The divisive tendencies of the various groups within Mauritanian society have always worked against the development of Mauritanian unity. Both the Sanhadja Confederation, at its height from the eighth to the tenth century, and the Almoravid Empire, from the eleventh to the twelfth century, were weakened by internecine warfare, and both succumbed to further invasions from the Ghana Empire and the Almohad Empire, respectively.
The one external influence that tended to unify the country was Islam. The Islamization of Mauritania was a gradual process that spanned more than 500 years. Beginning slowly through contacts with Berber and Arab merchants engaged in the important caravan trades and rapidly advancing through the Almoravid conquests, Islamization did not take firm hold until the arrival of Yemeni Arabs in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and was not complete until several centuries later. Gradual Islamization was accompanied by a process of arabization as well, during which the Berber masters of Mauritania lost power and became vassals of their Arab conquerors.
From the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, European contact with Mauritania was dominated by the trade for gum arabic (see Glossary). Rivalries among European powers enabled the Arab-Berber population, the Maures (Moors), to maintain their independence and later to exact annual payments from France, whose sovereignty over the Senegal River and the Mauritanian coast was recognized by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Although penetration beyond the coast and the Senegal River began in earnest under Louis Faidherbe, governor of Senegal in the mid1800s , European conquest or "pacification" of the entire country did not begin until 1900. Because extensive European contact began so late in the country's history, the traditional social structure carried over into modern times with little change.
The history of French colonial policy in Mauritania is closely tied to that of the other French possessions in West Africa, particularly to that of Senegal, on which Mauritania was economically, politically, and administratively dependent until independence. The French policy of assimilation and direct rule, however, was never applied with any vigor in Mauritania, where a system that corresponded more to Britain's colonial policies of association and indirect rule developed. Colonial administrators relied extensively on Islamic religious leaders and the traditional warrior groups to maintain their rule and carry out their policies. Moreover, little attempt was made to develop the country's economy.
After World War II, Mauritania, along with the rest of French West Africa, was involved in a series of reforms of the French colonial system, culminating in independence in 1960. These reforms were part of a trend away from the official policies of assimilation and direct rule in favor of administrative decentralization and internal autonomy. Although the nationalistic fervor sweeping French West Africa at this time was largely absent in Mauritania, continuous politicking (averaging one election every eighteen months between 1946 and 1958) provided training for political leaders and awakened a political consciousness among the populace. Nevertheless, when Mauritania declared its independence in 1960, its level of political as well as economic development was, at best, embryonic.
President Moktar Ould Daddah, originally helped to the post by the French, rapidly reformed Mauritania into an authoritarian one-party state in 1964, with his new constitution. Daddah's own Parti du Peuple Mauritanien (PPM) became the ruling organization. The President justified this decision on the grounds that he considered Mauritania unready for western-style multi-party democracy. Under this one-party constitution, Daddah was reelected in uncontested elections in 1966, 1971 and 1976.
To take advantage of the country's sizable iron ore deposits in Zouerate, the new government built a 675-km railway and a mining port. Production began in 1963. The mines were operated by a foreign owned consortium that paid its approximately 3,000 expatriate workers handsomely - their salaries accounted for two-thirds of the country's entire wages bill. When the Mauritanian miners went on a two-month strike in the late 1960s the army intervened and eight miners were killed. Left-wing opposition to the government mounted and some miners formed a clandestine Marxist union in 1973. President Ould Daddah survived the challenge from left-wing opponents by nationalising the company in 1974 and withdrawing from the franc zone, substituting the ouguiya for the CFA.
In 1975, partly for nationalist reasons and partly for fear of Moroccan expansionism, Mauritania invaded and annexed the southern third of the former Spanish Sahara (now Western Sahara) in 1975, renaming it Tiris al-Gharbiyya. However, after nearly three years of raids by the Sahrawi guerrillas of the Polisario Front, Mauritania's economic and political stability began to crumble. Despite French and Moroccan military aid , Polisario raids against the Zouerate railway and mines threatened to bring about economic collapse, and there were deep misgivings in the military about the Saharan adventure. Ethnic unrest contributed to the disarray. Black Africans from the south were conscripted as front-line soldiers, after the northern Sahrawi minorities and their Moorish kin had proven unreliable in the fight against Polisario, but many of the southerners rebelled against having to fight what they considered an inter-Arab war. After the government quarters in Nouakchott had twice been shelled by Polisario forces, unrest simmered, but Daddah's only response was to further tighten his hold on power.
