• Mali


    The Tuareg, the Moors, the Songhay and Peuls represent the largest Indigenous groups in Mali
  • Peoples

    3.5 per cent of Mali’s 17.8 million population are Tuareg or Tamashek-speaking peoples.
    The Tuareg live mainly in the northern regions of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. The Tuareg, the Songhaï, the Fulani, or the Peul, and the Berabish Arabs represent the largest groups in northern Mali.
  • Rights

    Mali voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.
    However, the state of Mali does not recognise the existence of indigenous peoples on its territory as understood in the Declaration and in ILO Convention 169

Indigenous World 2020: Mali

By the end of 2019, Mali’s population stood at more than 20 million inhabitants1 (four times more than 59 years previously). The Tuareg (Tamazight speakers), the Moors (Arabic speakers) and, in riverine areas, the Songhay and Peuls (Fulani) are the main communities that inhabit the vast northern space that accounts for two-thirds of Mali. Their political alliances and their conflicts have shaped the history of a region in which there has been an interdependence between nomadic and settled populations, who have participated in vast economic, cultural and social exchange networks across the Sahara.

The Tuareg live in the five administrative regions of northern Mali (Kidal, Timbuktu, Gao, Taoudenit and Menaka), known as Azawad by the autonomy movements. They also have a presence in the border areas of other states (Niger, Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso).

In 1960, when Mali was created, official figures put the Tuareg at more than 10% of the country’s population. Today, despite no reliable data, official discourse around the conflicts that have pitted the Tuareg against the Malian state puts them at a mere 3% of the global population, a figure that is scarcely credible.

Mali’s official language is French but cultural diversity is recognised in its constitution. For its part, the National Agreement, a peace accord signed with the armed Tuareg fronts in 1992, recognised the specific nature of the regions inhabited by the Tuareg although these provisions were never concretely implemented. Mali voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007. The Malian state does not, however, recognise the existence of “Indigenous Peoples”, as defined by the UNDRIP and ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, on its territory. 

Climate and environment

The year 2019 again saw periods of drought followed by severe floods that destroyed everything in their path. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs,2 these

floods affected more than 68,670 people, 20 of whom lost their lives, between May and August 2019, with Timbuktu recording the greatest number of victims (35%).

Nomadic herders, whose territorial rights are being ignored by the state, have had to leave their land not only because of these disasters but also because of agricultural expansion, mining and armed violence. They are no longer able to manage or protect the fragile resources of the Saharo-Sahelian zone. This is exacerbating the harsh climatic conditions and will soon result in a region that is unable to support any life where once there were local populations. Highly polluting extractive industries such as gold mining (Mali is the fourth largest producer in Africa) are in the hands of multinationals: their profits provide no benefit to the local population and indeed very little to the state, which has not redistributed the dividends3 to compensate for the annexation of land and the destruction of local plant and water resources. 

Bloodshed and a blocked peace accord

Throughout 2019, Mali continued to be mired in the political, socio-economic and security crisis that has ravaged the country for seven years now. Armed attacks continued in the north and spread to the centre of a country that is now under the influence of jihadist movements that recruit particularly from among disenfranchised Peul communities. Since the pro-independence MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) uprising in January 2012 – demanding a plural, democratic and secular political project –, the Malian government has sought to internally divide the country, pushing it to the brink of civil war. Counter-insurgency militia groups have proliferated, and some of them have now escaped the control of their backers, who thought they would be able to limit them to the north.

The decentralisation process set out in the 2015 Algiers Peace Agreement has been blocked at different levels.4 In constitutional terms, the provisions needed to implement the agreement were removed during the constitutional review, to the benefit of greater presidential powers. Popular protest resulted in the 2017 referendum on the constitutional review being postponed and finally abandoned. A new process commenced in April 20195 and anticipates an inclusive national dialogue.6

