Nouakchott, Asharq Al-Awsat- Over the past few decades, perhaps the only issue that has never been absent from the Mauritanian scene is that of the black African Mauritanians, and as such has been responsible for determining the agendas of leaders, politicians, activists and jurists alike. This issue has conspicuously dominated the country’s most recent presidential electoral campaigns last March following the nomination of Ibrahima Moctar Sarr, one of the prominent Mauritanian black African figures who ran for presidency and was backed by large black African communities who enabled him to secure eight percent of the votes.
Another contributing factor was the newly elected President, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi’s pledge to adopt urgent action in resolving the problems the black Africans were facing. Abdallahi achieved an overwhelming victory after running against one of the most prominent symbols of the former opposition Ahmed Ould Daddah who was not supported by the black African groups. [Mauritania has an ethnically diverse mix of Arabic speaking Moors, black Africans and the so-called White Moors who are the ruling elite]. Among the major issues in need of resolution are the black African Mauritanians in Senegal who have been exiled there since the 1980s, in addition to human rights violations and the eliminations that were executed especially during Maaoya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya’s regime.
Perhaps one of the most striking transformations in the Mauritanian black African situation is the post given to one of their notable figures, Yal Zacharia who was appointed as Interior Minister and who enjoys wide support among these circles. Observers consider him to be the most capable of resolving the exiled Mauritanians in Senegal issue, which the incumbent president has pledged to resolve in a year or less.
The Interior Ministry’s backing of the Mauritanian black African community points towards an important transformation in which they may restore the trust they had lost over the past 20 years when they were prevented from assuming any ministerial post after Ould Taya removed the last black African interior minister in 1986, Anne Amadou Babali [Zacharia], who is the father of the current minister.
In 1987 tensions peaked after Ould Taya foiled a coup attempt by black Africans who sought to remove him from the seat of power. Dozens of officers were arrested as a result and three officers at least were executed after being tried. Within this context of the black African liberation movement in Mauritania emerged the African Liberation Forces of Mauritania (FLAM), which was established abroad and which issued a charter named ‘the charter of the oppressed African’. [One of the founders of FLAM, Sarr published the Manifesto of the oppressed black Mauritanians]. The FLAM moreover renamed Mauritania ‘Welwel’ [the former name of the area that lies adjacent to the Senegal River].
In 1989, neighboring Senegal witnessed turbulent times, what started out as a minor dispute between Senegalese farmers and the FLAM forces soon escalated to become a violent and bloody war between the two sides the consequence of which was the expulsion of 40,000 Mauritanians who had been residing in Senegal. The conflict also caused the expulsion of thousands of Senegalese who were living in Mauritania, which in turn resulted in the erroneous expulsion of more Mauritanians in addition to some Senegalese from Mauritania. Most of those expelled in this last wave were members of the black Pulaar tribe [also known as the Fulani], which caused an acute crisis between the two countries after the Senegalese authorities refused to recognize these refugees deeming them to mostly be Mauritanian nationals.
With the settlement of the dispute between the two neighboring countries in 1992, collaborating with the International Refugee Organization (IRO) the Mauritanian government allowed for the return of the black Africans exiled in Senegal. The IRO figures revealed that the majority of refugees returned to Mauritania while a small group refused to return without unregulated repatriation.
Eliminations of various black African officers in the Mauritanian army were executed in 1990, the FLAM movement estimated them to be 500 in total. Locally this controversy came to be known as the ‘violations’ issue, both of human rights and of human heritage. Many international human rights organizations took the matter on and started launching campaigns against President Ould Taya and some of the officers who were close to him, one of whom was arrested in France in the late seventies with charges of torturing a black African officer but managed to escape back to Mauritania soon after.
After the bloodless military coup of 2005 that ousted Ould Taya, Mauritania’s black African issues were broached again during the consultative committee meetings which the then-ruling military junta held at the time. There was a consensus to postpone decisions on these issues until after the transitional period was over, in addition to there being unanimity to resolve these human violations issues without vengeance or retaliation and in the spirit of tolerance compensating the victims and serving justice to the oppressed.
