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A Judas Moment: Betrayal in Nyamakima

12 min read.

Two years into President’s Uhuru Kenyatta second and last term a storm seems to be brewing. Businesses in Nyamakima, a Kikuyu stronghold, are suffering from the effects a bad economy, and his supporters, though only retorted in whispers feel like their president has betrayed them.

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A Judas Moment: Betrayal in Nyamakima
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The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.” ― Søren Kierkegaard

 

About a month before the 8 August 2017 general elections, the business community of the famous Nyamakima area in downtown Nairobi sealed the lower (southern side) of Charles Rubia Road that connects with Kumasi Road and part of the lower side of River Lane for a private function. All the people who conduct their business in this area were asked to close their premises as a gesture of goodwill, and primarily because they were all invited guests at the function.

The private function was a pre-presidential election party held in honour of Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta, the presidential candidate of the Jubilee Party who was going to face Raila Amolo Odinga aka Baba, the nominee for the opposition outfit, the National Super Alliance (Nasa).

Goats had been slaughtered and crates of “Ruaraka Waters” aka East African Breweries Limited (EABL) beer had been carted there and flowed in plenty. Those who preferred brandy and whisky were also taken care of. The afternoon weather was super, the participants were ecstatic – lots of cheer and laughter rented the air as the Kikuyus – both men and women – danced and waltzed to mugithi and one-man guitar lyrics. The bash went on till late into the night.

“Nimekumenya ni mahoya na ti urogi.” They will know its prayers and not sorcery, shouted the crowd. The revellers were prepping themselves for a second stab at Uhuru’s presidential two-term uncontested win. “Nimekumenya matioi.” They will know, they hardly know. They were referring to Raila’s fervent supporters and Raila himself. “Reke Uhuru aingere…tugutonga mamake,” Kamwea, one of the younger businessman, was later to excitedly tell me. Let Uhuru bounce back into State House…we’ll really grow rich, we’re going to astound them. To prove their loyalty to and undying support for Uhuru Kenyatta, the businessmen and women had come together and collected money for the Jubilee Party presidential kitty worthy of Nyamakima’s name and fame.

Later, when jolted by the Supreme Court of Kenya’s “adverse” ruling on 1 September 2017, which revoked Uhuru’s win (which they viewed as a temporary setback) they doubled their efforts: they printed loud banners and hung them mostly on roads in downtown Nairobi. “Nyamakima Business Community supports Uhuru Kenyatta,” read one banner…. “Gaberone Road Business People supports Jubilee Party’s President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta,” read another. Still, Du Bois Road Business Community Says Tano Tena.

The Supreme Court set the second fresh presidential election for 26 October 2017, a date that fell on President Uhuru’s birthday. “Kai atari Jehova…muthamaki aumaga kuri ngai.” It’s the workings of the Almighty God, they mused. (How else could you explain this coincidence?) A king is anointed by God.

Befuddled and shaken by the Supreme Court’s unprecedented decision, the Nyamakima business community nonetheless rallied – now more assiduously than ever before – for Uhuru’s second presidential cause, which they took personally to be their own. “Ngai ndatiganagiria andu ake.” The good Lord doesn’t forsake his people, they consoled themselves.

“Nikumera ta thuraku,” (this time around) we must come out like safari ants, the Nyamakima traders exhorted the Kikuyu traders and every other Kikuyu. “Tano Tena” five more, hollered the business people moving around with loudspeakers in downtown Nairobi, like possessed preacher men. In the intervening period between 1 September 1 and 26 October, Tano Tena become the standard greeting of the Kikuyu people in Nyamakima and practically everywhere else they lived. High-fiving in the air on the streets of downtown Nairobi became the norm.

Nyamakima is a Kiswahili word meaning minced meat. In the 1950s, during the colonial emergency period that lasted for seven years – from 1952 to 1959 – there was an African restaurant in the present Nyamakima area. But the old women who sold cereals in the area…could not eat bone meat either because they did not have strong teeth or they did not have teeth at all. So the restaurant owner came up with a plan: why not mince the meat for the old ladies who could chew it with their gums?

Nyamakima traders are not averse to holding bashes: in January 1988, on hearing that Kariuki Chotara, the combustible Nakuru Kanu politician, had died, they momentarily closed their businesses, stormed into pubs, drank themselves silly and toasted to his death. They reminded each other, “gutiri utuko utakiaga”, which meaning every night has its dawn.

