In-depth: Minorities Under Siege - Pygmies today in Africa
KENYA: Nyang’ori Ohenjo, Governance programme officer with Centre for Minority Rights and Development
Nyang’ori Ohenjo, governance programme officer with the Centre for Minority Rights and Development (CERIMIDE) in Nairobi, Kenya
NAIROBI, 3 April 2006 (IRIN) - The Centre for Minority Rights and Development (CERIMIDE) is an advocacy organization based in Kenya, devoted to strengthening the capacities of minority and indigenous communities in East Africa to secure the respect, promotion and protection of their rights.
Nyang’ori Ohenjo, the governance programme officer with the organization explained to IRIN how CERIMIDE helps minorities in East Africa.
QUESTION: How does CERIMIDE fight discrimination against minorities in Africa?
ANSWER: The main issue we deal with is the recognition of indigenous people’s rights in Africa. It’s quite a new issue, and it’s relatively more complex than similar indigenous issues elsewhere in the world – for instance, the recognition of aborigines’ rights in Australia.
It’s a question of definition. Some have made the case that no African can be called “indigenous”, as all Africans originated in Africa. After colonialism, the land returned to its original inhabitants. All communities have gone through the same kind of treatment at the hands of colonialists. That has been the basic argument by people who oppose the recognition of indigenous [African] peoples. But in the years after independence, some groups were left out of national development efforts. In Kenya, for instance, the focus was more on “unity” than on the recognition of some communities’ specificities. It was thought that the recognition of tribes or communities would spark tribal hatred, that it would be a good recipe for conflict.
Of course, that has been countered by publications such as the United Nations Development Programme development report of 2004 that focused on the recognition of cultures as a factor of development. This is what we are fighting for, because some communities have suffered from land alienation; their culture and livelihoods have been affected. This is essential to the future of communities whose natural resources have been taken over by governments under the pretext of benefiting the rest of the country. Most communities never saw the proceeds of such policies from the state.
For instance in Kenya, the government has been trying to come up with a policy for arid and semi-arid regions [in the northern parts of the country]. In the western regions, fisheries contribute heavily to gross domestic product. But the fishing communities are among the poorest. The province of Nyanza, for instance, experiences above 60 percent of poverty levels. Those communities cannot even benefit from their natural resource, as it is taken away and sold for export to bidders with whom the communities cannot compete. This cycle of poverty perpetuates underdevelopment.
Q: What strategy did CERIMIDE follow to obtain recognition of indigenous minorities’ rights?
A: From around 2001, we realised that there already was an indigenous movement in Africa. But then what became increasingly clear is that the indigenous movement focused on international organisations: the UN, the European Union, etc. Very little was done at the grassroots level to try and mobilise [African] governments to recognise indigenous peoples’ rights.
There was a lot of resistance on the part of governments. A lot of the advocacy focused largely on land rights and natural resources. When you look at constitutions across Africa, many state that natural resources belong to the government. As in Kenya today: The people have no right of exploitation, no right of benefiting from their natural resources. At the end of the day, achieving development will not necessarily mean owning these natural resources and using them exclusively for the benefit of the government.
Q: How did CERIMIDE proceed, in practice?
A: We targeted the media. We placed editorials. We held stakeholders reunions and invited the media. Because the reality is that very few Kenyans have any knowledge of human rights. There is this understanding that human rights are an individual’s privilege. That’s one thing we want to change. So we invited a number of journalists to workshops, seminars and training to push them to look at such things differently.
After that, we targeted politicians. We had a hard time raising the issue with politicians. We tried to get them to attend training and to lobby for indigenous rights, but given the kind of centralised political structure we have in Kenya, this has proven hard to achieve.
On a third level, we directly engaged development organisations, governments and policymakers. We tried getting our national politicians to attend summits held by international organisations, where they could learn a lot on indigenous peoples’ rights. We tried placing the issue within the larger context of development initiatives. A number of high-ranking government officials have attended meetings and workshops this way.
Q: Any specific examples?
A: An example is the workshop to discuss the Ogiek hunter-gatherer community in Kenya, organised with the UN Environmental Programme during the agency’s 2003 governing council [annual meeting], in Nairobi. We got the [Kenyan] lands minister to attend. For the first time, we got him on record agreeing that the hunter-gatherers are a specific group of people that needed special treatment. This has given way to consultations and discussions between the community and the government. [Note: Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki issued land-ownership titles to members of the Ogiek community in October 2005.]
Q: Has legislation been passed?
A: At the moment, there is still no legislation. All these efforts culminated in our participation to the constitutional review process [from 2002 to 2005 in Kenya]. We felt that these issues needed to be enshrined in the new constitution. The problem is that the entire resulting document was obliterated in the subsequent parliamentary process.
What we need is to strengthen the capacity of indigenous people to engage the government. We need to enforce affirmative action and recognise that some minorities have been marginalised. We must help them reach the level of development of other communities.