Days after I had written on the Kibera slum demolitions by the government, I met with some senior General Service Unit (GSU) intelligence officers. The GSU is a paramilitary outfit that was formed in 1948 by the British as Regular Police Reserve to suppress native resistance in the Kenyan colony. Today, the unit supports the Kenya Police Service in accordance with Section 24 of the National Police Service Act, 2011. GSU officers are basically trained to deal with riots and civil disturbances. Menacing, merciless and ruthless, the government usually deploys them to beat up and maim Kenyans who stand up against state authorities.
“The Kibera demolition was a litmus test for the government,” said one of the officers. “The demolitions were a 100 per cent success in view of the government’s projected plans on future demolitions elsewhere in the city and countrywide, especially in the slum dwellings.” The government had gone to Kibera armed to the teeth, expecting resistance. “Tough orders had been issued from the presidency to quell any semblance of remote resistance by scorched earth policy – clear anybody and anything on site,” surmised one of the officers.
The Kibera demolitions were the testing ground of the state to gauge its effectiveness in completely subduing the bastion of opposition politics in Nairobi city and indeed in the country. “If the government succeeded in pulverising the Kibera populace, breaking its will to fight back, cowing any remaining residue opposition to the government, the government would, easily now demolish any slum within the city,” opined another officer.
According to Jacinta Wanjiku, a resident of Mathare, the government has already issued notices for evictions from the expansive Mathare Valley in order to complete Muratina Road – the road linking Jogoo Road to Juja Road and the Mlango Kubwa slum which links to Thika Superhighway. However, the government has been dithering in effecting the demolitions for several reasons: Huge sections of Mathare Valley slum, unlike Kibera, are populated by the Kikuyu, the bedrock of President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta’s, and by extension, his Jubilee Party’s loyal support. Some of the Mathare Valley slumlords have invested heavily in brick and mortar structures that are protected by the so-called Nairobi Business Community aka Mungiki.
Both loyal supporters and Mungiki were used by President Kenyatta and Jubilee as a bulwark against a recalcitrant and rejuvenated opposition that threatened to snatch the reins of power. If politically irritated, both can mount a backlash against a ruling party now riven with divisions. “Now Uhuru can find a justification to destroy buildings and structures in Mathare in the full knowledge that even if he faces resistance, he will cow in easily. If Kibera can come down, what other slum in Nairobi cannot come down?” posed a GSU officer.
But there is also another reason why the pulling down of a section of Kibera was possible: The March 9, 2018 political handshake between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga on the steps of Harambee House. “The Kibera demolitions could not have been effected had the handshake not taken place,” said one of the GSU officer’s friend. “One of the enduring and biggest benefits of the handshake is that it has given President Uhuru a breather and a lifeline – he can at least now plan his exit agenda freely and without too much pressure, without constantly having to look over his shoulders and worrying what Raila could be up to.”
According to the officers, if there had been no rapprochement between Raila and Uhuru, a section of the Kibera slum would not have been flattened to create room for the link road. “We would have been deployed there to beat the people into total submission. The people, properly mobilised by Jakom [Raila] would have fought back. There would have been multiple deaths and destruction all over. Ngong Road would have been a no-go-zone and the central business district, uneasy about protests and looting, would have shut down.”
“One of the enduring and biggest benefits of the handshake is that it has given President Uhuru a breather and a lifeline – he can at least now plan his exit agenda freely and without too much pressure, without constantly having to look over his shoulders and worrying what Raila could be up to.”
This scenario would have likely played out given the social and economic challenges facing the country. Faced by a populace that is reeling from hard economic times because of massive theft by state officers, an already discredited President coming out of a seemingly stolen election would have found little favour among the people and, therefore, would have been forced to back down. The glare of the international media would have made the demolitions untenable.
The GSU officers told me that the next biggest slum awaiting demolition was Mathare Valley. “We have already been signalled to stay alert. The Mathare people saw what happened in Kibera – the message is clear: you cooperate or we come down on you like a tonne of bricks.” All the buildings and structures that line the valley and river, from Muthaiga to Mathare 4A, are expected to be pulled down. “But for now the government has to tiptoe around the slum, looking for the best opportunity to pounce.”
Informal settlements and the state’s response to them
As you drive down on the Thika superhighway from Muthaiga, you descend into a depression. Looking askance on your right, there is a river at the bottom of the valley. There is a lot of activity at this point of the river: the first obvious one is the car wash that is evident from afar. But as you approach the river, you will find women washing clothes and up river young boys, some as young as 10, swimming and generally having a great time playing in the water.
