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Human Rights Defender of the month: Joseph Oleshangay

As a human rights lawyer and advocate with the High Court of the United Republic of Tanzania, Joseph Moses Oleshangay spends most of his time crossing from one court to another, litigating human rights cases, some with life-altering implications for ordinary people. It is a monumental responsibility, one he never envisaged growing up.  

As a young boy born into a Maasai household in northern Tanzania, his entire childhood revolved around cattle: “Our entire livelihood revolved around cattle. As a child, the main preoccupation was to tend to cows, and my formative years were spent grazing cattle around Endulen. It a simple lifestyle,” he says.    

That simplicity soon disappeared when the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority (NCAA), the agency responsible for the administration of the Ngorongoro conservation area in which many Maasai pastoralists stay and live, started harassing subsistence cattle-rearing and restricting access to grazing lands in the name of conservation. For Oleshangay and the rest of the Maasai, this was a stub at the very core of their existence, and many families started to either sell their excess herds, while others(herds) died altogether, beginning the community’s slow descent into poverty.  

It was this summary injustice that awakened Oleshangay’s awareness to injustice. Initially interested in teaching and nursing as the professions familiar to him, he now was driven to study law to defend his people against state and government overreach.  

In the proceeding years, the pressure on the Maasai from the NCAA would only increase, as the Tanzanian government determined to cash in on tourism revenues and attract foreign direct investment. As the Ngorongoro conservation area, with its vast swaths of flat savannah grassland and considerable wildlife overtime emerged as a favourite for tourism game drives, the government responded by gazetting more and more of previous Maasi grazing lands as conservation land, pushing more and more people from their ancestral lands and leading to the deaths of thousands of cattle, pushing a signficant number of Maasai into poverty and destitution.  

In June 2022, the Tanzanian government announced plans to demarcate 1,500 square kilometers of land in Loliondo division, Ngorongoro district as a game reserve, prohibiting the primarily pastoralist Maasai inhabitants of the area from living on the land, using it for grazing, or even entering the area to seek water for household and agricultural use.  What followed was a litany of human rights violations:

Immediately, government displaced thousands of Maasai in 14 village in Loliondo, and seized/confiscated close to forty thousand livestock in a span of eighteen months from July 2022 to December 2023. Since then, traditional Maasai villages have been raided, cattle confiscated, and those who have dared stand in the way of police actions have been shot and killed. Those who have resisted relocation are constantly threatened, and Maasai employees of NCAA are being threatened to either accept relocation or lose their jobs,” says Oleshangay.

Oleshangay has sought to challenge all this state impunity in the courts of law. Since 2022, he has either supported or litigated at least 14 cases related to Loliondo and Ngorongoro displacement problem in the Tanzanian High court and in the East African court of justice, securing favourable court orders/directives against the displacement on three occasions. “But almost all of these court decisions have been disregarded, he says.  

Immediately, government displaced thousands of Maasai in 14 village in Loliondo, and seized/confiscated close to forty thousand livestock in a span of eighteen months from July 2022 to December 2023. Since then, traditional Maasai villages have been raided, cattle confiscated, and those who have dared stand in the way of police actions have been shot and killed. Those who have resisted relocation are constantly threatened, and Maasai employees of NCAA are being threatened to either accept relocation or lose their jobs,” says Oleshangay.

Oleshangay has sought to challenge all this state impunity in the courts of law. Since 2022, he has either supported or litigated at least 14 cases related to Loliondo and Ngorongoro displacement problem in the Tanzanian High court and in the East African court of justice, securing favourable court orders/directives against the displacement on three occasions. “But almost all of these court decisions have been disregarded, he says.  

“Plans to displace Maasai in different part of Longido, Monduli, Simanjiro and Kiteto continue. Just days ago, Maasai villages of Kimotorok in Simanjiro were invaded by armed forces, people recklessly shot with live bullets, livestock confiscated right within human settlements and driven into a park for which the government demand ransom, as if they were terrorists. In the last three years, the Maasai particularly in Ngorongoro and Loliondo have not been able to undertake any economic activity to improve their livelihoods because they have been preoccupied with fending off attacks and pressure from government to vacate their traditional lands” he adds.

Despite the obstinance from the government, Oleshangay has not been deterred. When he is not in court, he has been engaging in international advocacy, articulating the Maasai’s case in local and international media. He has also had engagements with the German and EU Parliaments to galvanise international attention on the Maasai plight, and to call for international pressure against the actions of the Tanzanian authorities.  

This stubbornness has not been without consequences for Oleshangay. On several occasions, he has been threatened, while state agents have trailed his movements both in Arusha where he works, and in Ngorongoro where he has his family home, looking for him, all of which have pushed him to undertake some precautionary measures regarding his physical and all-round personal security. Yet he remains committed to the struggle to defend his people:

“Plans to displace Maasai in different part of Longido, Monduli, Simanjiro and Kiteto continue. Just days ago, Maasai villages of Kimotorok in Simanjiro were invaded by armed forces, people recklessly shot with live bullets, livestock confiscated right within human settlements and driven into a park for which the government demand ransom, as if they were terrorists. In the last three years, the Maasai particularly in Ngorongoro and Loliondo have not been able to undertake any economic activity to improve their livelihoods because they have been preoccupied with fending off attacks and pressure from government to vacate their traditional lands” he adds.

