Paulin Mossoke, a young member of the indigenous Baka community in the Republic of Congo, had high expectations when he registered to vote during recent elections – instead he was left full of disappointment.
"The chiefs of the area asked us to vote for a specific candidate who they said was going to change our lives," he said. "We did not know these people as we have never seen them and they have never seen us."
Mossoke’s views were shared by Dominique Ekobe, another Baka living in the Dongou Tossangana area of northern Likouala region – a vast forest and lake area north of the capital, Brazzaville. "It is sad...when the time to vote comes, they use us to their own advantage," he said.
According to observers and local human rights activists, the Baka – a minority hunter-gatherer community, also known as ‘pygmies’ – were largely exploited during recent elections because they did not understand the voting process.
"Many of them did not know how to vote," said Maixent Hanimbat, an observer who was sent by the human rights watchdog Observatoire Congolais des Droits de l’Homme (OCDH) to Ngoua II in Niari region. "I saw one return two voting ballots. He wanted to throw everything in the ballot box."
Criticising civic education among the indigenous communities, Hanimbat added: "They were never prepared for these elections. When they were voting, they did not know what they were doing."
The elections, held on 24 June and 5 August, were won by President Denis Sassou Nguesso's Parti Congolais du Travail party by a landslide 124 of 135 seats.
The minister of land administration and decentralisation, François Ibovi, said: "While there were some problems in the first round of the elections that everybody regretted, the efforts of professionals and administrators in improving the electoral process have been laudable."
Some 40 opposition parties, however, denounced the polls, describing them as a joke, shambles and a scandal. African Union observers also said the polls were not well organised and called for an independent institution to be set up for future elections.
The Baka, who mainly live in the Congolese forests, are one of several groups of 'Pygmies', including the Bakola, Aka, Babongo, Bambuti and Batwa, who have often complained of being marginalised and shunned by other communities. The complaint is shared by human rights groups like OCDH, which say the communities suffer discrimination, exploitation and disrespect.
According to OCDH, a group of 20 Baka ‘pygmies’ from Likouala participating in a music festival were forced to share one tent in a zoo in Brazzaville and gather firewood for heating and cooking. Other groups at the festival stayed in hotels.
OCDH director Roger Owoko said the festival organisers "felt the zoo was closer to the ‘pygmies’ natural habitat".
|'Pygmy' children dancing in their village|
According to reports published by Owoko’s group and the Rainforest Foundation, a global organisation that supports people living in and around the world's rainforests, discrimination against indigenous communities in regions of Congo is a serious problem.
Some do not even have identity cards showing that they are citizens. They also suffer sexual violence and manipulation, limited access to modern justice – even though their traditional justice system is not legally recognised – and lack adequate clean water and education opportunities, reports said.
In July, OCDH called for the swift adoption of a law to guard against abuses suffered by indigenous peoples. The draft of the law, a first in Africa, was developed with input from OCDH and forest communities in partnership with the Rainforest Foundation.
"The adoption of this law will constitute an important step towards a solution to the indigenous people’s problems," said OCDH's Quentin Banga.
According to official statistics, about 700,000 indigenous people live in the central Africa region, mainly in the Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Cameroon and the Central African Republic.
In August, a national network to promote their interests was formed in Congo. The Réseau National des Peuples Autochtones du Congo (REPANAC) followed the first forum for Central Africa’s indigenous people, held earlier in 2007 in the city of Impfondo, 800 km north of Brazzaville.
Also see: Minorities Under Siege - Pygmies today in Africa