Joseph Oleshangay: Winner of Weimar Human Rights Prize Shares Future of His Activism

He vows to continue the fight against authorities’ attempts to ‘evict’ his people from their ancestral land.

Dar es Salaam. Joseph Moses Oleshangay, the Tanzanian human rights activist who won the 2023 Weimar Human Rights Prize for his fight for the Maasai people in the country, has vowed to continue the fight, describing the award as a “recognition” for his work.

Mr Oleshangay, an Arusha-based lawyer with the Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC), a leading human rights organisation in the country, received the award on December 10, 2023, in the German city of Weimar. 

Organised by the city of Weimar, the prize is awarded to people, groups or organisations committed to protecting and enforcing fundamental human rights worldwide. It is given on December 10 yearly to coincide with the United Nations’ International Human Rights Day.

The prize, endowed with EURO 5,000, equivalent to Sh13.5 million, recognises Mr Oleshangay’s fight to protect the fundamental rights of his Maasai people in Ngorongoro and Loliondo whom authorities have been trying to “relocate” to other parts of the country in an exercise shrouded in controversy.

Authorities say the human population in the areas has unprecedently shot up, putting both the lives of human beings and wildlife in jeopardy. 

READ MORE: Tanzania’s Activists Up in Arms Over Planned ‘Epic Tanzania Tour’ in Ngorongoro

However, the indigenous people in Ngorongoro and human rights organisations have criticised the exercise, saying it has nothing to do with conservation and is being done in a way that violates people’s fundamental human rights.

In an exclusive interview with The Chanzo, Mr Oleshangay said the decision by the Weimer city to honour him with the award means that his efforts to fight for his people’s rights have not been in vain, noting that it gives him “strength” knowing that what he does matters to justice-loving people of the world.

“Winning this award, in my opinion, is shaming the government’s action against the Maasai community in Tanzania,” Oleshangay, a regular contributor to this publication, explained. 

“This award sends a message that we are not alone in this struggle. People of goodwill are supporting our struggle,” he added. “It also gives our movement international recognition, which is very important.”

The plight of the people of Ngorongoro and Loliondo has been going on for years. But despite calls for the government to stop its controversial exercise, authorities are determined to “relocate” as many people as possible from Ngorongoro to designated areas of Msomera, Saunyi and Kitwai.

READ MORE: Ngorongoro: A Blot on Samia’s Human Rights Record?

On December 3, 2023, Chief Government’s Spokesperson Mobhare Matinyi said more houses are being constructed in the designated villages to receive more people expected to relocate from Ngorongoro.

Hopeful

While to some it might appear hopeless to try to stop the exercise in the face of this determination on the part of the government, Mr Oleshangay told The Chanzo in the end, his people will win, and they’ll be able to live in peace.

“With all the challenges we have found ourselves in, I am still hopeful that though we do not know when this is going to end, I believe it’s going to crash one day,” Oleshangay said in an interview. 

“This repression will crash because it’s against the law, against human rights and known standards,” he adds. “It really defies logic in displacing thousands of people and replacing them with businesses like hotels.”

But if the people have to win their battle and finally stop the exercise aimed at “evicting” them from their land, local and international solidarity is important as it’ll pressure the government of Tanzania to uphold human rights.

READ MORE: Maasai People Sue Tanzania at EACJ Over ‘Forceful Eviction’ Attempts from Ngorongoro

At least this is what Mr Michael Brand, a German politician and lawmaker, emphasised while presenting a eulogy of Mr Oleshangay during a function to present the activist with the award.

Mr Brand suggested that the German government, whose support to Tanzania’s development initiatives is enormous, should take up the issue with its Tanzanian counterpart and use its political weight as an important donor to advocate for a change of course. 

“It can’t be tolerated that 10,000 people get expelled from their lands,” Mr Brand said. He described Oleshangay as a “defender of human rights” with “impressive civility, experience and spirit.”

Mr Oleshangay thanked Weimer City for presenting him with the award, telling The Chanzo that if there’s going to be a victory in the fight, it must involve everyone, regardless of creed, race or geographical location.

“I’m representing the voice of the people who have never been close to the camera or the centre of power but whose rights are ruthlessly violated by the government that ought to protect them,” the 35-year-old activist said. “This recognition is their recognition.”

Marc Bürgi reports for The Chanzo from Dar es Salaam. He is available at burgimar@gmx.ch

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