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49 African indigenous citizenship • Noah Tamarkin and Rachel F. Giraudo
Noah Tamarkin and Rachel F. Giraudo
through activist networks, regional governing bodies, and the United Nations (UN). The UN
and many national governments do not explicitly define ‘indigenous peoples’, choosing instead,
in the case of the UN, to define indigenous rights, which are then potentially claimable by
self-defined indigenous peoples, or in the case of most nation-states, to refrain from any legal
definition of indigenous peoples or indigenous rights. In this way, self-definition as indigenous continually reshapes the contours of the category, but it does so within the parameters
of established ideas of what it means to be indigenous. These established ideas derive from the
meaning of the word itself – native to, or originating in, a place – and also from social movements, such as the American Indian Movement, from established histories of participation in
the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) and its precedent Working Group,
and from other UN documents that have, in fact, set out some parameters of the characteristics of indigenous peoples. For example, while the 1989 International Labour Organization
(ILO) Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention 169 adopts a principle of self-definition to
determine who is indigenous, it also provides guidelines suggesting that indigenous peoples are
tribal peoples, descended from precolonial populations, who retain distinct cultural and political
institutions (Hodgson 2002). In a testament to the ongoing power of these specific ideas of what
defines indigenous peoples, opponents of granting indigenous status to those African peoples
who claim it often note that postcolonial Africa in general meets these guidelines and so cannot
accommodate marking some Africans as more indigenous than others. African contexts are thus
particularly instructive for an analysis of indigenous citizenship.
Some scholars have emphasized that frameworks of indigeneity that emerged in the Americas
and Australia translate awkwardly to Asian and African contexts because of different histories of
settler colonialism and different political dynamics of multi-ethnic states (Hodgson 2002; Igoe
2006; Li 2000). In African contexts in particular, historical and ongoing migrations have troubled
the place-specific time depth often assumed and required of indigenous peoples in juridical contexts. For example, some groups which consider themselves to be indigenous peoples historically
migrated across large distances as pastoralists or foragers, or are recent arrivals to their current
places of residence (Geschiere 2009; Hodgson 2002; Ndahinda 2011). These African differences
have reshaped transnational discourses of indigeneity even while some have argued that they also
render ‘indigenous’ inappropriate or untranslatable for Africa.
Indigenous citizenship implies two distinct, contradictory meanings in African contexts:
indigenous peoples and indigenous practices. On the one hand, identification as indigenous
has been used by or on behalf of specific African peoples – often, but not always, those who
were historically hunter-gatherers or pastoralists, and often, but not always, those who have
faced the most discrimination and marginalization – in a way that emphasizes their specific
marginalization and sets them apart from the larger population of descendants of precolonial
peoples. On the other hand, it has also been used to refer to cultural practices and traditions of
this larger population in a way that differentiates them from European settler colonists and their
white descendants. Indigenous in the latter sense has had different meanings in colonial versus
postcolonial contexts. Colonial designations of all Africans as ‘indigenous’ fixed and divided
historically flexible tribal groupings while imposing on Africans a powerful discourse of primitivity (Nyamnjoh 2007). Postcolonial invocations of practices and forms of knowledge such as
traditional medicine, ancestor worship, and chieftaincy as ‘indigenous’ retain the idea that all
Africans are indigenous while reframing indigeneity as a source of strength and cultural value.