On a social and political level, the proliferation of armed groups aimed at countering the pro-independence Tuareg has created a chaotic situation of allegedly “inter-ethnic” struggles, with civilians being the main victims. The political dialogue was, moreover, rapidly compromised by the imbalance created between the parties to the conflict. In opposition to the pro-Azawad movements brought together within the CMA (Coordination of Azawad Movements),7 several Bamako-funded pro-government groups, joining in 2014 to form the ambiguously named Platform8 (a term that equates to Al-Qaida in Arabic), have been included in the peace negotiations. Despite Algerian pressure in favour of the “local” jihadist group Ansar Dine, this anti-independence Tuareg movement (born two months after the emergence of the MNLA) was not admitted to the negotiating table, and nor was the MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa). These Salafist-inspired armed groups, affiliated to AQMI (Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb), were redeployed to the centre of Mali where they merged in March 2017 with other jihadist movements under the name of Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (Islam and Muslim Support Group). Their murderous attacks and suicide bombings have spread to neighbouring countries such as Burkina Faso and Niger.

By focusing on the deteriorating situation, the Malian government has neglected to implement the Algiers Peace Agreement.9 It has only been thanks to international pressure that some measures have finally been achieved. The installation of interim authorities in the five regions of the north only revived the conflict between the different protagonists: signatories to the agreement, more recent movements demanding inclusion after the event and, finally, so-called “terrorist” groups excluded from the negotiations.

Anticipated in the 2015 Agreement but operational only since October 2018, the International Commission of Inquiry into human rights violations perpetrated by different actors in the conflict since 2012-2013 stated its satisfaction with its second visit to Mali in February-March 2019.10 No report has yet been published.


The legislative elections that should have taken place in December 2019 were postponed to June 2020 due to the security situation.11 The planned consultation on the constitutional review again drew questions from the competing political parties regarding the merits of the 2015 Agreement (signed by the current President), raising the spectre of the partition of Mali. The instrumentalisation of the northern issue for political purposes continues to hinder implementation of the timid decentralisation measures set out in the Agreement.

It was in this tense climate and against a disastrous security backdrop that the President appointed a new Prime Minister and a new government was formed in April 201912 with, among other things, the aim of completing the implementation of the Peace Agreement and bringing security to a country in turmoil. 

Insecurity, humanitarian situation and human rights violations 

The state of emergency that has been in place since 2015 was extended in 2019. The country’s security situation has reached a critical point, following much the same trajectory as in 2018 despite the massive presence of international forces.

Jihadist groups intensified their attacks throughout 2019, killing 150 civilians,13 terrorising rural populations and causing them to be displaced. They summarily executed several local politicians and members of the Azawad armed fronts, accusing them of aiding and abetting the authorities or foreign forces. Attacks on the army increased, with more than 100 Malian soldiers killed in October and November 2019 alone.14

Under cover of the war on terror, a growing number of extra-judicial executions have been carried out at the hands both of the Malian Army, the French forces and the counter-insurgency militia, although there are no accurate figures in this regard. According to the Human Rights Watch 2020 (Mali Events of 2019) report, Malian soldiers apprehended numerous “suspects”, at least five of whom were murdered and buried in mass graves. Dozens of others have “disappeared”.15 Despite the internal inquiries announced with regard to the military violence occurring in the centre of Mali, none of the perpetrators have yet been brought to justice. Numerous individuals (men and boys) suspected of “terrorism” have been arrested by the intelligence services, in total violation of national and international law.16 The judicial authorities have failed to conduct any investigations into abuses committed against civilians by the security forces.

The local population, particularly in the centre of the country, find themselves caught in the middle between the jihadist groups, the Malian Army and the so-called self-defence militia, encouraged by the army and recruiting along ethnic lines (Dogon, Bambara). Provided with assault weapons, these militia – such as the Dogon group Dan Na Ambassagou – have unleashed veritable pogroms with impunity, killing hundreds of Peul men, women and children, particularly in Koulogon 17 (Jan. 2019, 37 dead), Ogassagou and Welingara (March 2019, 160 dead). These bloody acts were followed two months later by reprisals in the form of an attack on the Dogon village of Sobane Da (35 dead). The government has proved incapable of preventing this cycle of extreme violence or of bringing a halt to the genocidal propaganda that continues to circulate on social media.

By the end of 2019, the number of refugees in the three main Sahelian countries of exile (Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso) was estimated at 138,659;18 as of November 2019, internally displaced rural people seeking refuge in urban areas accounted for 199,385 individuals, an increase of nearly 250% on the previous year; and, finally, 74,397 people (figures from the Malian government), returned to their country of origin19 in 2019, seven times fewer than in 2018. Many of these refugees are Tuareg, Arab and Peul families who have lost their herds, their lands and/or their businesses in the reprisals and looting.

