish the institution of traditional chiefs, carried out administrative reforms, and proclaimed equal rights for women.

In its foreign policy the Mauritanian government adheres to principles of nonalliance, cooperation with all countries, and support of the struggle for the unity of the Arab as well as the African countries. Mauritania was admitted to the UN in October 1961. It is also a member of the Organization of African Unity, the Organization for the Development of the Sénégal River, and, since late 1973, the League of Arab States.

In 1967 the Mauritanian government declared its solidarity with the Arab countries subjected to aggression by Israel. Mauritania has frequently supported the peoples of Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau in their struggle against the Portuguese colonialists. In 1969-70 relations between Mauritania and Morocco were normalized. Since 1970, Mauritania has participated as an observer on the Permanent Consultative Committee of the Maghreb Countries. On Nov. 14, 1975, Mauritania and Morocco concluded an agreement with Spain in Madrid for the transfer to them of the Spanish Sahara and sent in their troops. In 1973, Mauritania concluded new agreements on economic and cultural cooperation with France, replacing those of 1961. Under the new agreements France lost a number of privileges guaranteed in the 1961 accords.

Diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union were established on July 12, 1964. In 1966 the two countries signed a trade agreement, in 1967 an agreement on cultural and scientific cooperation, and in 1973 an agreement concerning ocean fishing.


Political parties, trade unions, and other social organizations. The Mauritanian People’s Party (PPM, Parti du Peuple Mauritanien) was created in December 1961 through the unification of the Mauritanian Regroupment Party (founded in 1958) and three opposition parties: the Mauritanian National Union (founded 1958), the National Renaissance Party (founded 1958), and the Mauritanian Muslim Socialist Union (founded 1960). In December 1961 the PPM became the ruling party, and by 1973 it numbered 281,000 members.

The Mauritanian Workers Union, founded in 1961, is a federation of 26 trade unions and has about 11,000 members (1973). It is affiliated with the PPM. Other organizations include the Youth of the Mauritanian People’s Party, founded in 1966, and the Women of the Mauritanian People’s Party, founded in 1964.

Economic geography. Mauritania is a pastoral country with a developing mining industry. Livestock raising of the extensive type and crop cultivation are the basis of agriculture. Traditional occupations and crafts, supplying the consumer sector, are also well developed. In 1969 agriculture accounted for 55 percent of the gross domestic product, and industry for 35 percent. After the achievement of independence in 1960, the government’s economic policy was put into effect in the first (1963-66) and second (1970-73) four-year plans, aimed at exploiting natural resources and creating new industries—iron and copper mining and commercial fishing—in the state and mixed sectors of the economy.

AGRICULTURE. Nomadic and seminomadic stockraising accounts for more than 30 percent of the gross national product. Grazing grounds cover about 40 million hectares (ha). In 1970-71 livestock numbered 5.9 million sheep, 2.5 million goats, 2.7 million zebu cattle, 700,000 camels and 200,000 donkeys. Livestock productivity is low. The severe drought in 1971-72 reduced livestock to 1.6 million cattle and 6 million sheep and goats. Nomadic herding predominates in northern and central Mauritania and seminomadic herding and transhumance in the Sahel zone and southern regions. In the Sénégal Valley stockraising is combined with farming.

Crop cultivation is the main source of livelihood for most of the inhabitants of southern Mauritania, especially the Negroid population. There are about 300,000 ha of arable land, and the main crops are African millet and sorghum, covering more than one-third of the sown area, or 100,000 ha, and yielding 70,000 tons in 1972. In the oases the chief crop is dates; there were 880,000 date palms yielding 18,000 tons of dates in 1972. Corn, beans, yams, peanuts, and, since the late 1960’s, rice are also cultivated. The rice yield was 2,000 tons in 1972.

Traditional occupations that have retained their importance are the collecting of gum arabic, chiefly in the Sahel zone (averaging 4,000-7,000 tons a year and providing 10 percent of the world demand), salt mining at Ijill (averaging 800 tons a year), and fishing on the Sénégal River and along the seacoast (averaging 15,000 tons of freshwater fish and 5,000 tons of marine fish annually).

