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The Chink in Raila’s Armour: Why ODM Is Losing Ground in Its Strongholds

11 min read.

Beyond the biblical analogies, evangelical Christian rhetoric, and the denials of ODM party barons, what does Ochieng’s victory mean? What does it tell us about Luo politics? What hopes does it hold, especially for those from the counties of Siaya, Homa Bay, Migori and Kisumu, who are disgruntled with ODM, especially the party nominations, and increasingly see Raila Odinga’s dominance in Luo politics as a stranglehold on regional democracy? What about those who yearn either for a change or a revolution in the ODM strongholds?



The Chink in Raila’s Armour: Why ODM Is Losing Ground in Its Strongholds
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To some observers, it was a victory that recalls the Biblical David versus Goliath encounter, which will be told long after the “stone” that fell the giant Orange Democratic Party’s political machinery and its candidate in the 5 April Ugenya by-election has been buried deep in the fecund soils of Ugenya. For others, it was the epic duel, which Senator James Orengo – a living legend in Kenya and in Ugenya’s opposition politics – like Hamlet without the Prince, lost spectacularly to David Ochieng, a political neophyte.

In the 5 April Ugenya constituency by-election, a parliamentary candidate called David Ochieng’ of the little-known Movement for Democracy and Growth (MDG) took on a giant, the Orange Democratic Party (ODM), and floored its candidate, Chris Karan. This was not a first in the colorful history of Ugenya, a constituency whose politics has partly been defined by the political rivalries between in-laws James Orengo and his brother-in-law, Stephen Ondiek, who between them, represented Ugenya constituency for 33 years between 1980 to 2013.

Although there is no love lost between Orengo and Ochieng, Ochieng’s victory recalls James Orengo’s Nyatieng’s’ (the grinding-stone) victory in the 1980 Ugenya constituency by-election against Mathews Ogutu, a pro-establishment and a Jomo Kenyatta era minister for local government. Just like Orengo’s victory in 1980 as a Jaramogi Odinga colyte was a slap in the face of pro-establishment politics of acquiescence in the face of betrayals of independence ideals and KANU’s suffocating post-independence one-party state, Ochieng’s, too, is a rejection of Raila Odinga’s pro-status quo politics, which in the face of suffocating party politics demands acquiescence with politics of incompetence or ineptitude at the local level.

The victory was too sweet to be savoured only by Ochieng’ and his constituents. By saying that the by-election was a Raila versus Ruto contest and casting it as a proxy battle for Kenya’s soul…the ODM party barons had invited the dissident United Republican Party (URP) wing of the ruling Jubilee Party to the Ugenya party. Or so, it seems.

Ochieng’s was a sweet victory, a crowning of a successful and drawn out election petition against the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC)’s declaration of Chris Karan as the victor of the 2017 Ugenya parliamentary election, in which he handed ODM, especially his Ugenya nemesis, Senator James Orengo, a humiliating defeat.

The victory was too sweet to be savoured only by Ochieng’ and his constituents. By saying that the by-election was a Raila versus Ruto contest and casting it as a proxy battle for Kenya’s soul – where a vote cast for Chris Karan is a vote for Raila Odinga, and a vote cast for David is a vote for William Ruto – the ODM party barons had invited the dissident United Republican Party (URP) wing of the ruling Jubilee Party to the Ugenya party. Or so, it seems.

As if on cue, the “hustler’s” nation, for whom everything ni kujipanga without compunction, showed up for the party, honouring ODM’s ill-thought, and perhaps proxy invitation, to a propaganda-fest. William Ruto, Kenya’s Deputy President, who craves an earthly kingdom, took a celestial leap for it, and tweeted, “Jameni wacheni MUNGU aitwe MUNGU. The hustler nation has spoken, the people have decided”, thereby quickly claiming David’s victory for the “hustler” Christian nation and milking it for its propaganda value: Odinga’s loss is a Ruto’s or self-declared hustler-in-chief’s gain.

Ostensibly, Ochieng’s victory now symbolised the miraculous ways of God, foretelling the coming victory of the kingdom of the hustler-in-chief over his nemesis Raila Odinga, the longed-for Godless earthly kingdom of Kenyans who seldom give a damn about justice or ethics in pursuit of power or wealth.

Ochieng’s MGD victory was a godsend. Irresistible. And they grabbed it, perhaps with the ease with which billions of shillings in dollar denominations is nowadays spirited out of Kenya’s public coffers to a few individual’s secret accounts abroad or safe boxes in local banks under the Jubilee government’s watch.