Historians confirm that since the beginning of history, black African groups and white groups who were affiliated to the Sanhaja tribe in North Africa were living in Mauritania. Along with the Islamic conquests in the second year of Hijra [early 7th Century] came the advent of the Arab tribes into Mauritania who contributed in the founding of the Sanhaja Confederation which extended to the Senegal River. The black African tribes played an important role in propagating Islam.
At the beginning of the 15th Century, the Arab Bani Hassan tribe who had come from Najd and Upper Egypt as part of the Islamic migrations, took over all the regions in Mauritania and founded an emirate that all the local groups became affiliated to. This facilitated the ‘comprehensive Arabization’ which resulted in completely obliterating the Senhaja language.
This same emirate was still in existence with the advent of colonialism and it fought against it brutally. This was followed by the founding of an independent state which was part of the West African States bloc. When Mauritania started to gradually get closer to the Arab world, some black African nationalist movements considered this proximity to be an obliteration of their identity and a threat to their existence in the region. The 1966 educational reform to make the study of [Hassaniya] Arabic compulsory in secondary schools resulted in the outbreak of various violent incidents that nearly caused a civil war. A less severe conflict erupted at the end of the 1970s when the Arabic language started to assume a bigger role and significance in education and what had been an educational and cultural issue transformed into becoming a strictly political and violent situation in the eighties securing one of the most notorious areas of political conflict between the various Mauritanian groups internally.
The Mauritanian nationalist movement, which traces back to the country’s first nationalist movement, was against the adoption of the Arabic language, which was adopted by the Parti du Peuple Mauritanien (PPM, Mauritanian People’s Party) at a conference held in Laayoune in 1977. The decision resulted in further objections from various groups that included 19 cadres who were affiliated to the black African minorities who considered the outcome of the conference to be, “an arbitrary plot to exercise ethnic hegemony and impose their culture over minorities”. The protest soon became physical and the violence resulted in deaths and injuries on both sides. Despite then-president Mokhtar Ould Daddah’s ability to swiftly contain the crisis, it still resulted in creating deep wounds that have cast their shadow on the Mauritanian political arena.
At the time when the authorities affirmed Mauritania’s dual affiliation, hailing it as the ‘integrated nation’ rich by virtue of its multiculturalism and ethnic diversity and as a country that was cautious to preserve its Arab and African faces, the process of Arabization and the focus on the Arab identity had resulted in tangible developments on that front – especially after Mauritania joined the Arab League in 1973. The adoption of a policy for cultural autonomy and reinforcing tradition were also part of the educational reforms, which were expressed through political groups that started to appear in the mid-seventies and which started to take on the form of organized movements.
But the conflict between the black African groups and the nationalist movements which had dominated over the decision-making centers escalated especially after the rise of the FLAM movement which had adopted a racist attitude towards the Arabs. However, simultaneously, the FLAM movement had adopted the ‘Haratin’, the dark-skinned Arabic-speaking descendents of slaves which they considered to be alienated black Africans who had lost their identity and needed to regain their nationalist and cultural roots. And yet the movement that had risen to defend the rights of the Haratin refused this proposal, considering its demands to be social rather than nationalist, furthermore seeking equality with all other citizens. The founder and leader of this movement [El-Hor Organization for the Emancipation of Haratin] and the head of the Popular Progressive Alliance (APP), Messaoud Ould Boulkheir is also currently the speaker of the Mauritanian National Assembly [the first chamber of parliament] of which all 95 members were newly elected last November.
Observers believe that the FLAM movement came about as a backlash and response to the country’s slide towards a ‘racial crisis’ after the 1978 coup led by Lt. Col. Mustafa Ould Salek that ousted Mokhtar Ould Daddah, the first Mauritanian president, and was responsible for isolating and marginalizing the black Africans from the political dialogue, which in turn drove them to found the movement. The FLAM started to propagate a counter and equally racial rhetoric against the nationalist Arabs, which only served to further exacerbate the situation between the two sides at the time.
