Abolitionist Leader

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Mauritanian Abolitionist Leader Responds to the Banning of his Anti-Slavery Party
Ex-Slave Messaoud Ould Belkheir on the future of "Action for Change"


On December 24, 2001, Messaoud Ould Belkheir stood before the Mauritanian parliament and denounced the country's 1000 year-old system of chattel slavery. For centuries, ruling Arabo-Berber tribes have owned Black Africans as inheritable property.

A former slave and a newly-elected member of Parliament, Belkheir is the head of the anti-slavery party Action for Change. His speech was broadcast live on national television - a major embarassment to the Mauritanian ruling regime, which seeks to squash any discussion of slavery. Days later, the Government banned Action for Change.

In an exclusive interview with iAbolish, Belkheir discussed the nature of chattel slavery in Mauritania, his abolitionist activism, and the future of the Mauritanian anti-slavery movement. The interview has been translated from the original Arabic by Moctar Cheine.

  • Why does chattel slavery still exist in Mauritania?

First of all, I would like to thank you for this opportunity to answer your question about slavery. Slavery has been apart of our society and culture for centuries and it still exist today. No master wants to free someone who is like property, used for labor sex and breeding.

  • How and why did you come to be a leading abolitionist in Mauritania?

I was born into slavery. My mother and father were slaves, as were all the members of my family. When I was very young, I saw our suffering and often asked my mother questions about why we were treated badly. She told me this is the way life is. We had been slave for generations. From then I knew I wanted to change things: I wanted to free my people and myself.

By chance, my master sent me to school (so his own son would not have to attend the French school). I began to read about democracy and freedom, and continued my education. When I finished, I was determined to fight slavery.

  • What is your vision for the Mauritanian society? In particular, the role of the haratine (Black slaves and former slaves)?

My vision for the Mauritanian society is that slavery will end very soon, and that there will be no discrimination or racism. The haratines should be in the position they deserve: as first-class citizens like everyone else.

  • Have you ever been arrested for the work that you do?

Yes. I was arrested several times. I was questioned by the police many other times, placed under house arrest, and even fired from my job.

  • What is the platform of the Action for Change party?

Action for Change is a reform party that tries to bring justice, freedom, and equality to the people of Mauritania.

  • On Dec. 24, you appeared on live TV, speaking to the parliament. What did you say?

I discussed the slavery issues, and suggested we should make a change.

  • What was the response of other members of the parliament and the government? Why are they so angry about what you said?

Their response was that slavery doesn't exist in Mauritania. They are angry because they don't like to hear the truth.

  • You are a former slave, yet also an important political leader and a member of parliament. Many Americans- who know only 19th century American slavery- will wonder: why are you free but thousands remain in slavery?

Slavery in Mauritania is different from slavery in America. Racial categories of slave and master are complicated, because masters often have children through their slaves. Not all of these children become slaves, though. In Mauritania, you can be a slave of your half-brother and your mother can even be your slave. Also, if, like me, you can support yourself without being dependent on a master, then you can live free. But you have to break both mental chains and economic chains.

  • If the government says there is no more slavery, why are they so afraid of you?

The government doesn't like to face reality and instead promotes propaganda.

  • What is actually involved in the banning of Action for Change? Do you lose your parliament seat?

It is a tradition that the government bands political parties and human right organizations. Since the creation of our party in 1994, we knew that our party would be banned one day. After I spoke out on December 24, that day came. But I didn't loose my seat in parliament. I just lost the right to organize my party. This is the Government's banal response.

  • Now that the party has been banded, is that a major setback or is it a positive development?

Yes, it is a setback. But on the other hand, it proves that slavery still exists and that the Government does not want to do anything to stop it.

  • What are you going to do now? What happens to the anti-slavery movement?

I will continue to do what I have always done. That is to continue to fight slavery. The Mauritanian anti-slavery movement will continue until slavery ends.

  • What is your message to America? What can ordinary Americans do to
    help you?

As we know, America is the garden of democracy and freedom in the world. America shouldn't support the Government of Mauritania, which denies the existence of slavery. You can help by joining S.O.S. Slaves, iAbolish, and other organizations who work against slavery in Mauritania. You can write your leaders in Washington and the United Nations to put pressure on Mauritania.

Whatever you do, use your freedom to help us end slavery. Thank you very much for all the help and support!

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