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MYSTERY OF THE MISSING SERVERS: Were The August 8 Elections Predetermined?

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On September 30, 2017, the NASA quartet – Raila Odinga, Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetangula – held a press conference to alert Kenyans on a pressing issue they considered to be a hot-button election matter. The media briefing was about an IT company called OT-Morpho that had become something of a technological ogre to many Kenyans.

Looming large but shrouded in mystery, Kenyans only came to learn about the company after the Supreme Court of Kenya overturned the victory of Uhuru Kenyatta and his Jubilee Party in the August 8, 2017 elections. The thrust of the Supreme Court’s majority judgement rested in part on finding fault with the technological malpractices that clouded or interfered with the transmission of votes by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC)’s server. OT-Morpho was the French company that had been outsourced by IEBC to man the server and to ensure the correct transmission of tallied votes.

The statement read by Musalia Mudavadi, NASA’s national campaign chairman, said in part: “We are aware the KSh2.4 billion awarded sum is way above the KSh800 million that IEBC’s technical committee recommended. Kenyans should be excused if they were to conclude that the offensive amounts are being paid as a bribe to OT-Morpho for a shady job of using technology to tilt elections in favour of Jubilee in the same way it did last month.”

The thrust of the Supreme Court’s majority judgement rested on finding fault with the technological malpractices that clouded or interfered with the transmission of votes by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC)’s server. OT-Morpho was the French company that had been outsourced by IEBC to man the server and to ensure the correct transmission of tallied votes.

The key words Mudavadi used are bribe and shady job. The statement also claimed that “the two (OT-Morpho and Jubilee) have pulled another expensive fraud on Kenyan taxpayers even before the IEBC and OT-Morpho can address numerous questions regarding irregularities and illegalities in the August 8 elections.” The third key word is fraud. OT-Morpho has recently allegedly been involved in less than honest dealings in other parts of the world.

The NASA statement also accused OT-Morpho of being “firmly part and parcel of a criminal enterprise that has hijacked the Kenya electoral system with the sole aim of profiteering and frustrating the democratic ambitions of the people of Kenya.” Criminal enterprise are not charitable words to describe a global company that prides itself as a leader in the world of technological expertise and products. But has the company been charitable in its provision of its supposedly world class services?

On September 28, IEBC’s Chief Executive Officer Ezra Chiloba re-negotiated another deal with OT-Morpho to oversee the electronic transmission of the presidential results in the fresh election. (This new deal was the core theme of NASA’s press conference two days later). In its judgement, the Supreme Court said that a fresh election should be held within the constitutionally mandated 60 days from the date of the judgement.

Chiloba’s point of departure on once again contracting the French firm was that there was limited time between then and October 26, 2017 (the new date slated for the fresh elections. The initial date was October 17, 2017) to look for another IT firm to replace OT-Morpho. “The Commission held a series of meeting with OT-Morpho on the level of support we required for the fresh presidential election. This culminated into an addendum to the contract that was signed on Thursday (September 28, 2017) evening after negotiations were concluded as per the procurement law”, said Chiloba on September 30, 2017 to the media.

This new contract immediately was criticized by the opposition NASA coalition. The contract amounting to KSh2.4 billion “for an election involving only one position and two candidates is not only outrageous, but an act of fraud and deliberate theft of public funds and bribery,” said the NASA statement.

Two weeks earlier, Raila Odinga had asked the French government to investigate the Paris-based company and its alleged connection with IEBC officials who he claimed “acted in complicity and connived to undermine the will of the people of Kenya.”

Two weeks earlier, on September 8, 2017, in a protest letter to the French Embassy in Nairobi, NASA Presidential candidate Raila Odinga had asked the French government to investigate the Paris-based company and its alleged connection with IEBC officials who he claimed “acted in complicity and connived to undermine the will of the people of Kenya.”

He also requested the government to expose two alleged OT-Morpho employees, Laurent Lambert and Axel Gaucher, who allegedly helped some IEBC officials to gain unauthorised access to the electoral commission’s servers. In the letter, both were referred to with their respective titles: Lambert is said to work as head of Project Kenya, while Gaucher works as head of analytics at the same organisation.

OT-Morpho was tasked with providing two electronic systems that were to identify the Kenyan voter and consequently transmit election results from the 40,000-plus polling stations to a central tallying centre. Evidently, that did not happen. Raila, the NASA presidential candidate and the leading opposition figure in the August 8 general election, was quick to accuse the IT company of, “failing to comply with the prescribed format of results management data.”