But what the Nyamakima Kikuyus (as indeed Kikuyus in Naivasha and Nakuru, where they also celebrated Chotara’s death) were observing is that nothing lasts forever. If Chotara thought he could torment his fellow kinsmen forever, he had another thought coming. Chotara had been the Nakuru District Kanu chairman, who took over from Kihika Kimani, a man who had tormented Vice President Daniel Toroich arap Moi in the 1970s. Chotara, who became President Moi’s political courtier and a court jester, was much loathed by Kikuyus countrywide.

Little Murang’a

Nyamakima is a Kiswahili word meaning minced meat. In the 1950s, during the colonial emergency period that lasted for seven years – from 1952 to 1959 – there was an African restaurant in the present Nyamakima area. But the old women who sold cereals in the area – many of whom were from the Rwathia area in Murang’a District – could not eat bone meat either because they did not have strong teeth or they did not have teeth at all. So the restaurant owner came up with a plan: why not mince the meat for the old ladies who could chew it with their gums?

Hence, Nyamakima, over and above everything else, is famously and popularly known for these Murang’a women whose specialty for the last 60-plus years has been trading in cereals. Today, those cereals come all the way from the border of Malawi and Tanzania, in the Mbeya region and Kabale, Soroti and Tororo regions of Uganda. In the 1950s, the women thrived in business because they were too old to be arrested, unlike their sons, many of whom were arraigned and harassed by the colonial police. When the emergency ended, the young men joined the old ladies to do what they knew best: engage in trading hardware businesses.

The Murang’a folks were not generally interested in land per se, but in commodities’ businesses. That is why their women came to Nairobi and would buy the merchandise, then as now, from wherever they could get them. Likewise, the Murang’a young men have been socialised to believe in business and not so much in acquiring land or even advancing or excelling in academic and formal education, unlike their counterparts from Nyeri and Kiambu. That is why so many of the electronic and hardware shops in Nyamakima are run by Murang’a lads.

Nyamakima also become a famous and popular stage for Kikuyus from South Kinangop because many of them who were settled in the area hailed from the greater Murang’a area. The only place they knew in Nairobi was Nyamakima because that is where their kith and kin lived and worked. So, when visiting their families and friends in Nairobi, they would ask to be dropped at Nyamakima. To date, Nyamakima is the terminus for people travelling to Kinangop, Molo, Naivasha, Ng’arua, Njoro, Nyahururu, Nakuru, Narok and Sopili.

It is a wonder that Charles Rubia Road was not named after Kenneth Stanley Njindo Matiba. Although both were great friends and both came from the then greater Murang’a District, it is the mercurial Matiba, the better known of the two politicians, who used to frequent Nyamakima (the bastion of his political support in Nairobi) just after the country returned to multiparty politics in 1991. He even used to get his hair cut in a barbershop at Nyamakima area, which was called “Little Murang’a”.

No more Tano Tena

Last week I visited Nyamakima, where I walked the length and breadth of Charles Rubia Road, ending up at River Lane, where I ate kamuchere na tuchahi (rice and turtle beans) at Wa-Michelle’s ramshackle joint. “Nii ndiuwe tukurora nako.” I tell you I don’t know where we’re headed, Wa-Michelle told me. “Biashara ni gukua ira kua….tarori kutire andu akuria irio.” Businesses are slowly dying off…look, for example, there are no people to eat my food.

It was lunchtime but there were only two customers (including me) at Wa-Michelle’s place. “Barely two years ago, by 3.00 pm, I’d sell all these food and more and I’d be out of here to go and engage in another business…Now I make little food, because I can’t afford to make losses,” said the food seller. “The price of foodstuff has gone up: I used to buy white flour for ugali at Sh80, now it’s Sh120, Wheat flour at Sh110, now it’s Sh130. The price of grains such as white and yellow beans have equally gone up. When I pushed some of the burden to the customers, they didn’t like it, but what could I do? That’s also why some of them stopped coming. I don’t fault them.”

Nineteen months after the second presidential election that handed Uhuru Kenyatta the presidency with even less votes, the Tano Tena mantra has been reduced to a whimper, a sob story. For most of the Nyamakima traders on Charles Rubia Road and River Lane, businesses having gone south.

I asked her what had been happening to the famous Nyamakima businesses. “We don’t know…we don’t know…business premises are just closing down…didn’t you walk up River Lane to see for yourself traders who have closed shop and vacated the premises?” (I had.) Once thriving electronic business premises have closed shop and now all one can see is white paper notices plastered on the grill doors announcing premises for letting out and “no goodwill asked”.

