Back in September 2016, I published a piece on Facebook that suggested, based on recent party dissolutions and mergers into Jubilee and the accompanying defections by numerous politicians, that – barring discontinuous events, such as the death of a senior leader – the August 2017 general elections in Kenya were already almost over and that Jubilee’s victory seemed assured. The key data I used was the publicly declared political affiliations of each incumbent constituency MP and governor. At the time, the Jubilee bandwagon looked near unstoppable, with two-thirds of the elected constituency incumbents then in their camp (compared to only half after the 2013 elections). Nine months have passed since then. With hindsight, how accurate does that prediction look today?
What follows is an independent, unpaid analysis. It is not sponsored or supported by any political party, and it makes no attempt to argue right or wrong, or to favour one alliance over the other; it is purely to assess the current situation and to make an educated guess as to the likely outcomes. As it contains predictions about the unknowable future, it will of course be wrong in many details. But Kenyan election results are far from random; they follow regular patterns and rarely exhibit discontinuous changes, and it is possible to make educated guesses about what will happen based on previous experience. This piece of crystal ball gazing assumes no sudden deaths or disbarments amongst senior leaders, and it doesn’t suggest these results are immutable. Most voters are pretty clearly spoken for, but there is still a sufficiently large “floating vote” to change the result.
Reading the Kenyan media, the answer to my question would seem to be “no”: my 2016 prediction of a Jubilee victory doesn’t look good at all. The opposition NASA has had an excellent 2017. Since the start of the year, it has formally brought Musalia Mudavadi’s Amani National Congress (ANC) and Isaac Ruto’s Chama Cha Mashinani (CCM) into the CORD alliance of ODM, Wiper and FORD-Kenya, creating NASA (The National Super Alliance). Its aim was to emulate the national alliance that created the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), which defeated Uhuru Kenyatta in 2002 (and to respond to the creation of the Jubilee Alliance Party itself). It has also chosen its presidential and vice presidential candidates without mass defections among those who lost out. Energised by numerous real or imagined corruption scandals and by the recent food crisis, Jubilee has been on the defensive throughout. For example, the opposition took good advantage of the grand opening of the Standard Gauge Railway between Nairobi and Mombasa, intended to be a “signature” Jubilee achievement, by focusing on alleged corruption in its procurement, leaving Jubilee’s claims of service delivery looking hollow and unconvincing.
NASA’s choice of Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka as presidential and vice presidential candidate, respectively, was both logical and predictable, but also a conservative strategy that set the two candidates up for an exact reprise of 2013, with the same two frontmen on both sides.
However, a strong performance doesn’t yet mean victory. There are several reasons why my prediction back in September 2016 of a 55-45 victory for Kenyatta over the (yet to be chosen at that time) opposition candidate remains plausible.
Firstly, the opposition shunned the chance to play a different game, and faced up to Jubilee with exactly the same lead players as had fought and lost in 2013. NASA’s choice of Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka as presidential and vice presidential candidate, respectively, was both logical and predictable, but also a conservative strategy that set the two alliances up for an exact reprise of 2013, with the same two frontmen on both sides. On that basis, it is hard to see the result being materially different. For NASA, the opportunity to improve on their 42% performance in 2013 lies with the incorporation of much of Mudavadi’s vote (4% nationwide, mostly in western Kenya) into NASA. For Jubilee to improve on their 50% performance in 2013, it needs to leverage the power of incumbency, its deeper pockets, the resources it has allocated to specific communities, and the positive messages (hard to sell as they are proving) about their delivery to Kenyans during 2013-17.
Secondly, Jubilee is only just beginning to start campaigning in earnest, and has substantial resources in reserve. Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto are now touring nationwide, leading public rallies with exhortations to support Jubilee because of the (state) resources they have directed to local communities and the (state) jobs they have given to local elites in classic KANU-era style. At the moment they appear strangely uncertain and unconvincing in their message. But elections are not won on the campaign dais. There is much more work which can and will be done at the grassroots in parallel to target specific swing groups and persuade voters in those regions to stay with the “devil they know”. Jubilee is significantly wealthier than NASA, with a more unitary command structure and better campaign technical support. It has barely started to attack Odinga and Musyoka personally, and there is a huge amount of mud which could – and probably will be – thrown at NASA between now and August.
Third, Jubilee went into the primaries with the support of even more MPs than it had in 2016. Rather than mass defections to NASA, the stream has continued to flow (though more slowly) to Jubilee. Individual politicians can be both “leading” and “lagging” indicators, either encouraging their constituents to change course or responding to a disquiet already felt at the grassroots. But they rarely make a change without expectations of at least a chance of electoral victory.
The attached images show where the 290 elected constituency MPs stood at the beginning of the party primaries, viewed by county, and each sized according to the number of seats in that county.
This is a new view of Kenya by constituency, organised according to the 47 counties. One square is one parliamentary constituency, whatever its geographical size or population. Rough geographical similarity is preserved, but it is only rough.
Opinion polls show the gap between the alliances narrowing, but Jubilee is still ahead. The end-May Ipsos poll after Odinga and Musyoka were declared as the presidential candidates showed a 47%-42% lead for Jubilee, but with 10% of those polled undecided or unwilling to answer. With so many successful or near-successful insurgent political campaigns over the last 18 months (Brexit, Trump, Macron, Le Pen, and most recently, Corbyn) nothing is certain. But most of those undecided/unwilling voters will go with one or the other alliance in the end. If simplistically, one split the “undecided/unwilling” down the middle, the result from this poll would be a 52-47 victory for Jubilee. In practice, the undecideds will probably fall – if lessons can be learned from other recent elections – slightly in favour of the more conservative option (here, the incumbent). No poll at any point has yet suggested a NASA victory.
