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El-Zakzaky: Politics, Religion and the Persecution of Shiites in Nigeria

11 min read.

A disrupter of the status quo, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky is an outspoken critic of the northern political elites, including Nasir El-Rufai, the current governor of Kaduna state, the base from where he (El-Zakzaky) operates.



El-Zakzaky: Politics, Religion and the Persecution of Shiites in Nigeria
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The Nigerian government has said time and again that the reason it has continued to keep Sheikh El-Zakzaky behind bars for over three years now is only as a matter of public safety and in the best interest of the nation. However, there are many who believe that the government has an axe to grind with the Muslim cleric and the adherents of his Shia faith. Whatever the reason that this government is chasing its cause against the Shiites, the major concern is the possibility and propriety of having an administration settle a score under the guise of “national interest” and public good.

The continued detention of El-Zakzaky, his wife (Zeenat) and two other members of the Shia sect in Nigeria leaves very little or nothing to be desired, especially because they have been held in the custody of security agencies, even after courts have several times given injunctions granting them bail. In some quarters, this development has earned the present government negative labels, with many saying that the administration is high-handed, overreaching and dictatorial in its operations.

But why will a government that came into power on the promise of justice and fairness – as symbolised in its Muslim-Christian ticket – risk being tainted by what now can only be called a mishandling of the Zakzaky case? Who is this sheikh? What makes him an important personality worth the time and resources of both the Kaduna state government and the Federal Government of Nigeria?

A disrupter of the status quo, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky is an outspoken critic of the northern political elites, including Nasir El-Rufai, the current governor of Kaduna state, the base from where he (El-Zakzaky) operates.

Who is Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky?

A disrupter of the status quo, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky is an outspoken critic of the northern political elites, including Nasir El-Rufai, the current governor of Kaduna state, the base from where he (El-Zakzaky) operates. Born within the same generation, about seven years apart, El-Zakzaky and El-Rufai have a “hidden-history” that tends to pit them against themselves, leading to a power tussle that cuts through deep religious and political contours.

The history between these two leaders has been silent for quite a while and up until now, not many were aware of, nor were able to draw the parallels that build a solid case for why the friction between El-Zakzaky and El-Rufai goes beyond a matter of public safety. The governor did put it in his defence why the Nigerian government is right in having kept the sheikh in custody for way too long, depriving him his basic rights and needs, including denial of access to proper medical attention.

El-Rufai was born in Daudawa within the Faskari local government area of Kastina, state which was carved out of Kaduna, while El-Zakzaky was born in Zaria, a major province at the heart of Kaduna state. Hence, by virtue of birth places, the Muslim cleric holds a greater claim to the land – he would be seen more as a true son of the soil than the governor, who moved from Katsina to join his uncle in Kaduna following the death of his father at age eight.

Both men attended the prestigious Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) in Zaria (between 1976 and 1979). While El-Zakzaky studied economics, El-Rufai studied quantity surveying. They both excelled in their different disciplines, with each bagging a first-class honour, though Zakzaky’s certificate had been denied him by the university authorities due to his Islamic activities.

As a student, El-Zakzaky was an active Islamic unionist; he participated in several northern Nigeria protest movements in the 1970s, the reason he was expelled. While at ABU, he rose to become a Secretary-General of the Muslim Students Society of Nigeria (MSSN) at the main campus of the university, a group which EL-Rufai admits having been a part of.

In the wake of Zakzaky’s incarceration, El Rufai would later make a broadcast in which he said, “I know El-Zakzaky personally. We were both students at the Amadu Bello University in Zaria. We were both active in the Muslim Student’s Society, so I know the animal I’m dealing with. Many of those making comments on this issue don’t know the history, I was in ABU when El-Zakzaky was dismissed, I know him.”

El-Rufai’s comment hints at a possible dissonance between these two leaders, a grievance which some believe took a fiercer nature later as they metamorphosed into more prominent figures within the northern region.

