In May 2013, the African Union launched Agenda 2063, a blueprint for an integrated, emancipated, prosperous and peaceful Africa. There was a renewed commitment to work for the full unification of Africa, with a common currency from one common bank of issue, a continental communication system, a common foreign policy and a common defence system featuring the African high command.
Five years later, Hollywood came out with a fictional story of a bountiful, independent African state called Wakanda in the film Black Panther. Wakanda was described as the most scientifically and technologically advanced civilisation in the world — not to mention the wealthiest.
It is not a coincidence that there is a straight line between the aspirations of the Global African Family, as expressed in Agenda 2063, and the depiction of a technologically advanced Africa. From the era of the writings of C. L. R James on the majesty of the Haitian Revolution to the current struggle for the dignity of black lives, the liberation and unification of Africa has always been presented as the basis for Pan-Africanism.
Examining the meaning of Pan-Africanism in the current context of massive technological change requires a new language and a new orientation – an orientation that breaks away from the stultifying concepts embraced by a class of leaders who have no loyalty to Africa and who seek to turn citizens into tribal nanobots without a spiritual core.
We are reminded that in this era of artificial intelligence (AI) the future of humanity is the struggle between humans that control machines and machines that control humans. The late Stephen Hawkins observed that artificial intelligence can be the worst event in the history of civilisation. He remarked that “unless we learn how to prepare for, and avoid, the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilisation. It brings dangers, like powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.”
Examining the meaning of Pan-Africanism in the current context of massive technological change requires a new language and a new orientation – an orientation that breaks away from the stultifying concepts embraced by a class of leaders who have no loyalty to Africa and who seek to turn citizens into tribal nanobots without a spiritual core.
The exact meaning of life and the future of life forms are now new issues for humans in the era of synthetic life and technological singularity. In 2010, the human genome scientist J. Craig Venter reported that he had taken another step in his quest to create synthetic life, by synthesising an entire bacterial genome and using it to take over a cell. Scientists called this breakthrough a defining moment in the history of biology and biotechnology but the bioethical questions about who will have control over life brings back the debates on technological singularity when concerned citizens objected to those scientists who believed that they could play God. Pan-Africanist and those who want peace throughout the world have genuine reasons for paying attention to these scientific breakthroughs.
In this essay, I am reaching out to the youth of Africa to turn Wakanda from fiction to reality. Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote the book Between the World and Me for his son, has gone on to be one of the writers for the comic strip The Black Panther. In this way he was seeking to inspire his son that there was a future beyond the prison-military-financial-information complex and the hacking of the human brain by the technology corporations. This is important for all youth, but especially youth in East Africa, where the psychological warfare thrust of Empire has intensified efforts to shape the thoughts, feelings and actions of people. For example, we now know from the recent hearings in the US Congress and from the global activities of Cambridge Analytica, that there are technology firms that are programming people, literally hacking into the brains of the youth. Empire and its local allies are seeking to formalise this brain hacking in Africa into a university town in Kenya called Konza Technological City. Was it an accident that Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook visited Kenya and Nigeria?
Early phase of Pan-Africanism and opposition to being treated like robots
The first Pan-Africanists were opposed to the robotics of yesterday when the forms of enslavement on the plantations in the Americas treated Africans like “machines to make money”. The book by Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, has documented this phase of the dehumanisation of the African person. This book elaborated on how Africans were treated like machines to enable American society to accumulate immense amounts of wealth to become the preeminent industrial power that it is today. The availability of cheap land and the shortage of labour led to a ruthless system of exploitation called the “pushing system” that enslaved people and which Baptist aptly describes as “innovation in violence”.
It was the vibrant Pan-Africanism at the grassroots that precipitated the rebellions against that form of robotisation. Bonds had been forged on the slave ships where that conception of freedom transcended the individual. It was then that the consciousness was cemented that no black person could be free until Africa was liberated. Herein lay the origins of the modern Pan-African movement. In the throes of the independence struggles, Kwame Nkrumah understood that the liberation of individual states was not enough; Africa had to be united to escape external economic domination.