On July 10 1978, Col. Mustafa Ould Salek ousted led a bloodless coup d’état that ousted the President, who would later go into exile in France. Power passed to the military strongmen of the Military Committee for National Recovery (CMRN). Polisario immediately declared a cease-fire, and peace negotiations began under the sponsorship of Polisario's main backer, Algeria. With the CMSN's leader reluctant to break with France and Mauritania, the country refused to give in to Polisario demands for a troop retreat, and Ould Salek's careless handling of the ethnic issue (massively discriminating against Black Africans in nominating for government posts ) contributed to further unrest. In early 1979, he was pushed aside by another group of officers, who renamed the junta the Military Committee for National Salvation (CMSN). Col. Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidallah soon emerged as its main strongman.
In interior policy, Haidallah sought to improve relations between Moors and Black Africans, among other things officially decreeing the ban of slavery for the first time in the country's history, but he neither tried nor achieved a radical break with the sectarian and discriminating policies of previous regimes. An attempt to reinstate civilian rule was abandoned after the above-mentioned Moroccan-sponsored coup attempt nearly brought down the regime; foreign-backed plots also involved Persian Gulf countries and Libya, and the country several times appeared to be under military threat from Morocco.
With Haidallah's ambitious political and social reform program undone by continuing instability, regime inefficiency and a plethora of coup attempts and intrigues from within the military establishment, the CMSN chairman turned increasingly autocratic, excluding other junta officers from power, and provoking discontent by frequently reshuffling the power hierarchy to prevent threats to his position.
On December 12, 1984, Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya deposed Haidallah and declared himself Chairman of the CMSN. Like other rulers before him, he promised a swift transfer to democracy, but then made little of these promises.
The discord between conflicting visions of Mauritanian society as either black or Arab, again rose to the surface during the intercommunal violence that broke out in April 1989 (the "1989 Events"), when a Mauritania-Senegal border dispute escalated into violence between the two communities. Tens of thousands of black Mauritanians fled or were expelled from the country, and many remain in Senegal as refugees. This is also where the black Mauritanian movement FLAM is based. Although tension has since subsided, the Arab-African racial tension remains an important feature of the political dialog today. The country continues to experience ethnic tensions between its black minority population and the dominant Mauri (Arab-Berber) populace. A significant number from both groups, however, seek a more diverse, pluralistic society.
In 2001, elections incorporated more safeguards against voter fraud but opposition candidate (and former leader) Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidallah was nevertheless arrested prior to election day on charges of planning a coup, released the same day, and rearrested after the election. Attempted military coups and unrest instigated by Islamist opponents of the regime marred the early years of the 21st century, and the Taya regime's heavy-handed crackdowns were criticized by human rights groups.
On June 8, 2003 a failed coup attempt was made against President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya by forces unhappy with his imprisonment of Islamic leaders in the wake of the US-led invasion of Iraq and his establishment of full diplomatic relations with Israel. The coup was suppressed after one day of fighting in the capital when pro-Taya military forces arrived from the countryside. A number of government officials were detained after the coup including the head of the Supreme Court, Mahfoud Ould Lemrabott, and the Secretary of State for Women's Affairs, Mintata Mint Hedeid. The coup leader, Saleh Ould Hanenna, a former army colonel sacked for opposing Taya's pro-Israel policies, was not captured or killed during the coup. (See this BBC article on theories behind the coup.)
On August 3, 2005 the Mauritanian military, including members of the presidential guard, seized control of key points in the capital of Nouakchott, performing a coup against the government of President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya who was out of the country, attending the funeral of Saudi King Fahd. The officers released the following statement:
The national armed forces and security forces have unanimously decided to put a definitive end to the oppressive activities of the defunct authority, which our people have suffered from during the past years. (BBC)
Taya was never able to return to the country, and remains in exile. The new junta called itself the Military Council for Justice and Democracy, and democracy and rule of law. Col.. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall emerged as leader at an early stage. Dissidents were released, and the political climate relaxed. A new constitution was approved in June 2006. Elections were held in March 2007, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi was elected president and Vall stood down.
On August 6, 2008, Mauritania's presidential spokesman Abdoulaye Mamadouba said President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, Prime Minister Yahya Ould Ahmed Waghf and the interior minister, were arrested by by renegade Senior Mauritanian army officers, unknown troops and a group of generals, and were held under house arrest at the presidential palace in Nouakchott. In the apparently successful and bloodless coup d'etat, Abdallahi daughter, Amal Mint Cheikh Abdallahi said: "The security agents of the BASEP (Presidential Security Battalion) came to our home and took away my father. The coup plotters are top fired Mauritania’s security forces, which include General Muhammad Ould ‘Abd Al-‘Aziz, General Muhammad Ould Al-Ghazwani, General Philippe Swikri, and Brigadier General (Aqid) Ahmad Ould Bakri. Mauritanian lawmaker, Mohammed Al Mukhtar, announced that "many of the country's people were supporting the takeover attempt and the government is "an authoritarian regime" and that the president had "marginalized the majority in parliament.