Mauritania Table of Contents
In 1987 the military government was the most likely arena for power struggles affecting internal security. Aside from factions within the military, there appeared to be no group with a large enough power base or organizational structure to challenge the existing military regime. Despite the personal popularity of President Taya, governmental institutions remained without a broad base of support and provided no outlet for discontent, dissent, or even meaningful debate over national policies (see Political Power in the Mid-1980s , ch. 4).
From independence until the 1978 military coup, labor and student unrest and racial clashes presented the most serious threats to internal security. These threats were interrelated because minority ethnic groups from the Senegal River Valley actively participated in the unions and student demonstrations.
Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, labor unions struck primarily in Fdérik at the Mauritanian Iron Mines Company (Société Anonyme des Mines de Fer de Mauritanie--MIFERMA) complex, whose employees had grievances against the West European overseers. Violence was common, and the army was used to quell the frequent disturbances, causing injuries, deaths, and numerous arrests. In their turn, many students opposed the government's language policy, which in 1966 required students to study Hassaniya Arabic as well as French. Violent confrontations often erupted, and schools were frequently closed for months at a time. Moreover, students often joined forces with MIFERMA strikers in opposition to the PPM.
From the time of the military coup in 1978 through 1987, the CMSN leadership banned all political parties and opposition groups and suspended freedom of assembly, especially public meetings that addressed political themes. Labor unions were the only nationwide organizations with any political import that were not dissolved following the 1978 coup. The right to strike existed in theory but was greatly restricted in practice, and extended strikes were strongly opposed by the government. There were only two brief strikes, in the early 1980s.
In 1978 serious ethnic conflict erupted between Maures and southern blacks. Blacks resented their overrepresentation as recruits in the Western Sahara conflict and their underrepresentation in the upper echelons of the military. Racial unrest peaked during February and March 1979. For the first time since the military coup in 1978, antigovernment activists distributed hostile tracts in the streets and placed antiregime slogans on walls. The government arrested several people, including black teachers and students who threatened to strike over the language issue. Further troubles occurred during March 1979 when a number of prominent, moderate blacks were arrested for advocating the use of ethnic quotas to fill government jobs; however, they were released a few days later in response to popular pressure.
In an effort to mollify blacks, on March 19, 1979, the government announced the formation of the National Consultative Council. Composed of eighty-seven Maures and seventeen blacks, it was intended to provide a measure of popular participation in decision making until such time as elections could be held. On March 30, all seventeen blacks resigned, charging the council with unequal ethnic representation.
Despite increased ethnic tensions, the government under both Mustapha Ould Salek and Ahmed Ould Bouceif took no action to appease the black community. On the contrary, the new military government virtually barred blacks from government. Moreover, the government took measures in November 1978 that favored Arabic as the sole language in Mauritania's secondary schools, further fueling accusations of economic and political discrimination.
Tensions between blacks and Maures erupted in 1986 following the publication in April of a document entitled Le Manifeste du Négro-Mauritanien Opprime (Manifesto of the Oppressed Black Mauritanian) (see Ethnic Minorities , ch. 4). The manifesto was circulated in cities and towns in Mauritania and also at the September 1986 Nonaligned Movement summit in Harare, Zimbabwe and at the Organization of African Unity (OAU) summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This document criticized "Mauritanian apartheid" and the white Maure system that ensured the political and economic domination by the Arab-Berbers at the expense of the black ethnic groups (see Ethnic Groups and Languages , ch. 2). The manifesto also took issue with the policy of favoring Arabic over French, the lack of educational opportunities for blacks, and land reform measures. In particular, the manifesto viewed the controversial Land Reform Act of 1983 as a means by which wealthy, urban Maures could appropriate profitable land along the Senegal River, traditionally the homeland of Mauritania's black population.
More ethnic unrest continued into September 1986, when police arrested several black leaders for participating in civil disturbances. Later that month, an additional forty blacks were arrested for what the government labeled subversive activities. In addition, dozens of leading black public figures, including two former cabinet ministers, were detained for questioning about "activities harmful to national unity." Nine of those arrested were later sentenced to five years' imprisonment, and eight were sentenced to four years' imprisonment. The accused had allegedly opposed the land reform measures.
On October 9 and 11, 1986, in response to the September arrests, violence again erupted. Black demonstrators ransacked and burned a fish factory, gasoline station, and pharmacy. The government linked this violence to the African Liberation Forces of Mauritania (Forces de Libération Africaine de Mauritanie-- FLAM) and the black African manifesto attacking Maure discrimination (see Ethnic Minorities , ch. 4). Thirteen of those arrested in the 1986 protests over racial discrimination against blacks were convicted of arson in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou in October 1986. Five of them were sentenced to five years' imprisonment and eight to four years' imprisonment. Five others on trial on similar charges were acquitted. An additional twenty people were tried and convicted in March 1987.
As part of a large-scale crackdown on blacks (and the Toucouleur community in particular) carried out in the second half of 1986, all Toucouleur officers serving at posts of responsibility in the military regional commands were sacked. The administration purged itself of all its Toucouleur governors, préfets, and sous-préfets serving in the south (they were either sent to the far north or fired.) Among those who lost their positions within the CMSN and/or the government as a result of the crackdown was the minister of interior, information, and telecommunications, Lieutenant Colonel Anne Amadou Babali (a Toucouleur), who was transferred to the Ministry of Trade and Transport for about six weeks and then dismissed from government on October 4, 1986. The director of the International Bank of Mauritania (Banque Internationale pour la Mauritanie--BIMA) was fired, and the head of the Red Crescent (Red Cross in Islamic countries) was removed from office. Authorities banned meetings of black self-help groups and cultural associations and even engaged in surveillance of large gatherings of black families, such as weddings. In this tense environment, a group calling itself the National Front of Black Officers (Front National des Officiers Noirs--FRON) emerged and denounced the arbitrary arrests and sentences of Mauritanians who wished only to guarantee civil and political rights for all ethnic groups. FRON blamed the Maure community for the chaos and called for the institution of a multiracial republic.
The government was not about to follow such a drastic prescription. The elections of December 1986 had allowed the semblance of political participation at the local level, a process that Taya described as a first step toward participatory democracy (see Local Elections , ch. 4). To the credit of all Mauritanians, the elections proceeded peacefully; however, the problems of ethnic imbalance remained unaddressed by the government.
* * *
There is no comprehensive study that specifically covers Mauritanian national security. Certain aspects, such as the armed forces' involvement in the Western Sahara, are covered fairly inclusively in Ripe for Resolution by William I. Zartman and in The Western Saharans by Virginia Thompson and Richard Adloff. Various periodicals, such as Frères d'armes, Africa Confidential, West Africa, Jeune Afrique, Marchés tropicaux et Méditerranéens, and Afrique Défense sporadically cover Mauritanian security issues. Some statistics on the armed forces can be found in the annual The Military Balance published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)
Data as of June 1988
Mauritania Table of Contents