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Dying for Justice: Who Killed Oscar Kingara and George Paul Oulu?

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Cases of extrajudicial killings by police and other state security agents are commonplace in Kenya, where such murders often do not lead to prosecution or justice for the victims. ISAAC OTIDI AMUKE revisits the case of two prominent human rights defenders who were killed in 2009 in broad daylight on a Nairobi street.

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Dying for Justice: Who Killed Oscar Kingara and George Paul Oulu?
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Whenever one drives along Ring Road in Kilimani, and glances across the hedge of the Kileleshwa Police Station, where several vehicles are parked inside the compound, one is likely to spot an abandoned white Mercedes Benz E200, registration number KAJ 179Z, with a missing rear windshield, The last time the Mercedes Benz moved before it was towed to the police station was when it was forcefully shoved by enraged University of Nairobi students into the entrance of Hall 2, one of their hostels located adjacent to State House Road. Pushing the Mercedes Benz onto the sloped university terrain wasn’t difficult. It had stood stationary on State House Road, its occupants shot dead.

It was Thursday 5 March 2009 at about 6 p.m when Oscar Kamau Kingara, the Executive Director of the Oscar Foundation Free Legal Aid Clinic Kenya (OFFLACK), and George Paul Oulu, also known as GPO, his Communications and Advocacy Officer, were caught in evening Nairobi traffic on State House Road. One would expect to run into a little traffic at that hour and place. However, what the duo were unaware of, as narrated by a number of university students who witnessed what next transpired at close range, was that the gridlock was stage-managed.

‘‘A group of us were coming from lectures that evening,’’ Mathew (not his real name) told me. ‘‘Others were walking from the hostels towards town and the main library. The killers acted as if we were nonexistent. We saw everything.’’

A Mitsubishi Pajero drove out of a University of Nairobi gate, the one located right next to Hall 11 in front of one of the university’s clinics, pretending to be joining State House Road. It then stopped midway on the road once it had cut off the flow of traffic, its occupants staying put, as if unperturbed by the intentional inconvenience they were inflicting on the now slowly building up stream of vehicles coming down from the State House Girls School side. The Pajero rudely cutting off traffic was the first red flag for the students.

‘‘A group of us were coming from lectures that evening,’’ Mathew (not his real name) told me. ‘‘Others were walking from the hostels towards town and the main library. The killers acted as if we were nonexistent. We saw everything.’’

‘‘We saw the Pajero interrupting traffic, but didn’t think much of it,’’ said Andrew (not his real name) who was part of Mathew’s group from the lecture halls. ‘‘We imagined it was one of those big-car uncivil Nairobi drivers.’’

One of the vehicles the Pajero forced to stop was the Mercedes Benz. Kingara was its driver, Oulu the passenger. In under a generous estimate of three minutes of the students encountering the Pajero, the students heard a series of loud gunshots. By this time, they had walked into the Lower State House residential unit, which holds Halls 10, 11, 1 and 2. Knowing the frosty relationship between University of Nairobi students and the police, the gunshots instantly triggered anxiety among the students already settled inside their hostel rooms. They all started screaming from their windows, expecting the worst. Had the police shot one of their own?

Cutting the University of Nairobi’s main campus halls of residence right into two – Lower State House and Upper State House clusters of hostels – students from both sides of State House Road were now scrambling in their hundreds out of windows, confused and wanting to catch a piece of the action. Looking at the under 100 metre distance between the huge tree behind Hall 11 where the shooting took place and the little gate from where the Pajero had stalled, the students who had the best vantage point to witness everything were those looking out from the upper floors of Halls 11 and 9, the two male student hostels sandwiching the scene.

‘‘The gunshots were so loud, which made us suspect the shooting was happening within the university’s vicinity,’’ James (not his real name), a third year Bachelor of Arts Hall 9 resident told me. ‘‘It wasn’t difficult to locate the Mercedes Benz from my window on the second floor. It was the only vehicle with men hovering around it.’’

After the first gunshots, students with a quicker reflex directed their attention to the scene and caught sight of the two men dressed in similar suits finishing the job. Occupants of nearby vehicles didn’t dare step out, possibly paralysed by the display of impunity by the shooters who had the audacity to summarily execute the driver and his passenger in broad daylight right in the environs of the University of Nairobi, which is known for its protests.

