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Rural societies in the face of climatic and environmental changes in West Africa

Benjamin Sultan
Richard Lalou
Mouftaou Amadou Sanni
et al.

Part III. Social changes in rural populations

Chapter 16. Political changes, landholding dynamics and socio-economic reconstruction

Imanan administrative district (Niger)

Abdoulaye Mohamadou et Harouna Abdoutan

Texte intégral


1The Sahel region is emblematic of the dynamics of the links between society and the environment whose adaptation to climate change—a very fashionable theme today—is one of the signs. Indeed, drought, the degradation of natural resources, poverty, etc. have structured the living and survival strategies of Sahel populations since the 1970s. This interaction between people and the natural environment is not reduced to impacts and adaptation strategies. It also affects the dynamics of social relations and in particular as regards land and natural resources. Jean-Pierre Jacob (2007) highlighted the link between power and land in traditional African societies. In most of the latter, the group or lineage that holds land capital also controls political power and reinforces this by using land as a negotiation weapon in its links with the other social groups—both native and immigrant. Local political configurations also affect farming systems and land rights. Indeed, social relations centred on production are linked with social status and social division of labour. These relations are changing, in particular because of the ecological conditions that in the Sahel are linked with the effects of climate changes (droughts, impoverishment of land, degradation of plant cover, etc.) on land and natural resources. This is the case for example of rights to trees; these have changed in recent years, with tendency for their individualisation.

2The aim of this work is to analyse the economic, spatial and political changes that have occurred in the Imanan administrative district. They are set in the overall context of the construction of the Nigerien state and ecological and economic changes.

Imanan administrative area: a nomadic/pastoral area in an agricultural zone

3The Imanan area became a ‘commune’ in 2004 within the framework of the new territorial division linked with Niger opting for complete decentralisation. With an area of 506 sq. km, it is one of the smallest districts in Niger. The population is estimated to be 36,665, that is to say density of some 72.46 persons per sq. km. It has 45 administrative villages, with the main one being Bonkoukou.

4The district is sited in a fossil valley (locally called dallol bosso) set between two plateaux, one being to the north-west and the other, called Fakara in Zarma, to the south. The features of the three areas are fairly contrasted with regard to both soil and vegetation and population densities and activities.

5The valley consists of bottomland with sandy soil that is increasingly leached as a result of erosion by water and wind and over-exploitation for crops and grazing. Groundwater is at a fairly shallow level, varying from 3 to 7 metres. This available water has made it possible to grow market garden crops and especially potatoes, now the main cash crop. According to the farmers, vegetation has practically disappeared as a result of demographic and landholding pressure. Areas of Acacia albida and doum palms can be seen in places. While the former is used as fertiliser in fields, the latter for a significant source of income via the sale of products made from them. A farmer in Amassaghal said that ‘a stand of doum palms is better than two cows—it provides the sauce for the week.’

6Stands of doum palms are larger in the southern part of the district, in the zango (Tuareg village) of Kochlane as the soils are clayey.

7The two plateaux are glacis zones but small areas of bottomland are also to be seen. Occupation of that in the south of the district followed upwards shift of the agricultural front, while that in the north-west has been farmed for longer because of the Zarma farming population. The land on the plateaux gives better crop yields that the valley land that is impoverished by several decades of use. The plateaux are also used as grazing land and transit zones for livestock farmers in the district and from other regions, including transhumants arriving from Benin and Nigeria.

8Imanan rural district has three permanent ponds and four or five semi-permanent ponds, depending on rainfall. The permanent ponds are generally developed, stocked with fish and managed within the framework of intervention by the state and by development projects. This is the case of Tashi pond where a sill has been built, leading to the appearance of new activities (market gardening and fishing) and a change in the rules of access (Mohamadou and Moussa, 2013).

9Other environment operations by the state and its partners are focused on the protection and restoration of the plateau land. This often non-cultivated land belongs to local communities. Half a dozen sites have been listed in the district. When there is vegetation, they serve as grazing land for the surrounding villages. However, these land recovery operations are limited and cannot reverse the overall trend for the degradation of land and the environment. However, it is noted that farmers increasingly used assisted natural regeneration for certain species of economic interest—especially doum palm and gao (Acacia albida).