INDUSTRY. The power industry is represented by small thermal plants at Nouakchott Nouadhibou, Akjoujt, Atar, and else-where, with a combined capacity of 38 megawatts in 1972. In 1971, 73 million kW-hr were produced.

The extraction of iron ore is the principal mining industry. In 1965, 6.3 million tons of iron ore were produced, rising to 9.3 million tons in 1972. Large reserves are being worked in the Zouîrât-Ijill region (formerly Fort-Gouraud) at Fdérik, Tazadit, and Rouessa. Mining operations are conducted by the Miferma Company, 5 percent of whose stock is owned by the Mauritanian government and the rest by French, British, West German, and Italian capital. Ore is carried by the Zouirat-Nouadhibou Railroad and then shipped from a special port, Cansado, located 10 km south of Nouadhibou. In 1971, France imported 20.6 percent of the iron ore produced; Great Britain, 18.9 percent; Italy, 12.9 percent; Belgium, 14.6 percent; the Federal Republic of Germany, 12.8 percent; and Japan, 11.7 percent. Since 1971 copper ore has been mined near Akjoujt by Somima, a mixed company in which 22 percent of the stock is owned by the Mauritanian government and the rest by South African (44.6 percent), French (18.4 percent), and other capital. In 1972, 14,900 tons of copper concentrate were produced.

The most highly developed sector of the food industry is the modern fishing industry centered at Nouadhibou, where the fishing port is being expanded and fish-processing plants include a freezing plant with an annual capacity of 20,000 tons. Commercial fishing on the open sea is expanding rapidly, with the catch reaching 63,000 tons in 1971. A sugar refinery, a flour-milling plant, and a cement factory were under construction in 1973.

TRANSPORTATION. In 1963 the 652-km Zouîrât-Nouadhibou Railroad, used for ore shipment, went into operation. There are about 3,200 km of all-weather roads and trails. The first hard-surfaced highway, connecting Rosso, Nouakchott, and Akjoujt, was built in 1972; it is about 560 km long. The country had 11,800 motor vehicles in 1971.

The main port, Nouadhibou, together with Cansado, handles almost all ocean cargo, exceeding 9 million tons in 1973. Exploratory work for constructing a deep-water port at Nouakchott was begun in 1973. There are international airports at Nouakchott and Nouadhibou.

FOREIGN TRADE. In Mauritania’s overall foreign trade (valued at 43.5 billion African francs in 1971), exports (26.1 billion African francs) significantly exceed imports (about 17.4 billion African francs). The chief exports are iron ore, accounting for more than three-fourths of the total value of exports, fish, copper concentrate, and gum arabic. Imports include tea, sugar, and other foodstuffs, textiles, industrial equipment, petroleum products, and cement. Mauritania’s leading trading partners are France, accounting for more than 25 percent of Mauritania’s foreign trade in 1971, Great Britain, the USA, and Belgium. Since 1973 the monetary unit has been the ougiya, equal to 5 African francs or 10 French centimes.


Armed forces. Mauritania’s armed forces, consisting of about 2,500 men in 1971, include ground troops (1,400), an air force (about 100 men), a navy (about 50 men), and a gendarmerie (about 1,000 men). The commander in chief is the president, and the minister of defense and the general staff provide the overall leadership of the army. The army is maintained by voluntary enlistment. Volunteers must be 18 years old and serve for at least two years.

Medicine and public health. According to the data of the World Health Organization, in 1964-66 the average annual birth rate was 45.1 per 1,000 inhabitants and the death rate 28.0; infant mortality averaged 187.0 per 1,000 live births. The average life expectancy was about 40 years.

The main causes of death are various infectious and parasitic diseases. Amebiasis, influenza, tuberculosis, bacillary dysentery, venereal diseases, leprosy, meningococcic infections, and childhood diseases are found everywhere. Malaria and urinary schistosomiasis, prevalent among nomads and seminomads using open water sources, are the most common parasitic diseases. No measures have been taken to eradicate parasitic diseases.