Although a mess, the April-May 2017 party primaries were probably better run than ever before, despite the ensuing complaints, cancellations and court cases. Apart from rotating and refreshing ethno-regional political elites, however, they changed little at the national level. Party-hopping after losing has been banned, but it has been replaced this time round by a plethora of newly-independent candidates. However, these politicians are not truly independent; they are simply allies of one national faction or other who were unsuccessful in the primaries. Virtually none have changed their underlying allegiance. With so many independents, the main parties do risk splitting their vote in some marginal seats. Both alliances have this problem, though Jubilee’s is more severe. But NASA has an even more serious difficulty – their Wiper, ODM and ANC candidates are standing against each other without any pre-election deal in many parliamentary, senate and gubernatorial seats, including in Kakamega, Vihiga, Kisii, Mombasa and Taita-Taveta counties. If some cannot be persuaded to stand down, they will split their votes and may allow Jubilee candidates to slip through. This is only a problem at lower levels in the political structure though. Although eight presidential candidates have been cleared, the national race is effectively a two-horse one and a second round is very unlikely (in contrast to 2013, when Mudavadi was running as a third force and the runoff chance was much higher).
Party-hopping after losing has been banned, but it has been replaced this time round by a plethora of newly-independent candidates. However, these politicians are not truly independent; they are simply allies of one national faction or other who were unsuccessful in the primaries, and virtually none have changed their underlying allegiance.
Next, democracy is a numbers game. The “tyranny of numbers”, has become a curious point of contention in Kenya over the last decade. But much depends on how you present the concept. The “tyranny of numbers” is also “one man, one vote”: electoral democracy where all are equal and no-one’s vote is more important than any other’s. As long as that widely supported and widely praised system is in use in Kenya, victory comes with winning the support of most voting adults, not of most clans, ethnic groups or counties. So, to understand where Kenya stands, we need to look at two key numbers: the number of registered voters in each county and their propensity to turn out for their favoured candidates, and to combine these with a model of voting preference amongst the people in those counties. And, like it or not, the majority of Kenyans (probably two-thirds) can have their political alliances predicted with a high degree of confidence based on their ethnicity. This heuristic can be confirmed (or challenged) by examining where key politicians are standing in each community, the number of voters turning out in the various party primaries, fighting and complaints of intimidation by weaker parties, and whether the other “side” can even find a candidate willing to risk standing for them in some seats.
We now have provisional and unaudited registration results from February 2017 which show that 3.5 million voters were added in the last three months, with the growth fastest in the Coast and North-Eastern regions and in Nairobi. There are no obvious signs so far of structural pro-government bias in the allocation of voter registration kits or in these unaudited results. These numbers give us a strong (though unvalidated) baseline to work predictively. Next, we need to estimate the turnout figures in each county. 2013’s numbers are a solid basis for this, though turnouts will probably be a little lower across the board this time than last. Some of the turnouts last time (such as in Mandera) were very suspect and this analysis assumes – for now – that these exceptions return to the norm.
Finally, we need to make a judgement about how each county and each community within that county is likely to vote, based on previous experience, but adjusted for events and changing alliances since 2013, and the influence of major regional political figures. So, let us run through the old provinces or regions and the 47 counties one by one, to set the basis for that prediction.
Since 2016, the generally pro-CORD/ODM Mijikenda coast (Kilifi, Kwale and parts of Mombasa) has once more solidified for NASA. Many of the MPs who defected with pomp and pride to Jubilee in 2016 now look very vulnerable and Jubilee’s inroads in 2016 seem to have been reversed. Despite misgivings about the regional dominance of the controversial Hassan Joho and the Arab/Swahili community, NASA will win almost all the Coast, except Tana River, Lamu and perhaps one seat in Taita Taveta. In Nyanza, Odinga will get virtually every Luo vote, his support as solid as ever, and a plurality (perhaps 70%) of Gusii votes, where again the 2016 defectors to Jubilee look to be falling en masse.
Western Province now seems solidly for NASA too. But the result nationwide will hinge on how well Mudavadi, Moses Wetangula and others can turn out the Luhya for NASA (with no “horse in the race” now and relatively low registration in Mudavadi’s home Vihiga). Through ex-New FORD-Kenya recruits, Jubilee still has a position of sorts among the Bukusu of Bungoma and Trans-Nzoia. But I suspect Jubilee is going to poll no more than 10-15% of the vote in Western overall, even including their majority support amongst the Iteso of Busia and Kalenjin of Mount Elgon.
In contrast, Nairobi seems to be firming up narrowly for Jubilee, especially in the governorship, where Mike Sonko’s spectacular campaign is overwhelming ODM incumbent Evans Kidero’s low profile and modest legacy. A 50-50 split looks plausible at the moment, though this may change. This assumes that pro-Jubilee independent Peter Kenneth will not materially split the Jubilee vote or create a cross-party movement and that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) does not disbar Sonko or Kidero or both.
As in 2013, Central Province will vote entirely for Jubilee. NASA has no candidates and no prospect of support here, the homeland of the Kikuyu community that is still numerically the largest in the country. Apart from the ethnically mixed peri-urban areas of southern Kiambu, more than 95% of voters in the province will back “their President”.
Despite misgivings about the regional dominance of the controversial Hassan Joho and the Arab/Swahili community, NASA will win almost all the Coast, except Tana River, Lamu and perhaps one seat in Taita Taveta. In Nyanza, Odinga will get virtually every Luo vote, his support as solid as ever, and a plurality (perhaps 70%) of Gusii votes, where again the 2016 defectors to Jubilee look to be falling en masse. The Somali North-East, in contrast, is stronger for the ruling Jubilee party than in 2013. Mandera was already wholly Jubilee in 2013 and remains so, and Wajir has been moving steadily towards Jubilee during Kenyatta’s term.
Jubilee will also win almost all the Kalenjin voters in the Rift Valley, bar the Kipsigis of Kericho, Bomet, western Nakuru and northern Narok. The alliance between Ruto and Kenyatta remains deep and strong. Despite doubts about whether the Kikuyu will really hand over the presidency to William Ruto in 2022, regional support for “their man” and for the power-sharing deal remains firm. The support for maverick Kipsigis Governor Isaac Ruto is the key variable here. With strong support in Bomet, he has the potential to fracture the southern Kalenjin vote and bring a material chunk to NASA. But I suspect that many of his supporters will vote for him for governor and Uhuru and Ruto for the presidency. Trans-Nzoia will split but probably favour NASA, Laikipia will favour Jubilee, while Nakuru will be a solid Jubilee zone.
