UPDATE: Al-Akhbar reports a second death. The Interior Ministry is being quoted by Sahara Media as saying that it will “consider” protesters’ demands but will continue with the census, with the Interior Minister condemning violence by protesters and pledging not to allow demonstrations to disrupt the effort to issue biometric identity documents. The “Don’t Touch My Nationality” campaign has released a video condemning the killing of Lamine Mangane. Political leaders are reacting to the disturbances with National Assembly head Messaoud Ould Boulkheir calling the census and the resulting disturbances “the greatest threat to national unity” and together with Senator Youssouf Sylla and others calling for a halt to the census.
As of late this blog has been sparse on Mauritania-specific topics. Apologies; non-blog things have taken the lead. An important and depressing thing happened there this week: gendarmes shot a young protestor in the chest, killing him amid fierce protests in the southern town of Kaedi. The country’s history of racial tension between Arabs and blacks is bloody and sad; the country is still struggling to come to terms with the racial violence that led to the expulsion of tens of thousands of black Mauritanians to Senegal and the killing of black Army officers twenty years ago (many refugees remain across the border in Senegal, and their repatriation is ongoing to simplify things for the sake of space; the government recently announced a plan to pay damages to black military personnel who were purged, detained or abused from 1981-2004). Recent clashes between protesters and security forces over a census scheme many black Mauritanians view as discriminatory should command readers attention.
Black Mauritanians have been protesting against the government’s census campaign, meant to replace old identity papers with biometric ID cards, since at least August claiming that the government is undercounting blacks and threatening their citizenship and voting rights. Others complain about the sorts of questions asked of black respondents as compared to those asked of Arab ones; questions for blacks, many fume, imply the respondent is foreign or of recent arrival rather than native to Mauritania — understandably offensive given the trauma of the expulsions of the early 1990s when blacks were accused of being Senegalese. The “Don’t Touch My Nationality” campaign has led numerous sit-ins and demonstrations in Nouakchott and major southern towns, including Kaedi (Gorgol Province) where violence broke out early this week. Earlier this month police detained protesters (and a journalist) for protesting in the capital; police used teargas to break up protests in Kaedi on 24 September, drawing round condemnations from opposition parties and rights groups. Kaedi has seen three days of protests against the census; some thirty people have been detained by police there. Leaders of the protest movement met with Interior Ministry officials on Sunday evening to negotiate the release of detainees. (Al-Akhbar has a list of names of those detained.) The head of local security was replaced on Sunday but unrest continued. Kaedi’s market has shut down, and protesters have burned tire, police cars and other state properties. There are reports of looting at shops and public offices. The gendarmerie claims they used force after being confronted by protesters with knives and weapons. Demonstrators then stormed the local office for government statistics, which runs the census, burning it to the ground. The gendarmerie sent reinforcements (twenty trucks of men) from the capital to quell the unrest. A young man named Lamine Mangane was shot dead by gendarmes in nearby Maghama at a protest in front of a census operations office. This is the first instance of a protestor being killed in Mauritania’s protests this year. News reports describe a tense calm in Kaedi today, though the controversy over the census is unlikely to go away. The killing of Mr. Mangane will win it no friends. The government claims the census has counted more Mauritanians in predominantly black areas than mostly Arab ones; it dismisses claims of discrimination or that the effort is meant to take away black citizenship. Many Arab and black Mauritanians agree the census has been slow going, badly managed damaging to the government’s credibility — some even say the government postponed October’s parliamentary election less as a way of appeasing the opposition as because the census effort bungled both the population count and voter registration. The current violence highlights an often overlooked point of instability in Mauritania, lost in many outsiders discourses over terrorism and religion: enduring distrust and unresolved grievances between large parts of the black minority and the government and military.