Students have been up in arms, since March 25, against the Arabization of Mauritania, as expressed by members of the government on March 1, a day set aside to commemorate the Arabic language. Despite the authorities’ denial, the malaise within the Black Mauritanian community remains palpable. This comes in the backdrop of recent steps taken by the Mauritanian government to seek the return of Black-Mauritanians who fell victim to a 1989 mass deportation, especially those exiled in France and the United States. But Human Rights organizations and those concerned have denounced the selective and discriminatory nature of the policy. Abda Wone, a journalist and political activist, tells Afrik-news.com that the “thorny question” remains to be answered. Interview.
Journalist and political analyst, Abda Wone is a native of Kaedi, a town situated in southern Mauritania. A Columbia University alma mater, he is an activist and member of the African Liberation Forces of Mauritania (Flam). Abda Wone is also an associate spokesperson for the American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG-iAbolish). His life as an activist began in 1989, when he was only sixteen. He left Mauritania the same year, like the hundreds of thousands of Black-Mauritanians who had been forcefully uprooted and deported from their country by the Arabo-Berber government. In the year 2000, Abda Wone resettled in the United States, where he filed a complaint on May 23, 2007 against the former Mauritanian President, Ould Taya Maouia (1984-2005) and his regime for crimes against humanity, deportation and torture.
Afrik-news.com: Black Mauritanian students recently denounced the Arabization of Mauritania. This is not their first protest against a seemingly recurrent process in the country’s history…
Abda Wone: Every government has tried to go a step further to achieve a complete Arabization of Mauritania. It is an old problem that dates back to the country’s independence. Already in 1965, the regime enacted laws (65-025 and 65-026) that sought to make the teaching of Arabic in Mauritania mandatory. This led to the first crisis, and the drafting of the 1966 manifesto 19 (manifeste des 19), which was against excessive Arabization. In 1979, the Movement of Black students again protested against a bill known as “circulaire 02”, a pro arabization document… Their strike action led to a blank school year. In 1986, Mauritania experienced its major crisis yet. After writing a manifesto that simply called for a debate between the various organizations, Black-Mauritanian executives were arbitrarily arrested and sent to jail in Oualata. Some never got the chance to get out of this deathtrap.
Afrik-news.com: Arabization and deportation call into question the place of Blacks in Mauritania. Why did the Mauritanian authorities deport them in 1989?
Abda Wone: Mauritania had close ties with the Iraqi government during the time of Saddam Hussein who wanted to help the Taya regime to create an exclusively Arab Mauritania. This was to happen in two stages. The first was to reduce Black-Mauritanians numerically. The second was to grab lands that belonged to Black-Mauritanians in the South. The Mauritanian government wanted the country to be part of the Arab world although 80% of its population was Black. Black Mauritanians were kicked out of their country in 1989. The military came at night and entire villages were razed to the ground. The next day, the poor victims found themselves in Senegal and Mali. Over 120 000 Black Mauritanians fell victim to the deportations. For those who were not deported, life became a living hell. In 1990, Black soldiers were killed when the authorities decided to purge the army under the Arabization program. Over 3 000 were killed that year. It was on November 28, 1990, Mauritanian independence day, that the barbarism reached its peak. 28 Black Mauritanians were sacrificed to celebrate the independence day celebrations.
Afrik-news.com: Nouakchott is pushing its Arabization agenda and at the same time encouraging exiled Black-Mauritanians to return home …
Abda Wone: This is proof that they do not want to address the injustices suffered by the vast majority of the Mauritanian population. Today, the regime in power is not ready to address the social inequalities, which is why it does not intend to resolve “the thorny issue” (of deportation, ed.) in a comprehensive and definitive manner. But people cannot be fooled. Barely 25% of the deportees have returned. Unfortunately, they live in squalid conditions. Nouakchott continues to threaten national unity and social cohesion.
Afrik-news.com: You do not seem surprised by what looks like a shift, albeit denied. And yet, President Ould Abdul Aziz had shown some signs of good faith after recognizing the killings and offering prayers in Kaédi, one of the largest cities in the predominantly Black South …
Abda Wone: The circumstances and developments, which led Ould Abdul Aziz (the current president of Mauritania, ed) to temporarily change his discourse in order to get rid of international pressure, is as a result of years of struggle by men and women both within and outside the country. Militants have traveled the world over to denounce the rampant arbitrariness in my country. Racist and pro-slavery Mauritania was so criticized during Taya’s regime that the next regime found itself in a vulnerable position and without a future. Holders of power had, in the name of realpolitik, anticipated events while toppling Taya. But they simply didn’t want to address racism and inequality in Mauritania. The Mauritanian Constitution is ethnocentric and dictatorial. The 1- 4 policy, one Black-Mauritanian Minister for three Arabo-Berber ministers, is still practiced in Mauritania. In the past, it was excessive Arabization under Mukhtar Ould Daddah. Today, Ould Abul Aziz is seeking complete Arabization.
Afrik-news.com: In terms of progress, the last elections were deemed free and fair. Black Mauritanian candidates, including Sarr Ibrahima Hamidou Kane and Baba participated in the presidential election …
Abda Wone: Even under Taya, there were elections with Black African candidates. For a political scientist, an election alone is not a sufficient criterion to judge a country’s stability or the integrity of its leaders. In South Africa, elections were held although the black majority had no voting rights. The participation of Black Mauritanians in presidential elections cannot in any way mean that the problems in Mauritania have been resolved, as evidenced by recent events.
Afrik-news.com: On your side, is a return to your country possible?
Abda Wone: First, an important detail: I have not abandoned my country. Socio-political circumstances pushed me into exile. My parents were deported, and I was arbitrarily arrested for taking part in a strike action, my life being in danger and the country under terror, the only choice that remained for me as a teenager was to go into exile. However, my return home does not depend on me, it depends largely on the authorities which, in my opinion, are doing nothing to ensure a complete resolution to the issue. I’m eager to return but I believe in a final and comprehensive settlement. All the components of the society have been affected, therefore all Mauritanian victims of this injustice must be identified for an organized and dignified return. I simply want none of victims left out, that they are able to go back home in dignity. The incumbent government is more concerned about making the claims disappear than by their total resolution. But wisdom teaches us that to cure a disease, the core of the disease needs to be examined. And the core of the Mauritanian disease has seen successive regimes harnessing a two-tier state, a country where Blacks are reduced to nothing more than second class citizens.