• Indigenous peoples in Morocco

    Indigenous peoples in Morocco

    The Amazigh peoples are the indigenous peoples of Morocco. Morocco has not adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples nor ratified ILO Convention 169.

Update 2011 - Morocco

The Amazigh (Berber) peoples are the indigenous peoples of North Africa. The most recent census in Morocco (2006) estimated the number of Amazigh speakers to be 28% of the population. However, the Amazigh associations strongly challenge this and instead claim a rate of 65 to 70%. This means that the Amazigh-speaking population may well number around 20 million in Morocco, and around 30 million throughout North Africa and the Sahel as a whole.

The Amazigh people have founded an organisation called the “Amazigh Cultural Movement” (ACM) to advocate for their rights. There are now more than 800 Amazigh associations established throughout the whole of Morocco. It is a civil society movement based on universal values of human rights.

The administrative and legal system of Morocco has been highly Arabised, and the Amazigh culture and way of life is under constant pressure to assimilate. Morocco has for many years been a unitary state with a centralised authority, a single religion, a single language and systematic marginalisation of all aspects of the Amazigh identity. Recent years have however seen positive changes, and the new Constitution of 2011 now officially recognizes the Amazigh identity and language. This is a very positive and encouraging step forward for the Amazigh people of Morocco.

Morocco has not ratified ILO Convention 169 and has not voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.


The general situation of amazigh rights: a historic year for the amazigh

inally, after more than two decades of marginalisation, the new Moroccan Constitution presented by King Mohamed VI on 17 June 2011, now recognises the Amazigh identity. The introductory recitals to the constitution stipulate that:

The Kingdom of Morocco intends to preserve its one and indivisible national identity in all its fullness and diversity. Its unity, forged through the convergence of its Arabo-Islamic and Saharo-Hassani components, has drawn on and been enriched by its African, Andalus, Hebraic and Mediterranean influences.1

This important recognition means that Morocco is henceforward a plural society. The Amazigh movement has fought for almost half a century to achieve this recognition, which provides an official legislative framework for the Amazigh identity. This recognition is an historic step in relation to the previous situation. Another achievement is that the constitution now also gives official status to the Amazigh language. Article 5 of the Constitution, on the status of languages, stipulates that:

Arabic remains the official state language. The state shall work to protect and develop the Arabic language and promote its use. Amazigh also forms an official state language, as the common heritage of all Moroccans without exception. An organic law shall define the process of implementing the official nature of this language, along with ways of integrating it into education and into priority areas of public life, so that it can eventually fulfil its role of official language.2

The Amazigh associations welcome this recognition as an historic victory on the part of the Amazigh movement, given that gaining official status for the Amazigh language was one of their crucial and fundamental demands. In fact, the lack of official and constitutional status suffered by the Amazigh identity and language in the past has meant that state and administrative officials (education, information, justice, administration…) were able to ban the Amazigh from using their language for years on the pretext that it was not official. With this new constitution, the Amazigh now have the right to use their language within state institutions without any fear of being in conflict with the law.

This constitutional recognition is, however, followed by a paragraph stating that such official status is dependent on an organic law that will need to define the practical details. This law will need to be tabled by government and adopted by parliament. This has led to a strong reaction from the Amazigh movement, which sees this as a way for the conservatives in power to block Amazigh demands.

Yet it remains no less the case that the Amazigh language is now clearly recognised and granted official status within the constitution. The Amazigh movement is thus now embarking on actions to support the adoption of an organic law that will encourage full official status for the Amazigh language, for example, by forming an alliance amongst the political parties most favourable to the issue.

The government coalition is headed by the Party for Justice and Development (PJD), which is hostile to granting the Amazigh language official status. However, it also comprises two parties allied to the Amazigh movement, namely the Party for Progress and Socialism (PPS) and the Popular Movement (MP). These two parties will undoubtedly be able to defend Amazigh interests within the government coalition.