‘‘After shooting the vehicle’s occupants,’’ James from Hall 9 went on, ‘‘the shooters in identical suits shot in the air before slowly strolling towards a minivan that was about three vehicles behind the Mercedes Benz. They got into it, and as it was turning around before driving away, my friends and I noticed its driver was wearing what resembled a police uniform. Our observation would later be corroborated by other students.’’

For a long time, whether having beers at Senses or standing in groups outside the library, the tens of student witnesses I have interviewed spoke about that Thursday evening in surgical detail, piecing together minute bits of information crowd sourced from whoever saw anything, eventually managing to reconstruct the scene.

‘‘We all saw different bits of whatever happened that evening,’’ a now thirty-something Mathew told me. ‘‘But when we pieced everything everyone saw together, which became the widely accepted narrative, our conclusion was that once the Pajero created a temporary traffic jam, the men in identical suits disembarked from the minivan with their guns. They then looked inside each of the vehicles ahead of the minivan, until they got to the Mercedes Benz. On identifying the two men as their targets, they summarily executed them.’’

‘‘I’ve been told by a Hall 9 student that the driver of the minivan was wearing a military fatigue jacket, the ones worn by the police. Did any witness you interacted with share the same view?’’ I asked Mathew.

‘‘I’ve heard the same thing before from third parties,’’ Mathew replied, ‘‘but I can’t confirm its veracity.’’

However, what the students didn’t need to reconstruct was what happened after Oulu and Kingara were shot.

‘‘Not too long after those in Halls 9 and Hall 11 watched the men in suits in action,’’ Mathew recollected, ‘‘those of us from the lecture halls ran to State House Road and surrounded the scene. We wanted to see who had been shot. That is when we heard another gunshot. As we dispersed temporarily, two men walked from the direction of the Pajero, wanting to access the Mercedes Benz, each holding a pistol. We watched them ransack the pockets of the two shot men before taking documents and a laptop from the back seat.’’

‘‘Can you identify the men if you saw them or their photos?’’ I asked Mathew.

‘‘I don’t want to answer that,’’ Mathew said. ‘‘I don’t like the idea of killers thinking I can recognise them.’’

According to Mathew, the men from the Pajero were in no hurry. Going by that evening’s series of events, the students arrived at an inescapable conclusion: the killers were policemen. No other logical conclusion could explain such a display of meticulous organisation and absolute impunity – the Pajero cutting off traffic, the men in suits shooting the Mercedes Benz occupants, and finally the men from the Pajero taking their time at the scene as if crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s.

It was when the two men were milling around the scene of the killing that the group of students tried to engage them in small talk.

‘‘Mbona humuwabebi?’’ a student asked as the men left the scene. Why aren’t you taking away the bodies?

‘‘Wengine watakujia,’’ one of the men casually replied, unruffled. Others will come to clear the scene up.

After the men in the Pajero left, the students realised that Oulu was still breathing. Unlike Kingara, whose death best illustrates the term summary execution (he was shot at least three times in the head, possibly in quick succession, and his body remained in an almost upright position in the driver’s seat) Oulu had used his left hand to block a bullet, which went through his wrist and through his head. Seeing that the university sanatorium was less than 100 metres from the scene, daring students removed Oulu’s body from the vehicle, but before they could move beyond 20 metres, they noticed he had stopped breathing.

Just before nightfall, a few senior students managed to positively identify Oulu. He had been a celebrated Vice Chairman of the Students Organisation of Nairobi University (SONU). On leading a protest in 2004 against tuition fee increment, he had received a 1,000-day or three academic year suspension. He came back to the university in 2007 to complete his degree course in Mathematics and Economics. He hadn’t graduated by the time he was shot in March 2009.

The students’ original police-and-robbers theory was disproved. One of the victims was, in fact one, of their own, as was initially feared when they first heard gunshots. Knowing the University of Nairobi students’ modus operandi, State House Road was immediately shut at the first sign of protest. News had to get to the president, who lived barely 500 metres away.

It was under these circumstances that the students shoved the Mercedes Benz into Hall 2. Thereafter, Kingara’s bled-out body was hidden under a staircase. Wanting to forcefully retrieve the body, anti-riot police engaged in an overnight battle with students. In the process, a first-year student, Edwin Gesairo, was shot dead.

‘‘I am the one who hid Kingara’s body,’’ a former student told me. ‘‘We were going for an all-out war.’’

But, some still ask, were the students even half right in their prima facie police-and-hardcore-wanted-criminals hypothesis? Who were Kingara and Oulu, and what had they been doing that might have led to their violent and bloody death?