Africa had been partitioned at the 1885 Berlin Conference on the grounds that Africans could not rule themselves and that they were heathens who needed to be civilised. Walter Rodney, in his book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, argued that technological changes were turned to imperial purposes. Whether it was transportation technology, communications technology, military technology or the latest digital advances, human inventions changed the world and transformed life on Earth while at the same time transforming the power relations between societies. From partitioning, colonial plunder, apartheid and occupation, there were many borders instituted in Africa, including racial, ethnic, religious, territorial and sexual borders.
This partitioning and domination was executed through superior military technology (especially the Maxim gun) and by creating divisions. The small intelligentsia in the Global African Family were the main spokespersons for the ideas of African dignity and self-determination. At the popular level, the opposition to domination took cultural and religious forms, such as the rise of the Rastafari and Kimbango movements, Mourides and other social movements, such as the Garvey movement. African Scholars such as W.E. B DuBois convened international meetings that were called Pan-African Congresses that sought to bring together those with the agenda to liberate Africa from colonialism and to end lynching and segregation in the United States. There were five congresses between 1900 and 1945. The 1945 meeting brought together leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Amy Jacques Garvey, George Padmore, W.E.B. Dubois, Jomo Kenyatta and Ras Makonnen.
Walter Rodney, in his seminal book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, argued that technological changes were turned to imperial purposes. Whether it was transportation technology, communications technology, military technology or the latest digital advances, human inventions changed the world and transformed life on Earth while at the same time transforming the power relations between societies.
Pan-Africanism from below was manifest in the consciousness of the ordinary Africans on both sides of the Atlantic. This brand of Pan-Africanism inspired the largest mass movement of the century on both sides of the Atlantic in the form of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Garveyism took root in the United States where the ideas of African vindication and redemption found a fertile base in a society that was struggling against the Ku Klux Klan and those extremist groups that made lynching a Saturday night outing. The UNIA had branches in all parts of the world, with its newspaper, the Negro World, acting as the voice of the Pan-African movement in the period of the Harlem Renaissance. The ambitious projects for the liberation of Africa excited ordinary workers and sufferers and branches of the UNIA were to be found in the USA, the Caribbean, South America, Europe and Africa. At its height, the UNIA had more than two million members. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana was among the most prominent Pan-African activist thinkers and leaders who called on Africans to unite so that they could be free.
In the current period when white racism is growing in Europe and North America, especially with the election of Donald Trump in the USA and the emergence of racist and neo-Nazi groups all across Europe, it is worth remembering that the present currency wars, trade wars and actual interventions of the last Depression had also paved the way for the global imperialist 1939-1945 war. The rise of fascism internationally, (in particular, the coming to power of General Franco, Benito Mussolini, Antonio Salazar and Adolph Hitler) and the idea of white superiority posed a major challenge for all of humanity.
The Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 was another moment when the Pan-African consciousness of Africans rose to become a force in international politics. The failure of the League of Nations to respond to the military atrocities of the Italians had led Africans to warn of the dangers of fascism and world war. In this sense, the global Pan-African movement was a major inspiration for those fighting against fascism in Spain, Portugal, Germany and Italy.
The idea of Ethiopianism, a variant of Pan-Africanism, had been widely held among Christianised Africans during the 19th century. Taking the biblical references to Ethiopia to be the basis for the rallying point around the independence of Africa, Ethiopianism represented a manifestation of spiritual and cultural autonomy for Pan-Africanists. In this period of fascism and war, Pan-African scholars, such as W.E B DuBois, George Padmore, C.L. R. James and Aime Cesaire, articulated the ideas of liberation and redemption. In the French-speaking territories, the idea of Negritude was another variant of Pan-Africanism.
