As Kal describes in detail, the national census underway in Mauritania has highlighted the racial fissures that remain in the country: since the spring, protests against the census have occurred in the south and in the capital Nouakchott, resulting in dozens of arrests and at least one death. (Read one description of the anti-census movement, “Touche Pas a Ma Nationalite” [Don’t Touch My Nationality], in French here).
To what Kal says I will add only two things. The first is that Afro-Mauritanians’ fears that the government will manipulate census data reflect Mauritania’s history of racial conflict, but those fears also reflect worldwide trends. In many divided societies, there are communities who fear that governments will use population counts to control, favor, or under-represent different groups. These suspicions exist in Nigeria, where asking about religious affiliation has become taboo in the national census, and are found in some quarters in the United States, as we saw when some Americans threatened last year to harm census workers or to refuse them information.
Returning to Mauritania, there is a second point to make. The census conflict points to the country’s racial tensions, but it’s also important to understand that race relations are not static in Mauritania. Since the 1970s, anti-slavery organizations and other political activist groups have changed the position of non-white groups in Mauritania, especially the haratine or “black Moors.” Earlier this year at Northwestern I was lucky to see a presentation by Dr. Zekaria Ould Ahmed Salem of the University of Nouakchott, who talked about how some haratine figures are breaking into public and community life in new ways, for example by becoming imams. I am not saying this to minimize Mauritania’s conflicts or downplay its problems, but to point out that the racial picture there changes in profound ways over time. Even these current protests, from the little I know of Mauritanian history, would have been unthinkable fifty years ago, and can therefore be seen as another sign of change.
The government’s determination to complete the census means it will go forward, but the protesters stand as a warning to the government that a significant segment of the population is watching carefully to see how it uses the data.