MAURITANIA: University closed amid ethnic conflict

The University of Nouakchott in Mauritania has been experiencing violent ethnic clashes between student unions that have led to its temporary closure. And last Monday, the 25 February Youth Movement demonstrated in the Mauritanian capital in what has been called a 'day of rage', demanding sweeping reforms and in some cases removal of the government.

There were violent clashes between anti-riot police and protestors, during which at least 20 people were arrested. The movement has been arranging sit-ins and protests using the social networking site Facebook since January, in parallel with other youth uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East.

The president of the University of Nouachott suspended classes from last weekend following two days of violent ethnic clashes on 21 and 22 April between student unions during student election campaigns. Teaching is set to resume on 2 May.

There have previously been ethnic clashes at Nouakchott University, between Moorish Arabic-speaking students and French-speaking students, reflecting deep historical antagonisms between the two communities.

A year ago, Negro-Mauritanian students protested over what they described as the "complete Arabisation of the administration" in Mauritania, after the government announced that Arabic would be the country's only official language. Police were called in to quell violent clashes during which several students were injured.

The student unions involved in last week's ethnic violence were the Islamist group the National Association of Students in Mauritania, and the Mauritanian National Student Trade Union.

In response to the university closure decision, students threatened to boycott examinations at the end of the year, due to multiple disruptions that have occurred during the academic year.

A group of university professors issued an appeal for calm, calling on the goodwill of students, the administration, political parties, unions and civil society to avoid a repeat of the country's "bitter experience" during ethnic conflict from 1989 to 1990.

Mauritania - which has a population of 3.2 million people and is bordered by the Atlantic to the west and by Western Sahara, Algeria, Mali and Senegal - is one of the countries of the Maghreb.

Following independence from France in 1960 Mauritania endured decades of one-party authoritarian rule and military coups in 2005 and 2008. General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who led the 2008 coup, resigned from the military in 2009 and won elections that year.

On 21 April, Ahmed Ould Daddah, chairman of the opposition Rally for Democratic Forces, accused government supporters of being behind recent clashes during demonstrations.

Daddah strongly condemned "clashes that degenerated into a community feud, breaching the country's unity and national cohesion", saying this happened after "the invisible intrusion of external forces". He warned against such acts and called for peace and security.