This was due to be the last in a series of four articles on the Kenyan general elections of 2017. The first three looked at the campaign, the state of play between the main alliances and the capabilities and activities of the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission and made a series of predictions about the likely results of the 8 August poll at presidential, gubernatorial and parliamentary levels. This article looks at what happened next: the results, where those predictions were right and wrong, what we can deduce about the conduct of the electoral process in the light of the Supreme Court’s invalidation of the presidential poll on 1 September and what lessons there may be in the first presidential poll for the second.
The Presidential Results
In the Presidency, as predicted in all three articles, according to the Form 34Bs which record the 290 constituency results, Uhuru Kenyatta won a clear victory; winning 54% of the vote to 45% for his main challenger Raila Odinga. This was the result of an electoral process which initially pleased almost everyone. The procedures on polling day worked well, the electronic voter identification and tallying systems mostly functioned as intended (or at least as predicted), there was no military intervention, no mass failure of the electronic voter verification system and counting at the polling stations was mostly uneventful. The presidential results were (mostly) logical and consistent with previous elections and with the parallel elections taking place and there were no excesses of votes in the Presidency compared to the other polls. The overall process was given the support both of domestic and international observers (with qualifications as the results had not yet been declared at that point).
For now, this analysis is based on the opinion – which I hope to explain – that while there were material administrative issues sufficient in the minds of the Supreme Court to invalidate the election, the evidence strongly suggests that the presidential results announced by IEBC were not “cooked” or “computer generated”.
That is not the view of a large number of Kenyans who supported the NASA coalition however, nor of the Supreme Court, and we will look in more detail at their concerns later. For now, this analysis is based on the opinion – which I hope to explain – that while there were material administrative issues sufficient in the minds of the Supreme Court to invalidate the election, the evidence strongly suggests that the presidential results announced by IEBC were not “cooked” or “computer generated”. Many of the complaints raised relate to the IEBC’s partial migration to an electronic tallying system, which as predicted was a key source of confusion.
Overall, the IEBC results showed that Kenyatta and William Ruto had won a decisive victory, by a greater margin than most had predicted. They won 26 counties to Odinga’s 21. Uhuru won three counties I thought he would lose – Garissa, Narok and Nyamira – and lost one, Tana River.
I got closest in my article in June, which predicted a 55-45% victory, In fact, the closer to the election we got and the more information I acquired, the less accurate my predictions were. In fact, I had begun to doubt my own numbers and modified my eve-of-poll prediction from 53-47% (which the spreadsheet suggested) to 52% to 48%. I left however the predicted votes for each candidate the same, and there I was pretty close: the official constituency Form 34Bs show that Kenyatta beat Odinga by 8.2 million to 6.8 million votes, compared to which I had predicted 8 million to 7 million.
Regionally, Kenyatta and Odinga (and their respective Vice Presidential candidates William Ruto and Kalonzo Musyoka) won all their Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Luo and Kamba “heartlands” as expected, and by huge margins. The two internal “insurgencies” in Bomet (Isaac Ruto for NASA) and Machakos (Alfred Mutua for Jubilee) both had little impact on the presidential votes. I had expected Ruto to bring more voters to Odinga than he in fact did. Little will change here in a rerun. As predicted, Kenyatta won most of the north and North east, Odinga most of the Coast and Western. Nairobi (on the far left of the chart below) was narrowly pro-Odinga (51% to 48%), much closer that opinion polls had predicted, a source of some surprise. Ipsos for example had run a survey in Nairobi just pre-poll which predicted a 56% Odinga vote with a margin of error of +-2.7%. The Kisii and Nyamira result (on the far right) were also a surprise, as most commentators, myself included, had given the region to NASA as in 2013. Explanations given afterwards included the heavy investment Jubilee had made in the region, the defection of virtually all ODM MPs to Jubilee and the influence of Fred Matiang’i as cabinet secretary.
Note: Orange throughout is NASA or Odinga; Blue throughout is Jubilee or Kenyatta. I use blue rather than red, the “Jubilee colour”, because red and orange look similar in some display formats, and because blue is a more “conservative” colour in most political systems than red, which tends to be associated with socialism and communism, and Jubilee is definitely a more conservative alliance.