The ambiguity between indigenous peoples and indigenous practices becomes most contentious in the contradictory claims to indigeneity by postcolonial African states and by specific
minorities within them. Postcolonial governments engaged in nationalist projects invoke undifferentiated, state-wide indigeneity for the descendants of precolonial Africans, denying that
African indigenous citizenship
some groups should be considered more indigenous than others. Meanwhile, peoples seeking
indigenous rights both within and beyond state boundaries argue that their specific marginalization can and should be redressed through a framework of indigeneity that differentiates among
postcolonial African citizens. The stakes of African indigeneity are varied and include material,
cultural, and symbolic resources such as land, minerals, water, intellectual property, heritage,
and human remains. But it is the interplay between cultural difference and cultural belonging
that makes both the claims of states and the claims of peoples within them legible as specifically
The cultural politics of emerging indigenous claims have been echoed by scholarly analyses
of the concept of indigeneity. The study of global indigeneities, or global indigenism, has begun
to trace the emergence of varied indigenous identities around the world and the rights and
recognitions sought in its name (Niezen 2003). Concepts like ‘indigenous rights’, ‘indigenous
sovereignty’, and ‘indigenous recognition’ describe the kinds of political claims made by and
for people who see themselves or are seen as indigenous and the means through which such
claims have been made (Barker 2011; Cattelino 2008; Kauanui 2008; Li 2000; Povinelli 2002).
Debates within Africanist anthropology about the analytic use of ‘indigeneity’ have emphasized,
on the one hand, the potential of the concept to reinscribe pejorative concepts of primitivity
on already marginalized people and, on the other hand, the utility for those same people of the
concept of ‘indigeneity’ as a political signifier (Barnard 2006; Kuper 2003). As more and more
African groups have taken on the language of indigeneity and the politics of indigenous recognition, these debates have shifted from the relative merits of indigeneity as an analytic concept
to instead accounting for and analysing the circumstances and implications of emerging African
indigenous identities and organizations.
In what follows, we examine transnational, national, and cultural politics of differentiation
and belonging at play in African indigenous citizenship as a way to emphasize the dynamic,
contingent, and emergent politics of indigeneity. By considering various African indigeneities,
we reframe who and what is meant by ‘indigenous citizens’. We argue that African indigeneities
require and enable redefinitions of how citizenship articulates with the idea of indigeneity in
transnational and state contexts. When a range of examples of African indigeneity are viewed
through the lens of citizenship – transnational, national, and cultural – the picture that emerges
demonstrates both gaps and overlaps among these citizenship formations, a testament to the
dynamism of the practice of citizenship by those who seek its redefinition.
Transnational translations: claiming indigenous citizenship
across national borders
In the context of indigeneity, transnational citizenship has two distinct meanings. First, transnational
citizenship enables analysis of the citizenship dilemmas that face indigenous peoples who span
national borders. Second, transnational citizenship is a way to account for the claims to rights,
recognition, and belonging that are made via participation in the UN and other international
and regional forums. These claims are sometimes made to register or establish commonality or
solidarity with indigenous struggles elsewhere; they also often serve as a way to leverage better
treatment, social or cultural rights, correctives to historic loss of land and resources, and access
to ongoing threats to livelihoods within specific states. In this section, we trace both meanings of
transnational citizenship – peoples who span borders and claims made in international arenas –
through east African Maasai and southern African San indigeneities. We further emphasize the
significance of international claims by considering three indigenous organizations that operate
at different scales: the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWIGA), the Working
Noah Tamarkin and Rachel F. Giraudo
Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA), and the Indigenous Peoples of
Africa Co-ordinating Committee (IPACC).
Since the 1970s, ‘indigenous’ has become increasingly meaningful as a political identity with
transnational implications. It gained traction worldwide through the efforts of indigenous activists
who sought new avenues to gain rights, recognition, and sovereignty, as well as through the work
of anthropologists and human rights activists on behalf of indigenous peoples. From the 1980s and
increasingly in the 1990s, indigeneity began to take off in African contexts through linkages with
established indigenous movements elsewhere. Maasai activists are often cited as important actors
in this process: they are credited with establishing transnational links, popularizing ideas that the
marginality of particular Africans could be addressed through the language of indigeneity, and
claiming indigenous recognition via UN participation. For example, the first African to address
the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations as an indigenous representative in 1989 was
Maasai activist and former Tanzanian Parliamentarian, Moringe ole Parkipuny (Hodgson 2009).