Stung by criticism by the leader of the opposition and castigated by the Supreme Court for its electronic transmission system, OT-Morpho’s Chief Operating Officer, Frederic Beylier, in a terse statement on September 15, 2017 said: “We have conducted two in-depth audits of our system with the support of external and reputable companies. We refute any allegations of piracy or fraudulent intrusion into our system.” Beylier added that the internal audit done on their equipment did not find any foul play.

On election day itself, OT-Morpho supplied 45,000 Kenya Integrated Election Monitors (KIEMs) tablets that are used to identify voters biometrically and the Results Transmission System (RTS) software. Hence, while OT-Morpho was tasked with the provision of tablets, the transmission of encrypted data from KIEMs kits to the IEBC server was the work of three local mobile network companies, namely, Safaricom, Telkom Kenya and Airtel.

It is alleged that IEBC sub-contracted the French company to create a parallel system that gained access to the mobile network operators’ data, re-routed the data to Paris, then purportedly re-sent the figures to the IEBC server. According to people in the know, the reason why IEBC defied the Supreme Court’s order of opening its server to the judges’ scrutiny is that the server could be empty or with data that is not palatable to the public, hence lending credence to the allegation that the August 8 general election’s results were predetermined and preset.

So how is it that OT-Morpho was involved in electronic transmission? Bob Collymore, Safaricom’s Chief Executive Officer, in responding to Raila’s September 26, 2017 criticism of the company’s alleged culpability in abetting the electronic transmission malpractices, defended his company by stating: “In accordance with the contract with IEBC, all mobile companies connected their Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and transmitted the data to the IEBC cloud servers. It was the IEBC’s responsibility to transmit results from its servers to the tallying centres (emphasis added).

This apparent “clarification” about IEBC being solely responsible for transmitting results to the tallying centres came about as a result of NASA pointing out that: “KIEMs kits were using two SIM cards. From contract provided by IEBC during scrutiny, the total SIM cards procured from the three mobile network operators combined “totalled 58,000 or thereabouts”. That is how the Safaricom position statement read by Bob Collymore, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) put it on September 27, 2017.

This included the satellite phones. If two SIM cards were fitted in each KIEMs kit, you would have to divide the total by two. So basically only 29,000 KIEMs were fitted with SIM cards in this case. That means that only 29,000 KIEMs transmitted results.” It is noteworthy that Safaricom does not dispute that only 29,000 KIEMs were fitted with the dual SIM cards, which possibly explains why 11,000 Form 34As were not filled by IEBC’s returning officers.

It is at this point that OT-Morpho comes in. It is alleged that IEBC sub-contracted the French company to create a parallel system that gained access to the mobile network operators’ data, re-routed the data to Paris, then purportedly re-sent the figures to the IEBC server. According to people in the know, the reason why IEBC defied the Supreme Court’s order of opening its server to the judges’ scrutiny is that the server could be empty or with data that is not palatable to the public, hence lending credence to the allegation that the August 8 general election’s results were predetermined and preset. (The Elephant is on record on having written to the OT-Morpho public relations consultant Julien Tahmissian, to comment on the allegations levelled against the French company, but our email request went unanswered.)

Acting and talking tough, Beylier responded by saying that his company was going to sue unidentified people in France and Kenya for damaging “our reputation and honour.” Guns blazing, he warned: “We do not intend to become the scapegoat of the political situation in Kenya. We do not accept the reputation of OT-Morpho and its employees is tainted in any way by these allegations. This has to come to an end.”

In an interesting twist of events, Beylier had earlier pointed out on September 19 that the French firm had not signed a new contract with IEBC. Speaking to Alastair Leithead of the BBC’s Focus on Africa, he said: “We don’t have contract with them (IEBC) for the next election yet.” (He was then referring to the new election date of October 17, 2017, before it was moved to October 26, 2017.) “If we had the contract by now – and assuming that the Supreme Court does not recommend any technical change in its ruling – we would need up to the end of October to reconfigure our systems for the repeat election,” he added.

Beylier said the company was willing to open its system for scrutiny by an independent body under the authority of IEBC. But less than a fortnight later, when the chairman of the electoral commission, Wafula Chebukati, asked the company to open the servers before the upcoming fresh presidential election, OT-Morpho’s Vice President for Middle East and Africa, Olivier Charlane, promptly wrote to the commission, vehemently opposing the suggestion.

