Connect with us

Politics

State Capture: The Institutionalisation of Impunity in Kenya

18 min read.

The 2010 Constitution promised a brave new Kenya with clean, robust, and efficient institutions. But this promise never materialised. WACHIRA MAINA shows how state institutions, including electoral and judicial bodies, have been deliberately weakened by a system designed to protect the corrupt.

Published

on

State Capture: The Institutionalisation of Impunity in Kenya
Download PDFPrint Article

As Dominic Burbidge argues in The Shadow of Kenyan Democracy, the point of the aggressive avarice of Kenya’s corrupt leaders is to maintain power and privilege. This depends not just on the effective control of the Presidency and the Treasury but also on a repurposing of the machinery of government into a “temporary zone for personalised appropriation”.

The object of this repurposing’ is to gut state resources for electioneering and thus maintain power. In this dispensation, politics is a zero-sum game of “competitive aggression” in which “the principal victim” is “the state itself” and politics is “a pursuit requiring ever faster forms of enrichment”. For state capture to succeed, four things must happen.

One, oversight institutions must be eviscerated and hollowed out. This means that the offices of Controller of Budget, the Auditor General, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights and parliamentary committees must be totally compromised and wholly ineffectual in their oversight.

Two, law enforcement and rule of law institutions (the police, the judiciary, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission and the prosecution agencies) must be weakened or captured and redirected as “weapons” with which to fight political opponents.

Three, the ordinary channels of political change and accountability through periodic elections must be blocked, either by compromising the electoral management body (EMB) or through violent intimidation of political opponents.

Finally, the space for countervailing institutions to function, especially civil society and the media, must be shrunk until these pose no threat to capture. Alternatively, these institutions are also compromised and redirected to the state capture agenda.

Capture technique 1: A compromised electoral management body

In the early 1990s, the primary method for controlling the electoral process was through use of public order laws, such as banning public meetings, arresting and detaining regime opponents, and control of the EMB through the President’s power to appoint commissioners. Once appointed, the commissioners were nominally independent, but were almost immediately compromised by being allowed to draw illegal payments and allowances.

A 1996 analysis of the Controller and Auditor General’s Report for 1993/1994 by the Institute of Economic Affairs showed that the chairman and commissioners of the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) had been paid Sh38,443,800 (equivalent to Sh375 million today) in sitting allowances, subsistence allowances and accommodation. They were paid whether they were on duty or not, even on public holidays. They had also been allowed to use privately registered cars that had no work tickets.

Following the interparty parliamentary group reforms of 1997, opposition parties could nominate commissioners, which expanded the composition of the ECK. In theory, this should have made the ECK more independent, but there were two problems. First, the opposition, like the ruling party, appointed reliable political operatives in the expectation that they would protect its interests in the commission. Second, once the commissioners were in place, they realised they were independent of their appointing parties and that they had unlimited opportunities to “sell” their discretion and judgment to the ruling party. The result is that since 1997, the diversion of funds and fraudulent spending at the electoral management body has ballooned, not subsided.

As an AfriCOG study shows, between 1991 and 2007, the ECK received Sh15.8 billion to run elections. Of this amount, Sh1.9 billion was paid out to commissioners in irregular payments and allowances, unaccountable vehicle hire, unsupported and wasteful expenditure, and imprests that were not accounted for.

Yet huge as these amounts are, they are nothing compared to the wastefulness of the Interim Independent Electoral Commission (IIEC) and the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). If before 2007 corruption in the ECK entailed trimming and larding expenditure heads within the budget, the period since has been characterised by open and rapacious greed that is proportionately matched by a sharp deterioration in the quality of elections.

As an AfriCOG study shows, between 1991 and 2007, the ECK received Sh15.8 billion to run elections. Of this amount, Sh1.9 billion was paid out to commissioners in irregular payments and allowances, unaccountable vehicle hire, unsupported and wasteful expenditure, and imprests that were not accounted for.

That claim is quickly demonstrated. Following the post-election violence in 2007/2008, the Independent Review Commission (IREC), better known as the Kriegler Commission, recommended wide-ranging reforms to address what it described as institutionalised impunity. Yet, within months of Kriegler’s recommendations, the successor to the ECK, the IIEC, had reverted to type, becoming embroiled in corruption on a scale that the ECK had not touched. From that moment on, the EMB would not rely on illicit payments from the government; commission staff would rig the commission’s procurement processes to enrich themselves, knowing well that they would not be prosecuted or called to account if in the process they helped the ruling party.

