Contents - Previous - Next
This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at http://unu.edu
Evolution of the social and political framework of nomadism
Claude Levi-Strauss wrote of functionalism: 'to say that something functions in a society is a truism, to say that everything is functional is an absurdity'. A statement with which I agree, and grant the structures of nomad society only a relative functionality, expressing in various domains (economic, technological, institutional, ideological and so on) the adjustment of a necessarily discontinuous human and animal occupation to the scattered and often ephemeral resources of a poor natural environment. I have earlier stressed the role and influence of the natural and economic constraints in the evolution of Mauritanian pastoralism. In the following pages the evolution of the political organization of pastoralism will be examined, and an attempt made to determine the role of the social and political structures of nomadism in the contradictions of present-day Mauritanian society which, in turn, has diverse effects on the structures of nomadism.
Women' herds and capital
Numerous observers have stressed the uniqueness of the social and political structures of pre-colonial Moorish society in which the apparent rigidity of status and hierarchical positions both confirmed and cut across the political control of a territorial space with ill-defined boundaries. What was the nature of this hierarchy and political control? How has the evolution described above of the economic context, and particularly the extension of commodity relations, affected this organization? What do the changes in the institutional, juridical and ideological framework of nomadization that have occurred since colonization mean for the future of pastoralism?
One of the most prominent characteristics of African pastoral societies in general and those of the Sahel in particular, and one that has engaged the interest of numerous ethnologists,7 is the close and many-sided relationship between pastoralists and their herds. These bonds largely conditioned the social and political structures of Moorish pastoralists, in which the necessary mobility of livestock and the hierarchical circulation of animals and their products (gifts, loans, tributes) played a central role. But other considerations must be taken into account, notably those concerning meeting nomads' cereal and agricultural needs and the specialization that they required, or specific features peculiar to the constitution of the ideological and political arena of this pastoral society.
The works of many anthropologists (Bonte, Stenning. Hopen. Asad. Galaty and others) who have observed nomad societies stress, over and beyond the immediate functions of livestock as a means of meeting elementary needs, the place occupied by livestock in the reproduction of the nomad community itself. The privileged role of livestock in the social relations and community life of nomads that ethnologists designate as a 'cattle complex', even 'boolatrie' (cattle worship) is thought by some observers to be essentially the obstacle to a 'rationalization' of the exploitation of the herds.
We have already mentioned the role played by mniha, the loan on the use of animals, especially milch cows, in the creation and consolidation of bonds of reciprocity and clientage in a society in which agnatic solidarity and its clientelist extensions represented the principal recourse against the constant threat of a razzia. The forms of mniha, the nature and number of animals it involved, the period of loans and the relations between givers and receivers naturally varied a great deal. A hartÓni (former slave) with a flock of ewes may loan a former master, or some needy marabout or notable, one or two milkers for as long as they are giving milk, although he may well be concerned for their kids, which generally benefit very little from their mother's milk and may even simply have their throats cut before the mothers are returned. The religious benefit (receiving the marabout's baraka) or the political one, in the widest sense, or sometimes simply the inequality in power would usually be enough for such an 'irregularity' to be disregarded. A wealthier dependent or client would grant the loan of a herd for a long or even indeterminate period, contenting himself with a periodic inspection or occasionally collecting dues. Between kin too, great disparities in the distribution of animal wealth may be the source of mnayah (pl, of mniha) helping both to affirm kin solidarity and establish a hierarchy between givers and receivers.
In addition to the practice of loaning, tributes, ranging from a few kilograms of wool or a goatskin of rancid butter, to one or more head of cattle per adult male, contributed to ensuring that the circulation of livestock and its products had permanent role in maintaining and reproducing the social relations peculiar to the nomad group. Such tributes continued to be collected until 1951, when, under the aegis of the colonial administration, tribute-payers settled their last dues, partly in livestock, partly in cash.8 Finally, while in Moorish society, Islamized from a very early date, gifts, and ceremonial and ritual sacrifices were on a smaller scale than among other groups of pastoralists, they still made a significant contribution to the reproduction of the social order.