Nineteen months after the second presidential election that handed Uhuru Kenyatta the presidency with even less votes, the Tano Tena mantra has been reduced to a whimper, a sob story. For most of the Nyamakima traders on Charles Rubia Road and River Lane, businesses having gone south. It is a far cry from the scene of the “Uthamaki ni witu” (political leadership is ours [Kikuyus’] bash, where the traders dined and wined liberally, wiggling their bottoms in unbridled ecstasy.

Two years ago, it would have been unheard of that a Nyamakima business premise – whether on the ground floor or inside a building – was being rented out and that the landlord did not demand goodwill. But the traders have fallen on hard times; they can no longer afford the rents which are between Sh80,000 and Sh100,000 per month for strategically located premises, mostly on the ground floor. If by happenstance a renting trader was vacating a premise, the owner of the premise would ask the next tenant for a goodwill fee ranging between Sh1 million and 3 million and the place would be snapped up like a hot cake.

“Thuraku cia itererio maguta ma tawa,” (after we voted for the second time), the safari ants met their calamity, Wa-Michelle said to me half in jest, half in sadness. “Uhuru arateng’eria aici aa njugu agatiga aa ruwa.” President Uhuru is apparently busy chasing petty thieves, while the real thieves are walking scot-free. Wa-Michelle spoke to me in idioms. Metaphorically, she was saying that the president had resorted to harassing Nyamakima traders who dealt in small-time businesses, while neglecting to deal with the real corrupt Kenyans who were pilfering the state coffers.

In Kikuyu culture, a person who stole ruwa (animal skin), as opposed to the one who stole njugu (grains), was considered a more dangerous and vicious thief because he was stealing your entire livelihood. A grains thief most likely stole your grains because he or his family was hungry and therefore did not steal to spite you.

The shops owners whose shops had wound up, said Wa-Michelle, belonged to young Kikuyu men, who basically dealt in electronic goods imported from China. Now the goods were being confiscated by the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), ostensibly, because they were considered counterfeits. “Realising there was a loophole to make a killing, the KRA officials had turned to blackmailing and preying on the electronic goods’ traders,” opined Wa-Michelle. “They have been haunting the traders to pay up humungous bribes, failure to which, they raid your shops.” Prayers had turned into witchcraft, the anointed one had turned to tormenting his people and it has turned out that, in fact, it is the Kikuyu people who actually did not know that they indeed did not know.

‘How can Uhuru do this to us?’

I looked for Mwangi, who has been a trader for many years in Nyamakima. For many years, he ran a hardware shop but around 15 years ago, he also started importing electronic stuff from Guangzhou, China. His story sounded both bitter and confused. “I’ve been in this business for long, possibly longer than many of the traders in this area, but I’ll tell you this, I don’t remember business being so difficult and so down,” he said.

“As we speak, my goods have been detained at the government’s Embakasi warehouses, because KRA alleges they are counterfeit,” bemoaned Mwangi. “The goods are in a 40-foot container and it has been at the warehouses since December 2018. I don’t know when it’s going to be released, if it’s going to be released at all. Everyday the goods spend a night at the warehouse and I’m surcharged $40 (Sh4,000). My clearing agent has been telling me that the KRA officials have been sending mixed signals about the release of the goods, which he tells me, he can’t clearly interpret.” Mwangi said that there are about 2,000 40-foot containers of 70 cubic meters volume detained at the warehouses.

He admitted that he was among those businessmen who had contributed money to the Jubilee Party, but President Uhuru’s second term was turning out to be a nightmare for the Nyamakima traders. “I frankly don’t know what’s happening, we are at a loss. How can Uhuru do this to us?” Mwangi thought aloud as I spoke to him outside his shop. It was a clear testament that business was doing so badly that he could even afford to find time to speak to me. “My friend had business been flowing the way it did two years back, trust me, I’d not have found time to talk to you. Look, how many customers have you seen coming to the shop since we stood here talking?”

“If the government doesn’t want us to be importing goods from China, it should set up its own factories. We’re always ready to do business, because that’s our life,” pointed out the businessman.

“President Uhuru’s government is telling us traders that we are importing counterfeits as well as contraband,” said Mwangi angrily. “Hell knows we’ve been importing these goods from China all these years. Yes, it true, the goods we import are cheap and not of great quality – they are meant for mwananchi. But this new government story that the goods are counterfeit is boggling our minds.” Mwangi said that by the time traders were importing the goods, the government was aware because the declaration form they fill indicates all the types of goods they are bringing into the country.

