Sub-Saharan Africa

Most States in Sub-Saharan Africa are recently independent, consequent upon emancipation from colonial rule. Many of the new States would figure highly on any register of ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity. There are more than 250 distinct ethnic groups in Nigeria’s 90 million population. In Uganda, the national borders cut across ethnic and language boundaries. They also place together over 40 ethnic groups which formerly had little in common and frequently do not understand each other’s languages. A cursory glance at African boundaries with their lines of longitude and latitude provides the clue that the divisions between States are not coterminous with population distribution; it suggests that the States are artificial, not organic. An All-African People’s Conference in 1958 passed a special resolution on Frontiers, Boundaries and Federations: The Conference “... (a) denounces artificial frontiers drawn by imperialist powers to divide the peoples of Africa, particularly those which cut across ethnic groups and divide peoples of the same stock; (b) calls for the abolition or adjustment of such frontiers at an early date”. The revisionist approach to boundaries proved to be unrealistic. Realignments would be as disastrous in human terms as the original colonial conquests. The new States have instead chosen to develop nationality within their colonial inheritance. Arbitrary borders have been accepted as a basis for statehood and have been defended tenaciously. The Charter of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) 1963 lists the aims and purposes of the OAU, which are, among other things, “to defend the States’ sovereignty, their territorial integrity and independence”. The member States proclaim their adherence to principles, including “respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each State and for its inalienable right to independent existence”. Challenges to this principle have been unsuccessful.

All of this creates a formidable problem for minorities. Some States manifest, in effect if not in form, an “ethnocracy”, rule by a particular ethnic group within the complex (this is normally, but need not be, a majority group — exceptions are the minority whites in South Africa, and the minority Tutsi in Burundi). Most States express official opposition to tribalism, particularism and chauvinism. Some look forward to a homogenous nation in terms of culture. Many socialist States — such as Ethiopia — seek to mobilize and “modernize” the nation. None will allow their constituent elements (in an ethnic/tribal sense) to join a kin-State or achieve their own independence. Self-determination stops at the point of independence from colonial rule; it cannot be conceded to minorities, however harsh their fate in the new republics. Many States in turn deny that they have any “minorities”, implying that this concept is only applicable to Europe, or only outside Africa. Particular groups may not be recognized: citizenship and equality in rights and duties are proclaimed for all; opposition to the segregationist policy of South Africa reinforces this attitude. Unhappily, minorities have been “natural” victims in nation-building.

Within this broad context, particular types of minority may be recognized in terms of origins, relation with the dominant group, cultural practices and religious affiliation. Africa experienced large-scale importation of Asian labour under colonial rule and Asians have suffered considerably under “Africanization” policies since independence. Americo-Liberians represent an extraordinary example of “repatriation” of a partly assimilated group of emancipated slaves for philanthropic reasons (and because of “difficulties” in extending suffrage in the USA to ex-slaves). Many minorities “lost-out” in the rush to independence and are essentially “separatist”, but the separatist ambitions of Biafrans, Ashanti and Ewe, of the Southern Sudanese, of Eritreans and Tigrayans, Baganda and Bakongo, have not prospered. Nomadism represents, as elsewhere (Roma or Gypsies in Europe) a problem for the territorial State with its impulse to control and demarcate. Some minorities — the San — exhibit cultural features which mark them out as profoundly different from neighbouring peoples. Religious groups are the object of suspicion and hostility in nationalistic States. Most of the questions that can be posed on the relations between minorities and majorities, and the State, can be illustrated with examples from Africa.

Instruments on Minority Rights

African States participate widely in United Nations bodies — they have been particularly active in proposing and supporting international instruments condemning racial discrimination and Apartheid, such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. The Colonial Declaration of 1960 (Resolution 1514 (xv) of the UN General Assembly) elevates self-determination into a supreme principle of international law, subject to the qualification that it should not disturb the territorial integrity and political unity of States.

The concentration on self-determination and independence as supreme contemporary principles deflected attention from the post-independence human rights performance of the new States. Increasing international scrutiny drew increasing criticism from within and without the continent. The response was the adoption by the OAU Assembly of Heads of State and Government in 1981 of the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights (see Appendix 6.1). The Charter is a unique statement of collective peoples’ rights and individual human rights. While there is not an explicit ranking of the two classes of rights, the preamble states that “the reality and respect of peoples’ rights should necessarily guarantee human rights”, which may imply some practical priority for the former class of rights. Individual rights have only lexical priority; the first 18 articles of the Charter are devoted to them, including civil and political rights, and economic and social rights. Individuals also have duties, including the duty to “preserve and strengthen social and national solidarity”, and “to preserve and strengthen the national independence and the territorial integrity of their country”. Peoples’ rights are essentially variations on the theme of self-determination, including the right to “economic, social and cultural development”. There is no reference to minorities in the Charter. The rights are guaranteed without distinction of any kind, including distinctions based upon “ethnic group” as well as those based on “race . . . colour, sex, language, religion, political or any other opinion, national and social origin, fortune, birth or other status”. The Charter amplifies and strengthens the legal concept of self-determination and adapts the concept of individual rights to the African context. “People” as a term is not defined in the Charter. Although there is room for interpretation and development of the concept, it seems tolerably clear at present that the “people” is the people of the States considered as wholes, and not minority tribes, ethnic groups, races or religions. The Charter does not go far in recognising middle terms between the individual and the State — references to duties to the family, society and “other legally recognized communities” may count for little in this context. The possibility of the Charter serving to ameliorate the prospects of many minorities in Africa appears rather tentative. Much depends upon the performance of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the body charged with implementing this major regional treaty. Africa is not deficient in human rights instruments. Many constitutions “adopt” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and contain extensive chapters of rights. The major abuses of rights have been little tempered by these documents. The growing maturity of the States has naturally led to the increased penetration of international standards: practice may eventually follow precept.

Treatment of minorities

The move from colonialism to independence has been momentous historically. As with all political cataclysms, wars, terror, genocide, have accompanied these changes. The new nations strive to achieve a new identity. They are hostile to remaining vestiges of colonialism or neo-colonialism — South African white rule is seen partly in this light. They are anxious to defend and strengthen independence, and are conscious that this means economic as well as political independence, to secure self-respect and the respect of the international community. Human rights can only improve as the anti-colonial ferment dies away, as South Africa changes and accommodates to political realities. Unfortunately, the colonial pattern which bites deepest may be in the very conformation of the States themselves with their inextricable mixture of peoples. It is not implausible that ethnic realignments may take place and produce greater homogeneity. It is clear that the immediate outlook for minorities as such is poor; they are menaced both by the States and dynamics of their situation. A general improvement in civil and political, and economic, social and cultural rights is the first, but not the last requirement for minority groups.

Afars and Issas of Djibouti


Anglophones of Cameroon

Asians of East and Central Africa

Bubis of Equatorial Guinea


Creoles of Sierra Leone


Falashas of Ethiopia

Hutu and Tutsi of Burundi

Ilois of Diego Garcia

Indian South Africans

Jehovah’s Witnesses in Africa

Jews of South Africa



Oromo of Ethiopia

Sahelian Nomads

San of the Kalahari

Southern Sudan



Western Saharans