The Mauritanian government, Sunday, spoke out on the burning issue of Arabization, which was raised by the Prime Minister and Minister of Youth and Culture on March 1. Arabization in Mauritania has whipped up a massive hue and cry among Negro-Mauritanians, who have expressed concerns over cultural, political, economic and social oppression from the ruling Arabo-Berbers.
Mauritania, a generous cultural and linguistic patchwork has, since March, fallen prey to the discontentment of a key section of its Black Mauritanian populations, who have demonstrated their displeasure against their government’s intention to Arabize the administrative and educational sectors. Those arguments were strongly denied on Sunday. “Nothing has changed, Mauritania before 1st March remains the same, the government has not opted for a complete Arabization,” the Minister of Higher Education, Ahmed Ould Bahya told a large number of students gathered at the University of Nouakchott. His statement comes after two controversial speeches made by the Prime Minister, Mohamed Ould Moulaye Laghdaf and Minister of Youth and Culture, Cissé Mint Boide, March 1, a day set aside to commemorate the promotion of the Arabic language, under the theme; “Arabic language is the language of our religion and our identity”. “Mauritanian civilization is Arabo-Islamic!”, the minister of youth and culture had added.
These comments, deemed segregationist, shocked and sent emotions among Black Mauritanians running amok. Placards read; “No to complete Arabization”, “No discrimination!”,”We are all equal!”, as students demonstrated on March 25 and April 6. “The Arab identity has nothing to do with Islam. The Islamic religion simply cemented cohesion between Arabo-Berbers and Black-Mauritanians,” said Diagana Mamadou Youssouf, president of the Organization Against Human Rights Violations (Organisation Contre les Violations des Droits Humains — OCVIDH). This cohesion, however, is being eroded in favor of increasingly violent conflicts.
The Minister of Higher Education’s speech highlights what he believes was not a fair demonstration. “We celebrated both the Arabic Day and Francophonie Day with the same vigor and under the same conditions,” he defended himself while trying to reassure Black Mauritanian students.
These strong reactions have revived the deep historical divide in Mauritania. The language issue has since time immemorial proved delicate, and the numerous educational reforms as well as the Arabization programs that have followed since independence have more often than not been met with clashes. “Is it not simply to favor the exclusion of Blacks?” Asks Ibrahima Diallo, communications officer of FLAM in Europe. An exclusion he sees as a permanent Arabo-Berber political will to trample on Black Mauritanians. “Language is only an alibi” adds Diagana Mamadou Youssouf. Victims of an overpowering sense of cultural oppression, Black-Mauritanian have continually denounced the unjust political, economic and social supremacy of the Arabo-Berbers, which come in many shades.
“Everything is Arabized!” exclaimed Yacouba Diakite, secretary general of the Mauritanian National Union of Students (NEMS). Most of the senior positions in the Mauritanian government is occupied by Arabic speakers. The Mauritanian army was “cleansed” of its Black Mauritanian officers in the late 80s, alongside the expulsion of some 100 000 Black-Mauritanians from their own country, revealed 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. “It is a country that practices apartheid, although it has not been formalized,” continues Ibrahima Diallo.
Mr. Diallo’s arguments need precision: The feeling of marginalization has not always been the prerogative among Black Mauritanians. Indeed, the desire to Arabize the country dates back to the colonial era, during which the sole language of instruction in the educational sector was French. On the other hand, it was mainly accessible to the sedentary people, that is to say, Black-Mauritanians. The system affected the social and professional advancement of the Arabo-Berbers. It must also be noted that Black-Mauritanians suffered pre-colonial slavery and racial discrimination amid a largely Arabo-Berber influence, population-wise.
This conflict, which has its source in a distant past during which each linguistic and cultural community was oppressed in turns, is worrying. “If nothing is done about it, the situation could degenerate into chaos!” says Diagana Mamadou Youssouph. An alarming situation that requires an urgent establishment of dialogue between two communities that have lived together in total disharmony since time immemorial.