The Somali North-East, in contrast, is stronger for the ruling alliance than in 2013. Mandera was already wholly Jubilee in 2013 and remains so, and Wajir has been moving steadily towards Jubilee during Kenyatta’s term. The incumbents have worked hard among the Somali and now only Garissa remains a battleground. The mostly pastoralist non-Somali northerners (the Samburu, Turkana, Borana, Gabbra, Rendille, Orma, Burji and Wardei) of the Rift, North of Eastern and Tana River will vote mostly Jubilee or allied parties. However there will be a few constituencies where those alliances reverse and Samburu and Turkana might still vote ODM. Among the southern communities, the Kuria will remain Jubilee, but the larger and politically significant Maasai will again split their affections. With Jubilee having made several missteps and put forward a lacklustre set of candidates, NASA will do better here than in 2013, and will probably win Narok, while Kajiado might go NASA at governor level but Uhuru for president.
In the southern half of the old Eastern province, the densely populated Embu and Meru are solidly for Jubilee (despite Odinga’s efforts) and will vote more than 90% for Kenyatta and Ruto. The key question in Eastern is how well NASA will do in Ukambani. It will win a majority in all three counties, to be sure, but their support appears weaker than in 2013. Then, Musyoka delivered 85% of the vote in Ukambani for Raila, with a turnout of 84%, not a census vote but a strong performance. Now, however, he is struggling, even after his selection as NASA’s vice presidential candidate. He has lost nearly half of his Ukambani MPs (10 out of 23) who have gradually defected to Jubilee, while recent internal disputes within Wiper and his estrangement with two of his most senior and experienced allies (Machakos Senator Johnstone Muthama and Kitui Governor David Musila) leaves him vulnerable. He also faces an insurgency of unknown power in Machakos led by influential Governor Alfred Mutua, whose “Maendeleo Chap Chap” party is allied with Jubilee. I suspect, based on current knowledge, that Jubilee will poll 20-30% of the Kamba vote.
Jubilee will also win almost all the Kalenjin voters in the Rift Valley, bar the Kipsigis of Kericho, Bomet, western Nakuru and northern Narok. The alliance between Ruto and Kenyatta remains deep and strong, and despite doubts about whether the Kikuyu will really hand over the presidency to William Ruto in 2022, support for “their man” and for the power-sharing deal remains firm.
Applying this analysis at the county level gives us the following prediction for winning candidates at the presidential and county levels: 17 counties are solid for NASA, 22 for Jubilee and eight are still – in my view – in play.
June 2017 predictions of winning presidential and gubernatorial candidates
*In this image, one square is one county, whatever its size or population.
While the presidency remains the most coveted job, experience since 2013 has shown that governorships are extremely lucrative and politically rewarding roles, with MPs coming third, senators and the reserved seats for women in the house next, and county assembly members (MCAs) last (even though county assembly members are the closest to the grassroots and most likely to be known personally to voters).
As in 2013, all six contests will tend to follow a similar pattern, with most (though not all) voters voting the same way for the presidency, senator, governor and women’s representative, with more variability at parliamentary and MCA levels. I predict that Jubilee will win 23-26 governorships and NASA 21-24. The symbolically important Senate – created in the 2010 Constitution to enshrine a US-style division of legislative powers – has proved of limited effectiveness, and is likely to be abolished in the next Parliament (as its predecessor was in 1966-7).
The heavy legacy of “Chickengate” makes the IEBC extremely vulnerable to campaigns by NASA (or indeed by Jubilee, if needed) alleging its systematic incompetence and corruption, and therefore bias. That has not started yet in earnest, but the groundwork is being laid to undermine the credibility of the commission by election day, if NASA believes it will lose and that Jubilee will cheat to win.
Nationally, the combination of registration numbers, turnout and an ethnically and historically voting-based preference model still predicts a first round win for Uhuru and Ruto, by 53% to 46% (with a maximum of 1% of votes to other candidates). It suggests Kenyatta and Ruto will get roughly 8.5 million votes (of which more than 5 million will come from the Kalenjin and Kikuyu communities) while Odinga and Musyoka will poll 7.5 million, of which approximately 3 million will come from Luo and Kamba voters. This would be on a national turnout of 83%, with a regional variation from 90% in Central and Luo Nyanza to 65% in Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale. Turnout is one of the great imponderables, however, and elections can be won or lost on the day based on successes or failures at the grassroots level in turning out supporters. Historically, Jubilee and its predecessor alliances have been slightly better than NASA and its predecessors at this, but in this election, Jubilee may have less of an advantage here.
Finally, let us turn to the referee and organiser of the upcoming contest, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). The IEBC, after an appalling 2016, seems to have stabilised under its new lower-profile leadership. It appears to be trying to keep its head down and focus on technical delivery of its mandate, while trying to cope with a stream of complaints and allegations of bias. It has had good success in ending party hopping, but it has so far failed to exercise its authority over the integrity issues raised about a number of high profile candidates, and has not yet responded to evidence of salaried civil servants campaigning for Jubilee. In fact, it is struggling to match its duties and obligations to the timelines allocated and seems unable to proceed whilst following competitive procurement procedures, with its every decision contested in the courts. The heavy legacy of “Chickengate” makes the IEBC extremely vulnerable to campaigns by NASA (or indeed by Jubilee, if needed) alleging its systematic incompetence and corruption, and therefore bias. That has not started yet in earnest, but the groundwork is being laid to undermine the credibility of the commission by election day, if NASA believes it will lose and that Jubilee will cheat to win.
Will there be post-election violence? Personally, I believe the experience of 2007-8 was so appalling and salutary for Kenyans that any trouble will be localised, unless the electoral abuses are gross.
Whether Jubilee could and would in fact cheat to win if necessary – in a way the IEBC could either not prevent or in which it was complicit – is a hypothetical question with strong judgemental implications. Both sides cheated last time, to varying degrees (local stuffing, forced voting and voting dead voters in their homelands). There is a strong suspicion that Kenyatta’s presidential numbers were topped up at some point in the counting process to push him over the 50%+1 threshold, which probably didn’t change the final result but finished it on the first round rather than in a runoff. The recent court case (strongly backed by NASA) to ensure that the results announced by constituency returning officers are final and cannot be corrected at the IEBC-controlled national tallying centre, even if obviously arithmetically incorrect, is designed to address this most contentious part of the whole election: the critical and semi-opaque presidential count at the national tallying centre. But whatever the outcome of that case, the presidential count will be a key flashpoint after polling day.
