*This reflection is dedicated to my spiritual son, Jesse Masai, and several others like him who constantly wrestle with the question of their responsibility to the Republic in this season.
An old proverb says, “We have not inherited this land from our forebears, we have borrowed it from our children.” Here, we are debtors and owe our children a prosperous future.
The extent to which we develop our democratic institutions, entrench the rule of law and build a prosperous economy shows our obligation towards them. The dream of a land of freedom, where individual rights are guaranteed and where all prosper is fast turning into a frightening nightmare. The once-abhorred Nyayo era, marked with authoritarianism, state terror, press censorship and violation of human rights is back with a vengeance.
Throughout my writings, I have strenuously been trying to be non-partisan on party politics. This then is the article I thought I would never write: a candid assertion that a certain form of partisanship is now a moral necessity. The Jubilee government, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and to the integrity of our democracy. The problem is not just President Uhuru Kenyatta; it’s the larger political apparatus, including Parliament, that made a conscious decision to enable him.
In a multi-party system, non-partisanship works only if all players are consistent democratic actors and subject to independent institutions that safeguard democracy. If one of them is not predictably so, the space for non-partisanship evaporates. I am thus driven to believe that the best hope of defending the country from Uhuru’s Jubilee enablers and saving the nation is to stage a public protest as Muthoni Nyanjiru and Nobel Laurent Professor Wangari Maathai did in 1922 and 1992, respectively. Protest against the government and Parliament until they get it right or implode!
The Jubilee government, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and to the integrity of our democracy.
How can a prosperous future for our children be realised under these conditions? This is not how we pay the debt we owe our children. Today’s youth must not allow us to squander that future. There is an urgent voice calling for action now: “Wade in the waters, children…” Can’t we hear it?
The legendary Harriet Tubman, also known as “Moses” (who once had a US$40,000 price tag on her head for “slave stealing”), sung this song to alert the runaway slaves she guided to freedom. The song signaled to runaways: “Use the river so the hounds can’t trace you. Tonight is the moment for flight; move swiftly; the reaction will be fierce.” Harriet speaks to us today: Now is the time: stop this backsliding, “wade into the waters”, free our children from slavery. Wade into the waters, children!
This advice does not seem smart at first. Why would one want to jump into waters that God stirred up (described in the Bible as troubled)? For many Kenyans, the failure of the opposition NASA to guide them to Canaan is troubled waters. Under persistent attacks – many of them seemingly minor – democratic institutions in Kenya have been eroded gradually until they have failed. The undermining of the independence of the electoral commission, the police service and the free press has rendered our democratic process useless. Our waters are troubled in at least two possible ways.
Lately, we have come to regard the government as a danger to the Constitution of Kenya 2010. It has proved unable or unwilling to block assaults on the rule of law. If these assaults are normalised, they will pose an existential threat to Kenya’s future.
Secondly, our economy is being shackled with foreign debt. This act makes a mockery of the 2000 Jubilee campaign that pushed Western countries to forgive crippling foreign debts of the world’s poorest countries, including Kenya. It is irresponsible to deliberately and unnecessarily enslave our children’s future in debt, erasing their future ability to compete in this world.
There is an urgent voice calling for action now: “Wade in the waters, children…” Can’t we hear it?
Francis A. Schaeffer, warning in his book How Should We Then Live? is instructive to us in Kenya: “If we…do not speak out as authoritarian governments grow from within or come from outside, eventually we or our children will be the enemy of society and the state. No truly authoritarian government can tolerate those who have real absolute by which to judge its arbitrary absolutes and who speak out and act upon that absolute.”
A similar situation is playing out in a Kenya that negates the government’s claim to construct a prosperous future for our children. Instead of addressing these challenges, the government elects to shut down media channels that expose its incompetency and locks up critics who question its legitimacy. This is a perfect recipe for national rebellion.
Fredrick Douglas warned: “The thing that is worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion.” Failure to address the causes of disquiet – and instead opting to use unconstitutional means to silence people – will be the Achilles heel of this government. This may have a tragic ending.
When Laius, the King of Thebes, is told by the Oracle of Delphi that his son will kill him and sleep with his mother Jocasta, the king pierces his baby son’s ankles and leaves him on a mountainside to die. This becomes the first of a sequence of events that leads to the Oracle’s prophesy being fulfilled. For a shepherd finds the baby and takes him to King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth, who name him Oedipus and raise him as their own.
