Indigenous peoples of Africa

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The indigenous people of Africa are those people of Africa whose way of life, attachment or claims to particular lands, and social and political standing in relation to other more dominant groups have resulted in their substantial marginalisation within modern African states (viz., "indigeneity" for the purposes of this article has the narrow definition of "politically underprivileged group who have been an ethnic entity in the locality before the present ruling nation took over power"; see definitions and identity of indigenous peoples).

Although the vast majority of African peoples can be considered to be "indigenous" in the sense that they have originated from that continent and nowhere else, in practice identity as an "indigenous people" as per the term's modern application is more restrictive. Not every African ethnic group claims identification under these terms. Groups and communities who do claim this recognition are those who by a variety of historical and environmental circumstances have been placed outside of the dominant state systems. Their traditional practices and land claims often have come into conflict with the objectives and policies promulgated by governments, companies and surrounding dominant societies.

The resulting marginalisation, combined with the desire to recognise and protect both their collective and human rights, and to maintain the continuity of their individual cultures has led many of these peoples to seek identification as indigenous peoples, in the contemporary global sense of the term.

"Indigenous" in the contemporary African context[edit]

In the post-colonial period, the concept of specific indigenous peoples within the African continent has gained wider acceptance, although not without controversy. The highly-diverse and numerous ethnic groups which comprise most modern, independent African states contain within them various peoples whose situation, cultures and pastoralist or hunter-gatherer lifestyles are generally marginalised and set apart from the dominant political and economic structures of the nation. Since the late 20th century these peoples have increasingly sought recognition of their rights as distinct indigenous peoples, in both national and international contexts.

Given the extensive and complicated history of human migration within Africa, being the "first peoples in a land" is not a necessary pre-condition for acceptance as an indigenous people. Rather, indigenous identity relates more to a set of characteristics and practices than priority of arrival. For example, several populations of nomadic peoples such as the Tuareg of the Sahara and Sahel regions now inhabit areas in which they arrived comparatively recently. Their claim to indigenous status (endorsed by the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights) is based on their marginalisation as nomadic peoples in states and territories dominated by sedentary agricultural peoples.

The Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee (IPACC) was founded in 1997. It is one of the main trans-national network organizations recognised as a representative of African indigenous peoples in dialogues with governments and bodies such as the UN. In 2008, IPACC was composed of 150 member organisations in 21 African countries. IPACC identifies several key characteristics associated with indigenous claims in Africa:

  • political and economic marginalisation rooted in colonialism;
  • de facto discrimination based often on the dominance of agricultural peoples in the State system (e.g. lack of access to education and health care by hunters and herders);
  • the particularities of culture, identity, economy and territoriality that link hunting and herding peoples to their home environments in deserts and forests (e.g. nomadism, diet, knowledge systems);
  • some indigenous peoples, such as the San and Pygmy peoples are physically distinct, which makes them subject to specific forms of discrimination.

With respect to concerns that identifying some groups and not others as indigenous is in itself discriminatory, IPACC states that it:

  • "...recognises that all Africans should enjoy equal rights and respect. All of Africa's diversity is to be valued. Particular communities, due to historical and environmental circumstances, have found themselves outside the state-system and underrepresented in governance...This is not to deny other Africans their status; it is to emphasise that affirmative recognition is necessary for hunter-gatherers and herding peoples to ensure their survival."

At an African inter-governmental level, the examination of indigenous rights and concerns is pursued by a sub-commission established under the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR), sponsored by the African Union (AU) (successor body to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU)). In late 2003 the 53 signatory states of the ACHPR adopted the Report of the African Commission's Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities and its recommendations. This report says in part (p. 62):

  • "...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 that 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."

The adoption of this report at least notionally subscribed the signatories to the concepts and aims of furthering the identity and rights of African indigenous peoples. The extent to which individual states are mobilising to put these recommendations into practice varies enormously, however. Most indigenous groups continue to agitate for improvements in the areas of land rights, use of natural resources, protection of environment and culture, political recognition and freedom from discrimination.

On 30 December 2010, the Republic of Congo adopted a law for the promotion and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples. This law is the first of its kind in Africa, and its adoption is a historic development for indigenous peoples on the continent.[1]

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Hitchcock, Robert (1996) "Kalahari Communities: Bushmen and the Politics of the Environment in Southern Africa" IWGIA Document No. 79
  • Report of the African Commission's Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities Mission to the Republic of Niger - February 2006. IWGIA.
  • Report of the African Commission's Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities Mission to the Republic of Namibia - July - August 2005. IWGIA.[1]
  • Report of the African Commission's Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities Mission to the Republic of Botswana - June 2005. IWGIA.[2]
  • Report of the African Commission's Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities Research and Information Visit to the Republic of Burundi, March–April 2005 IWGIA [3]
  • Report of the African Commission's Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities Research and Information Visit to the Republic of Congo, September 2005. IWGIA. [4]
  • Report of the African Commission's Working Group of Experts on Indigenous Populations/Communities.IWGIA. [5]
  • The Indigenous World 2008. 2008. IWGIA.[6] (pdf)
  • Indigenous Peoples in Africa: The Forgotten Peoples? The African Commission's work on indigenous peoples in Africa. IWGIA. [7]

External links[edit]