Since early September, Black Mauritanians are demonstrating every week against a census organised by the government which, they say, will increase racial discrimination and deprive many of them of their citizenship. In Paris, about 1,500 marched on October 2nd in homage to 19 years Lamine Mangane, who was shot dead earlier by the police at Maghama, near Nouakchott, during a demonstration against the census launched in May.
On September28, 56 persons - including 13 foreigners - were arrested in Nouakchott during violent clashes with the police. A fortnight earlier, 300 members of Belgium’s Mauritanian community demonstrated in front of the European Union institutions buildings, shouting “hands off my nationality”. They wanted the European Union, Mauritania’s first donor and first buyer of Mauritania’s iron ore and fish, to use its influence to persuade the Nouakchott government to put an end to the census, whose official aim is the distribution of biometric identity cards.
This census will increase discrimination, the protesters say. Indeed, the census admits only four ethnic identities which can be mentioned on the IDs: Moorish, Soninké, Fulani and Wolof failing to mention the Haratines, the Arab-speaking blacks who descend from the first inhabitants of the country and also from the slaves in a country which officially abolished slavery in 1980 but where it is still in place. The Confédération libre des travailleurs de Mauritanie - a labour union - claims that there is still forced labour in the country, especially among young female domestic workers. According to SOS Esclaves, in 2009, one Mauritanian out of five was living in conditions of slavery, particularly among camel breeding workers.
Haratines deplore that their identity is not recognized and fear therefore to be treated as stateless people. Besides, census agents are inflicting Black Mauritanians all sort of additional tests. They ask them for instance to speak the Moorish hassaniya dialect, says Dia Gando, a militant of the “hands off my nationality” movement in Kaédi, a town on the Senegal river, where public buildings and shops were looted and damaged during three days of riots at the end of September.
According to Malick Sall, the spokesman of Belgium’s Mauritanians Coordination, the protest is not against a reliable national registry system but against a census whose criteria are ambiguous to say the least. “Some people are required to produce birth and marriage certificates but are unable to do so because their parents died before the independence in 1960 when there was no Mauritanian state yet” explains Malick Sall. Moreover, he says, some 100,000 Mauritanians who were deported to Senegal or Mali, during several pogroms, the last between 1989 and 1991, under the regime of the President Maaouiya Ould Taya, were stripped from their IDs and will therefore never be able to be registered.
Malick Sall is convinced that there is a deliberate plan to keep black Mauritanians away from power, in order to prevent them to claim their right and their land The government has already confiscated 40,000 hectares alnong the Senegal river to sell them to the Saudi Tadco agribusiness corporation, a clear land grabbing operation. Sall also recalls the massacre of 500 black military in 1990. And he deplores that there is only one Black in the 13 member commission which supervises the census operations.
According to the Mauritanian press, strange things are happening in the country. People who belong to well known families, including a former Minister of Health and a colonel, are now deprived of their citizenship simply because they were born abroad or one of their parents is a foreigner. The Mauritanian Association of Human Rights deplores the persistence of all kinds of discrimination against Black populations in the country.
The President of the National Assembly, Messaoud Ould Bulkheir, who is a Black Mauritanian, considers that the census poses “a big danger” for the unity of the country. Ahmed Ould Cheikh, the Moorish editorialist of Le Calame is also worried by what he calls a kind of intifada: “Mauritania is just too fragile to afford ethnic clashes. The country is our common wealth. Let us try to preserve it from our own evils. Let us find using legal means to defend our rights and let us fight this regime if it tries to divide us”. But General Ould Abdel Aziz, who was elected in 2009, is becoming increasingly autocratic and is not keen to move backward. So far, the state’s response has only been to clamp down on demonstrators. The Minister of Interior calls the black Mauritanians’ protest sabotage. Such statement will probably not appease the fears of those who don’t want to become undocumented citizens in their own country.