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Mauritania "1989 Events"

Ethnic tensions persist in Mauritania. In April 1989 violence broke out between communities, stemming from a schism between Arab-Berber and Black African communities. Over the next 2 years the “1989 events" resulted in Mauritania's deportation of Black African citizens to Senegal and Mali, state-sponsored killings, and the purge of tens of thousands of Black Africans from the military and government and their expulsion. The Mauritanian authorities had for some time been viewed by residents of the sengal River valley as deliberately breaking international law in order to dispossess residents of land in favor of Bidan development schemes.

In the Senegal River Basin, much of the agricultural development had been financed by upper-class, Bidan entrepreneurs, but the schemes were based on Haratine or slave labor. Moreover, a significant part of the land granted by the state to Bidan is claimed by Halpulaar-en, who insist that their rights continue despite their inability to cultivate the land because of drought. Drought also made development schemes attractive to Bidan since it had deprived many of them of their traditional sources of income from pastoral activities. And more recently, Bidan business losses in Senegal (and expulsion from that country) have made the schemes all the more appealing as investment targets. Donors' insistence on privatization of the schemes and on individualization of tenure have facilitated Bidan dominance and use of hired labor.

In the spring of 1989, a series of confrontations between farmers and Mauritanian troops on both sides of the Senegal River escalated into a major diplomatic crisis involving both Senegalese and Mauritanian governments and Ultimately resulting in the loss of life and property of thousands of individuals. That the Mauritanian government did not even initially inform the Senegalese government of the illegal actions of its military persuaded many that the violence was condoned by the highest levels of the government in Nouakchott.

On 09 April 1989, two Senegalese (Soninke) farmers were killed by Mauritanian military in the aftermath of a confrontation between Maur i tanian Peul herders and Senegalese Soninke cultivators. The Soninke had been chasing the herders' livestock from their fields, which were near harvest. Mauritanian military ventured into Senegalese territory near the town of Diawara, in ostensible support of the herders, killed two Senegalese, and took hostage thirteen others, who were imprisoned, maltreated, and released only after diplomatic protests by the Senegalese government. The initial confrontation between herders and cultivators was probably not unlike others which had occurred many times between different groups along the river. What distinguished this incident was not the actual incident itself but its aftermath, which seemed to bring to a pitch hostile attitudes of the Mauritanian government toward Senegalese cultivating lands in Mauritania.

On 19 April 1989 the Diawara incident was repeated near the village of Sadel, near Matam in Senegal. Two Senegalese cultivators were attacked in Senegal by Mauritanian troops and taken as hostages to be impr isoned near Kaedi, Ma"ur itania. When "local Senegalese authorities protested the events, the Mauritanian government paid minimal attention and the Senegalese government accomplished little in the way of resolving things -- perhaps too preoccupied with keeping the peace. Senegalese youth thus organized a protest in Dakar, during which a young Bidan shot and killed a black Senegalese.

This led to an initial set of riots in which the Senegalese government made serious efforts to defend the Maures from the rioters. Shortly after, on the 24th and 25th of April, massacres of black Senegalese at the hands of an apparently government-directed mob took place in Nouakchott. At least 40 people were massacred and estimates carried on RFI, BBC, and VOA suggest the number was as high as 200 dead with 700 people injured; other estimates put the figure at 400 dead. The Mauritanian government refused to let any international or Senegalese officials make counts of the dead and many were buried in mass graves.

The enormity of the events of late April in Nouakchott quickly reached Senegal and led to massive riots against Bidan residents of Senegal, particularly on the night of April 28, in which at least 35 people were killed (estimates suggest as many as 100 Bidan may have been killed) and some 40,000 Bidan shops were pillaged. Since this time, incidents multiplied as Bidan in Mauritania tended to explain the events in Senegal as evidence of a systematic racist policy.

The events of Apr il 1989 precipitated massive airlifts between the two countries. Numerous Bidan also fled from Senegal on foo.t while black Maur itanians were deported by various routes. In all several hundred thousand people were relocated in 1989. A number of people were arrested in April for protesting government complicity in these events, but apparently these early prisoners were soon released. Since the April 1989 relocations, tens of thousands of blacks had been thrown out of Mauritania. The total number is unclear, but in some areas (for example, west of Lexeiba/Podor) reports suggested 50 percent of the Halpulaar-en had already been expelled by mid-l989.