***

The answer came in agenda item three during the May 2009 11th session of the United Nations Human Rights council in Geneva. In an addendum to his presentation, Prof. Philip Alston, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, confirmed that Oulu and Kingara were among members of civil society with whom he had met during his February 2009 visit to Kenya to investigate rampant extrajudicial killings by death squads within the security system and the police. In affirming the student’s suspicion that the killing of Oulu and Kingara was premeditated assassination, Alston stated:

‘‘Moreover, we urge your Excellency’s Government to expeditiously carry out an independent investigation into the killing of Oscar Kamau Kingara and George Paul Oulu. While we do not in any way prejudge the question of the responsibility for this assassination, it is inevitable under the circumstances that suspicion should fall upon the Kenya Police.’’

However, if one were to argue that the police per se weren’t involved in the assassination or shouldn’t be the primary target of investigations, as alluded to by the Special Rapporteur’s statement, then the outlined mandate within which Prof. Alston was basing his request carried a more comprehensive scope of what was meant by his suspicion of the state’s complicity. He was asking for an investigation into:

‘‘Deaths due to the attacks or killings by security forces of the State, or by paramilitary groups, death squads, or other private forces cooperating with or tolerated by the State; death threats and fear of imminent extrajudicial executions by State officials.’’

There was no doubt that Kingara and Oulu had made enemies in high places. But did they, eighty-four days before their slaying, sign their own death warrants?

On New Year’s Day 2009, the Oscar Foundation wrote a letter to the Office of the Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, calling for investigations into suspected state-sponsored extrajudicial killings targeting alleged members of Mungiki – the predominantly Kikuyu cultural and sometimes spiritual grouping, which from time to time ventured into the political sphere, and which was in other instances accused of criminality. Mungiki was accused of enforcing a parallel taxation regime in the public transport sector in Nairobi and Central Kenya, and of running a shakedown racket in informal settlements in Nairobi, where it demanded payment in exchange for protection of businesses.

‘‘I am the one who hid Kingara’s body,’’ a former student told me. ‘‘We were going for an all-out war.’’

Fashioned as Mau Mau reincarnate, Mungiki swept through Central Kenya in an unprecedented manner, a form of peasant uprising against the moneyed and ruling Kikuyu elite, which at the time controlled the levers of state power. The group was condemned as being some sort of loose-cannon ragtag militia prone to extortionist tendencies, a ready gun for hire for politicians, sometimes including suspected state actors. It was therefore a messy, complicated affair, where it now appeared its leadership and membership – who knew too much and became unruly according to the powers that be – had become a liability to the political and security establishments. The extrajudicial killings of Mungiki members came after its members were suspected to have been deeply involved in revenge attacks during the 2007/2008 post-election violence, hence resulting in extrajudicial and enforced disappearances of some within its ranks. It was therefore anyone’s guess as to who had authorised the mopping up of Mungiki.

On New Year’s Day 2009, the Oscar Foundation wrote a letter to the Office of the Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, calling for investigations into suspected state-sponsored extrajudicial killings targeting alleged members of Mungiki…

The Oscar Foundation’s audacious request to the Office of the Chief Prosecutor at the ICC was for warrants to be immediately issued against the President of the Republic of Kenya, Mwai Kibaki, the Minister of Interior, Prof. George Saitoti and his outspoken predecessor John Michuki, and the Commissioner of Police, Maj. Gen. Hussein Ali, alongside his subordinates who were allegedly directly linked to extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in Kenya.

The timing of the letter couldn’t have been worse. In January 2009, the Kenyan political establishment was jittery. There were rumours of probable indictments of prominent Kenyans by the ICC, with elements within Mungiki being perceived as likely corroborators in sections of the prosecution’s evidence, which could be used against leading political players implicated in the violence following the 2007/2008 post-election violence – violence where over 1,200 lives were lost and over half a million citizens got displaced in under two weeks. The Oscar Foundation request to ICC’s Chief Prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, asking him to direct his investigative torch towards Kenya, seemed like an affront to the political establishment.

This letter was followed by Kingara’s and Oulu’s presentation of evidence on extrajudicial killings in February 2009 to the UN’s Prof. Philip Alston in a public event at the United Nations Office in Gigiri, Nairobi. Feathers were surely ruffled.