Senator Susan Kihika, a Ruto disciple, took a less optimistic but a more earthly view of Ochieng’s victory. She tweeted, “Is ODM’s loss in Ugenya & Embakasi South an indication of changing times? Ugenya being ODM stronghold begs the question, is the electorate finally ready to defy dictatorship vote & independently? Perhaps. Interesting times ahead. Kitaeleweka sooner than later!”

For some of the diehard ODM supporters, the twin parliamentary electoral loss is symptomatic of ODM’s diseased body politic. “It’s suffering a T.B. Not the dreadful respiratory disease, tuberculosis, but the equally devastating “Tugni gi Bagni,” or “conflict and confusion”…

“Not a big deal,” Raila Odinga said repeatedly, and rather strenuously, for the “just a drop in the ocean” loss of two parliamentary seats in a week when the twin ODM loss, especially the Ugenya by-election, was trending in the major call-ins in Dholuo breakfast and late night radio broadcasts.

For some of the diehard ODM supporters, the twin parliamentary electoral loss is symptomatic of ODM’s diseased body politic. “It’s suffering a T.B. Not the dreadful respiratory disease, tuberculosis, but the equally devastating “Tugni gi Bagni,” or “conflict and confusion,” for a party that has had a relative clear political vision,” said a disillusioned ODM supporter in a call-in breakfast radio show.

Still, others opined, the victory of these candidates raises several questions that the party ought to answer: why do sitting ODM MPs, who ably discharge their parliamentary responsibilities or good candidates seeking an ODM ticket lose to those said to be the party-anointed but lacklustre performers? Is it the region’s six-piece voting pattern or how the six-pieces of the ODM leaders is put together? Is it because, as some callers opined, “party ni gi wegi” (the party has its owners)? And therefore, have the party nominations, not just the ODM’s, but also other Raila Odinga-led parties’ nominations, been a charade? Does the party respect the wishes and interests of the majority? “Certificate e omo malo.” (Has the party been imposing candidates on the voters?) Is it because we’ve been electing charlatans who claim “wadhi konyo Jakom goyo lweny?” (Is it those who claim they are going to help Raila Odinga fight a war?)

Beyond the biblical analogies, evangelical Christian rhetoric, and the denials of ODM party barons, what does Ochieng’s victory mean? What does it tell us about Luo politics? What hopes does it hold, especially for those from the counties of Siaya, Homa Bay, Migori and Kisumu, who are disgruntled with ODM, especially the party nominations, and increasingly see Raila Odinga’s dominance in Luo politics as a stranglehold on regional democracy? What about those who yearn either for a change or a revolution in the ODM strongholds?

Unlike ODM power barons’ denials, the candid and passionate debates on Ochieng’s victory and ODM’s poor performance in the two by-elections throws up more than Ochieng’s winning formula or ODM’s ways of losing an election, which, for some rank and file members of the party, shouldn’t be waved aside.

Many ODM supporters who called various Dholuo radio stations last week blamed Senator James Orengo for the loss of the Ugenya seat to the MDG party. They put it down to the rivalry between Orengo and Opiyo Wandayi, said to be driven by competing ambitions for the Siaya County’s 2022 gubernatorial election. ODM had wrongly pitched the contest as a national issue, with little local touch, and favoured big roadshow events – which entertain the youth, but which scarcely educate the electorate – and counterproductive threats by Siaya governor, Amoth Rasanga, to punish his Ugenya constituents if they voted for Ochieng’. Yet Ochieng’ has a better development record in Ugenya than the Siaya County government, and carried out a more effective door-to-door campaign attuned to the hopes of Ugenya voters, especially women.

Ochieng is a young and ambitious politician who first came to parliament as an ODM Member of Parliament. His victory points to a deeper crisis gnawing at the heart of the Orange Democratic Movement. ODM not only failed to live up to its name and to its political ideals, but is suffered from a crisis of vision, as some callers pointed out. It also stalled intra-party, inter-generational succession, which is now simmering and might come to the boil before or by 2022.

Ochieng’s victory, like that of the other “independents”, suggests that ODM or Raila Odinga are not invincible. However, winning an election is still an uphill task. You’ve got to factor Raila Odinga into your winning formula or circumvent it in your campaigns.

However, listening to ODM supporters who are still smarting from the party’s loss of Ugenya constituency does suggest that Ochieng’s victory is significant but that it is no more significant than the past victories of “independents” in the current Luo politics. Ochieng joins the league of politicians, such as Olago Aluoch, the MP for Kisumu West on a Ford Kenya ticket, Shakeel Shabbir of Kisumu Town East, who ran as independent in the 2017 general election, and even of the disgraced Okoth Obado, now an ODM governor, who was elected on a PDP ticket in 2013.