“If the government doesn’t want us to be importing goods from China, it should set up its own factories. We’re always ready to do business, because that’s our life,” pointed out the businessman. “These goods are also used by the Chinese people…but it seems to the government…what’s good for the gander is not good for the goose. We’ve been asking ourselves how and when the government decided the goods are fake. It cannot be that the government has just woken up to the fact that we’ve been bringing in substandard goods for all these years. Why it has decided to punish us we’re yet to comprehend.”

The businessman said that the irony of this government exercise is that if after one year your goods remain uncollected at the warehouses, it can auction the goods to interested bidders. “On the one hand, the government says the goods are fake, but on the other, to offset the charges and create room at the warehouses, it offloads the goods to a willing buyer – to do what with them?” Many traders unable to pay the mounting KRA fees waited for the auction to take place,in order to buy back their goods, said Mwangi. It was an irony, but one that the businessmen have to contend with.

The more he talked about their plight the more Mwangi was getting furious. “This is a government that is telling us not to import goods from China, yet it is borrowing from the same country…Why is President Uhuru very quick to receive Chinese money, but won’t allow us to import their goods? President Uhuru has been talking about Agenda Four; he seems to be consumed with an imaginary legacy than working for the people. Who, for example, told him we want to be built houses?”

The businessman observed that “the government had now come up with a scheme that nobody understood what it was all about. This Huduma Namba is very suspicious: the government has already messed up with our businesses, now it wants to mess up with our privacy. Why does Uhuru want to know about our private details? So that he can create more avenues to eke out more money from us?”

Mwangi, just like Wa-Michelle, had confided to me that many Nyamakima traders had kept off the Huduma Namba registration. “We’ve got more urgent matters to attend to than be preoccupied by insidious people who want to mine our personal and secretive details for their use.”

Kamau, a property owner in the Nyamakima area and a staunch supporter of President Uhuru, has been suffering panic attacks off and on: He simply cannot believe that his beloved President is killing their businesses. During President Mwai Kibaki’s tenure, he acquired three buildings, did some clever renovations and soon he was in good business. He could afford to service his bank loans and business life looked very promising. In the past one and half years, he confessed to me that his real estate business has never received such a beating. “Traders have been vacating my premises because they simply cannot afford the rents because their goods have been confiscated and so they also have nothing to sell.” He said if he doesn’t regularly service his loans, the banks would come for him.

One businesswoman told me that Kikuyus are of the view that they would rather suffer under a brutal leader who is their tribesman rather than be ruled by a good leader who is not of their ethnic group. It is God who gave them that leader – it is also the same God who will know how to deal with him, they argue.

Both Mwangi and Kamau could not bring themselves to lay the blame squarely on President Uhuru: “It is the people surrounding him that are advising him wrongly,” they both separately said to me. It was an argument with its obvious weak strand that explained the true dilemma of many Uthamaki believers – they will not be openly caught criticising President Uhuru. To do that is to go against the grain; it is to accept that they made a wrong choice in their voting; it is to repudiate the cardinal rule of their tribal teaching on electoral voting: you must always vote for one of your own – irrespective. But more significantly, is it not true that a muthamaki is chosen for the people by God? Is this not what their Christian faith teaches them? Is this not what they have been repeatedly taught by their church leaders? If they criticise muthamaki, would they not, by extension, be finding fault with the almighty God?

One businesswoman told me that Kikuyus are of the view that they would rather suffer under a brutal leader who is their tribesman rather than be ruled by a good leader who is not of their ethnic group. It is God who gave them that leader – it is also the same God who will know how to deal with him, they argue. “We leave everything to God, in the meantime. Ours is to pray and ask God to not forsake us,’ said the businesswoman. Wa-Michelle told me Kikuyus could be suffering (even after twice voting for their man) because they had turned their back to God. “We’ve really sinned and come short of the glory of the Lord. We’ve forgotten that we live and prosper because of his dutiful mercies. It is incumbent we rediscover God.”

Mwangi said Nyamakima and the downtown Kikuyu businesspeople in general are planning to demonstrate and protest against President Uhuru’s draconian measures against their businesses. “President Uhuru seems only to understand the language of protest. Last year, we organised ourselves and marched to Harambee House and the Office of the Deputy President and presented them with our memoranda of grievances. For some time, the harassment eased off, but not for long.”

In the meantime, the businesses in Nyamakima will continue to suffer losses.

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Politics

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.

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Stealth Game: “Community” Conservancies and Dispossession in Northern Kenya
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With its vast expanses and diversity of wildlife, Kenya – Africa’s original safari destination – attracts over two million foreign visitors annually. The development of wildlife tourism and conservation, a major economic resource for the country, has however been at the cost of local communities who have been fenced off from their ancestral lands. Indigenous communities have been evicted from their territories and excluded from the tourist dollars that flow into high-end lodges and safari companies.

