|African Agriculture: The Critical Choices (UNU, 1990, 227 pages)|
|5. Mauritania: Nomadism and peripheral capital|
Abdel Wedoud Ould Cheikh
North-western Africa, known today as the Sahel, has always been an area particularly suited to animal husbandry From the 1,000 head of zebu that Askia Ishaq II used as a protective cover ahead of his troops in March 1591 (Kati 1964. 264) when the Songhai Empire collapsed under the blows of the men of Djouder, to the vast herds all over this area today, there is ample evidence of enormous wealth in livestock of the countries of the Sahel. Before 1972 this was represented by a total of 21 million head of cattle (Gallais 1977, 268).
It was not this wealth of livestock that attracted the Moroccan conquerors. Nor does it appear to have motivated more recent onslaughts, notably the French colonial occupation. But, inevitably, the organization of the pastoral societies of the Sahel, largely centred on cattle and their resources, was profoundly and permanently affected by this occupation. Other factors, such as the recent drought of the 1970s, have contributed to a dangerous acceleration of the process of disarticulation of the Sahelian pastoral systems, but the major factor in the evolution of these systems remains their marginal integration into a monetary economy centred in towns, which themselves are experiencing accelerated and disorganized growth. For Mauritania, which is examined here in order to provide an illustration of recent transformations of Sahelian pastoralism, two figures are enough to indicate the scale of changes that have occurred in recent years: whereas in 1965, nomads made up some 65% of the Mauritanian population, by 1976, they represented only 36%. Over the same period, the urban population grew threefold, rising from 90.000 in 1961 to 300,000 in 1977.
Leaving aside the terminological problems - the relationship between 'pastoralism', 'nomadism' and 'semi-nomadism' (Salzman 1980)- this chapter first presents a short outline of the factors of pastoral production, and then examines the forms and effects of the integration of pastoral society into an economy dominated by commodity relations. Finally, the social and political aspects of this integration will be considered in order to attempt clarification of the specific forms taken by the contradictions - of clans, groups, classes within a pastoral society undergoing massive upheavals