Table 1. Rainfall at Bonkoukou from 1965 to 2011.


Rainfall recorded (mm)

Number of days of rain


































Source: Bonkoukou meteorological station.

10Examination of precipitation records for the last 40 years shows that rainfall has not really changed.

11The rainfall data show that precipitation was great in the 2000s than it was towards the end of the 1960s. In addition, it is seen that the number of days of rain was greater during the 2000s than during the 1960s. These data contradict the perception by the populations, who consider that it does not rain enough. But the reasons for this difference should doubtless be sought in intra-annual variability of precipitations, with longer, more frequent drought periods, and above all in the combination of several factors that have a negative effect on plant development and yields. Even if the precipitation figures are the same, the soil no longer has the same degree of fertility and new insect pests and diseases have often appeared. Farmers say that they came with the droughts and climatic variability.

Mobility and sedentariness in an area undergoing degradation

12Through the combination of political, ecological and economic factors, the way of life and farming systems have undergone marked changes in the Imanan.

The conquest of the area by the Tuaregs

13The majority of the population of the Imanan district consists of Tuaregs and local political power is held by this group via the chiefdom of the area. When the Tuaregs arrived at the beginning of the 19th century, they found existing populations of Zarma and Hausa (Goubé and Soudjé). The Tuaregs came in successive waves, first warriors and then groups. The first consisted of Iwillimenden and Lissawan whereas the second were Kel Esuk, craftsmen, Iboghileten, etc. The Tuaregs came from the Tahoua region. About seven village cores existed before the colonial period: Diguina, Bonkoukou, Koshlane, Jami, Dakfao, Shett and Shiwil, where the noble Tuareg families had settled with their dependents (Guillaume, 1974).

14The Tuareg social system in the Imanan was very stratified before the arrival of French colonists. Indeed, there were noble families, dependents and free communities.

15The dependents, mainly domestic slaves, freemen, craftsmen and the Kel Esuk farmed the land that the aristocratic families placed at their disposal. Domestic slaves worked on farms under the direct control of their masters while the other groups had fields awarded by the aristocracy and for whom they reserved part of the crops. The Zarma, Goubé and Soudjé, had dependent relations with the noble Tuareg families. After each harvest, a tithe was given to the head of the noble family as a sign of allegiance.

‘At the end of the harvest, or today, our concession, all these villages, they must bring to us here all the bundles that they take as a tithe or something else. But today, it’s the head of the canton that they bring, but not everyone. The zakkat that they take is for him. That’s something that exists even today. When things go well, what the chief has can fill granaries. […] In the time of chief Bizo—he died in 1952—when he reigned he just sent his dogaris [guards] to the zones where gifts of millet had been reserved for him; the granary was there. There could be 10 granaries’ (H. S.).

16After migrating to the Imanan, the Tuaregs gradually became sedentary and combined crop and livestock farming. The families had long ceased transhumance and the livestock was entrusted mainly to Tuareg or Peul herders who took it to grazing areas during the rainy season.

17The first Tuareg chief married the daughter of a Zarma chief, opening the way to marriages with different local chiefs. This choice deeply marked Tuareg society in the Imanan. After intermarriage with the sedentary people, most of the Tuaregs today have dark skins and the latest generations have lost the Tamasheq language in favour of Zarma and Hausa. It is actually possible to talk in terms of Zarma-speaking Tuaregs. However, turbans are still worn by adult nobles. Although male Tuareg nobles can marry Zarma, Hausa and former dependents, a marriage between a former dependent and a noble Tuareg woman is extremely rare

18Senior persons of low origin also marry Zarma and Hausa women and thus form alliances with their wives’ groups.

19We collected numerous versions of history of settlement by the Tuaregs. The first Tuaregs very probably arrived alone, fleeing the wars in the Tahoua region. They then married and captured or purchased slaves. Whole families subsequently joined them and placed themselves under their protection.