The goals of liberation and emancipation at that moment were associated with the capture of state power and ending colonial rule. However, at the end of apartheid, the question of emancipation was understood to mean much more that seeking the “political kingdom”. African women from the grassroots are acting as a force to assert the humanity of African peoples and to redefine the culture of emancipation and liberation. It is, therefore, not by accident that transgender women are at the forefront of the struggles for black lives while the more backward men seek to kidnap African women and return them to enslavement a la Boko Haram.
Women at the grassroots are calling on intellectuals to grasp the fact that the culture of capitalism is wrapped in the attendant class and gendered structures along with racial and sexual oppression. Long before the prominence of the #Me Too Movement, black women were at the forefront of the fight for the integrity of the body. They had demanded that they will No Longer Be Controlled, Manipulated, or Abused
More significantly, these women are transcending the individualistic, racial and masculinist conceptions of Pan-Africanism and African unity. It is for this reason that the Pan-African revolutionary Micere Mugo proclaimed that Pan-Africanism was about the lived experience of the grassroots. She observed that “though not cited in intellectual discourses that have so far come to be the literary cannon on Pan-Africanism, in their activism, as well as participation, women were and have always been the heart of Pan-Africanism’s essence, or if you like, substance. Ordinary people, or the masses, including the majority of African women, have been the key keepers or carriers of this essence.”
Ubuntu confronts individualism, ethnic manipulation and private accumulation
The current convergence of multiple crises (economic, religious, environmental, technological and political) coincides with an increasing politicisation of ethnicity and regionalism. Liberal philosophies of governance have created the neoliberal nightmare where oligarchs and dynasties maintain political and economic power while dividing the mass of producers into “tribal”, regional and religious groups.
The philosophical basis for Pan-African liberation challenges the “ideology of tribalism” and the the materialistic conception of life, along with the masculinisation of the political spaces. In South Africa, for instance, the process of enrichment of a few has been accompanied by the politicisation of ethnicity. Leaders who benefitted from Pan-African solidarity during the struggle against apartheid are now promoting ethnic identification while supporting xenophobia against other Africans.
Currently, the yardstick of profit has become the only viable measure of the good life, while the commitment to Pan-African solidarity and opposition to imperialism are viewed by many politicians and their publics as either a hindrance to the goals of a market-driven society or alibis for gross theft and corresponding conspicuous consumption. Leaders beg for aid while stealing billions and lodging the loot in foreign bank accounts. They starve schools and hospitals of laboratories while purchasing outdated military equipment. At the level of communications technology and computer security, they are completely reliant on the enemies of Africa.
The crude materialism of Western “modernity” emanated from an understanding of the world where “rational” man was entrusted with the divine mission to rule non-whites because of the “will of God”. War and conquest were justified in linear terms of progress, from savagery to civilisation. Material goods, industrialisation, technological innovation and factories were presented as manifestations of God’s blessings for Europe and North America. Hence the spectacle of the religious spaces becoming the meeting place for deals and political campaigns.
The definition of human was determined by the extent to which these humans believed that human worth was based on accumulation of material wealth, wealth that was the basis for “progress”. Humans who did not internalise this understanding of the accumulation of wealth (a form of accumulation that took perverse forms when it matured into the capitalist mode of production) were considered backward and primitive. On the eugenic scale of Western modernity, Africans are still considered backward and primitive.
Western European approaches to life were considered “scientific” and hence objective and neutral. Classical liberalism emerged in a period when new forms of property in Europe replaced feudal ideas of privilege. Enlightenment thinking about property rights, the oppression of women, domination over nature, domination over non-whites and the universal right to domination became the legitimating idea for modes of economic organisation that engendered a tremendous boost in the production of goods. This unprecedented production of goods was worshipped to the point where commodity fetishism was like a new religion. It was in the spirit of this religion that religious institutions participated in the slave trade and the accumulation of vast amounts of wealth and military power. Today, commodity fetishism is exhibited by so-called “prosperity churches” whose evangelical mission is to make people believe that becoming rich is the Christian thing to do, and that material things are a blessing from Jesus. This religion also guides the new digital companies that are involved in psychological warfare against humans.
