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Indigenous peoples in Africa - a general overview

Tanzania Maasai by Jens Dahl

Who are the indigenous peoples in Africa?

As per the conceptualization of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and international mechanisms dealing with indigenous peoples’ rights, indigenous peoples in Africa are generally understood as nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoralists and hunter/gatherers who live in situations of marginalization and discrimination. (See the “Report of the African Commission’s Working Group of Experts on Indigenous Populations/Communities”. 2005)

Lack of legislation regarding indigenous peoples

The situation of indigenous peoples in Africa is extremely serious. The level of bad governance, corruption, impunity, violent conflict and poverty is in general very high on the African continent, and indigenous peoples are among the groups suffering the most. Only few African countries have so far recognized the existence of indigenous peoples. However, this situation is gradually improving and several central African countries now recognize the existence of indigenous peoples in their countries. Countries such as Kenya and Namibia are also gradually opening up. However, widespread lack of recognition persists in all other parts of Africa.

Apart from the Republic of Congo, where the Parliament on the 30th December 2010, adopted a law for the promotion and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples, no countries in Africa have legislation that provide for the protection of indigenous peoples’ rights. This situation is thoroughly documented in the research report made by the ILO, ACHPR and the University of Pretoria: “Overview Report of the Research Project by the International Labour Organization and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Constitutional and Legislative Protection of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 24 African Countries”. 2009.

The Congolese law for the promotion and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples is the first of its kind in Africa, and its adoption is a historic development for indigenous peoples on the continent. Hopefully this law will be a valuable tool for improving the situation of the indigenous peoples in the Congo and a source of inspiration for other countries in Africa to take similar initiatives.

Some promising developments are as follows: In Kenya a new constitution has been adopted which provides for considerable decentralization and recognition of historically marginalized groups to which indigenous peoples belong. A new national land policy has also been adopted in Kenya, which provides for collective land rights and de-centralized land governance structures. However, still no explicit recognition of indigenous peoples exists in Kenya. In Burundi the constitution provides for special representation of the indigenous Batwa people in the National Assembly and the Senate. In Cameroon a draft law on Marginal Populations has been produced, however, this draft law does not specifically recognize indigenous peoples nor address some of their key concerns. The Central African Republic has recently – as the first country in Africa – ratified the ILO Convention 169.

Lack of representation and participation of indigenous peoples

Indigenous peoples in Africa are often poorly represented in decision-making bodies at both local and national level and their participation in decision-making processes is very limited. The lack of representation and participation makes it very difficult for indigenous peoples to advocate their cause and determine their own future development. Most African states follow European-oriented modernization and development strategies that completely disregard indigenous traditional African sectors, the important contributions of such sectors to national economies and their need for supportive policies.

Discrimination against indigenous peoples

Indigenous peoples in Africa are discriminated against by mainstream populations and looked down upon as backward peoples. Many stereotypes prevail that describe them as “backward”, “uncivilized” and “primitive” and as an embarrassment to modern African states. Such negative stereotyping legitimizes discrimination and marginalization of indigenous peoples by institutions of governance and dominant groups.

Indigenous land dispossession

The main problem faced by indigenous peoples in Africa is land dispossession, which is caused by a number of factors such as dominating development paradigms favouring settled agriculture over other modes of production; establishment of national parks and conservation areas; natural resource extraction etc. The land dispossession undermines indigenous peoples’ livelihood systems, leads to severe impoverishment and threatens the continued existence of indigenous peoples. Legal frameworks promoting and protecting indigenous peoples’ lands are very weak or non-existing, and policies are most often negatively biased against indigenous peoples and tend to undermine rather than support their livelihoods.

Indigenous victims of violent conflicts

Indigenous peoples in Africa are often victims of violent conflicts. In eastern and western Africa there are numerous violent conflicts between nomadic pastoralists and sedentary farmers as well as inter-community conflicts between pastoralists themselves. These conflicts are further exacerbated by effects of climate change and increased competition over natural resources, and they lead to massive suffering, impoverishment and displacements. In countries such as Niger and Burkina Faso the situation is extreme involving organized massacres of entire villages. Indigenous peoples are also victims of abuses committed by the military and armed militia groups.

Indigenous peoples lack access to justice

Indigenous peoples in Africa have limited access to justice and violations against their rights are often committed with impunity. Cases of violations of indigenous peoples’ rights are rarely investigated by the police, perpetrators are often not brought to justice, judicial systems are too expensive for indigenous peoples and often ineffective and negatively biased against indigenous peoples, and indigenous peoples thus have very limited possibilities of redress. The failure of most court cases brought about by indigenous peoples in Africa is an indicator of this. (See for example the book by Albert Kwokwo Barume “Land Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Africa, IWGIA 2010/2014).

In sum indigenous peoples in African suffer from severe neglect, dispossession and human rights violations, and the general trend is that African states wish to assimilate them into dominant cultures and livelihoods. However, the past 10 years have also witnessed a more organized and mobilized indigenous civil society that is trying to make their voices heard and advocate their own cause.

Level of self-organization of the indigenous peoples' movement

Compared to other regions of the world, the indigenous movement – and civil society as such - is still weak in Africa, and indigenous organizations are still few and have low capacity. However, the situation is diverse and varies from region to region and country to country.

Indigenous organizations in East Africa, and in particular in Kenya, have become stronger and more vocal, and they have in collaboration with other sectors of civil society successfully managed to engage in issues of concern to them such as constitutional and policy reforms. National networks are weak but a network of pastoralists (Pastoralist Development Network of Kenya) and of hunter/gatherers and pastoralists (Pastoralists and Hunter Gatherer Ethnic Minorities Network) exist. Indigenous organizations in Tanzania are fewer and have in general less capacity than organizations in Kenya. However, there are two national indigenous peoples umbrella organizations in Tanzania (PINGOs Forum and Tanzania Pastoralist and Hunter Gatherer Organization), and organizations in Tanzania have in recent years tried to address human rights violations and influence policy reform processes.

In Central Africa indigenous organizations are in general still small and weak. Some of the most well functioning organizations are found in Burundi and Rwanda where organizations have carried out successful sensitization and advocacy work. In countries such as the DRC, the Republic of Congo, Cameroon and Gabon, indigenous organizations and support NGOs also exist and are to varying degrees engaged in advocacy and development work. In countries such as the Central African Republic and Chad indigenous organizations are almost non-existing.

In West Africa the discourse of indigenous peoples is in general not known or used. There are some pastoral organizations and a regional pastoral network (Billital Maroobe), however, they are only to a limited degree integrated in the African indigenous movement.

In southern Africa the indigenous San organizations remain small and comparatively weak. There is, however, a network of indigenous organizations in southern Africa (Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa) that coordinates and represents the interests of indigenous San peoples throughout Southern Africa.

The only existing pan African organization for indigenous peoples in Africa is the “Indigenous Peoples of African Coordinating Committee” (IPACC) which has its secretariat in South Africa and which has member organizations from all the regions of Africa.

Learn about the situation in specific African countries