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Is Conservation Becoming Colonialism in Tanzania?

Tourism initiatives and conservation of UNESCO heritage sites have led to forced evictions of Indigenous peoples.

Nosmot Gbadamosi
By , a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief.
Michael Mtoo looks on as his cattle drink water in Msomera, Tanzania, on July 15.
Michael Mtoo looks on as his cattle drink water in Msomera, Tanzania, on July 15.
Michael Mtoo looks on as his cattle drink water in Msomera, Tanzania, on July 15. -/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

The highlights this week: Rwanda’s deal with the United Kingdom faces further stumbling blocks, Senegal’s government is accused of cracking down on opposition leaders on the eve of elections, and Namibia will reintroduce cheetahs into India 70 years after they went extinct there.

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Why Is the UAE Linked to Forced Evictions in Tanzania?

African leaders gathered in the Rwandan capital of Kigali last week for the first continentwide meeting on conserving nature across Africa. The IUCN Africa Protected Areas Congress meeting was particularly relevant, as conflicts between governments and locals over land use are becoming increasingly fraught.

More than 2,000 delegates attended the conference, resulting in a call-to-action document that partly acknowledged “past and ongoing injustices experienced when indigenous peoples and local communities have not been accorded their rights” and vowed for “these injustices to be halted now and in the future.”

Tourism-dependent countries across Africa are unlikely to honor such commitments as states balance Indigenous rights with calls to increase conservation programs. In Tanzania, state security forces have attempted to evict people from Loliondo within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that borders the Serengeti National Park, resulting in ongoing violent clashes. In June, the Tanzanian government demarcated 580 square miles of land in Ngorongoro as a luxury game reserve allegedly for the Emirati royal family, human rights groups say.

An estimated 150,000 Maasai people are facing displacement from Loliondo and Ngorongoro, according to the United Nations. “It could jeopardize the Maasai’s physical and cultural survival in the name of ‘nature conservation,’ safari tourism and trophy hunting,” U.N. experts warned.

“No consent has been given, no consultations, no compensation—because the land compensation law of Tanzania requires for compensation whenever people are shifted,” said Paul Kisabo, a Tanzanian lawyer representing Maasai communities.

At least 27 Maasai people have been charged with conspiracy and murder of a police officer shot by an arrow during demonstrations against the government’s plans to resettle Maasai people in Msomera village, in Handeni district.

But 10 of the people charged with murder were arrested before the officer was killed, which Kisabo believed was an attempt at “intimidation.” He said many Maasai people had escaped to Kenya between June 8 and June 15, fearing for their lives, and 61 people have been charged with “illegal stay” within Tanzania.

Human rights defenders have been intimidated, and some have gone into hiding, according to locals contacted by Foreign Policy. The Tanzanian government denies evictions are taking place, claiming that locals are being voluntarily resettled to provide “better standards of social services” for communities.

But Anuradha Mittal, the executive director of the Oakland Institute, told Foreign Policy that there is a shortage of water at the Msomera resettlement site. “Our field research clearly shows no hospital has been built, there is an old dispensary which has been painted over, the schools are not ready, less than 200 homes are built,” she said. “This is really about the elites who think Africa is basically still their playground.”

The hunting concession in Loliondo belongs to Otterlo Business Corp. (OBC), a company that a 2019 U.N. report says was granted a hunting licence in Tanzania in 1992 “allowing the UAE royal family to organize private hunting trips.” The report accused Tanzanian security forces and “OBC agents” of the “displacement of some 20,000 persons, the burning and demolition of their settlements and food and the loss of livestock” in an August 2017 eviction of several Maasai communities in Loliondo.

A 2018 injunction by the East African Court of Justice prohibited the Tanzanian government from evicting the Maasai until a ruling in June 2022, but that court case was postponed at the last minute until September. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has strongly condemned the evictions and urged the government to “ensure” that resettlements are carried out “in full collaboration with and participation of the affected communities.”

The Oakland Institute accuses UNESCO of being complicit because it has failed to use its leverage to ensure respect for Indigenous rights, noting that the Maasai are not allowed to graze cattle or grow food on the heritage site. (The Maasai in Ngorongoro were already moved from Serengeti, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and now face eviction again.)

“For most of us when we hear UNESCO, we think of a U.N. agency which is protecting precious sites, Indigenous cultures. Little do people know that UNESCO is nothing but again a Western, top-down colonial mindset, which talks about preserving places without the people, and instead of preserving the culture, it is going to become a burial ground of culture by extinguishing the way of life and livelihoods,” Mittal said.

In an emailed statement, UNESCO told Foreign Policy that it “has never at any time asked for the displacement of the Maasai people” and proposed a negotiated solution. UNESCO has offered “to provide technical assistance to the United Republic of Tanzania in the management of the property. The Organization can help determine the way forward ensuring that any decision on this issue is based on ‘free, prior and informed consent,’” a spokesperson for the body said.

Some conservationists argue that population growth in Africa needs to be managed to curb wildlife habitat loss in many countries. But in several cases, such as in Ghana, locals continue to fight for Indigenous management and protection of national parks. In Kenya, Ogiek communities, traditional forest-dwelling people, are contesting land taken by the Mount Elgon National Park.

They argued at last week’s congress that state officials must work with Indigenous communities as custodians rather than seeing them as threats—despite extractive industries posing a significant threat to these lands. For example, while poachers are shot on sight, logging and mining projects regularly take place on protected land with no similar punishment. The trend is not limited to Africa.

In a 2018 article for Foreign Policy, Alexander Zaitchik warned that a form of conservation colonialism was taking hold in Ecuador, depriving Indigenous communities of ancestral land. In Tanzania, this is often done to benefit international tourism.