***

The Oscar Foundation wasn’t a huge organisation. Run from a small but tastefully furnished rented office in China Centre on Nairobi’s Ngong Road, the organisation’s operations were pretty specific – to document cases of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, and to offer free legal aid to families of victims of the same. The partitioned office had two sections, the first one filled with thousands of files neatly arranged in a series of wall-to-wall cabinets surrounding an open plan office for paralegals. The second partition was where Oulu and Kingara operated. It was a lean, mean team causing the state considerable discomfort.

However, the dark cloud hanging over the Oscar Foundation was that it was a cover for Mungiki. On the morning of 5 March 2009, the day Oulu and Kingara were killed, the Government of Kenya’s spokesman, Dr. Alfred Mutua, issued a scathing attack on the organisation, repeating allegations that it was a conduit through which Mungiki received foreign aid and laundered money. In a move which would later come back to haunt the state, Dr. Mutua issued a not-so-veiled threat against the organisation, promising that the state would act firmly on Mungiki and its sympathisers. Less than 12 hours later, Oulu and Kingara were dead.

***

Within civil society, there were murmurs that a plausible trigger for the assassination of Oulu and Kingara was the abrasive nature of their approach to activism. For instance, on the day of their shooting, the duo had paralysed public transport on major routes in Nairobi. They worked with matatu touts and drivers who went on a go-slow in solidarity with the families of those within their ranks who had been killed on suspicion of being members of Mungiki. It wasn’t the first time the Oscar Foundation had coordinated such a protest.

‘‘Kingara owned this huge roadshow truck on which he displayed life-size images of the president and a number of cabinet ministers, all of whom the accompanying texts were effectively calling murderers,’’ a civil society executive who wished to remain unnamed told me in Nairobi. ‘‘That was extremely audacious.’’

Was the Oscar Foundation a cover for Mungiki, or was it that since the majority of its clients (families and friends of those suspected of having been summarily executed by the state) were members of Mungiki, therefore the organisation and those it served were conflated into one? This will remain a matter of conjecture, since the Kenyan state has never released evidence to prove the claim. That the state declined a formal offer by the United States Ambassador to Kenya to have the FBI join in on the investigations into the assassination of Oulu and Kingara – among other pointers towards possible complicity – continues to fuel the theory that very highly placed elements within government had something to do with the killing of the two human rights activists.

To date, the assassination of Oulu and Kingara remains unresolved.

***

The killing of Oulu and Kingara shook the Kenyan human rights fraternity to the core. It was no longer a question of human rights defenders receiving empty threats; death by execution was officially on the cards.

‘‘The most profound case I have ever encountered in the defence of human rights defenders has to be the assassination of Kingara and Oulu,’’ Sam Mohochi, a lawyer and human rights defender who at the time of the killings was the Executive Director of the Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU), told me. ‘‘I made a deliberate attempt to escalate the matter legally, but one of the families kindly requested that we shouldn’t.’’

IMLU had been one of the few lone voices in the wilderness speaking against extrajudicial killings, which were backed by its numerous autopsy reports. In what may appear to be as a stroke of genius, IMLU combined medicine and the law, somehow playing the role of Kenya’s non-existent coroner at a time when doing such wasn’t mainstreamed.

The killing of Oulu and Kingara shook the Kenyan human rights fraternity to the core. It was no longer a question of human rights defenders receiving empty threats; death by execution was officially on the cards.

As Executive Director, Mohochi found himself having to stick his head out several times. He recalls that in December 2008, on the sidelines of the United Nations Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, he met Prof. Philip Alston and his assistant Sarah – now a professor in New York – who told him that finally, the Kenyan government had agreed for the Special Rapporteur to pay Kenya an official visit. Prof. Alston was therefore asking for support. When Mohochi got back to Kenya, he started readying things.

‘‘I told them they can do their preparations,’’ Mohochi told me, ‘‘and that on our end, we would provide them with suggestions on which organisations they should consult, and plan for which victim groups they would meet. The fact that Alston was having meetings at the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights or using church facilities whenever he went outside Nairobi, were all very deliberate choices from our end, much as we weren’t part of his mission. The only thing I did was to invite Alston’s interlocutors, including Kingara.’’

According to Mohochi, he hadn’t agreed with Kingara, especially on the claim by the Oscar Foundation that over 8,000 individuals were victims of either enforced disappearances or extrajudicial killings by the police, since the only evidence backing up that claim were names and photos, and there was no way of ascertaining whether those were over 8,000 unique names and images. In a word, the data wasn’t solidly verifiable.