Amnesty International reports large-scale torture and extrajudicial executions by the government of Mauritania (or its officials) since this time. Other accounts suggest numerous cases of state criminality and assert that more than 140 villages have been expelled in their entirety.

These events can be understood only as a crisis of national proportions involving nothing less than the definition of the Mauritanian state. Although the product of a specific series of confrontations, the crisis is intimately related to the internal linguistic, cultural, and economic policies of the Mauritanian state. These in turn can be grasped only by an understanding of their historical context. Ethnic and caste divisions have long existed in the Senegal River Basin and continue to shape many of the interactions between groups today. While the Halpulaar-en cultivate the majority of the very productive flood-recession lands on both sides of the middle Senegal River, other land, at the eastern end of the middle valley, is cultivated by the Soninke.

Political changes over the past few centuries, including the establishment of emirates, jihads, and the imposition of colonial rule, have resulted in a complex social and economic system, with some groups (for example, the Halpulaar-en) asserting land rights based on conquest and others (including the Haratine, former slaves) basing their claims on the Islamic principle of indirass, which recognizes rights established through clearing the land.

French colonial administration, which furthered the interests of elites in the area, only complicated claims to land rights and relations between groups and in fact did little to advance the status of former slave groups. The control of recession lands in the Senegal River Basin has long been a source of competition and tension within communities or across communities and ethnic groups. Flood-recession lands are the most reliable asset, yet one regularly in short supply. Thus each dominant social group in the area has wanted to control them, to exercise an author ity that implies control over the region's population.

Land law during the colonial period recognized traditional tenure rights on those lands which had not been subject to a special process of registration (immatriculation). At the same time, rights to land not actively cultivated (including land cultivated only in good years) were systematically undermined by application of the Islamic principle of indirass, articulated to justify taking over lands left unused over a period of ten years. Because colonial legislation arrogated to the state unoccupied land, this land became part of the national domain.

Since independence, the government of Mauritania passed a number of significant pieces of land legislation. The one passed in 1983 abolished the traditional tenure system, asserts that individual ownership is the norm, and made legally inadmissible all lawsuits concerning collectively held property. Like earlier legislation, the 1983 law enunciates the principle that "dead land" is the property of the state, thereby facilitating the state's access to land that can be used for national development schemes. This is an important provision since a significant portion of the land in the valley has been left uncultivated in recent years due to drought. Subsequent ministeria1 directives have eased the state's granting of concessions for agricultural development schemes to private individuals.

The diplomatic and ethnic problems which surfaced in 1989 are only one facet of the crisis. There are economic and environmental concerns as well. The ecological unity of the Senegal River Valley requires that proposed solutions go beyond even national considerations. In additicn, significant revisions in both development policy and land tenure legislation are necessary to begin to rectify some of the inequities and injustices of the recent years.

Perhaps the key evaluation of the events is that of Amnesty International in 1989, which noted that one of the most apparent differences between the Mauritanian government's reaction to the April 1989 events and that of the Senegalese government was the degree to which the Mauritanian government seemed to be more actively a party to the worst atrocities. Accounts of Haratine trucked into Nouakchott to pillage proliferate, and uniformed and plainclothes police with walkie-talkies are reported by numerous witnesses to have observed and even directed atrocities. It is not irrelevant that the frequency of torture in Mauritania, which has greatly increased under the leadership of Maaouiya Ould Taya since 1986, contrasts wi~h its apparent rarity in Senegal. In short, despite some complicity in the atrocities by both sides, the Mauritanian government, by the available reports, seems to be far more implicated than the Senegalese government.

Refugees from Mauritania had been in Senegal for more than two decades. They are among the tens of thousands who fled when a longstanding border dispute between Mauritania and Senegal degenerated in April 1989. However, their voluntary return only became possible after the Mauritanian government called in 2007 on its citizens to return home from exile.

Voluntary repatriations from Senegal to Mauritania were suspended in December 2009 pending a tripartite meeting of the two countries with UNHCR. That meeting took place in July 2010, allowing repatriations to resume now that the rainy season is over. In 2010, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees concluded its program of repatriating Mauritanian citizens from Senegal, a significant milestone in Mauritania’s efforts to resolve this decades-long refugee problem, also known as the passif humanitaire.

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Page last modified: 06-08-2017 17:54:34 ZULU