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THE NEW LUNATIC EXPRESS: Lessons not learned from the East African Railway

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THE NEW LUNATIC EXPRESS: Lessons not learned from the East African Railway
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“The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
-Frederick Douglass

The building of standard gauge (SGR) railways in both Uganda and Kenya and the predictable sagas that have ensued are reminiscent of the controversies surrounding the building of the Uganda and Rhodesian Railways in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Both present a framework within which it is possible finally to understand the limited achievements in development in all sectors (and frankly, underdevelopment in many) and regression in Uganda’s primary education, copper mining and agricultural sectors. Both SGR projects are tainted with suspicion of shady procurement which, if taken together with the track records of the implementers, points to corruption. It would be irresponsible to say otherwise.

The route, design, level of service and all other decisions of the Uganda Railway of 1990 were dictated by potential profits for foreign investors (both public and private) and their local agents, and not by notions of public service and the common good of those who would bear the ultimate cost. Return on investment is not a bad thing but the Imperial government also claimed to be acting in the interests of the indigenous populations.

The difference now is that there is no pretence about whether the railways are serving the interests of the general population. The different financial implications presented by the procurement process itself, the selection of routes and the relative cost of engineering in the different terrains, plus the cost of compensating displaced landowners, provide scope for long-running, energy-depleting corruption scandals. From the outset, there has been a lack of confidence that procurement processes for the necessary services would prioritise the interests of the public over the interests of the contractor and would actively exclude the personal interests of the public servants commissioning the works. This is what is triggering the anxiety surrounding the SGRs.

The different financial implications presented by the procurement process itself, the selection of routes and the relative cost of engineering in the different terrains, plus the cost of compensating displaced landowners, provide scope for long-running, energy-depleting corruption scandals.

Moreover, the choice over whether to upgrade the old railway or to start afresh was not adequately debated publicly. Ditto the options on financing. For the Kenyan SGR, the most costly of the potential routes were reportedly selectively chosen. Several cheaper routes on land allegedly already in possession of the government are said to have been rejected.

There are also questions surrounding passenger service. Do the railways only serve trade or are passengers entitled to this alternative to dangerous road transport? In areas where passengers and not commodities, who will be the primary user of the railway?

Uganda owns one half of the old East African Railway. Together with the Kenyan leg, it was put under a 25-year management contract. The new owners renamed their new toy Rift Valley Railways (RVR). In 2017, after only twelve years, the governments cancelled the contracts in a move the RVR called an illegal takeover. On the Ugandan end, there were allegations of asset-stripping by previous European concessionaires as well as unpaid concession fees and massive salary arrears caused by RVR. If RVR were to successfully sue the government for cancellation of the contract, their compensation would be the first budget overrun.

The government of Uganda then signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2014 with the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), which had submitted a study. It abandoned those negotiations in favour of a second Chinese entity, the China Harbour Engineering Company. In justifying its action, the government questioned the quality of the CCECC’s study, which it said was cut and pasted from pre-existing feasibility studies (something that could have been avoided by following proper procurement procedures). CCECC insists it was a pre-feasibility study requiring less detail than a full-blown feasibility study. Whatever the case, if CCECC had followed through with its suit for US$8 million in compensation, which would have been another massive blow to the budget at inception. Whatever compensation they have agreed to has not been made public but as matters stand, the budget for the eastern leg of the SGR has gone up from CCECC’s proposed US$4.2 billion to CHEC’s US$6.7 billion.

What stands out – apart from the incompetence, squabbling and eventual compensation claims that accompany nearly every major Ugandan development project – is that the President of the Republic is front and centre in the flouting of procurement procedures by issuing personal invitations to foreign firms and individuals to participate in projects. He has done the same with investors from the United Arab Emirates who have been promised land. The results are often disastrous: the country is in debt to the Kenya-based Bidco company after it fell short of 10,000 hectares of land it had promised the company for a vegetable oil project. As a result, Bidco received tax waivers worth US$3.1 million in 2016 alone, according to the Auditor General.

The last top-level contact with a foreign investor whose details are known resulted in the arrest in New York of Patrick Chi Ping Ho in late 2017 on charges of paying bribes to the Ugandan president and the foreign minister through an American bank. The Ho-Kutesa bribery case casts more shade on the procurement arrangements for the SGR. Without a satisfactory resolution of the matter and with the same people still in situ, citizens would be foolhardy to expect value for money from the SGR.

By the beginning of 2018, owing to cash flow difficulties, less than half of the land required for the 273-kilometre eastern section of the SGR had been acquired. Not surprisingly, as Uganda slithers into insolvency, the government has resorted to domestic and foreign borrowing to fund ordinary recurrent expenditure like payroll. Commodity prices are significantly lower and the shilling worth much less than when the SGR was first contemplated. So bad is the situation that the police force announced that police work in 2018 is to be carried out on a rotational basis among the regions as there are insufficient funds to enforce the law across the whole country at once.