This unprecedented production of goods was worshipped to the point where commodity fetishism was like a new religion. It was in the spirit of this religion that religious institutions participated in the slave trade and the accumulation of vast amounts of wealth and military power. Today, commodity fetishism is exhibited by so-called “prosperity churches” whose evangelical mission is to make people believe that becoming rich is the Christian thing to do, and that material things are a blessing from Jesus.
Spirituality and commodities were conflated to lay the basis for a robotic society where cloning and bioengineered creatures (cyborgs) are the promise of the future. This is the future of the bioeconomy where synthetic life will be engineered in laboratories and scientists assign themselves the right to patent life forms. AI is now being refined in Silicon Valley to ensure the dominance of white supremacists in the international political system
According to a study by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) more than a decade ago, in the bioeconomy industrial production moves from the use of fossil and mineral resources (coal, petroleum and natural gas) toward living biological raw materials, primarily biomass plant matter, such as woodchips, agricultural plants and algae. The bioeconomy is associated with wider application of modern biotechnologies in areas such as agriculture, medicine and industry. It was the late Calestous Juma who argued that African progressive scientists hold the key to ensuring that Africa leapfrogs the old forms of industrialisation in this the era of the digital revolution. Juma had noted that it is not necessary to build new paths of industrialisation in the bioeconomy based on past production of primary products; as the bioeconomy matures, the convergence of nanotechnology, information technology, biotechnology, robotics and cognitive sciences will provide a new basis for the post –industrial society.
African languages hold some of the key signposts of the refinement of cognitive technologies that are part of the assemblage of converting technologies (nanotechnology, information technology, biotechnology and robotics). For a short moment, the National Science Foundation of the USA and its scientists in California had mooted a project called the Human Cognome project to harness the understanding of cognitive psychology. According to the scientists who were promoting this enterprise, the Human Cognome Project had planned to span various scientific fields, including neuroscience, cognitive science, artificial intelligence and psychology. Africa as the fountain of homo sapiens was a key area of interest as were the early African languages.
In conjunction with this project was the Human Genographic project. Sponsored by the IBM Corporation and the National Geographic Society, its stated objective was to analyse more than 100,000 DNA samples collected from indigenous peoples. Given that the African peoples of East Africa count as the most original peoples of the human species, the peoples of East Africa were of particular interest for this Human Genographic project. Bioanthropologists were deployed to tap into the African knowledge of the oldest peoples of the planet who are still alive in East Africa.
There is now an effort to reverse-engineer the human brain by studying both its structure and function in order to fully understand mental processes, also known as cognition. The Human Genographic project has many parallels to the Human Genome Project. A better understanding of the cognome can illuminate how the brain perceives and responds to the environment, thereby augmenting artificial intelligence technology. It also has many important implications for the study of disease progression by observing changes in cognition to localised damage. A map of the cognome promises to increase mechanistic understandings of the brain. To further this research, bioanthropologists have tapped into the cell lines of the Hadza, the Iraqw, the Maasai, the Samburu, Sandawe, Shilook, Nuer, Turkana Dinka and San Peoples. These peoples are being studied to learn how to maximise AI capabilities to programme robots.
Pan-African unity and the quantum leap
The integration between the cognitive skills of Africans and the new thrust for a different kind of economic organisation will form the foundation for the qualitative leap in the new mode of economic organisation that will envelop Africa in the short and medium terms.
The world has changed dramatically during the past fifty years of the Pan-African project, presenting more complex possibilities for social and economic transformation. Wakanda gave one indication of what is possible when African knowledge systems, along with the principles of social collectivism, are unleashed for the good of society. One could see that the Wakanda people’s understanding of their links to their ancestors and to their totems prevented the complete robotisation of their society.
