The Indigenous World 2021: Morocco
The Amazigh (Berber) peoples are the Indigenous Peoples of North Africa. The last census in Morocco (2016) estimated the number of Tamazight speakers at 28% of the population. However, Amazigh associations strongly contest it and instead claim a rate of 65 to 70%. This means that the Amazigh-speaking population could well number around 20 million in Morocco and around 30 million throughout North Africa and the Sahel as a whole.
The Amazigh people founded an organization called "Amazigh Cultural Movement" (MCA) to defend their rights. It is a civil society movement based on the universal values of human rights. Today there are more than 800 Amazigh associations established throughout Morocco.
The administrative and legal system of Morocco has been strongly Arabized, and the Amazigh culture and way of life are under constant pressure to assimilate. Morocco has for many years been a unitary state with centralized authority, a single religion, a single language and a systematic marginalization of all aspects of the Amazigh identity. The 2011 Constitution officially recognizes the Amazigh identity and language. This could be a very positive and encouraging step for the Amazigh people of Morocco. The parliament finally adopted in 2019 the organic law for the implementation of article 5 of the constitution, after several years of waiting. Work to harmonize the legal arsenal with the new Constitution should begin.
Morocco has not ratified ILO Convention 169 and has not voted against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Context of COVID-19
COVID-19 has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths around the world. The African continent has been least affected so far but the scourge has gained ground and deaths are in the thousands. The World Health Organization (WHO) called on African countries to prepare for the worst and, following this call, several countries declared a total or partial lockdown.
It was against this backdrop that Morocco experienced its first case of COVID-19 on 3 March 2020. It then declared a total lockdown lasting more than three months. Morocco's preventive approach to the management of COVID-19 has been praised by WHO. A support fund was created to assist destitute families during the lockdown, as this was accompanied by a total work stoppage. The textiles industry mobilised to manufacture masks, and the tech industry redirected its production towards the manufacture of health and para-medical equipment. The education sector adapted to distance learning. Using this approach, Morocco was able to save thousands of lives.
And yet, despite all these efforts by the state, the specific rights of the Amazigh Indigenous Peoples have not always been taken into account.
Amazigh rights at a time of COVID-19
All Indigenous rights bodies have expressed their concern at the pandemic and the devastation it may cause among Indigenous Peoples. It is clear that these peoples are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, given their limited access to the health system, their traditional way of life and their marginalisation. The isolation in which these populations live, particularly in rural areas, is both a curse, as the population cannot receive appropriate and prompt medical care, and a blessing, as movements of people likely to spread COVID-19 to these areas are very limited. This explains why the rural Amazigh regions have so far been relatively less affected by the pandemic.
COVID-19 has directly affected the application and implementation of Organic Law 26.16/2019 on the official recognition of Tamazight, planned for 2020. Implementation has been delayed due to the disruption within government and within all departments that would need to implement this law. As for other Amazigh rights, in this case the demand for official recognition of the Amazigh New Year as a public holiday, a number of parliamentary groups have challenged the Minister for Human Rights on this subject. Minister El Mostafa Ramid said in response to questions from several parliamentary groups that the decision to make the Amazigh New Year a holiday would have to wait for the implementation of a whole package aimed at developing the official status of the Amazigh identity in the country.
Another relevant discussion in Parliament during 2020 concerned Law 04.20 on the national electronic identity card. In its version tabled in Parliament, the text provides that the new version of the national identity card (CIN) will include information on the Moroccan citizen in Arabic language and Latin characters. The Amazigh language is not anticipated in the law. At a meeting of the Interior Commission, several parliamentarians raised this discrimination against the Amazigh language. This omission provoked violent reactions in Parliament, as well as within the Amazigh Cultural Movement (MCA). After several lengthy discussions, the bill was passed omitting the Tifinagh alphabet. The Ministry of the Interior has, however, committed to ensuring that Tamazight is incorporated into all departments of the Ministry as an official language once the pandemic has passed.
Teaching the Amazigh language during a pandemic
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights published instructions to be followed in order to guarantee human rights during the pandemic. “The right to education needs to be protected in the case of school closures; for example, and where possible, through online accessible and adapted learning, and specialised TV and radio broadcasts.”