The Week Ahead

Wednesday, July 27: French President Emmanuel Macron visits Guinea-Bissau as part of a West African tour that began on Monday.

Thursday, July 28: The U.N. Security Council holds a meeting on whether to extend its sanctions regime against the Central African Republic and its mission in Libya; both expire July 31.

Sunday, July 31: Senegal holds parliamentary elections.

What We’re Watching

Rwanda refugee facility. Yolande Makolo, a spokesperson for the Rwandan government, admitted that the country has only one hostel that can accommodate up to 200 refugees, not the 1,000 claimed by British Home Secretary Priti Patel as part of London’s controversial refugee deal with Kigali. Other facilities were “in the planning stage,” Makolo told a press briefing on Friday.

Both candidates vying to succeed Boris Johnson as U.K. prime minister have said they would keep the deal with Rwanda and promised hard-line policies on migration. Britain struck an agreement in April to pay Rwanda 120 million pounds (about $145 million) to receive refugees that Britain deemed had crossed the English Channel illegally, but no migrants have yet been flown to the country after a series of legal challenges.

Last week, Britain’s Home Affairs Committee found there was “no evidence” that the scheme is acting as a deterrent. More than 14,000 people have crossed the channel on small boats this year, and the numbers “continue to rise significantly,” the report said.

Morocco jails migrants. A Moroccan court sentenced 33 people, mostly from Sudan and South Sudan, to 11 months in prison last week for “illegal entry into Moroccan territory.” Those jailed had attempted to enter Spain by crossing a fortified border wall separating the two countries in June.

They were repelled by Moroccan and Spanish security officers, who used tear gas and excessive force, according to Human Rights Watch. At least 23 people died. The migrants and those seeking asylum were accused of “disobedience” and “violence against public officials.”

A protester holds the Senegalese flag as she attends a political opposition in Dakar, Senegal, on June 8.
A protester holds the Senegalese flag as she attends a political opposition in Dakar, Senegal, on June 8.

A protester holds the Senegalese flag as she attends a political opposition in Dakar, Senegal, on June 8.SEYLLOU/AFP via Getty Images

Senegal legislative elections. Campaigning is in full swing for Senegal’s upcoming legislative elections, scheduled to be held on Sunday, yet there are concerns from rights groups that crackdowns on protests threaten the country’s image as a bulwark of democratic principles. Over the past few months, some opposition leaders were disqualified from the ballot, and others received suspended sentences for organizing what authorities deemed illegal protests.

Senegal’s economy is on the up as a result of recent gas developments, yet global inflation and the rising cost of living have affected many Senegalese. The elections were meant to take place in 2019 but were pushed to 2020 and then further delayed by the pandemic. There are concerns from his detractors that if President Macky Sall’s party holds onto an overall majority, he may run for a third term in the 2024 presidential election, following a constitutional referendum in 2016.

This Week in Tech and Culture

China-Nigeria relations. The Nigerian airline Air Peace began its first direct flights to Guangzhou, China, last week. Plans for further expansion include direct routes to key cities in India, which is Nigeria’s largest trade partner. It came a few weeks after a Chinese vessel became the first to dock at Nigeria’s $1.5 billion Lekki Deep Sea Port, which was partly financed through a loan from the China Development Bank, within the special economic zones in Lagos, a manufacturing-for-exports enterprise between Nigeria, China, and a Singapore consortium.

The port is expected to create up to 170,000 jobs. The Free Trade Zones, conceived over a decade ago, are majority owned by Chinese conglomerates and meant to attract investors, thereby addressing Nigeria’s infrastructure deficit, but they have also been criticized for driving out poor residents and improper compensation for forced evictions.

Namibia-India cheetah repopulation. Namibia will reintroduce the world’s fastest animal to India, where the big cat became extinct 70 years ago, through an agreement signed last week. Eight African cheetahs will be flown to the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh for captive breeding within the Kuno National Park.

“Completing 75 glorious years of Independence with restoring the fastest terrestrial flagship species, the cheetah, in India, will rekindle the ecological dynamics of the landscape,” Indian environment minister Bhupender Yadav tweeted.

The Asiatic cheetah was declared officially extinct in India in 1952 and regionally extinct elsewhere as the only known surviving populations are in Iran. African cheetahs are a different subspecies but equally threatened—numbering fewer than 7,000, primarily in southern and eastern Africa.

Chart of the Week

African governments are grappling with donor incentives to establish exclusive game reserves in order to expand protected conservation areas. But many national parks and protected places are created through the eviction of Indigenous peoples. Last July, a U.N. draft biodiversity framework called for 30 percent of land and sea areas globally to be conserved through measures such as protected national parks. It has drawn criticism from Indigenous rights activists.

What We’re Reading

Mining law change in Uganda, Malawi. Collins Mtika and Umaru Kashaka, writing for the Centre for Investigative Journalism Malawi, examine whether new mining laws introduced in Uganda and Malawi can combat illegal trading in the sector that robs both governments of much-needed state funds. Last year, Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera blamed illegal extraction for the loss of $85 million worth of gold exports to the Middle East every year.

The implementation of more stringent laws could increase the contribution of Malawi’s mining sector from just 3 percent of GDP to 20 percent. However, Sydney Asubo, the executive director of Uganda’s Financial Intelligence Authority, noted that Gulf nations need to do their part to “ensure that what they bring in is clean.”

How protest music sold out in Zimbabwe. Over a decade ago, Zimdancehall, a local adaptation of Jamaican dancehall, was born from a demand that lyrics reflect Zimbabwe’s economic crisis and the daily struggles of young Zimbabweans. In African Arguments, Kennedy Nyavaya writes that the genre has lost its way as musicians increasingly perform at political rallies and for the country’s rich elites, yet “there are many enthusiasts ready to resist its political takeover.”

Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg

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