Losing Ground: Indigenous Rights and Recourse Across Africa


This issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly presents a series of framed images from across the African continent, of indigenous communities caught in the throes of conflict, being displaced from their homes, and losing their land. In his article on the Nuba of the Sudan, Mohamed Salih points out that Nuba share at least two predicaments with indigenous peoples the world-over, "the systematic appropriation of their land" and "the denial of their human rights," often through political persecution, ethnocide, and genocide. As witnesses from distant and sheltered homes, we cannot and should not ignore the realities of dispossession and violence. At the same time, we should not retreat to the pessimism expressed by such detached commentators as Robert Kaplan, who see African calamity as inevitable. The cases reported here provide sufficient political and historical context for us to better grasp the causes of and thus the potential solutions for the dislocation afflicting many indigenous peoples in Africa.

While speaking specifically of indigenous communities and their special vulnerability to dispossession and violence, we recognize that the rights of the San from Botswana, Maasai from Kenya, Nuba from Sudan, and Karamojong' from Uganda, do not stem from their being more or less aboriginal than their neighbors. Rather, following the ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, we recognize that it is critical that certain communities retain "their traditional languages, institutions, and lifestyles which distinguish them from the dominant society." We concentrate on dispossession because indigenous peoples' relationship to territory is often of special importance. Accordingly, the ILO Convention states that "the rights of ownership and possession of the peoples concerned over the lands which they traditionally occupy shall be recognized," and rights to "use lands not exclusively occupied by them, but to which they have traditionally had access" shall be safeguarded. In most cases we consider, however, land rights do not just depend on a community claiming "indigeneity," their claims may also rest on long residence and customary tenure.

People in Africa are being `uprooted' and displaced by warfare and local forms of conflict and through systematic and often legal dispossession stemming from land reform, privatization, or annexation of land by the state, often for development purposes. Why widespread displacement is occurring at this time is a question of central importance: opposite perspectives suggest either that displacement occurs from "the ground up," as local communities clash, or "from the top down," as an outcome of larger political upheavals and conflict. For the terrible Rwandan genocide of 1994, Newbury asks whether it resulted from ground level population and land pressure, and concludes that these factors -- though present -- could not have incited people to genocide in the absence of planning at the level of the state and a crisis of international proportions. The search for causes links what happens on the ground to national, regional, and international factors.

In recent years, world attention has focused on conflict and famine in the Horn of Africa and the West African Sahel, on the civil war in the southern Sudan, and on the genocide in the Great Lakes region and its subsequent spill-over into Zaire (now Republic of the Congo). Each episode must be told in its own way and understanding of each must be grounded in the unique configuration of climatic, historical, and political conditions that characterizes it; Somalia is not Rwanda, and neither is the Sudan or Senegal. But similarities between areas that Robert Kaplan, not without reason, considers "less as countries than as crisis regions" do exist beyond his self-evident, but inadequate evocations of overpopulation, land pressure, and tribal conflict.

As Newbury recounts, planning for genocide was built on pre-existing ethnic tensions, but was precipitated by Hutu insecurity following invasion of former refugees from Uganda, the onset of civil war, and the unstable local economy and ruling regime (due to international pressure and structural adjustment reforms). To the tragedy of genocide against the Tutsi and the flight and dispersal of Hutu refugees in eastern Congo and western Tanzania, we must add the little-noticed but widespread killing of indigenous Twa pygmies, fatally associated with the Tutsi in Rwanda.

In the Senegal River valley, long-term racial tensions between `white' Moors and `black' Senegalese (Fulbe, Soninke, Wolof) were long managed through strategies of co-residence along the border between Mauri-tania and Senegal. Aziz points to the region's destabilization through uncertainties over the border and the displacement of local farmers and agropastoralists when `traditional' land tenure was abolished and outsiders were brought in to benefit from new irrigation works. In the Sudan, the progressive displacement of Nuba from their land by a combination of Islamic Baggara cattle pastoralists and Jellaba Arabs, most recently as the result of a jihad in 1990, is in part, an extension of the Sudanese civil war. But it also represents a process of "internal colonization" -- to use Salih's term -- by Sudan's Arabicspeaking central government, of remote, largely non-Islamic indigenous peoples of the country, threatened with dispossession and even enslavement. Regional conflict has long characterized the four-corner borderland region where Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Sudan meet, in part due to nature of frontiers and the remoteness of the region from the national concentration in each of the four capitals. Karamojong' pastoralists, however, have also suffered from a reduction in their land base by both colonial and post-colonial governments and from the release of modern weaponry into the area (partly as a result of the Sudan civil war).