‘‘I didn’t agree with Kingara’s modus operandi for arriving at those very high figures,’’ Mohochi said. ‘‘That notwithstanding, I invited him to speak to Prof. Alston because in this struggle, all contributions are valid.’’

During Prof. Alston’s first closed-door meeting with the Kenyan civil society at Hotel Intercontinental, Oulu and Kingara arrived early to erect three Oscar Foundation drop-top banners. No one else had brought any publicity or similar material. When Prof. Alston walked into the room, he asked Mohochi what the banners were.

‘‘I called Oulu and asked him to kindly put the banners away,’’ Mohochi said. ‘‘At that moment, we noticed the presence of two suspicious characters in the room. When asked who they were by Muthoni Wanyeki of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, they couldn’t explain themselves properly. I told them I was the one who had sent out the invitations, meaning I hadn’t sent them any, and asked them to kindly leave.’’

In subsequent days, Oulu and Kingara had the opportunity to present their evidence on extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances to Prof Alston. The next time Mohochi saw them was at the United Nations Office in Nairobi on the day Prof. Alston released his damning report, which labelled Attorney General Amos Wako as the embodiment of impunity and which demanded the resignation of Commissioner of Police Maj. Gen. Hussein Ali. In Prof. Alston’s eyes, it appeared, extrajudicial killings in Kenya needed urgent mitigation.

Even to Mohochi, who had played a leading role during Prof. Alston’s visit, the final report was shocking.

‘‘I hadn’t had a look at the report,’’ Mohochi said. ‘‘I was part of the crowd just like everyone else. If you consider Alston’s career as a rapporteur, he had never gone that far. That report was quite undiplomatic, partly because there had been attempts of state interference on his investigations in places like Bungoma.’’

A fortnight after the report came out, Oulu and Kingara were assassinated.

Did Alston’s report contribute to their deaths, or were there more complicated reasons behind their killing?

***

During the subsequent sitting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in May 2009 in Geneva, barely two months after the assassination of Oulu and Kingara, the Government of Kenya sent two high-powered delegations to Switzerland. One was led by the Minister of Interior, Prof. George Saitoti, while the second was led by the Minister of Lands, Senior Counsel James Orengo. There were certainly jitters in Nairobi.

Attending a discussion at which Prof. Alston, Mohochi and the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR)’s chairperson, Florence Simbiri-Jaoko, were panelists, Mutea Iringo, the Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Interior, asked to be provided with specifics on the threats faced by human rights defenders so that the government could intervene. It was farcical, given that not too long before, Oulu and Kingara had been killed in death squad style. Mohochi decided to play along, giving two death threats against him as an example.

‘‘I couldn’t risk giving details about anyone else’s death threats,’’ Mohochi said, ‘‘and so I volunteered my own two death threats, going as far as giving the Occurrence Book (OB) Number under which I reported them at Parklands Police Station. To date, neither Mr. Iringo nor Parklands Police have ever contacted me about the same.’’

***

It was under these tension-filled circumstances that organisations such as Mohochi’s IMLU, the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), the Release Political Prisoners (RPP) pressure group, among others, upped the ante in the protection of human rights defenders. They had already operationalised the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders (NCHRD) back in 2007 – a clear sign that threats to activists didn’t start with the killing of Oulu and Kingara – which was hosted at different times by either IMLU, KHRC or RPP. It wasn’t until 2012 that NCHRD established a fully functional secretariat from where it solidified its programmes and countrywide protection networks, with Mohochi as founding chairman of its board of trustees.

‘‘We were already protecting human rights defenders starting from as early as 2001,’’ Mohochi told me, ‘‘not just as IMLU but as a broader coalition of actors. We were meeting at the Kenya Human Rights Commission, and had a budget for this. It’s not that we woke up in 2007. That’s only when we formalised the NCHRD to proactively put in place further mitigation measures for human rights defenders to do their work without fear of recrimination. Defenders were always alive to the sorts of risks their work attracted.’’

‘‘It was in the early 90s when we started having conversations about who defends the defenders,’’ Salome Nduta, a protection officer at NCHRD, told me at their near-clandestine Nairobi nerve center. ‘‘Before a functioning protection network was in place, activists had to be each other’s keepers, in the literal sense.’’