Protected areas with wildlife are patrolled and guarded by anti-poaching rangers and are accessible only to tourists who can afford to stay in the luxury safari lodges and resorts. This model of “fortress conservation” – one that militarizes and privatizes the commons – has come under severe criticism for its exclusionary practices and for being less effective than the models where local communities lead and manage conservation activities.

One such controversial model of conservation in Kenya is the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT). Set up in 2004, the NRT’s stated goal is “changing the game” on conservation by supporting communities to govern their lands through the establishment of community conservancies.

Created by Ian Craig, whose family was part of the elite white minority during British colonialism, the NRT’s origins date back to the 1980s when his family-owned 62,000-acre cattle ranch was transformed into the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Since its founding, the NRT has set up 39 conservancies on 42,000 square kilometres (10,378,426 acres) of land in northern and coastal Kenya – nearly 8 per cent of the country’s total land area.

The communities that live on these lands are predominantly pastoralists who raise livestock for their livelihoods and have faced decades of marginalization by successive Kenyan governments. The NRT claims that its goal is to “transform people’s lives, secure peace and conserve natural resources.”

However, where the NRT is active, local communities allege that the organization has dispossessed them of their lands and deployed armed security units that have been responsible for serious human rights abuses. Whereas the NRT employs around 870 uniformed scouts, the organization’s anti-poaching mobile units, called ‘9’ teams, face allegations of extrajudicial killings and disappearances, among other abuses. These rangers are equipped with military weapons and receive paramilitary training from the Kenyan Wildlife Service Law Enforcement Academy and from 51 Degrees, a private security company run by Ian Craig’s son, Batian Craig, as well as from other private security firms. Whereas the mandate of NRT’s rangers is supposed to be anti-poaching, they are routinely involved in policing matters that go beyond that remit.

Locals allege that the NRT compels communities to set aside their best lands for the exclusive use of wildlife.

Locals have alleged the NRT’s direct involvement in conflicts between different ethnic groups, related to territorial issues and/or cattle raids. Multiple sources within the impacted communities, including members of councils of community elders, informed the Oakland Institute that as many as 76 people were killed in the Biliqo Bulesa Conservancy during inter-ethnic clashes, allegedly with the involvement of the NRT. Interviews conducted by the Institute established that 11 people have been killed in circumstances involving the conservation body. Dozens more appear to have been killed by the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) and other government agencies, which have been accused of abducting, disappearing, and torturing people in the name of conservation.

Over the years, conflicts over land and resources in Kenya have been exacerbated by the establishment of large ranches and conservation areas. For instance, 40 per cent of Laikipia County’s land is occupied by large ranches, controlled by just 48 individuals – most of them white landowners who own tens of thousands of acres for ranching or wildlife conservancies, which attract tourism business as well as conservation funding from international organizations.

Similarly, several game reserves and conservancies occupy over a million acres of land in the nearby Isiolo County. Land pressure was especially evident in 2017 when clashes broke out between private, mostly white ranchers, and Samburu and Pokot herders over pasture during a particularly dry spell.

But as demonstrated in the Oakland Institute’s report Stealth Game, the events of 2017 highlighted a situation that has been rampant for many years. Local communities report paying a high price for the NRT’s privatized, neo-colonial conservation model in Kenya. The loss of grazing land for pastoralists is a major challenge caused by the creation of community conservancies. Locals allege that the NRT compels communities to set aside their best lands for the exclusive use of wildlife in the name of community conservancies, and to subsequently lease it to set up tourist facilities.

Although terms like “community-driven”, “participatory”, and “local empowerment” are extensively used by the NRT and its partners, the conservancies have been allegedly set up by outside parties rather than the pastoralists themselves, who have a very limited role in negotiating the terms of these partnerships. According to several testimonies, leverage over communities occurs through corruption and co-optation of local leaders and personalities as well as the local administration.

A number of interviewees allege intimidation, including arrests and interrogation of local community members and leaders, as tactics routinely used by the NRT security personnel. Furthermore, the NRT is involved not just in conservation but also in security, management of pastureland, and livestock marketing, which according to the local communities, gives it a level of control over the region that surpasses even that of the Kenyan government. The NRT claims that these activities support communities, development projects, and help build sustainable economies, but its role is criticized by local communities and leaders.

