Indigenous peoples in Mali

Mali’s total population is estimated at around 17.8 million inhabitants. The Tuareg represent approx. 8% of the population. They live mainly in the northern regions of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, which together cover 2/3 of the country’s area of 1,241,021 km2.

The Tuareg (pastoralists) and the Songhai (sedentary, from Gao and Timbuktu) represent the largest groups in northern Mali, and are historically opposed to each other. Other significant populations are the:

  • Fulani (pastoralist)
  • Berabish Arabs (pastoralist)
  • Arabs (merchants)

And a smaller numbers of:

  • Dogon (agriculturalists)
  • Bozo (fisher nomads)
  • Bambara ( the majority in the south)

Traditionally, the Tuareg are nomadic pastoralists, rearing dromedaries, goats and sheep. They occasionally engage in trade, bartering game and camel meat, along with rock salt, in return for dates, fabrics, tea, sugar and foodstuffs.

They have a distinct culture and way of life for which they have their own concept, "temust", which can be translated as "identity" or "nationality". They speak the Tamashek language.

Tuareg Confederations

Tuareg living in Mali belong mainly to three different traditional political entities called "confederations":

  • Kel Tademekat, living around and to the north of Timbuktu
  • Iwellemeden, living east of Gao and having Menaka and In Gall in the state of Niger as their main urban centers
  • Kel Adrar living around Adrar Massif and the city of Kidal 

Tuareg Political Entities

Each of these political entities has a paramount chief (Amenokal in Tamashek). Each federation is subdivided into a web of sub-clans (or tribes) traditionally belonging to one of the five classes of Tuareg society, the:

  • imazaghen- nobility
  • ineslimen- religious experts
  • imghad-vassals
  • inaden- handicraft workers
  • iklan- servants/slaves

Today, the rigid difference between these classes is diminishing but the Kel Adrar (Iforagh) and the Iwellemeden are still the most influential imazaghen clan, with differing interests. 

The imghad clans are often opposed to the imazaghen clans. These social and political structures and alliances are reproduced in the membership of different armed groups and political orientations in Mali. 

Legislation Concerning Indigenous Peoples in Mali

The Constitution of Mali recognises the country’s cultural diversity and the National Pact recognises the specific nature of the Tuareg-inhabited regions.

In addition, legislation on decentralisation gives local councillors, including some Tuareg, a number of powers although not the necessary resources with which to exercise them.

Mali voted for to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

However, the state of Mali does not recognise the existence of indigenous peoples on its territory as understood in the UNDRIP and ILO Convention No. 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries.

Yearly Update

Download the 2016 yearbook article on indigenous peopels in Mali to learn about major developments and events during 2015