In this connection, the fundamental role of livestock in the payment of bridewealth (the dowry in the pre-colonial period was almost wholly settled in livestock) points to a very clear conjunction between the renewal of the pastoral society and the growth of herds. Summarizing generally the meaning of the reproduction and circulation of livestock as a privileged vehicle of social relations within Sahelian pastoral communities, Pierre Bonte writes:
It is in so far as the reproduction of domestic groups appears simultaneously as the reproduction of the communal conditions of pastoral production within domestic units that it requires the existence of a large surplus over and beyond the immediate needs of reproduction of labour and is integrated into a wider cycle of livestock circulation, resting on successive changes in the value of livestock. It is the moment when this livestock circulates as a social value that appears as determining of other moments of production because these are moments when it makes possible the simultaneous reproduction of the domestic groups as a whole and the community as such.
(Bonte 1977, p. 49)
The reproduction of pastoral society and its chief means of subsistence was effected in an institutional and territorial framework that has been largely undermined by the changes that began with the colonial occupation.
First, at the level of the social hierarchy, was the apparent rigidity of a structure that fixed the heredity status of each Moor, thus assigning him by virtue of his descent to one of the following groups: warriors, marabouts, tributaries (servant group), artisans, griots, former slaves and slaves. While this distribution of the Moorish population does not directly reflect a division of pastoral labour itself9 (only those tributaries specialized in animal husbandry appear to have been directly affected), the links between this structure and livestock, the focus and principal weapon of all social competition, may be clearly distinguished in almost every aspect of Moorish nomad life and activity.
This summary of the hierarchical and ceremonial circulation of livestock will not here be dealt with in detail nor will the role of the razzia, the activity that formed the base of the warrior aristocracy's power. It should be stressed that the work of artisans, paid for by the products of herding was, obviously, aimed at meeting needs associated with pastoral life (saddlery, tent equipment, milking equipment, shearing equipment, veterinary equipment etc).
The status of former slaves, many of whom were agricultural workers in the oases and in the more watered regions in southern Mauritania, was largely instrumental to maintaining the necessary complementarily between pastoral production and agricultural production referred to at the beginning of this chapter. This specialization of former slaves was, of course, maintained and reproduced to the advantage of the dominant groups who could thereby ensure for themselves a monopoly of political control of the land. Here, it is necessary to digress briefly in order to comment on the political control of the land, in which the changes over the last 50 years have had a crucial effect on pastoral mobility.
The apparent simplicity of what survives today of pre-colonial Moorish land tenure institutions- a tribal-type collective appropriation of the land- should not permit the earlier complex control of the area of pastoralism, in which use-rights and ownership rights were associated and interwoven with status and personal ties, to be forgotten.
First, it must be emphasized that appropriation of land, claimed to be operative over a territorial area with more or less recognized and acknowledged boundaries, actually concerned only the most useful parts of the territory appropriated: watering places and growing areas. Control of watering places, which largely commanded control of transhumance circuits, was itself subject to varied and contradictory norms.
Apart from during exceptional circumstances and notably in the event of armed conflict, permanent water sources (lined wells, natural springs, large winter ponds and so on), while deemed to belong to this or that 'tribe' or tribal 'fraction', were freely accessible to all nomads Cases of enclosing a winter pond in order to restrict its use to a particular group were rare and often hotly disputed The realization of seasonal draining wells, where adequate surface water made this possible, was not a problem, since this did not justify any permanent appropriation of the land.
The relationship between watering places and grazing areas explains the nomad tribes' resolute opposition should elements external to the tribe propose to dig a permanent well on 'their' land Beyond an expression of tribal nationalism (the tribe being, above all, a political unit) this opposition obviously reflects the nomads' fear of restrictions that might affect the free availability of grazing areas.
In pre-colonial Mauritania, possession of watering places formed part of the complex game of status relations and marked out the institutional framework of control of the pastoral space rather than did the fluid territorial boundaries.
