Mauritania: Arabization hateful of African culture?

Reading time 7 min.

Tensions have risen to a fever pitch on the campus of the University of Nouakchott, capital of Mauritania, since the month of March. Arabization of the educational system has angered Black Mauritanian students and awakened historical tensions.

The delicate linguistic balance between Arabo-Berbers and Black-Mauritanian communities was agitated with only a few words. Those words were spoken on the 1st of March by the Mauritanian Prime Minister, Mohamed Ould Moulaye Laghdaf and Minister of Youth and Culture, Cissé Mint Boide. According to them the Arabic language should serve as an instrument of exchange and work within the Mauritanian administration. “The national languages are obstacles to the emergence of the Arabic language,” said the Minister of Culture.

These remarks have been deemed inadmissible by the Black African students of Mauritania. They held a protest last Tuesday to express their contempt. Alain Antil, an associate researcher and director of sub-Saharan Africa programs at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) and a doctor in political geography, analyzes the complex historical background in which the subject of Arabization in Mauritania has evolved. Discover a rivalry that has gripped Mauritania for decades.

Afrik-news : First of all, what is “Arabization”?

Alain Antil: This refers to the introduction of the Arabic language and its generalization mainly in the educational sector. The challenge lies mainly in basic and secondary education because higher education is poorly developed in Mauritania, as the University of Nouakchott was only established in the 80s. Secondly, should the Arabic language become the main language of instruction the required level of Arabic needed to work will be raised, and this will penalize those whose mother tongue is not Arabic, i.e., the portion of the population traditionally referred to as “Negro-Mauritanians.”

Who are the Negro-Mauritanians?

Mauritania is a country where we find on the one hand an Arabo-Berber population and on the other hand another population known as African. There are several ethnic groups among the Africans. The first is the Halpuular, which literally means: “those who speak Pulaar”. It, in fact, refers to the Fulani and the Toucouleurs. Second, numerically, comes the Soninke people. These are the two major communities among “Black Mauritanians” alongside other smaller communities in Mauritania; the Bambara and Wolof. Some dislike the terms “Negro or Black Mauritanian”, “Negro or Black African”, or “Mauritanian Africans,” as they are sometimes referred to. But it should be noted that the term is not considered demeaning in Mauritania. It helps to assemble and distinguish communities.

We recently observed a demonstration against Arabization. What are the foundations of these events?

During colonization, the most educated populations were also the most sedentary, that is to say, those who lived in the Senegal River region. It was a largely African population. After independence, a number of the educated young black Mauritanians obtained important positions in government administration. For them it was normal, given that political power was in the hands of the Arabo-Berber populations. It was a justified compensation, they believed. And then, between 1965 and 1966 there was an initial education reform enacted by President Mokthar Ould Daddah. This reform aimed to introduce more Arabic in the educational system because, according to him, Arabic speakers were disadvantaged by the largely francophone educational system. The African population of Mauritania felt the reform was aiming at them; as a good way to marginalize and impede their access to senior administrative positions.

This subsequently became a hot political issue affect the balance between the Arabo-Berber and Negro-Mauritanian populations. Tensions between these two communities exacerbated in the 1980s; specifically in the early 80s when a new land reform sought to individualize land ownership, and land owners could sell their lands, as the concept of collective ownership was no longer recognized by the state. This new reform was seen by the Negro-Mauritanians as an attempt to seize their land, thus adding to the ever present sense of marginalization (among Black Mauritanians).

In 1986, the Mauritanian authorities claimed to have uncovered a coup plot against Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya. According to them, the coup had been planned by Black-Mauritanian Fulani and Toucouleur officers. The government therefore cleansed the Mauritanian army of Black Mauritanian officers and replaced them with Arab-Berbers. Another move seen as voluntary marginalization of the Black African community. But the tension erupted between 1989 and 1991, which led to the expulsion of close to 100 000 Black-Africans from Mauritania, whilst numerous others were simply butchered (till date, no official statistics are available).

In the 90s, President Ould Taya continued his reforms and even introduced Arabic in the educational system. But Mauritania did not have enough qualified Arabic teachers. This politically motivated reform therefore posed significant practical problems. On the one hand the new teachers who were recruited in haste and without training, although spoke Arabic, were unable to teach certain subjects. A Mauritanian joke that became popular during those days said that the educational reforms had created “a generation of illiterates in two languages!”

And the language of instruction now? Does one take precedence over the other?

The educational system saw a French language comeback and a certain level of stability in the 2000s. There was little focus on issues concerning education and language. Some subjects, such as history, were taught in Arabic, while scientific disciplines, such as mathematics, physics and chemistry, were taught in French. The Prime Minister’s recent speech casts a shadow on this balance.

How is the relationship between Negro-Mauritanians and the Arabo-Berbers today?

Some communities in Mauritania are juxtaposed, since they do not live together. Their social networks are formed by virtue of their ethnic groupings, within their own communities. Occasionally, there are minor political tensions. This happened, for example, in 2007 when the Mauritanian government authorized the return of some 24 000 Mauritanian refugees who had been expelled. Right after Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi’s election, we saw a return of some of those who were deported during the 89-91 period, and a recovery of their Mauritanian citizenship. Reactions from the Arab nationalist Arabo-Berber community was fast. They argued that their true nationality was uncertain. Were they really Mauritanian? We witnessed a surge in protests against the return and installation of the refugees. In what concerns the African side, there have always been political parties that have tried to campaign against their systematic marginalization.

There is, for example, the AJD/MR (party), chaired by Ibrahima Sarr, that has tried to capitalize on the discontentment among certain Black Mauritanian groups. And there have always been, among the Arabo-Berbers, those Arab nationalist movements that are leaving no stones unturned to have Mauritania recognized as an Arab country, despite the fact that Arab is only one of Mauritania’s identities, albeit the biggest. Between the late 90s and early 2000s, Mauritanian officials asked Quai d’Orsay (the seat of the French government) to reshuffle its administrative zoning of Mauritania to make it part of the Maghreb and not West Africa. Ould Taya has worked tireless to bring his country closer to the Arab world and away from Africa. One of the most symbolic moves came when he removed Mauritania from the ECOWAS. This position has an obvious internal diplomatic resonance.

For what reasons are we witnessing a return of tensions?

When the Prime Minister returned to the issue, saying that science subjects should be taught in Arabic as well, a reminder of a complex past, a delicate balance between the two communities. The demonstrations on the campus of the University of Nouakchott were no coincidence. The fact that the students were affected by the Prime Minister’s speech is further proof. A proof of how cruelly marginalized they feel, as if they were “second class citizens”. Most worrisome is the fact that the Prime Minister, far from regretting his words, instead assumed them fully in a statement. At a press conference, he even refused to answer questions that were asked in French, although he has a doctorate from the Free University of Brussels (Belgium), a proof that he is a perfectly French-speaking and knew exactly how his statement and attitude would be interpreted.

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