One can also see this in the movie trilogy The Matrix, where African oracles were able to separate real humans from cyborgs. It was less than twenty years ago when these science fiction images from Hollywood promised a future where information technologies would reign supreme and shape the lives and affairs of societies, including the lives and the very existence of individuals. Neoliberal futurists, such as Ray Kurzweil, who wrote the book The Singularity is Near, saw this as the era when humans would transcend biology. Kurzweil actual gave the date of 2045 when this new era of singularity would begin.
Wakanda gave one indication of what is possible when African knowledge systems, along with the principles of social collectivism, are unleashed for the good of society. One could see that the Wakanda people’s understanding of their links to their ancestors and to their totems prevented the complete robotisation of their society.
Bill Joy, in his now famous article in Wired magazine, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us”, warned of the dangers of the converging technologies. He argued that the new computer technologies provide a much greater danger to humanity than any technology before has ever presented. Stephen Hawkins sounded the same warning when he noted that the era of artificial intelligence could be “the worst event in the history of civilisation.”
The African spirit, cognitive skills and ideation system provide a powerful antidote to the projections of the era of singularity. Organised within a transformed educational system where fractal mathematics are taught with fractal optimism, the transformation of Africa would break the distinction between the fiction and reality of Wakanda.
Students in the struggle for the decolonisation of knowledge are at the forefront of the Pan- African project to use African languages in higher education. The Kenyan writers Micere Mugo and Ngugi wa Thiong’o have been at the forefront of the promotion of the decolonisation of the medium of education. Ngugi has been resolute in his assertion that the decolonisation of the mind is the contemporary form of Pan-Africanism and the future relies on Africans empowering themselves with African culture, language and knowledge. This author has not only endorsed the importance of African languages, but also the tremendous possibilities that await technological change when African institutions of higher learning embrace fractal geometry and seek to link this knowledge of African fractals to the curriculum.
Few political pundits took seriously the comment made by Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook in 2016 that “Africa will build the future”. The efforts of Zuckerberg and Facebook to launch a special satellite for Third World countries designed to bring web connectivity to areas of the world with limited Internet access may seem altruistic, but forward planners in Silicon Valley already understand the dynamic socio-economic changes that will occur when African innovators move to new ventures beyond mobile money. Chris Msando, the computer expert and electoral official who was murdered prior to the Kenya’s elections last year, pointed to a future where computer savvy Africans would work to ensure real democratic processes. The same infrastructure of Cambridge Analytica that is now known for brain hacking collaborated in Africa with the same forces that eliminated Msando.
In this changing socio-economic environment of the digital present, where information is controlled to shape perceptions, the African people at home and abroad are faced with new powerful economic forces that are reshaping the global landscape, reconfiguring existing organisations/ institutions and creating new ones. In the midst of this change, the institutions of the US military and finance, along with the other NATO powers, promote worn-out ideas that label African people and societies as failing and failed societies. The US President exceeded this academic discourse by labelling African states as “shithole” countries at a time when the US Africa Command was extending its operations in Africa in the so-called War on Terror. In order not to be displaced by the USA, the government of France has intensified its activities in Africa, especially now that the Sahel has been involved in a duplicitous war against terrorists even while manipulating groups such as the Tuaregs after the NATO invasion and destruction of Libya.
It is in countries such as Niger and Mali where there is the explicit elaboration of US and French military operations to counter what is deemed to be Chinese influence in Africa. The removal of Mamadou Tandja from the presidency of Niger in 2010 was directly linked to his overtures to China. The emergence of the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) formation has intensified the mischief of France and the European Union, complicating the old rivalries between North America and Europe in Africa. As recent as 2013, the Senate of France outlined a 500-page document to spell out France’s military strategy in the area that was determined to be “Europe’s neighbourhood”, which includes the zone “from the Sahel to Mauritania to the Horn of Africa and other regions in Africa”.
