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THE CALL OF THE CLAN: Challenges facing Somalia’s fledgling democracy

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THE CALL OF THE CLAN: Challenges facing Somalia’s fledgling democracy
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Somaliland’s 2017 elections, which were generally hailed as successful, have prompted some to wonder whether the democracy model used in this self-declared independent state could be exported to Somalia. With its hybrid system of tri-party democracy and traditional clan-based governance, Somaliland could, in fact, be held up as an example that could work in societies that are deeply divided along clan lines. While clan, tribe, ethnicity, race or religion should ideally not form the basis of a democratic state, given the protracted conflict in Somalia, there are some elements of the Somaliland model that might just work in Somalia.

Somaliland has adopted a unique hybrid system of governance, which incorporates elements of traditional customary law (known as xeer), Sharia law and modern secular institutions, including a parliament, a judiciary, an army and a police force. The Guurti, the upper house of Somaliland’s legislature, comprises traditional clan elders, religious leaders and ordinary citizens from various professions who are selected by their respective clans. The Guurti wields enormous decision-making powers and is considered one of the stabilising factors in Somaliland’s inclusive governance model.

Michael Walls, the author of A Somali Nation-State: History, Culture and Somaliland’s Political Transition, has described Somaliland’s governance model as “the first indigenous modern African form of government” that fuses traditional forms of organisation with those of representative democracy. According to Walls, Somaliland “represents a strong counter-argument to the preoccupation with state failure and corrective external intervention, while also holding out the hope that an accommodation is possible between the discursive politics of tradition and a representative system more suited to the Westphalian state.”

However, Somaliland’s governance model is far from perfect: the consensual clan-based politics has hindered issue-based politics, eroded individual rights and led to the perception that some clans, such as the dominant Isaaq clan, are favoured over others. Tensions across its eastern border with Puntland also threaten the future stability of this former protectorate that opted to became part of Somalia following independence from the British in 1960 and then declared independence from Somalia in 1991.

In addition, because it is still not recognised internationally as a sovereign state, Somaliland is denied many of the opportunities that come with statehood. It cannot, for instance, enter into bilateral agreements with other countries, get multinational companies to invest there or obtain loans from international banks. (Some argue that this lack of official recognition may actually be a blessing as Somaliland is spared the arm-twisting and conditionalities of donors and international financial institutions, plus the exploitation of its resources by predatory foreigners, a phenomenon that has plagued so many African countries.)

Nonetheless there has been some debate about whether Somaliland’s hybrid governance model, which incorporates both customary and Western-style democracy, can be exported to its southern neighbour. What type of governance system is most suitable for Somalia, which is not just divided along clan/regional lines, but where political/militant Islam and lack of functioning secular institutions threaten nation-building?

The perils of federalism

Federalism, that is, regional autonomy within a single political system, has been proposed by the international community as the most suitable system for Somalia as it caters for deep clan divisions by allocating the major clans semi-autonomous regional territories. The 4.5 formula for federal states proposed by the new constitution, which is based on the four largest clan groups (Darod, Hawiye, Dir and Rahanweyne), and (0.5) minorities does acknowledge the reality of a clan-based society, but as Somalia’s recent history has shown, clan can be, and has been, manipulated for personal gain by politicians. (The 4.5 formula is itself contentious as some Somalis claim that the Isaaqs, who are dominant in Somaliland in the northwest of the country, are part of the Dir family of clans, while Isaaqs claim that they are a separate clan.)

As dominant clans seek to gain power in a federated Somalia, there is a danger that the new federal states will mimic the dysfunction that has prevailed at the centre, which will lead to more competition for territories among rival clans and, therefore, to more conflict. “As new lines are drawn on the map, new opportunities for clan, business and political networks to capture State resources have emerged,” stated the 2015 UN Monitoring Group Report on Somalia.