As expected, all the other candidates were irrelevant, except for Joseph Nyagah (small spread votes) and Mohammed Dida (in green above), who polled creditably in the north and north east. Rejected and otherwise inadmissible votes were reasonable, down on 2013 at 0.5% overall (based on the Form 34Bs).
When I summed them manually, the 34Bs added up to almost exactly the same results as IEBC had announced around 8pm on 11 August (which they had done with a couple of seats still missing, as they were entitled to do).
These Presidential results are taken directly myself from the 34Bs, when they were published in a repository by IEBC, which were the only formal and legal basis for announcing a result. When I summed them manually, the 34Bs added up to almost exactly the same results as IEBC had announced around 8pm on 11 August (which they had done with a couple of seats still missing, as they were entitled to do). There were three Form 34Bs missing from the Forms repository (a different result had been uploaded instead), so I used the 34C national summary for them. The results in the IEBC real time portal (initially fed by the KIEMS system and then corrected and topped up later manually with missing results) were similar, though not identical, with the main difference being the spoilt votes, where – as in 2013 – there appeared to be an glitch which led the number of rejected, disputed and objected votes to be far larger electronically than in fact it turned out to be (something the IEBC has never explained).
Comparing the now invalidated presidential results against those for 2013 (easy with the same constituencies and candidates) we can see clear trends. Kenyatta did better in most areas, picking up votes especially in the north and North East, the Coast, Western and Kisii/Nyamira. Odinga did better in Bomet, some northern Kalenjin seats, most of Western (where he took the majority of Mudavadi’s 2013 vote) and Meru.
Turnout was substantially down on 2013. This was as predicted: the 2013 election had been fought on a new register, which had been only incrementally and partially updated since then, leaving at least a million dead voters still registered, so turnouts were inevitably going to be lower. In addition, the electronic voter identification system, with id cards, photographs and fingerprints combined, and (uneditable) tallies of voters maintained electronically by the KIEMS systems, deterred or prevented some “top up voting“ (officials voting for missing voters at the end of the day) which occurred in 2013.
In summary, if the Presidential result was substantively rigged or the result otherwise affected by the issues found, it is near certain that all the other elections must have been rigged or affected in the same way, as they involved the same voters, method for voting, technology for voter identification and results transmission (KIEMS), the same real-time results display portal, the same voting and counting processes, the same election officials and almost the same end results.
The turnout pattern (in black below) matched very closely that of previous polls, highest in the Luo and Kikuyu homelands, lowest on the coast. Turnouts exceeded 85% in 35 mostly Kikuyu, Luo and Kalenjin constituencies, a sign of some forced voting, top ups or stuffing, but exceeded 90% nowhere, and nationwide were a very reasonable 78% (compared to the 76% that a long-term weighted average of the last five elections suggested). The change in turnout on 2013 (in green below) was mostly consistent, as would be expected if dead voters were the main reason. Turnouts rose slightly in a couple of Kilifi seats where they had been depressed by the Mombasa Republican Council violence in 2013, and in Tharaka in Tharaka-Nithi (unexplained so far).
In the 47 gubernatorial races, the results followed a similar pattern to those for the Presidency. Again, Jubilee won decisively, by a greater margin than predicted. Here too, I underestimated the scale of Jubilee’s victory (though I got the winner right in 40 of 47). I predicted that Jubilee and their KANU, MCC, FAP, PNU, DP, NARC-Kenya and independent allies would win 21-28 Governorships, but they ended up with 29. As expected, they won their homelands, and Mike Sonko won Nairobi. Jubilee also won four counties where I had them as marginals (Narok, Kwale, Lamu and Wajir) and four (Garissa, Kajiado, Bomet and Machakos) which I had given to NASA. Across the nation, only 21 of the 47 incumbent governors returned to office.
New Governors included three Kenyatta first-term cabinet secretaries, all dropped from their posts for various alleged misdeeds: Anne Waiguru in Kirinyaga, Joseph ole Lenku in Kajiado and Charity Ngilu in Kitui – plus retired Kibaki-era Secretary to the Cabinet Francis Kimemia. This reaffirmed the illusory nature of the distinction between senior non-partisan state officials and politicians. If they were not in active politics when they entered office, they certainly were by the time they left.
For many Kenyans, the local races for MP and MCA were just as important as those for the President and Governor. There too, the same pattern was seen – Jubilee successes across the board.