President Sarkozy had been most explicit in the need to topple the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in order to promote the military influence of France in Africa. The destruction of Libya and the psychological warfare against Africans in the form of the war against terror are new aspects of the military management of the international system. It was not by accident that NATO intervened in Libya because that country had committed itself to anchoring an African currency. But as the mythical Wakanda state alerted many, there are umbilical cords that link the youth in Africa to the youth in Brazil, the USA and Europe.
President Sarkozy had been most explicit in the need to topple the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in order to promote the military influence of France in Africa. The destruction of Libya and the psychological warfare against Africans in the form of the war against terror are new aspects of the military management of the international system. It was not by accident that NATO intervened in Libya because that country had committed itself to anchoring an African currency.
African unification, peace and investments in humans
What has been downplayed in the forecasts and projections about international realignments has been the role of militarism and warfare in the re-division of the world. Wars and rumours of war in the Persian Gulf and in the Korean peninsula now dominate the international news. War speeds up the processes of transformation and regression.
In the past, such re-divisions have been violent. From 1885 to the present the militarisation of society, there has been a negative integration of Africa into the international system. The promise of the era of using artificial intelligence for mass surveillance and US drone warfare has now become a reality. Africans will have to be vigilant to ensure that the present warfare in Yemen and Syria, along with the tussles between Saudi Arabia and Iran, does not engulf Africa and Africans.
Forward planning by Western military strategists for a confrontation with China in Africa brings to the fore the preoccupation with peace and reconstruction as one of the central pillars of African unification. For this reason, the African Union has called for the silencing of guns by 2020. It should also have added the demilitarisation of digital technologies.
It was fifty years ago when the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. admonished peace activists to rise above robotisation. In the speech “Beyond Vietnam” he said, “I’m convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered… A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defence than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Ubuntu reparative justice and the escape from spiritual death
Currently the African people are caught in a revolutionary moment, a moment when political institutions and the law are all caught in the tumult. Kenya, Ethiopia and Egypt are examples of societies that exhibit manifestations of this tumult, witnessed by massive social resistance from below, seismic shifts in economic relations, political alliances and military relations and transitional power swings.
Old formulas for political legitimation no longer suborn the mass of sufferers. Instead the people are seeking to unearth a radical Pan-African vision of the future, and that is a vision of a shared humanity where all the citizens of the planet are able to live in peace. This vision is grounded in the moral ethic of sharing and social collectivism that is enshrined in the philosophy of Ubuntu.
This philosophy is one of the antidotes to spiritual death. It is the revolutionary philosophy that celebrates reparations, forgiveness, love and reconciliation. The Caribbean Pan-Africanists are reminding the youth in Africa that there can be no struggle for Pan-African freedom without reparative justice.
Currently, the policy makers at the African Union are designating those in the Global African Family (called diaspora) outside of the continent as constituting a sixth region. However, they envisage collaboration in the form of capturing billions of dollars in remittances. Yet African leaders are silent when African-American youth, such as Trayvon Martin, are shot to death, but these leaders will travel to Paris to march with French leaders when a few French citizens die in extremist attacks.
The Caribbean Reparations Commission, as a frontline Pan-African formation, is calling on African youth to understand the demands of reparations so that there is an end to the constant babble on sustainable development goals (SDGs). Imperial institutions fear the Agenda 2063, so every week there are meetings so that African policy makers are focused on 2030 instead of working to realise the long-term goals of Pan-African collaboration.
As far back as the period of the struggles for independence, the peoples of Africa called on Africa to speak with one voice. In the book Africa Must Unite, Nkrumah wrote: “A United States of Africa must strengthen our influence on the international scene, as all Africa will speak with one voice…We must stand firmly together against the imperialist forces…We need the strength of our combined numbers and resources to protect ourselves from the very positive dangers of returning colonialism in disguised forms.” Nkrumah saw that even in the moment of independence, freedom could not be guaranteed unless the African people were united.