In this first procurement scam, senior officials of the EMB were paid handsome kickbacks by Smith and Ouzman, a security printer based in the United Kingdom whom they had contracted for the purchase of electoral materials. In a subsequent UK criminal trial for corruption, it emerged that the officials of the company had paid up to £349,057 in bribes (over Sh45 million today, referred to as “chicken” by IIEC officials and commissioners) to secure the contract for the printing of materials for the by-elections following the 2007 election and the 2010 referendum. In return for these payments, IIEC provided Ouzman with information on rival bids to enable the company to inflate printing costs. Many IIEC officials, including the chair, Issack Hassan, were lavishly entertained by Ouzman during visits to the UK.

But “chickengate” was nothing compared to the wanton procurement corruption perpetrated by the new electoral commission, the IEBC, in 2013. Every item bought for that election was corruptly procured. The principal procurement for the electronic voter identification devices (EVID) was so tainted that the Public Procurement Administrative Review Board (PPARB) would have cancelled the contract were the election not so close.

The Board was giving its decision in Avante International Technology Inc. and 2 others v. The IEBC. The case had come before the Board on the main ground that the IEBC had ignored professional advice and awarded a tender worth $16,651,139.13 (Sh1,397,724,925.51) to Face Technologies, a South African company. To do this, the IEBC had unlawfully revised an unresponsive bid by Face Technologies to make it legal. In the words of the PPARB, the IEBC had been inexplicably “magnanimous in interpreting its tender documents” in favour of Face Technologies. The IEBC had not only acted with impunity, it had from the very first been “bent on awarding the [EVID] tender to Face Technologies”. In the Board’s view, the IEBC was “waving the card of public interest as its defence in the various breaches of the procurement law”.

But “chickengate” was nothing compared to the wanton procurement corruption perpetrated by the new electoral commission, the IEBC, in 2013. Every item bought for that election was corruptly procured.

The Board said that under different circumstances, it “would have [had] no hesitation [annulling] this tender”. However, it would not do so here because that would “certainly jeopardise the holding of the forthcoming general elections”.

The IEBC’s conduct was so egregious, that the Board recommended that the “Director General of the Public Procurement Oversight Authority carry out investigations pursuant to powers conferred by section 102 of the ACECA and take appropriate action”. A special audit on the procurement of electronic voting devices for the 2013 general election by the IEBC ordered by Parliament would later prove that what the PPARB had found in the pre-election litigation was just the tip of a monstrous iceberg. It turned out that all electronics purchased for the 2013 election had been procured irregularly.

The audit found that biometric voter registration kits had also been bought irregularly. Though the Treasury had appropriated money for this procurement, the IEBC had inexplicably borrowed commercially to buy the kits. This unusual method, which echoed some of the elements of the Anglo Leasing scandal, meant that the taxpayer would pay fees and interests that ought not to have been paid. More illegalities were committed in procuring the results transmission system. The system was never inspected on delivery, leaving its functionality doubtful on election day.

On receiving the audit report, the Public Accounts Committee was so outraged it recommended an anti-corruption audit and criminal investigation of all IEBC commissioners, the committees, and of the CEO James Oswago who, in addition, they said should not only be barred from holding public office but also surcharged for paying out Sh258 million to Face Technologies without a contract.

None of these recommendations were implemented, although Oswago was replaced in 2015 by Ezra Chiloba. Most scandalous, however, were the “hefty” undisclosed amounts that the IEBC commissioners were paid at the end of 2016 for “agreeing” to retire early to pave way for reforms ahead of the 2017 election. This sweetheart deal, put together by a bipartisan committee of Parliament, signalled that impunity would be rewarded rather than punished. Though the sums were not made public, the commissioners had argued that they were entitled to all their forward pay if they were going to leave before the end of their terms.

That deal set the tone for the behaviour of the IEBC in 2017. Their attitude is already foreshadowed by their response to the recommendation of the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) that the electoral management body bar 106 candidates for governor, MPs, and members of county assemblies from contesting the August 8 elections as they were unfit to hold office. None of the 106 were barred and 60 per cent of them were eventually elected.

No external audit has been done on the 2017 procurement, but an August 2018 IEBC internal audit of the 2017 general election provides damning evidence of how corrupt the electoral processes were. The internal audit reviewed 31 contracts worth Sh6.2 billion that the commission had signed. The auditors feared that taxpayers had not received value for money in ten contracts worth Sh4.6 billion.