NASA did not petition the governorship elections collectively, though they made allegations that some results were “computer generated” and initially, nor did most losing gubernatorial candidates. There seemed a general assumption that the non-presidential polls were not systematically rigged until the Supreme Court’s judgement, which immediately opened the floodgates for petitions by defeated candidates, including losing gubernatorial candidates, in Embu, Siaya, Kirinyaga and Machakos, with more to come.
The Parliamentary Races
For many Kenyans, the local races for MP and MCA were just as important as those for the President and Governor. There too, the same pattern was seen – Jubilee successes across the board. In the National Assembly, for the 290 constituency MPs my prediction of a 54% pro-Jubilee to 46% pro-NASA win turned out again to be a slight underestimate of the size of Jubilee’s victory. In fact, Jubilee and allies won roughly 60% to just under 40% for NASA. Jubilee did well in Bungoma and Kakamega (where ex-New FORD Kenya members formed the core of their victors), Kisii and Maasailand, and even won a couple of seats in Kitui and Machakos. ODM swept Luo areas and most of the Coast and Wiper most of Ukambani, while Mudavadi’s ANC, FORD-Kenya and ODM competed for the non-Jubilee western seats. Nairobi split 9 seats to Jubilee to 8 to NASA. The majority of MPs were newcomers, with voters clearly demanding change at the local level, particularly in the Kikuyu and Luo homelands, where few incumbents were re-elected.
The pattern was similar amongst the elected county Women’s MPs (with 31 for Jubilee and its allies versus 16 NASA and one independent) and in the Senate, where Jubilee and allies won 27 elected seats to NASAs 20). Overall, Jubilee won (initially) the presidency, the National Assembly, the Senate and most of the Governorships, the most decisive victory since the NARC wave of 2002.
Contrasting Perspectives and NASA’s Concerns
In general, the elections appeared to have been smoothly run, the results consistent, the electronic portal reporting convincing and the IEBC appeared comfortable in delivering its mandate. Observers commended the process as “peaceful, fair, and transparent”. Believing it had lost its ability to validate and correct constituency errors after the Maina Kiai et al case, IEBC headquarters limited itself – for the presidential election victory announcement – to a process of extraction, verification and entry of the 290 constituency Form 34B returns, the summing of these results and the announcement of the winner. As there remains dispute on this, the key decision summary is reproduced here from the Kiai judgement (http://kenyalaw.org/caselaw/cases/view/133874/):
The results Chebukati announced from the 34Bs (acknowledged by all to be without a complete set of 40,000 matching polling station Form 34As) matched closely with the parallel returns coming from the polling stations via the electronic KIEMS system in real-time to Bomas. From close of poll on the 8th, the parallel result stream from KIEMS soon showed a lead for Kenyatta and that lead grew over the next 48 hours as more and more of the electronic kits reported in.
The independent Parallel Vote Tabulation conducted by the ELOG domestic observer network and announced on 12 August validated the results almost precisely (its sample-based prediction gave 54% for Kenyatta to 45% to Odinga with a 1.9% margin of error). This was crucial because it provided independent verification to observers and the media that their perception of a well-run election was matched by independent assessment. Of course, this could have been faked, but there is no evidence yet offered that it was.
A macro-level comparison of voters cast and results between elections in fact shows that Odinga did better presidentially than his candidates in general. A re-tallying of the 15.3 million gubernatorial votes by constituency gives 5.7 million votes to ODM, Wiper, CCM, ANC, FORD–Kenya and allied candidates, far less than Odinga’s 6.8 million (in red). Thus Odinga did better in the cancelled presidential elections than did his gubernatorial candidates. The same pattern is seen in Parliament – again, Jubilee candidates polled more than 2 million more than NASA, though results are incomplete become 18 seats still don’t have full results on the Portal (https://public.rts.iebc.or.ke).
Jubilee = Jubilee + KANU + FAP + MCC + EFP + DP + PNU + NARC-Kenya plus defectors from the above after losing primaries, where known
NASA = ODM + Wiper + CCM +ANC + FORD-K + CCU + NARC plus defectors from the above after losing primaries, where known
Jubilee’s victories in the annulled presidency matched well with its victories in parliament and the Governorships. Comparing the Presidential, Gubernatorial, Senate and Women’s Representative results against each other by winner, in only nine counties did voters switch tickets: Nairobi, Machakos, Lamu, Tana River, Kwale, Taita-Taveta, Turkana, Narok, Trans-Nzoia and Nyamira.