In recent years, hundreds of locals have held protests and signed petitions against the presence of the NRT. The Turkana County Government expelled the NRT from Turkana in 2016; Isiolo’s Borana Council of Elders (BCE) and communities in Isiolo County and in Chari Ward in the Biliqo Bulesa Conservancy continue to challenge the NRT. In January 2021, the community of Gafarsa protested the NRT’s expansion into the Gafarsa rangelands of Garbatulla sub-county. And in April 2021, the Samburu Council of Elders Association, a registered institution representing the Samburu Community in four counties (Isiolo, Laikipia, Marsabit and Samburu), wrote to international NGOs and donors asking them to cease further funding and to audit the NRT’s donor-funded programmes.

A number of interviewees allege intimidation, including arrests and interrogation of local community members and leaders, as tactics routinely used by the NRT security personnel.

At the time of the writing of the report, the Oakland Institute reported that protests against the NRT were growing across the region. The organization works closely with the KWS, a state corporation under the Ministry of Wildlife and Tourism whose mandate is to conserve and manage wildlife in Kenya. In July 2018, Tourism and Wildlife Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala, appointed Ian Craig and Jochen Zeitz to the KWS Board of Trustees. The inclusion of Zeitz and Craig, who actively lobby for the privatization of wildlife reserves, has been met with consternation by local environmentalists. In the case of the NRT, the relationship is mutually beneficial – several high-ranking members of the KWS have served on the NRT’s Board of Trustees.

Both the NRT and the KWS receive substantial funding from donors such as USAID, the European Union, and other Western agencies, and champion corporate partnerships in conservation. The KWS and the NRT also partner with some of the largest environmental NGOs, including The Nature Conservancy (TNC), whose corporate associates have included major polluters and firms known for their negative human rights and environmental records, such as Shell, Ford, BP, and Monsanto among others. In turn, TNC’s Regional Managing Director for Africa, Matt Brown, enjoys a seat at the table of the NRT’s Board of Directors.

Stealth Game also reveals how the NRT has allegedly participated in the exploitation of fossil fuels in Kenya. In 2015, the NRT formed a five-year, US$12 million agreement with two oil companies active in the country – British Tullow Oil and Canadian Africa Oil Corp – to establish and operate six community conservancies in Turkana and West Pokot Counties.

The NRT’s stated goal was to “help communities to understand and benefit” from the “commercialisation of oil resources”. Local communities allege that it put a positive spin on the activities of these companies to mask concerns and outstanding questions over their environmental and human rights records.

The NRT, in collaboration with big environmental organizations, epitomizes a Western-led approach to conservation that creates a profitable business but marginalizes local communities who have lived on these lands for centuries.

Despite its claims to the contrary, the NRT is yet another example of how fortress conservation, under the guise of “community-based conservation”, is dispossessing the very pastoralist communities it claims to be helping – destroying their traditional grazing patterns, their autonomy, and their lives.

The  Constitution of Kenyan  2010 and the 2016 Community Land Act recognize community land as a category of land holding and pastoralism as a legitimate livelihood system. The Act enables communities to legally register, own, and manage their communal lands. For the first three years, however, not a single community in Kenya was able to apply to have their land rights legally recognized. On 24 July 2019, over 50 representatives from 11 communities in Isiolo, Kajiado, Laikipia, Tana River, and Turkana counties were the first to attempt to register their land with the government on the basis of the Community Land Act. The communities were promised by the Ministry of Land that their applications would be processed within four months. In late 2020, the Ministry of Lands registered the land titles of II Ngwesi and Musul communities in Laikipia.

The others are still waiting to have their land registered. In October 2020, the Lands Cabinet Secretary was reported saying that only 12 counties have submitted inventories of their respective unregistered community lands in readiness for the registration process as enshrined in the law.

Community members interviewed by the Oakland Institute in the course of its research repeatedly asked for justice after years of being ignored by the Kenyan government and by the police when reporting human rights abuses and even killings of family members. The findings reported in Stealth Game require an independent investigation into the land-related grievances around all of the NRT’s community conservancies, the allegations of involvement of the NRT’s rapid response units in inter-ethnic conflict, as well as the alleged abuses and extrajudicial killings.

Pastoralists have been the custodians of wildlife for centuries – long before any NGO or conservation professionals came along. While this report focuses on the plight of the Indigenous communities in Northern Kenya, it is a reality that is all too familiar to indigenous communities the world over. In far too many places, national governments, private corporations, and large conservation groups collude in the name of conservation, not just to force Indigenous groups off their land, but to force them out of existence altogether.

Pastoralists have been the custodians of wildlife for centuries – long before any NGO or conservation professionals came along.

