A Brief History of the Indigenous Peoples of West Africa

Africa has been late in joining the rest of the world in the indigenous movement. It was the persecuted, oppressed, and sometimes-destroyed nations on the American continent that forced the the so-called modern world to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples. Their efforts compelled the United Nations to launch action to safeguard indigenous peoples’ rights in 1982 with the advent of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations.

Some African delegates have participated each year in the working group, which meets every summer in Geneva. But it took 15 years for Africa to draw from the inspiration of other indigenous nations and begin internal work toward implementing a continent-wide network. This is how the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC) was born, in response to the critical need expressed by Africans during the caucuses organized in parallel with the working group. IPACC is the preeminent organization representing indigenous rights on the continent (see their Website at www.ipacc.org.za), and has representatives in every region.

West Africa played a major role in the birth of IPACC. Indeed, this area contains very militant peoples who, during the same period, took up arms against Niger, Mali, and Chad so that their identities would be recognized in these young countries born from decolonization in the 1960s. These peoples are the Tuareg (the name given to the southern part of the Amazigh nation, which covers all of northern Africa), the Toubou, the Woodaabè, and the Ogoni of the Niger Delta in Nigeria.

The Tuareg, Woodaabè, and Toubou are nomadic peoples in the Sahelo-Saharan countries (Niger, Mali, Chad, Algeria, Libya, and Mauritania). The balkanization of the African continent resulting from the Berlin Conference in 1885 divided these peoples among several different countries, the leadership of which favored other peoples, generally sedentary farmers, who had a vision closer to colonialism and who continued colonial works. Since decolonization, the suffering of the pastoral nomadic peoples has continued. Indeed, the configurations of these countries do not take their specific political, geographical, and cultural features into account at all. In forming these countries, the nomad component was difficult to control, and the solution was either to ignore them or to persecute them until the end. This is why, since then, each group has been trying to resist this steamroller. They want to continue to exist as completely separate entities within their current countries, as they had done for thousands of years before the colonial phenomenon. The armed fights led by Tuareg and the Toubous in Niger and Mali since the early 1990s ended with negotiations under the aegis of France and countries in the sub-region. These negotiations resulted in peace agreements that provided for the nomads’ progressive recognition in government bodies. These agreements are being applied, yet the process is far from what we would consider satisfactory. The problems persist and have even become more complicated. For the moment, the battle continues on the political front to assist the democratic processes in our countries. History will tell us the rest.

The Ogoni people of Nigeria are faced with the same constraints in a country that counts thousands of nations and of peoples, each with its own identity. The Ogoni are a minority, a circumstance complicated even more by the richness of the subsoil of their lands. Their fight is still ongoing in a Nigeria that refuses to recognize the legitimate nature of their aspirations. Opposing them is the machine of the multinationals exploiting the oil in the Niger Delta and a government primarily run by people who are the accomplices of these multinationals in crushing the Ogoni without the world knowing.

Since the birth of the IPACC, our struggles have been better coordinated through sharing our experiences with our brothers and sisters on the continent. Indigenous peoples from South Africa, with the long history of their fight against apartheid, are very helpful to us. Moreover, our permanent secretariat, which received support in its beginnings from the South African San Institute, is located on the Cape of Good Hope. Thanks to the pleas and lobbying that we are conducting through IPACC, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted a charter for indigenous peoples in November 2003. That charter is now in the process of winning approval by the member states of the African Union who have signed the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The working group set up by the commission for this purpose, of which our experts are members, is crisscrossing the continent. Last February, they passed through Niger, where they met members of the government and civil society, as well as the president of the republic. We are crossing our fingers that this effort will result in improved respect for our rights.

However, this promising picture could become darkened if we are not careful. Indeed, the ambition of the United States of America is to position itself in the Saharan region, our ancestral domain. With the help of the Saharan countries that wish to eliminate us (Niger, Mali, Algeria, Libya and Mauritania), the United States is in the process of setting up a program to militarize our territories, which they say is intended to prevent terrorist threats. The real goal is control of this “empty” space in order to exploit its oil to make up for the loss of Persian Gulf oil, which is becoming increasingly problematic. The pretext invoked—Islamic terrorism—is unknown to us here. Our Sahara is of no interest to anti-American Islamic militants. They prefer their urban centers or the deserts of their own countries, which they defend against occupation. But that seems to make no difference to the United States. We fear that our Sahara may be the next Iraq. Should we let ourselves be brought down without reacting? No!

As for these coveted riches, we would like to share them respectfully with anyone who can exploit them. Why does the United States not approach us directly? Our people are open, but they are also fierce when they are trampled upon. Nobody will be able to take charge of the Sahara without the agreement of the Tuareg, the Toubous, and the Arabic-speaking populations who live there. May the United States hear this call.

Mohamed Ewanghaye is an activist scholar Tuareg and the West Africa regional representative for the executive committee of IPACC.

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