Of those, Odinga won every one except Nyamira. In summary, if the Presidential result was substantively rigged or the result otherwise affected by the issues found, it is near certain that all the other elections must have been rigged or affected in the same way, as they involved the same voters, method for voting, technology for voter identification and results transmission (KIEMS), the same real-time results display portal, the same voting and counting processes, the same election officials and almost the same end results.
Rather than conceding once the trend was clear, Odinga rejected the presidential results outright (though not the other results) and accused the IEBC of a “complete fraud”. NASA’s impassioned follow up allegations were more specific, claiming form substitution, un-gazetted polling stations and administrative chaos in the IEBC and castigating the IEBC for releasing the presidential results without all the Form 34As. The sometimes-contradictory and implausible hacking claims made by senior politicians including Odinga, James Orengo and Mudavadi on 9-10 August raised the political temperature sharply, as intended, but also distracted attention for a while from real issues which were emerging relating to the IEBCs handing of the Form 34As. Despite widespread scepticism and challenge from the international observers, who had all judged the polls so far (before results had been announced) to be free and fair, NASA’s leaders refused to accept the results, claiming they were “cooked” or “faked” and demanded – even before all form 34B were in – that IEBC declare Raila as President (at one point using a faked NASA parallel count document as supporting evidence).
Unexpectedly abandoned by the international observers, who they had previously seen as allies, they lashed out at them as well. A few NGOs including the Kenya Human Rights Commission backed up NASA’s allegations to varying degrees, which then raised further fears of state repression (and generated further bad press internationally) when the state briefly tried to shut them down immediately the result was announced.
However, Odinga and the other NASA principles came under intense domestic and international pressure to take the constitutional path, as their ambivalent, partial move to “the streets” to protest during Wednesday 9th – Sunday 13th August was escalating and several people (probably at least 28) had been killed, mostly by the security forces.
NASA followed up their allegations with a petition against the presidential election, filed just within the one-week deadline on 18 August. Until the 16th, they had told Kenyans that “filing a petition at the Supreme Court to challenge the results was out of the question” because of CORD’s difficult experience in 2013 in crafting a case in one week, and the high burden of proof then demanded. However, Odinga and the other NASA principles came under intense domestic and international pressure to take the constitutional path, as their ambivalent, partial move to “the streets” to protest during Wednesday 9th – Sunday 13th August was escalating and several people (probably at least 28) had been killed, mostly by the security forces. Fears of broader communal violence in Nairobi were growing, fuelled by a series of fake media photographs, pretending to be current and of Kenya, designed to incite hatred. The decision to petition offered a temporary release for that tension.
For just one week (extraordinarily brief because of the two-week end to end deadline for concluding presidential cases, which the judiciary had already asked unsuccessfully to be extended) the Supreme Court heard the NASA case and responses from the IEBCs lawyers and other interested parties, with the verdict announced 1 September. NASA’s case focussed on five main areas – the electronic vote transmission system and its potential hacking (with the extraordinary claim that the portal results were a mathematical calculation unrelated to the actual votes cast); the missing form 34As and whether some were invalid or had been faked or substituted and errors in the KIEMS data entry which sent some of the results to the tallying centres; whether the IEBC Chairman should have declared without all the form 34As in his possession; examples of tallying errors between form 34As and Bs and possible malpractice in particular constituencies; and the pre-poll electoral environment including campaigning by Cabinet Secretaries for the ruling alliance.
The two dissenting judges’ Ndung’u and Ojwang’s opinions on the case were brutal – that the petition was without merit, devoid of evidence and that any transmission irregularities did not and could not have affected the outcome of the actual election at the polling stations or the count at constituency tallying centres.
To some surprise, by a 4-2 majority verdict the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Maraga nullified Kenyatta’s re-election, because the poll was “not conducted in accordance with the Constitution”, and specifically the IEBC had “committed irregularities and illegalities inter alia, in the transmission of results”. The detailed grounds for that decision are not yet known, as the formally argued verdict will only be issued in 21 days (as it was “not humanly possible” in the words of the CJ to prepare the report in the time available). The court found no evidence of misconduct by Kenyatta (which had been one of Odinga’s petition grounds), though again we do not yet know their reasoning. It ordered another “fresh” presidential poll to be held in 60 days.
