Minorities in Mauritania continued to face discrimination by the government. The unreliable issuing of national identification cards, which were required for voting, effectively disenfranchised numerous members of southern minority groups. Racial and cultural tension and discrimination also arose from the geographic and cultural divides between Moors and Afro-Mauritanians. According to the US State Department: 'the Black Moors (also called Haratins) remain politically and economically weaker than White Moors. Afro-Mauritanian ethnic groups, comprising the Halpulaar (the largest non-Moor group), Wolof, and Soninke, meanwhile remained underrepresented in the military and security sectors'. Black Moors and Afro-Mauritanians also continued to be under-represented in mid- to high-level public and private sector jobs.

A military coup on 6 August ousted the democratically elected president, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, from office. General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, who had been instrumental in the 2005 coup that overthrew former President Maaouiya Ould Taya, installed himself as the new president. The coup led to the suspension of IMF and World Bank programmes, which will affect the country's efforts to reduce poverty. It also provoked the EU, African Union and US to stop or threaten to curtail development and military support to the county. In November 2008, IRIN reported that the military in Mauritania were anxious about the international community's reaction, as they felt unable to face the terrorist threat from the Algeria-based extremist Islamist group, al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb. This group claimed responsibility for an attack on a military convoy in September outside the northern town of Tourine, and attacks on a police post and tourists in December 2007. The US had helped to train Mauritanian soldiers in counterterrorism techniques but has now pulled out of doing further training.

Ethnic tensions between the black population (Afro-Mauritanians) and White and Black Moor (Arab-Berber) communities escalated during the year. The black refugees who fled to Senegal to escape the ethnic conflict have been particularly affected. They have been returning to their homeland throughout 2008. In February 2009 IRIN reported that more than 7,000 people have returned. Returning families have been given 400 square metres of land and support from UNHCR to help them resettle. Despite the 2007 law that criminalized the practice of slavery, there are still many issues associated with slaves and ex-slaves in Mauritania. There are said to be around 600,000 slaves in the country (20 per cent of the total population). The National Human Rights Commission has said that the law has led to the liberation of 43 people, with hundreds of cases still in the courts. Ex-slaves have difficulty constructing lives after having left bonded labour (see Box, p. 104).

A new human rights commissioner, Lemine Dadde, was installed after the coup. He has been recorded as saying that the ruling military council has budgeted more than US $5 million to help victims of slavery. Forty-six villages in extreme poverty with high concentrations of black Africans – who make up the majority of the slave population – were earmarked to receive emergency cash assistance from February 2009.

Minorities face difficulties in the education system as neither Afro-Mauritanian national languages nor the local Hassaniya Arabic dialect are used as languages of instruction. The Constitution designates Arabic as the official national language and encourages French and Arabic bilingualism within the school system.

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