Misrepresented. Mauritanian refugees and Returnees in the Mauritania-Mali Borderland

Paper presented at the Conference of the African Studies Association (ASA), Chicago, IL, USA, November 2008

I shall start to present my paper about Mauritanian refugees and returnees in the Mauritania-Mali borderland with an example which might sound a little bit strange. Imagine being in the Place de la Concorde in Paris that you can see on the map. Here, you have one of the most incredible concentration of political, cultural and economic power in the world in some kilometres, with the Louvre, the French House of Parliament, the Champs Élysées, the Arc de Triomphe, luxurious shops, but in particular the French Presidential Palace just beside the US Embassy. Everything here aims at giving VISIBILITY to those symbols of power. Now, imagine going in one of the most luxurious hotel in the world which is some metres away from the Square and where the most powerful people of the world use to stay when visiting Paris. A friend of mine, Mamadou, works in this hotel as a dishwasher.

Mamadou is a Mauritanian refugee. In 1989, while being in his village with his family and his cattle in south centre Mauritania, he had to flee “ethnic” persecutions carried out by armed groups backed by his country’s authorities. He found refuge beyond the border with Mali, in the Kayes region, with some other 20.000 pastoral Fulani Mauritanians. Nowadays, Mamadou is one of the few (20) displaced Mauritanians to Mali who got the chance to acquire an international refugee status,  which enabled him to go to Paris in 2001, while the majority remain completely non-existent for national and international communities.

The situation of Mauritanian refugees in Mali and of those who have already been repatriated is quite unknown in the public debate and media, even within Mauritania. This is completely different from the situation of Mauritanian refugees in Senegal, whose elites benefit from a wide visibility in the public debate and represent one of the most influential lobby groups in Mauritanian politics from the exile. On the contrary, refugees in Mali lack of any visibility and representation. For instance, it’s striking to see that, in our media world, there’s not one single photo showing them, and in all the worldwide press and on the web there’s only one article describing a little bit their actual living conditions. So, when you meet Mamadou in that Parisian hotel, you are certainly struck by seeing such an “invisible” person in the middle of a world power mise en scène.

Starting from the case of these invisible refugees and returnees in the Mauritania-Mali borderland, this paper deals with some theoretical questions about the political meanings of visibility and invisibility of marginal people in contemporary Africa. My reflection stems from a simple consideration: nowadays, political mobilization and empowerment for social groups largely depend on the capacity or the chance of these groups to make themselves visible in the public arena. This is particularly true in the age of a worldwide-interconnected information society, where the presence in media becomes one of the most important tools for social and political empowerment and for attracting the attention of public opinions and international community’s actors. “I’m visible, so I exist”. As regards to Africa and humanitarian matters, the question of visibility turns out to be very sensitive: violent conflicts, refugees exodus and camps, coup d’État, poverty, and any other crisis threatening human rights are now exposed to the intrusive eye of medias. Scholars and critics have widely demonstrated how media coverage of human suffering, especially in Africa, can generate distortions and misrepresentations.

Nevertheless, as Francis Nyamjoh demonstrates in his book on Africa’s Media, visibility is now essential for marginal to take an active role in the public debate, but they need a minimal power of expression to do that, even if this could lead to claims for the recognition of exclusionary identities, as Nyamnjoh and Englund explain. “Silent majorities”, Nyamnjoh wrote, “are still groping in the dark”. So, when are marginal people out of the game of public visibility as they are speechless and lack any power of political representation and any political recognition from the state, medias and international organizations? This is the case of Mauritanian refugees and returnees in the Mali-Mauritania borderland. As we will see, these populations lack the means of self-representation. And if politicians and institutions talk of them, they do it through misrepresentations aiming at excluding them from the political debate and refusing any claims for citizenship rights.


In order to understand this condition, we have to start form an analysis of the historical relationships between these pastoral Fulani populations and the State. The region has always been at the edge of large polities since pre-colonial times, a typical “frontier region” as Kopytoff would put it. Since the beginning of the colonial experience, the relationship between pastoral Fulani living there and the State is a history of push and pull, inclusion and expulsion. On one side, pastoral communities escaped from the colonial regime and the postcolonial state by migrating in new free lands in order to preserve their political autonomy and their pastoral activity. On the other side, state authorities have always tried to incorporate these populations in order to control them, by trying to impose sedentarization and administrative census. All these strategies were aimed at giving these populations what James Scott calls legibility, that is to say the condition of being plainly discernible for state’s administration. Until the 80s, the State has constantly attempted to make these elusive populations clear, legible, understandable, controllable and, in a way, visible to its eyes.