The two dissenting judges’ Ndung’u and Ojwang’s opinions on the case were brutal – that the petition was without merit, devoid of evidence and that any transmission irregularities did not and could not have affected the outcome of the actual election at the polling stations or the count at constituency tallying centres. Justice Ojwang argued that “there is not an iota of merit in invalidating the clear expression of the Kenyan people”. Kenyatta’s lawyers were furious, with one calling it “a political decision that is absolutely devoid of an iota of legal reasoning”, but the Supreme Court is Kenya’s final court and there is no further appeal.
Where were the Real Issues?
The single most vexed element of the whole election proved to be the electronic vote tallying and reporting, which had been introduced in the 2016 and 2017 Elections Act amendments. The unsolved murder of the IEBC expert responsible for KIEMS just before polling day (the reasons for which have still not been explained, though at least one person is still in custody) added fear and uncertainty to an already confusing situation. Most of this was unnecessary, as the election results used to calculate the Presidential winner should always and only have been those from the form 34Bs. The electronic results which came direct from the 40,833 polling stations to the portal were unofficial, incomplete (because they would and could never get 100% electronic results in a country so large and diverse economically as Kenya) and would inevitably differ (as they in fact did) from the 34Bs prepared at constituency level (mostly due to data entry errors into KIEMS by officials when transcribing manually from the completed forms). Repeated NASA allegations of hacking of the central IEBC server did not make great sense once it was clear that the central IEBC system was only being used for parallel presentation of polling station results from KIEMS. The actual presidential result came from the 290 constituency Form 34Bs. And the allegedly hacked portal had almost exactly the same result (8.2 m to 6.8 m) as that produced by adding the Form 34Bs.
The second significant concern was the delays in obtaining and then displaying the form 34As in IEBC headquarters. These were not (in the IEBC’s view) required for the central presidential announcement, but were still essential in order to determine whether the overall election was free and fair. No constituency RO should have announced their winners without all their form 34As, yet a week after they had finished, thousands were missing. The IEBC originally promised that “The results for the presidential election will be transmitted together with an image of the polling station tally sheet”. Then two days before polling, they announced what had already been widely suspected – that 11,000 polling stations did not have sufficient wireless network coverage – so the results from KIEMS would either come later or minus the scanned Form 34A copy. The whereabouts of these 11,000 forms became a huge problem. The IEBC was ambivalent and even misleading at times in its reporting. It seems they had not initially realised that the ‘one-time use’ model for KIEMS devices meant that for the polling stations where the system could not send the image but could send the results online, the scan of the form 34A would have to be provided much later by other means. These trickled in over the next 1-2 weeks, electronically or by hand. The IECB’s ambiguity over the 34As and the portal cost them dearly in perceptions of their competence and credibility.
Their failure to provide a display portal for the Form 34As and Bs was a mistake which was rectified, quickly for the Form 34As, and then grudgingly, a week after the vote, for the 34Bs. However, once done, it exposed gap between image and reality, when huge swathes of form 34As were found to be missing and some to be illegible. Those which were in the system matched well with the results in the online portal, but some were unsigned, unstamped or in a different format, and no-one knew what had happened to those which were missing. Some reports suggested the gaps were politically material (e.g. disproportionately from Odinga’s homelands).
It now appears that some media houses were ordered not to report on constituency contests, which might lead to suspicion that something deeper was amiss.
This linked to a more systemic concern – the back office operation of IEBC headquarters. While on the face of it, Wafula Chebukati, Ezra Chiloba and other commissioners maintained a relaxed face, and the portal and forms systems worked well, exactly where the portal results were coming from and why so few Form 34As were available has never been fully explained. It seems that administratively things were far from smooth in the back office. Basic security controls were lax, with IEBC staff frantically updating systems with whatever data they could get using various userids, some of their much vaunted document security features were invalid, key constituency documents were duplicated or unsigned and some officials were not even gazetted. There are still no published results apart from those on the portal for any of the other elections – no Form 35,36 ,37 and 38 for the parliamentary, gubernatorial, women representative or senatorial results have been published anywhere. The IEBC portal has results, but they are still incomplete nearly a month after the election, and differ from the (fragmentary) official results gazetted by IEBC on 18 August. In general, the results reporting and display process was unclear and IEBC did not always follow the procedures it had promised pre-election to ensure transparency and build confidence. The evidence from NASA’s petition showed numerous data and quality integrities, which while they were modest in individual impact and probably affected all candidates (and therefore would have limited material effect on the election result) certainly led many to question what was happening behind the scenes.
