Dar es Salaam. The Samia Suluhu Hassan Administration is having a hard time convincing the world that its decision to relocate the indigenous people of Ngorongoro is well-intentioned and in line with regional and international human rights mechanisms.
Perhaps no other policy currently puts the administration at loggerheads with regional and international rights groups than that of Ngorongoro and Loliondo. It is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine how authorities will reconcile the policy with its stated commitments to promoting human rights in Tanzania.
Locally, the issue remains as polarising as ever, with two opposed camps seeming to go head to head to win a narrative. On the one hand, is a government-linked campaign seeking to portray the exercise as good and necessary, battling with the one that considers it destructive and violent.
Tanzania’s strategy to defend its decision so far seems to be two-pronged: first, removing the ‘indigenous’ label that rights groups have put on the Maasai, insisting that Tanzania does not have a specific indigenous community, and, secondly, showing that the welfare of those relocated is way better than of those who decided to remain in Ngorongoro.
Authorities’ attempts to defend it notwithstanding, the controversial decision is quite a hard nut to crack for an administration that has repeatedly assured the world of its commitment to upholding democracy and human rights, ruling out the possibility of discriminating against anyone on a political, religious, sexual, or ethnic basis.
READ MORE: Questions Abound on Ngorongoro Eviction Saga
President Samia, with a background in governance, has put human rights at the centre of her leadership approach, earning herself many plaudits among her people and those she partners with in her mission to take Tanzania to the next developmental step.
From initiating a national dialogue to improve political pluralism in Tanzania to engaging media stakeholders to improve press freedom, Samia’s marks in the essential battle to promote human rights in the East African nation are everywhere.
“Democracy can only thrive where human rights are respected, and [the] rule of law is observed,” Samia rightly told the participants of this year’s Summit for Democracy on March 29, 2023.
“Our government has then given high priority [to] the promotion of human rights in the country, and restrictions on the enjoyment of human rights have been removed,” she added.
But critics accuse the administration of drawing the line when it comes to living up to this commitment regarding the future of the indigenous people of Ngorongoro it is hell-bent on removing from what the people themselves describe as their “ancestral land.”
Tanzania says it must relocate people from Ngorongoro to other areas to ensure proper conservation of the areas most used for tourist and game reserve purposes.
Authorities say the human population in the areas has unprecedently shot up, putting both the lives of human beings and wildlife in jeopardy.
In the case of Ngorongoro, which UNESCO has inscribed as a World Heritage Site, authorities claim that the human population there has increased from only 8,000 in 1959 to 110,000 in 2022.
The government has identified two areas where people who will offer to leave Ngorongoro “voluntarily” will be relocated. They are Msomera in Tanga and Kitwai in Manyara.
As of August 2022, some 536 residents and 2,051 livestock were relocated to Msomera village since the exercise began on June 16, 2022. Other 5,382 residents had already registered for the exercise.
In Loliondo, government decided to form a new game controlled area, Poloreti Game controlled area in a piece of land where locals consider crucial for grazing especially during dry season.
While authorities say this is to protect an important piece of land which is source of water in all Ngorongoro, communities around have been complaining that this is to the benefit of game hunters who now use the area exclusively.
On both Ngorongoro and Loliondo, locals and rights groups have slammed the entire exercises as forceful and arbitrary, carried out in total violations of people’s fundamental human rights.
Human rights organisations allege that Tanzania has been carrying out the exercise without consultation and the affected communities’ free, prior, and informed consent.
An investigation by Human Rights Watch, for instance, found that since at least 2009, the government has “forcibly evicted” thousands of people from Loliondo to open areas for conservation, tourism, and trophy hunting.
Human Rights Watch’s analysis of satellite imagery of the area found that in July 2022, about 90 homesteads and animal enclosures were burned within the demarcated area.
The Chanzo reached the respective authorities for comment but were not immediately available. But on August 20, 2022, Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa denied any human rights violations, noting that the exercise had considered all human rights aspects.
Against this background, major human rights organisations are almost unanimous in their calls to have the exercise suspended. These include regional and international mechanisms established to ensure world nations respect and protect human rights.
The latest international instrument to make such a call is the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination of the United Nations in its letter to Tanzania’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations dated April 28, 2023.
In her letter, the committee’s chairperson, Verene Shepherd, requests Tanzania to “immediately halt plans for relocation and forcible evictions of Maasai communities from their traditional lands in Loliondo and Ngorongoro Conservation Area.”
She urges authorities to begin consultations with affected Maasai communities to obtain their free and informed consent before approving any project affecting their traditional lands.
She also asked authorities to “take measures to effectively protect Maasai communities against reported acts of excessive use of force, intimidation, arbitrary arrest and discrimination and racist speech.”
But it is hard to say if President Samia will heed this latest call, given her past remarks about human rights activists’ involvement in the issue, irked by their decision to stand with affected communities instead of with her government.
Speaking during the occasion to mark the tenth anniversary of the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders’ Coalition (THRDC) on May 13, 2022, Samia said her government works towards preserving the UNESCO-inscribed world heritage site, wondering why human rights defenders do not support it.
“When we go out to defend world heritage, the heritage that exists in Tanzania, like Ngorongoro, the government is committed to preserving that heritage,” Samia said.
“But is it not your networks [of human rights defenders] that defend the people putting that heritage at risk?” the Head of State asked rhetorically. “It is your networks by claiming that it is human about rights.”