The Uganda Railway, 1900

The Uganda Railway initially ran from Mombasa to the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria, where the journey was completed by steamer to Port Bell in Kampala. The main purpose of the railway was to make Uganda colonisable.

Under the hinterland principle introduced by the Treaty of Berlin of 1885, colonial powers had the first option on the ownership of the hinterland abutting on their coastal possessions. To claim possession of the hinterland, a power had to show that it had effectively occupied the coast.

Having secured the Kenyan coast, Britain was not required to effectively occupy the East African hinterland – Uganda – but was determined to do so, fronting the objective of stopping the slave trade under the Brussels Anti–Slavery Act of 1890, which also required it to “improve the moral and material conditions of existence of the native races”. The argument ran as follows: To stop the slave trade, the region had to be governed by Britain and to govern, soldiers, ammunition, civil servants and their supplies had to be transported to the region, for which a railway was essential.

Only after the annexation of Uganda did references to the slave trade fade out as the overriding objective and the need to grow cotton to feed Britain’s textile industry and reduce unemployment came in to sharper focus.

Having secured the Kenyan coast, Britain was not required to effectively occupy the East African hinterland – Uganda – but was determined to do so, fronting the objective of stopping the slave trade under the Brussels Anti–Slavery Act of 1890, which also required it to “improve the moral and material conditions of existence of the native races”.

There was competition for the hinterland from the western coast of Africa, whose Congolese hinterland Belgium owned. Belgium was interested in north-western Uganda. In the north, the French had had a military confrontation with the British in Fashoda over supremacy in the Sudan. Time was, therefore, of the essence and the proposal was tabled in Parliament without a thorough survey.

We have had a large sum of money voted, but I observe that in recent documents the survey has disappeared and it has become a ‘reconnaissance survey’. We want to know whether we are making an estimate of the cost of a railway upon a reconnaissance survey. Major Macdonald was at the head of that survey, and when he arrived at the mountains he did not survey any further but put upon his survey ‘mountains’, and so there was practically no survey” (Henry Labouchère, MP, Uganda Railway debate, April 1900)

 The expenditure necessary was minimised in presentations to Parliament,

The estimates of cost have been falsified from the very commencement. They began with an estimate of £1,700,000; then it jumped up to £3,000,000, and year after year when the vote for Uganda came on for discussion, we were told that that would not be exceeded. And now the right hon. Gentleman comes here and, pluming himself on having carried out his own estimates, asks us to vote almost two million additional; and he shows us in no sort of way that the last estimate of £5,000,000 is based on solid ground any more than the £3,000,000 estimate, or the £1,700,000 estimate […] We ought not to vote any more money until we have had a full practical businesslike survey. (Labouchère 1900)

Also distorted were facts about the purpose of the railway. The benefit to the British cotton industry, one of the country’s leading employers, was minimised while advantages to the inhabitants of British East Africa were magnified to overshadow any criticisms of the railway’s implementation. One argument was that Britain would eliminate the high cost of the squadron needed as a barrier to slave ships off the East African coast by transporting soldiers overland to quash the last remaining slave caravans.

Labouchère questioned the government in 1900 as to whether the partially complete railway had had any impact on the size of the British squadron. The answer was no, it hadn’t. In fact, as he noted “it has not prevented one single slave being carried away”. Apart from anything else, slavery was tolerated in Zanzibar and Zanzibari slaves were being used as porters by British officials even in 1900.

“Sir G. Portal’s expedition [sent to effectively occupy Buganda] was one which had numerous slaves in its ranks. The whole territory of the East Africa Company now was swarming with slaves. What hypocrisy would be charged against this country, if their real motive being financial greed and territorial aggrandisement, they put forward the sacred cause of slave emancipation, while at the same time their own territories were swarming with slaves, and were actually impressing these poor creatures in large numbers to carry Sir G. Portal himself on this expedition. (Robert Reid, Uganda debate, March 1893).

(This is the same G. Portal who was sent by the Crown to implement the treaty extracted from Kabaka Mwanga and who exceeded its boundaries by marching through Buganda, setting up a fort in the Kingdom of Toro from where the Kingdom of Bunyoro was annexed.)

In the interests of speed and economy, a non-standard gauge was used. This partially explains why in the 21st century Kenya and Uganda are embarking on their first SGRs rather than extending existing lines. Apologists for incompetence should take note: there will be railways but whether they are the most cost-effective, robust (extensible) option is another matter.

In their rush, the Foreign Office formed a Works Committee to build the railway, which wound up costing significantly more per mile than comparable railways in India. It was referred to as a light or small-gauge railway. The cost of two comparable light railways in India was £6,500 and £6,400 per mile, respectively. The Kenya-Uganda light railway was being built in 1900 at £8,500 per mile. (Ugandans may recall that the price tag for the new thirty-mile Kampala-Entebbe Highway was double that of a comparable highway in Ethiopia.)