Indigenous rights frameworks resonated with Parkipuny and other Maasai in Tanzania and
Kenya, as well as other pastoralist and agro-pastoralist peoples, and they, in turn, redefined
‘indigeneity’ on the basis of their concerns. Through their specific histories of land loss and
marginalization and continued threats to pastoralism as a viable livelihood, they realized that
their structural positions vis-à-vis their respective states had much in common with those of
indigenous peoples elsewhere (Hodgson 2009). Their success at obtaining indigenous recognition transnationally was in part because Maasai indigeneity resonated with NGOs focused on
indigenous rights and development. The rise of Maasai indigeneity in the 1990s and 2000s
could be charted by the exponential increase of NGOs devoted to, and in many cases founded
by, Maasai and other pastoralist peoples under the sign of indigeneity (Hodgson 2011). These
were coordinated, often contentiously, within an umbrella group called Pastoralist Indigenous
Non-Governmental Organizations (PINGOs) Forum, which in turn was part of the IPACC
network, which we will introduce below.
The San1 (Bushmen) of southern Africa have also played an important role in redefining
indigeneity through their own activism and as a result of international and regional activism on
their behalf. Like the Maasai, the San are not restricted to one national boundary: they inhabit
areas of modern-day Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Angola, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. San
indigeneity emerged from a confluence of historical oppression and interventions by NGOs and
others for whom the San resonated as ‘indigenous’. San peoples’ ability to maintain their traditional foraging livelihoods and many other aspects of their traditional cultures have, to a great
extent, been eradicated by various colonial regimes along with postcolonial nation-building: the
degradation of the environment that was historically their source of survival, their loss of access
to the land, water, and wildlife that remain, and their loss of human and cultural rights together
are considered by some as a cultural genocide (Hitchcock and Babchuck 2011). Although this
was initiated by non-San academics, activists, and NGO workers, San activists are increasingly
organizing more collectively to petition their respective states and the international community
on their own behalf. For example, in 2012 a San Caucus read a historic statement at the 11th
Session of the UNPFII denouncing the doctrine of discovery and calling for southern African
governments to recognize their right to their lands and livelihoods (San Caucus from Southern
As Maasai and San indigeneities emerged, discursive and material colonial legacies converged.
Colonial characterizations of the Maasai as noble savages and the San as nomadic foragers –
both ‘primitive’ – found new life in the characterization of some NGOs focused on preserving
indigenous traditions: here, Maasai became synonymous with the image of warrior pastoralists untouched by modernity (Hodgson 2011) and the San as the epitome of the ‘pristine’
African indigenous citizenship
hunter-gatherer now facing the threat of cultural extinction (Sylvain 2002). These stereotypes
that position the Maasai, the San, and others as outside of modernity also, by extension, render
them illegible as actors in their own right seeking the rights and recognitions of modern citizenship. To understand the Maasai and the San as engaged in the pursuit of citizenship, another
reading of their predicaments is necessary: colonial policies resulted in massive loss of land (and
cattle for the Maasai), and the new postcolonial states emphasized development and in some
cases assimilation to the detriment of Maasai and San practices of land use, livelihoods, and
cultural identities. As Maasai and San activists have sought restitution for loss of land and livelihoods at the UN and through regional networks and NGOs, they have also redefined, through
‘indigeneity’, their relationship to citizenship.
The UNPFII and the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)
are significant as, respectively, spaces for, and manifestations of, transnational African indigenous citizenship. The UNPFII was formed in 2000 – in the midst of the first UN-proclaimed
International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (1995–2004) – as an advisory body to
the UN Economic and Social Council. Each year since 2002, the UNPFII has hosted a two-week
session at the UN Headquarters in New York City. Africa is represented as a regional grouping:
government and indigenous delegates from Africa are nominated and elected by the UNPFII
council. The UNPFII therefore provides an especially important platform for indigenous peoples
in Africa, as non-state actors, to represent themselves to the international community. For indigenous delegates, this forum provides a formal representation in a transnational governing body
that in some cases exceeds their rights to representation within national arenas.