El-Zakzaky rose to the position of Vice President (International Affairs) of the national body of MSSN in 1979, the same year when Ruholla Khomeini led the Iranian Revolution that saw the overthrow of the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, bringing an end to a 2,500-year Persian monarchy, and ushering in the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was this revolution that inspired El-Zakzaky to join the Shia faith. He would later travel to Iran and become Nigeria’s first Shia cleric, while El-Rufai would later attend post-graduate programmes at Harvard Business School and Georgetown University. Both men would continue to break new grounds and grow in influence, perhaps in a subtle bid to charm the teeming millions in Kaduna and win the heart of the state.

El-Rufai would go on to establish his own firm, making a name for himself both in the private and public sectors, up to the point of serving as Minister for the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) in Abuja. Soon, it was time for him to govern Kaduna, a position which would see him become number one in the state and make him one of the most influential and powerful elites within the northern region.

But that autonomous power was not to be, at least not for a while, because while El-Rufai gained political influence, El-Zakzaky was also growing very powerful in Zaria, which used to be the capital of the Hausa Kingdom of Zazzau.

Upon becoming governor, El-Rufai tried to implement some new policies. A close observation of some of these policies would have many analysts speculating that they were aimed at crippling the operations of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), which is led by El-Zakzaky. One major policy that was said to be aimed at the IMN is the introduction of a bill seeking to regulate both Christian and Muslim clerics alike. However, this could not be enforced as they were mired in controversy and were never revisited again.

El-Rufai knew something needed to be done about the IMN, lest he lose control of Kaduna, which is the home of northern elites and occupies a strategic position as the political capital of the north.

With a growing population of over four million, there were fears that El-Zakzaky might soon be running a parallel state within Kaduna. Thus, a force higher than the state seemed to be the only way to quash what seemed like an uprising agenda, which Sheikh Zakzaky is said to have been pushing for years.The spiritual leader of the IMN is believed to be committed to the goal of applying a more rigorous application of the Islamic legal and administrative system to Nigeria and ultimately turning the nation into a full Islamic state – claims that over the years have been debunked and described as unfounded and lacking in substance.

President Buhari is not and has never been unaware of the existence and operations of Zakzaky and his IMN group. In fact, there are claims that the Shiites, with the backing of the sheikh, were responsible for the 1990s violence in Katsina state where Buhari hails from.

El-Rufai had said in an interview that Zakzaky and his fellow Shiites had no regard for him as Governor of Kaduna, neither had they any regard for President Muhammadu Buhari. The Governor’s accusations bordered around treason but without valid proof, they have been viewed as mere allegations and a desperate attempt at discrediting El-Zakzaky.

President Buhari is not and has never been unaware of the existence and operations of Zakzaky and his IMN group. In fact, there are claims that the Shiites, with the backing of the sheikh, were responsible for the 1990s violence in Katsina state where Buhari hails from. Thus, this begs the question: Could it be that the president got involved in El-Zakzaky’s case as a way to pay back the sheikh for the pain his group allegedly caused him (Buhari’) and his people?

Many analysts disagree, saying that the events in the 1990s do not have so much that could tie the president directly to El-Zakzay. There are those that argue that beyond power and political struggles that characterised the north at the time and even now, the rift between El-Zakzaky and the state holds in it a deep political undertone.

The Sunni-Shia rift

El-Zakzaky is the first Shia sheikh in Nigeria, a country where Sunni Muslims make up about 50 per cent of the population. So, the Shia-Sunni dichotomy cannot be ruled out in the case between El-Zakzaky, El-Rufai and President Muhammadu Buhari. The Shia cleric was becoming too powerful and the Shia sect was growing in numbers in a state run by a Sunni Muslim (El-Rufai) within a region made up majorly of the Sunni sect, and in a country ruled by a Sunni adherent (Buhari). It was only a matter of time before his growing influence would become a thing of regional and national concern.

Sheikh Zakzaky’s troubles started as far back as the 1980s and 1990s when he was imprisoned countless times for alleged seditious speeches and calls for revolution. Reports suggest that these messages were often circulated in cassettes. El-Zakzaky’s use of the words “civil disobedience” and “recalcitrance”, especially under military regimes, saw him rise as a voice for the oppressed, giving him prominence and positioning him as a living martyr.

