In defiance of international protests, the Tanzanian government is pushing ahead with a crackdown on Maasai cattle-herding people who have resisted efforts to evict them from a planned wildlife reserve that will allegedly become a private hunting ground near the world-famous Serengeti National Park.
Tanzanian authorities are targeting Maasai leaders with accusations of murder and illegal immigration as the government intensifies its campaign to demarcate the reserve and relocate thousands of traditional herders. Security forces have detained dozens of Maasai people in recent weeks.
International groups ranging from Amnesty International to United Nations experts have criticized the Tanzanian government’s handling of the issue, with Amnesty denouncing the eviction campaign as an illegal act of shocking brutality.
Opponents say the traditional Maasai land is likely to be taken over by wealthy hunters from the Middle East. The land has been leased as a hunting block by a company from the United Arab Emirates.
When security forces began erecting markers on the borders of the planned 1,500-square-kilometre wildlife reserve on June 10, they fired tear gas at Maasai protesters who had gathered at the site in Loliondo region, near the Kenyan border. In the ensuing violence, at least 30 Maasai were injured and a policeman was allegedly killed by an arrow. Several hundred Maasai fled to Kenya for refuge or medical treatment.
Since then, authorities have arrested 23 Maasai on murder charges and announced a 10-day hunt for “illegal immigrants” – their term for Maasai who have crossed the Kenyan border. They have already begun relocating hundreds of Maasai people away from the demarcated zone, in what the government describes as a voluntary process.
The dispute has emerged as a key test for the balance between wildlife and humans in the broader Serengeti region. The Serengeti is renowned for its annual wildebeest migration, a dramatic spectacle that attracts tourists from around the world, but the surrounding region is home to tens of thousands of Maasai who see it as their ancestral land. There are 14 villages in Loliondo alone, along with thousands of cattle and other farm animals.
A similar dispute between the Maasai and the government has been escalating in the Ngorongoro conservation area, a volcanic crater and UNESCO World Heritage site that attracts thousands of antelope, buffalo, rhinos and other animals.
In total, more than 165,000 Maasai could be affected by the relocation plan in the two regions. They have turned to international groups for support. More than 3.2 million people worldwide have signed online petitions in defence of the Maasai cause.
“The government is waging a war against the Maasai,” said Denis Oleshangai, a Maasai lawyer and activist in Tanzania.
“They are attacked with guns and tear gas, but they still believe in a peaceful resolution,” he said. “The Maasai have an attachment to their land, so the attempt to remove them is a crime against humanity. Land is their entire life. They depend on pastures.”
The latest violence on June 10 has sparked global outrage. Photos and videos on social media showed Maasai fleeing from tear gas and displaying gruesome wounds that they suffered from the police attacks.
Tanzania’s Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa told the country’s parliament that the images on social media were misleading. He denied that anyone was attacked or forcibly expelled. Supporters of the Maasai were “inciting conflict” and seeking to tarnish the government’s reputation with false photos and videos, he said.
But human-rights groups have found evidence to corroborate the reports of police attacks. Amnesty International, citing two eyewitnesses, said the Tanzanian security forces shot at the Maasai protesters with live ammunition and tear gas, inflicting injuries on 30 people.
In addition, police have detained dozens of Maasai people without any charges, including political leaders and activists, and some have been held in unknown locations, Amnesty said in a recent report.
The evictions – the fourth such attempt since 2009 – could jeopardize the Maasai way of life, Amnesty said. “The Tanzanian authorities should never have allocated this area to a private business without first consulting the Maasai community, whose livelihoods depend on their ancestral land,” it said.
The murder charges, meanwhile, are absurd because half of the accused were already in police custody on other charges at the time when the policeman was killed, lawyers say.
“These are political charges,” said Paul Kisabo, a Tanzanian lawyer for the Maasai. “All local leaders in Loliondo are under detention. The aim is to intimidate them and the villages.”
Other groups criticizing the Tanzania government’s tactics against the Maasai have included the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a group of more than 250 scientists, and a group of nine UN human-rights experts.
“Evictions in the name of conservation will undermine conservation efforts and Tanzania’s tourism potential,” the scientists said in an open letter.
In 2018, the East African Court of Justice issued an order prohibiting the Tanzanian government from evicting the Maasai until the conclusion of a case brought by the Maasai against the government.
A much-anticipated ruling on that case was scheduled to be handed down on June 22, but at the last minute the court postponed it to September. Maasai leaders say the delay was strange and unexplained.
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