The recent focus on electronic transmission of the results – which so spectacularly failed in 2013 – as safer and more reliable than stamped and attested paper forms, is a potentially dangerous misunderstanding. In truth, the speed, independence and impartiality of an electronic system relies entirely on the competence, neutrality and independence of the small number of technical staff managing the IEBC’s databases and servers (who could be personally subjected to very strong pressures to “lose” passwords or make adjustments themselves to numbers) and on the ability of those teams to protect their IT systems from external hacking attempts, which the IEBC now admits happened in 2013. In fact, subtle manipulation is easier to carry out and much harder to spot electronically than with paper forms.
Will NASA and its leadership cry foul if they lose or if they think they are losing? Yes, of course they will, as they and their predecessors did in 2007 (with good reason) and 2013 (less certainly). Whether there will be any basis for this is, of course, unknowable in advance, but what is clear from 2013 is that the presidential election petition rules are so restrictive and time-bound that a successful presidential petition remains extremely unlikely under those rules. Will there be post-election violence? Personally, I believe the experience of 2007-8 was so appalling and salutary for Kenyans that any trouble will be localised, unless the electoral abuses are gross. But that still depends on how things work out over the next eight weeks. And some observers are predicting more serious trouble in specific counties.
But whatever the final outcome, it is clear that Kenya remains polarised and dangerously divided, almost down the middle, and that there is little trust or goodwill between the two major parties to work with each other in whatever political settlement that will follow the August elections.
So, the champion’s and the challenger’s players are on the pitch, the game is under way and the substitute referee’s whistle has blown. Inevitably, things will change and these predictions will need updating. I hope to do that periodically during the campaign and to “call” the result on election night. On 3 March 2013, I predicted a 50% vote for Uhuru, 42% for Odinga, with all others getting 8%. Excluding spoilt ballots, the actuals were 50.5% Kenyatta, 43.8% Odinga and 6% for the others. I’m unlikely to get it so close again.
But whatever the final outcome, it is clear that Kenya remains polarised and dangerously divided, almost down the middle, and that there is little trust or goodwill between the two major parties to work with each other in whatever political settlement follows the August elections.
Editors Comment: This article was written on the 16th of June 2017
Charles Hornsby is the author of Kenya: A History since Independence.
He lives in Ireland.
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Stealth Game: “Community” Conservancies and Dispossession in Northern Kenya
The fortress conservation model, created with support from some of the world’s biggest environmental groups and western donors, has led to land dispossession, militarization, and widespread human rights abuses.
With its vast expanses and diversity of wildlife, Kenya – Africa’s original safari destination – attracts over two million foreign visitors annually. The development of wildlife tourism and conservation, a major economic resource for the country, has however been at the cost of local communities who have been fenced off from their ancestral lands. Indigenous communities have been evicted from their territories and excluded from the tourist dollars that flow into high-end lodges and safari companies.
Protected areas with wildlife are patrolled and guarded by anti-poaching rangers and are accessible only to tourists who can afford to stay in the luxury safari lodges and resorts. This model of “fortress conservation” – one that militarizes and privatizes the commons – has come under severe criticism for its exclusionary practices and for being less effective than the models where local communities lead and manage conservation activities.
One such controversial model of conservation in Kenya is the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT). Set up in 2004, the NRT’s stated goal is “changing the game” on conservation by supporting communities to govern their lands through the establishment of community conservancies.
Created by Ian Craig, whose family was part of the elite white minority during British colonialism, the NRT’s origins date back to the 1980s when his family-owned 62,000-acre cattle ranch was transformed into the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Since its founding, the NRT has set up 39 conservancies on 42,000 square kilometres (10,378,426 acres) of land in northern and coastal Kenya – nearly 8 per cent of the country’s total land area.
The communities that live on these lands are predominantly pastoralists who raise livestock for their livelihoods and have faced decades of marginalization by successive Kenyan governments. The NRT claims that its goal is to “transform people’s lives, secure peace and conserve natural resources.”
However, where the NRT is active, local communities allege that the organization has dispossessed them of their lands and deployed armed security units that have been responsible for serious human rights abuses. Whereas the NRT employs around 870 uniformed scouts, the organization’s anti-poaching mobile units, called ‘9’ teams, face allegations of extrajudicial killings and disappearances, among other abuses. These rangers are equipped with military weapons and receive paramilitary training from the Kenyan Wildlife Service Law Enforcement Academy and from 51 Degrees, a private security company run by Ian Craig’s son, Batian Craig, as well as from other private security firms. Whereas the mandate of NRT’s rangers is supposed to be anti-poaching, they are routinely involved in policing matters that go beyond that remit.
Locals allege that the NRT compels communities to set aside their best lands for the exclusive use of wildlife.
Locals have alleged the NRT’s direct involvement in conflicts between different ethnic groups, related to territorial issues and/or cattle raids. Multiple sources within the impacted communities, including members of councils of community elders, informed the Oakland Institute that as many as 76 people were killed in the Biliqo Bulesa Conservancy during inter-ethnic clashes, allegedly with the involvement of the NRT. Interviews conducted by the Institute established that 11 people have been killed in circumstances involving the conservation body. Dozens more appear to have been killed by the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) and other government agencies, which have been accused of abducting, disappearing, and torturing people in the name of conservation.
Over the years, conflicts over land and resources in Kenya have been exacerbated by the establishment of large ranches and conservation areas. For instance, 40 per cent of Laikipia County’s land is occupied by large ranches, controlled by just 48 individuals – most of them white landowners who own tens of thousands of acres for ranching or wildlife conservancies, which attract tourism business as well as conservation funding from international organizations.
Similarly, several game reserves and conservancies occupy over a million acres of land in the nearby Isiolo County. Land pressure was especially evident in 2017 when clashes broke out between private, mostly white ranchers, and Samburu and Pokot herders over pasture during a particularly dry spell.