Despite the obstinance from the government, Oleshangay has not been deterred. When he is not in court, he has been engaging in international advocacy, articulating the Maasai’s case in local and international media. He has also had engagements with the German and EU Parliaments to galvanise international attention on the Maasai plight, and to call for international pressure against the actions of the Tanzanian authorities.  

This stubbornness has not been without consequences for Oleshangay. On several occasions, he has been threatened, while state agents have trailed his movements both in Arusha where he works, and in Ngorongoro where he has his family home, looking for him, all of which have pushed him to undertake some precautionary measures regarding his physical and all-round personal security. Yet he remains committed to the struggle to defend his people: 

“Firstly, I believe what I am doing is the right thing to do – to defend the rights of not just the Maasai, but of all those who’re unable to assert their rights. Secondly, Ngorongoro has been the traditional and historical land of the Maasai going back generations, so I shudder to watch as they’re unjustly removed from their ancestral lands to pave way for commercial interests. I will do everything in my power to ensure that it does not happen on my watch, he says.”

See more HRDs of the Month

Human Rights Defender of the month: Pamela Angwench Judith

For most of her life, Pamela Angwech’s existence has always been a defiant and simultaneous act of survival and resistance. In 1976 when she was born, the anti-Amin movement was gathering pace, and her family was one of the earliest victims of the then dictatorship’s reprisals in Northern Uganda. Her father, a passionate educationist in Kitgum district was one of the most vocal critics of the dictatorship’s human rights excesses, which made him an obvious target of the state’s marauding vigilantes.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Joseph Oleshangay

As a human rights lawyer and advocate with the High Court of the United Republic of Tanzania, Joseph Moses Oleshangay spends most of his time crossing from one court to another, litigating human rights cases, some with life-altering implications for ordinary people. It is a monumental responsibility, one he never envisaged growing up.

As a young boy born into a Maasai household in northern Tanzania, his entire childhood revolved around cattle: “Our entire livelihood revolved around cattle. As a child, the main preoccupation was to tend to cows, and my formative years were spent grazing cattle around Endulen. It a simple lifestyle,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Julia Onyoti

The situation of South Sudan’s women and girls remains one of those enduring blights on the country’s conscience. The country retains the unenviable reputation of having the world’s highest maternal mortality rate, and at 51.5%, one of the highest cases of child marriages. It is even worse with gender-based violence(GBV): A 2019 study by UNICEF found that one in every two South Sudan women have experienced intimate partner violence, while a recent UN study, alarmed at the widespread nature of conflict-related sexual violence in the country, in which women are tread as “spoils of war” described it as “a hellish existence for women and girls.

Human Rights Defender of the month:SHIMA BHARE

Shima Bhare Abdalla has never known the luxury and comfort of a stable and safe existence inside her country’s borders. When she was 11, her village was attacked and razed to the ground, sending her family and entire neighborhood scattering into an internally displaced People’s Camp, at the start of the Darfur civil war.

That was in 2002. Shima and her family relocated into Kalma refugee camp in Southern Darfur, where, alongside over 100,000 other displaced persons, they had to forge out a living, under the watch and benevolence of the United Nations – African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur, known as UNAMID. It is here that Shima’s human rights consciousness came to life. She enthusiastically embraced whatever little education she could access under the auspices of the humanitarian agencies operating in the camp, to be able to tell the story of her people’s plight.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Martial Pa’nucci

Martial Pa’nucci is a child of what is fondly known as Africa’s second liberation. In 1990 when he was born, the Republic of Congo, like many other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, was undergoing a transition from one-party rule to multi-party democracy, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yet developments in ordinary people’s lives were not as optimistic. Pa’nucci was born in one of Brazzaville’s ghettos to a polygamous family of two mothers and 19 siblings, where survival was a daily exercise in courage. When he was two, his father died, followed in quick succession by many of his siblings. Pa’nucci did not start school until he was nine, and he had to do odd jobs – from barbering to plumbing to earn his stay there, lest he dropped out like many of his peers.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Veronica Almedom

Veronica Almedom is a poster child of successful immigration. A duo Eritrean and Swiss citizen, she was born in Italy, and grew up in Switzerland where she permanently resides. Her parents are some of the earliest victims of Eritrea’s cycles of violence. When Eritrea’s war of independence peaked in the early 1980s, they escaped the country as unaccompanied minors, wandering through Sudan, Saudi Arabia, before making the hazard journey across the Mediterranean into Europe. There, they crossed first to Italy, and finally, to Switzerland, where they settled first as refugees, and later, as permanent residents.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Omar Faruk Osman

Omar Faruk’s career, and the passion that drove it, were the product of his circumstances. He was born in 1976, in the first of strong man Mohamed Siad Barre’s two-decade rule over Somalia, which was characterized by gross rights abuses and barely existent civic space. He came of age in the 90s when those abuses and rights violations were peaking, as his country was engulfed by a ruinous civil war following the collapse of the Siad Barre dictatorship.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Rita Kahsay

When the Ethiopian Federal Government representatives and those of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed a peace agreement in Pretoria, in November last year, the two parties were hailed for ending arguably the deadliest conflict of the 21st century, in which over 600,000 people had died.
But long before the negotiators for peace got around to an agreement, there were many other unsung heroes, who, through individual and collective efforts helped sustain the world’s gaze on the dire situation in Tigray, despite the Ethiopian Government’s determined efforts to hush it up.

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