In 2019, the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (CVJR), established by a 2014 presidential decree and supported by Minusma (the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali) gathered 15,612 testimonies from victims of atrocities committed, in particular, during the 2012-2013 armed conflict but more generally since 1960.20 The credibility of this commission was nonetheless called into question following the inclusion of nine members of armed groups and, in contrast, the exclusion of victims’ representatives.21

One result of the chaos in the north and centre, where the only power comes from the barrel of a gun, is that basic social services (schools, hospitals, justice security) – already poorly provided before the 2012 uprising due to widespread corruption – have declined or disappeared. Many schools remained closed (1,051 according to figures from the end of the year)22 throughout 2019 in the north and centre of Mali due to insecurity and threats against school staff and pupils from Islamist groups.

The relentless nature of the armed violence, whether deemed “legitimate” or not,23 and of the proliferating banditry, has created a climate of terror for civilians who have no means of protecting themselves. Many have been killed in armed clashes or by land mines buried along the roads. The population is suffering from poverty, deprivation and degrading treatment. People fear going about their daily activities and are afraid they have been completely abandoned. All the usual travel necessary for their survival (to access grasslands for their cattle, to go gathering, to go to the well or to market) is now perilous. They cannot count on the Malian armed forces, who very often equate being Tuareg or Peul with being a “terrorist”. This racial profiling continues to be a concern in the north and centre of Mali.

Pressure from jihadists remains strong in urban areas, too, forcing residents to adapt their social practices (behaviour between men and women particularly), abandon school, give up their musical and cultural activities, change their appearance, and adopt new facets of being “Muslim”.

Role of international forces

In order to resolve the political issue of democratic rights, raised since 2011 by the pro-independence Azawad movement, the national and international authorities (Algeria, USA and France, in particular) have chosen a path of repression rather than one of political dialogue and more social justice.

Since the commencement of France’s military intervention in Mali at the start of 2013 to “destroy the terrorists”, the Malian authorities have delegated defence of the state and its territory to international powers. These have established military bases on the Indigenous lands of Gao, Timbuktu, Kidal and Tessalit for the French Barkhane forces (4,500 men); Minusma (whose mandate has been extended until 30 June 2020)24 (nearly 15,000 men25); and the EUTM Mali (European Union Training Mission).

The G5 Sahel Force,26 hindered by a lack of training, commitment, resources and also by corruption, has proved incapable of stemming the insecurity, which only worsened in 2019, in particular in the centre of the country. Jihadist groups carried out suicide attacks against the international forces (French Army, Franco-Malian patrols, Minusma),27 resulting in dozens dead and injured, including civilians (Malians and foreigners).28 Finally, six foreign hostages are still being held by Islamist groups.


Neither the 2013 French military intervention nor the contested re-election of the outgoing President in 2018, nor the presence of increasing numbers of foreign troops, nor even the reinforcement of logistical resources and training programmes for the Malian Army has managed to drive out the “terrorists” and re-establish peace. The violence is presented as “inter-ethnic” and “inter-tribal” and therefore forms part of a policy that is supported and funded by different interest groups, including the Malian government itself. The jihadists linked to drug trafficking have not ceased their cross-border activities, some in collusion with highly placed representatives in the Malian regime or other states in the region. The faltering Malian state (whose government was overthrown by a coup in April 2012) has been saved from disintegration purely by the deployment of international military forces and it seems, thus far, incapable of remaining in power without their support.


