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Maasai Civil Rights Movement Fights for Ancestral Land!

History has delivered a moment of opportunity to the Maasai community of Kenya not seen for the past 100 years, the chance to regain ancestral land stolen under British colonialism and retaken by wealthy and powerful Kenyans at the time of Independence. Seizing the opportunity, the Maasai community has organized a movement for civil rights that promises not only the return of this land, but sets precedent for other communities in Kenya and elsewhere.  Maasai communities moved their cattle back to unused parts of Mau Narok after the release in 2008 of research which confirms that the land’s occupation is illegal under international law and Kenya’s own law. Following the December 3, 2010 assassination of long time land rights activist Moses Ole Mpoe in the context of this case, the Maasai community began to gather. Through the past year, thousands of Maasai people have met for education, conflict resoluation and non-violence training, prayer and organizing. In February, 15,000 Maasai people gathered at Mau Narok from as far away as Samburu, Amboseli and the border of Tanzania, to show support for the case: this was  the largest gathering of Maasai people since before the colonial occupation of Kenya.

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Meitamei Olol Dapash, lead petitioner in the Maasai community suit to see the return of 30,000 acres of ancestral land at Mau Narok, has been arrested along with more than 50 Maasai community members, on charges of inciting violence. Olol Dapash, texting from jail, called the charges “frivilous” and vows to maintain the community’s commitment to non-violent occupation of Mau Narok while waiting for the determination of Kenyan Suprior court. 500 Maasai people are holding vigil outside of the jail insisting on Dapash’s release. Many Maasai people have been injured in the last two days by over 100 paramilitary government troops sent to clear Mau Narok of Maasai people and make way for settlement of other Kenyans. This recent assault by government troops coincided with a hearing of the case in Kenyan Superior Court in Nairobi on March 25, and appears to indicate  the government’s desperation as it is under pressure to clear and resettle the land before the court rules.

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The date for the next hearing has been set in the Maasai Community’s suit for the return of ancestral land at Mau Narok. On March 25, lawyers will present arguments to a panel of three Superior Court Judges in the downtown Nairobi courthouse, as Maasai people gather and wait in the streets outside to show their support for the case, filed in January 2010 by 52 members of the Maasai community for the return of 30,000 acres appropriated under colonial rule and re-taken by elite Kenyans following Independence.

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Police are free to arrest the aged widow, and son, of former Kenyan Cabinet Minister Mbiyu Koinange for the December 3 murder of Moses Ole Mpoe and Parsaaiayia Ole Kitua, activists of the Maasai community’s struggle to regain ancestral homeland at Mau Narok. Mbiyu Koinange came into possession of land at Mau Narok during his tenure as Kenya’s Minister of Internal Security in the 1970s; his rightful title is the subject of a suit brought by representatives of the Maasai community, which is currently being heard in Kenyan court. Maasai community leadership has demanded that the Kenyan government undertake a more thorough investigation of the murders, claiming to be unconvinced that the accused persons are the sole architects of this crime.

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Slain Maasai land rights activist Moses Mpoe was laid to rest today amidst a crowd of thousands of grieving Maasai community members. Cabinet Minster William Ole Ntimama delivered a speech to the mourners stating that he believed senior government officials were responsible for Mpoe’s assassination due to Mpoe’s involvement in a historic court case that would return 30,000 acres of land to the Maasai community.

The land was originally taken from the Maasai by British colonial authorities and during the process of legal independence in the 1960s was given to high-ranking Kikuyu politicians. Tension has built around the return of the land called Mau Narok, as the current administration wants to use it to resettle Internally Displaced Peoples, while the Maasai community has filed suit to have it returned and used for subsistence and as a wildlife conservancy. Minister Ntimama pledged to the crowd that he would step down from his position if the government refused to act in a search for the killers.

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