As with previous corrupt dealings at the IEBC, the culprits were CEO Ezra Chiloba (suspended in 2018), the directorates of finance, ICT, supply chain management and legal and public affairs. The proposal to carry out the audit had generated serious internal conflict, forcing the commission to send its CEO, Mr Chiloba, on compulsory leave to allow for “a comprehensive audit of all major procurements relating to the 2017 general and fresh presidential elections”. Shortly thereafter, three commissioners – Consolata Maina, Paul Kurgat and Margaret Mwachanya – announced that they had no confidence in Mr Chebukati, the chair, and were resigning from the IEBC. They would later rescind their resignations.

As with the Smith Ouzman and Face Technologies cases, the IEBC seemed hell-bent on contracting particular firms. For example, the audit showed that the IEBC had awarded Safran Identity & Security a Sh2.5 billion contract to supply election technology for the repeat presidential election of 26 October 2017 on a Sh423.6 million performance guarantee that had expired two months earlier. At issue was not just the additional Sh2.5 billion contract that Safran Morpho received for the October 26 re-run, but also a further contract to reconfigure the 40,883 Kenya Integrated Elections Management System kits it had supplied for the August election.

Not surprisingly, Safran made hay while the irregularities sun shone. The IEBC paid Sh2.5 billion for the Safran system, two-thirds of what it had spent on the six elections involved in the August general election. Safran charged the IEBC Sh443.8 million for election day support, nearly double the Sh242.5 million it had paid for the same support in the general election. The internal audit concluded that a sum of Sh384.6 million that IEBC paid Safran for “programme and project management” was unnecessary and therefore wasteful.

As with the Smith Ouzman and Face Technologies cases, the IEBC seemed hell-bent on contracting particular firms. For example, the audit showed that the IEBC had awarded Safran Identity & Security a Sh2.5 billion contract to supply election technology for the repeat presidential election of 26 October 2017 on a Sh423.6 million performance guarantee that had expired two months earlier.

As in the 2013 election, many aspects of technology acquisition were corrupt and highly irregular. Airtel was contracted to supply 1,553 units of Thuraya IP SIMs loaded with data bundles for the results transmission system in the areas without 3G and 4G networks – 11,115 polling stations in all. The company could only supply 1,000 by election day. The additional 553 units were supplied after the election.

Oracle Technology Systems (Kenya) Ltd provided database and security solutions at a cost of Sh273.6 million without a signed contract. Scanad Kenya Ltd got the contract for the IEBC’s “strategic communication and integrated media campaign consultancy services”, even though its price was more than twice the Sh350 million budget earmarked by the IEBC. Africa Neurotech was contracted to install IEBC data centre equipment at a cost of Sh249.3 million, an amount almost double the IEBC budget of Sh130 million. The data centre equipment was not ready on election day.

Further details about the extent of impunity within the IEBC come from the lawsuits filed against it concerning the procurement of electoral equipment and materials just before the elections. In early 2017, the IEBC single-sourced Safran Morpho to provide election equipment, the same controversial French company with which the IEBC had negotiated a tripartite agreement to buy biometric voter registration (BVR) kits for the 2013 election. As in 2013, the IEBC argued that its single-sourcing decision was necessitated by the limited time left to comply with the election timetable, a problem that they said had been compounded by interminable litigation. Safran Morpho has a chequered history and due diligence might have ruled them out. In the USA, its subsidiary has been accused of misrepresenting the firm’s track record. In 2013, Safran was fined $630,000 by a French court after being found guilty of bribing public officials in Nigeria to win a Sh17 billion identity cards tender.

Given these experiences, the inevitable question then is: why are electoral management bodies in Kenya allowed to be this unaccountable? Who benefits from a criminalised EMB? The answer lies in the ability of the EMBs to give “state capture” formal legitimacy: so long as the country goes through the formalities of an election that international observers can say “broadly reflects” the will of the people (whatever that means), electoral management bodies can be rapacious in cannibalising their budgets and the governments they help put in power can be trusted to look the other way.

Capture technique 2: Undermining law enforcement

Effective law enforcement institutions, especially an effective and honest police service, a functional, independent and accountable judiciary, and a professionalised office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), are central to fighting corruption effectively. None of these institutions are wholly accountable or fully functional. The police remain unreconstructed and, if the evidence revealed by the police vetting exercise is anything to go by, also unrepentant.

