The East African Court of Justice (EACJ) has ruled in favor of the Tanzanian government after a five-year legal battle between evicted Maasai communities and the state. According to the court, evidence to plead the communities’ case was insufficient and contradictory. The ruling comes as a blow to Indigenous, environmental and human rights organizations who have advocated for the return of evicted farmers to their land and the withdrawal of the planned wildlife game reserve.
“Again, it seems the government is happy with injustices done to our people. We are very much disappointed,” said a Maasai leader in a press release by the Oakland Institute.
In 2017, the Tanzanian government told Maasai villagers from the country’s Loliondo division of Ngorongoro that they must leave “the confines of the Serengeti National Park.” When they refused, some Maasai villagers say a series of violent evictions commenced – resulting in the five-year legal battle that ended yesterday.
Maasai communities – Ololosokwan, Oloirien, Kirtalo and Arash – have land ownership titles to land adjoining the Serengeti National Park (SNP) but the exact location of the border between those lands and the park has always been in dispute.
Five years ago, the government gave written notice to Maasai people living in the four and surrounding villages that they would have to move from the disputed 1,500 square kilometers (580 square miles). Police officers, under the instruction of government officials, subsequently began a series of evictions.
The four villages filed a case against the Tanzanian government, dubbing the evictions brutal, violent and illegal. The communities contend that they farm, graze and tend to their animals on their legally registered land – not within the SNP as is said by the government. In 2018, the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) granted an injunction prohibiting the Tanzanian government from continuing to evict Maasai communities from the disputed land. However, villagers say evictions continued up until July of this year.
The Tanzanian government argued that they 2017 eviction exercises were done in accordance with the applicable laws of Tanzania, no properties were destroyed and Maasais were always treated with respect.
Disputes over truth, omission and hearsay
In its final judgement, the EACJ said that Maasai villages have failed to provide sufficient evidence that evictions were brutal and that communities were evicted from village lands, rather than from the SNP.
“In no case did any witness give any evidence that proved either injury or actual loss during the exercise,” stated court documents seen by Mongabay. The witnesses’ testimony contradicted each other and was generally insufficient, said the court.
Crucially for Maasai communities pleading their case, the court disregarded a detailed report of an expert witness – a Kenyan national – who testified on behalf of the villages. According to the court, the witness did not have the right permit to work in Tanzania.
“In cross-examination, the witness was not able to demonstrate that he carried out his work within the specific requirements of the laws of Tanzania,” stated court documents.
Maasai leaders say, omitting the testimony of their expert witness was unjustly done, and they will appeal EACJ’s decision.
The court has also omitted a report of satellite imagery showing the burned bomas (traditional Maasai houses) that were located outside the park’s borders.
“That the ruling focuses on this technicality instead of the findings of the survey, indicates that the court failed in its duties and succumbed to pressure from the Tanzanian government,” Anuradha Mittal, Oakland Institute’s executive director, told Mongabay.
The four villages were represented by the Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU), the premier continental membership forum of and for individual African lawyers and lawyers’ associations in Africa.
According to a press statement by Donald Deya, lead counsel for the four villages and PALU’s chief executive officer, the Maasai communities are dissatisfied and disappointed by the judgement and feel that the court has disregarded the compelling multitude of oral and affidavit evidence tendered by the villagers.
An appeal will be lodged at the Appellate Division of the court next week.
According to Deya, the court accepts that there is village land separate from SNP and did not rule on whether the government has the right to evict the villagers from the disputed land.
“It just says that the applicants have NOT proven that the 2017 evictions took place on village land and not in SNP,” he wrote to Mongabay. This distinction is an important one for human rights organizations who say any continued evictions in the area are against the rights of the Maasai, who hold land titles in the region.
“The failure of the East African Court of Justice to hold the Tanzanian government accountable for blatantly abusing human rights of the Maasai in Loliondo is a travesty for all Indigenous communities on the continent,” said Mittal.
Mongabay reached out to the ministry of constitutional and legal affairs for a comment but did not receive a response at the time of publication.
An appeal and another court case in order
It is unclear what the Tanzanian government’s next steps will be but Maasai communities fear that the court’s ruling will now accelerate the government’s eviction plans.
Nevertheless, Maasai leaders say they will not give up fighting for their basic rights.
The Tanzanian government plans to lease the disputed land to a UAE-based company to create a wildlife corridor for trophy hunting and tourism at the risk of displacing more than 70,000 Indigenous Maasai residents.
Despite the court injunction, the Tanzanian government had undertaken violent eviction exercises leaving more than 2,000 homeless after fleeing to Kenya in June.
These evictions led the communities to file a complaint at the EACJ on the failure by the government to adhere to the 2018 injunction.
According to Deya, the court has not yet scheduled a hearing of this complaint.
PALU has issued a call for the Tanzanian government to reverse its Government Notice declaring the disputed land as the “Pololeti Game Controlled Area.”
The declaration was made as a means of taking away village land of the Ololosokwan, Kirtalo, Oloipiri, Lopolun, Orkuyainie, Oldoinyowas, Loosoito, Arash, Ormanie, Oloiswashi, Enkobereti, Olalaa, Kipambi, Ololosokwan villages, and Piyaya and Malambo village land. However, this was done without following the mandatory procedures of the Tanzanian Land Act, Village Land Act, Wildlife Conservation Act, and other laws of Tanzania, says, PALU.
According to Deya, PALU together with other human rights advocates representing community members in the villages, filed this second case challenging the declaration at the EACJ in August.
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Photo on front page: Maasai residents protesting in February 2022 after Arusha’s Regional Commissioner John Mongella revealed plans to lease 1,500 square kilometers of ancestral land to United Arab Emirate (UAE) based Ortello Business Company. Source: Oakland Institute. Photo on this page: Earlier this year in northern Tanzania, more than 70,000 Indigenous Maasai residents were evicted from their ancestral lands to make way for trophy hunting and elite tourism. Source: Anita Ritenour via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).