Besides, the various federal states that have emerged in Somalia under the new constitution are beginning to look like clan enclaves that are disconnected from the centre, and which actually work to undermine the national government in Mogadishu. Fears that entrenched clan interests will dominate the future political landscape in Somalia have generated heated debates about whether a unitary system is more suited to a country that is so divided along clan lines and where minority groups have been denied a say in national politics for decades.

As dominant clans seek to gain power in a federated Somalia, there is a danger that the new federal states will mimic the dysfunction that has prevailed at the centre, which will lead to more competition for territories among rival clans and, therefore, to more conflict.

The bitter reality, however, is that the majority of Somalia’s people have not experienced the benefits of a functional central or decentralised government for nearly thirty years; the concept of a state that provides services and protects the citizens is unknown to the majority of the country’s youthful population, especially those in remote areas who are governed by customary law or the Sharia. In fact, it has been argued that with its strict codes and control over populations through systems of “tax collection” or “protection fees” combined with service delivery, Al Shabaab is the only form of “governance” the majority of Somalis have known since Somalia collapsed and descended into civil war in 1991.

This means that even when Amisom forces liberate regions from the clutches of Al Shabaab, they essentially leave behind a power vacuum which neither the Federal Government of Somalia nor the emerging regional administrations can successfully fill. This has made these regions more prone to clan-based conflicts, which area are already apparent in Jubaland, where some members of the marginalised Bantu/Wagosha minority group have taken up arms in response to what they perceive to be a form of “ethnic cleansing” by both Al Shabaab and the new Ogaden-dominated administration of Ahmed Madobe.

Moreover, as the Qatar-based Somali scholar Afyare Elmi argues, in a country that suffers from a “trust deficit”, and which has experienced dictatorship, people do not want to risk having the kind of highly centralised government that was prevalent during Siad Barre’s regime. He proposes a “decentralised unitary system”, rather than what he calls the “clan-federalism” proposed and supported by the international community. In this system, sovereignty and constitutional powers would remain within the central government, while administrative, political and fiscal powers would devolve to different entities and regions. This would lead to a “de-concentration of authority” that is more responsive to local needs. (However, to accommodate this governance model, the constitution would need to be changed.)

In 1999, the Somalia expert Matt Bryden predicted that the “building block approach” – first proposed in 1998 by the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs – whereby the country would be divided into six “local administrative structures”, would eventually “resemble a patchwork of semi-autonomous territories defined in whole or in part by clan affiliation”: the Isaaq clan would dominate Somaliland in the northwest; the Majerteen in Puntland would dominate the northeast; the Jubaland and Gedo regions bordering Kenya would have a mixture of clans (though there are now fears that the Ogaden, who are politically influential along the Kenya-Somalia border, would eventually control the region); a Hawiye-dominated polity would dominate central Somalia; the Digil-Mirifle would centre around Bay and Bakool; and Mogadishu would remain a cosmopolitan administrative centre.

The bigger question, which no one has yet been willing to honestly confront is: Why should clan determine how Somalia is federated? How can Somalia emerge as a strong and united nation if clan forms the basis of state- and institution-building? How can Somalis convincingly argue that neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya are supporting clan-based regional entities within Somalia when Somalis themselves implicitly support the creation of these entities based on clan domination? How can democracy advance in a country held back by parochial clan or individual interests?

There has been some debate about whether Somaliland’s hybrid governance model, which incorporates both customary and Western-style democracy, can be exported to its southern neighbour.

Some analysts argue that the proposed federalism will eventually lead to the balkanization of Somalia as clan-based fiefdoms start competing for more resources and territories. Other critics, such as the Somali scholar Abdi Samatar, have argued that federalism will lead to “institutionalised discrimination” against minority clans and groups, which would undermine national unity, citizenship and meritocracy.

There is also a concern that the larger (armed) clans could manipulate the system, entrench corruption and pursue their elites’ agendas at the expense of the Somali people. One of the biggest dangers of an exclusionary political system is that rent-seeking and the grabbing of the spoils of war that have dominated Somali politics for decades may be replicated at the federal state level.