To date, the NCHRD has taken up hundreds of protection cases from across Kenya while doing what every responsive organisation in its shoes would ordinarily do – to continue disrupting itself and adopting fresh strategies as new threats emerge. From the word go, the difficult question has been – and not only for the NCHRD: How does one ascertain what comprehensive protection entails? With time, the scope of what it means to offer protection has kept expanding, as new, more complicated cases have landed at the NCHRD.

The broad strokes with which protection has been painted include offering legal, medical and psychosocial support, and in extreme cases, relocation. The practicalities of these range from bailing out activists during protests, to offering them advocates for those charged in courts of law, paying their medical bills and offering counselling, all meant to cushion human rights defenders, especially those in the frontlines at the grassroots.

‘‘Since our inception, protection has evolved,’’ Salome told me. ‘‘Now we have situations where an activist gets killed, and the idea of protection means you may now have to intervene and support their families for a time in whatever way possible, since a lot of times the deceased happens to be the sole breadwinner.’’

These sorts of interventions can be difficult, since organisations such as the NCHRD almost always have budgetary constraints. The idea that anyone can knock on their doors anytime and seek assistance has similarly created the impression that the organisation is swimming in wads of cash, something Salome tells me is far from the truth. Interestingly, the largest chunk of their budget goes into offering legal support.

‘‘I cannot quantify the amount of money we’ve spent on paying for bail and bond so far,’’ Salome says. ‘‘A lot of times our legal kitty runs dry sooner than expected. The arrest and harassment of activists doesn’t stop, while the ongoing cases take forever. This means ours is a continuous, long game of legal support.’’

According to Mohochi, the evolution of the concept of protection cannot happen without local context.

‘‘I have always maintained that we can’t blindly copy Westernised ideas of protection without factoring in our circumstances,’’ he says. ‘‘Something like temporary relocation. You can imagine how many people one might need to relocate, but then after they come back what next? I therefore believe in a proactive approach to protection, where we built a nationwide grassroots network of defenders who continuously assess their risk levels and act to mitigate threats before things escalate. We encourage them not to take suicidal risks.’’

Yet no matter how fool-proof protection programmes got, and despite the numerous cautionary measures human rights defenders employed at a personal level, there were no guarantees that more soldiers of justice wouldn’t lose their lives in the line of duty.

***

On 27 June 2016, Kenya woke up to a strongly trending social media hashtag #FindLawyerWilly. Willy Kimani, an advocate working for International Justice Mission (IJM), had gone missing four days earlier. Missing alongside Willie were his client, Josephat Mwenda – a bodaboda rider and victim of a supposed accidental shot in the arm by Senior Sergeant Fredrick Leliman – and Joseph Muiruri, their taxi driver. They had last been seen thirty odd kilometers from Nairobi, at the Mavoko Law Courts where Mwenda had sued Senior Sergeant Leliman.

‘‘There was a sense that IJM didn’t want to make a lot of noise publicly about the matter,’’ a lawyer who was involved in the early stages of the investigation, but who sought anonymity, told me. ‘‘They believed the police would speed up investigations, possibly because they had received assurances from senior state officials, or out of high-level interventions by the U.S. embassy, seeing that IJM is an American charity.’’

Yet no matter how fool-proof protection programmes got, and despite the numerous cautionary measures human rights defenders employed at a personal level, there were no guarantees that more soldiers of justice wouldn’t lose their lives in the line of duty.

Soon, the Law Society of Kenya, of which Willy was a member, the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, representing Willy’s employer, hundreds of taxi drivers and bodaboda riders standing in for Mwenda and Muiruri, were all up in arms, unrelenting in their demand for justice. The state quickly complied and moved to investigate.

Four days later, Willy’s, Mwenda’s and Muiruri’s dead bodies were discovered in Ol-Donyo Sabuk River. All were stuffed in the kind of gunny sacks usually used to package agricultural produce. The autopsy revealed that the trio had been clobbered on their heads by a blunt object before being strangled. The killers had hit Willy the hardest; his skull had the severest fracture. Mwenda appeared to have been physically tortured the most, as if someone sought a confession from him. Muiruri, the taxi driver, seemed to have been collateral damage, a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The game-changer in the Willy, Mwenda and Muiruri case arose from a most unlikely quarter. Peter Ngugi Kamau, a police informant whom preliminary investigations had placed inside the murder syndicate, unleashed a 21-page confession, detailing how the three men were abducted after leaving Mavoko Law Courts before being driven away in the vehicle of Senior Sergeant Leliman, the man accused of shooting Mwenda. Leliman was in charge of the Syokimau AP Camp, which is where he held the abductees in a cell. According to the confession, Willy, Mwenda and Muiruri were later driven to an open field where they were killed one after the other before their bodies were disposed. Other suspects in the murders were Sergeant Leonard Maina Mwangi, Corporal Stephen Chebulet and Constable Silvia Wanjiku Wanjohi. Their dramatic trial is still ongoing.