Railway finance

Contrary to popular belief, railways were not a gift to the colonies; they were financed by loans paid from tax revenues collected by the local colonial administrations and, therefore, any waste and losses in the construction were borne by the taxpayers in the colonies. Even where the Imperial government made the initial expenditure, ultimately it was the citizens of the colonies who paid.

For example, Palestine was charged £1 million for a railway built to facilitate the movement of British troops during the First World War (Palestine and East Africa Loans Act 1926). The retroactive payment was engineered by guaranteeing a loan taken by Palestine the proceeds of which then went to the British treasury while Palestine (then under British administration) made the repayments. For an idea of the magnitude of a million pounds in those days, the exact same amount was provided three years later in total development grants for the entire empire, then numbering over 40 territories.

Contrary to popular belief, railways were not a gift to the colonies; they were financed by loans paid from tax revenues collected by the local colonial administrations and, therefore, any waste and losses in the construction were borne by the taxpayers in the colonies. Even where the Imperial government made the initial expenditure, ultimately it was the citizens of the colonies who paid.

The £1 million provided in 1929 would not have covered Uganda’s total budget for one year. Even without a full set of Protectorate accounts, it is still possible to see that Uganda’s budget balanced at approximately £2 million between 1931 and 1935. In those years there was an excess of assets over liabilities of between £700,000 and £1 million. The Uganda Protectorate was even able to maintain the reserve fund required by the Imperial government. It stood at over £400,000 in the 1930s.

“The Reserve Fund is really required for three purposes: (a) as a kind of insurance against a definite national emergency, such as a famine or locust invasion involving very exceptional expenditure; (b) to meet a possible deficit in case of an exceptional shortfall in revenue; and (c) to enable the normal programme of capital expenditure to be carried out from year to year unimpeded by fluctuations in revenue. It will thus be seen that a considerable sum should be kept available, and it is hoped that it will be possible to accumulate £l,000,000 in the course of time.” (A.E. Forrest, Acting Treasurer, Uganda Protectorate)

 The Imperial Loan, the earliest loan record available to this writer, was made in 1915. It was followed by development loans between 1921 and 1924 and then further loans in 1932 and 1933. Total unused balances on these loans ranged from between £3,300 and £95,727 in the years 1931 to 1935; £588 was paid towards the Kampala-Jinja Railway in 1933. Total loan servicing that year was £144,718 for the 1932 and 1933 loans. The only grant received during the same period was £841. (This is not a typo.)

Although the Imperial development grant budget was increased to £5 million in 1940 to cover an even larger number of colonies, the target could not be reached during the Second World War when funds were low. During the war, the colonies had to divert their resources to aid Britain’s war effort. Uganda and most other colonies each donated £100,000, the equivalent of Uganda’s entire development budget for 1939. Kenya raised approximately £17,000. Men from both countries volunteered to serve; there were 77,000 from Uganda and more from Kenya. (The British government finally sent pensions to Ugandan ex–servicemen in 2011 after a long, increasingly hoarse campaign. Over 2,000 British ex-servicemen and thousands of others were rewarded with land in Kenya and Rhodesia).

The people of Buganda gave an additional £10,000 and the Ankole gave £1,000 from taxes collected from their populations. Additionally, the Buganda Lukiiko and the Native Administrations of the Eastern and Western Provinces pledged to give £5,000, £7,000 and £5,000 a year, respectively, for the duration of the war and for one year after its end towards the expenditure of the Protectorate.

Gifts in kind included an airplane (from Mauritius), patrol boats (Singapore Harbour Authority), cocoa, coffee and foodstuffs of all kinds. Farmers’ savings in the cotton and coffee funds were diverted to feed and clothe Allied troops. Only the Oron tribe in Nigeria was spared – their gift of two hundred pounds was returned on the grounds of their financial standing.

Colonies also made interest-free loans to Britain: in 1940 the Kenya-Uganda Railway and Harbour Administration loaned His Majesty’s Government £100,000 for as long as the war lasted. In 1946, Uganda made an interest-free loan to His Majesty’s government of £650,000. Total loans from the colonies amounted to £1,156,983 (See: Accounts of the Uganda Protectorate, 1946 Statement of Balances, Statement XIV, at 31st December, 1946).

It is incredible that in spite of the evidence, Ugandans and other ex-colonials continue to believe that they are being “helped” first by Britain, then by the World Bank and the Chinese. It is this misreading of the facts that prevents any meaningful negotiations for better terms of development cooperation. It is the capacity to negotiate that today’s bribe-taking leaders sell for their thirty pieces of silver.

Secondly, railways transported cotton belonging to the British Cotton Growing Association (a voluntary body comprising Lancashire growers, mill owners, textile workers, shippers and workers in ancillary trades such as dyers) for free in Sierra Leone, Lagos, and Southern Nigeria in return for seeds and professional advice (Secretary of State for the Colonies, Cotton Supply debate, 1905.) Third, once built, railways were used to leverage further loans. The East African Railways and Harbours Authority, being a viable operation, was used to guarantee loans taken out by the East African High Commission (the colonial administration).

