Early this month, the East African Court of Justice ruled that Tanzania’s (forcible) eviction of its indigenous Maasai population was legal, effectively dealing a blow to indigenous rights across Africa and the world. The decision comes after months of Maasai demonstrations to preserve their land in the face of government plans to lease over fifteen hundred square kilometers to a royal-owned Dubai Company, Otterlo Business Corporation (OBC), for tourism and the trophy hunting of over seventy animals such as lions, leopards, and elephants.
After these plans were announced, Tanzanian authorities were captured opening gunfire and firing tear gas at Maasai protesters, all under the guise of the “conservation” of the Serengeti. The over fourteen thousand square kilometer UNESCO World Heritage Site attracts about two hundred thousand visitors each year for its diverse wildlife, making it the country’s most popular tourist destination. In total, the Tanzanian government has a goal of relocating “more than 73,000 pastoralists out of an estimated 93,000 living in the Ngorongoro conservation area.”
Tanzania has a long and ugly history of displacing the Maasai population to serve the interests of foreign investment and tourism. In 1992, the Tanzanian government authorized the OBC to take over four hundred thousand hectares of land for game hunting and a private airport, land that was home to over fifty thousand Maasai. In 2009, the government forcibly displaced over three thousand Maasai at gunpoint. From 2015 to 2017, Serengeti rangers set fire to over two-hundred eighty bomas (traditional homes), leaving over twenty thousand Maasai homeless.
In June, the Tanzanian government detained ten Maasai leaders and injured over thirty during peaceful demonstrations against the eviction. It was reported that the wounded “had to cross over to Kenya to receive hospital treatment” or else they were subjected to detention or incarceration. These are just a few of the many instances where the Tanzanian government has encroached on Maasai land and repressed freedom for the sake of economic interests.
What complicates matters is the intersection between conservation, trophy hunting, and development in Tanzania. The annual license fee for hunting safari companies is over sixty thousand per block, while hunting animals such as an elephant or lion rakes in tens of thousands of dollars per kill. Recently, the country has focused on attracting tourists with two or three week hunting safari tours, which cost anywhere from fifty to one hundred thousand dollars. Ironically, these fees (which amount to about eighty million dollars in government revenue annually), along with donations from the OBC, help to finance wildlife conversation and development projects throughout Tanzania. According to a 2021 World Bank report, tourism is Tanzania's greatest foreign exchange earner, the second largest contributor to its gross domestic product (GDP), and the third largest contributor to employment. Specifically, Tanzania’s travel and tourism sector contributed $6,577.3 million (10.7 percent) to the country’s GDP and created over 1.5 million jobs in 2019.
However, by authorizing the forced eviction of their indigenous population, the Tanzanian state is sending a dangerous message that it is willing to sacrifice the livelihood of over seventy thousand Maasai (not to mention wildlife) to develop the nation. Not only that, the government seems to be suggesting that state-sanctioned violence against its citizens is acceptable when it is carried out in the name of “protecting the environment.”
In Tanzania’s recent history, state-perpetrated violence against the Maasai and other civilians has been a significant and growing portion of the violence throughout the country. Moreover, state violence against rural groups like the Maasai is vastly underreported due to weak access to cellular networks, particularly in isolated areas. It has been reported that 86% of rural Tanzanians do not have access to the Internet, compared to only 44.6% in urban areas.
Despite being viewed as a “success story” within East Africa, Freedom House ranks Tanzania at only thirty-four out of one hundred on its measure of political rights and civil liberties. Notably, between 2017 and 2022, the ranking has decreased by a staggering twenty-four points. The country is currently categorized as “partly free.”
Under former President John Magufuli, Tanzanians were concerned by the trajectory of the government after several instances of police violence against peaceful opposition groups. Ordinary Tanzanians lamented that the country was “moving away from traditional donors and democratic openness” and towards resource nationalism. President Samia Suluhu Hassan has not eliminated the unease surrounding Maasai displacement, as she has continued to encourage the UAE to invest in tourism.
The Tanzanian government would be wise to recognize that their actions risk endangering the country’s longstanding reputation as a “harbor of peace” in East Africa. This status has enabled the country to boast strong ties with the United States as a major “partner for promoting peace and regional stability in East Africa.” However, continued government repression against the Maasai has opened up a dangerous pocket of violence and civil unrest in the country, one that UN human rights experts have already expressed “grave concern” about.
The Maasai are not giving up this fight so easily; lawyers representing the indigenous group have already announced that they are planning to appeal the court’s decision. Tanzania has earned its reputation for peace and stability, but the government’s continued blatant disregard for human rights makes this status a precarious one.
Reina Patel is a research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations’ Africa Program.