Main languages: Swahili/Kiunguja (official), English, Arabic (widely spoken in Zanzibar), 120 others
Main religions: Christianity 61.4 per cent, Islam 35.2 per cent, Animism 1.2 per cent, and Hinduism.
In Zanzibar, the population is almost exclusively (over 99 per cent) Muslim.
There are more than 100 ethno-linguistic groups, including Barabaig, Hadza/Hadzabe, Maasai, and Shirazi and Zanzibar Arabs.
Tanzania features rich ethnic diversity with around 120 linguistic groups. Most Tanzanians are agriculturalists but there are several pastoralist groups (notably Maasai and Tatoga) as well as small numbers of hunter-gatherers.
The exact size of Tanzania’s different communities remains uncertain as the country’s census does not disaggregate for ethnicity or religion.
Updated May 2018
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The United Republic of Tanzania is a multiparty republic consisting of the mainland region and the semiautonomous Zanzibar archipelago, including the islands of Unguja (Zanzibar Island) and Pemba. Tanzania, similar to most east African countries, is very ethnically diverse and includes both traditional pastoralist (Maasai and Barabaig) and hunter-gatherer (Hadza and Akie) communities. Grassroots activists made some gains during the 2015 elections, achieving electoral success in some parliamentary races, with indigenous peoples’ rights defenders winning local councillor elections and at least one ministerial appointment. It remains to be seen whether this recent increase in political representation will have an impact on policy changes that would enhance protection for indigenous peoples’ rights.
For indigenous communities in Tanzania, experiences of land loss have been severe and destructive for their livelihoods and cultural survival. Land-grabbing has often been violent, with community members being beaten and homes being burned. Maasai communities have seen thousands and thousands of acres of their traditional lands grabbed, purchased or otherwise illegally obtained. For example, Tanzanian courts in 2015 ruled in favor of a safari corporation that had forcibly removed Maasai from more than 10,000 acres that they had been using for grazing and settlement – the land had been acquired without consultation or compensation to the community.
The land loss has led to the interruption of grazing patterns, loss of access to cultural sites and regular conflict with security forces. Local police and security agents often have been co-opted by corporate interests and government actors to undermine Maasai land claims and to enforce acquisitions of traditional Maasai territory, often using excessive force – burning homes, displacing families, beating and killing community members and confiscating livestock. Past human rights abuses have led to international condemnation of the Tanzanian government, including a 2015 European Parliament resolution condemning land grabbing and associated human rights violations. In 2016, Maasai activist Edward Loure was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for his efforts to find solutions based on community landholding. Loure’s efforts have resulted in more than 200,000 acres of land in Tanzania being protected through communal title and more equitable negotiation with corporate and government entities seeking to use traditional community lands.
Barabaig pastoralists have experienced waves of displacement for the past several decades in Tanzania, often as a result of government agreements with commercial farming corporations. The displacement has led to land loss, deepening poverty, and in some cases conflict with other communities as Barabaig are forced to find new land on which to settle and graze. The Tanzanian government’s Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor (SAGCOT) is one such initiative that had led to forced evictions of Barabaig and other communities. In 2016 the World Bank, which is providing significant financial support for the initiative, granted a waiver for the project in relation to the Bank’s policies on protection of indigenous peoples. The government won the exemption from the policy on indigenous peoples by arguing that there are no ‘indigenous peoples’ in Tanzania and that all Tanzanians are in fact equal before the law – an argument that has long been a standard refrain from African political leaders designed to undermine protections for communities with cultures and livelihoods that have been marginalized over many decades. The Tanzanian government has given assurances that communities will be consulted and that principles of free, prior and informed consent will be implemented, but past practice in such large-scale land acquisitions suggests that these assertions rarely translate into concrete protections for communities.
Hadza hunter-gatherers experience many similar rights violations as their pastoralist counterparts, but the extremely small size of their community – with an estimated 1,300 remaining members – makes their situation even more precarious. Over the years, the government has attempted to undermine the hunting and gathering culture of the Hadza and encourage them to transition to subsistence farming. Moreover, the government has viewed traditional Hadza territory as unoccupied, and thus available for allocation without consultation of the community. While much of Hadza territory has been grabbed or reallocated, some specific parcels have been allocated to the community over the years.
Tanzania borders Kenya and Uganda in the north, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia and Malawi in the west, and Mozambique in the south. It encompasses large portions of Lakes Victoria, Tanganyika and Nyasa, and has a long coastline along the Indian Ocean. The islands of Zanzibar (Unguja and Pemba) are just offshore, to the north of Dar es Salaam. Zanzibar and the coastal lowlands are hot and humid, while the higher central plateau has a climate and soils more suitable to farming. Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, sits amid the north-east highlands. The mountain and the country’s famous wildlife parks make Tanzania a favoured destination for tourists in Africa.
A millennium of Arab and Persian settlement on the islands and the coast, as well as the ravages of the slave trade in which Zanzibar played a prominent role, have left a major fault line in Tanzanian society between the mainland and Zanzibar. Tensions between Christians and Muslims have also emerged in what has traditionally been a fairly tolerant and politically secular society.