Failure to address the causes of disquiet – and instead opting to use unconstitutional means to silence people – will be the Achilles heel of this government. This may have a tragic ending.
Later, Oedipus seeks the help of the Oracle of Delphi to know his parentage. The Oracle tells him that he’s destined to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Oedipus tries to run from this fate, but ends up running right into it. He kills Laius in a scuffle at a crossroads, not knowing he’s his real father. Later, he wins the throne of Thebes and unknowingly marries his mother, Jocasta, after answering the riddle of the Sphinx. When they figure out the truth, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus stabs out his own eyes. The Greek story ends in tragedy.
In the spiritual song – Wade in the Waters – those who will be blessed are urged to step into the waters first, before the angel of God comes. The song stresses meeting hardships with courage and “steady” faith; gather now and get ready, the healing is promised. Gather now, so that all will be among the first received and delivered by the gifts of grace that spring forth in dark times. While addressing young Germans in Stuttgart on the need to stand for human dignity, former United Nations Secretary-General Dr. Kofi Annan said: “You are not too young to lead, for to lead means to take responsibility and set example.” He explained, “When leaders fail to lead, the people can lead and make leaders follow.” For this very reason, youth in this country must wade in the waters and assume leadership to save their future.
But can we rely on the youth to deliver?
Harris Okongo Arara went to Chianda High School in Uyoma, Siaya County, the same school I attended. He was the best footballer and hockey player that the school ever produced. Upon completing his studies, Arara joined the Kenya Air Force. When he was in his 20s, he became an activist for change and courageously led the fight to end one-party dictatorship in Kenya. What he told a Nairobi court about to sentence him to jail for sedition on September 24, 1988, expressed the values he stood for and the vision he had for Kenya. He declined to plead for leniency or mercy. With confidence, he dismissed the courts’ right to judge him. Arara questioned why he should seek personal mercy while millions of Kenyans lived in misery. He was proud to join the company of those he called apostles, who attempted to rescue justice but found themselves in detention, prison or exile. He said:
The people of this nation are simply demanding their fundamental rights and freedoms. They are simply demanding their rights to a decent living, right to education, right to proper medical care, right to housing. In short, the right to be human beings. If that is sedition, so be it. These are the goals for which I have always fought, and for which I am prepared to die.
Arara was sentenced to a five-year jail term. This was his second stint in jail, having been in detention without trial for six years following the 1982 coup attempt. Arara had only been free for eight months at the time of this sentencing. He was wading into the troubled waters of the Nyayo era.
We learn history because through it we understand the sacrifices that were made before, so that when we make sacrifices we understand we’re doing it on behalf of future generations. It is possible to resist oppressive laws enacted by Parliament that undermine the Constitution and degrade human dignity.
In 1922, for instance, 27-years old Harry Thuku, the leader of the East African Association, was arrested for acting and speaking against “forced labour of women on the roads”. Officials of the nationalist association rallied African workers in Nairobi to go on strike. On March 15, transport workers, domestic workers and government employees deserted their workplaces and gathered in front of the police station where Thuku was being held. Makhan Singh, in History of Kenya’s Trade Union Movement to 1952, wrote: “As the crowd grew, a deputation of the East African Association, including Jomo Kenyatta, held a meeting with Acting Governor Sir Charles Bowring in his office.”
According to Audrey Wipper, who wrote the chapter “Kikuyu Women and the Harry Thuku Disturbances: Some Uniformities of Female Militancy in the Africa” in the Journal of the International African Institute, Nyanjiru and her stepdaughter, Elizabeth Waruiru, were among the city’s female workers who came out to demonstrate. Nyanjiru was a Kikuyu woman who had moved from the village of Weithaga in the native reserves to Nairobi. Addressing the strikers, Jomo Kenyatta announced the deal the East African Association deputies had reached with the governor: Thuku could not be released, but the governor had promised him a fair trial. He then urged the demonstrators to disperse.
It is possible to resist oppressive laws enacted by Parliament that undermine the Constitution and degrade human dignity.
Nyanjiru stood in the front of the crowd near Kenyatta as the demonstrators began leaving. She threw her dress over her shoulders and exposed her naked body, taunting the cowardice of the men and challenging them to stand up to Kenyatta. (In Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat, Nyanjiru is presented as a woman who is incensed by men’s impotency against colonial oppression. She challenges men to swap their trousers for women’s skirts.) Nyanjiru threatened to lead the demand for Harry Thuku’s release if the men were too cowardly to do it.