But the State attitude suddenly changed in 1989. Government authorities backed violent “ethnic” persecutions both in the Senegal River Valley and in the Mauritania-Mali borderland. Relying on administrative “legible” or written materials as the colonial archives which prove a “Senegalese origin” for these populations, the Mauritanian State completely inverted its strategy. If the State always tried to incorporate elusive pastoral groups by giving them legibility, it now tries to make them completely “invisible” within the Mauritanian society: public authorities wrecked their Mauritanian identity papers, seized their properties and land entitlements, organized a mass expulsion to “their country of origin” (Senegal) and provoked an exodus into Mali of 20.000 people.


         Half the refugees in Mali have already returned into the Mauritanian territory, without meeting any explicit opposition from national authorities. Nevertheless, they could not benefit from any recognition of their citizenship rights since their “national identity” is not recognized by any administrative census[1]. But this exclusion from formal citizenship translates an even more important cause of their marginality, that is their exclusion from any form of social and political integration in Mauritania. Almost no returnees’ community has been allowed to join their villages of origin, because new comers have occupied their ancient settlements and lands. Mauritanian authorities rather forced them to settle near the border in the Karakoro valley, meeting the opposition of local populations and administration. Returnees were nearly literally “stored up” and confined in out-of-the-way zones, subordinated to local populations in accessing scarce natural resources. Consequently, local populations and authorities sometimes consider returnees simply as “guests” on their lands. But much more often, returnees are seen as “invaders”. Thus, returnees are often the target of local chiefs’ discourses on belonging and “autochthony” which are spreading with decentralization and local development projects.

         So, returnees have no political, economic or social capital, if we compare them with other local groups: they cannot claim any political representation; they do not benefit from any patronage relationships; they have no access to information; they are completely confined in enclaves; they have not any emigrated relative who should help them financially; they do not enjoy any visibility in national debates, even forgotten by opposition parties. Finally, their new villages are not given the right to participate to local political debates gathering “civil society” representatives (village chiefs, migrants and professional associations) and institutions (municipal authorities, international NGOs), since returnees’ settlements are not recognized by the local administration. In practice, returnees do not exist politically. State authorities decide where they must settle but at the same time they don’t recognize them, thus benefiting from the continuing Fulbe lack of visibility and of mobilization in the national and international public scene.


Now, let’s take a look to the situation of Mauritanian refugees still living in Mali. The remarkable anthropological interpretations of refugees’ conditions in Africa and elsewhere generally focus on “refugees camps”, that is to say the closed spaces where institutions exert a “bio-political” control on individuals (AGIER, 2001, 2002). In a way, refugees’ camps represent one of the extreme materialization of modern governmentality where even the most basic actions of living are constrained by external powers. But if he adopts a refugee-camp approach, the anthropologist can feel disoriented when confronting the situation of Mauritanian refugees in Mali. Apparently, these populations live completely free, in “anarchist villages” – as the HCR call them – on waste lands in some out-of-the-way zones in the Karakoro borderland districts of the Kayes department, where they survive raiding cattle and smuggling on the border. This means that refugees in Mali are not “parked” in “typical” refugees camps controlled by state authorities neither by international institutions. So, what I’m talking about is a refugees’ situation where people are not “controlled” by local, national and international institutions at all, but rather completely “neglected” by them.

            This neglect is not a privilege at all. It rather reflects the complete marginalization of these communities and their complete invisibility in Mauritanian, Malian and international debate, if you compare them with the Mauritanian refugees in Senegal.

Actually, the Black Mauritanian elite who were expelled from the country to Senegal in 1989 could build large social and political networks in the exile, their status of refugees being recognized by the international community. On the contrary, no Fulani in Mali has ever being recognized this status, except for a few dozens of people. This explains why all the refugees in Mali lack any lobbying power on Mauritanian authorities from the exile and remained excluded from the new plan of repatriation, which only concerns the refugees of the Middle Senegal River Valley.

         The Mauritanian government often explains the presence of “some” Mauritanians in “some” refugee villages in Mali as the product of their own free will. Since 1991, the president Ould Taya has repeatedly stated that all the Mauritanians being able to prove their nationality were free to come back into the Mauritanian territory. He was relying on the supposedly self-evident, self-regulatory cross-border mobility of refugees and returnees. Even the HCR has always shared this idea. In 1994, its “voluntary repatriation plan” precisely relied on the idea that Mauritanian refugees in Mali would not meet any concrete constraints on their way back home. The HCR stopped any food aid delivery in refugees’ villages in order to impel them to go back “voluntarily” to Mauritania, at least for those who wished it. On the contrary, in the HCR representatives’ minds, those who were not going to return to Mauritania were explicitly affirming their will to remain in Mali. Thus, in 1995 the HCR justified its complete abandonment of refugees in Mali by affirming that the overwhelming majority of Mauritanians who moved to Mali during the 1989 “events” were not “refugees” strictu sensu[2]. The HCR representative in charge of the operations for Western, Eastern and Central Africa, even found an “ethnic” justification for the interruption of any interest of the U.N. agency for the refugees. He affirmed that although the refugees are

strangers settled in Senegal and Mali […] they are mixed up in the local mass […] in fact, they are the same populations speaking the same idioms”.

