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Indigenous peoples in Africa - a general overview

Tanzania Maasai by Jens Dahl

Who are the indigenous peoples in Africa?

The issue and concept of indigenous peoples continues to be rather controversial and contested in many parts of Africa and lack of understanding and information about the issue persist among many African governments and the general public. However, a notable progress has been achieved during the past 10 years, and the concept and issue now seems to be recognized in several parts of Central Africa as well as to a certain degree in other countries such as Kenya and Namibia. 

The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR) has for the past 12 years recognized and worked on the issue, and it has developed criteria/characteristics for the identification of indigenous peoples in Africa. These criteria provided by the ACHPR – and thereby also by the African Union – are guiding for many institutions working on indigenous issues in Africa, including for IWGIA, and they are as follows: 

  • Their cultures and ways of life differ considerably from the dominant society.
  • Their cultures and ways of life are under threat, in some cases to the extent of extinction.
  • The survival of their particular way of life depends on access and rights to their traditional land and natural resources thereon.
  • They suffer from discrimination as they are being regarded as less developed and less advanced than other more dominant sectors of society.
  • They often live in inaccessible regions, often geographically isolated and suffer from various forms of marginalization, both politically and socially.
  • They are subject to domination and exploitation within national political and economic structures that are commonly designed to reflect the interests and activities of the national majority. 
  • This discrimination, domination and marginalization violates their human rights as peoples/communities, threatens the continuation of their cultures and ways of life and prevents them from being genuinely able to participate in deciding their own future and forms of development. 

The ACHPR points out that in an African context, less emphasis should be put on the early definitions focusing on aboriginality, as it is difficult and not very constructive to debate this in an African context. The focus must be on the more recent approaches focussing on self-definition/self-identification as indigenous and distinctly different from other groups within a state; on a dependence on, and special attachment to and use of their traditional land whereby their ancestral land and territory has a fundamental importance for their collective physical and cultural survival as peoples; and on an experience of subjugation, marginalization, dispossession, exclusion or discrimination because these peoples have different cultures, ways of life or modes of production than the national hegemonic and dominant model. 

Over the past 10 to 20 years, an increasing number of affected groups/communities in Africa have come to identify themselves as indigenous peoples since the discrimination and marginalization experienced by indigenous peoples throughout the world matches their own experiences. African indigenous people are increasingly participating in the global indigenous rights movement and they have thus found an international platform from which to analyse their situation, voice their concerns and seek recognition and protection of their rights.  

Those who define themselves as indigenous peoples in Africa are mainly nomadic/semi nomadic pastoralists and hunter-gatherers (or former hunter-gatherers). The hunter-gatherers include among others the Pygmies of Central Africa, the San of Southern Africa, the Hadzabe and Akie of Tanzania and the Ogiek, Sengwer, Watta, Yaaku of Kenya. The nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralists include among others the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania, the Barabaig of Tanzania, the Endorois, Samburu, Turkana, Rendille, Orma, Borana and Pokot of Kenya, the Karamojong of Uganda, the numerous pastoralist communities in Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia, the Touareg of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, the Fulani in Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and numerous other West African countries, the Mbororo in Cameroon, Chad and other West African countries, the Toubou in Niger and the Himba in Namibia. 

Hunter/gatherers constitute comparatively small populations while pastoralists comprise more than 250 million people on the African continent. Pastoralism is practised in the drylands of Africa, comprising more than 50% of the total land mass of the continent. Both hunter/gatherers and pastoralists are usually a minority in their countries ruled by a political elite representing an agricultural majority.

As mentioned above, the concept of indigenous peoples is still, in an African context, met by scepticism by many. As highlighted by the ACHPR such concerns must be recognized, but misunderstandings are also involved. The ACHPR emphasizes that:

One of the misunderstandings is that protection of the rights of indigenous peoples would be to give special rights to some ethnic groups over and above the rights of all other groups within a state. This is not the case. The issue is not special rights. The issue is that certain marginalized groups are discriminated in particular ways because of their particular culture, mode of production and marginalized position within the state, a  form of discrimination, which other groups within the state do not suffer from. The call of these marginalized groups to protection of their rights is a legitimate call to alleviate this particular form of discrimination.  

A closely related misconception is that the term indigenous is not applicable in Africa as “all Africans are indigenous”. The ACHPR emphasizes that:

There is no question that all Africans are indigenous to Africa in the sense that they were there before the European colonialists arrived and that they have been subject to sub-ordination during colonialism… When some particular marginalized groups use the term indigenous to describe their situation, they use the modern analytical form of the concept (which do not merely focus on aboriginality) in an attempt to draw attention to and alleviate the particular form of discrimination, which they suffer from. They do not use the term in order to deny all other Africans their legitimate claim to belong to Africa and their African identity.  

Another misunderstanding is the belief that talking about indigenous rights will lead to tribalism and ethnic conflicts. According to the ACHPR this is turning the arguments upside down since:

There exist a rich variety of ethnic groups within basically all African states and multiculturalism is a living reality. Giving recognition to all groups, respecting their differences and allowing them all to flourish in a truly democratic spirit does not lead to conflict; it prevents conflict… The elaboration of modalities to protect the human rights of particularly marginalized groups should not be seen as tribalism and disruption of the unity of African states. On the contrary it should be welcomed as an interesting and needed opportunity on the African human rights arena to discuss ways of developing African multicultural democracies based on the respect and inclusion of all ethnic groups. (For more information please See the “Report of the African Commission’s Working Group of Experts on Indigenous Populations/Communities”. 2005). 

Main Challenges faced by Indigenous Peoples in Africa

Lack of legislation regarding indigenous peoples

The situation of indigenous peoples in Africa is extremely serious. The level of bad credit 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 Republic of Congo and a source of inspiration for other countries in Africa to take similar initiatives.

Some other 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  – as the first country in Africa – ratified the ILO Convention 169. Namibia has developed a policy addressing the rights of San peoples and recognizing them as indigenous peoples. The Democratic Republic of Congo is now discussing at the parliament the adoption of a law on the rights of indigenous peoples. Tanzania is also in the process of revisiting its Constitution and the second draft from 2015 recognizes and protects the rights and interests of indigenous communities.

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; agribusiness 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.

Violation of women’s rights

Many indigenous women in Africa face double discrimination since they belong to marginalized indigenous communities while often also suffering from traditional cultural discriminatory practices. Indigenous women in Africa suffer from many forms of marginalization and human rights abuses including violence, sexual abuse, harmful cultural practices, exclusion from decision making processes, lack of access to education etc. At the same time, indigenous women in Africa play a key role in the protection and reproduction of indigenous cultures and societies and for the welfare and upbringing of their children and families. Strengthening indigenous women’s participation in decision making processes, land governance/ management structures, conflict resolution fora as well as enhancing economic empowerment opportunities for women is therefore an important aspect of strengthening entire indigenous communities.

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 made substantial efforts  to address human rights violations and influence policy reform processes.

In Central Africa indigenous organizations are in general still small and weak. In Burundi and Rwanda, however 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.

Finally in North Africa, indigenous organizations are still very weak due to oppressive governments. There are some movement for the Amazigh peoples that have been existing for some years, especially in Morocco and Algeria but their freedom of association is often threatened and their work is mainly focusing on cultural rights.

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