But as demonstrated in the Oakland Institute’s report Stealth Game, the events of 2017 highlighted a situation that has been rampant for many years. Local communities report paying a high price for the NRT’s privatized, neo-colonial conservation model in Kenya. The loss of grazing land for pastoralists is a major challenge caused by the creation of community conservancies. Locals allege that the NRT compels communities to set aside their best lands for the exclusive use of wildlife in the name of community conservancies, and to subsequently lease it to set up tourist facilities.
Although terms like “community-driven”, “participatory”, and “local empowerment” are extensively used by the NRT and its partners, the conservancies have been allegedly set up by outside parties rather than the pastoralists themselves, who have a very limited role in negotiating the terms of these partnerships. According to several testimonies, leverage over communities occurs through corruption and co-optation of local leaders and personalities as well as the local administration.
A number of interviewees allege intimidation, including arrests and interrogation of local community members and leaders, as tactics routinely used by the NRT security personnel. Furthermore, the NRT is involved not just in conservation but also in security, management of pastureland, and livestock marketing, which according to the local communities, gives it a level of control over the region that surpasses even that of the Kenyan government. The NRT claims that these activities support communities, development projects, and help build sustainable economies, but its role is criticized by local communities and leaders.
In recent years, hundreds of locals have held protests and signed petitions against the presence of the NRT. The Turkana County Government expelled the NRT from Turkana in 2016; Isiolo’s Borana Council of Elders (BCE) and communities in Isiolo County and in Chari Ward in the Biliqo Bulesa Conservancy continue to challenge the NRT. In January 2021, the community of Gafarsa protested the NRT’s expansion into the Gafarsa rangelands of Garbatulla sub-county. And in April 2021, the Samburu Council of Elders Association, a registered institution representing the Samburu Community in four counties (Isiolo, Laikipia, Marsabit and Samburu), wrote to international NGOs and donors asking them to cease further funding and to audit the NRT’s donor-funded programmes.
A number of interviewees allege intimidation, including arrests and interrogation of local community members and leaders, as tactics routinely used by the NRT security personnel.
At the time of the writing of the report, the Oakland Institute reported that protests against the NRT were growing across the region. The organization works closely with the KWS, a state corporation under the Ministry of Wildlife and Tourism whose mandate is to conserve and manage wildlife in Kenya. In July 2018, Tourism and Wildlife Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala, appointed Ian Craig and Jochen Zeitz to the KWS Board of Trustees. The inclusion of Zeitz and Craig, who actively lobby for the privatization of wildlife reserves, has been met with consternation by local environmentalists. In the case of the NRT, the relationship is mutually beneficial – several high-ranking members of the KWS have served on the NRT’s Board of Trustees.
Both the NRT and the KWS receive substantial funding from donors such as USAID, the European Union, and other Western agencies, and champion corporate partnerships in conservation. The KWS and the NRT also partner with some of the largest environmental NGOs, including The Nature Conservancy (TNC), whose corporate associates have included major polluters and firms known for their negative human rights and environmental records, such as Shell, Ford, BP, and Monsanto among others. In turn, TNC’s Regional Managing Director for Africa, Matt Brown, enjoys a seat at the table of the NRT’s Board of Directors.
Stealth Game also reveals how the NRT has allegedly participated in the exploitation of fossil fuels in Kenya. In 2015, the NRT formed a five-year, US$12 million agreement with two oil companies active in the country – British Tullow Oil and Canadian Africa Oil Corp – to establish and operate six community conservancies in Turkana and West Pokot Counties.
The NRT’s stated goal was to “help communities to understand and benefit” from the “commercialisation of oil resources”. Local communities allege that it put a positive spin on the activities of these companies to mask concerns and outstanding questions over their environmental and human rights records.
The NRT, in collaboration with big environmental organizations, epitomizes a Western-led approach to conservation that creates a profitable business but marginalizes local communities who have lived on these lands for centuries.
Despite its claims to the contrary, the NRT is yet another example of how fortress conservation, under the guise of “community-based conservation”, is dispossessing the very pastoralist communities it claims to be helping – destroying their traditional grazing patterns, their autonomy, and their lives.
The Constitution of Kenyan 2010 and the 2016 Community Land Act recognize community land as a category of land holding and pastoralism as a legitimate livelihood system. The Act enables communities to legally register, own, and manage their communal lands. For the first three years, however, not a single community in Kenya was able to apply to have their land rights legally recognized. On 24 July 2019, over 50 representatives from 11 communities in Isiolo, Kajiado, Laikipia, Tana River, and Turkana counties were the first to attempt to register their land with the government on the basis of the Community Land Act. The communities were promised by the Ministry of Land that their applications would be processed within four months. In late 2020, the Ministry of Lands registered the land titles of II Ngwesi and Musul communities in Laikipia.
The others are still waiting to have their land registered. In October 2020, the Lands Cabinet Secretary was reported saying that only 12 counties have submitted inventories of their respective unregistered community lands in readiness for the registration process as enshrined in the law.
Community members interviewed by the Oakland Institute in the course of its research repeatedly asked for justice after years of being ignored by the Kenyan government and by the police when reporting human rights abuses and even killings of family members. The findings reported in Stealth Game require an independent investigation into the land-related grievances around all of the NRT’s community conservancies, the allegations of involvement of the NRT’s rapid response units in inter-ethnic conflict, as well as the alleged abuses and extrajudicial killings.
Pastoralists have been the custodians of wildlife for centuries – long before any NGO or conservation professionals came along. While this report focuses on the plight of the Indigenous communities in Northern Kenya, it is a reality that is all too familiar to indigenous communities the world over. In far too many places, national governments, private corporations, and large conservation groups collude in the name of conservation, not just to force Indigenous groups off their land, but to force them out of existence altogether.
Pastoralists have been the custodians of wildlife for centuries – long before any NGO or conservation professionals came along.
The latest threat comes from the so-called “30×30 initiative”, a plan under the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity that calls for 30 per cent of the planet to be placed in protected areas – or for other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs) – by 2030.
The Oakland Institute’s report, Stealth Game, makes it clear that fortress conservation must be replaced by Indigenous-led conservation efforts in order to preserve the remaining biodiversity of the planet while respecting the interests, rights, and dignity of the local communities.
Nashulai – A Community Conservancy With a Difference
Before Nashulai, Maasai communities around the Mara triangle were selling off their rights to live and work on their land, becoming “conservation refugees”.