         For the U.N. humanitarian agency’s representative, cultural and ethnic continuity seems to prevail on citizenship in defining national membership rights. In the same logic, in 1998, the HCR estimated that the best solution to solve the “refugees problem” in Mali was social integration in Mali thanks to ethnic and racial affinity.

                   In spite of the myth of a perfect “social integration” of refugees in Mali – thanks to the cultural affinity with local populations -, these communities do not benefit from any citizenship rights recognition by Malian authorities, because they are neither Malians nor strangers with a legal refugees status[3]. Nonetheless, the idea that these communities are free and thus they’re not refugees is still strong in international agencies’ and Mauritanian government discourses. So much so that these communities, unlike the Mauritanian refugees in Senegal, are not concerned by the latest plan of repatriation endorsed by the new government of Nouakchott at the beginning of 2008 (CIAVOLELLA and FRESIA, 2009).


         The HCR, Mauritanian politicians and even Negro-mauritanian opposition leaders usually explain refugees’ and returnees’ marginality by giving them the responsibility for their condition. Invisibility and marginality are explained by powerful groups by recurring to depoliticizing stereotypes, in what Antonio Gramsci calls the « fatalist theory ». The Italian intellectual criticizes the stigmatization of Southern Italians by the Northern national elite who considered the marginality of those remote regions and poor people as the by-product of their natural and barbarian aversion for social inclusion and development and not the effect of historical and political causes.

         In Mauritania, both politicians and oppositions leaders consider that refugees and returnees cannot aspire to political recognition and reintegration into Mauritania because they are culturally and socially reluctant to social and political inclusion and they prefer to live in poor, marginal and distant regions with no government control. For example, local authorities refer to returnees’ and refugees’ “innate” incapacity and unwillingness of being integrated into the state and to conform to the laws of the sedentary world, while continuing to practice uncontrolled mobility and illegal practices. Then, they are considered personally responsible for their own marginality, since their condition is considered as the by-product of their “cultural” opposition to social and political inclusion rather then the effect of political exclusionary practices carried out by institutions and other communities against them. For the local population, returnees refuse to integrate as long as they hardly mobilize to claim rights for political participation or resources redistribution. Nevertheless, returnees can express their dissatisfaction and explain their claims if only they are given the opportunity to do so. It is the case of a village of returnees living five kilometres away from the Karakoro River, where they usually go to take drinking water directly from the stream, and at two hours walking distance from the first shop and route. During a conversation with the returnees, in the middle of a speech in pulaar language, I heard the word “modern” pronounced in French: “We want to become sedentary, to stop being savages who raid cattle. We want lands to cultivate. But especially we want a school. We also one wants to be modern like the others”.

In the case of the Mauritanian refugees and returnees in the Mali-Mauritania borderland, the invisibility of these people seems to be a no way out condition, since no politician or opposition leaders consider it worthy to give them visibility. And then, invisibility is deeply linked to the lack of any capacity or chance to mobilize, because any refugees or returnees is able to participate in political debates and to attract medias. But it’s anyway striking to see how power networks in and outside Mauritania can justify their neglect for these communities relying exactly on their invisibility and weak politicization. They finally create stigmatizing representations of these marginal people which depoliticize their condition of extreme suffering, by describing them as naturally and historically bound to marginality in some out-of-the-way places.

Thus, if I try to answer the question of this panel and to define misrepresentation of the margins by the centre as useful misunderstandings or active ignorance, in the case of Mauritanian refugees in Mali I would say that both are true: misrecognition of marginal people as out-of-the-world citizens is the product of a cultural heritage of stigmatizing marginality, which is nevertheless useful to the cause of powerful political actors. So, in my opinion, marginality is an ideology, veiling the real dynamics at stake.

[1] The majority of refugees’ identity cards have been torn, burned or lost before they left the Mauritanian territory.

[2] Moreover, the HCR met the refusal made by Western powers in providing Mauritanian displaced people to Mali the formal international “refugee” status”.

[3] In the 90s, the Malian government delivered some provisional documents to some refugees. But nowadays, the majority of the Malian documents recognizing the refugees status already expired and had never been renewed.

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