Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 May 2016, 06:53 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Niger : Tuareg

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date July 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Niger : Tuareg, July 2008, available at: [accessed 25 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Updated July 2008


Tuareg pastoralists are indigenous to three African countries: Algeria on the northern side of the Sahara, north- eastern Mali and central and northern Niger. There are negative connotations associated with the term Tuareg, an Arabic word meaning 'the abandoned of God', and they call themselves, Kel Tamashek, the people who speak Tamashek. Tamashek is related to ancient Libyan. The greatest number of Tuareg, around one million, live in Niger, mostly south and west of Air Massif, with smaller populations in Algeria, Mali and Libya.

Tuareg society is highly stratified and consist of several castes; nobles, imajeren 'the proud and free'; imrad, 'free but subordinate'; ineslemen, the religious caste; ikelan, slaves who today live in neo-peonage, tending the palm groves and vegetable gardens of their masters. Inadin are an artisan caste of silversmiths living outside regular Tuareg society, which looks down upon their lifestyle. They wander from Tuareg encampment to encampment also serving as fortune tellers and medics. Additionally, the Tuaregs are split into various tribes: the Kel-Air, Kel-Gress, Iwilli-Minden, and the Immouzourak.

Historical context

Tuareg began a continuous migration south-west in the seventh century with the Arab conquest of the Maghreb, arriving in Niger from the eleventh century onward. As the result of intense population pressure from this continuous migration they pushed resident Hausa communities southward and overran more sedentary groups. Extremely independent, the Tuareg formed a number of sultanates and converted to Islam but retained pre-Islamic customs.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Tuareg extended control over desert trade and led resistance to French rule, and in the early twentieth century instigated a number of rebellions. At independence several top Tuareg chiefs in Niger and Mali attempted to form a federation to keep themselves outside the political control of the 'black south' but unlike in Mali, this agitation was not sustained in Niger.

In the 1970s Niger began mining for uranium in territory traditionally claimed by the Tuareg while they were largely ignored in relief and recovery efforts during the droughts of that decade. Libya tried in 1980 to foment sub-nationalist feelings among the Tuareg in Niger following a diplomatic break with Niamey and a number of Tuareg civil servants were enticed to Tripoli.

After the drought of 1984-5 several thousand Tuareg from Mali and Niger sought alternative pastures to the north of the Sahara, while others abandoned pastoralism altogether. In 1990 the Tuareg mounted a rebellion in the large northern province of Agadez that was repressed by the military. A renewed rebellion emerged in 1992 with Toubou militias also taking up arms against the government. A 1995 peace agreement based on the government's agreement to decentralize political power did not end the low-level conflict. Clashes with the Tuareg continued, and there were two additional peace agreements in 1997 and 1998. Following the 1999 elections, tensions between the government and the Tuareg eased somewhat, although there were clashes between Toubou and Tuareg in 2003.

Current issues

There remains a state of high tension between the government and the Tuareg-led Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ), including deadly fire-fights with government forces. The MNJ, which emerged in February 2007, has repeatedly declared that northern Niger is 'a war zone' and has attempted to target the region's uranium extraction industry, including an attack on installations at Imou-Araren in April and the kidnapping of a Chinese contractor in July 2007. The MNJ has also accused the uranium sector, spearheaded by the French conglomerate Areva, of long-time neglect of the environment and of the safety and interest of local, largely Tuareg, populations. Clashes between the MNJ and government forces in mid-2008 cost anywhere between 17 and 26 lives, bringing to nearly 300 the total number of those killed since the rebellion began. In July 2008, MNJ leader Aghaly Ag Alambo demanded that 20-30 per cent of all uranium revenue in Niger be distributed to the northern region. He claimed that the movement had the government on the defensive.

There is resentment towards Tuaregs from sedentary and southern populations. The marginalization of the Tuaregs is likely to be aggravated by the continuing desertification of the Sahel, a process likely to continue as global warming begins to bite. In 2007 Oxfam warned that changed rainfall patterns in Niger are contributing to worsening desertification which for indigenous people like the Tuareg means massive losses in livestock and food insecurity.

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