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Tuareg people are spread across a large area of West Africa, settled and transient amongst other cultures.

The Ikelan (éklan / Ikelan in Tamasheq, Bouzou in Hausa, Bella in Songhai) are a caste within the Tuareg people who were at one time slaves or servile communities. While speaking the same language and sharing most of the same culture with broader Tuareg culture, the Ikelan often live in communities separated from other castes and elasticities, and have distinct cultural traits. Their situation is somewhat analogous to the Haratin within Maure society in the western Sudan. Like the Haratin, the name "Ikelan", and to a much greater degree Bouzou and Bella, are exonyms (a name not used by that people themselves) with negative connotations. In parts of West Africa an unknown number of Ikelan caste individuals continue to live in slavery or slavery like relationships with other Tuareg individuals. Ikelan individuals and communities are found through much of Niger, Mali, southern Algeria and Libya, and parts of northern Burkina Faso and Nigeria.

Caste system

The Tuareg people have in the past had a highly socially stratified society, with specific social roles (warriors, religious leaders) or professions (blacksmiths, farmers, merchants) assigned to specific castes. The tiny aristocratic caste of warrior elite which once sat atop a pyramid of Tuareg society was decimated during the wars of the colonial period, and this, along with economic necessity, post-colonial border restrictions, and modern education, have broken down many traditional caste barriers. Tuareg higher caste traditions value a nomadic life, warfare, study, animal husbandry, and trade. Consequently, Higher caste communities travel, at least seasonally, if able. Lower caste groups, not limited to the Ikelan are more likely to live in settled communities, either in Sahara oasis towns or in villages scattered among other ethnic groups in the sahel region to the south.[1][2]

Formation and role

As the Tuareg moved south on the continent in the 11th century AD, they took slaves as prisoners of war. Most slaves were taken from among sub-Saharan Africans: Songhay - Djerma, Kanuri and Hausa communities, as well rival Tuareg Kels (tribal confederations). These éklan once formed a distinct social class in Tuareg society. Servile groups came in two forms: domestic slaves lived near their owners as domestic servants and herders, and functioned as part of the family, with close social interactions. Additionally, entire communities became servile to aristocratic tribes, conquered in situ, formed by migration of Ikelan families or even other ethnic groups moving into Tuareg controlled communities seeking protection. Sometimes members of rival Kels, defeated in war, were subsumed as lower castes, but usually of higher level than the Ikelan. Servile farming or salt extraction communities, somewhat analogous to European Serfs were gradually assimilated into Tuareg culture, maintained Tuaregs herders during their annual transhumance cycle, or provided trade or farming centers for Tuareg clans. Prior to the 20th century, the Tuareg captured most individual slaves during raids into other communities and in war. War was then the main source of supply of slaves, although many were bought at slave markets, run mostly by indigenous peoples.[3]

Some Tuareg noble and vassal men married slaves, and their children became freemen. In this sense, éklan formed distinct subsections of a family: "fictive children." Entire Ikelan communities, on the other hand were a class held in an inherited serf-like condition, common among some societies in pre-colonial West Africa, and often having little interaction with "their" nobles though most of the year.[4]

When French colonial governments were established, they passed legislation to abolish slavery, but did not enforce it. Some commentators believe the French interest was directed more at dismantling the traditional Tuareg political economy, which depended on slave labor for herding, than at freeing the slaves.[5][6][7][8] Historian Martin Klein reports that there was a large scale attempt by French West African authorities to liberate slaves and other bonded castes in Tuareg areas following the 1914-1916 Firouan revolt.[9] Despite this, French officials following the Second World War reported there were some 50,000 "Bella" under direct control of Tuareg masters in the Gao - Timbuktu areas of French Soudan alone.[10] This was at least four decades after French declarations of mass freedom had happened in other areas of the colony. In 1946, a series of mass desertions of Tuareg slaves and bonded communities began in Nioro and later in Menaka, quickly spreading along the Niger River valley.[11] In the first decade of the 20th century, French administrators in southern Tuareg areas of French Soudan estimated "free" to "servile" Tuareg populations at rations of 1 to 8 or 9.[12] At the same time the servile "rimaibe" population of the Masina Fulbe, roughly equivalent to the Bella, made up between %70 to %80 of the Fulbe population, while servile Songhai groups around Gao made up some 2/3 to 3/4 of the total Songhai population.[12] Klein concludes that roughly %50 of the population of French Soudan at the beginning of the 20th century were in some servile or slave relationship.[12]