By 1961 Uganda’s indebtedness had soared. The public debt was £16,933,000 and was being reliably serviced. Guarantees of interest alone stood at £58 million and a further £3.5 million for interest on a loan from the World Bank (presumably for Nalubaale Hydro-electric Dam). (See: Statement of Contingent Liabilities of the Protectorate Government as at 30 June 1961, Statement 12)

Construction and labour management

Due to the need to build the railway as quickly as possible, “gigantic errors” were made. An attempt was made to cover up escalating costs by saying that the materials had to be upgraded from wood to steel until an examination of the original plans showed provision had been made for steel from the very beginning. Accounts were submitted late for audit.

We have to pay £2,000,000 extra as the result of putting the work into the hands of men who have no practical experience of the work they have undertaken. I, for one, decidedly protest against the reckless and careless way in which the management of the railway has been conducted up to the present time.” (Thomas Bayley, M.P., 1900)

The management of the labour makes it even clearer that the railway was not for the primary benefit of the inhabitants of the region. Much in the same way as Chinese contractors do in Uganda today, the British shipped in foreign manual labourers to carry out the work; 14,000 of the 16,000 labourers employed were expatriates from India. There was a famine in Kenya shortly after.

We ought in my opinion, instead of importing so many thousands of Indian[s], to have employed a good deal more African labour, because natives have been dying by thousands of starvation in the neighbourhood of this railway. It has been most distressing to see the natives dying in the ditches by the side of the railway, and when trains have gone up the line little starving and dying children have come and begged for food, for a little rice, or anything from those on the train. That is not the sort of thing that ought to occur where the British Government are building a railway, and they ought to have engaged labour to a much larger extent from the neighbourhood. (Robert Perks, M.P., Uganda Railway debate 1900)

Much in the same way as Chinese contractors do in Uganda today, the British shipped in foreign manual labourers to carry out the work; 14,000 of the 16,000 labourers employed were expatriates from India.

Those Africans that were employed were paid four pence a day while the Indian skilled labourers were paid 14 pence a day. (Indians had experience in building the Indian railways.)

“That seems to be pretty nearly the same thing as slave labour. I should like to know what would be said in this country if any man were induced by the Government to work for four pence a day. [Several HON. MEMBERS: Oh, oh!] Hon. Members say oh, oh! I know their views. Working men in England have votes, and working men in Africa have not.” (Labouchère, 1900).

But Labouchère himself gave the standard racist reason for the low wages, a sentiment he expressed in defence of his own arguments that investment in Uganda was a waste of time: “What about the Ugandese themselves? They are without exception the very laziest of that laziest race in the whole world, the African negro.”

John Dillon, the Irish nationalist, demonstrated an understanding of the difference between the then African way of life and the grubbing and jostling necessary in over-populated, capitalist European countries,

“[…] where African labourers were employed the earthworks cost 10d. per cubic yard, while with the Indian labourers at the higher wage they cost but 6d., so that by employing the Indian labourer at higher wages you reduced the cost of the work. […] Very often, particularly in railway work, it is much cheaper to employ a better class of men at higher wages than men who do not understand the work at lower wages.

“One argument is that the labourers being free men, with no rent to pay, and with gardens round their huts, are not compelled to labour for the [low] wages offered by contractors and mine-owners; they can ask their own terms. What settles the price of labour in this country is the fact that a man cannot retire to his garden and his house and wait until the employer must have him at his own price; he would starve; therefore he must make the best terms he can. But in Africa the labourer is comparatively a free man, unless you have forced labour, as is so often advocated. (John Dillon, 1900)

However, it was later revealed that in addition to racialist considerations, there was a profit to be made on importing labour. Greek contractors had been awarded contracts to import the Indian labour and their commissions inflated labour costs. The point was not exhaustively argued in Parliament but there were suggestions that Sir Clement Hill, a public servant, received between £10,000 and 70,000 in commissions on materials ordered.

It was argued in Parliament that the amount of money required for the Uganda Railway was sufficient to build a full network of the light railways required in Britain. If anything speaks to the necessity of transparency it is this. Less extravagant profits assured by the government to private investors, contractors and commission agents would have ensured more was available for the common good of ordinary people in both countries, and a measure of dignity for the workers.

In contrast, before building permanent churches, schools and clinics in Uganda, Catholic missionaries in Uganda established technical schools and other training facilities in order to train the craftsmen that would be required for the work. They took the necessary time to maximise skills transference. They specialised in brick-making, architecture, glass-making and other building crafts, as well as tailoring, teaching and nursing. These facilities are still in service today, run by Africans.

For their part, indigenous communities using their own traditional model for infrastructural development known as bulungi bwa nsi (the good of the nation). They continued to contribute most of the locally available material inputs and, of course, all of the land and labour for community infrastructural development.

The character of development changed when the Imperial government commandeered the education sector in 1921 in order to “re-organise” it. After that, records show, the administration was able to manipulate communities by promising schools and other amenities to those communities that agreed to plant cash crops and do other things required of them. Voluntary communal labour was transformed into compulsory labour and extracted through corporal punishment and the dreaded poll tax.