Questions have been asked as to why the police moved swiftly in the matter. Was it the Americans, or was it because the decision to kill was made by junior officers, or both? Does the level at which a decision to kill is made affect the nature and speed of investigations? For now, hope abounds that justice will be served.

‘‘My sense was that the police officers who committed the murders considered Willy a disposable small fish,’’ the lawyer told me, ‘‘thinking that they could kill him and his colleagues and that no one would raise a finger. They were mistaken. Lawyers and other human rights defenders saw the deaths as a wake-up call.’’

The next big hashtag campaign a couple of years later resulted in serious contestation. On 10 February 2019, #FindCarolineMwatha was the big fuss online. A founding member of the Dandora Social Justice Centre, Caroline Mwatha had disappeared four days earlier. Described by Wangui Kimari of the Mathare Social Justice Centre as one of the kindest and most likable individuals she had ever met, Mwatha and her colleagues had received a series of death threats for their work documenting extrajudicial killings in Dandora, considered one of Nairobi’s hotspots.

‘‘They shared with me the threats they had received,’’ Wangui told me, ‘‘after which I wrote emails to a number of organisations seeking support. Seeing that it was December 2018 and organisations were preparing to break for the holidays, there is a real possibility that some of those pleas went unheeded, or those concerned planned to act in the New Year. We evacuated a few individuals, with the majority retreating to their home villages.’’

A hardcore grassroots organiser, Mwatha was part of a ground-up human rights movement, where instead of waiting to write and release reports in air-conditioned offices, they operated at the very front lines, shielding disadvantaged communities from rampant police brutality. In her Dandora locale, Mwatha and her colleagues were investigating a number of extrajudicial killings, especially of young men killed in cold blood on the pretext of fighting crime. It was because of this work that trigger-happy policemen were slowing down.

‘‘It isn’t uncommon for well-known killer cops to issue public death threats to those working at social justice centres,’’ Wangui told me. ‘‘In Mathare, some of our colleagues can’t go to places such as Mlango Kubwa because the reigning killer cops in those areas have given them direct warnings. It isn’t child’s play.’’

After the hashtag trended for a few days, on February 11, activists met and decided to hold a protest the following day to put pressure on the state to either produce Mwatha, or give a progress report on their investigations, if any. The protest never materialised. That morning, news broke that Mwatha’s body was found at the City Mortuary. According to subsequent investigations, the police alleged that Mwatha had been brought to the facility after dying from bleeding at a clinic in Dandora, where she was procuring an abortion.

Through a series of media leaks, the police alleged that from their analysis of her phone records, Mwatha was having an extramarital affair which resulted in an unwanted pregnancy, hence the abortion. In what was alleged to be Mwatha’s last communication with the man believed to be her secret lover – once again leaked to the press – the messages revealed a woman in distress.

Was someone concocting a predetermined narrative with the calculated media leaks?

‘‘We have never believed the abortion theory,’’ one of Mwatha’s colleagues who has since withdrawn from human rights work told me. ‘‘She was a powerhouse in Dandora and silencing her has had a chilling effect on everyone here. We have been asking ourselves, if they could kill Caroline, then who can’t they kill?’’

The autopsy, which was witnessed by leading members of civil society, revealed that Mwatha bled to death courtesy of a raptured uterus. However, the looming question the pathologist left for investigators was: Did Mwatha procure the botched abortion voluntarily, or was it done to her against her will – for her to bleed to death and for the abortion narrative to be used as a cover-up for murder? In the world of activism, it is common for perpetrators to employ such seemingly picture-perfect techniques in eliminating a target. It has been hard to convince Mwatha’s colleagues of the abortion theory. To them, it remains an assassination.

For now, human rights defenders keep watching their backs, hoping they won’t become a hashtag. A few others whose names couldn’t trend fell through the fissures of social media, slipping away quietly.

A criminal human rights reporting project by Africa Uncensored (AU) and the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR)

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Isaac Otidi Amuke is a Kenyan writer and journalist.

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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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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Politics

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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