So far missing from the raging international controversy on the relocation of Maasai families from Loliondo, in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro area, is Msomera village, about 50 kilometres from Handeni township in Tanga region, 600 kilometres away from Loliondo.
This vast and sparsely populated rural landscape bordering Kibindi district and Manyara region is the government’s final destination of choice for the Maasai families relocated from Loliondo.
Tanzanian authorities have in the past two weeks aggressively pushed ahead with the relocation of the pastoral Maasai community from Loliondo, despite criticism by civil society and anthropologists around the world.
The government has been at pains to dismiss widespread claims from critics both at home and abroad that Loliondo, a designated 4,000-square kilometre game-controlled area in Arusha Region's Ngorongoro district, is Maasai ancestral land which would render their relocation more of an eviction.
But by Thursday last week, 40 households in Loliondo, among them 237 people of both Maasai and Hadzabe communities had been moved, with their livestock, to Msomera, at government cost, according to the Tanga Regional Commissioner.
The relocation is a closely co-ordinated effort between at least five line ministries working under the direct supervision of Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa, an indication of how much President Samia Suluhu’s administration wants it to happen despite the negative international attention.
The first batch of 20 households arrived a week ago and the second batch, also comprising 20 households, arrived on Thursday night. Another 60 or more households, said to have agreed to the ‘‘voluntary’’ move from Loliondo, will be arriving here in phases as the government hastens the infrastructure construction and upgrade in this 162,000-hectare area dedicated to the relocation.
The plan is to give each household up to 10 acres of land for grazing their herds, subsistence agriculture and other needs as comfortably as possible, government officials told The EastAfrican on our visit this week. "The objective of this operation from the outset was to ensure that those being settled here will find better standards of social services from day one," said a government official who sought anonymity.
Dubai trophy hunters
The current Loliondo land saga goes back to 1992 when a Dubai-based hunting company, Otterlo Business Corporation, acquired an exclusive hunting permit for 4,000 square kilometres in Loliondo, by way of a permit obtained through a controversial 25-year deal with the government. Critics of this deal say the Dubai firm has since been lobbying to have 1,500 square kilometres of the land cleared of human settlement for uninterrupted trophy hunting.
This led to a confrontation between the Maasai pastoralists on the land and local police, which culminated in a court case at the East African Court of Justice (EACJ), with the court granting an injunction to prevent "eviction" of Maasai from Loliondo. The injunction is still in place.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in a June 19 statement called on Tanzanian authorities to respect the EACJ injunction and "ensure appropriate peaceful measures are undertaken towards recognising, respecting and protecting the rights of the Maasai communities." "Intimidations of community members be stopped," the IUCN said.
"What is required is a fair, just and equitably governed consultative process to identify long-term solutions, and to investigate and address human rights violations related to nature conservation, including any establishment, amendment or expansion of protected or conserved areas."
It is therefore curious, why the government has decided now to disregard it and go ahead with the evictions, and in the process spending billions of shillings on the actual relocation and to ‘’develop’’ Msomera.
Priority infrastructure listed by the government includes water supplies for both domestic and animal, health and education facilities, upgraded roads and communication infrastructure. But even more, money is being spent on the logistics of transporting families in minibuses, and trucks for the herds, probably running into billions of shillings. Government sources say an official budget for the exercise has not been shared even internally, pointing to how controlled the entire operation is.
A quick spot check by The EastAfrican confirmed official government updates on the relocation operation, such as the ongoing construction of a Tsh1.99 billion ($8.5 million) dam, 167,000-litre storage tank and pump house, and laying of pipes to cover an initial six kilometres of the 20-kilometre distribution network mapped out in the project blueprint.
The existing Msomera village dispensary has been renovated and there are plans to build a larger and more modern health centre; two newly built schools, one primary, one secondary, are ready to admit students but are waiting certification by school inspectors.
There are ongoing upgrades on the road links to Handeni and Korogwe - the closest urban centre. Government officials say the roads component of the project alone will cost Tsh2.53 billion ($1.1 million).
At least 100 of the 500 planned new houses for the resettled families have already been built, a project being undertaken by Tanzanian army conscripts. Private contractors — including one Chinese — are working round the clock to complete connecting the village to the power grid. Currently, only a few houses have electricity, including 20 of the newly built homes for the new families.
Back in Loliondo, no one knows what will happen to the families who have refused the voluntary relocation.
On Wednesday the government appeared to further tighten the screw on those opposed to the relocation and Commissioner General of Immigration Anna Makakala announced a 10-day special operation to weed out all "illegal immigrants" in the Loliondo area.
“I am warning people who have entered the country illegally to officially get proper documentation to legitimise their stay and operate within the confines of the laws of the country,” she said in Loliondo, where she was inspecting progress of demarcation and beacon placing for the planned game reserve.
The announcement came on the back of reports of violent clashes between police and Maasai out to stop the beacon demarcation.
According to Tourism and Natural Resources Minister Pindi Chana, the intention is to turn 1,500 sq km of the Loliondo Game Controlled Area into a full-fledged Game Reserve to strike a balance between conservation and livelihoods and "protect the area for the best interests of the nation at large."
The Loliondo Game Controlled Area was established in 1951 as a strategic area for the protection of Serengeti and Maasai Mara cross-border ecosystems in Tanzania and Kenya.
The new Game Reserve will be named Pololeti, said Ms Chana saying 400 beacons have already been placed to demarcate the area for the new reserve.
The government has cited the rapid growth of human and livestock population in the area since 1959, from 8,000 to 110,000 people, and from 260,000 to over one million heads of cattle, too much to warrant their removal to prevent human wildlife conflict.
In Msomera, the relocation has a silver lining. Long-time Handeni resident Jackson Kagonji, says Msomera was a backward place, and not even public teachers wanted to be posted there because there was no electricity, water and the roads were hell. “Now it's slowly turning into a kind of paradise before our very eyes," he said.
According to Handeni district administrative secretary Mashaka Mgeta, before the project began Msomera was listed as a government Reserve Area with a population not exceeding 6,000 and made up of local Zigua livestock keepers with a few Maasai pastoralists who wandered through and some settled.
Mr Mgeta said the idea of having Maa community here was therefore not strange, only that the earlier Maasai settlers here were not from Loliondo but Maasai lands.
Richard Tobiko, a father-of-two who was among the first batch to relocate to Msomera from Loliondo with his young family a week ago, says so far, the experience was good and "not only did we receive a generous compensation package but they also provided the transport to bring us and our livestock here plus a real brick house and all basic amenities including grazing land, water and electricity. We can hardly believe this kind of generosity from the government," Mr Tobiko said.
The family runs a little grocery shop from their house. He said "Back in Loliondo we lived in mud huts with no electricity, no good hospitals, and we were forbidden to do any kind of business. So it's like a dream come true." "And even though I have relatives in Loliondo still calling us sell-outs, my advice to all the doubters back there is that they should come see for themselves what is on offer, then make a decision whether to join us or not."