Arabization and a history of Black-African marginalization in Mauritania

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Overtaken by an overpowering sense of relentless cultural oppression and marginalization, Black-Mauritanians continue to express their resentment after two recent speeches, by the Prime Minister and Minister of Culture on March 1, called for a total Arabization of the Western African country. Mauritania’s historical background serves as a beacon of understanding to recent events that have pricked old sores dating back to the birth of the country.

As a national entity, Mauritania’s recent existence since 1900 is owed to the impact of colonization. But it is necessary to examine the country’s precolonial era to fully understand the complexities of the Arabo-Berber and Black-Mauritanian relationship.

In the tenth century, the northern parts of Mauritania and Western Sahara were occupied by the Berbers, who shared close trade ties with the Ghana empire. The Wolof and Serer people inhabited the area between Central Mauritania and the Senegal River. Coexistence between the various groups depended on an established balance whereby each community operated within the context of well-defined social networks.

Between the eleventh and the seventeenth centuries, the face of Mauritania’s population changed after three consecutive invasions: invasions perpetrated by the Berbers, Arabs and Fulani.

The advent of the Almoravid Muslim religious movement saw the emergence of Berber settlements in the south and the start of its entry into the Arab world. The Fulani, who came from Macina, a province of Mali, in turn invaded southern Mauritania in the twelfth century. They consolidated their presence in the central region of the country until the sixteenth century, eventually ousting the Wolof and Serer populations.

Upon their arrival to southern Morocco in the fourteenth century, the Beni Hassan Arabs began a southward movement, subdued the Berbers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and gradually spread the Arabic language, which was then called Hassaniya.

In the eighteenth century they pursued their conquests to the banks of the Senegal River, permanently displacing the Fulani and Wolof populations and imposing their rule. These invasions, by tampering with the social structure and ethnic composition of the country, undermined the balance between the Black and Arab communities, that had been established over time.

The arrival of the colonial era, which spanned the early 1900s to the late 1950s, put an end to Arab hegemony as it took control of the existing Emirates. A new era began. Colonial education, accessible only to the sedentary people, therefore the black communities living in the Senegal River region, reversed the trend. These communities, hitherto repressed, got a formal education in French, a crucial element during independence.

“After independence (1960), 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.” says Alain Antil, associate researcher and director of sub-Saharan Africa programs at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI). Indeed, the first president of the young republic, Mokhtar Ould Daddah, came from the Arab community.

Lots of reforms

The first reforms towards the Arabization of educationIt began in 1965 under President Mokthar Ould Daddah. “Arabic speakers were disadvantaged by the largely francophone educational system,” says Alain Antil. The Black-Mauritanian population felt the reform was aiming at them; as a good way to marginalize and impede their access to administrative positions. Thus began a veritable discord between the two communities, after a semblance of harmony during the French colonial era.

In the 1980s, the question of Arabization, based on linguistic and ethnic segregation, had become politicized with the enactment of land reforms that saw the end of collective ownership. Another reform that many believed was a clear political will to discriminate against the Black populations by encroaching on their land.

In 1986, intercommunal conflict was taken to irremediable levels when the political power claimed to have detected an attempted putsch commissioned by black Mauritanian officers against President Ould Daddah. The government then purged the Mauritanian army of its Black officers by replacing them with people of Arabo-Berber descent.

But it was between 1989 and 1991 that this opposition reached its boiling point with the expulsion of close to 100 000 Black Mauritanians and killing of several others. It was not until the election of Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi in 2007 that the Black refugees were allowed to return to their country, despite widespread Arabo-Berber opposition.

Since the 1960s, successive governments have attempted to introduce the Arabic language into the educational system against a backdrop of opposition from Black-Mauritanians who back the continued use of French as a working language.

“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,” continues Mr. Antil.

Currently, President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is doing his very best to finalize the move towards Arabization. A move that has provoked a violent feeling of marginalization among Black-Mauritanians.

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