They say nothing endears a leader more to his people than sacrifice. Perhaps that is how El-Zakzaky won the hearts of many followers in the north and the admiration of thousands all over the world.

A letter written by the sheikh’s wife, Zeenat, to President Muhammadu Buhari revealed how the sheikh lost six sons from nine children he had. They were killed in two different military attacks on the IMN, the first being the Zaria Quds Day Massacre in 2014 and the other being the 2015 Zaria Massacre, which eventually led to the arrest of El-Zakzaky, his wife and several other members of the Shiite sect.

Zeenat, in her letter, narrated how in July 2014, the army under the leadership of President Goodluck Jonathan, extrajudiciously killed three of her sons among 35 Muslims exercising their constitutional rights of assembly. She wrote of how she and other members of the Shia sect in Nigeria believed that with the emergence of Buhari as a Muslim president, they would get justice, but that was not to be. The sheikh’s wife went on to speak of how in December 2015, the army under the command of Buhari’s General Tukur Buratai “massacred about 1,000 Shia Muslims across Zaria after some members of the sect blocked the General’s convoys”.

According to Zeenat’s letter, the army would later carry out further assaults, destroying the sect’s properties across six locations in Zaria. They would go on to bomb and demolish El-Zakzaky’s family home, killing another three of the Sheikh’s sons. Zeenat further claimed that under the Kaduna state government led by El-Rufai and on General Buratai’s command, the army went in the dead of the night to secretly bury members of the Islamic Movement whom they had killed. The sheikh’s wife said that both men, women and children were buried in an unmarked mass pit at Mando cemetery.

There has been no exhumation of the graves, no apologies made, no list of names of victims published, no investigation, no reports on findings and no atonement.

President Buhari had set up a judicial panel headed by Governor El-Rufai of Kaduna, but while that was being set up, the sheikh and his wife were taken into custody by security operatives. They were detained at an unknown location without charges…It would take well over two years before El-Zakzaky and his wife were charged.

The army came out to debunk the sect’s claims, saying that the clash between it and the sect was stirred by a provocation from the group. The Chief of Army Staff, Lt-Gen Tukur Buratai, went on to tell the National Assembly that he escaped being assassinated by members of the Shiite Muslim sect. He told them of how, contrary to claims by the sect, its members were heavily armed, and they violently confronted him and his convoy on their way to Zaria.

President Buhari had set up a judicial panel headed by Governor El-Rufai of Kaduna, but while that was being set up, the sheikh and his wife were taken into custody by security operatives. They were detained at an unknown location without charges. They remained in detention and the world kept asking what their crime was. It would take well over two years before El-Zakzaky and his wife were charged.

In April 2018, the Kaduna state government levelled an eight-count charge against the sheikh, his wife and two others. Their offences included the murder of a soldier (a corporal named Yakubu Dankaduna). Other counts included alleged acts of abetting the unlawful assembly of members of the IMN and inciting of disturbance by encouraging members of the sect to block major roads, including Sokoto road, Sabon Gari and others within Zaria and its environs. They were also accused of promoting unlawful assembly even though the Kaduna state government did not proscribe them until after the 2015 clash.

The proscription of the IMN and the continued detention of El-Zakzaky and other members of his sect, as well as the continued arrest of Shiites across Nigeria’s northern region, have only gone further to push the narrative of anti-Shi’ism moves all over the world, making El-Zakzaky the new face of Shia prosecution globally.

Analysts argue that the moves made by the state and federal governments against the IMN are not unconnected; they reveal the prejudice, hatred, discrimination and violence against Shia Muslims because of their religious beliefs, traditional and cultural heritage. This bias stems from a dispute over the right successor to Prophet Muhammad, leading to the formation of two main sects; the Sunni and the Shia. Many Sunni rulers perceive the Shia as a threat both to their political and religious authority, a scenario which critics believe is playing out between El-Zakzaky (a Shia sheikh) and two Sunni leaders (Governor Nasir El-Rufai and President Muhammadu Buhari).

There have been several claims linking the Shia sect in Nigeria to extremists groups like Boko Haram and Hezbollah, but many experts on security issues disagree, especially because even the Boko Haram terror group see Shiites as infidels that should be ousted.