Contemporary conditions

While post-independence states have sought to outlaw slavery, results have been mixed. Traditional caste relationships have continued in many places, including the institution of slavery.[4][13][14][15][16][17] In some areas, the descendants of those slaves known as the Bella are still slaves in all but name. In Niger, where the practice of slavery was outlawed in 2003, a study found that almost 8% of the population are still enslaved.[18]


In Mali, members of hereditary Tuareg servile communities reported that they have not benefited from equal education opportunities and were deprived of civil liberties by other groups and castes. Ikelan communities in Gao and Ménaka also reported systematic discrimination by local officials and others that hindered their ability to obtain identity documents or voter registration cards, locate adequate housing, protect their animals from theft, seek legal protection, or access development aid.[19]

In 2008, the Tuareg based human rights group Temedt, along with Anti-Slavery International, reported that "several thousand" members of the Tuareg Bella caste remain enslaved in the Gao Region and especially around the towns of Ménaka and Ansongo. They complain that while laws provide redress, cases are rarely resolved by Malian courts.[20]


In Niger, where the practice of slavery was outlawed in 2003, a study has found that more than 800,000 people are still slaves, almost 8% of the population.[21][22] Slavery dates back for centuries in Niger and was finally criminalised in 2003, after five years of lobbying by Anti-Slavery International and Nigerian human-rights group, Timidria.[23]

Descent-based slavery, where generations of the same family are born into bondage, is traditionally practiced by at least four of Niger’s eight ethnic groups. The slave holders are mostly from the lighter-skinned nomadic ethnic groups — Tuareg, Fula, Toubou and Arabs.[24] In the region of Say on the right bank of the river Niger, it is estimated that three-quarters of the population around 1904-1905 was composed of slaves.[25]


  1. Samuel Decalo. Historical Dictionary of Niger. Scarecrow Press, London and New Jersey (1979). ISBN 0810812290
  2. Jolijn Geels. Niger. Bradt London and Globe Pequot New York (2006). ISBN 1841621528
  3. NIGER: Slavery - an unbroken chain
  4. 4.0 4.1 Anti-Slavery International & Association Timidira, Galy kadir Abdelkader, ed. Niger: Slavery in Historical, Legal and Contemporary Perspectives. March 2004
  5. Martin A. Klein. Slavery and Colonial Rule in French West Africa. (African Studies, number 94.) New York: Cambridge University Press. (1998) ISBN 9780521596787
  6. Edouard Bernus. "Les palmeraies de l'Aïr", Revue de l'Occident Musulman et de la Méditerranée, 11, (1972) pp.37-50.
  7. Frederick Brusberg. "Production and Exchange in the Saharan Air", Current Anthropology, Vol. 26, No. 3. (Jun., 1985), pp. 394-395. Field research on the economics of the Aouderas valley, 1984.
  8. Michael J. Mortimore. "The Changing Resources of Sedentary Communities in Air, Southern Sahara", Geographical Review, Vol. 62, No. 1. (Jan., 1972), pp. 71-91.
  9. Klein (1998) pp.111-140
  10. Klein (1998) p.234
  11. Klein (1998) pp.234-251
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Klein (1998) "Appendix I:How Many Slaves?" pp.252-263
  13. Hilary Andersson, "Born to be a slave in Niger", BBC Africa, Niger
  14. "Kayaking to Timbuktu, Writer Sees Slave Trade, More", National Geographic.
  15. "The Shackles of Slavery in Niger"
  16. "NIGER: Slavery - an unbroken chain"
  17. "On the way to freedom, Niger's slaves stuck in limbo", Christian Science Monitor
  18. "The Shackles of Slavery in Niger", ABC News]
  19. Report on Human Rights Practices 2006: Mali. United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (March 6, 2007). This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  20. MALI: Thousands still live in slavery in north. IRIN, 14 Jul 2008
  21. The Shackles of Slavery in Niger
  22. Born to be a slave in Niger By Hilary Andersson, BBC Africa Correspondent, Niger
  23. On the way to freedom, Niger's slaves stuck in limbo
  24. Born into Bondage
  25. Slavery in Niger
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