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University of Copenhagen
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Students clash in Mauritania over language

In a part of the world normally off the radar of the West, violence breaks out on university campus

Several students were seriously wounded as a debate on the status of Arabic and French led to violent conflict on the campus of the University of Nouakchott in Mauritania.

This is according to

An announcement by Mauritania’s Prime Minister, Moulaye Ould Mohammed Lagdaff, on April 18, regarding the status of the Arabic language, provoked the clashes.

At a ceremony to celebrate the Arabic language, the Prime Minister declared that Mauritania would soon introduce compulsory Arabic as the country’s only official language.

Ancestral quarrel revived

His statement revived an ongoing conflict between students of African descent, known as ‘Negro-Mauritanians’, and those of Arab descent, called ‘Arabo-Berbers’.

Following the announcement, there were verbal disagreements, but these heated debates led to violence. Police were called in, and used teargas to control the rioting students.

The Negro-Mauritanians insist that French and Arabic ought to remain the country’s official languages.

»Linguistic humiliation«

They say imposing Arabic as the only means of official communication is tantamount to internal colonisation.

»Our ancestors were brutalised and enslaved. We don’t want to inherit cultural oppression and linguistic humiliation. French should be accorded the same status as Arabic,« says Ismaila Diop, a Negro-Mauritanian, to a local online newspaper.

Arabo-Berber students point out that the country’s Constitution recognises Arabic as the only official language.

Ongoing struggle

The current controversy over the use of French and is just one aspect of an ongoing struggle for power between the two communities.

The Independent Union of Mauritanian Students reacted to the campus clashes by releasing an online statement condemning the Prime Minister’s speech.