Posturing and seemingly on the offensive, Beylier said the company was willing to open its system for scrutiny by an independent body under the authority of IEBC. But less than a fortnight later, when the chairman of the electoral commission, Wafula Chebukati, asked the company to open the servers before the upcoming fresh presidential election, OT-Morpho’s Vice President for Middle East and Africa, Olivier Charlane, promptly wrote to the commission, vehemently opposing the suggestion.

“OT-Morpho would respectfully warn IEBC that opening access to servers, databases and logs prior to the election might open security weaknesses. We would rather recommend that access to server and databases be provided after the Election Day. Anyhow, logs will be shared on a daily basis with IEBC. Agents should be allowed to review them at IEBC premises only,” wrote Charlane.

Like Chiloba, OT-Morpho now ducked the issue of opening itself to an external audit, arguing that there was limited time for that kind of exercise. In the letter to Chebukati, Charlane pointed out that considering the short time left to the date of the fresh polls, it was impossible to conduct a dry-run of results transmission. “Even though OT-Morpho was and remains willing to support such a dry-run, IEBC has to realise that conducting such an operation is hogging the RTS (Results Transmission System) system for four days, so as to prepare test, run and clean the system.”

In reply to Chebukati’s terse memo to OT-Morpho on the issue of clearly displaying all the form 34B from the constituencies, Charlane said the firm would find it technologically impossible to do this given the bulky nature of the forms.

“In the current planning and considering the recent delays in receiving the SIM cards to start the KIEMS (Kenya Integrated Elections Management System) kits production as well as the latest IEBC requirement, we fear we have no room any more for such operations,” opined Charlane. In a roundabout way, what Charlane was saying in not so many words is that nothing should be done to compromise or interfere with OT-Morpho’s supposed data security.

Why would a company with such a huge reputation in digital technology and identification systems offer such flippant excuses for not accepting a reasonable request from a client? OT-Morpho’s website describes the company as, “the acknowledged expert in identification systems.” OT-Morpho used to be known as Safran Identities and Security (Morpho) until May 2017, when it sold its digital security unit and morphed into Advent International, owner of Colombes, France-based Oberthur Technologies SA and renamed the company OT-Morpho.

Deepak Kamani, was the one engaged in the passport deal, which NARC’s new corruption boys had expanded to include visa and border controls. Who was the supplier? Francois Charles Oberthur of Paris, France, then the world’s leading supplier of Visa and Mastercards.

Before Safran merged with Oberthur Technologies (OT), it dealt with supplies of systems and equipment in aerospace, defence and security. The company also sold aeroplane engines, helicopters, launch vehicles and missiles, landing and braking systems, nacelles on board electrical systems, optronics, avionics, identity documents, biometric equipment, smart cards explosives detection and trace analysis.

While Oberthur Technologies SA mainly dealt with security services, the company provided payment technology, smartcards, identity protection, authentication mechanisms conditional access management solutions. OT similarly had clients in the finance, telecom, digital and transport sectors globally. With the morphing of the two companies, they naturally combined and expanded their client base.

Dogged with scandals, in September 2012 Safran Morpho was fined the equivalent of KSh52 million (about US$520,000) for bribery by a Paris court. The company had bribed Nigerian public officials to win a contract for the provision of 70 million identity cards between 2000 and 2003. The deal was worth 170 million euros. After being slapped with the fine, Safran said that it was “deeply attached to strict respect of anti-corruption rules.”

Yet, even with this knowledge, an IEBC official was quoted at that time saying: “The deal with Safran is almost complete. It is only a matter of time.” Meaning, it is already too late to pull back. Someone must have smelt big money. Was this why the IEBC was ready to enter into negotiations with a company that had been implicated and fined in a corruption deal?

Not too long ago, IEBC had itself been caught up in a similar scandal, which was cheekily baptised “Chickengate”. The Chickengate scandal was about a UK-based security printing company that had bribed IEBC and Kenya National Examination Council (KNEC) officials to win their respective ballot paper and certificate tenders. Smith and Ouzman, based in Eastborne, Sussex, became the first company to be convicted under the Prevention of Corruption Act of 1906. Investigations found that Smith and Ouzman had paid bribes amounting to £433,062 to Kenyan officials. The key suspects were investigated by the Serious Fraud Office in the UK, yet their counterparts in Kenya have yet to face the law, or even be investigated.

When sentencing Christopher Smith, 72, and his son Nicholas, 42, in December 2014, Judge David Higgins said: “The pair were guilty of a premeditated, preplanned, sophisticated and very serious crime.” The offence, which took four years to unravel and which occurred between 2006 and 2010, was dubbed Chickengate because they had codenamed the bribe “chicken” for IEBC and KNEC officials.