Ochieng’s victory, like that of the other “independents”, suggests that ODM or Raila Odinga are not invincible. However, winning an election is still an uphill task. You’ve got to factor Raila Odinga into your winning formula or circumvent it in your campaigns. Strategically, you must be an ally or be seen to be an ally of Raila Odinga’s cause. And as some callers said, those who have successfully run against the ODM wave, such as Olago Aluoch of Kisumu Town West or Shakeel Shabbir, have simultaneously avoided casting their quest for elective office as contests between them and Raila Odinga. They ran on a Raila-zone friendly party or no political party, and thoroughly localised the parliamentary contest while pledging loyalty to Raila’s cause or claiming him as their undisputed leader or leader of the Luo community.

Shakeel Shabbir, popularly known as “Onyango woun Mogo” (Onyango, the owner of maize flour), like Ochieng, bolted out of the ODM in 2017, but ran successfully as an independent. Upon winning, he said, “I still share ODM ideals and want to assure my people that I will stand with the party and leader Raila Odinga.”

Similarly, speaking to the Star after winning, Ochieng’ said, “I avoided the media like the plague since they were going to hype it as a war between me and Raila,” and added, “I have no issue with Raila. In fact, we kept talking when I was in court. There is no bad blood between him and myself. I respect him. I support the handshake, which is the best thing ever to happen to this country.”

Salim Odeny, a suave and eloquent ODM ideologue with a priestly mastery of the Bible, an ecumenical mastery of many Christian denominational hymns, liturgy, and rituals, and a mastery of dead-pan Dholuo put-downs or sexist insults, said that the ODM bigwigs in charge of the Chris Karan campaigns didn’t set the Raila trap well. He says that ODM lost the Ugenya seat, not only because the infighting within the Senator James Orengo-led campaign team, but also because they didn’t frame the contest in terms that resonates with the Ugenya electorate. “They should have asked, who does Uhuru Kenyatta deal with when he wants to deal with a Luo leader, a party leader called Raila Odinga of ODM or a party leader called David Ochieng’ of MDG?” said Odeny. The contest should have been framed as the battle between Raila and Ochieng’ for the leadership of the Luos – who of the two embodies the community’s fears and hopes? – not as a Raila versus Ruto contest.

Ochieng’ saw the trap and lifted the safety hatch. He simply asked his constituents, “Ka udhi ma ok uneno Raila e debe, gone David Ochieng’,” (If you go to the polling booth, and you don’t find Raila’s name on the ballot, then vote for David Ochieng), some callers pointed out. Raila’s absences, literary and figuratively, also worked in Ochieng’s favour.

Citing African Union engagements, Raila made only a single appearance at a funeral in Ugenya during the campaign period. Since the handshake, what he embodies or stands for, the larger-than-life cause cryptically referred to as “lweny” (the war), and the political cause that he has embodied in Luo politics (which gives him a free hand to choose who’s a loyal lieutenant and who’s not) has become foggy at best.

What’s more, “the handshake” has blunted the sharp edge of the “mole” label, the traitor charge, which can cut down one’s political career short, especially for Luo politicians who work with the establishment, either in times of opposition or outside the Raila Odinga umbrella, in times of co-optation.

Tactically, by framing the by-election as a local contest and conducting a door-to-door campaign, Ochieng’ outflanked the ODM bigwigs who mounted colourful roadshows and pitched the battle as a national contest between Raila Odinga and William Ruto.

In 2017, David Ochieng’, who had been dubbed a mole, bore this burden. In 2019, after the handshake, the sharp opposition-establishment distinction is blurred, and the burden has lifted off a little bit. Moreover, unlike James Orengo, who was once a cabinet minister (a minister for lands), Ochieng’ seems to have leveraged his first term pro-establishment connections and delivered collective material goods to his Ugenya constituents better than both James Orengo and the County of Government of Siaya: a medical training centre, a teachers’ training college, a technical institute, subsidised fertilizer to farmers, and a forestry school in the making.

Tactically, by framing the by-election as a local contest and conducting a door-to-door campaign, Ochieng’ outflanked the ODM bigwigs who mounted colourful roadshows and pitched the battle as a national contest between Raila Odinga and William Ruto. Backed by Ugenya professionals, he turned his first term development record as an ODM MP into an asset and bait: “I have built a TTC, and a MTC here, but the MTC College could collapse, because it offers only one course. Give me a chance to complete this project,” Ochieng, reportedly pitched.

But David Ochieng’, the ambitious rebel politician who says he eschews “politics of lies, personality cult, where you identify a figure of hate”, derides and is disdainful of Orengo’s brand of politics – what he dismissively calls “university type of politics, which no longer works for the masses” – as the kind of politics that has long reached its sell-by date and is a product the fallout that followed the ODM’s post-2013 generational succession politics in Luo politics.