This part of the river is called Githathuru River, a tributary that feds into Nairobi River. It is from here that the demolitions will take place. The Nairobi River basin consists of three main rivers: Ngong, Nairobi and Mathare. These rivers assemble east of Nairobi and join river Athi, eventually draining into the Indian Ocean. Other than Githaturu tributary, Nairobi’s other tributaries are Kamiti River (aka Gathara-ini), Karura Ruiru, Kirichwa and Rui Ruaka.
Over the last couple of weeks, “riparian” has become a catchy word for Nairobians, much to the amusement of environmentalists and riverine settlers. The word first became prominent among Kenyans when John Njoroge Michuki was made Minister of Environment and Natural Resources by President Mwai Kibaki in 2008. As soon as he assumed his new portfolio, he decreed that all people and structures along riparian lands would be ejected and that the rivers would be restored and reclaimed.
Michuki’s first target was the polluted Nairobi River, which rises 20 km west of Nairobi in the southern extreme of the Aberdares, sometimes referred to as Kikuyu Springs. He began cleaning the river at it most polluted stage – along Kirinyaga Road and Kijabe Streets in the central business district, where mechanics had turned its banks into garages.
Over the last couple of weeks, “riparian” has become a catchy word for Nairobians, much to the amusement of environmentalists and riverine settlers. The word first became prominent among Kenyans when John Njoroge Michuki was made Minister of Environment and Natural Resources by President Mwai Kibaki in 2008. As soon as he assumed his new portfolio, he decreed that all people and structures along riparian lands would be ejected and that the rivers would be restored and reclaimed.
But I am jumping the gun.
In reality, the fight against riparian lands, land reclamation and forest lands was actually started by Prof Wangari Maathai, the late Nobel laureate and founder of the Green Belt Movement (GBM). Prof Maathai started the GBM in 1977 and by the time of her death seven years ago in 2011, her organisation had planted 47 million trees across the country. The first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, awarded solely on the account of her sustained battle against environmental degradation, Kenyans particularly remember her for waging war in 1989 against former President Daniel arap Moi and his Kanu party in their attempts to “grab” and erect a 60-storey building in Uhuru Park, Nairobi’s largest public park, complete with a full-size statue of Moi and an underground car park for an upward of 2,000 cars. Maathai eventually won that battle, but had to suffer repeated police brutality and arrest.
Maathai is also credited with saving Karura Forest. Today, Kenyans from all walks of life and expatriate denizens can walk, run and just saunter around the forest, thanks to Prof Maathai, who in her many battles to save the forest, which is just five kilometres from Nairobi city centre, was once beaten by Moi’s security forces and her braids plucked out, leaving her bleeding from the head. Invariably, Prof Maathai also vociferously opposed the construction of the recently demolished Ukay Nakumatt Centre and Oshwal community hall and temple, which face each other in the Westlands area of Nairobi. Together with the posh Westgate Mall, which is 100m from the Ukay Centre, Prof Maathai argued for their demolition to save riparian land from further destruction.
The first demolitions of any kind in the city of Nairobi are believed to have taken place half a century before. This was in the mid to late 1960s and mid-1970s during the mayoral tenures of Charles Rubia and Margaret Kenyatta. Rubia was the mayor from 1962 to 1967, while Kenyatta took over City Hall in 1970 and stayed till 1976.
Just like riparian is now a cautionary word, seemingly portending disaster and doom among Kenyans who have encroached on the riverine ecosystem, today Nairobians first came to learn of the word “bulldozer” – and to fear it – in the late 1960s. “Bulldozers were first sent to ‘City Carton’ slum on Kijabe Street along the Nairobi River around 1966, I think,” says Mzee Sylvester Oduor, a long-time resident of Nairobi. “The poor lived in houses made of cardboard boxes which were considered an eyesore as well as a security threat by the city elites, said Oduor, who knows the history of Nairobi like the back of his hand. “Most of these people when they were ejected from City Carton moved to Mathare Valley and joined the people who were already living there – near the banks of the river.” Once they had settled in Mathare, they took up urban farming – they started growing arrow roots, sugarcane, sweet potatoes and yams and vegetables such sukuma wiki (kales) and spinach. Sukuma wiki and spinach supplemented dietary consumption at home, while arrow roots, sweet potatoes and yams acted as “cash crops” to be sold for surplus income.