Contracts for technical assistance these days require hired expatriate consultants to transfer skills to the indigenous staff. However, the fact that certain positions remain “expatriate” positions speaks volumes. These days African labourers on foreign-managed project sites are treated no better than the colonialists treated labourers. Ugandans at foreign-owned building sites have made numerous complaints about underpayment, lack of access to safety gear, harassment, sexual exploitation and even violence. In Uganda and elsewhere, some have been served lunch on their shovels. In the 1990s, Ugandans were made to squat in a line, one man between the legs of another. The reason given was that they kept losing/stealing the plates provided.

Chinese abuse of African workers’ rights, importation of labour, disregard for Ugandan environmental preservation and disdain for the communities among which they work is a repetition of the first invasion of capital and demonstrates the extremes to which it goes when left unfettered.

Route and service politics

The original plan had been for the railway to serve farming areas. Tax revenues from the crops would cover the cost of the construction. Introducing cotton and providing a fast means of exporting it was supposed to lead to development. Once the settlers came to know the route, the influential among them lobbied to have the railway diverted to serve their plantations.

The question of whose interests the SGR serves, as raised by Rasna Warah in a recent article published in the eReview, was as valid in the 1890s as it is today. In Kenya, the lack of “native”-directed development meant that there were insufficient railway stations between Mombasa and Lake Victoria for African requirements. It goes without saying that the interests of indigenous populations were not included in the plan. As a result, indigenous farmers had to carry their cotton long distances to the tracks – often in five shifts of one 60-pound bag at a time – and had to spend one or a few nights along the track, sleeping in the open air while waiting for the train.

Because in the beginning there were insufficient carriages and the few available were segregated, the Africans travelled in wagons. They were locked in for the safety and comfort of the first class travellers. Often, as some members of Westminster’s parliament were scandalised to learn, African passengers were unable to alight on arrival at their intended destinations despite banging on the wagon doors and were carried all the way to the next stop or to the Coast.

It goes without saying that the interests of indigenous populations were not included in the plan. As a result, indigenous farmers had to carry their cotton long distances to the tracks – often in five shifts of one 60-pound bag at a time – and had to spend one or a few nights along the track, sleeping in the open air while waiting for the train.

During the debate of the East Africa Commission Report in 1925, Henry Snell articulated the role of capital in distorting the higher development goals of bringing development to Africa,

“The land through which these railways pass [belonging to Settlers] should be taxed to help bear the cost that is involved. In the matter of transport it has been the case, unfortunately, that the Europeans have acquired the idea that railways should be built solely for their benefit, and that money granted as loans or in any other form should be entirely devoted to the white races. If by any chance a railway passes through native reserves, the cry is immediately raised that the land contiguous to the railway is too good for native use, and the native is therefore driven away, or it is urged that he should be removed to some less accessible position. It was on such a plea as that the Maasai were robbed of their country, and plots of land varying from 5,000 to 300,000 acres were given to Europeans for no other reason than that they were covetous of it and that it was in close touch with the railways.

“These extra facilities for transport can only be justified if at the same time the native interests are completely safeguarded. At the present time the difficulties are immense. The native has to raise from 10s. to 16s. per annum for hut tax, and he has to pay this almost entirely out of the material he is able to sell. That involves him in carrying a load of 60 lbs. for 40 miles. To pay this tax he may have to go as many as five journeys of 40 miles, with the 60 lb. load on his head, making for the return journey a distance of 400 miles. That is economic slavery of a most indefensible kind, and of a kind worse than was ever known in the Southern States of America. The roads are very frequently impassable because of bad weather.” (Henry Snell, M.P. East Africa Commission Debate, 1925)

Land grabbing and the Rhodesian Railway

Planning, finance, procurement, labour – what more could go wrong? Answer: speculation. The major and most lucrative railway scam was the use of the railway as a vehicle for displacement of populations and acquisition of their land by speculators. The land was acquired by those who had already been given free or cheap land by the Imperial government and were in a position to leave it idle.

“One syndicate got 500 square miles from the Foreign Office, over the head of the then Governor of Kenya. That is a fairly extensive slice of territory to be handed away. Then there was a grazing land syndicate, called the East African Syndicate, which applied for 320,000 acres, and Lord Delamere, a notorious figure in these parts, applied for 100,000 acres. If one syndicate gets 500 square miles, another gets 320,000 acres, and another applies for 100,000 acres, there is some prima facie evidence of speculators in Kenya.” (Thomas Johnston, Kenya debate, December 1926.)

In Rhodesia, as in Kenya, this resulted in large tracts of land being bought on either side of the proposed track by investors. In both territories the value shot up exponentially as the railway approached. Once the route for the Rhodesian railway was set out, a strip measuring twelve miles wide was carved out alongside taking in parts of Native Reserves. Meanwhile, the Msoro tribe of over 2,000 was displaced in favour of three settlers.

