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Traditional Power Networks in Mauritania: Tribes, Kin and Kith.

January 21, 2009

As the last Mauritanian ‘democratic’ experiment has turned out to be a mockery a question comes to, at least my, mind: Why doesn’t Mauritania get along with democracy? That’s pretty straightforward: Democracy per definition means that power lies in the hands of the people, either directly or in a representative manner. So why isn’t the power in Mauritania moving to the hands of its people? Someone has it and doesn’t want to give it away. So far so good. But here comes the tricky part: Who actually has the power in Mauritania? I have spotted some suspects, but to be honest, I don’t know. The idea behind this post is to give a first shot at it in order to get the ball rolling. You think you know it, let’s hear some answers!

In general I find explanations emphasizing historical path-dependencies rather compelling. Therefore I’ll look at that to see whether that leads me anywhere. Long before the French even thought of taking a step on Mauritanian soil there have been various nomadic Arab-Berber tribes frequenting that area. Back then a tribe that sticks together was the only way of surviving in the conditions the land offered. However, tribes weren’t all the same and more importantly there has been a hierarchy. The two most powerful kind of tribes were the warrior (hassan) and marabout (zwaya) tribes. One was respected due to its strength and the other due to its knowledge. Although these tribes apparently had some acceptance for each other, they weren’t equal. The hassan tribes after a phase of struggle had put themselves on the top of the hierarchy.

When the French, who didn’t want that blank space between their colonies in the north and the Senegal, conquered Mauritania, they interfered with the traditional tribal hierarchy. It was the zwaya tribes that were put in charge to administer the Mauritanian territory. In doing so they had pretty much free hand, because the colonial administration was based in St. Louis (Senegal). I imagine this being sort of a feudal relationship between the king and the nobility. Prebendalism at its best. In addition to that the hassan tribes were rearmed by the French and told to ‘collect’ taxes and maintain ‘order’. Obviously that put them somewhat under the control of their former inferiors. 

In the run up to independence the French managed to push through Daddah as a candidate for an ‘autonomous’ Mauritania against nationalist pressures from the northern Arab (affiliated with Morocco) as well as the African communities in the south (affiliated with Senegal). Daddah himself came from an elite that had emerged from the power constellation created by the French: éducation parisienne and from a zwaya elite. After his support both from France and domestically had fainted due to economic problems and, more importantly, the failed war against the Polisario Front, the military took over. And now guess from what tribe that came…… right! 

Doesn’t that sound nice? Well, everybody who understands just a tiny bit about Mauritania knows that it isn’t that easy:

  • there is an exception to the pattern: Taya. He was from a well known, very conservative zwaya tribe. However, I have heard of a grand coalition between the Smassid (Taya), Oulad Bousba (Aziz & Vall) and Idewaali. 
  • obviously there is a lot more important informal power ties in Mauritania than just tribes. People going to school together, growing up together in the rich Tevregh-Zeina district of Nouakchott and obviously family ties, marriages, cousins, etc… 

After all I believe two things can be derived from what I have pointed out above:

  • Traditional power structures (Tribes, Kin and Kith) are very, very consolidated in Mauritania. The entire political system is based on this, including patronage, prebendalism, etc. Therefore prospects for any democratisation are rather gloomy.
  • There is a strong divide between the elite and non-elite which is constantly aggravating. The longer the elite stays in power the more they can extract. Kal has nicely shown how these tribal patronage networks can look like. 

So, what are you’re thoughts, insights, comments on this? I did lean out of the window quite a bit, I know that. But perhaps that helps to get the ball rolling.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2009 21:31

    Nice post! Hope to see more Mauritania stuff from you, Hannes. However, I think this

    The two most powerful kind of tribes were the warrior (hassan) and marabout (zwaya) tribes. One was respected due to its strength and the other due to its knowledge. Although these tribes apparently had some acceptance for each other, they weren’t equal. The hassan tribes after a phase of struggle had put themselves on the top of the hierarchy.

    is a bit of a simplification. Rather than Hassane tribes beating the Zaouia tribes, it was through the power struggle that the two concepts originally formed. Roughly, winners emerged defining themselves as Hassane, losers as Zaouia (although of course with a billion exceptions), whatever their original roots in Arab or Berber society, or in warriordom or scholarship. Then tribes could still move back and forth between these labels, if their roles in society changed. Very fluent, all of it.

    Anywyay, to get back to your original question: no, I don’t think one should rely on the Zaouia-Hassane argument. They were/are etiquettes with some, not entirely dubious, historical explanatory value, and perhaps thinking along those lines promoted some shared values. But they were not in any way functioning alliances or coalitions, and they especially do not seem to be so nowadays.

    The Smasside/ouled bou Sbaa “grand bargain”, on the other hand, appears to have been very real. But I guess Aug. 2005 turned out a deal-breaker…

    Also: Sufi brotherhoods! Always neglected. You mentioned Idaouali, and if I’m not wrong they are the leading tribe in the Tidjania order in Mauritania. If anyone knows anything about those things, I’d like to hear!

    Btw, all — nice blog. I’ve signed up now, but I’m not approved yet.

  2. January 25, 2009 18:31

    Sufi brotherhoods!

    All I know is that Sidi’s old man is the boss of the Sufi brotherhood in Mauritania representing Tidjaniya.

    Would like to hear more on that one as well.

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