A game of musical chairs

Much of the UN-supported transitional governance period was devoted to drafting a new constitution that would set the parameters for statehood and citizenship. However, Somalia’s UN-supported constitution-making process faced resistance, even before it was adopted in 2012, mainly because it was viewed by many as inconsistent, incoherent and difficult to implement.

Some say the constitution tries to unsuccessfully merge Sharia laws with democratic principles. For instance, the constitution precludes the prospect of religious freedom and tolerance in Article 2, which categorically states that “Islam is the religion of the state”, that “no religion other than Islam can be propagated in the country” and that “no law can be enacted that is not compliant with the general principles and objectives of Shari’ah”. (Somalia’s Minister of Constitutional Affairs, Abdurahman Hosh Jibril, told me that the insertion of this article in an otherwise secular constitution was a strategy to “buy in” the support of Islamic religious institutions, which had to be accommodated if the constitution-building process was to be a success.)

Moreover, while the constitution recognises the president as the symbol of ultimate government authority, his relationship with his prime minister, who selects the cabinet, is not clearly defined. In-fighting in all of Somalia’s transitional and post-transitional governments has led to the resignation or removal of several prime ministers and ministers, which has undermined governance. The general high turnover of ministers and public officials, both within the transitional and post-transitional governments, has led to other problems; with so many different prime ministers and ministers rotating, it is difficult to carry out long-term economic development plans or to ensure accountability. This has allowed opportunities for corruption.

Corruption within the government is partly due to the fact that the brief tenures of most presidents, prime ministers, ministers and senior government officials encourage them to make money through corrupt means in the shortest period of time. They enter public service with a “here today, gone tomorrow” attitude, which makes long-term planning difficult, and severely diminishes the government’s ability to be transparent about its finances, including donor funding. Critics have also noted that political leadership in Somalia is like a game of musical chairs; ministers who are sacked are often re-appointed in another ministry shortly afterwards, which makes the gravy train of corruption harder to track or derail.

In addition, unlike Somaliland, Somalia has been unable to hold a one-person-one vote election both during its transitional phase (2004-2012) and in its post-transitional period since 2012, mainly because the country is not yet equipped to carry out such an election, given the countless challenges facing the country, including lack of a voter registration system and insecurity.

Critics have also noted that political leadership in Somalia is like a game of musical chairs; ministers who are sacked are often re-appointed in another ministry shortly afterwards, which makes the gravy train of corruption harder to track or derail.

Elections in Somalia are also usually marred by vote buying, intimidation and violence. Prior to the 2017 election, for example, a Somali official claimed that the more than 14,000 so-called “Electoral College” delegates who were voting for members of parliament were voting for the highest bidder; votes were apparently being bought for between $5000 and $30,000 each. The election of Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo last year raised hopes that he would succeed in eradicating both clannishness and corruption within government, but these hopes are increasingly being dashed by in-fighting and myriad other challenges.

The Italian connection

Some say that Somalia will take years before it has a functioning government because the country has little experience in representative democracy and because recent attempts to revive a democratic culture are coming a little too late. Many blame Italy, Somalia’s colonizer, for failing to leave a legacy of functioning governance structures and institutions in its Somali colony.

Very little is known about the Italian colonial period in Africa because the Italian government restricted access to colonial records for most of the post-Second World War period, which led to a widely circulated myth that Italian colonisation of Eritrea in 1890, of Somalia in 1908 and of Libya in 1912 was much more gentle and inclusive than the colonisation of Africa by Britain, France, Belgium or Portugal.

Some historians believe that Italy’s fascist doctrines of colonial racism, its emphasis on prestige (rather than on institution-building) in both the liberal and Fascist eras, and the country’s lack of experience in colonial administration, led the Italians to adopt anti-assimilationist policies in their colonies that forestalled the formation of an educated labour force that could take over the reins of power once the colonialists left.