The Ministry of Teaching and Education decided to opt for distance learning throughout the lockdown. However, this option requires the availability of technology throughout the country. The Internet and equipment such as televisions, tablets and smartphones are not always available in the rural areas where most Amazigh live. The Ministry did make efforts to ensure that so-called “essential” education was guaranteed in its entirety. The teaching of Tamazight was not included in these “essential” subjects, however, so students wishing to continue their study of this language were unable to follow classes.
Awareness raising and information in Tamazight
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights urged states to take care of vulnerable people and communities in marginalised situations during the pandemic. “COVID-19 information and response efforts will need to take particular care to identify people who may be at risk of being missed or excluded, such as national, ethnic or religious minorities, indigenous peoples....” It should be noted that Morocco's approach to combating COVID-19 was praised by most observers, both inside and outside the country. Information, awareness raising and mobilisation around the pandemic took place in all languages, including Tamazight. The Amazigh therefore generally had a clear understanding of what they needed to do to fight COVID-19. Tamazight was not, however, specifically used in the posters to raise awareness of COVID-19, and MCA activists were quick to point out that this discriminated against an official language of the country.
An awareness and communication campaign against COVID-19 also ran for five weeks in the region of Souss-Massa to raise awareness among the region’s Amazigh:
This campaign aims to preserve the health of workers in the agricultural sector by means of awareness raising and communication; to put in place the means necessary to succeed in preventing COVID-19; to achieve the start-up and perpetuation of activity in the production units and packing stations necessary for
the health crisis; and to mobilise all actors and partners with the aim of implementing prevention measures adapted to the specific needs of the agricultural sector. This initiative further wishes to preserve existing jobs, ensure the continuity of recruitment, and guarantee the supply of markets both regionally and nationally while also maintaining exports.
Dr. Mohamed Handaine is the President of the Confederation of Amazigh Associations of South Morocco (Tamunt n Iffus), Agadir, Morocco. He is a university graduate, historian and writer, and board member of the Coordination Autochtone Francophone (CAF). He is a founder member of the Amazigh World Congress and has published a number of works on Amazigh history and culture. He is the President of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordination Committee (IPACC), the IPACC North African Regional Representative and a member of the steering committee of the ICCA Consortium in Geneva. He is Director of the Centre for Historical and Environmental Amazigh Studies.
This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here
Notes and references
 Bureau de la Chambre. “Projet de loi organique N°26.16 définissant le processus de mise en œuvre du caractère officiel de l'amazighe, ainsi que les modalités de son intégration dans l'enseignement et dans les domaines prioritaires de la vie publique.” Chambre des Representants, 2019. https://www.chambredesrepresentants.ma/fr/%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%86%D8%B5%D9%88%D8%B5-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D8%B4%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%B9%D9%8A%D8%A9/projet-de-loi-organique-ndeg2616-definissant-le-processus-de-mise-en-oeuvre-du
 The Amazigh New Year begins on 13 January each year. The Amazigh calendar commenced in 950 BC and so 2021 corresponds to the year 2971.
 La Rédaction. “Le Nouvel An amazigh bientôt jour férié?” Telquel, 7 January, 2020. https://telquel.ma/2020/01/07/le-nouvel-an-amazigh-bientot-jour-ferie_1663761
 Maroc Diplomatique. “Le projet de loi 04.20 relative à la CINE adopté en commission à la Chambre des Conseillers.” 21 July, 2020. https://maroc-diplomatique.net/le-projet-de-loi-04-20-relative-a-la-cine-adopte-en-commission/
 Ibriz, Sara. “Nouvelle CNIE : la polémique sur l'intégration de l'Amazigh portée au Parlement.” Medias 24, 16 June, 2020. https://www.medias24.com/nouvelle-cnie-la-polemique-sur-l-integration-de-l-amazigh-portee-au-parlement-11179.html
 COVID-19 Response. “Principes Directeurs Concernant la COVID-19.” OHCHR, 8 May, 2020. https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Press/COVIDPublicMessaginFR.pdf
 OHCHR. “Principes Directeurs Concernant la COVID-19.” 2021. https://www.ohchr.org/FR/NewsEvents/Pages/COVID19Guidance.aspx
 Map Ecology. “Souss-Massa/Agriculture: Campagne de Sensibilisation et de Communication Anti COVID-19.” 6 October, 2020. http://mapecology.ma/actualites/souss-massa-agriculture-campagne-de-sensibilisation-de-communication-anti-covid-19/