Calm has returned to the city of Saint-Louis in northern Senegal, following violent protests and the looting of shops belonging to Mauritanian nationals on Monday.
The violence erupted after the death of a Senegalese fisherman, shot by members of the Mauritanian coast guard. The Senegalese government condemned the killing but called on protesters to stay calm, promising to address the issue with Mauritanian officials.
Since the non-renewal of a fishing agreement between the two West African countries in 2016, incidents involving Senegalese fishermen and the Mauritanian coast guard have been frequent. Moustapha Dieng, the secretary-general of the Senegalese union of artisanal fishermen, said this is not an isolated incident.
“This is the fourth incident in which fishermen have been shot dead. And there are others who have been injured and will never be able to fish again.”
In a written statement, the Mauritanian military said that “the unfortunate event” occurred because of "the provocative behavior of the fishermen who ignored the orders of the coast guard." They said the coast guard members shot at the engine in an attempt to disable the canoe, but one of the nine fishermen was hit by a bullet. The statement added that coast guard vessels conducted 62 similar operations last year without incident.
In Mauritania, the issue is being discussed widely in both traditional and social media. Mohamed Diop, editor of the Alakhbar newspaper, said the issue is attracting a lot of attention.
“The Mauritanian media are very interested in the issue because the two heads of state have been informed and discussed it on the sidelines of the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa,” he said. “The Senegalese interior minister has said the two presidents decided to address the issue at the highest level to avoid a rift.”
Moustapha Dieng said his union members feel that the Senegal government is not taking the issue seriously.
“When [authorities] board a canoe involved in unlawful fishing, they are allowed by law to confiscate the material, but you have to let the fishermen go. We also want our government to send patrols to the border, just like Mauritania is doing.”
In Mauritania, many residents have denounced the destruction and looting of shops belonging to Mauritanians in Saint-Louis, but most seem to strike a conciliatory tone.
“There is a real attempt to appease the tension, and we can see it because today there was no looting reported in Senegal. And here, the media have been very conciliatory, except a few that are favoring the Mauritanian position in their coverage,” Diop said.
The fishermen’s union in Senegal is hoping discussions between the two governments will resume soon on a new fishing agreement. That would allow its members to conduct their activities in both countries’ territorial waters without fear, in exchange for an annual fee.
The two nations are seeking to avoid an escalation in tensions as they discuss another hot-button issue. Dakar and Nouakchott are hoping to partner to exploit an underwater natural gas field recently discovered at their common maritime border. The two countries severed ties in 1989 following violent incidents and mass repatriation of each other’s citizens. Diplomatic relations have since been restored.