The office of the DPP has been haphazard in prosecuting; it appears to be picking cases for prosecution for reasons that appear patently political, fumbling cases involving the “big fish” and generally being assiduous on those that involve “small fry”. The judiciary seemed on the mend after 2010 when the new constitution came into force but since then things have gone awry: judicial vetting failed to fully root out corruption, bribery has crept back and though some of the excesses of the past have not returned, a clean judiciary is still a long way off. On the whole, the government’s attitude to law enforcement is consistent with the logic of state capture: control and compromise the police and the DPP and weaken the harder-to-control judiciary.

The police: A vertically-organised criminal syndicate

It serves state capture if politicians are wilfully blind to police corruption. In Kenya, police “palm greasing” at traffic stops is so routine that drivers arrive with the bribe already folded, ready to be slapped onto the palm, or slipped into the pocket of the traffic cop. Presidents are often excused from the predations of the police but their responsibility and that of their government was explained many years ago by William of Pagula: “For, one who permits anything to take place that he is able to impede, even though he has not done it himself, has virtually done the act if he allows it.”

The stability of state capture rests on uniting the interests and fates of low-level operatives with those of their bosses. In the case of the police, recruitment into the police service is a grant of a preloaded cash machine. This, in part, is what the recent police vetting revealed. The vetting proved that what Sarah Chayes observed of Afghanistan is true of Kenya, namely that the conventional wisdom that corruption involves doling patronage downwards to juniors is wrong-headed. Instead, it is subordinate officials who pay off the top in return for “unfettered permission to extract resources for personal gain, and second, protection from repercussions”. The critical point is that this whole system depends on “faithful discharge, by senior officials, of their duty to protect their subordinates” and this implicit contract holds, “much as it does within the mafia, no matter how inconsequential the subordinate might be”.

The mechanics of police corruption can be seen in the police vetting exercise undertaken by the National Police Service Commission (NPSC). As one newspaper account sarcastically noted, top cops often seemed hard pressed to cite a major crime bust but the state of their bank accounts showed them to be men of great business acumen, a fact that would alone “put Kiganjo Police Training College at par with the region’s top business schools in producing entrepreneurs of note”.

The stability of state capture rests on uniting the interests and fates of low-level operatives with those of their bosses. In the case of the police, recruitment into the police service is a grant of a preloaded cash machine.

Officers’ bank records show deposits of hundreds of thousands of shillings monthly, mostly from “businesses” that they and their spouses own or from “convenient” sales of assets that they previously owned. Many were Jacks of all trades, running businesses that run the gamut from chicken farming, residential and commercial rentals and fish farming.

That no major shakeup of the police has followed from this much-publicised vetting shows that this high profile “stagecraft” was cynical “busywork” (both Chayes’ words) to manage the expectations of a disillusioned public. So, in the end, a hapless public finds itself caught between an abusive police service and a predatory government of which it is an accomplice. The police vetting process eventually petered out and left in its wake as much confusion as the interest it had piqued. Many of these entrepreneurial officers are still in the police force, still pursuing their sprawling business interests. Who benefits from a compromised and corrupt police force?

Anti-corruption commissions a waste of public money

Since President Uhuru Kenyatta announced his new anti-corruption drive, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) has become busy. However, neither the EACC nor its forerunners have demonstrated the will to fight corruption. Since its establishment under the 2010 Constitution, the EACC has never exercised the authority that Kenyans would like to see it exercise. Some of the problems of its ineffectiveness have to do with its own sloppiness: poor investigations, underhand investigatory methods and a penchant for the dramatic gesture. That has also been compounded by lack of political support and internecine conflict between the commission and the office of the DPP.

The combination of its own weaknesses and lack of political support means that the EACC is rarely taken seriously. As already noted, its 2017 recommendation that the IEBC bar 106 candidates was ignored. The EACC blames the IEBC for this debacle; in truth, both commissions have been ineffectual and are often implicated in corruption themselves.

The modus operandi of the EACC, which has damaged its credibility and undermined its ability to lead the fight against corruption, is to launch an investigation in the glare of publicity and make sweeping claims that it is generally unable to later substantiate. The question is why successive anti-corruption commissions have been allowed to continue operating in this manner. The answer is another question: who benefits from this?