The 300 women present ululated loudly. The strikers were galvanised by Nyanjiru’s actions and the women’s call to battle. Men who were beginning to disperse returned. A large section of the crowd rushed forward towards the armed guards. Nyanjiru stood only a few feet away from the guards, who had been on duty for 18 continuous hours. The guards kneeled and engaged their rifles at the command of the superintendent of police, Captain Carey.
In the end, 200 Kenyans died. Thuku was exiled, first to Kismayu, then to Marsabit, Witu and Lamu. But as Bryan Ngartia observed in The Ageless Defiance of Muthoni Nyanjiru, “the sacrifice wasn’t all in futility. The tax was reduced from 16 shillings to 12 shillings and was never again raised for the sole purpose of filling labour needs. African grievances were given serious consideration.” This was the seed of struggle that matured in the later independence of Kenya.
Where Are Those Songs? Micere Githae Mugo pleads with our mothers today:
Where are those songs / my mother and yours / always sang / fitting rhythms / to the whole / vast span of life/? […] Sing Daughter sing […] sing/simple songs/for the people/for all to hear/and learn/and sing/with you.
In 1992, Prof. Maathai led mothers of political prisoners detained by the Moi regime to occupy Freedom Corner in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. The government, in now familiar style, dispatched armed police to evict the women, who stripped naked in protest and defiance. Prof. Maathai was beaten unconscious and hospitalised, but the women of Freedom Corner eventually won. Prof. Maathai and her group of women also stopped President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi – at the zenith of his power – from building what would have been Times Tower, a complex associated with the ruling party, at Uhuru Park.
Women must wade in the waters and refuse to be silenced; they must fight for their children’s future. In her contribution published in The Inquiry in 2013, titled “Silence is a Woman”, Wambui wa Mwangi opposed the exclusionary, false, Gikuyu-centric narrative and ideological erasure of many other ethnic communities in the Kenyan story as told by Gikuyu men. She stresses: “Here, I also want to insist on the strong tradition within Gikuyu women’s culture of resisting tyranny, oppression, domination, and hubristic upumbafuness by the men.” Wambui is right to point us to the fact that authoritarianism has no ethnicity. We all sink under bad leadership.
Wambui is right to point us to the fact that authoritarianism has no ethnicity. We all sink under bad leadership.
In shorthand, the song “wade in the waters” admonished the community not to be like the paralysed man, who seemed unable to seize the opportunity and betrayed to the authorities the one who saved him. The song pairs those who made it to safety with the victims who fell trying. For those who made it through: who that dressed in blue?
And in the description of baptism, a hinted memory of those lost in the middle passage:
Chilled body but not my soul…
We remember that their sacrifices have given us our freedom, made the rule of law possible and set us on the path of prosperity.
I am suggesting that in today’s situation, we all should mount powerful public protest despite our party affiliation or policy position. Our demand should be: The rule of law as a threshold in Kenyan politics. Any party that endangers this value must disqualify itself. We must insist on unadulterated implementation of Chapter 6 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010. Period. Then, perhaps, we too would be wading in the waters.
Going forward, it is likely that public protest will be dealt with ruthlessly and may even be fatal for some, but there is gain for all that we strive for. In the face of brutality against dreams, let us consider the story of Joseph in the Bible. The brothers said, ” Come, let us kill him and throw him into one of these wells…Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.” (Gen. 37:20) Here the irony could not be more explicit. The very act intended to frustrate dreams by killing the dreamer becomes the beginning of a sequence of events that make the dreams come true. Joseph went on a winding journey from slavery, to Potiphar’s house, to prison and finally to leadership in Egypt.
Let us demand the dreams of our children.
Carl Rosberg and John Nottingham, 1966: The Myth of ‘Mau Mau’: nationalism in Kenya. New York: Praeger.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 2012: A Grain of Wheat. Penguin African Writers Series, New York: USA.
Schaeffer, Francis A., 1976: How Should We Then Live? The rise and decline of Western thought. Crossway books Wheaton IL. USA
Singh, Makhan, 1969: History of Kenya’s Trade Union Movement to 1952. Nairobi: East Africa African Publishing House.
Wipper, Audrey, 1989: “Kikuyu Women and the Harry Thuku Disturbances: Some Uniformities of Female Militancy, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 59.3: 300–337
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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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