The adoption of the UNDRIP in 2007 now provides a global point of reference for activists and governments in addressing how to protect the rights of indigenous peoples. It was made
possible, in large part, because of the outlet that the UNPFII provided. It is important to remember three things about the UNDRIP. First, it was the result of a long process of advocacy and
negotiation among representatives of different self-defined indigenous peoples with different
histories, different struggles, and different priorities. Second, and this is related to the first point,
the Declaration does not actually define who is or is not ‘indigenous’ – arguably an outcome
of the involvement of various African indigenous peoples who did not fit earlier UN definitions, as well as the involvement of delegates from African governments who refused to vote in
favour of a Declaration that would impose and limit definitions of indigenous peoples. Third, the
Declaration is non-binding, so there are no ramifications for states whose policies and practices
violate those terms and expectations. We focus on African states in the next section; for now, it
is the first point that we want to emphasize. It is particularly important to consider how Maasai
indigeneity reshaped the global meaning of the concept. Whereas ‘indigenous peoples’ had in the
past been synonymous with ‘first peoples’, a concept which resonated especially well with San
history, Maasai histories of relatively recent migration, their cultural histories of differentiation
from other Africans on the basis of cattle ownership, and their emphases on threats to pastoralism
introduced livelihoods as a primary marker of indigeneity (Hodgson 2011).
Transnational citizenship finds expression not just through the UN, but also more locally
through cross-border connections and organizations. Different colonial and postcolonial histories can present challenges for indigenous activists who share an identity as a specific indigenous
people, but who are subject to different laws and policies as citizens of different states. For
example, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa, where the majority of San peoples live today, all
enacted cultural and racial persecution of the San throughout colonial and white rule. However,
in Namibia and South Africa, white rule only ended in the 1990s with Namibia’s independence
from South Africa and the end of apartheid, while Botswana ceased to be a British protectorate
and achieved independence in 1966. From the 1960s to the early twenty-first century, Botswana
Noah Tamarkin and Rachel F. Giraudo
has pursued assimilation policies, while post-apartheid Namibia and South Africa have embraced
multiculturalism. Additionally, while Botswana – more so than other states – rejects the idea
that the San are ‘first peoples’, Namibia and South Africa acknowledge San claims to that status.
Transnational networks, including a number of NGOs, human rights groups, and other sectors
of civil society, both emerge from and address these differences.
These transnational networks are able to mobilize indigenous issues both within Africa and
globally, all the more so when they are able to work with the UN. It is within and through these
transnational networks that various indigenous groups on the continent have gained more support in articulating their claims to rights and recognition. We highlight here a few indigenous
networks working with African indigenous peoples to demonstrate the range of actors, scopes,
and scales of the African indigenism movement. These diverse networks and organizations make
possible a multiplicity of understandings of ‘indigenous’, and they have been effective mechanisms through which indigenous peoples have achieved political and social rights.
Although African indigenous activists are increasingly central to drawing attention to their
struggles and advocating for their rights, non-indigenous actors have also greatly contributed to
the overall indigenism movement in Africa. IWIGA is an international human rights organization started by a group of anthropologists in 1968 that works with indigenous peoples around
the world on human rights issues. IWIGA publishes annual reports on the status of indigenous issues around the world, incorporating current research on these matters. Working in
Africa since the mid-1990s, IWIGA has specifically worked on indigenous issues in Botswana,
Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Burundi. IWIGA is longer established and
has a wider scope than regional networks in Africa. This enables the organization to increase
international attention on African indigenous issues and to lobby for indigenous rights on behalf
of those who seek recognition as indigenous peoples.