The judiciary: Partly reformed and easy to sway for state capture purposes

As the ill-fated indictment and prosecution of Kamlesh Pattni in the 1990s Goldenberg scandal showed, the judiciary was a central pillar of the repressive and corrupt dispensation replaced by the 2010 Constitution. By the year 2000 the judiciary was universally condemned as both corrupt and incompetent. The few honest judges faced myriad problems: lack of research support; poor record keeping occasioned by insufficient stenographers and electronic recording devices; a huge and ever-growing backlog of cases; biased and politicised allotment of benefits to judicial officers, especially cars and houses; and highly politicised appointments and promotions awarded by the President, nominally with the advice of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), but in practice, at his own discretion.

The combination of its own weaknesses and lack of political support means that the EACC is rarely taken seriously. As already noted, its 2017 recommendation that the IEBC bar 106 candidates was ignored. The EACC blames the IEBC for this debacle; in truth, both commissions have been ineffectual and are often implicated in corruption themselves.

Shortly after the election of President Mwaii Kibaki in 2003, the then Minister for Justice, Kiraitu Murungi, launched what he termed “radical surgery” – a high profile process of identifying and purging corrupt judges and magistrates from the judiciary. It soon proved neither radical nor surgical. The reforms were based on an investigation carried out by a former law partner of the justice minister. Thus, congenitally politicised, radical forgery failed to mollify critics who saw it as a Kibaki plot to remove President Daniel arap Moi’s judicial cronies to make room for friends of the new government, rather than a root and branch reform of Kenya’s decrepit judiciary. This criticism was overdone. However, the minister’s best intentions had no base in statute and without this radical surgery merely mortgaged judicial reforms to the factionalism that was then tearing apart the ruling coalition.

Eventually, over 80 magistrates and 23 judges were removed for corruption-related reasons, but by 2006 not a single judge had been found guilty by any of the many tribunals established to investigate them. In one particularly notorious case involving Justice Philip Waki, who would later lead the investigation into the 2007/2008 post-election violence, the tribunal was scathing about the methods that Justice Aaron Ringera had used: unsafe reliance on clearly unreliable witnesses; failure to talk to the affected judge and overlooking innocent explanations related to the claims made. More importantly, radical surgery left many judges in place who would be later be dismissed as unfit to hold office.

The result of this unsatisfactory purge was that there was still much left to do when the 2010 Constitution came into force. The constitution adopted a two-pronged approach to dealing with corruption and judicial failure. The first was institutional design and the second was vetting of incumbent judges and magistrates.

The institutional reforms reorganised the powers, functions and composition of the judiciary, strengthened the JSC and created a Supreme Court. Vetting was based on Article 23 of the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution and the Vetting of Judges and Magistrates Act. The aim of vetting was to clean up the judiciary, partly to create a more accountable judiciary by removing the bad apples and partly to provide a transitional justice mechanism that would eliminate institutionalised impunity.

Once it got going the vetting proved (as the police vetting was to subsequently prove) both ineffectual and inadequate; ineffectual, because the vetting mechanism was congenitally defective in that some aspects of vetting were challenged in court and heard by judges who were themselves yet to be vetted. It is not surprising then, that the effect of this litigation was to constrict the wide mandate and discretion initially given to the Vetting Board. In addition, the timetable for vetting was hopelessly optimistic and had to be extended several times through amendments to the law. The resulting legislative delays slowly punctured the Vetting Board.

In theory, the vetting helped to clean out the courts, but it is hard to know what to make of statistics. It seems as though there were, in effect, two vetting processes: vetting as understood by the Vetting Board and vetting as interpreted by the courts. One out of every three first instance decisions made by the Board was reversed on review in both the High Court and the Court of Appeal. Among the magistrates, about 45 per cent of the Vetting Board’s first instance decisions of unsuitability were reversed.

The Vetting Board would eventually run into more serious problems: the “scope of vetting” was dramatically reduced by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court said that the Board could only vet judges and magistrates for conduct that occurred between the date of appointment and 27 August 2010, the day the 2010 Constitution was promulgated. This had far-reaching consequences. All the decisions of the Vetting Board that found judges and magistrates unsuitable on account of acts committed before they were appointed, or for acts committed after 27 August 2010, were effectively nullified.

The Board was now obliged to send all cases related to the post-August 2010 period to the JSC. In the end, judicial vetting never met its twin objectives of cleaning up the judiciary and fully restoring public confidence in the courts. That it failed to clean the judiciary explains the persistence of judicial corruption and resistance to reforms – periodically explained as “cartels fighting back”. That vetting failed to restore public confidence explains why the judiciary gets lukewarm public support when it is dismissed by politicians as “activist” or “captured by NGO or opposition interests”.

