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Tanzania Is Using Murder Charges to Get Nomadic Maasai off Their Homelands

July 8, 2022

Lemoloo Jr*, a Maasai activist in northern Tanzania, says he is running out of hope.

In the last month, 33 people in his community have been arrested, and 25 are now facing murder charges over the death of a police officer on 10 June.

Since the start of June, Maasai people have been protesting against government security forces sent to remove them from Loliondo in Ngorongoro district, northern Tanzania. The ancestral home and grazing lands of the Maasai, a nomadic pastoralist people, start in Kenya and stretch into this area, but the government wants to extend the nearby Ngorongoro Conservation Area and turn 1,500 square kilometres of the land into a game reserve.

The clashes have often turned violent. One police officer and one member of the public have died, and more than 30 Maasai have been injured.

The injured had to leave Tanzania, said Lemoloo Jr. They crossed into Kenya for medical treatment, to avoid paperwork at Tanzanian hospitals that is routinely inspected by the police.

The 25 Maasai facing murder charges may have trouble defending themselves because the security forces confiscated mobile phones from anyone who documented the violence, says Joseph Moses Oleshangay, a Ngorongoro-based human rights defender.

Those arrested include “elected councillors of different wards in Loliondo division and the chairman of CCM Party [Tanzania’s ruling party] for Ngorongoro district”, says Lemoolo Jr.

Most of those officially arrested are being held in Kisongo prison, but Lemoloo Jr claims 19 other community members have been taken by the police to unknown locations — and remain missing.

“If the government continues to use force, we won’t be able to save our homeland,” Lemoloo Jr told openDemocracy. ”Unless the government is pressured from outside, it won’t come to the negotiating table with the Indigenous people of Maasai.”

Elite tourism v Indigenous land use

A picturesque area, Loliondo straddles the East African Rift Valley at Tanzania’s border with Kenya. It borders Serengeti National Park, the world-famous safari destination, and the wider Ngorongoro Conservation Area (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and is a key part of the country's tourism offer.

Tension over Loliondo has been brewing since 1992, when the Tanzanian government gave exclusive hunting rights in the Loliondo Game Controlled Area, covering 4,000 square kilometres, to a company from the United Arab Emirates. The Otterlo Business Corporation (OBC) allegedly has links to Dubai’s ruling family.

Maasai pastoralists objected to the move, saying it limited their own rights and livelihoods in their ancestral homelands.

The concession was meant to last 99 years, but was terminated in 2017 over allegations of corruption. A minister accused OBC of trying to bribe him and his predecessors.

There have been three attempts to evict the Maasai from the land in question: in 2009, 2013 and 2017. The 2009 eviction affected more than 20,000 pastoralists; at least 200 Maasai homes were completely destroyed, a police officer allegedly raped a woman, and more than 50,000 cattle owned by the Maasai were left without grazing land or water.

Against this history, some still blame the government’s agreement with OBC for the ongoing evictions (which affect 1,500 square kilometres of the original 4,000), but UNESCO, the UN’s conservation agency, also stands accused.

Early this year, independent US think tank Oakland Institute said that “the government’s resettlement plan — created with heavy influence from the UNESCO World Heritage Committee (WHC) — threatens the survival of the Maasai” living in the area by restricting their livelihoods.