The Sekenani River underwent a mammoth cleanup in May 2020, undertaken by over 100 women living in the Nashulai Conservancy area. Ten of the 18 kilometres of fresh water were cleaned of plastic waste, clothing, organic material and other rubbish that presented a real threat to the health of this life source for the community and wildlife. The river forms part of the Mara Basin and goes on to flow into Lake Victoria, which in turn feeds the River Nile.
The initiative was spearheaded by the Nashulai Conservancy — the first community-owned conservancy in the Maasai Mara that was founded in 2015 — which also provided a daily stipend to all participants and introduced them to better waste management and regeneration practices. After the cleanup, bamboo trees were planted along the banks of the river to curb soil erosion.
You could call it a classic case of “nature healing” that only the forced stillness caused by a global pandemic could bring about. Livelihoods dependent on tourism and raising cattle had all but come to a standstill and people now had the time to ponder how unpredictable life can be.
“I worry that when tourism picks up again many people will forget about all the conservation efforts of the past year,” says project officer Evelyn Kamau. “That’s why we put a focus on working with the youth in the community on the various projects and education. They’ll be the key to continuation.”
Continuation in the broader sense is what Nashulai and several other community-focused projects in Kenya are working towards — a shift away from conservation practices that push indigenous people further and further out of their homelands for profit in the name of protecting and celebrating the very nature for which these communities have provided stewardship over generations.
Given the past year’s global and regional conversations about racial injustice, and the pandemic that has left tourism everywhere on its knees, ordinary people in countries like Kenya have had the chance to learn, to speak out and to act on changes.
Players in the tourism industry in the country that have in the past privileged foreign visitors over Kenyans have been challenged. In mid-2020, a poorly worded social media post stating that a bucket-list boutique hotel in Nairobi was “now open to Kenyans” set off a backlash from fed-up Kenyans online.
The post referred to the easing of COVID-19 regulations that allowed the hotel to re-open to anyone already in the country. Although the hotel tried to undertake damage control, the harm was already done and the wounds reopened. Kenyans recounted stories of discrimination experienced at this particular hotel including multiple instances of the booking office responding to enquiries from Kenyan guests that rooms were fully booked, only for their European or American companions to call minutes later and miraculously find there were in fact vacancies. Many observed how rare it was to see non-white faces in the marketing of certain establishments, except in service roles.
Another conversation that has gained traction is the question of who is really benefiting from the conservation business and why the beneficiaries are generally not the local communities.
Kenyan conservationist and author Dr Mordecai Ogada has been vocal about this issue, both in his work and on social media, frequently calling out institutions and individuals who perpetuate the profit-driven system that has proven to be detrimental to local communities. In The Big Conservation Lie, his searing 2016 book co-authored with conservation journalist John Mbaria, Ogada observes, “The importance of wildlife to Kenya and the communities here has been reduced to the dollar value that foreign tourists will pay to see it.” Ogada details the use of coercion tactics to push communities to divide up or vacate their lands and abandon their identities and lifestyles for little more than donor subsidies that are not always paid in full or within the agreed time.
A colonial hangover
It is important to note that these attitudes, organizations and by extension the structure of safari tourism, did not spring up out of nowhere. At the origin of wildlife safaris on the savannahs of East Africa were the colonial-era hunting parties organised for European aristocracy and royalty and the odd American president or Hollywood actor.
Theodore Roosevelt’s year-long hunting expedition in 1909 resulted in over 500 animals being shot by his party in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, many of which were taken back to be displayed at the Smithsonian Institute and in various other natural history museums across the US. Roosevelt later recounted his experiences in a book and a series of lectures, not without mentioning the “savage” native people he had encountered and expressing support for the European colonization project throughout Africa.
Much of this private entertaining was made possible through “gifts” of large parcels of Kenyan land by the colonial power to high-ranking military officials for their service in the other British colonies, without much regard as to the ancestral ownership of the confiscated lands.
At the origin of wildlife safaris on the savannahs of East Africa were the colonial-era hunting parties organised for European aristocracy and royalty.
On the foundation of national parks in the country by the colonial government in the 1940s, Ogada points out the similarities with the Yellowstone National Park, “which was created by violence and disenfranchisement, but is still used as a template for fortress conservation over a century later.” In the case of Kenya, just add trophy hunting to the original model.
Today, when it isn’t the descendants of those settlers who own and run the many private nature reserves in the country, it is a party with much economic or political power tying local communities down with unfair leases and sectioning them off from their ancestral land, harsh penalties being applied when they graze their cattle on the confiscated land.
This history must be acknowledged and the facts recognised so that the real work of establishing a sustainable future for the affected communities can begin. A future that does not disenfranchise entire communities and exclude them or leave their economies dangerously dependent on tourism.
The work it will take to achieve this in both the conservation and the wider travel industry involves everyone, from the service providers to the media to the very people deciding where and how to spend their tourism money and their time.
Here’s who’s doing the work
There are many who are leading initiatives that place local communities at the centre of their efforts to curb environmental degradation and to secure a future in which these communities are not excluded. Some, like Dr Ogada, spread the word about the holes in the model adopted by the global conservation industry. Others are training and educating tourism businesses in sustainable practices.
There are many who are leading initiatives that place local communities at the centre of their efforts to curb environmental degradation.
The Sustainable Travel and Tourism Agenda, or STTA, is a leading Kenyan-owned consultancy that works with tourism businesses and associations to provide training and strategies for sustainability in the sector in East Africa and beyond. Team leader Judy Kepher Gona expresses her optimism in the organization’s position as the local experts in the field, evidenced by the industry players’ uptake of the STTA’s training programmes and services to learn how best to manage their tourism businesses responsibly.
Gona notes, “Today there are almost 100 community-owned private conservancies in Kenya which has increased the inclusion of communities in conservation and in tourism” — which is a step in the right direction.
The community conservancy
Back to Nashulai, a strong example of a community-owned conservancy. Director and co-founder Nelson Ole Reiya who grew up in the area began to notice the rate at which Maasai communities around the Mara triangle were selling or leasing off their land and often their rights to live and work on it as they did before, becoming what he refers to as “conservation refugees”.