Farming was a new venture for the former City Carton dwellers. But one activity they carried along from Kijabe Street was chang’aa brewing. Chang’aa is a traditional liquor from western Kenya. The British colonial government had outlawed the brewing of traditional drinks, such as busaa, changaa’a and muratina, and the independence government, under Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, adopted the same colonial logic and continued to view traditional brews with the same suspicion with which the British had viewed them.
The growing of sugarcane by the enlarged Mathare Valley slum dwellers by the river side was to augment their chang’aa brewing business. The brewing of the illicit liquor was the other reason that the City Carton dwellers had been ejected from Kijabe Street. The City Council, then under Mayor Charles Rubia, argued that the Kijabe Street chang’aa dens were too near the city.
The first informal settlement in the city was the Majengo slum created after World War II in 1945 in Pumwani, northeast of Nairobi, for migrant African male labour. In 1967, Thomas Joseph Mboya (popularly known as TJ), the mercurial and youthful MP for Kamukunji constituency, led the first demolition of Majengo’s mud-walled Swahili houses. “TJ had the clear intention of completely doing away with Majengo,” said Mzee Oduor. “He is the one who canvassed for the building of California estate next to the slum by the City Council. TJ’s American connections were evident even in the naming of the well-designed estate in his constituency. TJ’s policy was to house every resident who had lived in Majengo – whether they were sex workers, some of whom came from Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi – or government workers.”
The first informal settlement in the city was the Majengo slum created after World War II in 1945 in Pumwani, northeast of Nairobi, for migrant African male labour. In 1967, Thomas Joseph Mboya (popularly known as TJ), the mercurial and youthful MP for Kamukunji constituency, led the first demolition of Majengo’s mud-walled Swahili houses.
Mzee Oduor told me that many of the commercial sex workers were a priority in Mboya’s housing scheme and ended up getting the houses, which then were some of the best-modelled houses in Nairobi’s Eastlands area. “The sex workers were compensated by being the first to acquire the houses. To this day some of the sex workers who got houses in California still remember Tom Mboya fondly and nostalgically,” said Mzee Oduor.
Two of the most famous Kenyan artists in the 1970s and 1980s, Mzee Pembe (Omar Suleiman) and Mama Tofi (Aisha Juma), who lived in the slums, got houses in California estate. Another famous TV artist, Kipanga Athumani, whose full-time job was as a Kenya Bus Service (KBS) driver, was moved to Wood Street in Eastleigh. The trio acted in the popular Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) TV skit called Jamii ya Mzee Pembe, a precursor to Vioja Mahakamani. Today, Wood Street is named after Kipanga Athumani, arguably Kenya’s first stand-up comedian. Athumani was an ethnic Maasai.
Kipanga lived in Pangani slums. “In those days, Pangani slums, which stretched from today’s Riverside posh residences all the way to the current Pangani Girls High School, was then one of the largest slums in Nairobi,” narrated Mzee Oduor, “It bordered Ngara estate, then an exclusive estate for Indians. Pangani slums were called Pangani because the tin houses had iron sheets for their roofing. The Pangani and Majengo slums were homes to people from the coast of Kenya, Tanzanians, Ugandans and other Kenyans who professed Islam as their religious faith and that is why even up to today Kiswahili is widely spoken in Majengo. In fact, Pangani and Ziwani estates’ names are derived from the Kenyan coast. The original Pangani is in Kilifi,” said Mzee Oduor.
One of the reasons why TJ was unbeatable in Kamukunji was his sophisticated cosmopolitan type of politics. Itself a cosmopolitan constituency, Kamukunji, even in those days, had the ethnic Kikuyu as the majority voters, “but TJ’s representation knew no tribe, or favouritism,” said Oduor. “The California estate project propelled Mboya’s political profile to even to greater heights – he became unstoppable and unconquerable. But as fate would have it, he was gunned down in July 1969 and that is how TJ’s Majengo housing project came a cropper.” Today, Majengo is hemmed in and marooned by Bondeni estate (named so because it is built on the valley across Nairobi River; bondeni is Kiswahili for valley), Gorofani estate, Shauri Moyo estate, Starehe and Biafra estates.