By 1920, Rhodesians had already been corralled in Native Reserves. The 48,000 white settlers had been allocated 48 million acres while the 800,000 Africans had the “right” to reside in (but not own any part of) reserves measuring 8 million acres. Most of the rest of the territory still belonged to the British South African Chartered Company (BSAC) that had deposed both the Mashona and Matabele kings and seized their territory.

After 1919, the British South African Company transferred what was left over from sales of this territory to the British Crown in return for a much disputed bail-out. The bail-out was controversial because under its agreement with the Crown, the BSAC was allowed to reimburse itself for work it did on behalf of the Crown by engaging in business. The Company had earned an income from the sale of millions of acres of land and mining concessions and had exported ivory and minerals, all under the protection of the British flag and therefore the British military. This was supposed to be their “compensation”. However, breaking the rules of the charter, the Company inter-mingled its own private accounts with those of the administration of the colony, making it difficult to separate the cost of government work and BSAC business. Just as with the British East African Company when it was leaving the area, the BSAC was further “compensated” with taxpayers’ money.

By 1920, Rhodesians had already been corralled in Native Reserves. The 48,000 white settlers had been allocated 48 million acres while the 800,000 Africans had the “right” to reside in (but not own any part of) reserves measuring 8 million acres. Most of the rest of the territory still belonged to the British South African Chartered Company (BSAC) that had deposed both the Mashona and Matabele kings and seized their territory.

During the controversy, a secret agreement between the BSAC and the British government came to light under which the government had agreed to reimburse the BSAC if it deposed King Lobengula. BSAC recruited European settlers, promising each a lease of a 6,000-acre farm at 30 shillings a year. They were also offered the option of buying the farm outright at the cost of 3 pounds sterling per 20 acres or 900 pounds for 6,000 acres.

After the successful campaign, the British government paid the lease and purchase costs for the recruits. Those not wishing to purchase were reimbursed for improvements they had made on the properties. In total, £7 million was demanded, half for the recruits and half for the shareholders. All opposition in Parliament was silenced by the Colonial Secretary, public eugenicist Lord Amery, when he revealed that a Commission of Inquiry had exonerated the BSAC and its recruits of any wrong-doing in massacring the Matabele and deposing their King. They eventually settled for £4 million pounds in 1922, a sum roughly equivalent to the Colonial Office’s budget for four years.

The need for public oversight

In his essay “Mexico proved that debt can be repudiated”, published on 24 March 2017, Eric Toussaint devotes a section on showing the links between commodity extraction, railways for transporting the commodities, and loans required to finance the extraction and transport of the commodities. He demonstrates the impact these had on land ownership, the displacement of peoples, the national debt, and a clique of investors.

It is interesting to note that in South America, as on the African continent, railways did not serve to connect communities and countries but rather led straight from the point of extraction of commodities to the point of export. The entire operation was eventually paid for from the indigenous public purse.

Like chartered companies, 21st century local agents for foreign investors enjoy political and military protection by the foreign countries they serve. This phenomenon was most evident in Mexico where various debt repudiations resulted in military invasions and threats of invasion by the United States, Britain and France. Most interestingly, Mexican citizens who had lent to their government were granted European nationality after which their new countries included them among those whose rights were being defended by the invasions. They came to be known as vende patrias – sellers of their country. Then, as now, bail-outs came from taxpayers’ money.

In modern times, attempts to repudiate illegitimate debt or to choose other paths that do not profit financiers still lead to regime change. Today they take the form of grants and NGO funding, which attempt to fill the holes left by diversion of national resources. What a bail-out means is that when an investor makes a profit, it all belongs to the investor. Where s/he makes a loss, it is spread among taxpayers. As Noam Chomsky famously stated, “A basic principle of modern state capitalism is that cost and risk are socialised, while profit is privatised.”

What a bail-out means is that when an investor makes a profit, it all belongs to the investor. Where s/he makes a loss, it is spread among taxpayers. As Noam Chomsky said, “A basic principle of modern state capitalism is that cost and risk are socialised, while profit is privatised.”

There can be no real progress until a critical mass of the electorate makes the connection between foreign capital, its local agents and underdevelopment. As Frederick Douglass put it, “If there is no struggle there is no progress[.…] Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

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Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan essayist, graduated in Law from King's College, London, and attained an Msc in Intelligent Management Systems from the Southbank. Her work in civil service reform in East Africa lead to an interest in the nature of public service in Africa and the political influences under which it is delivered.

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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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Nashulai – A Community Conservancy With a Difference
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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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Battery Arms Race: Global Capital and the Scramble for Cobalt in the Congo
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With growing attention to climate breakdown and the need for expanded use of renewable energy sources, the mineral resources needed to make batteries are emerging as a key site of conflict. In this context, cobalt – traditionally mined as a by-product of copper and nickel – has become a subject of major interest in its own right.

