Repression Intensifies against Maasai Villagers in Tanzania as They Seek Justice Against Decades of Human Rights Abuses at the East African Court of Justice
On the afternoon of June 29, 2018, 12 Maasai from Ololosokwan village were attacked by soldiers from the Tanzania People’s Defence Force. The victims ranged in age from five to 33, including six boys under the age of 14. Three were treated in a local hospital.
According to witnesses, the victims had been grazing their cattle within the village’s land approximately 5 km from the border of Serengeti National Park when 15 soldiers arrived in an army land rover accompanied by Erick Kisiri, an employee of the UAE-based Ortello Business Corporation (OBC), which operates hunting tours in the region for the UAE’s royal family. The OBC has wreaked havoc over the lives of the Maasai ever since it was granted a hunting license in the Loliondo region in 1992. Since then, while the OBC has built an airstrip and the royal family has used the region as their own private hunting playground, local villages have faced numerous violent evictions, including in 2009, 2013, and 2017.
In recent weeks, violence and intimidation against the Maasai has been mounting once again, as Ololosokwan and three other Maasai villages have courageously taken the Tanzanian government to the East African Court of Justice demanding justice and respect for their land rights after a brutal eviction that took place last year.
The Violence of August 2017
In August 2017, fire and destruction ripped through several Maasai communities in Tanzania’s Loliondo region, including Ololosokwan. News reports at the time estimated that 19 people had been arrested, 11 seriously injured, over 5,800 homes damaged, more than 20,000 left homeless, and significant losses of livestock. Information from the ground since then suggests the damage was much greater.
The August evictions took place on government orders. According to a press release from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, they were done in the name of conservation and tourism.
These evictions – and the most recent violence – build upon a long legacy of state-sanctioned violence against the Maasai. In the wake of these injustices, local communities have petitioned senior government officials, including the President and the Prime Minister, and have filed several cases in Tanzanian national courts, only to face constant disappointment. Having exhausted all possible domestic mechanisms for justice, on September 21, 2017 they took their case to the East African Court of Justice (EACJ).
Taking the Government to Court
The four villages at the heart of the case – Ololosokwan, Kirtalo, Olorien, and Arash, who are represented by lawyers from the Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU) – are legally registered villages, with Certificates of Registration issued by the government. They also hold legal title – community land ownership – over their land and possess Certificates of Occupancy. But these legal certificates have not held off the violent evictions, which have been justified by allegations that the villages have encroached onto Serengeti National Park.
By bringing their case to the EACJ, the villages are trying to permanently end the evictions that have plagued them for years and obtain an unequivocal recognition that the land is theirs. Since the case began, an interim order has also been filed, demanding that government agencies cease interfering with the villagers involved in this dispute until the case has been heard and completed. This order is vital in the wake of the Tanzanian government’s ruthless attempts to derail the proceedings by furthering the climate of fear in the region.
Tanzanian Government’s Attempts to Derail the Case
The Tanzanian government has used different tactics in its attempt to end this case for good. First, Tanzania’s Attorney General challenged the villagers’ right to sue their government, a claim that the court dismissed. Then the government attempted to scuttle the hearing by questioning the accuracy of translated documents submitted by the villages, as well as the credibility of the translators. The hearing was deferred for a second time to June 7, 2018, granting time to PALU counsel to procure the necessary certifications to provide the veracity of the translations.
In the weeks leading up to the June 7 hearing, the officer commanding the police district of Loliondo (OCD Loliondo) began summoning, detaining, and interrogating village leaders and members in threatening and intimidating ways. The police demanded that villagers withdraw their case and that those who signed minutes from meetings where it was decided to bring the case to the EACJ withdraw their support. This is not only an attempt to intimidate the Maasai, but to back up the government’s latest allegations – that village leaders submitted forged documentation.
At the June 7 hearing, along with filing a supplementary Notice of Motion and an affidavit, the Maasai’s lawyers provided details regarding the intimidation and harassment that their clients are facing. Their interim order requests that the OCD Loliondo appear in court to explain the intimidating measures that have taken place.
The lawyers and the community are asking the EACJ to take into account the urgency of the situation and the irreversible effects and costs of the continued violence of forced evictions borne by the Masaai. Meanwhile, the Tanzanian Attorney General continues efforts to derail the case.
The Need for International Solidarity
Currently, there is no scheduled date for a ruling on the community’s request for an interim injunction. The Attorney General had until June 21, 2018 to produce evidence of the claim that the signatures on the documents submitted by the community were forged. After that, the EACJ will rule at notice, meaning that the court will notify the communities when the ruling is ready.
While the case drags on, the climate of fear on the ground makes accessing information very difficult. In light of the escalating intimidation, arrests, and threats the villagers face, it is vital for human rights organizations and the international community to unequivocally condemn the Tanzanian government’s persecution and evictions of its indigenous communities, in violation of internationally recognized human rights norms and standards.