Do African Ethnic Groups Need Recognition?: Perspective of an American


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Africa has gone through the some of the harshest history with colonizers. In the 19th century, European countries invaded Africa and stayed on until World War II. Gradually, African states started gaining their independence (Cocker 314).

Although colonizers left, a more damaging effect started showing itself. There is the confusion in identity. White supremacy or the mere notion of its existence started showing itself. White Africans were the only ones favored and the Black Africans became a minority (West 6). The years of colony change a national discourse. White Africans were the only Africans accepted in the mainstream society. The people who so clearly occupied the Africa became a minority.

African became synonymous to the people belonging to indigenous ethnic groups found on Africa or, at the very least, people who are linked by blood to these ethnic groups. There are at least 3,000 distinct ethnic groups in Africa and they characterized, both by culture and physical attributes such as hair and skin. It is this same struggle that has inspired many of the ethnic tribes to call for equality. Several ethnic groups whose culture and lifestyles are marginalized and distinguished from the dominant economic, cultural and political structure of the state feel it is unfair that they be considered a minority when they were the original inhabitants of the land.

However, there is a grave disconnect between the understanding of what is indigenous peoples and what is not. The internationally accepted definition of Indigenous Peoples include any race or group that has their unique and established culture, language, and social systems or those that have connection to already recognized indigenous peoples. Africans can trace their origin to ethnic groups already existing in the land way before colonizers of any form or shape. This automatically makes the entire of Africa Indigenous Peoples.

 This is why the notion of African tribes being considered as indigenous peoples has gained both acceptance and criticism. The Tuareg of the Sahara and Sahel regions, for example, based their claim to indigenous status on their marginalization from the dominated sedentary agricultural peoples. If their claim is to be based on the formal definition of Indigenous Peoples, their claim is valid. However, that would also make all Africans Indigenous Peoples since all Africans can trace their origins to pre-colonial era.

The Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-coordinating Committee (IPACC), one of the main transnational network organizations recognized as African indigenous peoples’ representative, stated several identifications and characteristics in relation to indigenous claims in Africa:

  • Economic and political demotion caused by colonialism
  • Discrimination usually based on the governance of agricultural peoples in the state system, like lack of access to education and health care of herders and hunters
  • Some of the ethnic groups are physically different due body and facial modification required by their faith
  • The distinction of identity, culture, economy and territoriality that associates herding and hunting peoples to their home environments in forests and deserts.

IPACC, however, resists the very act of identifying who is or who is not indigenous because it believes that that identifying a certain group from others as indigenous is discriminatory itself because people in Africa should experience equality and respect. Some of Africa’s ethnic groups were found isolated from the system of the state and these groups should be recognized. It argues that the mere act of having to recognize anyone is not necessary in a society that truly promotes equality. Someone’s existence does not need to be affirmed by anyone else. It all needs be declared by the person or the race.

This issue about the indigenous status, rights and concerns is pursued by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR). They adapted the Report of the African Commission’s Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities that base their fight on the reality that particular groups are not enjoying the same opportunities and even social recognition as others because of their distinct culture, unique practice and physical isolation. The lack of understanding about their belief, practice, and social practice are motivating the people who is unfamiliar with such existence to consciously or unconsciously discriminate manifested in both obvious and non-obvious ways. The fight, therefore, is more a necessity to change the status quo, regardless of how unreasonable it may be.

Social recognition, political power, and influence have always been about the connection and ratio of money over people. It is partially true that money does not really care about the colour of the skin, meaning anyone who has money may get the power they so desire and become as powerful as their money will allow their hand to stretch, the way by which someone gets money is largely up to the people who will give access to money. People is the one that controls money. The decision they make on who may have access to money is dependent on their judgment (Niezen 193).

This is what makes the fight necessary. Whites are the ones that hold the power of capitalism. Hence, they are the mainstream and anyone that does not look or act the same is a minority. Africa, being a region filled with unique practices, becomes a region filled with minorities. The struggle to define people is based on this framework.


IPACC is correct in stating that the act of having to recognize who is indigenous or not may be the root of discrimination. As Richard Moore stated, “Slaves and dogs are named by their masters but free people name themselves.” A race does not need anyone’s affirmation to be considered African. Every African who declares themselves Africans must be afforded equal rights. The term indigenous is not necessary from this standpoint. It is unnecessary, useless, and to certain extent, evil.

The international definition may be a concept that is necessary to everyone else except the people who truly know who they are and where they belong. It may be a concept for everyone else outside of race. It may be necessary to those who don’t understand history, culture and reality but it serves no purpose to the people they are trying to identify.

No ethnic group in Africa should be called Indigenous Peoples. They are Africans. The fight should not be about identity but rights. Everyone should have the same opportunity, same recognition regardless of the colour of their skin.

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Cocker, Mark. Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold: Europe’s Conquest of Indigenous Peoples. New York: Grove Press, 1998. Print

Niezen, Ronald. The Origins of Indigenism: Human Rights and the Politics of Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Sanders, Douglas. The UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations, 11 Hum. Rights Q. Geneva: United Nations, 1989.

West, Cornel. Prophesy Deliverance: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1982.


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