Competition over supplies of cobalt is intensifying. Some reports suggest that demand for cobalt is likely to exceed known reserves if projected shifts to renewable energy sources are realized. Much of this competition is playing out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The south-eastern regions of the DRC hold about half of proven global cobalt reserves, and account for an even higher proportion of global cobalt production (roughly 70 percent) because known reserves in the DRC are relatively shallow and easier to extract.

Recent high profile articles in outlets including the New York Times and the Guardian have highlighted a growing ‘battery arms race’ supposedly playing out between the West (mostly the US) and China over battery metals, especially cobalt.

These pieces suggest, with some alarm, that China is ‘winning’ this race. They highlight how Chinese dominance in battery supply chains might inhibit energy transitions in the West. They also link growing Chinese mining operations to a range of labour and environmental abuses in the DRC, where the vast majority of the world’s available cobalt reserves are located.

Both articles are right that the hazards and costs of the cobalt boom have been disproportionately borne by Congolese people and landscapes, while few of the benefits have reached them. But by subsuming these problems into narratives of geopolitical competition between the US and China and zooming in on the supposedly pernicious effects of Chinese-owned operations in particular, the ‘arms race’ narrative ultimately obscures more than it reveals.

There is unquestionably a scramble for cobalt going on. It is centered in the DRC but spans much of the globe, working through tangled transnational networks of production and finance that link mines in the South-Eastern DRC to refiners and battery manufacturers scattered across China’s industrializing cities, to financiers in London, Toronto, and Hong Kong, to vast transnational corporations ranging from mineral rentiers (Glencore), to automotive companies (Volkswagen, Ford), to electronics and tech firms (Apple). This loose network is governed primarily through an increasingly amorphous and uneven patchwork of public and private ‘sustainability’ standards. And, it plays out against the backdrop of both long-running depredations of imperialism and the more recent devastation of structural adjustment.

In a word, the scramble for cobalt is a thoroughly capitalist scramble.

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Chinese firms do unquestionably play a major role in global battery production in general and in cobalt extraction and refining in particular. Roughly 50 percent of global cobalt refining now takes place in China. The considerable majority of DRC cobalt exports do go to China, and Chinese firms have expanded interests in mining and trading ventures in the DRC.

However, although the Chinese state has certainly fostered the development of cobalt and other battery minerals, there is as much a scramble for control over cobalt going on within China as between China and the ‘west’. There has, notably, been a wave of concentration and consolidation among Chinese cobalt refiners since about 2010. The Chinese firms operating in the DRC are capitalist firms competing with each other in important ways. They often have radically different business models. Jinchuan Group Co. Ltd and China Molybdenum, for instance, are Hong Kong Stock Exchange-listed firms with ownership shares in scattered global refining and mining operations. Jinchuan’s major mine holdings in the DRC were acquired from South African miner Metorex in 2012; China Molybdenum recently acquired the DRC mines owned by US-based Freeport-McMoRan (as the New York Times article linked above notes with concern). A significant portion of both Jinchuan Group and China Molybdenum’s revenues, though, come from speculative metals trading rather than from production. Yantai Cash, on the other hand, is a specialized refiner which does not own mining operations. Yantai is likely the destination for a good deal of ‘artisanal’ mined cobalt via an elaborate network of traders and brokers.

These large Chinese firms also are thoroughly plugged in to global networks of battery production ultimately destined, in many cases, for widely known consumer brands. They are also able to take advantage of links to global marketing and financing operations. The four largest Chinese refiners, for instance, are all listed brands on the London Metal Exchange (LME).

In the midst of increased concentration at the refining stage and concerns over supplies, several major end users including Apple, Volkswagen, and BMW have sought to establish long-term contracts directly with mining operations since early 2018. Tesla signed a major agreement with Glencore to supply cobalt for its new battery ‘gigafactories’ in 2020. Not unrelatedly, they have also developed integrated supply chain tracing systems, often dressed up in the language of ‘sustainability’ and transparency. One notable example is the Responsible Sourcing Blockchain Initiative (RSBI). This initiative between the blockchain division of tech giant IBM, supply chain audit firm RCS Global, and several mining houses, mineral traders, and automotive end users of battery materials including Ford, Volvo, Volkswagen Group, and Fiat-Chrysler Automotive Group was announced in 2019. RSBI conducted a pilot test tracing 1.5 tons of Congolese cobalt across three different continents over five months of refinement.

Major end users including automotive and electronics brands have, in short, developed increasingly direct contacts extending across the whole battery production network.