Back to Safran Morpho. Safran was arraigned before a federal court of law in San Jose, California on August 14, 2016, for allegedly supplying software deemed to have originated from Russia. The case was filed in San Jose because Safran’s local subsidiary is located there.

Safran used to supply fingerprint identification systems to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the US Defence Department and drivers’ agencies in most US states. All that time it described its technology as originating from France. However, two former company executives confessed that the technology was actually developed in Russia. The two former Safran employees – Philipe Desbois, the former Chief Executive Officer of Morpho’s Russian affiliate, and Vincent Hascoet, a deputy director of an affiliate company, Powerjet, in Moscow from July 2012 to May 2014 – told the court that the technology was actually used by Russia’s security agency and could easily be sabotaged in the event of a crisis.

Desbois, who had also served as Safran’s financial representative in Russia, and Hascoet were referred to as “whistleblowers” and “very credible” plaintiffs. In fact, Hascoet was sacked after he raised the alarm over corruption tendencies in the company. Both lived in Russia then.

Through their defence attorney, the duo said that it was “conceivable” that the software contained a “back door” that could enable the Russian government to “override” fingerprint identification devices in such strategic organisations such as the Pentagon, the CIA, the NSA (National Security Agency) and other security areas to gain unauthorised entry.

At the federal court, Morpho and its parent company Safran Group were accused of making “surreptitious sales” of more than US$1billion in Russian technology to federal, state and local governments in the US between 2009 and 2015. The suit said that Morpho and Safran defrauded the US government and the state of California by falsely claiming that their technology was from France, not Russia. In essence, they violated antitrust laws and presented false claims for payment.

The court was told that there existed a confidential 25-year agreement between the French and Russian companies signed in 2008 that included a declaration by the Russian firm Papillon ZAO that stated that its software did not contain “any undisclosed ‘back door’ or other disabling mechanisms.”

In the law suit filed by Daniel Bartley, he noted that the declaration had not been independently verified by either the French firm or any government agency. The point is, although the verification may not have mattered when checking out fingerprint identification technology, like in the issuance of driver’s licences, it would have mattered when it came to matters such as high level security.

“The national security implications are significant,” said Bartley. In agencies that require only cleared people to gain access to secure areas, “such protection could be bypassed if the technology is hacked.”

At the federal court, Morpho and its parent company Safran Group were accused of making “surreptitious sales” of more than US$1billion in Russian technology to federal, state and local governments in the US between 2009 and 2015. The suit said that Morpho and Safran defrauded the US government and the state of California by falsely claiming that their technology was from France, not Russia. In essence, they violated antitrust laws and presented false claims for payment.

In its defence, Safran Group’s US affiliate counterargued that the government agencies exercised “due diligence” in deciding not to intervene in the case. The suit “contains inflammatory and baseless allegations and lacks merit,” said the group. “As leaders of biometric industry for 42 years, we take defence of our reputation and security matters about products solutions very seriously. We are confident that we will successfully defend our case.”

Bartley, in responding to Safran, argued that their statement was “evasive” because it did not address the central claim that the technology in Safran and Morpho products was from Russia.

According to a leaked NSA report of June 5, 2017, Russian hackers gained access to the US voting system. The document talks of how Russian military intelligence, “executed cyber espionage operations against a named US company in August 2016 evidently to obtain information on election-related software and hardware solutions, according to information that become available in April 2017.”

The company in question is suspected to have been Safran. President Vladimir Putin opined that “patriotically minded” Russian hackers may have been behind the cyberattacks during the 2016 US elections.

On September 30, 2017, OT-Morpho rebranded itself to IDEMIA, possibly in an effort to look and sound different as it polishes its image and re-positions itself as a global leader in digital technologies. (The Supreme Court of Kenya had dealt the company a “credibility blow” when it questioned the electronic transmission of the August 8 results.)

It is suspected that this sudden rebranding by the company is not a mere coincidence; it coincides with its signing of a new contract with IEBC. Together with its alleged past scandals, and with the world closely watching its behaviour and performance in Kenya, the company must have been concerned that its global reputation had been tainted. What better way to remain in a competitive and highly lucrative business than to rebrand?

By Dauti Kahura
Mr Kahura is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya

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Politics

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.

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Stealth Game: “Community” Conservancies and Dispossession in Northern Kenya
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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.

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Politics

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”.

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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.

A reckoning

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.”

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Politics

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.

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Battery Arms Race: Global Capital and the Scramble for Cobalt in the Congo
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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.

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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.

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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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