In 1972 there were 22 hospitals with 600 beds, or about three per 1,000 inhabitants. Outpatient care was provided by four outpatient divisions of hospitals, one polyclinic, 16 public health centers, and 46 rural dispensaries. There are no government organizations to combat epidemics, although this need is partly met by the Department of Endemics, which has one medical center and seven mobile units.

In 1970 medical personnel consisted of 44 physicians, or one per 26,000 inhabitants, five dentists, eight pharmacists, and some 300 intermediate medical personnel trained at the school of nurses and midwives in Nouakchott. Doctors are trained abroad.

In 1972 public health expenditures amounted to about 7 percent of the state budget, as compared to 6.9 percent in 1963. In 1971 Mauritania received $130,500 in public health aid from the World Health Organization and UNICEF.


VETERINARY SERVICES. Endemic diseases and infections whose causal agents exist in the environment for long periods of time are widespread including trypanosomiasis, anthrax, blackleg, and botulism, which reaches epizootic proportions during drought periods. There is a high incidence of ectoparasitic diseases, such as mange and trichophytosis, and helminthiases. In 1972, 114 cases of cattle plague and peripneumonia were recorded. There are 28 vaccination stations and six immunization centers; Nouakchott has a veterinary center. In 1972 the country had five veterinarians.

Education. Prior to the coming of the French colonialists there were many religious schools offering education at various levels, but their number sharply declined during the colonial period. More than 95 percent of the adult population is illiterate.

The educational system is modeled on that of France. The six-year primary school (which children enter at the age of six) comprises three two-year cycles: preparatory, elementary, and intermediate. The seven-year secondary school has two cycles of four and three years each. The children of nomads study mainly in Koranic schools.

About 12 percent of school-age children are receiving primary education; there were 28,000 pupils in 1971, of which about 28 percent were girls. In 1971, 3,400 students were enrolled in secondary schools. The country’s only institution of higher learning, the National Institute of Islamic Studies in Boutilimit, offers advanced religious training. Founded in 1961, the institute had an enrollment of 270 students in 1970. About 150 students from Mauritania are studying at colleges in France, Sénégal, and other countries. The Central Public Library and the National Administrative and Historical Library are in Nouakchott. There are also several small libraries of Islamic literature in Boutilimit, Chinguetti, Kaédi, and elsewhere.


Press and radio. In 1976, the major publication was Al-Chaab, a national daily newspaper issued in French and Arabic in Nouakchott since 1975. It is the organ of the PPM and has a circulation of 12,000. The Agence Mauritanienne de Presse (AMP) was founded in January 1975. Radiodiffusion Nationale de Mauritanie, the government-owned national radio, broadcasts in Arabic and French.

Architecture and art. Relics of Neolithic art have been found in Mauritania—rock drawings and stone tombs (chouchets) of ancient Negro peoples and the Berbers. An Arab-Berber culture developed here in the Middle Ages. Since the llth and 12th centuries, rectangular, flat-roofed adobe houses with inner courtyards and mosques with square minarets have been built in the towns. In the west buildings are decorated with carved stone masonry (Tîchît). In the east facades are stuccoed and doorways bordered with red and white curvilinear designs (Oualâta). Although many modern buildings have been erected in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou (Port-Etienne) in the 20th century, many towns still preserve their medieval appearance. Folk art includes the fashioning of objects from metal, leather, and clay.


Noveishaia istoriia Afriki, 2nd ed., Moscow, 1968.
Gamier, C, and P. Ermout. Desert fertile. Un nouvel etat: la Mauritanie. Paris, 1960.
Utkin, G. N. Mavritaniia (text to map 1:2,500,000). Moscow, 1968.
Gerteiny, A. G. Mauritania, 2nd ed. New York, 1968.
Pujos, J. Croissance économique et impulsion extérieure: Etude sur l’économie mauritanienne. Paris, 1964.
Jacques-Meunié, D. Cités anciennes de Mauritanie. Paris, 1961.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.