Analysts believe that the Saudi Arabia-linked Sunni denominated northern political and clerical establishment is using the machinery of the Nigerian government to stage a war against fellow Muslims and rivals – Iran-linked Shia Muslims. And though the Nigerian government may seek to absolve itself of any blame in this case against the IMN, it still faces charges of operating with impunity by keeping Shia leaders in custody even after the courts have granted them bail.

There have been several claims linking the Shia sect in Nigeria to extremists groups like Boko Haram and Hezbollah, but many experts on security issues disagree, especially because even the Boko Haram terror group see Shiites as infidels that should be ousted. Moreover, no interactions between Boko Haram and the Shiites have ever been established, nor has there been any established link between the leadership of the IMN and any terror group, including the jihadists that operate in Nigeria’s northeastern region.

In light of the fact that almost every theory about El-Zakzaky fails to hold water, why should he still be languishing in state custody? Critics believe that the only bias at play in this case is the Shia-Sunni dichotomy. They argue that the chasm of social distance between the mainly Sunni northern political and clerical establishment and their rank and file is accessing economic and political opportunities, which are largely viewed as the preordained preserve of a religious order, a premise which the Shiites vehemently dispute.

Saudi-Iran proxy war

It is worrisome that Nigeria tends to be inching dangerously towards becoming the next theatre of the Saudi-Iran proxy war stirred by the great schism that occurred in 632 AD upon the death of the Holy Prophet Muhammad over who was his rightful successor, ultimately resulting in the Sunni-Shia divide. This is especially more troubling in the rise of reports that there is a plot to Islamise Nigeria.

There are fears that the state’s crackdown on Shiites will cause the group to go underground and wage an insurgency war like the Salafi-jihad group Boko Haram, though that seems a bit far-fetched. However, if the IMN continues to use protest marches as its tool to fight for the freedom of its leader, one fears that the situation might degenerate if the sheikh eventually dies in custody or more of its members continue to be arrested and killed in clashes with military operatives.

Frail Shia-Sunni relations are blamed by many for what is now seen as the persecution of Shiites who make up about 5 per cent of the Muslim population in Nigeria. The nation has the largest Muslim population in Africa, predominantly Sunni of the Maliki school of thought. However, there is a significant Shia minority in Kaduna, Kano, Katsina and Sokoto, the most visible form of the Shia movement in Nigeria being the Islamic Movement in Nigeria led by the embattled Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky.

There are fears that the state’s crackdown on Shiites will cause the group to go underground and wage an insurgency war like the Salafi-jihad group Boko Haram, though that seems a bit far-fetched. However, if the IMN continues to use protest marches as its tool to fight for the freedom of its leader, one fears that the situation might degenerate if the sheikh eventually dies in custody or more of its members continue to be arrested and killed in clashes with military operatives.

Nigeria already has a lot on its plate with regard to ethno-religious violence. The Christian-Muslim gulfs are yet to be properly bridged and this has led to so many clashes across the nation, including the farmer-herder crisis in several parts of the country. Whether keeping El-Zakzaky unlawfully behind bars is in the best interest of the nation or if it is a subtle war between the Sunni and Shia Muslims, Nigeria does not need another ethno-religious fracas, hence the need to handle the Shiites appropriately.

Seventy-six-year-old President Muhammadu Buhari has won the 2019 presidential race, which was somewhat bumpy and could easily have been marred by violence. Perhaps there are some Shia members who had hoped that he (Buhari) would be defeated by a more liberal Muslim opponent (Atiku Abubakar), but that was not to be.

Now that the president must continue to steer the course of the nation for the next four years, one wonders what will become of Shiites in Nigeria. Will Buhari release Sheikh El-Zakzaky and grant him his freedom? Or will Buhari’s second term and the cleric’s continued incarceration be seen as an opportunity that the Sunnis can use to crush the rising Shia population in Africa’s most populous nation, and by extension oust its rivals from West Africa and Africa as a whole?

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Nathaniel Soonest is a poet, orator and editor based in Lagos, Nigeria.


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.



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”.



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.



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.


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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