In 1996, around the time that IWIGA began working in Africa, WIMSA was established to
advocate and lobby on behalf of San human rights. WIMSA grew out of the wider need for San
advocacy, following the development of the Kuru Development Trust (a community development organization working on behalf of the San) and other San NGOs and organizations in
Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. It enables transnational, yet sub-regional organizing by
and for San peoples spread across national boundaries to establish a more collective voice with
national governments in the region and with international organizations and other transnational
Around this time, many other regional networks like WIMSA formed throughout Africa to
advocate for local indigenous peoples and issues. In 1997, IPACC began as a multilateral network that could amplify local claims and concerns. IPACC coordinates about 150 organizations
representing indigenous peoples in Africa. It has a strong presence in various UN councils and
programmes, as well as the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Its goals are to
promote the recognition of indigenous peoples, participation by indigenous peoples in the UN
and other international forums, and to strengthen the organizational capacity of indigenous networks. IPACC has regional representation throughout the continent, working with regional and
local NGOs to help facilitate their ability to engage the state and broader indigenous networks.
For example, IPACC also works closely with both WIMSA and the PINGOs Forum.
The networks described above demonstrate the breadth of indigenous networks working
within and beyond Africa, from the regionally based networks working alongside local and
national NGOs and other organizations to the global capacity of academic advocates who participate in lobbying on behalf of indigenous peoples’ rights and disseminating information and
updates about ongoing indigenous issues. Through their ever-changing, lateral nature, these
networks have enabled state-specific organizations, activists, and advocates to pursue rights and
African indigenous citizenship
recognitions in a transnational space, which has been especially significant when indigenous
claims are understood as in opposition to the states from which they emerge.
States, sovereignty, and autochthony: claiming and challenging
While the idea of indigeneity has increasingly resonated for minorities within African states, many
African states have rejected these claims, arguing instead that all citizens are equally indigenous
or that the category itself is inappropriate for African contexts. At stake are colonial legacies,
postcolonial projects of nation-building, and related concerns about postcolonial African sovereignty (Ndahinda 2011). Colonial legacies prompt state actors and scholars alike to resist notions
of indigeneity in Africa: European colonialism imposed racial hierarchies through which African
ethnicities were delineated in order to subjugate Africans (Mamdani 1996, 2002). The idea that
one ethnic group can be more ‘indigenous’ than another is therefore held in suspicion and contempt as an extension of colonial logics of domination. Furthermore, state actors in particular
view the indigenous claims of minorities as a way to further suppress the legitimacy, and therefore
the sovereignty, of new African states. Because of the multivalency of meanings of indigeneity,
there are misunderstandings between parties identifying as ‘indigenous’, parties being identified
as ‘indigenous’ by outsiders, and governments claiming ‘indigenous’ state sovereignty. These
multiple discursive frames are why there is sometimes difficulty in gaining traction in Africa to
support the ‘indigenous rights’ of some ethnic groups who are often the most marginalized by the
states that in turn claim to be ‘indigenous’.
This is the case in the southern African country of Botswana, home to more than 50,000
San, the most in the region. The San are widely considered the ‘first peoples’ of southern
Africa, in large part as a result of archaeological, anthropological, linguistic, and genetic research.
Archaeologists and linguists estimate that Bantu speakers migrated southward about 1,500–2,000
years ago, whereas the San have resided in the region for many millennia. With a population of
approximately 2,000,000, Botswana is held up as a model of African democracy for its government’s transparency and consistent economic development since independence in 1966. One
major blemish on Botswana’s record, though, is its refusal to address concerns about the marginalization of the San. The government scoffs at the notion that the San are more ‘indigenous’
than the Tswana, the ethnic elite, or other Bantu speakers, and argues that all of its citizens are
‘indigenous’ (Saugestad 2001). This position on citizenry being equivalent to indigeneity stems
from the end of the protectorate era when the country’s first president, Seretse Khama, promoted
the ideal that individuals in Botswana identify themselves first as citizens and not as members of
ethnic tribes. However, the cultural hegemony of the Tswana that then permeated the new state
made possible the continued subjugation of the San (Giraudo forthcoming).
