Gradually, over a 500 year span, Islam began to spread through the region, and grew to be the one influence that unified the country.
Beginning in the late 19th century, Imperial France progressively acquired territory in a majority of western Africa, including the region of present-day Mauritania. Although slavery and interclan warfare were banned under French ruling, there was almost no attempt on their part to further develop Mauritania's economy.
After gaining its independence from France in 1960, following a series of reforms of the French colonial system in the aftermath of World War II, Mauritania annexed the southern third of the former Spanish Sahara (now Western Sahara) in 1976. After three years of continuous raids by the Polisario guerrilla, the territory was relinquished.
Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya seized power in a coup in 1984. Opposition parties were legalized and a new constitution approved in 1991. Two multiparty presidential elections since then were widely seen as flawed, but October 2001 legislative and municipal elections were generally free and open.
A bloodless coup in August 2005 deposed President Taya and ushered in a military council headed by Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall. The council declared it would remain in power for up to two years while it created conditions for genuine democratic institutions and organized elections.
In August, 2008 a military coup led by General Mohamed Aziz overthrew the civilian government.
Then, in April 2009, Aziz resigned his military post to run for president in the July elections, which he won.
Today, Mauritania is one of Africa's most poorest of countries. Much the population depends on farming and livestock for their income. There are extensive deposits of iron ore, accounting for about 50% of the country's exports.