20The Tuaregs forced the Zarma to leaves their villages (Shet, Duiguina, Bonkoukou, etc.). The Zarma migrated to other regions to the west and south. The present Zarma villages on the western plateau became part of the administrative district in 1920 and those of the southern plateau were founded later.

21The main village of the zone has a Hausa district, inhabited by former travelling vendors from the Tahoua region. The Hausa Soudié and Goubé became part of the Kurfey district.

The re-drawing of the boundaries by the colonial administration

22After pacification, the colonial administration set up district chiefdoms for both the sedentary population and nomads. This special treatment, whereas elsewhere nomad chiefdoms are called groups (organised more on a tribal basis than on place of residence), shows the specific nature of the territory of the Tuaregs of the Imanan and the Taghazar (another Tuareg canton in the department further south) through their isolation in the agricultural area and their fairly sedentary way of life.

23The colonial administration reduced the area of the Imanan Tuaregs to the benefit of the Tondikandia Zarma canton in the south and the Kurfey Hausa canton in the north. Some historical Tuareg centres were removed, such as the village of Shet, where the Tuaregs first arrived and which was made part of the canton of Kurfey. This decrease in area concerned above all the Dallol valley, an agricultural area par excellence. The nomads were awarded above all the plateaux most suitable for livestock.

‘Our canton is a small one. The white men shrank it. You know that when the white men arrived the Tuaregs created problems by wars. Something that has been forbidden. So to master them they were squeezed on each side, the canton was reduced on each side and they were given a small area. When you leave here, it’ s hardly 7 or 8 kilometres to the boundary and when you go in the direction of Filingué it’s the same thing—less than 12 kilometres. The district is long from east to west, formed by plateaux, but not in the south to west in the valley. Our fields ended up on the other side, but who could say anything during the time of the white man?’ (A. I.).

24The frontier between the canton of the Imanan and that of Tondikandia remains to be defined and landholding litigation is still in progress today. The canton of Tondikandia also considers that historically the north-west plateau is not part of the Imanan but was made part of the canton by the colonial administration when the cantons were created in 1920.

25The former head of the canton of the Imanan (1952-1974), former member of parliament and minster during the presidency of Diori Hamani (1960-1974), tried to use his influence to move the frontier but did not succeed. Under General Seyni Kountché (1974-1987), from the canton of Tondikandia, his elder brother who was head of the canton unilaterally annexed land from the canton of the Imanan. Ahmed Sada, head of the canton at the time, refused to accept this decision. He was revoked by order of General Kountché. Others mentioned his behaviour and youth to justify his dismissal. The opponents of the present head, appointed by Seyni Kountché, is said by his opponents to be an ally of Tondikandia, accounting for continuous intrusion by people from this canton in land in the Imanan.

26Border disputes between the two cantons are very frequent, especially on the western plateau. Numerous cases are waiting for the courts according to the representative of the head of the canton of the Imanan.

The release of slaves and new procedures for access to land

27The colonial administration took another decision that upset land use, the farming system and the control of land and access to it. Indeed, the measures taken for the freeing of slaves and their access to land—with this liberation decided by the colonial authorities after the 1916 Tuareg revolt, in which the Tuaregs of the Imanan were involved—resulted in new occupation of land and new land and economic dynamics.

28Some former domestic slaves went far from their masters and founded new villages, while others remained in the village as farmers. This is the case of the village of Diguina, where the nobles still live alongside their former slaves. The latter farm the land and no longer pay a tithe but cannot sell, lend or give the land without the permission of their former masters. They just have usufruct and still have a relation of dependence on their masters.

29Freemen (Ighawelan and Iboghiliten) farmed land loaned by noble families to whom they paid a tithe. After decisions by the colonial authorities, the freeman took over the land. They then increased their land capital by new land clearance, mainly on the southern plateau, and also by purchases of land from the Zarma.