Amazigh civil and political rights

With the Arab Spring: the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and the revolutions in Egypt and Libya, Moroccan youth began to demonstrate on 20 February 2011. Their movement is known as the “20 February Movement”. It organises demonstrations every Sunday demanding constitutional reform and application of the international human rights charters, along with calls for good governance and an end to corruption. In spite of all the reforms in Morocco, which are considered significant, and the formation of a new government in January 2012, the demonstrations are still continuing and the movement is keeping up the pressure. The Moroccan authorities remain more or less tolerant of these demonstrations, observing them with caution. Although the situation generally remains correct and respectful, there have been occasional incidents and aggression from the authorities, which have led to the deaths of demonstrators. The first victim was in the town of Safi on 3 June 2011 and the second in Al-Hoceima, on 11 November 2011 in the north. There have been a number of arrests and court cases.

Alongside this, the government has released a number of political prisoners, although not the following Amazigh who were sentenced by the Meknes Court of Appeal in 2011 for “public disturbances” within Meknes University:

  • 10-year mandatory prison sentence for Hamid Oudouch
  • 10-year mandatory prison sentence for Mustapha Ousaya

Each was also fined 100 000  Dirhams.3

The Amazigh organisations have repeatedly called for the immediate release of these two persons, in line with the other political prisoners who were freed on the eve of the political reforms of June 2011.  The Amazigh Cultural Movement is in the process or organising a huge mobilisation to call for the release of these prisoners.


The right to choose amazigh first names

In spite of the government’s stated claim before the UN Human Rights Council in April 2008 that the problem of Amazigh first names had been resolved once and for all, the problem still persists in some regions and in some Moroccan towns.

The Amazigh continue to see their use of Amazigh first names banned. Even after distribution of a memo on 9 April 2010 by the Minister for the Interior, the Amazigh organisations continue to receive complaints from people who have fallen victim to a ban on the first names they have chosen for their children. For example, the President of TAWESSNA, an Amazigh association in the south of Morocco, was banned from registering his daughter Celène at the Moroccan Consulate in New York in December 2011.  The last example occurred in Béni Tjit, near Figuig in the south, where the name Sifaw was forbidden by the local authority.

This ban not only affects first names but also the country’s toponymy. Several Amazigh place names have been changed into Arabic, such as Imi Ougadir, which is now Foum Lhsen in the Tata region of southern Morocco, and the Illalen tribe, who have become the Hilala, to name but two examples.


Amazigh language teaching in crisis

In 2003, Morocco decided to introduce Amazigh language teaching in response to demands from the Amazigh Cultural Movement and efforts were made to bring it in. Strong opposition still remains, however. Various education authorities remain indifferent to this initiative. There is no effective system for monitoring the introduction of this language within the Ministry of Education. Everything depends on the conviction and will of the heads of the local education authorities and teachers. The Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture, a body created by King Mohamed VI, has on a number occasions highlighted the major difficulties that Amazigh teaching is facing on the ground, holding the Minister of Education responsible for this.

During 2011, the situation of Amazigh teaching deteriorated yet more, even in the Sous region of southern Morocco which had, up until then, been the best region for teaching Amazigh. The units created within the education authorities to monitor this teaching have been neglected and become informal and symbolic structures. The Amazigh movement hopes this situation will change with the new official status of the Amazigh language.



Although the situation of Amazigh rights has improved this year with the new constitution, the Amazigh movement remains vigilant with regard to the new Islamist government. There is, however, good reason for the people to feel optimistic. In relation to its neighbours, Morocco remains a flexible country governed by the rule of law.



1 See the full text of the Moroccan Constitution: Official Journal Nр 5952 of 17 June 2011.
2 Op.Cit.
3 Journal Agraw Amazigh January 2010.


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 also the IPACC North African Regional Representative as well as a member of the steering committee of the ICCA Consortium in Geneva.


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