DAKAR, Senegal — For as long as anyone can remember, the so-called white Moors from neighboring Mauritania sold engraved silver jewelry and ornate wooden lockboxes in a tree-shaded marketplace near the center of this West African capital.
These days, the Courtyard of the Moors, as the marketplace is called, is deserted except for a few scavengers sifting through the dirt and debris for valuables buried or dropped by the Moors, who not long ago departed hastily in the face of angry Senegalese mobs.
In Mauritania, the vast desert country to the north, black Africans, mainly from Senegal, were until recently the fishermen, skilled workmen and a key part of the professional-intellectual class of that country.
Thousands Deported Back
But as a result of one of those violent, ethnically based population expulsions that have characterized the history of post-colonial Africa, thousands of blacks have been deported back here to Senegal, even though many came from families that had lived for generations in Mauritania.
In all, a Western diplomat here estimates, as many as 170,000 people have in recent weeks been caught up in this massive population shift between the two countries. More than 250 people have been killed in violence, on both sides of the border.
Meanwhile, the Senegalese and Mauritanian armies are poised on opposite banks of the Senegal River, which forms the border.
Mauritania is prepared for war, that nation's minister of the interior, Djibril Ould Abdellahi, warned the other day, "if Senegal starts it."
'We Do Not Want War'
The next day, President Abdou Diouf of Senegal told a press conference in Dakar, "There are problems, serious problems, but we do not want war, and I don't think they do, either."
The war talk put a damper on a conference of French-speaking nations in Dakar last week that was attended by President Francois Mitterrand of France, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney of Canada and a dozen other national leaders, mainly African.
While the conference was in progress, Mauritania recalled its ambassador to Senegal. Senegalese newspapers alternated articles about Francophonic brotherhood with tales of atrocities committed by its French-speaking neighbors.
A Dakar opposition party newspaper ran an article, under the headline "When the Blood Flowed Into the Sea," that reported a slaughter last month of black fishermen in Mauritania.
Earlier this week, Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat made surprise visits to both Mauritania and Senegal to ease tension in the conflict. After meeting with Mauritanian President Sid Ahmed Ould Taya, Arafat told reporters:"We will contribute modestly to find a solution to the tragic events which have strained relations between our Mauritanian and Senegalese brothers."
The Mauritania-Senegal conflict, the growing divisions between black Africa and the Arab region known as the Maghreb, and to a lesser extent tribal battles such as those between the Tutsis and the Hutus in the former Belgian colony of Burundi, diminish Mitterrand's vision of restoring the French language as a glue to hold the old colonies together. And they make it clear that the glue is not holding.
Mitterrand attempted to make peace at the conference--and demonstrate France's lingering influence in Western Africa--by sending Foreign Minister Roland Dumas to Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital. But Dumas returned empty-handed after meeting with Taya, who is also secretary general of the Military Committee for National Salvation, which actually governs the country.
Attempts at mediation by Mali's interior minister, Col. Issa Ongoiba, at the behest of the Organization of African Unity, likewise produced no results.
Consequently, the third summit conference of French-speaking countries--the first in a Third World country--echoed with bellicosity and charges of racism.
"It is simply a question of the color of a man's skin; we are black," said Niang Modiane, 43, a petroleum chemist who is among the deported black Africans from Mauritania who are sheltered temporarily at an army post outside Dakar.
But in multi-ethnic, multi-sect, multi-tribal Africa, nothing is ever quite that simple. In fact, many blacks remain in Mauritania, and some continue in high government posts. These are the Haratines, the so-called black Moors, descendants of slaves who have been assimilated into the Arab culture.
Approximately one-third of the 2 million Mauritanians are of Arab-Berber extraction (white Moors), another third are Haratines while the remaining third are black Africans descended mainly from tribes found in Senegal.
Over a period of decades beginning at the turn of the century, under colonial rule, the French installed black Africans in key administrative posts in Mauritania. Since independence in 1960, Mauritanian politics have been characterized by the ruling white Moors' effort to limit the influence in government of the black Africans left in place by the French.