The latest threat comes from the so-called “30×30 initiative”, a plan under the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity that calls for 30 per cent of the planet to be placed in protected areas – or for other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs) –  by 2030.

The Oakland Institute’s report, Stealth Game, makes it clear that fortress conservation must be replaced by Indigenous-led conservation efforts in order to preserve the remaining biodiversity of the planet while respecting the interests, rights, and dignity of the local communities.

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Politics

Nashulai – A Community Conservancy With a Difference

Before Nashulai, Maasai communities around the Mara triangle were selling off their rights to live and work on their land, becoming “conservation refugees”.

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Nashulai – A Community Conservancy With a Difference
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The Sekenani River underwent a mammoth cleanup in May 2020, undertaken by over 100 women living in the Nashulai Conservancy area. Ten of the 18 kilometres of fresh water were cleaned of plastic waste, clothing, organic material and other rubbish that presented a real threat to the health of this life source for the community and wildlife. The river forms part of the Mara Basin and goes on to flow into Lake Victoria, which in turn feeds the River Nile.

The initiative was spearheaded by the Nashulai Conservancy — the first community-owned conservancy in the Maasai Mara that was founded in 2015 — which also provided a daily stipend to all participants and introduced them to better waste management and regeneration practices. After the cleanup, bamboo trees were planted along the banks of the river to curb soil erosion.

You could call it a classic case of “nature healing” that only the forced stillness caused by a global pandemic could bring about. Livelihoods dependent on tourism and raising cattle had all but come to a standstill and people now had the time to ponder how unpredictable life can be.

“I worry that when tourism picks up again many people will forget about all the conservation efforts of the past year,” says project officer Evelyn Kamau. “That’s why we put a focus on working with the youth in the community on the various projects and education. They’ll be the key to continuation.”

Continuation in the broader sense is what Nashulai and several other community-focused projects in Kenya are working towards — a shift away from conservation practices that push indigenous people further and further out of their homelands for profit in the name of protecting and celebrating the very nature for which these communities have provided stewardship over generations.

A reckoning

Given the past year’s global and regional conversations about racial injustice, and the pandemic that has left tourism everywhere on its knees, ordinary people in countries like Kenya have had the chance to learn, to speak out and to act on changes.

Players in the tourism industry in the country that have in the past privileged foreign visitors over Kenyans have been challenged. In mid-2020, a poorly worded social media post stating that a bucket-list boutique hotel in Nairobi was “now open to Kenyans” set off a backlash from fed-up Kenyans online.

The post referred to the easing of COVID-19 regulations that allowed the hotel to re-open to anyone already in the country. Although the hotel tried to undertake damage control, the harm was already done and the wounds reopened. Kenyans recounted stories of discrimination experienced at this particular hotel including multiple instances of the booking office responding to enquiries from Kenyan guests that rooms were fully booked, only for their European or American companions to call minutes later and miraculously find there were in fact vacancies. Many observed how rare it was to see non-white faces in the marketing of certain establishments, except in service roles.

Another conversation that has gained traction is the question of who is really benefiting from the conservation business and why the beneficiaries are generally not the local communities.

Kenyan conservationist and author Dr Mordecai Ogada has been vocal about this issue, both in his work and on social media, frequently calling out institutions and individuals who perpetuate the profit-driven system that has proven to be detrimental to local communities. In The Big Conservation Lie, his searing 2016 book co-authored with conservation journalist John Mbaria, Ogada observes, “The importance of wildlife to Kenya and the communities here has been reduced to the dollar value that foreign tourists will pay to see it.” Ogada details the use of coercion tactics to push communities to divide up or vacate their lands and abandon their identities and lifestyles for little more than donor subsidies that are not always paid in full or within the agreed time.

A colonial hangover

It is important to note that these attitudes, organizations and by extension the structure of safari tourism, did not spring up out of nowhere. At the origin of wildlife safaris on the savannahs of East Africa were the colonial-era hunting parties organised for European aristocracy and royalty and the odd American president or Hollywood actor.

Theodore Roosevelt’s year-long hunting expedition in 1909 resulted in over 500 animals being shot by his party in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, many of which were taken back to be displayed at the Smithsonian Institute and in various other natural history museums across the US. Roosevelt later recounted his experiences in a book and a series of lectures, not without mentioning the “savage” native people he had encountered and expressing support for the European colonization project throughout Africa.

Much of this private entertaining was made possible through “gifts” of large parcels of Kenyan land by the colonial power to high-ranking military officials for their service in the other British colonies, without much regard as to the ancestral ownership of the confiscated lands.