In 2016, Ole Reiya set out to bring together his community in an effort to eliminate poverty, regenerate the ecosystems and preserve the indigenous culture of the Maasai by employing a commons model on the 5,000 acres on which the conservancy sits. Families here could have sold their ancestral land and moved away, but they have instead come together and in a few short years have done away with the fencing separating their homesteads from the open savannah. They keep smaller herds of indigenous cattle and they have seen the return of wildlife such as zebras, giraffes and wildebeest to this part of their ancient migratory route. Elephants have returned to an old elephant nursery site.
In contrast to many other nature reserves and conservancies that offer employment to the locals as hotel staff, safari guides or dancers and singers, Nashulai’s way of empowering the community goes further to diversify the economy by providing skills and education to the residents, as well as preserving the culture by passing on knowledge about environmental awareness. This can be seen in the bee-keeping project that is producing honey for sale, the kitchen gardens outside the family homes, a ranger training programme and even a storytelling project to record and preserve all the knowledge and history passed down by the elders.
They keep smaller herds of indigenous cattle and they have seen the return of wildlife such as zebras, giraffes and wildebeest to this part of their ancient migratory route.
The conservancy only hires people from within the community for its various projects, and all plans must be submitted to a community liaison officer for discussion and a vote before any work can begin.
Tourism activities within the conservancy such as stays at Oldarpoi (the conservancy’s first tented camp; more are planned), game drives and day visits to the conservation and community projects are still an important part of the story. The revenue generated by tourists and the awareness created regarding this model of conservation are key in securing Nashulai’s future. Volunteer travellers are even welcomed to participate in the less technical projects such as tree planting and river clean-ups.
Expressing his hopes for a paradigm shift in the tourism industry, Ole Reiya stresses, “I would encourage visitors to go beyond the superficial and experience the nuances of a people beyond being seen as artefacts and naked children to be photographed, [but] rather as communities whose connection to the land and wildlife has been key to their survival over time.”
Battery Arms Race: Global Capital and the Scramble for Cobalt in the Congo
In the context of the climate emergency and the need for renewable energy sources, competition over the supply of cobalt is growing. This competition is most intense in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nick Bernards argues that the scramble for cobalt is a capitalist scramble, and that there can be no ‘just’ transition without overthrowing capitalism on a global scale.
With growing attention to climate breakdown and the need for expanded use of renewable energy sources, the mineral resources needed to make batteries are emerging as a key site of conflict. In this context, cobalt – traditionally mined as a by-product of copper and nickel – has become a subject of major interest in its own right.
Competition over supplies of cobalt is intensifying. Some reports suggest that demand for cobalt is likely to exceed known reserves if projected shifts to renewable energy sources are realized. Much of this competition is playing out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The south-eastern regions of the DRC hold about half of proven global cobalt reserves, and account for an even higher proportion of global cobalt production (roughly 70 percent) because known reserves in the DRC are relatively shallow and easier to extract.
Recent high profile articles in outlets including the New York Times and the Guardian have highlighted a growing ‘battery arms race’ supposedly playing out between the West (mostly the US) and China over battery metals, especially cobalt.
These pieces suggest, with some alarm, that China is ‘winning’ this race. They highlight how Chinese dominance in battery supply chains might inhibit energy transitions in the West. They also link growing Chinese mining operations to a range of labour and environmental abuses in the DRC, where the vast majority of the world’s available cobalt reserves are located.
Both articles are right that the hazards and costs of the cobalt boom have been disproportionately borne by Congolese people and landscapes, while few of the benefits have reached them. But by subsuming these problems into narratives of geopolitical competition between the US and China and zooming in on the supposedly pernicious effects of Chinese-owned operations in particular, the ‘arms race’ narrative ultimately obscures more than it reveals.
There is unquestionably a scramble for cobalt going on. It is centered in the DRC but spans much of the globe, working through tangled transnational networks of production and finance that link mines in the South-Eastern DRC to refiners and battery manufacturers scattered across China’s industrializing cities, to financiers in London, Toronto, and Hong Kong, to vast transnational corporations ranging from mineral rentiers (Glencore), to automotive companies (Volkswagen, Ford), to electronics and tech firms (Apple). This loose network is governed primarily through an increasingly amorphous and uneven patchwork of public and private ‘sustainability’ standards. And, it plays out against the backdrop of both long-running depredations of imperialism and the more recent devastation of structural adjustment.
In a word, the scramble for cobalt is a thoroughly capitalist scramble.
Chinese firms do unquestionably play a major role in global battery production in general and in cobalt extraction and refining in particular. Roughly 50 percent of global cobalt refining now takes place in China. The considerable majority of DRC cobalt exports do go to China, and Chinese firms have expanded interests in mining and trading ventures in the DRC.
However, although the Chinese state has certainly fostered the development of cobalt and other battery minerals, there is as much a scramble for control over cobalt going on within China as between China and the ‘west’. There has, notably, been a wave of concentration and consolidation among Chinese cobalt refiners since about 2010. The Chinese firms operating in the DRC are capitalist firms competing with each other in important ways. They often have radically different business models. Jinchuan Group Co. Ltd and China Molybdenum, for instance, are Hong Kong Stock Exchange-listed firms with ownership shares in scattered global refining and mining operations. Jinchuan’s major mine holdings in the DRC were acquired from South African miner Metorex in 2012; China Molybdenum recently acquired the DRC mines owned by US-based Freeport-McMoRan (as the New York Times article linked above notes with concern). A significant portion of both Jinchuan Group and China Molybdenum’s revenues, though, come from speculative metals trading rather than from production. Yantai Cash, on the other hand, is a specialized refiner which does not own mining operations. Yantai is likely the destination for a good deal of ‘artisanal’ mined cobalt via an elaborate network of traders and brokers.
These large Chinese firms also are thoroughly plugged in to global networks of battery production ultimately destined, in many cases, for widely known consumer brands. They are also able to take advantage of links to global marketing and financing operations. The four largest Chinese refiners, for instance, are all listed brands on the London Metal Exchange (LME).
