There are currently an estimated 21 million to 45 million people trapped in slavery today, and an estimated 9.2 million of them are in Africa. Among these countries, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania is perhaps the only place in the world where people can still be born into slavery.
As anti-racism protests invoke the U.S. legacy of slavery, it is worth remembering that the country’s first black president, Barack Obama, granted Mauritania trade benefits in 2010, while President Donald Trump, whose detractors label a racist, reversed that decision and explicitly cited the African country’s slavery as his reason.
Up to 20% of Mauritania’s 4.6 million people are enslaved, mostly those belonging to the Haratin ethnic minority, according to a CNN report. Slavery has existed in the region for hundreds of years, established by Islamic nations during their conquests of northwest Africa in the 8th century. (RELATED: Georgetown Professor Plays Defense For Islamic Supremacism)
A caste system was established in Mauritania, with light-skinned Arabs and Berbers enslaving dark-skinned Haratin moors. Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981 and formally criminalized it in 2007, but, according to the Guardian, the law is not enforced.
The situation appeared to be the prime opportunity for a newly-inaugurated Obama to score a diplomatic win. The former president gave a speech in 2011 responding to pro-democracy movements across the Islamic world. “Square by square, town by town, country by country, the people have risen up to demand their basic human rights,” he said.
Obama assured the people of the region that he would “stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights,” but that promise never materialized for the thousands of Haratin people enslaved in Mauritania.
Instead, the former president added Mauritania as a country eligible for preferential treatment under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). The policy helped a number of sub-Saharan economies by lowering trade barriers and encouraging foreign direct investment.
The move was a huge boost to Mauritania’s sluggish economy, which relies heavily on iron ore exports, according to an AGOA report. The country also qualified for a debt relief package and saw an increase in private investment, leading to annual growth rates of 5% or more.
Mauritania had previously lost its status as an AGOA member less than a year prior to Obama’s decision. Former president George W. Bush stripped the country of its preferential treatment in December 2008 after a military coup in August toppled the democratically-elected government.
Obama’s reasons for this move could be justified along the lines of strategic interest. Although he ended trade benefits for other African countries like Niger for undemocratic behavior, as Reuters reported in 2009, it is possible that the administration saw a benefit to improving ties with Mauritania.
For example, the two countries have shared a mutual security interest for decades, according to the U.S. Africa Command, specifically in containing north African terrorism and more recently in stemming the flow of refugees in the region.
It is also clear that Obama understood the impact of both Arab and European slavery on the region, as he spoke thoroughly about it in a 2015 speech at the African Union headquarters in Ethiopia.
Mauritania’s AGOA status went unnoticed until Trump announced in November 2018 that he would be terminating the country’s trade preference status, citing its forced labor practices and recent crackdowns on anti-slavery protesters. (RELATED: Ugandan President: ‘I Love Trump’ For Speaking ‘Frankly’ About Africa)
“In particular, Mauritania has made insufficient progress toward combating forced labor, specifically, the scourge of hereditary slavery,” the president wrote in a letter to Congress. “Despite intensive engagement with the United States, the Government of Mauritania has failed to meet critical required benchmarks to address these issues to date.”
Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Curtis Joseph Mahoney added in a statement that the move “underscores this administration’s commitment to ending modern slavery and enforcing labor provisions in our trade laws and trade agreements.”
The distinction between the Obama and Trump administrations on the issue of Mauritanian slavery is important because of the way both presidents tend to be portrayed. Both leaders have served in a time of growing partisanship, Pew Research Center polling shows, but whereas Obama generally received positive media coverage, according to The Washington Post, quite a bit of Trump’s has been negative — as much as 92% of his media coverage was negative in May, according to a Media Research Center report.
In other words, it is understandable that an alleged Trump comment calling African countries “s***holes” would be more well-known than the fact that he took away economic benefits from an African country with a documented record of slavery.
The death of George Floyd also opened up a national conversation about the legacy of American slavery and the ways that racism can affect society today. (RELATED: No Winners, Only Losers: Law Enforcement Officers, GOP Lawmakers Imagine What Would Happen In A World Without Police)
That conversation has been politicized at times, with Trump’s defense of federal monuments seen by some as a nod towards historical racism, as one editorial in the Chicago Tribune stated. Although it would be unfair to say the Obama administration was apathetic to modern slavery, there are clear policy differences in the way each president handled the issue in Mauritania.
Yet the accusations of racism against Trump and his supporters continue. Hillary Clinton, the president’s 2016 challenger, infamously said that a significant portion of Trump supporters belong in a “basket of deplorables.” Biden, the president’s 2020 challenger, recently said that 10-15% of Americans are “not very good people.”
No matter how many times the president is referred to in this manner, it should be remembered that Clinton and Biden both served in an administration that granted preferential trade status to Mauritania, financially abetting a country where hereditary slavery is still practiced.
It should also be remembered that it was Trump who reversed that decision, offering his support to end chattel slavery in Mauritania more than 15 decades after it was ended in the U.S.