Italy’s intentions in Somalia were to create a settlers’ colony, which were in sharp contrast to Britain’s intentions in Somaliland, which were to protect the vital sea trade routes in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, and not to settle as such. Thus in the south, “Italians pursued a policy of social engineering, including an education system and missionary work intended to prepare the territory for Italian settlement”, rather than a policy of “civilising” and training the colonised people who could be relied on to provide skilled labour to the colonial project. Although many of Italy’s Somali subjects learnt to speak Italian, formal teaching of Italian, and indeed all schooling, was very limited, unlike in neighbouring Kenya, also a settlers’ colony, where the colonial project was accompanied by – and indeed, propped up by – the many missionary and other schools that were set up to educate not just the white settlers’ children, but also the “natives”, who were expected to become future colonial administrators.

Some historians believe that Italy’s fascist doctrines of colonial racism, its emphasis on prestige (rather than on institution-building) in both the liberal and Fascist eras, and the country’s lack of experience in colonial administration led the Italians to adopt anti-assimilationist policies in their colonies that forestalled the formation of an educated labour force that could take over the reins of power once the colonialists left.

Under Benito Mussolini, who ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943, Somalia was governed by a fascist colonial government that failed to install democratic structures and institutions that would carry the country forward to independence. Italy’s rule over Somalia was also disrupted after World War Two when Somalia became a UN-administered trusteeship. After Italy lost the Second World War, the Italian colonisers were replaced by a British military administration. In 1950, Britain transferred authority over what was known as the Trust Territory of Somalia back to Italy. However, because Italy’s colonies in Africa were seized by other European powers after the Second World War, they did not undergo a successful “decolonisation” process that would entail a smooth transfer of power to local elites and to the establishment of institutions that would govern the newly independent states.

The Siad Barre era and its aftermath

From 1950 till independence in 1960, there were attempts to “Somali-ise” governance. The first municipal elections were held in 1954, where 20 parties competed for 318 seats in 35 councils; 281 of these seats were held by Somalis, 23 by Arabs, 10 by Italians, 3 by Pakistanis and 1 by an Indian.

However, one decade of democratic governance was not enough to prevent Somalia from descending into political turmoil.   Somalia’s relatively peaceful and democratic first ten years after independence were abruptly disrupted by the assassination of President Abdirashid Sharmake in 1969, just two years after he had taken over from the first post-independence president, Adan Abdulle Osman (also known as Adan Adde).

Barely a week later, Siad Barre gained control over Somalia through a bloodless military coup. Barre suspended the constitution, dissolved parliament, banned political parties and nationalised the economy. Parliament was replaced by the Supreme Revolutionary Council, the ultimate decision-making authority in the country.

Although Barre’s “Scientific Socialism” experiment is credited with many progressive reforms, such as the promotion of women’s rights and the introduction of the Latin script for the Somali language, he failed to bring about democracy in Somalia, and is also blamed for pitting clans against each other through favouritism, political patronage and the persecution of certain clans.

In 1977, when Barre ordered his army to invade Ethiopia in a bid to claim the ethnic Somali-dominated Ogaden region in Ethiopia, Soviet-backed Cuban troops marched in to support the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Maryam. The Soviet Union, which had been supporting Barre militarily until then, quickly switched sides, which proved to be a major blow for Barre’s government. (Soviet withdrawal of support to Somalia gave an opportunity to the Unites States to play a more influential role in Somali affairs.)

After losing the Ogaden war, Barre became more hard line and paranoid, and began arresting, torturing and killing his opponents, including the Isaaq in Somaliland who responded to his repressive tactics by declaring independence from Somalia. By the time he was ousted in 1991, the country was fragmented, and no one, not even the Americans, could prevent the mayhem and destruction that followed. This set the stage for Barre’s ouster in 1991 by the United Somali Congress (USC) led by Mohammed Farah Aideed and Ali Mahdi, who, depending on who you ask, are seen as either heroes who liberated Somalia from the clutches of a dictator, or brutal warlords who unleashed violence and lawlessness in the country.