30Situations are very contrasted according to the part of the administrative district, the status of the former dependents and the attitude of the aristocratic family. In the villages in the north-east of the district, a stronghold of the aristocracy, the nobles maintain control of the land. In the south, with the exception of the Kochlane Touareg, all the villages were founded by freemen who own the land. The Tuaregs had a weaker hold on land in the centre and the north-west. The Bella villages (names of former slaves in Zarma) are concentrated mainly in the latter zone. During the reigns of Akkomar ag Yogo (1905-1932) and Bizo ag Wadéghun (1933-1952), numerous former slaves obtain land by a donation or by clearance in this part of the canton that used to be occupied by Djerma. The colonial administration unified the Tuareg principalities and chose a chief in one of the aristocratic lineages. All vacant land then became part of the estate of the chiefdom of the canton. But the aristocratic subgroups gradually regained autonomy. The present chief of the canton has little hold on the land of other aristocratic families, especially in Diguina, Kochlane and Shiwil. Thus Shiwil and Kochlane have more control of the southern plateau, Diguina has more in the north-east and the chiefdom (Feraw) is more affirmed in the management of the western plateau.

31Thanks to control of land, former dependents have gained economic autonomy. They draw an income from farming and from migration rent, whereas the nobles became poorer for want of labour. The present land occupation map for the administrative district shows that the villages of former dependents are more numerous by far that those of the aristocratic lineages of the Tuaregs and other ethno-linguistic groups. This also shows the demographic weight of salves in this society.

32The Tuareg aristocracy has thus lost and important lever for domination but has kept a large land capital that ensured it a clientele among the former dependents. Its control of local power also made it possible to act as negotiator with the colonial administration and, later with the post-colonial state. It invested in education by sending the children to school (the colonists had founded schools for the children of the chiefs) in contact with nomad chiefdoms. The first pupils worked for the colonial administration and, from the 1960s, officials of the Tuareg aristocracy of the Imanan were elected to parliament or appointed to senior public service positions, with ministerial posts in particular. Among the latter, Mouddour Zakara is the best known and played an important political role at the national level. In spite of its subservience to the administration, the aristocracy has kept customary powers, has substantial land capital and has gained significant cultural capital. It thus has large resources in spite of its small demographic weight.

From grouped to scattered settlements

33The liberation of slaves resulted in the founding of numerous villages that were previously farm hamlets. After several years of cultivation, the land in the valley where the population was concentrated became impoverished. Several strategies were used to address the situation. First, plateau land was used for crops to counterbalance the poor yields of the valley land. Those who could not have plateau land became poor. Systems for loans from former masters were used increasingly. But the most spectacular innovation has been the dismantling of certain villages with the farmers then settling in their fields. This is a soil fertility management strategy. Families set up their straw huts on degraded parts of the field to fertilise the soil with domestic waste and manure. Animals are tethered to posts in bare places. The positions of the huts and the livestock are changed every two or three years according to the fertility levels in the different parts of the farm.

‘Here, every head of a family has settled in his field. This is to enrich our soils that have become very poor over a period of time. But we haven’t always been scattered like that. Our families were from Shet and then the grandparents migrated to Takarwet (Tassi) and that is where everyone has settled in their field with the livestock to at least make manure for the field’ (head of a Toulouwa village).

‘Before, the chief was here but about 30 years ago he left the main village and settled in his field 5 kilometres from here. Several villagers have done what he did’ (representative of the Tillobi village chief).

34The core village only house a few families, in particular those of the heads of the village and certain notables, and the socioeconomic infrastructure (school, health centre, grain bank, etc.). Some heads of villages, such as that of Amassaghal, have settled in their fields.

35The population groups of the Imanan are of nomad origin and have conserved mobility as a strategy for land and fertility management.

The return to valley land: the development of market garden crops

36The introduction of potato growing in the 1970s has played an important role in the evolution of farming systems, survival strategies for the population and increasing household income. The Bella Kochlan village chief summarises the situation as follows: ‘If you don’t grow potatoes, you’ll die’.