The government policies that negatively impact the San in Botswana include the constitution
that legally recognizes only Tswana tribes (and, until recently, only Tswana tribal leaders) and
divides the country’s territory between the eight Tswana tribes, which is then governed by tribal
land boards. The land tenure systems of the San were not acknowledged by the government,
which resulted in the San losing their traditional land. The government’s promotion of cattle
rearing and wildlife conservation further contributed to the loss of access to land by the San. In
its defence, the government argues that the San are ‘primitive’ and require state supervision for
their well-being in ‘developing’ and more fully assimilating as Batswana (citizens of Botswana)
(Giraudo forthcoming). Without access to land and because of restrictions on practising their
traditional foraging livelihoods, the San are dependent on government handouts through social
programmes, such as the Remote Area Dweller Programme (RADP).
Noah Tamarkin and Rachel F. Giraudo
Interestingly, the government of Botswana voted in favour of the UNDRIP in 2007, although
they did so only after the Declaration was revised to eliminate the possibility that external definitions of ‘indigenous’ could be imposed by outsiders (Moemedi 2007). Their stance at the UN
leaves intact their use of ‘indigenous’ to mark a generalized African postcolonial citizenship.
Nevertheless, international human rights groups, regional minority rights groups, and NGOs
have continued to work to validate the San’s specific differentiated indigeneity claims.
The multiple meanings of indigeneity in Botswana provide an example of why ‘indigeneity’
resonates for marginalized African minorities, and why African states have misgivings about
new politics and discourses of difference and recognition. The San consider themselves to be
‘indigenous’ to the area that is present-day Botswana because of their longevity in the region
and their encapsulation first by pre-state Tswana polities in the nineteenth century and now by
the postcolonial Botswana state. Their ongoing marginalization is why outsiders also recognize
the San as ‘indigenous peoples’. But for Botswana, at stake is state sovereignty, in the sense of the
state’s right to define indigeneity within its own borders. This position is a relational framing
between African states vis-à-vis Western sociopolitical and economic hegemony.
The revisions requested to the UNDRIP by Botswana and other African states were thus an
extension of their own claim to the sovereignty that for them should follow from state indigeneity. This use of the concept of ‘indigenous’ is actually more akin to ‘autochthonous’, which
refers to rights to an area from outsiders (Gausset et al. 2011). Like indigeneity, autochthony has
emerged as a contentious site of difference, belonging, and sovereignty in Africa and elsewhere.
‘Autochthony’ and ‘indigeneity’ share much analytically: both concepts connote primordial
links to land, naturalize particular forms of belonging and exclusion, and are less self-evident
and more elastic than they appear; as such, both of these concepts significantly reshape citizenship and belonging. The two concepts are sometimes used interchangeably. This is certainly
the case in the context of transnational indigenous citizenship: the UN considers autochthone
to be the French translation of ‘indigenous’. However, in francophone Africa, the meanings of
‘autochthony’ and ‘indigeneity’ diverge: in contemporary political discourse, autochthone and
its antonym allogène delineate those who belong from those who are outsiders. In these contexts, the idea of autochthony has emerged as a central organizing principle of national political
power, while the idea of indigenous peoples corresponds with those on the margins of national
citizenship (Geschiere 2009).
In Cameroon, convergences and distinctions between autochthony and indigeneity demonstrate some of the limits of indigenous citizenship in Africa. Immediately after decolonization,
the 1960s to the 1980s saw investments in nation-building through ideas of national unity that
found expression in one-party rule. At that time, regionalism and ethnicity were seen as potential political threats to central authority. However, in the 1990s, international pressures, such as
the World Bank’s emphasis on decentralization and the imposition of multiparty democracy,
effectively flipped the political significance of regionalism and ethnicity; no longer a threat, they
became the primary means through which central political power was perpetuated: party members who wanted to maintain or improve their standing were now required to generate support
in their home regions for centralized political power (Geschiere 2009).
In this context, power struggles emerged between migrants and those with historic links to
regions or even to specific villages. A new constitution in 1996 explicitly protected the rights
of minorities and indigènes, or ‘indigenous peoples’, but did not define who was to be protected
(Ndahinda 2011). In practice, the principle of autochthony rather than the principle of indigeneity determined access to rights and resources. For example, new regional councils designed
to protect minorities limited the participation of migrants, and voting rights were increasingly
African indigenous citizenship
linked to one’s home village rather than one’s place of residence, which disenfranchised many
migrants (Geschiere 2009).
