During its recent national elections, the government of the Republic of Congo marginalized and exploited the nation’s minority indigenous societies, including the Mbuti, according to some observers. Human rights activists charge that the government did not prepare the indigenous people for the voting. A man from one of the indigenous groups (also referred to as “pygmies”) reported that the chiefs told people how to vote. Another said that “it is sad…when the time to vote comes, they use us to their own advantage.”

The elections, held on June 24 and August 5, gave a landslide victory—124 out of 137 seats—to President Denis Sassou-Nguesso and his Parti Congolais du Travail (PCT). The government announced the results on Friday August 9, claiming that “the efforts of professionals and administrators in improving the electoral process [have] been laudable.” Leaders of some 40 other parties strongly disagreed, and the African Union said that the polling was not well organized. The indigenous groups have joined the chorus of criticism.

While the government was studying the election returns, representatives of Congo’s indigenous societies were meeting in Brazzaville to organize a new networking organization. The delegates to the meeting expect the new group to lobby for their interests and to coordinate activities that might improve their living conditions. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the government of Congo organized the workshop, which was held from August 8 through 10. The new network they established is called the Réseau National des Peuples Autochtones du Congo (RENAPAC).

The coordinator of the new organization, Bernard Ngouonimba, says he wants the government to “take care of indigenous people in the same way others are treated.” The government apparently agrees. Marie-Céline Tchissambou, an official in the ministry of health, social affairs and family, said that “we want RENAPAC to be an important group, serving as an link between indigenous people and the public.” Creation of the new organization in Brazzaville follows a few months after a path-breaking international conference in Impfondo, the Republic of Congo, in April 2007, that focused on the human rights of indigenous peoples throughout Central Africa.

An observer for the French human rights group Observatoire Congolais des Droits de l’Homme, in Congo for the election, reported flaws in the electoral process and noted that the indigenous peoples frequently suffer from disrespect, exploitation and discrimination. The director of OCDH gave an example of such disrespect. A group of 20 indigenous people, who participated in a music festival in Brazzaville, were housed in a large tent at a zoo in the city, where they could gather firewood for their cooking, rather than at a hotel where the other participants were staying. The festival organizers apparently felt that the environment at the zoo would be more comfortable for the “pygmies.”