Wells, for example, were mostly in the hands of marabout groups, the leading organizers of the pastoral economy, but they generally had to take account of the political hegemony of the warriors who were prepared to use their weapons to ensure permanent access to forage and water resources for themselves, unless established privileges enshrining their hegemony in this area were institutionalized.10
Control of the use of grazing areas often assumed its most stable form in the payment of individual or collective dues that, in principle, were part of a contract for protection in a society which was constantly prey to razzias.
Despite the precarious nature of their authority, only the emirates (Trarza. Brakna, Adrar, Tagant), which emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, tried, within often indeterminate boundaries, to provide a precise territorial framework to the political and hierarchical system whose unity they both expressed and guaranteed. There too, imposing a tax on nomads from outside the emirate, a sort of entry tax in exchange for their (relative) security, was a means of regulating the use of grazing areas as well as an instrument to affirm the hierarchical power of warriors within the emirate since only they were able to impose and collect this sort of due. The instability of the political power of the emirates, not only in the sense of a chronic precariousness of the leaders' personal positions but also in the sense of uncertainty as to the legitimacy and effectiveness of its ideological and hierarchical foundations (the real or supposed power of some great marabout, reputed to act on occult forces might, in some cases, effectively oppose that of the emir) in addition to the absence of fixed and recognized borders in fact left herders a freedom of movement limited mainly by the extent of their alliance network or their capacities to defend themselves against possible aggressors.
Such are the broad outlines of the situation before the French colonization of Mauritania. The upheavals that have since occurred, affecting the territorial and political organization, and hierarchical structures of Moorish pastoralism, have profoundly transformed a nomad social milieu made increasingly vulnerable to the vicissitudes occasioned by an unpredictable climate.
Pastoralism and the Mauritanian state
With colonization, the web of relations that was the key characteristic of any group or category: caste, tribe, religious brotherhood, rank, status, and so on, and the power relations it underpinned which, as we have noted, were closely linked to the political organization of the pastoral space, came under the direct control of the French administration. The overall movement of nomadism in a now unified territorial area - with the disorderly violence of the razzia supplanted by the violence of colonial rule - as well as local population movements, were considerably changed by this new situation. Nomad society itself was integrated into a larger territorial and political grouping embracing communities of sedentary black agriculturalists and suffered the levelling effects of the market economy. Its reproduction became increasingly difficult. Since independence (1960) pastoralism was generally only indirectly affected by the official options of the Mauritanian authorities but these, nevertheless, helped accelerate what has in recent years become a pronounced trend towards the sedentarization of nomads.
The 'security' inaugurated by colonial peace and the 'freedom of grazing' decreed by the colonizer created major obstacles to the free movement of men and livestock. Through those close to the 'commandant' (petty administrative staff, guards, servants, and so on) the creation of administrative centres and the opening of a few schools favoured the diffusion of modes and models that underpinned the extension of the commodity relations.
This extension itself precipitated and required, if not a dissolution, at least a profound weakening of traditional social relations that was essential to the 'freeing' of labour mentioned above. This meant at least a partial 'Loosening' of the hierarchical relations that provided the framework for the production and reproduction of pastoral society. Some progress, though ambiguous, has been made in this direction in recent years.
In the past, as today, the principal issue in 'freeing' labour is the status of dominated groups in Moorish society (probably over half the total Moorish population) and the nature of their relations with the groups that dominate them.
With colonization, as already remarked, the warriors" autonomous military power ceased. But by adapting to the new situation, the power of the marabouts, whose essential vocation lies in the production of what Weber called 'the goods of salvation', tended to be maintained and even to grow, in order to handle the diffusion of the ideological negotiations of a society in crisis.