Ochieng told the Star that he left ODM because “the party machinery was not taking my views. There is a lot of suspicion about me and how I work. At some point, I felt I didn’t want to go to parliament.” Moreover, “My party did not like people who can innovate or those giving views. I thought I did not want to go through that, hence, the birth of MDG,” Ochieng’ added, without mentioning the source of this suspicion.

That suspicion was borne out a the Sega Declaration in 2014. David Ochieng’, together with some youthful and freshly elected first-term members of parliament, such as Jared K’Opiyo, Silvanus Osele, Agostino Neto, Junet Mohamed, Millie Odhiambo, Ken Obura, and John Mbadi, sought to reform and re-energise the party after the loss of the 2013 presidential election and to change its leadership. But the doyens of opposition politics, such as Raila Odinga, Anyang’ Nyong’o, and Otieno Ka’jwang,’ read mischief in this move. The ODM MPs, who were party to the Sega Declaration, were viewed with suspicion as fifth columnists.

ODM power barons scattered this group, but didn’t adequately address the discontent, the injustice of the party nomination process, and the feeling of being left out of both the national party power structures and in the ODM county governments, which many youthful members of the party, including the rank and file, feel to date. Dubbed “moles,” the unrepentant signatories to the Sega Declaration faced a stiff challenge for the ODM ticket or opted for alternative political parties. Some, like John Mbadi and Junet Mohamed, beat a retreat and were rewarded with high party positions. Others, like Ken Obura and Silvanus Osele, fell by the wayside. A few, like David Ochieng, and Millie Odhiambo, retreated to their constituencies and worked hard to fortify their hold on them.

Labeled a Jubilee mole, David Ochieng’ felt it doubly, in 2017 and 2019. “There were days we could spend up to shillings 1 million in a day,” Ochieng’ told the Star, without disclosing either what he spent the money on or the total amount of money he spent to secure the seat. Clearly, one million shillings a day, even for a few days of campaigning in a rural constituency, is a little over the top, particularly, for a candidate who says his popularity rests solidly on his unmatched development record.

Ochieng’s victory reminds the ODM party, and Raila Odinga, in particular, that that until ODM embraces internal party democracy, addresses the generational succession question, and Raila unequivocally states what the party stands for, the independents…will always eat Baba’s lunch in a free and fair election.

Ochieng’s triumph over the ODM was sweet, hard-won, and crowning, but still an expensive victory. It reeks of a BUY-election. Although Ochieng says that his solid development record as an ODM member of parliament put him in good stead, he spent heavily to secure the seat, even when he avoided a “big entourage” and occasionally rode a bicycle while looking for votes.

Ochieng’s victory reminds the ODM party, and Raila Odinga, in particular, that that until ODM embraces internal party democracy, addresses the generational succession question, and Raila unequivocally states what the party stands for, the independents (who voters say are good leaders, but often fall out of favour with the ODM party barons) will always eat Baba’s lunch in a free and fair election – especially when the voters can’t tell what Raila Odinga stands for or what the political vision of ODM is since he signed a truce with the Jubilee government.

Questions arise: Is Raila still hunting, holding the leopard by the tail or has he domesticated the beast? Or is he stroking its fur, cleaning its bloodstained paws and its incisors while his core constituency, clawed or killed by the beast in the last electoral encounters, cries for justice? Does ODM fight for democracy and good government only at the national level? What about the ODM-led constituencies and the counties?

Ochieng’s victory too, is just an exception that proves the rule: the common sense that binds Raila Odinga and his die-hard political base still holds a contested sway, However, the yawning democratic deficits of the ODM party, which the ODM rank and file complain about on radio, and the ineptitudes of Raila’s lieutenants in local politics and in organising a smooth ODM generational succession, coupled with the incompetence, corruption, and nepotism of county governments, especially in Siaya, Homa Bay, and Migori counties, will ultimately claim ODM’s dominance in Luo politics.

Ochieng’s victory is good news, especially to those who find Raila’s two-decade long dominance in Luo politics too suffocating and too stifling for democratic aspirations. It reveals a chink in Raila’s amour. However, those yearning for a change or revolution in ODM have a tough task ahead. Electoral defeats, like Ugenya’s, though highly embarrassing, hardly chip at the Odingas’ dominance in Luo politics.

The twin electoral defeats, a recoil from a third, and the Wajir senatorial election reminds ODM that a coalition of widely different political dynasties, united only by a common fear of the prospects of a Ruto presidency, is unlikely to energise the ODM support base. ODM could suffer humiliating defeats in the hands of a wily, tenacious, and daredevil opponent bound by no compunction.

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Akoko Akech is a graduate student at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, presently living in Kisumu.


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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