37The development of the growing of potatoes and other market garden crops such as bell peppers, tomatoes and even Moringa olifera, has generated renewed interest in valley land. Not all the soils in the valley are suitable for market garden crops because of the depth of the groundwater and the nature of the soil. Not everybody who has suitable soil has the means to use it. New transactions have become established. Members of a farming operation or their relations combine to finance potato growing. The investment is for the well and agricultural inputs. The latter are supplied on credit by suppliers at the small market in Niamey who also purchase the potato crop. Two traders from this market even purchased land for potato growing in the village of Bella Koira on the outskirts of Bonkoukou.

38The introduction of market garden crops has resulted in widespread use of fencing to protect the fields. The wealthier farmers often use wire netting and those with less funds use dry hedging. Development projects have contributed to increasing this trend. Some farmers combine livestock and orchard fruits with market garden crops.

39Potatoes have led to phenomena of social differentiation between farmers that run through all social groups. Large potato growers form a small local bourgeoisie. They have set up a cooperative to defend their interests. The president of the cooperative has been the regional president of the chambers of agriculture of Niger (RECA). He is also a local political leader.

The district land commission as an institutional innovation

40Within the framework of rendering landholding secure, the permanent secretariat of the Rural Code, which is the official landholding regulation body, has set up a commission in Imanan administrative district. The aim is that of formalising land transactions and enabling farmers to hold land deeds.

Table 2. Land transaction agreements drawn up from 2006 to 2014.


Number of documents issued

Places concerned

Certificate of customary possession


Shiwil and Bonkoukou

Land sale certificate


Fakara Plateau

Certificate of donation



Land loan contract


The entire administrive ditrict

Contract for customay pledging of land



Land rental contract





Source: Bonkoukou distric land commission.

41The data in Table 2 are certainly not representative of all the land transactions in the district of Bonkoukou. It is known that many deals are done between farmers without being declared. However, it can be observed that certain transaction are substantial and show certain changes. There are a large number of sales of land ion the southern plateau (Fakara). The Zarma sell their land to the Tuaregs, particularly from Amassaghal. According to the permanent secretary of the land commission, they sell because they need food. Requests for customary holding are by farmers who draft loan request files. This is a requirement of credit institutions. Contracts for loans of land are requested by persons from the administrative district and landowners who live outside the district—often abroad. For them it is a measure of security of their landholdings.

Dependents: from economic autonomy to political representation

42The colonial administration allowed former dependents to gain freedom and above all economic autonomy. However, they were still dominated politically as the canton chiefdom was the dominant institution in the local political landscape. Heads of villages remained subservient to the head of the canton, who had great power in tax collection and the management of landholding conflicts. A large number of former slaves obtained land by donations or by clearance authorisations awarded by successive heads of cantons.

43Democratic opening in the 1990s enabled the former dependents to have new institutional mobilisation frameworks with a view to access to the public spaces obtaining political representation. The political parties and civil society organisations provided this opportunity. The former slaves fought massively in an antislavery association called Timidria. The objectives of the latter were to fight slavery practices and defend the rights of former slaves. This position led militants in the Imanan to enter a struggle for position in the local political arena.

44There were two main political parties in the Imanan in the 2000s: the Parti nigérien pour la démocratie et le socialisme (PNDS-Tarraya) and the Mouvement national pour la société développement (MNSD-Nassara).

45The PNDS-Tarraya is above all the party of senior aristocrats, some of whom form part of the national management of the party. All the leading aristocratic families in the canton joined the PNDS, with the exception of the one that held the chiefdom are preferred to remain in the state party, a strategy much used by the traditional chiefdoms to avoid offending the power if which they are the final local link in the chain. In 1998, after General Baaré (who gained power by a military coup d’état in 1996) founded the Rassemblement pour la démocratie et le progrès (RDP-Jamaà), a proportion of the senior aristocracy who were with the PNDS joined the new party for questions of leadership. The same people later became affiliated with the MNSD Tanja cale to power in 2000 and who wife is from the village of Diguina, one of the major strongholds of the aristocracy. The MNSD section in Bonkoukou is run by an aristocrat from the village. The senior aristocrats brought part of their dependents with them and especially those who lived with them.