The colonial administration claimed that one motive for its action was to eliminate marabouts' and warriors' exploitation of groups whose support it hoped to win over. But it soon adopted an attitude of compromise with the ruling classes of Moorish society, once their military resistance had ended (Coppolani and Gouraud columns in 1902-5 and 1908-9). The 'Patey instructions' (from the name of the then Governor of Mauritania) of February 1910 set out the broad outlines of the policy to be followed in reestablishing a now loyal tribal chieftaincy. By taking on tribal notables, or recruiting them as functionaries after a brief spell in the a 'School for the Sons of Chiefs', a system of Collaboration', which offered the advantage of maintaining the traditional social hierarchy apparently intact, was rapidly established. These were the first steps in the formation of the post-colonial bureaucratic class in which elements from the traditionally dominant groups or families have retained much of their hegemony.11
The same 'prudence' was observed by the colonial administration in its attitude towards the dominated groups in Moorish society. Under colonial rule, tribute-payers continued for a long time to pay dues to their lords and, only belatedly, after 1946, was the redemption of tributes by the payers themselves speeded up under the auspices of the administration; the last transactions took place in 1951.
Slavery, although officially abolished, was- and still is- widely tolerated by the authorities.12 Contrary to widespread belief. Moorish slavery, an institution probably as old as the Moors themselves, does not, for the most part, derive from the isolated kidnapping of blacks by raiders. Doubtless there were many such cases and the insecurity maintained by Moorish razzias among the sedentary black peasants in neighbouring areas left memories that are still very much alive. But our few brief surveys show that over 80% of Moorish slaves who still remember where they or their ancestors were enslaved (only a minority of those we questioned) were from Bambara country where they were bought in the nineteenth century. Slaves were used as herders and shepherds, and as well-diggers in agriculture, or generally as share-croppers - in which case they were usually former slaves paying dues that might range from a symbolic quantity of seeds to virtually the whole harvest. At the time of the slave trade, they were also used to collect gum. Moorish slaves were not a servile mass employed in heavy communal labour, as in Graeco-Roman antiquity or on the American plantations, but 'house' (or rasher 'tent') slaves whose status and personal living conditions varied, depending on the master's status, from beast of burden to confidant and personal adviser.
While officially abolishing slavery, the colonial administration did not embark on any systematic action to make such a measure a reality. There were even frequent cases of complicity between some local representatives of the authorities and owners who had come to claim slaves who had run away. It should be noted, however, that fear of a possible repression and the support that maroons could sometimes count upon, particularly among the black auxiliaries of the colonial administration, tended to make administrative centres places of refuge. Since the end of European slave trading, and given how little traffic in slaves there was across the western Sahara, sales of slaves in Mauritania which had only ever involved small quantitites of human merchandise, or even just individuals, became rarer. Isolated cases of sales (some are still reported today) thus increasingly took on an exceptional and more or less clandestine nature.
In addition to these factors, the advance of agriculture, encouraged by the colonial administration which supervised the building of a few small dams such as that at Magta Lajar in the late 1940s, accompanied and reflected advances in the sedentarization of slaves and former slaves that signified not only an abandonment of the pastoral way of life but also the beginning of an emancipation movement still continuing today.
The recent stepping-up of this movement towards sedentarization, which of course does not involve only former dependents, has helped accentuate the imbalances and contradictions of a pastoral society no longer able to control its mechanisms of reproduction.
The drought affecting the whole of the Sahel since the late 1960s; the development of an urban wage-earning sector associated in particular with mining activities and currently totalling some 25,000 jobs; insecurity in the countryside associated with the war in the Sahara, which began in 1975: the development of road transport, notably the building of the Nouakchott-NÚma road (begun in 1974), which more or less coincides with the track now used by nomads, who previously frequented the now decertified areas further north; are all factors that explain the scale of sedentarization and migratory movements directly affecting the organization, values, and the very existence of pastoral society.
Resort to agriculture as a substitute for or supplement to the severely reduced income from herding (herd losses due to drought have been very high, over 80% for many families) is not problem-free. The scale of the population pressure engendered by sedentarization on the few cultivable areas is leading to an exacerbation of land disputes. In some places, given the overall contradictions of Mauritanian society and the clientage and 'racial' nature of the available ideological models, these disputes are taking on more a tribal and ethnic, rather than a strictly class character.