The City Council argued that it was demolishing illegal structures within the capital city essentially because it had enough houses for anybody who wanted to live decently and legally. “The City Council was building houses, especially in Eastlands, such as the Huruma and Kariobangi South flats and large estates like Jericho (Lumumba and Ofafa), Maringo, Uhuru and Jerusalem, where Jaramogi Oginga Odinga maintained a council house for a very long time.”
When in the 1970s manufacturing processing factories and plants started expanding and mushrooming in the Industrial Area in the southeast of Nairobi, the Mukuru slums (today referred to as Mukuru Kaiyaba, Mukuru kwa Njenga and Mukuru kwa Reuben) quickly mushroomed next to the plants and along the Ngong River. “The slum dwellers were putting up structures on riparian land because they claimed it was no man’s land,” explained Oduor. (Ngong River runs through Kibera and passes through the Industrial area. Mukuru is the Kikuyu word for valley.)
More fundamentally, the river provided fresh water for human consumption, as well for urban farming, a practice the slum dwellers took up, just like their counterparts in the Mathare Valley. The dwellers also took up chang’aa brewing because there was lots of water, a crucial ingredient.
“In the days of Rubia and Margaret Kenyatta (Kenyatta succeeded Isaac Lugonzo as mayor who had served from1967–1970), the biggest rationale both the City Council of Nairobi and government used for demolishing the people’s structures in the slums was because they were illegal. City by-laws and the laws of the land did not allow semi-permanent structures in the city,” recalled Oduor. “And, because slums then did not have electricity, criminals used them as hideouts.”
The current demolitions are ostensibly spurred by infrastructural developments on government land that has been grabbed and illegally occupied for ages through political patronage, and like President Uhuru said on August 12, 2018 to Faith Evangelistic Ministries’ Church’s Karen congregation, “it is difficult to stop the (demolitions), because we must fight impunity”. According to the president, it is also the desire of the Jubilee government to reclaim riparian lands and preserve the fragile riverine ecosystem.
“Road expansion, fighting runaway (state) corruption, saving our environment…there is something eerily disingenuous about these suddenly discovered lofty social ideals by President Uhuru,” quipped a former Central Kenya MP. “Most of the plots of land along Langata Road all the way to Galleria Mall opposite Bomas of Kenya are owned by politicians – past and present – and were illegally acquired through political connections and impunity. Will President Uhuru ask for their demolitions now that we know from Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko that it is President Uhuru who has sanctioned the arrest of certain individuals and the demolition of the suddenly ‘undesired’ buildings?”
“Road expansion, fighting runaway (state) corruption, saving our environment…there is something eerily disingenuous about these suddenly discovered lofty social ideals by President Uhuru,” quipped a former Central Kenya MP. “Most of the plots of land along Langata Road all the way to Galleria Mall opposite Bomas of Kenya are owned by politicians – past and present – and were illegally acquired through political connections and impunity.”
In a video clip that went viral several days ago, Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko is heard telling his counterpart from Kiambu, Governor Ferdinand Waititu, that orders to arrest the latter’s wife for putting up a building on unapproved piece of land are from above. Who else would be above Governor Sonko other than the President himself? “Orders from above”, the former MP told me, can only mean one thing, and in Kenya, it has always meant one thing: the President himself.
Impunity and patronage politics in Kenya did not start today, said the former MP. “Are you aware the land where InterContinental Hotel is built was once Parliament land? Are you also aware that the land was hived off from Parliament by none other than President Jomo Kenyatta?” Similarly, the ex-MP told me, Serena Hotel sits on Uhuru Park, which was public land that was given to the Aga Khan, again by Jomo Kenyatta. “So the question we must ask ourselves as Kenyans is: From when should the government seek to reclaim grabbed government land or land meant for public use that is now in the hands of private entities?”
In the church where the President was addressing the congregation on the difficulty of stopping the demolitions, he also spoke of losing many friends because of the ongoing destructions. He said his friends had been calling him, asking him to stop the demolitions, but he reiterated that impunity must be fought. And it did not matter whether the “culprits” are politically powerful, influential or moneyed.
“Can the people of Kenya reclaim Uhuru Park, can the Parliament sue to get its rightful land back?” posed the former MP. “The current demolitions by any stretch of imagination are selective and targeted. It is doubly interesting that Java Coffee House and the Shell Petrol Station in Kileleshwa … had to come down. Just next to the Java there are flats whose rear parking bay encroaches onto the river bank. Why was it spared?” The Central Kenya politician said the flats belong to a member of a former First Family. “There are demolitions and there are demolitions. I can guarantee you that these demolitions are political – they have nothing to do with fighting corruption, neither are they for curbing corruption.”
