Protecting Nigeria’s indigenous population

August 9, every year is celebrated as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. Every year since 1994, the United Nations set aside August 9 to mark this special day of the world’s most endangered species. The day is also observed each year to promote and protect the rights of the world’s indigenous population.

The event is also used to recognise the achievements and contributions that indigenous people make to improve world issues such as environmental protection. The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples was first pronounced by the General Assembly of the United Nations in December 1994, to be celebrated every year during the first International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People (1995-2004).

In 2004, the Assembly proclaimed a Second International Decade, from 2005-2015, with the theme, “A Decade for Action and Dignity.” People from different nations are encouraged to participate in observing the day to spread the UN’s message on indigenous peoples.

As the world observed the day last Tuesday, my thoughts were centred on the indigenous peoples of Nigeria. In the last two decades, questions about our country’s nationhood and the plight of the minority population have dominated national discourses. There is a consensus among Nigerians that indigenous minority populations have not been fairly treated. Questions about equity, justice and fair distribution of resources have been raised.

Since the amalgamation of 1914, that forged a country out of existing disparate entities, the mostly indigenous peoples who were railroaded into the forced union have been asking questions about their future in the Nigerian federation.

With this year’s indigenous peoples’ day, it must be noted that Nigeria is one of the countries where the indigenous populations form the bulk of the national population. But it is also an irony that the minority population has been at the centre of every conflict about nationhood.

At the heart of this is the need to guarantee equity and justice for the minorities in the larger Nigerian federation. The debate about restructuring the country is also to ensure that the rights of minorities are protected. Unfortunately, the agitations by the indigenous peoples of Nigeria have often led to conflicts, when the Nigerian establishment resorts to strong hand tactics to silence its indigenous peoples.

The agitations that readily come to mind have been the age-long and ongoing struggle by the indigenous Biafra population, Niger Delta peoples, comprising the Ogoni, Ijaw and other minority population that seek for an equitable place in the Nigerian state. These agitations have led to violent struggles beginning with the Adaka Boro uprising, the Nigeria-Biafra civil war and recently the Niger Delta agitation for resource control, which reached an anti-climax with the killing of the Ogoni activist and environmentalist, Ken Saro-Wiwa. Saro-Wiwa and other agitators had been fighting for the rights of the indigenous people of Ogoni. The Ogoni people, like other indigenous population in the country, have been victims of human rights violations for many years. In 1956, four years before Nigerian Independence, Royal Dutch/Shell, in collaboration with the British government, found a commercially viable oil field on the Niger Delta and began oil production in 1958. In a 15-year period from 1976 to 1991, there were reportedly 2,976 oil spills of about 2.1 million barrels of oil in Ogoniland, accounting for about 40 per cent of the total oil spills of the Royal Dutch/Shell Company worldwide. Yet, when Ogoni people began to question the injustice, their agitations were suppressed violently by the Nigerian state. The recent protests by Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and the response of national government reflect a global concern for the fate of indigenous peoples worldwide.

While in Nigeria, indigenous peoples are struggling to find their place in the Nigerian federation, all over the world, indigenous peoples are facing other issues relating to survival in a world dominated by big government and large corporations. According to Cultural Survival, a publication of Indigenous Culture,“the world’s 350 million indigenous peoples have been forcibly expelled from their ancestral lands to make way for ill-conceived development schemes, colonisation programmes, and military occupation. Dispossessed of their lands — and hence their economic livelihoods — many indigenous peoples have been forced to migrate to cities and towns in search of work. Historically offered the least amount of schooling and access to basic social welfare services, displaced indigenous peoples have been marginalised.

As indigenous peoples are deprived of their territorial, economic, and political autonomy, their customary beliefs and values, which once unified them and their communities, begin to waver. The result is invariably the loss of a community’s cultural identity, particularly as the sense of pride in language, traditional practices, and respect for elders give way under pressures to conform to the dominant national society and the ‘modernising’ and seductively alluring impulses of global popular culture. Indeed, the story of indigenous education is intimately tied to the introduction to Western concepts of progress and to the global marketplace,

The Nigerian government, therefore, owes a duty to guarantee the rights of its minority and indigenous populations and provide them access to their basic rights. Most importantly is the urgency to restructure the country to reflect the aspirations of minority groups to have a say in the way they are governed.

  • Olupohunda is a public affairs analyst.