Namibia: Indigenous groups' long road to claim their rights

Two indigenous groups have stood up to the powers that be in Namibia to claim their rights. In two separate declarations, the Himba and Zemba ethnic groups made plain their demands to government.

Phil ya Nangoloh, a human rights defender and Executive Director of NamRights, a Namibian human rights organization, explained to MRG how a hitherto powerless and voiceless people took their advocacy to the highest levels.

As the result of a two-month long visit to the former Kaokoland by independent human rights expert, Rebecca Sommer, who conducted human rights awareness-raising gatherings with two Namibian indigenous minority groups, the Himba people issued two separate declarations listing a litany of violations of their civil, cultural, economic, environmental, social and political rights perpetrated by the Government of Namibia (GoN).

Paralelly, the Zemba people also issued a declaration listing similar violations. In the three declarations, signed between January and February 2012, the Himba pointed out that they are a distinct people, with their own tradition and culture and that they have exclusively inhabited the former Kaokoland for centuries prior to Namibian independence in 1990.

In their two declarations, the Himba people also pointed out that they are totally opposed to the construction of a huge hydroelectric dam on the Kunene River.

According to them, generations of their ancestors' graves would be flooded by the planned construction of the dam, while many people would also be forced to relocate from the area, overpopulating, and overgrazing other areas where they would be forced to resettle, which would cause poverty and loss of livestock due to the lack of grazing areas.

In their declaration, the Zemba people explain that they have always lived on both sides of the Kunene River, in the area of Ruacana (i.e. Ruhakana) and also demand to be recognized by Namibia as a distinct indigenous people of Namibia.

Both tribes also demand in their declarations recognition by GoN of their land rights. Most traditional villages of the Zemba people are situated in the former Kaokoland (now Kunene Region) where they live as permanently invited landless guests of the Himba people. A few villages are situated in present-day Omusati Region, that the Zemba claim as their traditional territory.

Now officially known as the Kunene Region, the former Kaokoland is a dry and mountainous area in the remote northwestern corner of Namibia. It is homeland to an estimated 46,000 Himba and 15,000 Zemba people.

The two groups stand out among other ethnic groups in Namibia because of their continuous adherence to their traditional livelihood, lifestyles and attires. They moved into the former Kaokoland, in the 16th and 17th centuries and have been living there since then.

Through their respective declarations, the two groups accuse the Ovambo-controlled government of subjecting them to systematic denial of their right to self-determination.

Making up more than 50 percent of Namibia’s population of 2.2 million, the Ovambo people are the single most dominant ethnic constituent in post-independence Namibian politics. In addition to the Ovambo, Himba and Zemba, Namibia is composed of at least 10 other ethnic groups. However, none of the remainder of the country’s national, or ethnic and linguistic minorities comprises more than 10 percent of Namibia’s population.

In their historic declarations, the Himba and Zemba peoples demand that they must be allowed to choose their own representatives and leaders, determine freely their political institution, maintain and preserve their own governance structures and freely pursue their socio-economic and cultural development in accordance with their own pace and space.

The Himba people demand that the government recognise 33 of their 36 traditional leaders while the Zemba people insist that their chief and his senior councilors be recognized. Other demands in the declarations include legal territorial land rights, that their children be taught in their mother tongue, better english lessons and that natural resources in the traditional areas be placed under their custodianship. They also demand that mining companies be removed from 'their' territories, or that they be included in the process of granting mining permits and benefit from the mining activities.

The groups also demand that the government respect, protect and fulfill their right to their lands, territories and resources, which they claim they have traditionally owned and occupied for centuries. They also demanded the government stop “without delay” the implementation of the Communal Land Reform Act 2002, which they say has resulted in their lands being fenced off or “legally grabbed” by members of the dominant Ovambo ethnic group.

The Himba people have also petitioned the United Nations to help them stop the construction of a massive hydroelectric dam, which would produce 1700-gigawatts of electricity in Namibia.

The Zemba tribe said the government has denied them recognition as a distinct tribe since the 1990s, and claimed that the ruling party, which is dominated by the Oshivambo group, “played a very cruel, unfair game” with them.

Rebecca Sommer, who agreed to collaborate with Namibian human rights organization NamRights, handed the declarations to Namrights for submission to the African Union (AU) and the government of Namibia.

On February 23 this year, NamRights submitted the declarations to the country’s Prime Minister Nahas Angula and to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, while Rebecca Sommer submitted the same declarations to the United Nations system in Geneva and New York on February 24.

NamRights executive director, Phil ya Nangoloh, who passed on the declarations to Prime Minister Angula's office and to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, emphasized that the groups' desire for self-determination should not be confused with secession attempts. Ya Nangoloh also stressed that the role of NamRights and Sommer was “exclusively to enlighten” the groups on their rights as contained in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and other international human rights instruments.

Both UNDRIP and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, prohibit discrimination and outline the rights of such minorities to culture, identity, language, employment, health, education, and other matters. The two tribes have also asked the UN's special expert on the human rights of indigenous people to visit Namibia.


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Phil ya Nangoloh, NamRights Executive Director. Credit: NamRights
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Zemba community meeting on UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Credit: Rebecca Sommer
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Invitation to UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples from the Himba to visit Kaokoland. Credit: Rebecca Sommer
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Date: 02/03/2012




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