The first black African to run in the presidential elections was Kane Amadou Moctar, who nominated himself against Ould Taya in 1997. Despite not achieving any significant electoral results, Moctar’s nomination at a time when the oppositional parties boycotted the elections after demanding a new mechanism to monitor electoral rigging somewhat eased the tension between Ould Taya and the black African minority. Moctar’s participation lent a legitimacy to the entitlements that Ould Taya had been monopolizing, with the exception of a few nominations that had emerged from within the regime – a move the opposition had deemed a submission to the public opinion and an illusory act of political plurality in the Mauritanian scene.
Two candidates representing the black African minority participated in the last presidential elections: the first is head of the Parti pour la Liberte, l’Egalite et la Justice (PLEJ – Freedom and Justice party) and former minister in the first independent Mauritanian government, Ba Mamadou Alassane, who was then dubbed the ‘speaker’ by virtue of his continuous dialogue with the leftist Kadihine. His deep philosophical inclination contributed towards the continuity of political and intellectual dialogue. And yet the results in favor of Alassane were disappointing at one percent, moreover his PLEJ was unable to win any parliamentary seats in last November’s legislative elections.
In his electoral campaign, Alassane called for the review of the constitution and the division of power between the various Mauritanian nationals, furthermore proposing the creation of the post of presidential deputy to be occupied by a black African. He also called for the deepening of decentralized governance, moreover calling for autonomous rule in the southern regions where the black African communities reside with the knowledge that these areas have mixed populations, the majority of which are Arabs.
The second black African to nominate himself in the presidential elections is Ibrahima Moctar Sarr, a journalist who has served long years in Mauritania’s official radio broadcast. He is a literary figure and an eloquent orator in both French and Pulaar (also Fula and Fulfulde, one of official West African languages). Sarr was imprisoned under harsh conditions from 1998 until he was released in 1992 to display blatant religious inclinations. While imprisoned he wrote his famous book on Islam and modernity which he wrote in French and was soon engaged in political life, pioneering in democratic efforts with the leftist Union des Forces de Progrès party (UFP – Union of Progress Forces) also becoming the representative of the FLAM movement. In 1992, he ran for presidency contending against Ahmed Ould Daddah and Maaoya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya.
After Ould Taya’s victory, Sarr split from Messaoud Ould Boulkheir who had set up the Actions pour le Changement (AC) in 1994 but still continued his resistance against the authorities. Sarr rejoined Boulkheir in the Popular Progressive Alliance (APP) and ran under its name in the parliamentary elections in 2003.
However in last March’s presidential elections, Sarr ran as an independent candidate and was backed by the spiritual leader of the FLAM movement Cheikh Murtada also succeeding in gaining a large following among the Pulaar due to his clear religious nationalistic rhetoric.
Although there are no accurate figures for the number of black Africans in Mauritania, official French sources in 1960 estimated it to be within the range of 12-20 percent, while the Mauritanian official census estimated it to be 16 percent in 1976, the United Nations (UN) estimating it to be between 14-16 percent. The black African population is divided into distinct groups the most popular of which is the Pulaar, which in turn is further divided into the Fulani [or Fula people] who are nomadic herders, some of whom hail from Arab descent. However all the black African tribes are united by Islam as a religion despite differences in their traditions and social customs. The Fulani are considered to be the closest to the Arab Mauritanians, united by the Arabic language which most of their youth have studied at Mauritanian universities – in fact many consider the Fulani to be a mere social and cultural extension of the Arabs in the southern region.
It seems a paradox then that the Fulani were the worst affected in the bloody events of 1989, many of their intellectuals believing that they had been intentionally targeted over any other black African tribe. However some observers attribute it to the fact that they inhabit the southern region which was a hotbed of conflict during that period. The result was that many left the country through the Senegalese border after the events.
The coup in 2005 that ousted Ould Taya contributed to attracting back the majority of the FLAM movement elements back to Mauritanian after long years of exile in France and Belgium. As such, the movement became split into two, one side that renounced armed resistance and called for the resolution of the black African issues in Mauritania through opening dialogue with the concerned parties, while the second group persisted its adoption of the same approach, committed to continuing its resistance in the same manner it had previously practiced.
Contrary to what some believe, the black African issue in Mauritania seems to be resolving itself; they have representatives in the government and their candidates participate in the country’s elections. This was reflected through the recent presidential elections which served to absorb the former adversity and neutralize an issue that has frequented the media for the past two decades.