A new president was elected in Mauritania, in a historic poll in March 2007, signalling the return to democratic rule. Up until 2005, the country had been ruled by the strongman Maaouiya Ould Taya for quarter of a century. The new president, Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdallahi, was a former cabinet minister under Taya. However, he quickly indicated his intention to break with the past, especially over two issues: black Mauritanian refugees living in camps in Senegal and Mali, and slavery.

An estimated 70,000 black Mauritanians were driven from the country in 1989, in what ostensibly started as a border dispute about grazing rights. However, the expulsions were widely seen as a part of a racially motivated campaign against Mauritania's black citizens, based mainly in the south. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), tensions between the black southerners and the Arab and Berber northerners date back to before independence. In colonial days, the more settled lifestyles of the black minority (who make up roughly one-third of the population) allowed them to do better educationally, and to dominate the civil service. However, after independence, the Arab and Berber northerners took control, purged the southerners from positions of influence and sought to Arabize the country. Since 1989, some black Mauritanians have drifted back home, but others have languished in poor conditions in refugee camps over the border in Senegal and Mali, and were regarded as an encumbrance by these countries' governments. However, on 12 November 2007, following the election of the new government, Mauritania and Senegal signed a deal which could allow the repatriation of 12,000 refugees, administered under the auspices of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The agreement seemed to mark the end of Africa's most protracted refugee crisis – but there will also be difficulties ahead, especially where the return of land and property is concerned.

New legislation criminalizing slavery in Mauritania was swiftly passed by the new parliament. Although slavery had been banned in Mauritania for over 20 years, there had been no criminal penalties for those flouting the ban. SOS Slavery estimates that there could be as many as 600,000 slaves in Mauritania. It is a deeply engrained practice, dating back hundreds of years, to when Arab and Berber tribes launched slave raids against the African population. Those enslaved were converted to Islam and have been treated as inheritable property. While the new law has been welcomed by campaigners, it has also been pointed out that, as with previous attempts to introduce tougher punishments, much will depend on the authorities' willingness to enforce the law, if the practice is to be eradicated.

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