Why the Loliondo controversy refuses to go away

Thursday June 23 2022
Loliondo pic
By Charles Makakala

The government’s decision to establish a hunting block in Loliondo in 1992 has been the source of so much trouble in the district. People have resisted the project without respite. Houses have been burnt and blood spilt, but the project has continued anyway.

Why has this issue so obstinately refused to go away?

Loliondo is located around the ridges of the Great Rift Valley in northern Tanzania. It is surrounded by lush green wilderness that stretches for hundreds of kilometres. With Serengeti in the west, Ngorongoro Crater in the south, Kenya’s Maasai Mara in the north, and the dry Longido hills in the east, the area is home to very diverse and abundant wildlife found anywhere in Africa.

It is also a home to the world-famous Maasai tribe, pastoralists who have wandered around those plains for centuries, tending to their cattle while developing an amazingly rich culture.

When groups of Maasai communities living in the Serengeti were evicted to Loliondo and Ngorongoro in 1959, they joined other Maasai communities resident in those areas. Their communities link up with Maasai communities in Narok and Kajiado counties in Kenya. In Loliondo, they number about 70,000 who own about 200,000 animals.

For a while things in Loliondo were destined to go hunky-dory until a man with a turban arrived, bearing gifts from high places.

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In 1992, Tanzania issued a hunting licence for 1,500 square kilometres in Loliondo to Brigadier Sheikh Mohamed Abdul Rahim Al-Ali. Al-Ali procured the land for the exclusive use of the Dubai Royal Family. The land was part of Maasai village lands – and they did not welcome the arrangement.

Operating under the name of Otterlo Business Corporation (OBC), the Emiratis built a camp site, a substantial airstrip, and mobile telecom infrastructure in Loliondo. During a hunting season, the campsite is said to host hundreds of people at a time, including workers. At some point, all those people were received by a ‘Welcome to UAE’ mobile message. That was quite considerate – those guests had come from very far!

Nonetheless, the overlapping of the hunting block with Maasai grazing areas has been a source of endless disputes, often leading to violence. According to one report, in 2009, OBC reportedly set 200 Maasai bomas alight. At least 20,000 people were affected, and over 50,000 cattle were cut off from pastures.

So, once again, why?

The rule of thumb is, when great force is deployed, great interests are usually being protected.

So, is it conservation? Hardly. These are legally village lands – a fact repeatedly confirmed by multiple government officials over the years. Moreover, with 38 percent of land in Tanzania allocated for conservation, surely the government doesn’t need more land for protection, otherwise people might wonder what is its priority: people or animals?

Is it protection of water sources? Unlikely. Six rivers start in Loliondo but only one goes to the Serengeti. The rest go to Lake Natron. Moreover, protection of their environment is grandfathered into the Maasai culture.

Is it investment? Equally unlikely. Tanzania is not short of land for tourist investment. So, why would anyone conceive an investment idea which push away the indigenous people?

Is it government revenues? In 2017, the East African revealed that OBC paid the government $2 million and CCM $32,000 in 1994. Apart from this, information regarding what Tanzanians make from OBC’s operations appear to be quite opaque. Given the importance that Loliondo is given, don’t people need to know what the government actually gets in Loliondo?

How about OBC’s interests? This is the variable that appears to hold the key in understanding this equation.

Most airstrips in the jungle range between 1 kilometre to 1.5 kilometres, but OBC’s 3km airstrip is big enough for an Airbus A380 to land on. Such an investment indicates that the forecast in number of passengers, cargo, or both, was significant.

In 2010, Tanzania had a peak of about 1,500 hunters through its 40 licensees. These are mostly high-spending tourists who can afford to pay from $15,000 to $60,000 for a two to three-weeks safari. If we estimate OBC to have hosted about 200 – 300 hunters annually (based on reports from the locals and other estimates) in the years towards 2010, the airstrip investment remains curiously revealing.

How about cargo, that is, live animals? Reports of the transportation of live game have existed from 1993, but the numbers are not disclosed. However, when videos of the Emiratis marketing their game parks to the world start to circulate in social media, it takes little imagination to deduce where those animals most probably came from.

Is this material enough to explain why allegations of corruption in association with OBC has involved even ministers? One of them not only accused OBC of attempting to bribe him but he also went as far as to allege the existence of a syndicate in the ministry in favour of OBC!

This clearly shows that there is more than meets the eye in Loliondo. The government cannot pretend that it is an impartial player there and should change course. It is time the OBC contract in Loliondo was terminated. The government must distance itself from its current entanglements with OBC.

Moreover, all developments premised on pushing the Maasai from Loliondo should be stopped. There are better alternatives.

Finally, steps must be taken to start to end nomadic pastoralism in Tanzania. This can be done by helping pastoralists to modernise their livestock keeping practices. This will be win-win for every stakeholder. Failure to do that now will lead to catastrophe in the future.