1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Project: Racism and Public Policy

Abstract of Paper by Kwesi Prah

  • Project from: 2000 to 2001

Race, Discrimination, Slavery and Citizenship in the Afro-Arab Borderlands
In the historical experience of Africa, two major forms of dominance have been nationally imposed. The first was the cultural and political imposition arising out of the Arab conquest of North Africa, which started in the 7th Century A.D. with the Hejira. The second over-lordship arose out of Western expansion and conquests and was of much later vintage culminating in colonial rule from the late 19th Century.

The conquest of North Africa by the Arabs was a slow process, which has been steady over the centuries. Apart from the political implications of conquest, perhaps even more important and in many ways more socio-culturally impactful has been the process of cultural denationalization of African communities in the face of Arab conquest and over-lordship, and the replacement of African cultural institutions by Arabic ones. Possibly the most notable of these cultural denationalization experiences has been the case of the Berbers in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. The culture of the Berbers and the language of the people suffered subjugation and denigration from very early in the history of the Arab-African encounter.

Recent conflicts, protests and demonstrations in Algeria highlight the historical plight of Berber national culture in the face of Arabization and domination. But possibly nowhere in the Afro-Arab Borderlands is the problem of race, class and citizenship in such high tension between Arab and African (or possibly Arabized Africans and Africans) as the Sudan and Mauritania. These two countries are frequently in the news for these reasons, but indeed the problem and scenario is enacted in other countries in the region including Libya, Mali, Niger and Chad.

In the case of the Sudan tension between Arab and African in modern times came to a head in August 1955 with the Torit mutiny. The consequences of this mutiny in the Sudan was to trigger the beginnings of Africa's longest war. This war has lasted almost 50 years and was reduced in intensity through the good services of the All African Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia in 1972. It however persisted throughout the period of so-called peace in Sudan and exploded in full fury again in December 1983. Since then it has continued amidst growing and persistent reports of slavery of Africans by Arabs, the genocide in the Nuba Mountains area and ethnic-cleansing in the Blue Nile area and extended warlordism and genocide in the South Sudan.

Fundamentalist Islam and fanatical Arabism play a very important role in this. The situation in Mauritania is equally beset with conflict. The history and tradition of African enslavement by Arabized moors is old and has persisted to the present day. Slavery was abolished by the French in 1905. A second abolition was proclaimed with the independence constitution of Mauritania in 1961. It has however continued and the tensions arising out of the enslavement of Africans in Mauritania has frequently threatened the peace between Mauritania and Senegal. This former French colony of 2 million people probably contains the world's largest concentration of chattels. In 1993, the U.S. State Department estimated that up to 90,000 blacks live as the property of North African Arabs (known as Beydanes, or white Moors). Other sources add 300,000 part-time and ex-slaves, known as haratins, many of whom continue to serve their owners out of fear or need. The local anti-slavery group El Hor ("The Free") estimates as many as one million haratins in Mauritania. In the whole region of the Afro-Arab Borderlands the last decade and a half has seen what has been described by some as the Tuareg War. In more recent years the volume of this conflict has abated but the economic, political and cultural conflicts remain.

This paper looks at the specific experience of the legacy of dominance, racism and discrimination in the Afro-Arab Borderlands with specific reference to the Sudan and Mauritania. Comments are made regarding this phenomenology for other countries in the region - Mali, Niger and Chad - with respect to the same issues. The implication of these issues to future relations of Africans and Arabs in the Afro-Arab Borderlands are scrutinized. Some recommendations are presented towards the peaceful resolution of these socio-political, cultural and economic tensions in the Afro-Arab Borderlands.