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Maasai Autonomy and Sovereignty in Kenya and Tanzania

"Sovereignty" in the context of indigenous peoples is a new and controversial term among government figures and the sections of civil society concerned with its interpretation and implications in Kenya and Tanzania. The term, however, is not new to indigenous people in its practical aspect. Native people thrived in the eastern Africa region as sovereign and autonomous nations -- with their own languages and cultures, laws and traditions -- before the onset of colonialism. Between Kenya and Tanzania, an estimated one hundred different tribes with distinct territories, languages, and characteristics lived and enjoyed some form of sovereignty and autonomy: each tribe made decisions on all matters relevant to its own specific needs and situations without external interference. Interaction and transactions between tribal groups occurred in an atmosphere of mutual respect and with the understanding that each tribe was a sovereign nation (except where a tribe was conquered and then subjected to the laws of the conquering tribe). The challenge the colonists faced at the time of their arrival in East Africa (and perhaps elsewhere in the world) was how to conquer these well-organized sovereign nations of native peoples.

The creation of the nation-states Kenya and Tanzania resulted in the permanent loss of many tribal peoples' sovereignty and systems of government. The Maasai are an example of a once-strong sovereign indigenous nation that has systematically been reduced to a powerless lot through political maneuvering and targeted policies; it now struggles to maintain its indigenous identity and sovereignty in a hostile pluri-ethnic political environment.

Maasai Sovereignty and Colonial Powers

The Maasai people once had a distinct territory with well-defined natural boundaries, rivers, mountains, valleys, and hills. It is within this territory -- known as Olosho le Maa (the homeland of the Maa speakers) -- that they practiced, as a sovereign nation, their culture and traditions since time immemorial.

At the time of the British arrival, Maasai territory stretched 700 miles north/south from northern Kenya to central Tanzania, and 400 miles east/west. The entire area measured some 200,000 square miles of territory. Until the early 1880s, the Maasai were a formidable nation in eastern Africa. Sir Charles Elliot, Britain's first governor in Kenya, wrote of the Maasai: "They asserted themselves against slave traders, took tribute from those who passed through their country, and treated other races, whether African or not, with great arrogance." In this and other statements, Sir Charles Eliot acknowledged the existence of an exclusive Maasai country. Further, the 1904 and 1911 treaties between the Maasai and the British colonial government, however dubious they turned out to be, gave legitimacy to Maasai sovereignty since only sovereign states could enter into treaties. While these agreements facilitated the dispossession of over two thirds of the Maasai territory, they in later years became an obstacle to further land dispossession. The government's attempt to annex and force the people out of remaining territory was challenged by the Maasai through suit filed on their behalf by a British lawyer. Although both the Law Court and East African Court of Appeals threw the case out on flimsy ground, it served to remind the colonial government that they were dealing with a sovereign state.

In 1913, the colonial government made its first move to undermine the sovereignty of the Maasai by declaring that the Maasai were a tribe and must not be t teated as a sovereign nation. As such, the treaties of 1904 and 1911 would no longer be honored by the government. This pronouncement forever altered the social and political landscapes of Maasai people. They lost sovereignty and autonomy in all subsequent dealings with the colonial and independent governments of Kenya and Tanzania.

Maasai Sovereignty in Post-independence Kenya and Tanzania Kenya and Tanzania's independence did not restore Maasai sovereignty; post-independence governments instead adopted assimilationist and integrationist policies, an indication of disinterest in restoring and preserving Maasai sovereignty and autonomy.

The attainment of independence in Kenya and Tanzania in 1963 and 1961 introduced the daunting task of uniting many tribal groups under one nation-state. As a matter of priority, new leaders embarked on a call for nationalism as a "step toward political and economic growth and stability" in the new states. In Kenya, for instance, negotiations between existing political parties that participated in the struggle for freedom were initiated. Some political parties, which were largely tribal-based, were dissolved or merged with the ruling party, Kenya African National Union (KANU), in exchange for key positions in the cabinet and civil service of the new government. Power was shared in the interest of "unity and nation-building."

Although most of the smaller and less politically active tribes were left out of the negotiations, the Maasai were given some representation in the legislature and cabinet. Some say that the inclusion of the Maasai in the government was a deliberate maneuver to distract them from renewing land claims. Land negotiations and subsequent redistribution were completed without reference to the 1904 and 1911 treaties, which stipulated that the land originally belonging to the Maasai tribe be handed back to them at independence. No part of the estimated six million hectares of dispossessed land was returned to the Maasai people. In the meantime, the Maasai remained on the reservations, unaware of political developments in Nairobi and London.(1)

Subsequent to independence, remaining Maasai lands have continued to attract significant economic and political interest. Once considered barren wastelands without economic importance, the remaining Maasai lands have in recent years been designated for large-scale agriculture, military installation, hydroelectric dams, tourism, and other forms of commercial development. In order to protect and perpetuate these economic interests, the central government has imposed leadership on the Maasai at the national and local levels. Indigenous Maasai holding positions in government have been co-opted to strategically safeguard and promote the interests of the state and dominant society. In the last eighteen years, an estimated one million acres of land have been appropriated through corrupt practices without the knowledge of the Maasai people. Land is gifted to prominent government personalities, sometimes in exchange for monetary or political favors; annexed in the name of national interest; or stolen through other corrupt schemes. Where the state and Maasai interests have clashed, the Maasai have been forcefully removed from their land. The land problems bedeviling the Maasai people today translate to an array of other problems, including:

- a drastic increase in poverty;

- a growing loss of culture due to lack of land base;

- a lack of, or poor, ineffective, political leadership;

- low self-esteem and alcoholism; and

- vulnerability to abuse and discrimination by the larger society.

