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Maasai Land Rights and the Recolonization of Africa

June 8, 2013 by New Left Project in Africa with 0 Comments
(Photo: Steve Pastor)

(Photo: Steve Pastor)

Nicola F. Pritchard, New Left Project

The Maasai land rights issue in Tanzania has received some global attention of late, with an Avaaz petition that at the time of writing, has over 1,700,000 signatures. The transfer of land rights from the East African tribe to a Dubai-based luxury safari and hunting company is expected to displace tens of thousands of Maasai from the land they depend upon for their survival. This project has received support from Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, and has resulted in widespread protests among the Maasai tribe and threats of resignation from local government employees. Unfortunately, despite this resistance it still appears that the deal is going ahead, and will go down as another case in Maasai history where land has been lost to big business and other tourism related ventures. In addition, the tribes’ loss of land to international companies is a further example of a new set of cultural and commercial influences that have became increasingly prevalent in recent years in the continent, which may be a part of a wider global power shift.

This is not the first instance in which the Maasai have had their nomadic lifestyle interrupted by a forced loss of land, a key example being when the British government evicted them from the Serengeti in the 1950s. The latest conflict, situated in the Loliondo district in the north of the country, will reduce the land of local Maasai by almost 40%. Resistance to the proposed game hunting corridor from both Maasai and the international community has seemed futile, as plans appear to be still going ahead.

The presence of international safari companies is one example of a paradigmatic change in terms of the international actors present in Africa. For many years the subject of Western imperialism, the impact of a Dubai-based firm in the Maasai case is indicative of the rising influence of the leading developing nations on the African continent. But beyond the inroads being made by Middle Eastern capital, the really significant strides are those now being made by China.

Contradicting US AID policy that prioritises ‘good governance’ and market reforms, the Chinese approach is of a far more ‘no strings attached’ nature, maintaining their policy of not interfering with other countries affairs. There are no explicit conditions for African countries to adhere to apart from giving China priority in investment opportunities. Considering the legacy of structural adjustment and the impact of IMF loans, it is not surprising that Africa has been so open to investment from China.

China’s increasing popularity in Africa is making the US uncomfortable, as the new ‘Beijing Consensus’ has an increasing presence where Western finance used to take precedent.  As infrastructure is improved in many of Africa’s largest cities, the new roads and bridges bearing the mark of China are increasingly establishing the relationship between this rising economic power and its African counterparts. Yet there may be a power dynamic attached to China’s presence more subtle than classic Western loan ‘conditionality’, yet just as real, whereby low cost Chinese exports inhibit the development of similar African products, fostering a familiar culture of dependency. These developments are both significant and potentially long term. China’s export driven economy will benefit greatly from its African customers, so increasing and maintaining this trade relationship will be a priority to Beijing for many years. Additionally, China is increasingly separating itself from other economic powers on political issues, for example with its refusal to take a stance on genocide in Sudan and blocking UN Security Council measures to address the conflict.

The speculation over Chinese and other influences in Africa runs the risk of talking about the continent as if it is completely passive in these processes. Former South African President, Thabo Mbeki, has already expressed concern over the Sino-African relationship potentially replicating the colonial one, and placed responsibility on African governments to ensure this does not happen. Nonetheless, Robert Mugabe, for example, appears to have welcomed Chinese investment with open arms, highlighting the fact that African leaders under pressure from other parts of the international community, for example on human rights issues, now have the autonomy to turn away from the West and seek support elsewhere The Western (more specifically US) and Chinese approaches to African politics appear polarised where ‘conditionality’ or the lack of it is concerned. However, returning to the Maasai example, there is nevertheless a familiar and common theme of imperial relations here, where African leaders are more adept at satisfying the needs of foreign powers rather than those of their own people, potentially risking a veritable ‘colonialism from within’. Usufructuary land rights are still being ignored, once again cloaked in the pro conservation arguments used by colonisers to justify access to land years ago. The Maasai case is another where scant consideration has been given to those that work with the land and solely depend on it for their survival.

The Maasai land rights issue in Tanzania is but one of many examples of the changing nature of foreign powers’ involvement in Africa. We already are starting to see the impacts of Chinese influence on the continent, and that of Middle Eastern states could represent another dimension in a part of the world where the polices of external actors still has a disproportionate effect on the lives of the population. And as the dominance of the West and other markets in the Global South continues to be undermined by rising economic powers from the East, what is happening in Africa could form a major part of a wider change in the balance of global economic power overall.

Nicola F Pritchard is a PhD researcher in the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences at the University of Glasgow, researching the political economy of water in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

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