Tanzania’s Maasai prefer death to eviction

Maasai tribe’s eviction is part of a larger land-grabbing trend across Africa.

For close to two decades the Maasai and the foreign trophy-hunters managed to coexist, writes Ogunlesi [Getty]

It’s a familiar story, starring African land and outsized corporate appetites. It begins in 1992, when the Tanzanian government licensed Ortelo Business Corporation (OBC) – owned by a senior official of the United Arab Emirates government – to organise hunting expeditions in Loliondo, a 4,000sq km stretch of land on the edge of the Serengeti National Park in northern Tanzania, near the border with Kenya.

The expanse, designated a “Game Controlled Area” (the formal designation for territory earmarked for licensed hunting) in 1959, when the country was still under colonial rule, teems with antelopes, lions, leopards, cheetah, wildebeest, and other wildlife. But it has also been, for centuries, home to tens of thousands of people from the pastoral Maasai ethnic group, and grazing ground for their herds.

For close to two decades the Maasai and the foreign trophy-hunters managed to coexist, albeit uneasily. Until 2009, when the Tanzanian government introduced a new law completely outlawing farming and herding in a 1,500sq km stretch of the Game Controlled Area. On the back of that law the police swooped in, assaulting residents and demolishing hundreds of homesteads.

Following protests, including an online petition – “Stop the Serengeti Sell-off”, which attracted international attention and now has more than 1.8 million signatures – respite appeared to come the way of the beleaguered communities. In 2013, activist groups claimed the government had backed off.

Renewed government threats

Now, a year on, the trenches are being re-dug. The Maasai are complaining of renewed government threats; specifically a quit notice that will expire by the end of the year. In what is perhaps a sign that the government is determined to go ahead with the eviction, it is reportedly offering the affected communities about $500,000 in compensation.

Tanzania tribe evicted from ancestral land

Were he alive, Julius Nyerere, who led Tanganyika (as Tanzania was then known) to independence in the 1960s, would not be surprised. In his essay, “Ujamaa: The Basis of African Socialism”, first published in 1962, he wrote: “In a country such as this, where, generally speaking, the African are poor and the foreigners are rich, it is quite possible that, within 80 or 100 years, if the poor African were allowed to sell his land, all the land in Tanganyika would belong to wealthy immigrants, and the local people would be tenants.”

Nyerere, equating capitalism with exploitation, and seeking to entrench an African version of socialism in Tanzania, vowed that land in the country would never be privately owned. (Admittedly, the success of that ideological experiment is debatable.)

As things have turned out in this Tanzanian case, it’s not poor African peasants letting go of their land, but their government taking those liberties on their behalf.

There are those who insist this is part of a larger trend across Africa, in which wealthy individuals and large companies acquire large tracts of land (and sometimes water) from cash-strapped governments in developing countries. Critics sum it up as “land-grabbing“; Sudan, Malawi, and Ghana are three of the countries that have gone down that route in recent years.

The question that arises is a simple one: Who is looking out for the ordinary people, the ones at the bottom of the ladder, for whom the land at stake is the difference between hunger and a filled stomach; between despondency and a modicum of dignity? Who can we count on to ensure that they are not condemned to getting the short end of the natural resource stick; the way it has happened with oil and diamonds and copper and cocoa all these decades?

We can almost always be certain it won’t be the government, sadly. In the 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures the extent to which the citizens of a country perceive that country’s public service to be corrupt, African countries generally belonged in the bottom. Tanzania occupies 111th place, of 177 countries; even then it is ahead of continental giants Egypt (112th), Kenya (136th), and Nigeria (144th).

So, what is the way out? There will be no easy solutions. Xenophobia will always be a tempting, but ill-advised response to news of ‘foreigners’ exploiting ‘locals’.

Exploitative African land deals

Perhaps the gold standard for exploitative African land deals is the one entered into by the Liberian government with US rubber magnate Harvey S Firestone. Between 1924 and 1926, he signed a series of agreements with the Liberian government.

In one of the agreements (supported by unbelievably generous tax concessions) the Firestone Company leased, for next to nothing in fees, one million acres (4,000sq km) of Liberian land, for a period of 99 years. The deals were signed in spite of the objections of the Liberian parliament. Firestone is today the largest private employer of labour in the country.

So, what is the way out? There will be no easy solutions. Xenophobia will always be a tempting, but ill-advised response to news of “foreigners” exploiting “locals”.

Land reform is fundamental. There has to be a way to empower communities to have a say in the use and allocation of their land. Last year, the Malawian Parliament passed a new law that makes it harder for chiefs to abuse their powers regarding the sale of communal land.

Across the continent, new laws are needed to bridle corporate ambitions and entrench greater transparency in natural resource deals. In many cases, the laws already exist, but are not being implemented.

Judicial and legislative institutions, which exist to checkmate the executive powers of governments, need to be strengthened; as does civil society, which is best placed to leverage information technology to amplify local grievances – as we have seen with the Maasai online petition.

The goal would be to ensure that communities are not kept in the dark regarding negotiations that affect their fortunes; and that, even in the face of collusion between corrupt government officials and big business interests, they do not feel helpless.

Already the Maasai are vowing they would rather die than be evicted from their ancestral land. As we have seen in Nigeria, those feelings of helplessness and frustration are ultimately dangerous.

Tolu Ogunlesi is an award-winning poet and author. His fiction and poetry have been published in The London Magazine, Wasafiri, Farafina, PEN Anthology of New Nigerian Writing, Litro, Brand, Orbis, Nano2ales, Stimulus Respond, Sable, Magma, and Stanford’s Black Arts Quarterly, among others.