Notes and references

  1. 20,252,586 inhabitants (Populationdata.net)
  2. Situation report 12/09/2019
  3. See the January 2019 report from the international organisation Publiez Ce Que vous Payez (Publish What You Pay) and the article https://mondafrique.com/ main-basse-lor-mali/
  4. Despite some symbolic measures such as the installation of interim authorities, particularly in Kidal in August 2017 and the start of training for mixed
  5. https://www.jeuneafrique.com/757183/politique/mali-presentation-dun- nouveau-projet-de-revision-de-la-constitution/
  6. Report 1/10/10 (S/2019/782) from the UN Security Council
  7. Coalition formed of the MNLA (Azawad National Liberation Movement), HCUA (High Council for Azawad Unity), and part of the MAA (Arab Movement for Azawad).
  8. The Platform groups together the following movements: Tuareg Imghad and Allies Self-Defence Group (GATIA); Coordination of Movements and Patriotic Fronts for Resistance – formed of Ganda Koy, a majority Songha militia created following the 1992 National Pact, known for its violence against the “reds”, denoting the fair-skinned Tuareg and Moors; Ganda Izo and the Liberation Forces for regions of the north of Mali; the Arab Movement for Azawad (in part); Popular Movement for the Salvation of Azawad; Popular Azawad Front.
  1. Hence the threat of sanctions for obstruction, used in January 2018 by the UN Security Council AFP 25/01/18
  2. “La Commission d’enquête internationale pour le Mali conclut sa deuxième visite dans le pays”. United Nations Peacekeeping, 10 March 2019: https:// un.org/fr/la-commission-denquete-internationale-pour-le-mali- conclut-sa-deuxieme-visite-dans-le-pays
  3. “Mali: le mandat des députés prolongé jusqu’en mai 2020”. Radio France Internationale, 28 June 2019: http://www.rfi.fr/afrique/20190628-mali-le- mandat-deputes-prolonge-jusqu-mai-2020
  4. “Mali: Boubou Cissé nommé Premier minister”. Radio France Internationale, 23 April 2019: http://www.rfi.fr/fr/afrique/20190422-mali-boubou-cisse-nomme- nouveau-premier-ministre
  5. Human Rights Watch 2020 Report
  6. The movement led by Iyad ag Ghali claims, in particular, the attack on military camps in Dioura on 17/03/2019 (30 dead), Boulikessi from 30/09 to 1/10/2019 (more than 25 dead), and Indelimane on 1/11/ 2019 (53 dead)
  7. “Mali : plusieurs enquêtes ouvertes après la disparition de civils interpellés par l’armée”. L’Express, 31 December 2019: https://www.lexpress.fr/actualite/ monde/afrique/mali-plusieurs-enquetes-ouvertes-apres-la-disparition-de- civils-interpelles-par-l-armee_2113064.html
  8. Human Rights Watch 2020 Report
  9. “Mali: après la tuerie de Koulogon l’émotion est forte dans le pays”. Radio France Internationale, 3 January 2019: http://www.rfi.fr/afrique/20190103-mali- insecurite-koulogon-peul-bankass-dozos-dogons
  10. UNHCR Operational Update Oct. 2019
  11. UNHCR, Operational Update Mali 2019.
  12. “Vérité et Justice: Parcours Vers La Réconciliation”. Un Missions United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), 11 December 2019: https://minusma.unmissions.org/vérité-et-justice-parcours- vers-la-réconciliation
  13. Human Rights Watch Report 2019, 382
  14. UNICEF Mali Humanitarian Situation Report, 31 October 2019: https://reliefweb. int/report/mali/unicef-mali-humanitarian-situation-report-31-october-2019
  15. Whether struggles between armed groups, army raids, Barkhane air and land interventions, targeted assassinations of “terrorists” by the international secret services, jihadist attacks or suicide
  16. Resolution 2480 of the UN Security Council (https://undocs.org/fr/S/ RES/2480(2019))
  17. “Effectifs de la MINUSMA”. Un Missions United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), Décembre 2019: https://unmissions.org/effectifs
  18. Comprising five Member States of the G5 Sahel (Mauritania, Niger, Mali, Chad and Burkina Faso)
  19. Particularly against Minusma by Aqmi in January 2019 at Aguelhok in the north-east of Mali (10 dead and 25 injured among the Chadian contingent) and against the Malian military camps: see note 9.
  20. Human Rights Watch 2020 Report


Hélène Claudot-Hawad is a French anthropologist and linguist, honorary research director at the National Centre for Scientific Research. She is the author of numerous articles and works on the Tuareg world and has made a large part of her scientific production open access (https:// cv.archives-ouvertes.fr/helene-claudot-hawad).


This article is part of the 34th edition of the 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 2020 in full here



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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