Despite these recent tensions, Tanzania has largely avoided the severe internal conflicts of many of its neighbours, as well as the corresponding development of politics along ethnic lines. Tanganyika (mainland Tanzania) gained independence in 1961 and Zanzibar (the offshore islands of Unguja and Pemba) in 1963, the new government in Zanzibar being overthrown almost immediately in a revolutionary uprising. The countries merged to form Tanzania in 1964, while retaining separate administrations and separate versions of one-party rule. Differences exacerbated by despotic practices in Zanzibar were reduced when the ruling parties were merged and a new Constitution promulgated in 1977. However, the dual administration was largely retained. In 1992 opposition parties were permitted, and elections were held in 1995.
After independence, President Julius Nyerere’s Arusha Declaration of 1967 proclaimed a socialist policy that notably included the establishment of ‘ujamaa’ (communal) villages. The government forcibly implemented ‘Villagization’ from 1974 with disastrous consequences for the peasant economy and society. The policy also incorporated a system of pervasive political control which may have contributed to the stability of the country, though without significantly ameliorating economic problems and mounting indebtedness.
From 1986 the Tanzanian government adopted liberal economic policies proposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, greatly increasing inequalities in Tanzanian society, as well as resentment against the rich, often identified with the country’s 250,000-strong Asian community.
All ethno-linguistic groups in Tanzania could be considered ‘minorities’. Though ethnic factors can play a role in political opportunities and resource allocation at a local level, only a few groups face acute or systematic disadvantage or discrimination.
Nyerere stepped down as president in 1985, and was succeeded by Ali Hassan Mwinyi, although he remained chairman of the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party until 1990. Following the amendment of the Constitution in 1992, the CCM no longer held a formal monopoly on power. Yet elections in 1995, 2000, and 2005 have all shown significant democratic shortcomings, particularly in Zanzibar.
Benjamin Mkapa served as president from 1995 until the election of his CCM successor Jakaya Kikwete in December 2005, who also won subsequent elections in 2010. The current presient, John Magufuli, was elected in 2015 in the country’s fifth multiparty elections.
In recent years, economic liberalization has accelerated. Although economic statistics have improved, most Tanzanians still live in extreme poverty, worsened by the ravages of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Tanzania’s politics have long been shaped by ethnic divisions, as well as tensions between the mainland and the autonomous Zanzibar islands. The latter, while afforded almost total autonomy in the 1964 Constitution, saw some of these powers scaled back in the revised 1977 Constitution. A recent proposal to establish a tiered federal system with three separate governments for the mainland, Zanzibar and the United Republic, this proposal was blocked by the Constitutional Assembly, creating a significant source of discontent in Zanzibar itself.
While Tanzania voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, it does not recognize any indigenous communities within the country, meaning there is no specific indigenous policy in place – a situation that leaves its smaller and endangered populations at particular risk of land grabbing and other abuses.
- Community Research and Development Services
- Pastoralist Integrated Support Programme
- Pastoralists Indigenous Non-Governmental Organizations’ Forum (PINGO’s Forum)
- Tanzania Pastoralist and Hunter-Gatherer Organization
- Legal and Human Rights Center
People with albinism
- Tanzania: For people with albinism, hate speech and discrimination have moved online (2020)
- The Asian minorities of East and Central Africa (up to 1971) (1971)
News and updates
- MRG welcomes outcomes of the recent African Commission mission to Tanzania (13 March 2023)
- Beyond just conservation: a history of Maasai dispossession (23 February 2023)
- Indigenous paralegals and the fight for climate justice (17 September 2021)
- Building back better: toward a minority, indigenous and disability-inclusive post-Covid-19 world (3 December 2020)
- The contrasting experiences of Indigenous groups during COVID-19 (14 July 2020)
- Tanzania: Protecting Maasai right to land (11 November 2016)
- MRG deeply disappointed by Arusha Court land rights judgment against Loliondo Maasai (28 October 2015)
- MRG warns that community land rights are under threat in Uvinje, Tanzania (18 February 2015)
- Tanzania: Fate of over 66,000 Maasai hangs in the balance as government declares community land ‘Game Controlled Area’ (9 April 2013)
- Sudan and Russia are major risers in ‘Peoples under Threat’ 2010 rankings (27 April 2010)
- Furthest Behind First (FBF) (2022)
- Deepening engagement: Achieving rights for Minorities and Indigenous Peoples in Africa (2020)
- Ireland Aid 3 (IA3) : Faire respecter les droits des minorités et des peuples indigènes dans le programme d’Afrique Centrale et de l’Est (2018)
- Ireland Aid 3 (IA3): Realising the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples in East and Central African Programme (2018)
- Haki za Ardhi za Jamii asili Tanzania na Kenya – Athari za mikakati ya kufungua madai mahakamani na uhalali wa kuwawezesha kisheria (2017)
- Indigenous peoples’ land rights in Tanzania and Kenya: the impact of strategic litigation and legal empowerment (2017)
- Les droits fonciers des peuples autochtones de la Tanzanie et du Kenya : l’impact des activités de renforcement des capacités juridiques et de litige stratégique (2017)
- Pastoralist Programme 2009 (2015)
- Overview evaluation of MRG’s work in Africa 2009 – 2011 (2015)
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Minority based and advocacy organisations
Sources and further reading
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