Although Barre’s “Scientific Socialism” experiment is credited with many progressive reforms, such as the promotion of women’s rights and the introduction of the Latin script for the Somali language, he failed to bring about democracy in Somalia, and is also blamed for pitting clans against each other through favouritism, political patronage and the persecution of certain clans.

When a power struggle between Aideed and Mahdi ensued, UN peacekeepers were brought in to stabilise the situation, but they too withdrew after American soldiers were killed in the infamous “Blackhawk Down” incident in October 1993. Lawlessness and anarchy reigned supreme as Somalia returned to what Somali-Canadian commentator Mohamud Uluso calls a “precolonial fragmentation”, where clan warfare and predatory competition over scarce resources (particularly foreign aid) became the norm and where people sought safety in kinship and clan affinity.

After more than a decade of anarchy and increasing religious extremism, a transitional government backed by the United Nations was instituted in 2004. But, as we have seen, even it could not deliver the much-needed peace and stability as it proved to be weak and ineffectual. The ouster of the Islamic Courts Union (a conglomeration of Muslim clerics and businesspeople who were keen to restore security in Somalia and who sought to replace the Transitional Federal Government) by US-backed Ethiopian forces in 2006 made the situation worse; its recalcitrant offspring, the terrorist group Al Shabaab, gained control of most of southern and central Somalia, making governance difficult, if not impossible.

Some argue that state-building efforts in Somalia have been hampered by a “pastoral ethos” characterised by competition, inter-clan rivalry, disdain for authority (except for traditional elders or religious leaders) and a deep mistrust and suspicion of outsiders. In his seminal book A Pastoral Democracy, first published in 1961, I.M. Lewis claimed that Somali society lacked “judicial, administrative, and political procedures which lie at the western conception of government.” While acknowledging the importance of kinship and clan loyalty in the political organisation of traditional Somali society, Lewis was pessimistic about whether these could deliver Western-style democracy to Somalia. In Somalia’s lineage politics, he argued, “the assumption that might is right has overwhelming authority and personal rights…even if they are not obtained by force, can only be defended against usurpation by force of arms”. Are the current clan-based leaders with their own armed militias a manifestation of this thinking, where political power, once obtained, must be secured through the threat of violence?

While acknowledging the importance of kinship and clan loyalty in the political organisation of traditional Somali society, Lewis was pessimistic about whether these could deliver Western-style democracy.

Critics of this “Somali exceptionalism” thesis argue that Lewis and other Western anthropologists fail to recognise that other pastoralist societies have successfully adopted modernisation and democratic forms of government and that by blaming pastoralism for Somalia’s woes is to assume that Somali society is stagnant and incapable of reinventing itself.

Donors and foreign interests

One of the challenges facing Somalia, which the international community is reluctant to admit, is that any government that is put in place in Mogadishu under the current circumstances will remain a puppet government with no real authority and little capacity to carry out governance functions or to provide services. Manipulation of Somali politics by foreign countries, such as Kenya, Ethiopia and some Arab countries, has hindered the development of a national vision on the way forward and generated suspicion and resentment.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and increasingly Turkey, have been financially supporting various factions and politicians in Somalia for their own political and economic interests. (The recent rift between Qatar and its neighours Saudi Arabia and UAE also spilled over to Somalia, where President Farmajo was expected to take sides.) It has also been claimed that some of these countries have exported religious fundamentalism to Somalia to appease radical factions within their own territories.

Some donors, particularly Turkey, have done a commendable job in rebuilding Somalia’s broken infrastructure and institutions. However, overall, donor support to Somalia has had a mixed record – much of the donated funds have found their way into individual pockets or gone towards supporting the donor countries’ Somalia operations in Nairobi, not in reconstructing Somalia. While security is currently being provided by Amisom forces, this support is also likely to dwindle in the near future.