Another concern (less widely known) is the way in which the Kenyan media focused entirely on the electronic portal for their results, making no effort to report the actual constituency results. No independent tally was maintained and for the first time ever the press did not report any Constituency presidential, parliamentary or other results as announced. Initially I has thought that was simply practical laziness – since the portal was available and online – but it seemed inexplicable that the media were not reporting any of the announcements at all. It now appears that some media houses were ordered not to report on constituency contests, which might lead to suspicion that something deeper was amiss.
Still more concerns existed as to how individual presiding and returning officers behaved during their counting and tallying. Some Presiding Officers (for example in Mandera) were replaced the night before polling for unclear reasons. In some stations in pro-Jubilee homelands, NASA agents were not admitted and there was evidence in some stations of “top up” marking of unused ballots after polls closed. Many of the Form 34As had arithmetical issues or were not appropriately signed. It seems from NASA’s petition that some 34As may have been substituted with new (fake) documents or amended after counts finished (though KIEMS should prevent that, KEIMS didn’t work everywhere). In 13 per cent of polling stations, ELOG reported that Form 34A results were not displayed publicly as required by law. Some Form 34Bs show basic mathematical errors. There is also statistical evidence that (as in previous polls) presidential tallies were somehow inflated in the homelands (though there were few public protests at the time). For example, work in progress by Raiya Huru looking at the statistical distribution of Form 34A numbers suggests that in Murang’a, Nyeri, Nyandarua, Siaya, Kisumu and Homa Bay, the polling station results had been tampered with by someone (http://raiyahuru.com/Analysis.pdf). This matched well the NASA petition analyst’s view that something was amiss statistically with many of the results. The IEBC admitted that there were errors in the forms, but claimed they were not substantial enough to affect the outcome of the election.
The Presidential Election Part II
As the petition proceeded, life had begun to return to normal. The new MPs had been sworn in, governors had mostly completed their handovers, and for most Kenyans, the lengthy, expensive, diverting election was becoming a thing of the past. However, with the Court’s announcement we are now in uncharted waters, with the IEBC required to rerun the presidential poll within 60 days, for reasons which are not yet clear.
The IEBC should have been prepared for a runoff, so in theory all should be ready for a rerun. However, whether the IEBC can put together the temporary staff, the KIEMS devices, the logistics and the ballot papers in time for 17 October we do not yet know, especially as the IEBC itself is now under threat. So far Chebukati is staying put rather than resigning, but Chiloba has been side-lined entirely, as have several other officials (putting further stress on those who remain). But NASA is already objecting to the Supreme Court’s order that IEBC conduct a fresh poll in 60 days (because IEBC must be reconstituted), and IEBC has already decided not to conduct a full presidential poll anyway but only a second round runoff, based on the judgement in the 2013 petition [para 291] that “If the petitioner was only one of the candidates, and who had taken the second position in vote-tally to the President-elect, then the “fresh election” will, in law, be confined to the petitioner and the President-elect.”. And the precedent set in the Presidential petition would appear to allow every loser in the other five elections to annul every winner’s election on the same basis, if they can file a petition in time. So, more court cases loom while time runs out.
How effectively the two alliances will respond – without much time to raise money – to the need to do it all again no-one knows, but Jubilee are now grim, angry and spoiling for a rematch, which may well be dirtier than the first. My first guess would be that the result of the second election, if actually held, will be similar to that in the last, and in all the other “down ballot” elections, but until we know the real reasons why the Court annulled the vote, we do not know how much impact the irregularities they found may have had on the first presidential result. Victory in the courts may give the NASA camp fresh impetus and mitigate the pro-Jubilee bandwagon effect of incumbency, but Jubilee have a huge regional advantage (as they always did), more money and no intention of losing.
I had thought this would be my last piece, but perhaps we will need one more.
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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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