There are also a range of financial actors trying to get in on the scramble (though, as both Jinchuan and China Molybdenum demonstrate, the line between ‘productive’ and ‘financial’ capital here can be blurry). Since 2010, benchmark cobalt prices are set through speculative trading on the LME. A number of specialized trading funds have been established in the last five years, seeking to profit from volatile prices for cobalt. One of the largest global stockpiles of cobalt in 2017, for instance, was held by Cobalt 27, a Canadian firm established expressly to buy and hold physical cobalt stocks. Cobalt 27 raised CAD 200 million through a public listing on the Toronto Stock Exchange in June of 2017, and subsequently purchased 2160.9 metric tons of cobalt held in LME warehouses. There are also a growing number of exchange traded funds (ETF) targeting cobalt. Most of these ETFs seek ‘exposure’ to cobalt and battery components more generally, for instance, through holding shares in mining houses or what are called ‘royalty bearing interests’ in specific mining operations rather than trading in physical cobalt or futures. Indeed, by mid-2019, Cobalt-27 was forced to sell off its cobalt stockpile at a loss. It was subsequently bought out by its largest shareholder (a Swiss-registered investment firm) and restructured into ‘Conic’, an investment fund holding a portfolio of royalty-bearing interests in battery metals operations rather than physical metals.

Or, to put it another way, there is as much competition going on within ‘China’ and the ‘West’ between different firms to establish control over limited supplies of cobalt, and to capture a share of the profits, as between China and the ‘West’ as unitary entities.

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Thus far, workers and communities in the Congolese Copperbelt have suffered the consequences of this scramble. They have seen few of the benefits. Indeed, this is reflective of much longer-run processes, documented in ROAPE, wherein local capital formation and local development in Congolese mining have been systematically repressed on behalf of transnational capital for decades.

The current boom takes place against the backdrop of the collapse, and subsequent privatization, of the copper mining industry in the 1990s and 2000s. In 1988, state-owned copper mining firm Gécamines produced roughly 450 000 tons of copper, and employed 30 000 people, by 2003, production had fallen to 8 000 tons and workers were owed up to 36 months of back pay. As part of the restructuring and privatization of the company, more than 10 000 workers were offered severance payments financed by the World Bank, the company was privatized, and mining rights were increasingly marketized. By most measures, mining communities in the Congolese Copperbelt are marked by widespread poverty. A 2017 survey found mean and median monthly household incomes of $USD 34.50 and $USD 14, respectively, in the region.

In the context of widespread dispossession, the DRC’s relatively shallow cobalt deposits have been an important source of livelihood activities. Estimates based on survey research suggest that roughly 60 percent of households in the region derived some income from mining, of which 90 percent worked in some form of artisanal mining. Recent research has linked the rise of industrial mining installations owned by multinational conglomerates to deepening inequality, driven in no small part by those firms’ preference for expatriate workers in higher paid roles. Where Congolese workers are employed, this is often through abusive systems of outsourcing through labour brokers.

Cobalt mining has also been linked to substantial forms of social and ecological degradation in surrounding areas, including significant health risks from breathing dust (not only to miners but also to local communities), ecological disruption and pollution from acid, dust, and tailings, and violent displacement of local communities.

The limited benefits and high costs of the cobalt boom for local people in the Congolese copperbelt, in short, are linked to conditions of widespread dispossession predating the arrival of Chinese firms and are certainly not limited to Chinese firms.

To be clear, none of this is to deny that Chinese firms have been implicated in abuses of labour rights and ecologically destructive practices in the DRC, nor that the Chinese state has clearly made strategic priorities of cobalt mining, refining, and battery manufacturing. It does not excuse the very real abuses linked to Chinese firms that European-owned ones have done many of the same things. Nor does the fact that those Chinese firms are often ultimately vendors to major US and European auto and electronic brands.

However, all of this does suggest that any diagnosis of the developmental ills, violence, ecological damage and labour abuses surrounding cobalt in the DRC that focuses specifically on the character of Chinese firms or on inter-state competition is limited at best. It gets Glencore, Apple, Tesla, and myriad financial speculators, to say nothing of capitalist relations of production generally, off the hook.

If we want to get to grips with the unfolding scramble for cobalt and its consequences for the people in the south-east DRC, we need to keep in view how the present-day scramble reflects wider patterns of uneven development under capitalist relations of production.

We should note that such narratives of a ‘new scramble for Africa’ prompted by a rapacious Chinese appetite for natural resources are not new. As Alison Ayers argued nearly a decade ago of narratives about the role of China in a ‘new scramble for Africa’, a focus on Chinese abuses means that ‘the West’s relations with Africa are construed as essentially beneficent, in contrast to the putatively opportunistic, exploitative and deleterious role of the emerging powers, thereby obfuscating the West’s ongoing neocolonial relationship with Africa’. Likewise, such accounts neglect ‘profound changes in the global political economy within which the “new scramble for Africa” is to be more adequately located’. These interventions are profoundly political, providing important forms of ideological cover for both neoliberal capitalism and for longer-run structures of imperialism.

In short, the barrier to a just transition to sustainable energy sources is not a unitary ‘China’ bent on the domination of emerging industries as a means to global hegemony. It is capitalism. Or, more precisely, it is the fact that responses to the climate crisis have thus far worked through and exacerbated the contradictions of existing imperialism and capitalist relations of production. The scramble for cobalt is a capitalist scramble, and one of many signs that there can be no ‘just’ transition without overturning capitalism and imperialism on a global scale.

This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

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