Trouble Along the Senegal

ETHNIC violence in the West African nations of Senegal and Mauritania is an old story that needs a new ending. The current problems started with a seemingly small incident: Land cultivated by Senegalese farmers along the Senegal River was trampled by cattle tended by Mauritanian herdsmen. That sparked the looting of shops run by Mauritanians in Senegal, which sparked murderous riots against Senegalese in Mauritania. Finally an airlift was organized to try to get as many people as possible back to their respective homelands.

Friction between black Senegalese and Mauritania's ``white'' Arabic rulers can be traced at least as far back as the 17th century, when French colonialists penetrated the Senegal River Valley. They threw their lot in with the powerful black tribes of the region and pushed the warlike Moorish clans back toward the desert. When independence came in 1960, blacks were better educated and held most of the important jobs.

But in Mauritania, the Moorish majority reclaimed political dominance. Only in 1980 did the Mauritanian government formally outlaw slavery. Traditionally, slaves had been black, held by Arab masters. In 1987, 54 black Mauritanian Army officers were arrested for plotting against the government. Three were executed.

On top of this, a dam-building project on the Senegal River, the border between the countries, is creating competition for increasingly valuable land on its banks.

Thus the scene was set for the recent strife.

Transferring people back across the border, even if practical, will hardly solve the problem. Senegal has 350,000 Mauritanians; Mauritania, 30,000 Senegalese.

In simple fact, the two countries are intertwined economically and culturally (both are Muslim). The reasonable course - that should be pressed by international lenders and others who have some influence - is to put aside ancient conflicts and work together for greater prosperity in the region. Mauritania's rulers, in particular, have to rein in pride of caste.

What Africa needs, above all, are examples of cooperation across ethnic and national lines.

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