Why did vetting fail to achieve its purposes? To begin with, the vetting law was too restrictive. In retrospect, the law could have been more robust than it was. One of its main weaknesses was that it gave no immunity to people who had ever given or been asked for a bribe by a judicial officer. Without immunity from prosecution, witnesses had effectively been denied the means with which to prove corruption. That left the Board with the unenviable task of inferring bribery from unexplained deposits in the judges’ and magistrates’ bank accounts, very much like in the police vetting exercise.

Secondly, the Supreme Court’s formalistic reading of the Vetting Act (i.e. limiting the relevant period of acts committed between appointment and the constitution’s effective date) undermined the broad purpose of the statute, which was to remove undesirable individuals from the judiciary. That decision created more problems than it solved. One, it allowed judicial officers known to be unfit to continue in office, which itself was a serious blow to public confidence. Two, it introduced unnecessary unevenness – some might even say discrimination – into the vetting process for those who had already been vetted. Three, it saddled the JSC with what in effect were vetting decisions, thereby mixing transitional justice issues, which is what the vetting was about, with the core mandate of the JSC, which is more prospective.

Thirdly, it was wrong in principle that many aspects of the vetting process were litigated before judges who had not themselves been vetted, that is, before judges with a personal stake in limiting how deep and wide the vetting went. This eroded public confidence in the integrity of the vetting exercise although the reason for vetting in the first place was the need to restore public confidence in the courts.

Why did vetting fail to achieve its purposes? To begin with, the vetting law was too restrictive…One of its main weaknesses was that it gave no immunity to people who had ever given or been asked for a bribe by a judicial officer. Without immunity from prosecution, witnesses had effectively been denied the means with which to prove corruption.

Fourthly, the Vetting Board compounded its own problems. It decided that in deference to the seniority of judges of the Court of Appeal it would sit en banc, that is, as a full bench rather than in small panels of three, when it came to scrutiny of the judges of that court. The result was bizarre: the Board would sit in one capacity to vet a particular judge and if that judge was dissatisfied with that decision, he would then seek a review, which would be heard by the same full panel of the Vetting Board. Some lawyers saw no problem with this, arguing that the Board’s review power was no different from the power of an apex court to review its own decisions. Yet again, the question was whether the public would appreciate what seems on the face of it to be a rather otiose legal argument and whether this did anything for the public’s confidence in the vetting exercise.

The result of these partial measures is that the judiciary retains many of its bad old ways, which are now being used to undermine “the good guys”. The government now blames corruption in the judiciary as the greatest barrier to anti-corruption reforms, discounting the shoddy, compromised investigations often carried out by the police, and the ineffectual and often politically targeted prosecutions by the State Law Office. As with the other aspects of law enforcement, the question is: who benefits when the courts are perceived as compromised or untrustworthy?

Kenya’s anti-corruption efforts: Motion without movement

Given this analysis, it is clear that the latest anti-corruption efforts can be summarised as the “tried, tested and known-to-be ineffective” approaches of the past. This means that although it is good to have an energetic public prosecutor in office and that the EACC has bestirred itself, this won’t be enough. The lynchpin of the government’s approach to fighting corruption is, like the Goldenberg scandal, high profile arrests followed by quick indictments.

Some people are impressed that some big names have already been scalped: former Sports Cabinet Secretary, Hassan Wario, former Principal Secretaries Lillian Omollo, Richard Ekai and Richard Lesiyampe, present and former Kenya Power bosses Ken Tarus and Ben Chumo, Kenya Railways boss, Atanas Maina, chairman of the National Land Commission, Mohammed Swazuri and senior managers at the National Cereals and Produce Board. These arrests have generated much excitement but this excitement is premature. Kenya’s prosecution-driven anti-corruption strategy has always been rather benign; it is “capture-mark-release”, a bit like the ecological methods of estimating the population in an ecosystem. It is never meant to harm the corrupt.

This is Part 2 of an abridged version of State Capture: Inside Kenya’s Inability to Fight Corruption, a report published by the Africa Centre for Open Governance (AfriCOG) in May 2019.

Support The Elephant.

The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.

Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.

By

Wachira Maina is a constitutional lawyer based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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.

Published

on

Stealth Game: “Community” Conservancies and Dispossession in Northern Kenya
Download PDFPrint Article

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.

Continue Reading

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”.

Published

on

Nashulai – A Community Conservancy With a Difference
Download PDFPrint Article

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.”

Continue Reading

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.

Published

on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue Reading

Trending