Opposition groups have vowed to continue protesting a law they say will threaten the future of non-Arab culture in Mauritania. The Mauritanian government says the new law, passed this summer, is a much-needed education reform.
“[This will] put an end to the alarming deterioration of the national education system,” National Education Minister Mohamed Melainine Ould Eyih said earlier this year in a public appearance.
The law passed in July requires that primary school lessons be taught in a local vernacular. It also requires the teaching of Arabic to non-Arabic speakers and at least one national language to Arabic speakers.
The Organization for the Officialization of National Languages (OLAN) was founded in March 2022 and claims hundreds of active members.
“The day after the publication by the government of the content of the bill, we found it so unfair and so clear about its desire to endorse the choice of the Arabic language as the absolute language of the country; said Dieynaba Ndiom, OLAN Outreach Officer. “The treatment that this bill reserves for other languages is so vague and minimalist that we immediately recognized the Arabization project which has always been supported by the State.”
Four languages are recognized by the Mauritanian constitution: Arabic, Pulaar, Soninké and Wolof. Only Arabic is official and French is widely spoken. The OLAN movement protested the passing of the law, with some of its members arrested and others injured in a series of clashes with police. It was unclear whether any members of Mauritania’s security forces were injured during the mostly peaceful protests. According to a video posted on social media, some protesters against the law entered the Mauritanian parliament during the consideration of the bill.
“The preservation of cultural and linguistic diversity is at stake. Each of us has the right to live fully our cultural identity, and the assimilation project hatched by the Mauritanian system is criminal and unacceptable,” said Ndiom.
Mauritania’s cultural demographics make it a bridge between North Africa and West Africa. Five major ethnic groups make up the country. Since its independence from France in 1960, the cohabitation of its ethnic components has often been a source of cultural tension.
Mauritania’s language policies have always been seen as discriminatory by minority language speakers. Several linguists have also noted that in some societies one “prestige” language or dialect is often promoted at the expense of others.
In the 1980s, the Mauritanian government forcibly expelled more than 70,000 members of the Fulani, Toucouleur, Wolof, Soninke and Bambara ethnic groups.
“The linguistic and cultural diversity that we observe today in Mauritania is a legacy built over the last two millennia, under extremely powerful empires that have existed on this part of the continent,” said Mouhamadou Sy, an expert on Mauritanian affairs and professor at Johns Hopkins. University.
Sy stresses that Mauritanian identity should be inspired by more than the country’s Arab cultural ties. For example, the capital of the Ghana Empire, called Koumbi Saleh, was located southeast of present-day Mauritania. At its height, the Mali Empire was one of the richest in the world. Other empires and states have also left their mark on Mauritania’s cultural heritage, he said.
“Many sub-Saharan languages reigned over this country long before the arrival of Arabic in the 15th century. All these languages, including Arabic, are a national heritage and an asset for the current country. Unlike the Arabization that the state has always wanted to promote at the expense of its diversity, we can well adopt a multilingual system like that of Switzerland, which corresponds most to our social and historical reality,” Sy said.
OLAN activists have vowed to continue to raise awareness of the issue. The next event is scheduled for the end of September.
This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.