There is also the issue of vested commercial interests of donor countries, such as Britain, that are keen to exploit Somalia’s largely untapped oil reserves and the United States, whose “war on terror” has Somalia at its epicentre; these interests often play out in the politics of the country. In 1999, Matt Bryden wrote that attempts by foreigners to fix Somalia have ranged from the “mediocre” to the “disastrous”. Some of these attempts, he said, have been sinister, some benign, others simply incompetent, but all have been ultimately unsuccessful.

Donor-dependency is unlikely to diminish as domestic revenue collection remains a challenge. Since the UN-backed transitional government was installed in 2004, no transitional or post-transitional Somali government has had a credible revenue collecting authority or well-functioning ministries. Most Somalis rely on charities (many of which are based in Saudi Arabia, Qatar or the United Arab Emirates) or local entrepreneurs for services such as water provision, healthcare and education. Somalia does not even have a national curriculum for its schools; donor countries supporting schools introduce their own curricula, which had led to the bizarre situation where Somali children are sitting for exams set in Doha, Ankara or Riyadh, not at Somalia’s Ministry of Education.

Oil discoveries have made these foreign interventions more complicated in recent years. There is widespread suspicion that oil looms large in Britain’s dealings with the Somali government, and that the former may be willing to overlook corruption and bad governance in the latter in order to preserve its economic interests. Somaliland and the semi-autonomous Puntland, have already been granting licences to oil companies. Competition over an oil block that stretches across Somaliland and Puntland has increased tensions in these regions. In the absence of agreed-upon legal frameworks, the oil factor is likely to be a source of conflict in Somalia’s oil-producing regions in the near future.

While it is becoming increasingly apparent that foreign interests are to blame for much of the mayhem in Somalia, laying the bulk of the blame on foreigners is unfair and insincere. If the Somali government had used foreign aid and its vast natural resources to rebuild the country and taken it to the next level, Somalia might have emerged from the ashes.

Many people within and outside Somalia also prefer to maintain the status quo because they profit from protracted conflict, informality and the absence of regulations. A strong and well-governed state with in-built checks and balances would threaten their business and personal interests.

What’s worse, none of Somalia’s notorious warlords and corrupt politicians have been made to account for the atrocities and plunder that they carried out. No national or international institution has charged them with any crime. The International Criminal Court, which has vigorously pursued suspects in other African countries, is mute about the crimes against humanity that have been occurring in Somalia for the last three decades. Its silence lends credence to the assertion that the ICC is only interested in selective justice.

Ultimately, the Somali people themselves have to fight for the government they desire. Having experienced only nine years of peaceful democracy from 1960-1969, maybe it is too much to ask Somalia to be fully fledged functioning nation when it barely has the institutions or the resources to run a government, and where clan rivalries and fiefdoms have entrenched a culture of “winner takes all”.

Many people within and outside Somalia also prefer to maintain the status quo because they profit from protracted conflict, informality and the absence of regulations. A strong and well-governed state with in-built checks and balances would threaten their business and personal interests.

Islam could have been a unifying factor in Somalia, but it is unlikely that an entity like the Islamic Courts Union will be allowed to take root again, especially because it would be associated with Al Shabaab (which is generally loathed by the majority of the country’s citizens who blame the group for carrying out attacks that have resulted in the death of hundreds of innocent Somalis in Mogadishu and other places) and also because the United States and its allies will not allow it.

Is the current Western- and internationally-supported political dispensation that is emerging from nearly five decades of dictatorship and anarchy a “fake democracy”? Can Somalia be salvaged through more home-grown solutions, like the ones in Somaliland, which has managed to deliver relative peace and stability to its citizens for almost 30 years? These are the million-dollar questions no one has been able to answer adequately.

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By

Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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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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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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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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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