At the origin of wildlife safaris on the savannahs of East Africa were the colonial-era hunting parties organised for European aristocracy and royalty.

On the foundation of national parks in the country by the colonial government in the 1940s, Ogada points out the similarities with the Yellowstone National Park, “which was created by violence and disenfranchisement, but is still used as a template for fortress conservation over a century later.” In the case of Kenya, just add trophy hunting to the original model.

Today, when it isn’t the descendants of those settlers who own and run the many private nature reserves in the country, it is a party with much economic or political power tying local communities down with unfair leases and sectioning them off from their ancestral land, harsh penalties being applied when they graze their cattle on the confiscated land.

This history must be acknowledged and the facts recognised so that the real work of establishing a sustainable future for the affected communities can begin. A future that does not disenfranchise entire communities and exclude them or leave their economies dangerously dependent on tourism.

The work it will take to achieve this in both the conservation and the wider travel industry involves everyone, from the service providers to the media to the very people deciding where and how to spend their tourism money and their time.

Here’s who’s doing the work

There are many who are leading initiatives that place local communities at the centre of their efforts to curb environmental degradation and to secure a future in which these communities are not excluded. Some, like Dr Ogada, spread the word about the holes in the model adopted by the global conservation industry. Others are training and educating tourism businesses in sustainable practices.

There are many who are leading initiatives that place local communities at the centre of their efforts to curb environmental degradation.

The Sustainable Travel and Tourism Agenda, or STTA, is a leading Kenyan-owned consultancy that works with tourism businesses and associations to provide training and strategies for sustainability in the sector in East Africa and beyond. Team leader Judy Kepher Gona expresses her optimism in the organization’s position as the local experts in the field, evidenced by the industry players’ uptake of the STTA’s training programmes and services to learn how best to manage their tourism businesses responsibly.

Gona notes, “Today there are almost 100 community-owned private conservancies in Kenya which has increased the inclusion of communities in conservation and in tourism” — which is a step in the right direction.

The community conservancy

Back to Nashulai, a strong example of a community-owned conservancy. Director and co-founder Nelson Ole Reiya who grew up in the area began to notice the rate at which Maasai communities around the Mara triangle were selling or leasing off their land and often their rights to live and work on it as they did before, becoming what he refers to as “conservation refugees”.

In 2016, Ole Reiya set out to bring together his community in an effort to eliminate poverty, regenerate the ecosystems and preserve the indigenous culture of the Maasai by employing a commons model on the 5,000 acres on which the conservancy sits. Families here could have sold their ancestral land and moved away, but they have instead come together and in a few short years have done away with the fencing separating their homesteads from the open savannah. They keep smaller herds of indigenous cattle and they have seen the return of wildlife such as zebras, giraffes and wildebeest to this part of their ancient migratory route. Elephants have returned to an old elephant nursery site.

In contrast to many other nature reserves and conservancies that offer employment to the locals as hotel staff, safari guides or dancers and singers, Nashulai’s way of empowering the community goes further to diversify the economy by providing skills and education to the residents, as well as preserving the culture by passing on knowledge about environmental awareness. This can be seen in the bee-keeping project that is producing honey for sale, the kitchen gardens outside the family homes, a ranger training programme and even a storytelling project to record and preserve all the knowledge and history passed down by the elders.

They keep smaller herds of indigenous cattle and they have seen the return of wildlife such as zebras, giraffes and wildebeest to this part of their ancient migratory route.

The conservancy only hires people from within the community for its various projects, and all plans must be submitted to a community liaison officer for discussion and a vote before any work can begin.

Tourism activities within the conservancy such as stays at Oldarpoi (the conservancy’s first tented camp; more are planned), game drives and day visits to the conservation and community projects are still an important part of the story. The revenue generated by tourists and the awareness created regarding this model of conservation are key in securing Nashulai’s future. Volunteer travellers are even welcomed to participate in the less technical projects such as tree planting and river clean-ups.

Expressing his hopes for a paradigm shift in the tourism industry, Ole Reiya stresses, “I would encourage visitors to go beyond the superficial and experience the nuances of a people beyond being seen as artefacts and naked children to be photographed, [but] rather as communities whose connection to the land and wildlife has been key to their survival over time.”

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Battery Arms Race: Global Capital and the Scramble for Cobalt in the Congo

In the context of the climate emergency and the need for renewable energy sources, competition over the supply of cobalt is growing. This competition is most intense in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nick Bernards argues that the scramble for cobalt is a capitalist scramble, and that there can be no ‘just’ transition without overthrowing capitalism on a global scale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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