Government military junta
Independence From France, 1960

'Le Grand Vide', the Big Nothing, that's what the French colonialists called Mauritania. This qualification is somewhat unjust to the country although even for those partial to desolate places, Mauritania may have a bit too much emptiness. It does have some spots for fishing and bird watching along the coast, as well as a few scattered caravan towns. But Mauritania's primary attraction is desert -- lots and lots of it. And the dunes are claiming more of the country every year. The country's capital, Nouakchott, which was far from the Sahara when it was founded in the 1960s, is now surrounded by sand. Although twice the size of France, it has only 3 million inhabitants and presents a cultural contrast, with the population divided between Arab-Berbers to the north and black Africans to the south. Many of its people are nomads.

Mauritania officially banned slavery in 1981. The government has denied accusations that it is still being practised.

There are three distinct geographic regions in Mauritania; a narrow belt along the Senegal River Valley in the south, where soil and climatic conditions permit settled agriculture; north of this valley, a broad east-west bank characterised by vast sand plains and fixed dunes held in place by sparse grass and scrub trees; and a large northern arid region shading into the Sahara Desert and characterised by shifting sand dunes, rock outcroppings and rugged mountainous plateaus with elevations of more than 1,500 ft. The country is generally flat and the coastline indented; the Senegal River and its tributaries are the only waterways.

As the country gained independence in 1960, the capital city Nouakchott was founded at the site of a small colonial village, the Ksar, and 90% of the population was still nomadic. With independence, larger numbers of the indigenous peoples (Haalpulaar, Soninke, and Wolof) entered Mauritania, moving into the area north of the Senegal River. A schism developed between those who consider Mauritania to be an Arab country (mainly Moors) and those who seek a dominant role for the non-Moorish peoples. The discord between these two conflicting visions of Mauritanian society was evident during intercommunal violence that broke out in April 1989 (the "1989 Events"), but has since subsided. The tension between these two visions remains a feature of the political dialogue. A significant number from both groups, however, seek a more diverse, pluralistic society.

In August 2005, a pacific military coup led by Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, director of the national police force expelled Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya from the country. Applauded by the Mauritanian people, but cautiously watched by the international community, it has since been normalized. The discovery of oil in 2001 in the Chinguetti deposit will be a test for the current government since, according to human rights activists, it can be a blessing for one of the poorest countries in the world as well as a curse bringing corruption and violence to the country.

Mauritania, along with Morocco, illegally annexed the territory of Western Sahara in 1976, with Mauritania taking the lower one-third. After several military losses to Polisario, Mauritania retreated in 1979, and their claims were taken by Morocco. Due to economic weakness, Mauritania has been a negligible player in the territorial dispute, with its official position being that it wishes for an expedient solution that is mutually agreeable to all parties.

More recently, ties with Senegal have been strained over the use of the Senegal River, which forms the border between the two countries.

A majority of the population still depends on agriculture and livestock for a livelihood, even though most of the nomads and many subsistence farmers were forced into the cities by recurrent droughts in the 1970s and 1980s. Mauritania has extensive deposits of iron ore, which account for almost 50% of total exports. The decline in world demand for this ore, however, has led to cutbacks in production. With the current rises in metal prices, gold and copper mining companies are opening mines in the interior. The nation's coastal waters are among the richest fishing areas in the world, but overexploitation by foreigners threatens this key source of revenue.

Most of the country has a true desert climate - very dry and extremely hot throughout the year. The far south has occasional rains.

(edited. Wikipedia, BBC, The Africa Guide, Bradt)
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