Moorish slaves' and former slaves' challenge, encouraged in the towns by their growing importance in some sectors of the Mauritanian state apparatus, especially in the other ranks of the army, and helped or supported by the few of their number who occupy a position of some prominence in this apparatus, is thus itself set in the tribal and ethnic framework that gives it its specific features and limits. A number of contradictory aspects of a development, highly significant not only for the future of pastoralism but also for the whole of Mauritanian society, need to be stressed here.
Dominant groups in nomad society, ruined by the drought and hardly enthusiastic about agricultural work, settle close to land, often for long cultivated by their former dependents, and attempt to impose a share-cropping system upon them on lands that both parties agree belong to the tribe collectively. Previously, the nomad groups would have been satisfied, with more irregular and tolerable contributions in exchange for a few products of herding. Like their former masters, the former slaves, faced with the claims of other former slaves, justify their possession of the land on the basis that they belong to the tribe that owns the land. But the tribal juridical framework, covering the hierarchical stratification already detailed (warriors, marabouts and so on) with the former slaves and slaves at the bottom, implies the exclusion of this group from ownership. The former slaves' class aspirations and demands, and their desire to appropriate the land, thus conflicts with the tribal framework that integrates them into pastoral society as agricultural labourers but excludes them from ownership of the land, exclusive enjoyment of which is based on the political power of the dominant groups that, in turn, it contributes to establish and reproduce.
The hierarchical structures of pre-colonial pastoral society have thus been largely transferred into the present Mauritanian state order (marabouts and warriors occupy bureaucratic and commercial jobs, former slaves and slaves the lowliest and worst paid - labourers, domestics and so on). This helps to maintain, even perpetuate, a brutally hierarchical social order, involving collection of tribute, unpaid labour and corporal punishment. This order is gradually giving way to a clientelist and pseudo-philanthropic practice in which yesterday's masters who have become today's bureaucratic intermediaries, pose as protectors - or even as victims of clients who sometimes have to be lodged and fed in the urban areas.
The tribal political model's perpetuation through its clientelist extensions also partly explains the ambiguity of the political expression of the movement to emancipate former slaves. This ambiguity reflects both the continuing significance of the model according to the logic of the pre-eminence of the dominant class' ideology and the sociological heterogeneity of a rural- and 'tribal'-based movement under an urban leadership from the middle bureaucracy aspiring to convert clientelism in such a way as to legitimize what otherwise would not be fully operative. Social identity, measured in terms of the tribal system that based prestige and legitimacy on a genealogical (re)construction that excluded slaves and former slaves was not practicable for the latter, but within the range of available communal identifications there remained that of ethnicity. This was all the more tempting because it enabled their 'representatives' to play on the existing ethnic rivalries (a fundamental feature of the Mauritanian political scene) by integrating and (re)emphasizing an ethnic origin (former slaves and slaves are black Africans) that was a permanent mark of their inferiority within the tribal order. Thus, following the coup d'Útat of July 1978 there were tracts calling for a division of power on an ethnic base.
These observations upon former slaves and their efforts to secure emancipation (the Moorish slaves have just been solemnly 'freed' for the third time in half a century by government decree), and the integration of this phenomenon into a wider field of clientelist-type (tribal or ethnic) political contradictions and rivalries that run through present-day Mauritanian society, have only apparently taken us away from pastoralism and its future. These rivalries and contradictions are, it is true, over-determined by a regional and international context marked by competition between local micro-hegemonisms and between the commercial and strategic interests of the great powers which, inevitably, are concerned about the Sahara war and its possible 'tribal-ethnic' fall-out. But what, in reality, is at stake in this interweaving of alliances and oppositions between various social strata of pastoral society, between 'tribes', 'ethnic groups', and between sedentary people and nomads, is the future of pastoralism. Here, a particular and decisive aspect of the network of contradictions that encloses and moves Mauritanian society - the condition of servitude and quasi-servitude - has been stressed. This is because within it are articulated and expressed, in the dominant political idiom, the language of a clientelism with 'tribal' and 'ethnic' overtones, the problems and contradictions of a pastoral society profoundly transformed by colonial and commercial domination.
Contents - Previous - Next