A Mauritanian Abolitionist Visits the United States

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Photo: Photograph by Andrew Harnik/ AP
Media Outlet: the New Yorker

Alexis Okeowo wrote for the New Yorker about Biram Dah Abeid, a Mauritanian abolitionist that visited the United States: 

At the end of June, Biram Dah Abeid, an anti-slavery activist from Mauritania who has led that country’s most successful abolitionist movement, arrived in the United States. He had been here before, to accept the United Nations Human Rights Prize for the work of his Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement, in 2013, and to meet with organizations sympathetic to his cause. But this occasion was different. For the past eighteen months, Abeid had been in prison in Mauritania, along with a fellow-activist, Brahim Ramdhane, after being convicted of protesting without official authorization, belonging to an unauthorized organization, and stirring unrest. Abeid had been imprisoned before, for a few months at a time, for acts of protest, but this was by far his longest sentence.
In Mauritania, the Beydanes, a minority Arab-Berber ethnic group, dominate the political and economic landscape, and for centuries have enslaved a black ethnic group called the Haratin. In 1981, Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery, but it persists, even as the government denies it. Abeid, a descendant of slaves, founded the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (known as ira), in 2008. (In 2014, I wrote for the magazine about his work.) More recently, Abeid has gone after the government’s practice of seizing land that the Haratin and other blacks have lived on and worked, and giving it to cronies, local élites, and foreign investors. The large population of Afro-Mauritanians, black Muslims who faced ethnic cleansing and deportation in the nineteen-eighties and nineties but who have never been enslaved, is as vulnerable to land dispossession as the Haratin.

Author:

Alexis Okeowo was a Class of 2016 & 2017 New America Fellow. She is the author of A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa and a staff writer for the New Yorker.