Here ‘minority’ corresponded to ‘autochthonous’, which was rhetorically linked to ‘indigenous’. But these links between autochthony and indigeneity are misleading, as can be seen
when examining the indigenous citizenship practices of the Baka of Cameroon, who are one of
several peoples identified as ‘Pygmies’ in central Africa. Baka representatives participate in the
UNPFII, thus explicitly engaging transnational citizenship. The Baka are widely acknowledged
as the original inhabitants of the region and hence, in theory, can be seen as both ‘indigenous’
and ‘autochthonous’, but they also exist on the margins, both politically and socially. Many Baka
peoples are forest-dwellers, living outside villages and cities; in that sense they are spatially on
the margins of the state and beyond the contemporary national political use of ‘autochthony,’
with its emphasis on links to villages and legitimate belonging vis-à-vis migrants (Leonhardt
2006). Baka spatial marginality corresponds to citizenship marginality: often without birth certificates, they also cannot access identity cards or state services (Geshchiere 2009). Researchers
emphasize that it is not self-evident that Baka peoples desire state citizenship, but that if they do,
their obstacles to obtaining it go beyond policy. Baka peoples historically lived near villages and
engaged in trade relationships with villagers who valued their ability to provide forest products
and medical skill, but who nevertheless often viewed them as subhuman and therefore properly
without state rights or protection (Geschiere 2009; Leonhardt 2006; Pelican 2009). Perceived to
be lacking the authentic links to soil implied by autochthony, the Baka fit current transnational
models of African indigeneity that emphasize livelihoods and historic marginalization more than
primordial links to land. But within Cameroon, it is autochthony and not indigeneity that facilitates access to the state, despite constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples. In Cameroon,
political investments in the idea of autochthony have rendered the Baka without access to state
citizenship despite their recognition transnationally as an indigenous people.
Self-definition is a powerful source of indigenous citizenship, encompassing the claims of
states like Botswana to indigeneity in the name of postcolonial sovereignty and the claims of
peoples like the San or the Baka who fall outside their respective state definitions or practices
of citizenship, representation, and cultural belonging. Despite this encompassing nature of the
idea of indigenous citizenship, differentiation continues to matter. Transnational indigenous
citizenship – whether expressed through regional networks or through the UN – has proved to
be a critical means of seeking improved access to land, livelihoods, and resources within states.
But the kind of national indigenous citizenship that Botswana and other states claim can also
undermine the likelihood that indigenous claims within its borders can be heard as such. For
example, San cultural distinctiveness and status as a ‘first people’ of the Kalahari are used to
stress San indigeneity. However, it is their marginalized status that has enabled them to achieve
recognition from the government and political traction from donors to support their networks
and NGOs. Similarly, Maasai activists have found that their efforts within their respective states
are more successful when they eschew the language of indigeneity. They continue to seek
recourse for loss of land, threats to livelihoods, and poor access to schools, infrastructure, and
other resources, as indeed they did before the popularization of ‘indigeneity’ as a name for their
struggles. But within the state, they find other words to advocate for themselves, while they
also continue to participate in regional and transnational indigenous rights networks and forums
(Hodgson 2011). It is this dynamism that makes indigenous claim-making so compelling: there
is not just one approach at any given time, but always a multiplicity of approaches, enabling the
greatest chance for movements that have coalesced under the sign ‘indigenous’ to successfully
attain the rights and recognitions that they seek.
Noah Tamarkin and Rachel F. Giraudo
Emergent claims: culture, knowledge, belonging
Although indigeneity has gained more attention in other areas of the world, it is the involvement of African indigenous peoples and states that has further developed a global understanding
of what indigenous can mean. Indigenous organizing is a multi-scalar process that ultimately
involves communication with the UN, but recognition by the UN does not necessarily translate
into national indigenous rights or recognition. Furthermore, UN participation is not the only
avenue through which Africans self-define as indigenous: claims are also made directly to specific
states that are not also made to the UN, and the contexts of both national and local identity politics shape and are shaped by emergent indigeneities. States, in turn, mediate indigenous claims
according to their own politics of belonging, which sometimes results in a turn away from the
discourse of indigeneity.