As they remind themselves about the struggles against robotisation in the 21st century, Pan- Africanists are also conscious of the reality that the goal of decolonisation is not complete. There are still the outstanding issues of Western Sahara, Diego Garcia, sections of the Comoros, the islands of Puerto Rico, Martinique, Guadeloupe as well as the other colonial outposts in the Caribbean. The discussions on Pan-Africanism and liberation are seeking to bring back that energy and spirit in a moment of crisis so that the technological revolution and the solar revolution can be harnessed for the well-being of the majority and a changed world economy instead of for the profitability of companies such as Space X, Facebook, Google and Amazon.
The revitalisation of Africans at home and abroad
The revitalisation of Pan-African confidence has been underlined by four interconnected processes:
- The military defeat of the apartheid army at Cuito Cuanavale in 1988
- The release of Nelson Mandela, unbanning of the liberation movements and the independence of Namibia.
- The holding of the World Conference against Racism in Durban in 2001 and the declaration that slavery constituted a crime against humanity.
- The formation of the African Union and the elaboration of the plans for Agenda 2063.
The major limitation of this revitalisation process is the fact that those intellectuals schooled in Eurocentric ideas are still at the helm of political power. Youth rose up in Egypt and Tunisia to make a break with their repressive leaders, but imperialism supported the militarists while those who constituted the majority at the African Union refused to pay their dues and proposed Western neoliberal views of development in the so called New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).
Global warming, the drying up of Lake Chad, Ebola and Western cyber control over Africa dictate that our youth must think beyond petty differences based on nationality, ethnicity, religion, race or sexual orientation. Aspiring politicians exploit the insecurities generated by structural adjustment to create the scare of millions of illegal immigrants moving across borders. Even while making declarations at the African Union and energetically supporting NEPAD, politicians in many parts of Africa (especially South Africa) whip up xenophobia and hinder the free movement of persons by creating restrictive immigration policies and immigration procedures that violate the basic human rights of those Africans who believe that Africa is for the Africans. Thus, even at the moment when the Continental Free Trade Area treaty was signed in March 2018 to create the world’s largest single market, the leadership continue to ship their money to foreign bank accounts and hinder the creation of a common currency in Africa. This is why the talk about Pan-African economic relations lags behind the reality that forty years ago there was a common currency in East Africa.
We need to clarify the differences between the project of unity as inscribed within the present political leadership and the thoroughgoing push for freedom from those who crave a new vision of citizenship. We will agree with Nkrumah that Africa needs a new kind of citizen. Our task is to draw from the positive memories while outlining the challenges in the present period.
This author has identified key areas of transformation with a focus on the democratisation of access to water resources and the re-engineering of the African landscape to unify the African people. It is a transformation where the working people “who have eyes and ears” will choose to look back in order to look forward. Looking back draws on the memories of transformative moments of African liberation and draws inspiration from these moments. The moment of Haiti’s independence as well as the rapid decolonisation period between 1956 and 1965 were two such moments when the explosive spread of the culture of independence temporarily silenced those who wanted to colonise Africa for another one hundred years. Kwame Nkrumah was the leader of Ghana at that transformative moment. We need to clarify the differences between the project of unity as inscribed within the present political leadership and the thoroughgoing push for freedom from those who crave a new vision of citizenship. We will agree with Nkrumah that Africa needs a new kind of citizen. Our task is to draw from the positive memories while outlining the challenges in the present period.
Bob Marley, the cultural leader, was a notable Pan-African spokesperson of 20th century who wanted to transcend racial divisions with a universal message of African unity, love, peace and human emancipation. His call for emancipation from mental slavery remains a message to the youth who are now exposed to the brain-hacking of the digital companies controlled by billionaire Africans and non-Africans alike.
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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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