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Defending land is a risky business, whether urban or rural

HRDs working on land-rights issues in Africa are subject to threats, attacks, and lawfare, as their work is often seen as a challenge to ‘development’, ‘progress’, or investment.

In 2018, opposition MP and activist Godfrey Luena was murdered outside his home in rural Tanzania. Godfrey had been targeted throughout his life with arrests, intimidation, and judicial harassment because of his work: monitoring illegal land appropriations in his community.

In Kenya, security forces in the Embobut Forest shot, disappeared, and killed community leaders and Sengwer indigenous rights defenders amid forced evictions – including the burning of homes – that started in December 2017 and continued into 2018. [1]  The destruction of the forest was happening as part of the €31 million (EUR) joint EU and Kenyan Government ‘Euro Water Towers Protection and Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation’ programme.

On 9 January, Paul Kitum Elias (aka Kiptuga), chairman of the Sengwer council at Embobut, was preparing to attend a meeting with Kenyan and EU officials to discuss the crisis when a Kenya Forest Service (KFS) official called him on his cell phone to ascertain whether he was at home. A few hours later, ten KFS guards arrived. As Kiptuga ran, the guards began shooting, reportedly shouting: ‘Kill him, kill him, kill him! [2]

On 16 January, KFS forces targeted two Sengwer as they herded cattle in Kapkot Glade. Members of the KFS were burning homes during a forced eviction, and shot at the group of Sengwer community members. Robert Kiprotich was shot and killed, and community leader David Kipkosgei Kiptilkes was seriously injured and is in need of surgery.

The EU finally suspended its support for the project on the 17 January.

In Cameroon (3rd quartile), HRD Musa Usman Ndamba was sentenced and fined for ‘defamation of character’ against a wealthy landowner, in a case that was adjourned for the 60th time in 2018. This sentence was linked to his work defending the indigenous Mbororo people’s land rights.[3]

In South Africa (2nd quartile), on 11 January 2018, HRD Sandile Biyela was killed in flight as police officers and security guards opened fire during a land-rights protest over the demolition of shacks. Police officers and security guards used live ammunition, which caused the protesters to run.[4]  South Africa scores significantly above the regional average for all themes, except Transparency.

There was some good news for indigenous HRDs, however, when the African Court of Human and People’s Rights recognised the crucial role indigenous communities play in environmental protection.[5]


[1] Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, Indigenous Rights Must be Respected during Kenya Climate Change Project, say UN Experts, 15 January 2018, available at

[2] Coalition for Human Rights in Development, Uncalculated Risks Threats and Attacks Against Human Rights Defenders and the Role of Development Financiers, May 2019, available at

[3] Front Line Defenders, Open Letter to Tanzanian President John Magufuli over Rapid Decline in Human Rights, 10 May 2018, available at

[4] Front Line Defenders, South Africa: Front Line Defenders Calls for Investigation into Three Killings of Human Rights Defenders in Two Months, 17 January 2018, available at

[5] Front Line Defenders, Global Analysis 2018, 7 January 2019, available at