From the 3rd to 7th centuries, the migration of Berber tribes from North Africa displaced the Bafours, the original inhabitants of present-day Mauritania and the ancestors of the Soninke. Continued Arab-Berber migration drove indigenous black Africans south to the Senegal River or enslaved them. By 1076, Islamic warrior monks (Almoravid or Al Murabitun) completed the conquest of southern
Mauritania, defeating the ancient Ghana empire. Over the next 500 years, Arabs overcame fierce Berber resistance to dominate Mauritania. The Mauritanian Thirty-Year War (1644-74) was the unsuccessful final Berber effort to repel the Maqil Arab invaders led by the Beni Hassan tribe. The descendants of Beni Hassan warriors became the upper stratum of Moorish society. Berbers retained influence by
producing the majority of the region's Marabouts -- those who preserve and teach Islamic tradition. Hassaniya, a mainly oral, Berber-influenced Arabic dialect that derives its name from the Beni Hassan tribe, became the dominant language among the largely nomadic population. Aristocrat and servant castes developed, yielding "white" (aristocracy) and "black" Moors (the enslaved indigenous
French colonization at the beginning of the 20th century brought legal prohibitions against slavery and an end to interclan warfare. During the colonial period, the population remained nomadic, but sedentary black Africans, whose ancestors had been expelled centuries earlier by the Moors, began to trickle back into southern Mauritania. As the country gained independence in 1960, the capital
city Nouakchott was founded at the site of a small colonial village, the Ksar, and 90% of the population was still nomadic. With independence, larger numbers of ethnic Sub-Saharan Africans (Haalpulaar, Soninke, and Wolof) entered Mauritania, moving into the area north of the Senegal River. Educated in French language and customs, many of these recent arrivals became clerks, soldiers, and
administrators in the new state.
Moors reacted to this change by increasing pressure to Arabicize many aspects of Mauritanian life, such as law and language. A schism developed between those who consider Mauritania to be an Arab country (mainly Moors) and those who seek a dominant role for the Sub-Saharan peoples. The discord between these two conflicting visions of Mauritanian society was evident during intercommunal
violence that broke out in April 1989 (the "1989 Events"), but has since subsided. The tension between these two visions remains a feature of the political dialogue. A significant number from both groups, however, seek a more diverse, pluralistic society
The PRDS, led by President Maaouiya ould Sid'Ahmed Taya, has dominated Mauritanian politics since the country's first multi-party elections in April 1992 following the approval by referendum of the current constitution in July 1991. President Taya, who won elections in 1992 and 1997, first became chief of state through a December 12, 1984 bloodless coup which made him chairman of the committee
of military officers that governed Mauritania from July 1978 to April 1992. The country's first president, Moktar ould Daddah, served from independence until ousted in a bloodless coup on July 10, 1978. A group of current and former Army officers launched a bloody but unsuccessful coup attempt on June 8, 2003. The ringleaders remain at large, and their exact motives remain unclear.
Politics in Mauritania have always been heavily influenced by personalities, with any leader's ability to exercise political power dependent upon control over resources; perceived ability or integrity; and tribal, ethnic, family, and personal considerations. Conflict between white Moor, black Moor, and non-Moor ethnic groups, centering on language, land tenure, and other issues, continues to
be the dominant challenge to national unity.
Political parties, illegal during the military period, were legalized again in 1991. By April 1992, as civilian rule returned, 16 major political parties had been recognized; 12 major political parties were active in 2004. Most opposition parties boycotted the first legislative election in 1992, and for nearly a decade the parliament has been dominated by the PRDS. The opposition participated
in municipal elections in January-February 1994 and subsequent Senate elections, most recently in April 2004, gaining representation at the local level as well as three seats in the Senate.