Brazzaville — The Republic of Congo is set to become the first country in Africa to provide specific legal protection for its indigenous peoples.
"We are looking forward to the adoption of this law because we know it will change many things, especially with regard to our emancipation," Jean Ganga, chairman of the Association for the Protection and Promotion of Indigenous Peoples.
Almost seven years in gestation, the government-backed bill was passed by both the senate and national assembly in late December and will take effect once signed into law by the president.
Indigenous people, some of whom are known as Pygmies, make up about 10 percent of Congo's population and live in almost all regions of the country.
The new law aims to counter their chronic marginalization, manifested in their exclusion from the education system and high levels of illiteracy, and lack of access to state services such as health facilities.
"With this Act, indigenous people will be protected and enjoy the same rights as the Bantu. They will cease to be [treated as] subhuman. In the past the Africans in South Africa experienced a state of slavery, as blacks did in the United States. It was the same for Congo's indigenous people. The new law will change all this," said Joseph Kignoumbi Kia Mboungou, a deputy and senior official in parliament.
"This legislation is a major innovation, a revolution in the rights of indigenous people and the Bantu. It corrects the wrongs that were in place," Valentin Mavoungou, director of human rights at the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, told IRIN.
"The law mandates punishment and fines against anyone who uses indigenous persons as slaves," said Roch Euloge Nzobo, programme manager of the Congolese Observatory of Human Rights (OHCHR).
He explained that the law was so long in the making partly because of certain "prominent people, mainly politicians, who believe that indigenous people should not have the same rights as others and they should continue using them as slaves. But the law prohibits slavery and servitude."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]