Although the general assumption is that the Maasai remain relatively unaware of indigenous rights, the reality is that hostile political and economic policies and poor leadership hive undermined their ability to articulate and pursue their rights.

The Maasai have been told that the laws of the land are superior to tribal laws and that traditional leadership and authority are inferior to government authority. Yet they still recognize the extent of their original and present territories; pray to their god, enkai; follow their own laws and customs; and maintain critical traditional institutions such as moranism (warriorhood).

The prevailing atmosphere makes clear that the sovereignty and indigenous claims now being advanced by the Maasai have been misunderstood. Maasai indigenous rights and sovereignty have never been a subject for discussion because the Maasai have historically offered little resistance to government undermining of their rights and sovereignty. It is generally believed that the Maasai long-term agenda is strictly to expel non-Maasai farmers and settlers from their land in the name of indigenous rights and sovereignty. What is at stake is land and natural resources. These competing economic interests have heightened fear and silent resistance to Maasai claims.

Maasai Sovereignty from Our Perspective

The Maasai Environmental Resource Coalition (MERC) held a series of consultations on the meaning of "sovereignty" with the Maasai, both ordinary people and professionals in several fields. Consultations took place in the Maasai crossborder districts of Monduli and Same in Tanzania with the participation of the Maasai from Kenya. The following are their comments and views on sovereignty as they understand it themselves.

Question: What is your understanding of sovereignty?

Sovereignty is "land" or "territory." Without land there is no sovereignty. Even the nation-states of Kenya and Tanzania could not exist as sovereign nations if they did not have what they claim to be their territory. As for us, the Maasai, we continue to lose our territory and thus our sovereignty. (Ole Kasoe, Tanzania)

I do not understand what this word means. But since I must say something as a participant of this discussion, I want to say that a sovereign nation, such as ours was before the arrival of the sons of the sea (white men), is one whose existence is recognized by its people and by other nations. (Ole Simpai, Kenya)

Sovereignty means different things to different people. To us, the Maasai people, it means knowing that those crazy men in Nairobi will not wake up in their dreams and tell us how we should bring up our children, practice our culture, worship the God of our forefathers, tend our livestock, or tell us we are less of a people. (Olol-Dopoi, Kenya)

If they (colonialists and present regimes) had left us alone in our territories, we would not be here causing ourselves headaches trying to figure out what sovereignty is in the context of nation-states. Neither would they be having sleepless worrying about the implications of recognizing our sovereignty. Sovereignty is when they leave us alone to mind our own business. (Ole Kashu)


The governments of Kenya and Tanzania are opposed to the Maasai and other indigenous peoples' sovereignty claims. Claims of sovereignty are considered subversive, a political agenda to expel other communities from Maasailand. The Maasai people want full recognition as a sovereign nation within sovereign nations. As things stand, we are being treated as second class citizens in the land of our ancestors.

Maasai indigenous land and other rights must be restored to ensure our cultural continuity and basic survival. Economic and cultural exploitation of the Maasai people is undermining our culture, pride, dignity, spirituality, and our ability to remain self-sufficient through wise use of natural resources. We the Maasai call upon the United Nations, donor countries, and indigenous peoples' international groups to begin seriously to hold governments of the countries in which indigenous peoples live accountable for human rights and indigenous rights violations.

Land loss has been the single most important factor responsible for the ongoing cultural, economic, and social destitution of the Maasai people. Indeed, land loss is responsible for the erosion of our sovereignty. Without a distinct territory, it would be impossible even for nation-states to claim any form of sovereignty. Areas of injustice against the Maasai people are not confined to land dispossession and cultural annihilation, however. Biased application of the law, institutionalized discrimination in the job market, selective provision of social services, and general inequitable distribution of natural development resources are significant problems.

Troubled by decades of abuse and marginalization, and encouraged by the growing global recognition of indigenous rights, the Maasai are calling for restoration of their rights and sovereignty, and for the creation of a Maasai state. The governments of Kenya and Tanzania have promptly dismissed these calls as inconsequential, daydreams, irresponsible, savagery, inflammatory, self-seeking, and subversive. Neither has the Maasai call for recognition of their indigenous rights and sovereignty been well-received by civil society in general. And for us, the Maasai? The journey to reclaim our sovereignty is long: the valleys we shall walk in this journey are too steep and the plains stretch endlessly. But as the spirit of our ancestors conquered enkata e muta (the era of imminent extinction), so too shall we conquer the new agents of extermination. Long live the indigenous peoples of the world.

(1). The colonial government created two reservations to curtail Maasai movement and ensure effective administration. The measure was also meant to protect the remaining land from further aggression into Maasailand.

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