46The MNSD attracted the Zarma and the former dependents. An important figure in this community, Torda Hainikoye, a former senior officer and former prefect, president of the Niamey urban community and former private secretary of President Tanja handled the establishment of the MNSD in his group. He became the first mayor of the Imanan administrative district in 2005. Issouf Amouane, the vice-mayor, was the brother of the head of the canton, with the latter being part of MNSD. A former commander, the vice-mayor was a product of the state-party and naturally joined the MNSD. Aristocrats and former dependents are members of the MNSD and have different legitimacy and projects.

47In his management of district council, the mayor used the resources of the district and his partners to invest in the former dependents’ villages. Land management remained under the control of the head of the canton, which used this for its own interests (Mohamadou and Moussa, 2013). Court cases dragged on, with suspicion of corruption of those involved.

48The MNSD split in two in 2009 with the founding of Lumana FA, the new party of Hama Amadou, former president of the MNSD in conflict with President Tanja whose prime minister he had been but who finally sent him to prison. Many members of the MNSD in the Imanan joined the new party. These were mainly former dependents who considered that local MNSD officials did not defend their interests, especially because of the arbitrary manner in which they were victims of land management.

49Indeed, the aristocrats, including those belong to the present chiefdom, use land as a means of exerting pressure on the former dependents. They threaten to take the land given to their grandparents from all those who are not members of their party.

50Land censuses are carried out by the aristocrats with the aim—according to one of them—of reminding the former dependents that they are not owners, and thus ensure their landholdings. A former dependent from Diguina confirmed that the land they farmed was still under the control of the aristocratic families. This also explains why sales of the valley land controlled by Tuaregs are very rare. The former dependents know that there will be a reaction from the former owners. Land sales mainly concern land on the plateau, where part of the land belongs to Zarma.

51The political issues have generated a certain insecurity with regard to landholding in the district. To this is added the renewal of interest in the valley land. An increasing number persons from the area with financial capacity can obtain funding for projects and bank loans.


52Examination of the evolution of Tuareg society in the Imanan and its territory for a period of nearly two centuries reveals deep-seated political, economic and ecological changes. Originally nomadic herders, the Tuaregs of the Imanan became sedentary and switched to crop farming while remaining ready to move their livestock and homes when necessary. The latter strategy is a response to the degradation of arable land. A particular type of agropastoralism thus emerged with scattered dwellings in order to better manage fertility and livestock. Colonial intervention favoured the emergence of new landholding dynamics and the gaining of economic autonomy by former dependents. The latter became scattered over the whole area of the canton, founding new villages and clearing new land. Less than a century later, the valley land was entirely occupied and had become impoverished, obliging farmers to farm the plateaux. The 1970-1980 economic slump accentuated this degradation of natural resources. Potatoes became the main lever of the local economy. The crop has increased farmers’ incomes significantly and caused fractures in the various social groups while enhancing the economic autonomy of young people.

53The valley land that had become unsuitable for rainfed grain crops is recovering a certain value thanks to market garden crops and orchard crops. It is crystallising the political struggles between the various stakeholders and leading to new land transactions.

54This study shows the interactions between society and its environment. Climatic and environmental change has en influence on economic, social and political changes and vice versa. Growing potatoes is an adaptation strategy to counter-balance the poor yields of rainfed crops. It is possible because of shallow groundwater and demand in Niamey. Development of the crop has changed social relations centred on the land and in households.



Guillaume H., 1974
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Jacob J.-P., 2007
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Mohamadou A., Harouna A., 2013
Évolution des relations entre les différents groupes autour de la terre et des ressources naturelles et leur médiatisation à travers les nouveaux cadres institutionnels dans la commune de l’Imanan.
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Mohamadou A., Moussa H., 2013
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La nouvelle destinée de l’Imanan. Manuscrit, 16 p.

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