Challenging colonial legacies: Minorities and indigenous peoples’ struggle for inclusion in Africa

By Hamimu Masudi

The dubious origins of statehood in Africa have been clear to anyone interested in understanding and explaining contemporary development challenges on the continent. By the stroke of a pen at a Berlin conference in 1884, the entire continent was fragmented into 53 multiethnic states, subsequently governed under imperial rule for over 60 years. Even though it was evident that the millions of Africans across the continent were extraordinarily varied in their cultures and ways of life, different population groups – often with a history of intercommunal conflict – were forced to live together under administrative systems that favored certain lifestyles and discriminated against others.

Due to their distinct cultures, ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples including nomadic pastoralists, hunters and gatherers were particularly sidelined throughout the colonial period, in the process losing their lands, livelihoods and dignity. Sadly, the end of colonialism did not restore order and liberty for all. Instead, it ushered in a crop of authoritarian African strongmen who were happy to perpetuate the exploitative policies and institutions of colonialism for their own ends.

This is illustrated by the continued plight of forest peoples in many countries who, without any sort of compensation, have seen their forests and grazing areas taken from them and gazetted as public land – often on the dubious basis that they normally do not own permanent physical structures nor tend to any crops on the lands. The same arguments were made in order to explain the displacement of pastoralist communities. Consequently, entire populations have been evicted from their territories, leaving them to eke out a marginal existence on the periphery of the lands they once called home.

It is against this background and the desire to address persisting inequalities that MRG has conceptualized and implemented its work in Africa over the years. From programmes responding directly to the urgent health and educational needs of communities, to defending collective land rights and advocating for legal recognition, MRG has over time influenced the understanding and perception of minorities and indigenous peoples on the continent.

For instance, in view of the widespread belief that all inhabitants are indigenous to Africa, most governments have neglected to identify or recognise indigenous peoples in their territories – a situation that has held back the legal recognition of their rights. In response, since the launch of the Africa office in Kampala, Uganda in 2001, MRG has successfully challenged these narratives, arguing instead that the situation of minorities and indigenous peoples is distinct, and that the discrimination they face threatens their particular cultures and reinforces their subordinate position within social and state structures.

This subordinate position has an even more severe impact on vulnerable groups within minority and indigenous communities. Since its very earliest days, MRG’s Africa office has applied an intersectional lens to its work, for instance by providing support to Batwa activists across the Great Lakes region who are combatting violence against women and gender-based discrimination. Currently, MRG is building on and expanding this work by supporting Batwa who are seeking recognition for the rights of persons with disabilities belonging to their communities.

The rights of Africa’s minorities and indigenous peoples should be protected and promoted alongside other national priorities, such as environmental management and nation-building. Fortunately, there is now increasing acceptance that indigenous peoples, including pastoralist communities, value their natural surroundings more than anyone, given their close and centurieslong interdependence with their lands, and that indigenous knowledge is central to any successful conservation strategies in Africa. These arguments have at least led to some initial recognition of minority and indigenous rights – an important milestone, given that community evictions are still justified by many governments in the name of environmental protection.

In particular, it is through the judiciary that the struggle for recognition and respect for indigenous peoples’ rights is being waged in Africa. From Kenya and Uganda to Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), law courts as well regional bodies such as the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights have delivered significant victories in the battle for indigenous rights. These include the Ogiek and the Endorois victories at the regional level against the Kenyan government, the Twa family land case win against powerful individuals in Burundi, the Benet of Mount Elgon petition for social protection in Uganda and the Mbute of DRC’s Ituri Forest’s legal challenge for protection.

Now, thanks to the advocacy efforts of MRG’s partners, Burundi’s constitution provides for special representation of Batwa people in the National Assembly and the Senate, while Kenya’s constitution (under the Bill of Rights) guarantees the protection of minorities and other marginalized groups, and its land law further provides for collective land rights. And for the first time in their respective histories, members of the Batwa communities of Burundi and Rwanda have been appointed as ministers to Cabinet-level positions in their respective countries.

Photo: Members of the Sengwer community protest their eviction from their ancestral lands in the Embobut Forest, by the Kenyan government / Katy Migiro/Reuters