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After Violent Evictions, Indigenous Maasai Call Human Rights Investigation a Sham

February 13, 2023

Joseph Lee

In June, state security forces in the United Republic of Tanzania engaged in a violent eviction campaign against Indigenous Maasai, shooting them and driving them from their lands. The attack took place in Loliondo in northern Tanzania near the Kenyan border. Dozens of Maasai were injured, some fleeing to Kenya to seek medical attention, while others were arrested.

The violence was the Tanzanian government’s latest move in a years-long campaign to remove the Maasai and make way for game reserves, protected areas, and tourism. Amid months of increasing state violence and persecution, Maasai leaders have called for urgent international attention and intervention.

So when Salangat Mako, a Maasai leader, heard that the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights was going to make a monitoring visit to Tanzania, he felt like his prayers had finally been answered. Mako was chosen alongside five other community members to speak to the Commission on their planned visit to Loliondo.

Throughout the day, Mako and other community members rehearsed their statements, skipping lunch, and growing excited every time they heard a car approach. But late in the afternoon, they received news that the Commission was not coming to Loliondo. “The little hope that was ignited in the morning vanished in a second, replaced by desperation and hopelessness,” Mako said.

Angry and disappointed, Mako wanted to find another way to get his message out. Samwel Nangiria, another Maasai leader, decided to film a video of Mako.

“I have become a thief in my own land,” Mako said in the video. “A community depending on livestock, without grazing land. Where is our future? Where is our tomorrow? Where will our children be?”

Nangiria and Mako sent the video to the Commission and other activists. Some posted the video on social media, hoping that the Commission and the world would pay attention. Instead, government officials came to Loliondo the next day, and announced that they planned to arrest Mako and whoever filmed and shared the video. Mako has since fled to Kenya. Nangiria is in hiding.

The Maasai say the violence and persecution they face are the result of domestic and international conservation policies — a years-long effort by the Tanzanian government to destroy Indigenous ways of life, and drive tens of thousands of Maasai off their land to establish game reserves, reach global conservation goals, and support tourism.

When Tanzania created Serengeti National Park in the mid-20th century, Maasai pastoralists living there were forced to relocate. Many moved to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a mixed-use piece of land to the east that is home to about 70,000 Maasai. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the country’s largest tourist attraction, drawing over half a million visitors each year. […]

Tanzania’s treatment of Maasai has come under increasing scrutiny from international observers. Over the last ten years, United Nations Special Rapporteurs have issued seven communications expressing concern over the treatment of Maasai, and in June, nine U.N. human rights experts called on Tanzania to immediately halt plans to relocate Maasai communities. In a letter, the experts warned that the removals “could amount to dispossession, forced eviction and arbitrary displacement prohibited under international law.”

The Oakland Institute and Survival International, two nonprofits that advocate for Indigenous rights, called on UNESCO and the IUCN to sever ties with Tanzania and remove Ngorongoro from the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. The UNESCO World Heritage Center did not immediately respond to a request for comment.