Borders are often placed in dry, remote regions, distant from sites of productive agriculture, trade, and more dense populations. Thus it is not surprising that -- like mountains -- borderlands are often inhabited by indigenous communities, such as the Karamojong', that are culturally and politically marginalized, and rely on the land. In the four corners region, frontiers represent one factor stimulating conflict, but elsewhere conflict arises over the border itself, which may transect a single integrated region or productive zone through which communities do, and must, move through freely Such is the case of the border represented by the Senegal River between Mauritania and Senegal since farmers tend to use both banks of a fertile river valley and fishers use both sides the entire river. The arid pastures of the Ogaden represent a similarly continuous ecological zone exploited by Somali herders who, from the time of Menelik I (Ethiopian Emperor of the end of the 19th century), did not recognize the Emperial and later colonial boundaries subdividing Somali territory. The war over the Somali-Ethiopia border (in the late 1970s) stimulated a flight of ethnic Somali refugees from southeastern Ethiopia into the neighboring region of Somalia and later to nearby Djibouti. Zarowsky describes how, upon their return, they found that their land had been taken by the then-government of Ethiopia, the Derg. It is not unusual for the land rights of a minority group in one country, divided by a border from members of the same community, to be threatened with displacement on the grounds that they do not `belong' there. Here, when indigenous ethnicity and national identity clash, the question of land is often used as a lever to dislodge a minority community

Rwanda, Sudan, Senegal, Uganda, and Somali-Ethiopia represent five cases in which local conflict and warfare, often manifested locally, but engendered more globally, result in displacing indigenous communities. These communities may be the object of conflicts that threaten their security or may get caught in the crossfire, since "grass is trampled when the elephants fight," to use a widespread African proverb. Displacement may result from, or result in conflict. But generally, uprooting indigenous communities is more pacific, resulting from a sort of `legal dispossession' perpetrated by the state, that strips land from communities and they are `relocated,' `resettied,' or simply `replaced.'

In Africa, privatizing rural lands has been justified as a strategy to achieve development through increased security of tenure. Land titles are either allocated to rightful occupants who, due to poverty, often sell ancestral territory, or to those deemed able to make best use of the land, which is rarely the local inhabitant. Either way, indigenous peoples rarely benefit from land reform; indeed, it may represent a systematic strategy of dispossession; title deeds, after all, are not necessary to hold, but only to transfer land; not to retain, but to dispose of land.

In both Kenya and Botswana, at Independence in the 1960s, comprehensive tenure reform for arid lands was initiated, with large-scale `group ranches' (in Kenya) or `tribal grazing lands' (TGLP in Botswana) being created as landholding units for dryland communities. But side-by-side, individual and commercial ranches were also established which gave tenure security to the richer and more influential members of the communities. In the Botswana case, presented here by Hitchcock, foraging communities like the San, the G//ana, and the Nharo were often omitted from tribal land registers. In Kenya, the question of who should be included on group registers often initiated acrimonious debates over residence and identity, and gave inordinate power to a few over the land rights of many. In both cases, privatization initiated a process of slow displacement which is only now coming to a head, as collective holdings are subdivided, often to the loss of the poorer and less powerful in local communities. During Zimbabwe's extended colonial period, rights over the most fertile land was allocated to white settlers, and today, decades after Independence, most African farmers occupy "communal lands." As Rutherford and Worby report, the debate continues over transferring a proportion of Zimbabwe's land from white commercial farmers to African ownership, and whether transfers will be made to small-scale, poorer or even landless farmers or to members of the emergent African bourgeoisie. In Senegal, abolishing traditional forms of tenure undermined local stake holders, setting the stage for the recent explosion of conflict. And, as Lobulu and Tenga report in Tanzania, the land rights of local peasants and pastoralists, already undermined through the Villagization Program initiated by the government during its socialist phase, continue to be ignored by a government that unilaterally makes grants of local land to foreign companies, externally funded developmental projects, and rich individuals without consulting local stake holders.

These cases demonstrate the inherent dangers for indigenous communities of land registration and privatization, since the outcome of tenure reform is often to loosen, not strengthen local land ties by vitiating local rights of occupancy and use. However, land held under customary rights is also vulnerable to more direct appropriation by the state, often acting as ultimate conservator of the nation's soil. The case described by Lobulu about Tanzania also holds for numerous countries in Africa -- the president holds radical title to the nation's land. Seldom is intensively cultivated land taken, but land used more extensively -- for foraging, hunting, or grazing by indigenous peoples -- is ripe for the taking although many depend for its resources for their livelihoods.

In many cases, land is taken from local communities to create National Parks, Forests, or Game Reserves, often with the encouragement, support, or even insistence of international environmental and conservation bodies. In the name of wildlife or environmental protection, the state all too often removes the very communities which serve, monitor, and manage local resources, and in so doing, accepts a bureaucratic responsibility it is unable to fulfill. At the same time, the relationship between local people and their resources is transformed from one of active utilization and conservation, to one of conflict of interest. Muhereza mentions the expulsion of Karamojong' from the Kidepo National Park when it was created in 1958, and those familiar with Colin Turnbull's book, The Mountain People, know that the extreme poverty of the Ik was greatly exacerbated when they were prohibited from using the resources of the Kidepo Valley. Maasai land use has been dramatically constricted by their relocation out of Amboseli National Park and Maasai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya, and from the Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro National Preserve in Tanzania. The pattern of trying to separate livestock and wildlife herds that have co-existed for millennia continues; for instance, Tenga describes the outcome of the legal case concerned with Maasai and Paraguyu herders' illegal expulsion from the Mkomazi Game Reserve in northern Tanzania. Hitchcock recounts here how the Central Kalahari Game Reserve was created in Botswana specifically to preserve necessary habitat for the use of local hunters and foragers, but that today they are being relocated out of the reserve in favor of wildlife preservation, tourism, and mining.