In the midst of increased concentration at the refining stage and concerns over supplies, several major end users including Apple, Volkswagen, and BMW have sought to establish long-term contracts directly with mining operations since early 2018. Tesla signed a major agreement with Glencore to supply cobalt for its new battery ‘gigafactories’ in 2020. Not unrelatedly, they have also developed integrated supply chain tracing systems, often dressed up in the language of ‘sustainability’ and transparency. One notable example is the Responsible Sourcing Blockchain Initiative (RSBI). This initiative between the blockchain division of tech giant IBM, supply chain audit firm RCS Global, and several mining houses, mineral traders, and automotive end users of battery materials including Ford, Volvo, Volkswagen Group, and Fiat-Chrysler Automotive Group was announced in 2019. RSBI conducted a pilot test tracing 1.5 tons of Congolese cobalt across three different continents over five months of refinement.
Major end users including automotive and electronics brands have, in short, developed increasingly direct contacts extending across the whole battery production network.
There are also a range of financial actors trying to get in on the scramble (though, as both Jinchuan and China Molybdenum demonstrate, the line between ‘productive’ and ‘financial’ capital here can be blurry). Since 2010, benchmark cobalt prices are set through speculative trading on the LME. A number of specialized trading funds have been established in the last five years, seeking to profit from volatile prices for cobalt. One of the largest global stockpiles of cobalt in 2017, for instance, was held by Cobalt 27, a Canadian firm established expressly to buy and hold physical cobalt stocks. Cobalt 27 raised CAD 200 million through a public listing on the Toronto Stock Exchange in June of 2017, and subsequently purchased 2160.9 metric tons of cobalt held in LME warehouses. There are also a growing number of exchange traded funds (ETF) targeting cobalt. Most of these ETFs seek ‘exposure’ to cobalt and battery components more generally, for instance, through holding shares in mining houses or what are called ‘royalty bearing interests’ in specific mining operations rather than trading in physical cobalt or futures. Indeed, by mid-2019, Cobalt-27 was forced to sell off its cobalt stockpile at a loss. It was subsequently bought out by its largest shareholder (a Swiss-registered investment firm) and restructured into ‘Conic’, an investment fund holding a portfolio of royalty-bearing interests in battery metals operations rather than physical metals.
Or, to put it another way, there is as much competition going on within ‘China’ and the ‘West’ between different firms to establish control over limited supplies of cobalt, and to capture a share of the profits, as between China and the ‘West’ as unitary entities.
Thus far, workers and communities in the Congolese Copperbelt have suffered the consequences of this scramble. They have seen few of the benefits. Indeed, this is reflective of much longer-run processes, documented in ROAPE, wherein local capital formation and local development in Congolese mining have been systematically repressed on behalf of transnational capital for decades.
The current boom takes place against the backdrop of the collapse, and subsequent privatization, of the copper mining industry in the 1990s and 2000s. In 1988, state-owned copper mining firm Gécamines produced roughly 450 000 tons of copper, and employed 30 000 people, by 2003, production had fallen to 8 000 tons and workers were owed up to 36 months of back pay. As part of the restructuring and privatization of the company, more than 10 000 workers were offered severance payments financed by the World Bank, the company was privatized, and mining rights were increasingly marketized. By most measures, mining communities in the Congolese Copperbelt are marked by widespread poverty. A 2017 survey found mean and median monthly household incomes of $USD 34.50 and $USD 14, respectively, in the region.
In the context of widespread dispossession, the DRC’s relatively shallow cobalt deposits have been an important source of livelihood activities. Estimates based on survey research suggest that roughly 60 percent of households in the region derived some income from mining, of which 90 percent worked in some form of artisanal mining. Recent research has linked the rise of industrial mining installations owned by multinational conglomerates to deepening inequality, driven in no small part by those firms’ preference for expatriate workers in higher paid roles. Where Congolese workers are employed, this is often through abusive systems of outsourcing through labour brokers.
Cobalt mining has also been linked to substantial forms of social and ecological degradation in surrounding areas, including significant health risks from breathing dust (not only to miners but also to local communities), ecological disruption and pollution from acid, dust, and tailings, and violent displacement of local communities.
The limited benefits and high costs of the cobalt boom for local people in the Congolese copperbelt, in short, are linked to conditions of widespread dispossession predating the arrival of Chinese firms and are certainly not limited to Chinese firms.
To be clear, none of this is to deny that Chinese firms have been implicated in abuses of labour rights and ecologically destructive practices in the DRC, nor that the Chinese state has clearly made strategic priorities of cobalt mining, refining, and battery manufacturing. It does not excuse the very real abuses linked to Chinese firms that European-owned ones have done many of the same things. Nor does the fact that those Chinese firms are often ultimately vendors to major US and European auto and electronic brands.
However, all of this does suggest that any diagnosis of the developmental ills, violence, ecological damage and labour abuses surrounding cobalt in the DRC that focuses specifically on the character of Chinese firms or on inter-state competition is limited at best. It gets Glencore, Apple, Tesla, and myriad financial speculators, to say nothing of capitalist relations of production generally, off the hook.
If we want to get to grips with the unfolding scramble for cobalt and its consequences for the people in the south-east DRC, we need to keep in view how the present-day scramble reflects wider patterns of uneven development under capitalist relations of production.
We should note that such narratives of a ‘new scramble for Africa’ prompted by a rapacious Chinese appetite for natural resources are not new. As Alison Ayers argued nearly a decade ago of narratives about the role of China in a ‘new scramble for Africa’, a focus on Chinese abuses means that ‘the West’s relations with Africa are construed as essentially beneficent, in contrast to the putatively opportunistic, exploitative and deleterious role of the emerging powers, thereby obfuscating the West’s ongoing neocolonial relationship with Africa’. Likewise, such accounts neglect ‘profound changes in the global political economy within which the “new scramble for Africa” is to be more adequately located’. These interventions are profoundly political, providing important forms of ideological cover for both neoliberal capitalism and for longer-run structures of imperialism.
In short, the barrier to a just transition to sustainable energy sources is not a unitary ‘China’ bent on the domination of emerging industries as a means to global hegemony. It is capitalism. Or, more precisely, it is the fact that responses to the climate crisis have thus far worked through and exacerbated the contradictions of existing imperialism and capitalist relations of production. The scramble for cobalt is a capitalist scramble, and one of many signs that there can be no ‘just’ transition without overturning capitalism and imperialism on a global scale.
This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).
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