There are few people who announce their candidacy for their country’s presidency only days after being released from prison. But anti-slavery activist and slave descendant Biram Dah Abeid is an exceptional man facing exceptional circumstances.
“I am from the servile community that makes up 50 per cent of the population (of Mauritania),” said Dah Abeid, a lawyer. “Twenty percent of the fifty percent have been born as property of other men. We were inherited by other people.”
Abeid, a prominent and fearless anti-slavery activist who has been jailed and tortured numerous times in his struggle to abolish slavery in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, was released from prison last December 31, having been incarcerated on “an order from above.” Only days later, he again announced his candidacy, having also run for president in Mauritania’s 2014 federal election.
At that time, Dah Abeid, who heads the anti-slavery organization Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), presented Mauritanians with the extraordinary and ground-shaking sight of a slave descendant (his father was a freed slave while his mother and uncles remained slaves) under sentence of death of a sharia court and imprisoned numerous times standing for president. Nevertheless, he won eight per cent of the vote, coming in second. Abdel Aziz, a former army general, won with 81.94, not unusual for an African dictatorship.
Estimates of the number of black African slaves in Mauritania range from 90,000 to 500,000 among a population of 3.1 million, possibly the highest number of chattel slaves in the world (Dah Abeid’s IRA has freed about 2,000 of them). But experts agree more exact numbers are difficult to arrive at because of slave-owning, nomadic tribes and those “hidden within mansions.”
In 2013, indicating the extent of the slavery tragedy, Global Slavery Index ranked Mauritania number one in the world for its prevalence there. Which caused Dah Abeid, a constant thorn in the side of Mauritania’s leaders, to sarcastically praise them: “We will never stop commending you on this enviable place on the international stage you managed to achieve…”
The slaves’ masters are Arab and Berber Mauritanians, or “whites,” who share only the same Islamic religion with their chattel. They make up about 20 per cent of the population and almost all of the political, business and military elite that controls the country. Therein also lies the problem. It is very difficult to get this elite class to abolish slavery when many of its members own slaves.
“The problem is that Mauritania’s Arabs sincerely believe that blacks are inferior and are born to be slaves,” wrote African American scholar Samuel Cotton in his book Silent Terror: A Journey Into Contemporary African Slavery, written after an exploratory trip to Mauritania. “They believe that a black man, woman or child’s place in life is to serve an Arab master, and it does not matter to them whether that black is a Christian, or fellow Muslim.”
Another problem is that this slave-owning class believes it is doing nothing illegal. The Prophet Muhammed owned slaves and Islam’s Sharia law justifies the practice. The eminent scholar of Islam, Bernard Lewis, wrote that “…the institution of slavery is not only recognized but is elaborately regulated by Sharia law.”
(Brown, “The Bravest Man In Africa?, FrontPageMag Online, 3/8/19).