Frequently, rather than local residents receiving the benefits of agrarian development, they are moved off of land earmarked for international development. In the Senegal River valley, the development of hydroelectric power and irrigated rice farming dispossessed valley farmers and herders. A similar pattern occurred in the Sudan when Jellaba and Baggara, rather than Nuba, were allocated land dedicated to large-scale irrigation in the Nuba Hills. And in Tanzania, a Canadian-funded and managed wheat scheme involved the expropriation of rich land in Hanang District without compensation and at the expense of the Barabaig land rights. Furthermore, Amnesty International recently reported that over 50 small-scale gold miners, out of thousands active in Shinyanga District, were killed when a Canadian mining company took control of mineral rich land it had been allocated by the Tanzanian government.

What recourse do indigenous peoples have in the face of displacement and dispossession, directly through force or indirectly initiated through land reform? One avenue is the courts. Local residents often retain customary title, or at least a residue of traditional land rights, which have some force in law if they are not systematically extinguished. Although indigenous rights have their place within the framework of national and international law, they have often been ignored in actual court process, as Lobulu describes for Tanzania and Ole Munei and I do for Kenya. When court processes are carefully scrutinized, from local, national, and international perspectives, more transparent results are likely to be the outcome. Hitchcock calls for reducing conflicts in the interests of local communities through the establishment of community-based natural resource management programs where decisions, responsibility, and benefits are returned back to the people who hold, use, and conserve these resources. Other non-governmental bodies have been established locally to carry out education in indigenous communities about the nature of rights held in land and resource and the forms of recourse that can be pursued to protect those rights. In both Kenya and Tanzania, Pastoral Indigenous Non-Governmental Organizations or PINGOs have been formed, sometimes in association with international donors, serving both as educators and advocates regarding local land rights. For the Karamoja, Muhereza describes how institutional strategies of peace-making are evolving, seeking means of mediating with neighboring communities over resource conflicts and outbreaks of violence.

Indigenous peoples in Africa, in many respects, bear the brunt of population growth and land pressure elsewhere because as politically marginal minority populations, they are less able to defend their land from encroachment or seizure. But it is often governments, in their various guises, that smother local communities with land reforms that strip them of land rights, expropriate their land for the national good, and view them as obstacles to rather than agents of their own development. Contrary to Kaplan, we suggest that the crisis of dispossession does not so much rise up from the ground in response to local pressure, as flow downward from inappropriate land reform programs, from development projects which exclude the local residents, from land appropriation by the state, from competition over community resources, and from international theorists who, for many good reasons, implement policies often unacceptable in their own countries, that dramatically alter economic conditions in the African countryside. Africa's communities are not without means of recourse, however, including law and public opinion. And one of their most important assets is the interest and engagement of a world that is informed, and that cares.

Further Reading

Allen, T., ed. 1996. In Search of Cool Ground: War, Flight & Homecoming in Northeast Africa. Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, London: James Currey, Athens: Ohio University Press.

Berry, Sara. 1993. No Condition of Permanent: The Social Dynamics of Agrarian Change in Sub-Saharan Africa, Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

Fratkin, E., K. Galvin, and E. Roth, eds. 1994. African Pastoralist Systems: An Integrated Approach. Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Fukui, K and J. Markakis, ed. 1994. Ethnicity and Conflict in the Horn of Africa. London: James Currey, Athens: Ohio University Press.

Galaty, J., A. Hjort af Ornas, C. Lane, and D. Ndagala, eds. 1994. "The Pastoral Land Crisis: Tenure and Dispossession in Eastern Africa." Special Issue of Nomadic Peoples. 34/35.

Johnson, D., and D. Anderson, eds. 1988. The Ecology of Survival: Case Studies from Northeast African History, London: Lester Crook Academic Publishing, Boulder: Westview Press.

Juma, C. and J. B. Ojwang, eds. 1995. In Land We Trust: Environment, Private Property and Constitutional Change. Nairobi: Initiatives Publishers, London: Zed Books.

Kaplan, Robert. "Into the Bloody New World," Washington Post, April 17, 1994, pp. C1-C2.

Kurimoto, Eisei, and Simon Simonse, eds. 1998. Conflict, Agen and Power in North East Africa. Oxford: James Currey, Nairobi: EAEP Publishers, Athens: Ohio University Press.

Lane, Charles. 1996. Pastures Lost: Barbaig Economy, Resource Tenure, and the Alienation of their Land in Tanzania. Nairobi: Initiatives Publishers.

Mamdani, M. 1996. Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, Kampala: Fountain Publishers, Cape Town: David Philip, London: James Currey.

Tomei, M., and L. Swepston. 1996. Indigenous and Tribal Peoples: A Guide to ILO Convention No. 169, Geneva: International Labour Office, Montreal: International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development.

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