MAURITANIA: Students clash over language policy

Violence broke out on the campus of the University of Nouakchott, in the Mauritanian capital, among students divided over the use of Arabic and French as the country's common languages. University authorities called in security agents to subdue the violence, which left several students seriously wounded.

This latest clash is a symptom of ancestral mistrust and power struggles between Mauritanians of African descent and those of Arabic origin

An announcement by Mauritania's Prime Minister, Moulaye Ould Mohammed Lagdaff, over the status of the Arabic language provoked the clashes on the campus. At a ceremony to celebrate the language, the Prime Minister declared that Mauritania would soon introduce compulsory Arabic as the only official lingua franca in the country.

His statement reactivated an ancestral quarrel that needed only a spark to erupt among the university's students. At first, there were sharp verbal disagreements and heated debates between students of African descent, known as 'Negro-Mauritanians', and those of Arab descent, called 'Arabo-Berbers'. The arguments later flared into serious violence that police used teargas to control.

The Negro-Mauritanians insisted that the official use of French and Arabic as the country's bilingual common languages should be retained. They maintained that any attempt to impose Arabic as the only means of official communication would be tantamount to internal colonisation and domination.

"Our ancestors were brutalised and enslaved. We don't want to inherit cultural oppression and linguistic humiliation. French should be accorded the same status as Arabic," Ismaila Diop, a Negro-Mauritanian, told an online local newspaper.

But Arabo-Berber students pointed out that the country's Constitution recognised Arabic as the only official language. "Consequently, the Constitution must be adhered to. Those who are clamouring for the co-existence of French and Arabic as two official languages are agents of imperialism - and we shall resist them," warned Mohamed Ould Soulaiman, an Arabo-Berber student of Islamic Studies at the same university.

The current controversy over the use of both French and Arabic as official means of communication is just one illustration of a long struggle for power and control between two antagonistic communities.

The crisis of cultural and linguistic identities of the country dates back to when Mauritania became part of the French empire as a consequence of the 1884-85 Berlin Conference, which led to the creation of African colonies by European powers.

Before the establishment of the colony of Mauritania the local minority elite, which was mainly of Arab descent, imposed slavery on the majority population of Africans. French colonial policy did not interfere with this master-slave relationship.

At independence in 1960 France handed over power to the Arabo-Berbers. This was to the detriment of the Negro-Mauritanians, but they benefited from French formal education and gradually established an intelligentsia who wanted to assert its independence and competence. Encouraged by French-speaking intellectuals in West Africa, the Negro-Mauritanians insisted that French must have equal recognition and co-existence with Arabic.

The Arabo-Berber students responded to the Prime Minister's announcement as a 'wake-up call' to defend their supremacy against students whose ancestors were slaves to their grandparents. It was only a few years ago that Mauritania officially declared slavery as illegal.

National civil societies have appealed for calm and dialogue to resolve the present dispute on the campus. The Independent Union of Mauritanian Students released an online communiqué condemning the Prime Minister's speech, and union leaders warned he should be held responsible for inflaming emotions.

A notable declaration against the Prime Minister's statement came from an 'Association of Concerned Citizens', whose membership of 100 comprised university teachers and influential professionals from both public and private sectors.

They pleaded for restraint and moderation from opinion leaders, religious authorities and trade unionists, warning that inflammatory comments could lead to murderous confrontations.

Diplomatic sources said the President, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, intended to summon political and religious leaders to find a solution to the language crisis.

It comes as no surprise that the rulers in Mauritania would decide to resort to an outrageous Arabisation programme to perpetuate an old conspiracy against Black Mauritanians. When this imposter seized power many incurable Pollyannas were celebrating, confident Ould Abdel Aziz was a providential man who would restore blacks' dignity. Far from being a saviour the President's actual actions do not augur anything good. I cannot but ask myself if an inveterate tyrant whose hands are messy with innocent people's blood is able suddenly to relinquish the nefarious game of torturing and killing his desperate 'zero class citizens'. Many Moorish are convinced they can become Arabs by 'kissing other Arabs posteriors', and by forcefully expunging Mauritania of its blacks 'cattle'. No wonder terrorism is starting to flourish in this country. I am starting to question the veracity of the French saying which stated that 'a stick can spend many days in the river, but it will never become a crocodile'. Many relentless Moorish have successfully become more Arab than those who were born in Yemen. Some overzealous individuals have even managed to become Al Qaeda's adepts. However, it would not be fair to just criticise the Moorish government. I am confident many highly corruptible black Mauritanians are to be blamed too in the perpetuation of this mayhem.

I am afraid this unfair Arabisation will pave the way for brutalities against the peaceful blacks in this country. The successive Moorish governments have always disdainfully implemented rules detrimental to blacks. In fact, Haratines, Fulani, Sonike and Wolof people bear the blunt of an aged injustice. To this date an undisclosed number of Haratines are kept in bondage in cities like Kiffa, Atar, and Tidjikja, to just name a few. In Mauritania, the fate of many Haratines, Fulani, Wolf and Sonike people could be equated to the one of the black Sudanese. Black Mauritanians are either inveigling to accept the theory that to be pious Muslims they ought to learn Arabic and stay away from the languages of the 'infidels' (French and English); worst, the enslaved Haratines are led to believe that the only way for them to enter Paradise is to blindly follow their masters. Let me be clear to my brothers and sisters in Mauritania, the president is worse than Maouiya the ousted dictator who had killed thousands of innocent black Mauritanians without being brought to justice. You will be doomed if you take this Arabisation plot in your stride. Do not be seduced by the highly manipulative slavers whose primary goal is to keep you foxes in bondage. What your idiotic demagogues are offering you is not a ticket to paradise, but a deprived future. The clown who rules Mauritania will not cut you a slack, he doesn't know when and how to stop. The Mauritanian government is warning that the opposition is plotting to start a civil war in this country. However, it's clear the government is the one concocting such an evil plan. The black community is clearly avoiding any brutal clash with the extremist Moorish who have been marinated in the obsolete Arab supremacist propaganda. But if the desire of this government is to prolong its ambition to keep us in bondage, we will be left with no choice but to counter this foolishness.

Mohamed Sow