Postcolonial states are reluctant to accord specific African ethnic groups a specialized status,
such as that of being ‘indigenous’, because they do want lose control over land and other
resources, as well as in order to avoid ethnic conflict in multi-ethnic states. Still the momentum
of indigenous claim-making lends itself to emergent forms of African indigeneity. For example,
in South Africa the Lemba have sought ethnic recognition from the state since the 1950s. They
have never been recognized as ethnically distinct, although they are known internationally as
such, because in the 1980s and 1990s they took part in DNA studies that supported claims of
their historical links to the Jews. The Lemba have increasingly invoked their African indigeneity,
for example through their participation in the reburial of human remains from Mapungubwe, a
thirteenth-century kingdom that is now a World Heritage site. Lemba ideas about indigeneity
were influenced by transnational discourses, but they did not pursue recognition from the UN
as an indigenous people. Rather, for them, indigenous citizenship meant seeking indigenous
recognition specifically and only from the South African state; for them, indigeneity made possible
their postcolonial national belonging (Tamarkin 2011).
Other emerging claims by indigenous peoples in Africa are over control of their intellectual
property and cultural heritage, and these claims are made using established and new transnational networks to guard against multinational companies that exploit indigenous knowledge,
as well as national appropriation of their cultural knowledge and symbolism. For example,
WIMSA, the regional network of San activists, worked with intellectual property lawyers to
successfully sue the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer over the corporation’s attempt to patent a molecule of the Kalahari succulent, Hoodia gordonni. Pfizer and a number of weight-loss companies
were exploiting San medicinal knowledge that Hoodia gordonni could be consumed to ward off
hunger and thirst as they packaged, sold, and distributed a processed form of the plant internationally as a weight-loss supplement (Chennels et al. 2009). Indigenous peoples also want more
involvement and say over the use of their cultural heritage, such as their cultural imagery and
representations of their histories and heritage, which is used either for profit or nation-branding
by the same actors that marginalize indigenous peoples. For example, indigenous peoples from
Africa have only recently gained representation at the UN regarding the nomination, designation, and management of World Heritage sites, before which negotiations only took place on
the UN–state level, and states reaped the local benefits of such a designation, while indigenous
peoples were often displaced and disadvantaged by these conservation measures.2
As we note, indigeneity in Africa is always a relational, political process. African indigenous citizenship revolves around the ongoing politics of differentiation and belonging played
out through transnational networking and in the attempted modification of national dialogues.
Whereas African indigeneity has the most saliency in its ability to merge with other, global indigenous conversations, it is, in fact, its international influence that reinforces African scepticism of
African indigenous citizenship
the concept and of the movement. Postcolonial sovereignty is what is at stake for new African
states that also claim marginalization and a historical loss of rights and recognition from the
West. Emergent indigenous claim-making in Africa, however, provides more opportunities for
examining new modes of belonging and opposition to the state, as well as the corporate sector.
It is therefore the mutability of African indigeneity that contributes more broadly to discussions
of indigenous citizenship.
1 ‘San’ is widely used to refer to the numerous and diverse cultural groups of traditional hunter-gatherers
(and some herders) from the southern Africa region who speak, or are descendants of speakers of, the
click-consonant languages from the Khoisan (Khoesaan) language family.
2 The Theme on Indigenous Peoples, Local Communities, Equity and Protected Areas (TILCEPA) is
working with the World Heritage Advisory Body, the International Union for Conservation of Nature
(IUCN), to increase the participation of indigenous peoples in the World Heritage process, as well as to
advise States Parties with regards to their responsibilities to indigenous communities impacted by state
conservation regimes. The Chair of TILCEPA is also the Director of Secretariat for IPACC.
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