“President Uhuru Kenyatta told Rev Bishop Teresia Wairimu that he is being bombarded by telephone calls from people asking him to stop the demolitions,” said the former MP. “That might well be so. My friend Maina Kamanda (former Starehe MP and now a Jubilee Party nominated MP) has two blocks of flats in Buru Buru Phase III. They are built on a road reserve and he acquired them when he was a powerful political city honcho and when he hobnobbed with the political aristocracy. Now I hear they may be pulled down. My political bird whispered to me that Kamanda had reached out to fellow Murang’a political buddy David Murathe to plead his case to President Uhuru on his behalf.” (One of the block of flats faces Buru Buru Community Centre, Church of God and houses Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) offices and ATM machines on the ground floor.)
“President Uhuru is just entertaining the masses…bringing down a building here and there, as the masses clap and ululate. In their temporary excitement, they crave for another building to come down and momentarily forget that the President is involved in a nested game of political juggling and survival as he buys time and crafts the trajectory of his tempestuous second term,” said the former MP.
A game of optics
“Kenyans are living under one of the harshest economic times in modern Kenya, but they have been made to believe that demolishing an important building here and there will assuage their hardships,” said the former MP. “The president is engaged in a game of optics – what he is doing is creating optical illusions and mirages for Kenyans as they wallow in socio-economic difficulties. What happens when he will have demolished enough buildings and cannot demolish more? He will have to move onto something else, because Kenyans must be kept preoccupied,” he lamented.
“Just the other day, President Uhuru enthralled Kenyans by telling them that the government would import polygraph equipment that would be used on civil and public servants, in a move to ensnare corrupt employees,” observed the former MP. “What happened to the furore that accompanied the President’s June 1, 2018 pronouncements? Are government employees still waiting to be lined up for the lie detector tests? What about the much talked about lifestyle audit – is it ever going to materialise?”
“Kenyans are living under one of the harshest economic times in modern Kenya, but they have been made to believe that demolishing an important building here and there will assuage their hardships,” said the former MP. “The president is engaged in a game of optics – what he is doing is creating optical illusions and mirages for Kenyans as they wallow in socio-economic difficulties.”
President Uhuru is stuck; he does not know what to do or, even where to move next and is desperate, said the politician. “There is no money at all in the government: all the money was scuttled in a stealing spree that emptied the coffers in the first term of Uhuru and his deputy (William) Ruto’s rule.” The 2013–2017 Jubilee coalition government profligacy was of unmitigated proportions, said the former MP, “and now the people are lurching from hope to desperation. They are disillusioned and dispirited and a trifle embarrassed: They gave President Uhuru their all. At the very least, they expected he would cushion them economically. Now that that may not happen, not even in the foreseeable future, they cannot turn around to claim they did not know that they were being duped.”
The former MP said Central Kenya people are now quietly wishing that Raila Odinga, the opposition supremo, who led the National Super Alliance coalition against President Uhuru’s Jubilee Party in the 2017 August elections, would be in the opposition to check President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government. “Raila is the only person who can candidly and openly shout about flagrant theft in the government, expose the culprits – whether they are Cabinet Secretaries or parastatal heads – thereby shaming them and helping stop the haemorrhage and pilferage.”
Among the Central Kenya political elite, the MP former intoned, some have been audacious, albeit in hushed tones and in private corners, to suggest that President Uhuru should bite the bullet, swallow his pride and call in David Ndii to fix the economy as the Treasury boss. (David Ndii is an economist who played a significant role in the economic recovery strategy of Mwai Kibaki’s first presidential term. Until the famous “handshake” between Raila and Uhuru, he was also instrumental in steering Raila’s campaign against the Jubilee government.) “He [Uhuru} can play politics later if he so wishes…he can, after two years, either instigate his [Ndii’s] sacking or blame him for the flailing economy if it refuses to pick up,” said the former MP, seemingly capturing the sentiments of his fellow Central Kenya politicians.
“There might, after all, be a logic to the demolition ‘madness’. If that be the case, more power to President Uhuru. If, on the other hand, the demolitions end up as a sob story for those whose property has been destroyed for nothing, and if the demolitions will not have solved the economic morass that Kenyans find themselves in, then President Uhuru could as well be riding a dangerous, mutinous horse.”
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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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