The two-week break in the month of December afforded me some time to travel around the Kikuyu populated peri-urban areas bordering Nairobi in Central Kenya (also known as Uthamakistan in today’s political parlance) and in the greater Rift Valley – a segment of Kenyan society that has strong views on the succession politics of 2022.
For the very first time, the ethnic community’s elites who have dictated the pace and rhythm of the country’s politics since 1963 are at a crossroads: they do not have a horse to back. Conditioned and socialised to believe they cannot back someone outside their ethnic cocoon, they are at a loss, mainly because President Uhuru Kenyatta is serving his last term and has not pointed to anybody who could possibly succeed him. In a country where presidential campaigns begin two years before the actual election date, the uncertainty that President Uhuru has created among the Kikuyu rank and file is palpable.
This uncertainty has been exacerbated by the fact that Uhuru is viewed as the most underperforming president since independence; he is now loathed and lampooned in equal measure by his core constituency – the Kikuyu underclass and pretenders to the middle class. Why? “Because after voting for him three times – in 2013 and twice in 2017 – it is very painful to see that we the Kikuyus suffer unmitigated economic disaster, courtesy of his gross incompetence and cluelessness,” said Peterson Gakuo from Ihwagi location, Mathira constituency, Nyeri County.
“We have now come to the realization that the man was all form and no substance. We thrust the presidency onto him because he was supposedly one of us. I can tell you there was no other criterion…we were told he is our leader by the late John Njoroge Michuki. If anybody wanted to negotiate with the Kikuyu vote, he had to talk to Uhuru. And so we were stuck with a man whose only claim to any ‘political fame’ is that he has pedigree. It is the greatest mistake the Kikuyus have ever made.”
The Kikuyu rank and file, suffering from the vicissitudes of President Uhuru’s intemperate economic policies and callousness, have in recent years been showing him the middle finger. They are revolting. Like they say where I come from, “vitu kwa ground ni different.” Things on the ground are different. In Kikuyuland, the name Uhuru is slowly becoming anathema. “Please, please ndukagwetere ritwa riu haha, ndugathokie ngoro, ndakare.” Kindly avoid mentioning that name [Uhuru] here, I don’t want my mood spoilt.
The second reason why this uncertainty is driving the Kikuyus crazy and is taking on a dangerous trajectory is that “Uhuru is carelessly endangering the lives of the Kikuyus of the greater Rift Valley,” said Beth Wairimu from Zambezi trading centre along the Nairobi-Nakuru highway in Kikuyu, Kiambu County, which is some 20 kilometres from Nairobi.
“In 2013, we Kikuyus voted for both Uhuru and William Ruto as a team. There was an understanding that after Uhuru’s 10-year two terms, he would support Ruto. This is publicly acknowledged within the community. This meant the Kikuyu people would equally throw their lot behind Ruto in order to ensure the security of the Kikuyus in the Rift Valley diaspora and to honour his part of the bargain. Now to turn around and betray him is really jeopardising the safety of our people in the Rift. We owe him [Ruto] our trust.”
I shall return to this theme of betrayal, and security, survival and trust issues of a politically-jaded community later. But first, let me begin my story with a meeting that took place exactly two years ago.
Politics of betrayal
In December 2017, just about a month after Uhuru was sworn in after the controversial repeat presidential election of October 26, I sat with two Uthamaki fundamentalists, one a Nairobi city Jubilee Party politician and the other a nouveau riche city of Nairobi real estate businessman. We were at the Sagret Hotel in the Milimani area, a popular nyama choma joint. Although patronised mainly by Kikuyu old money for many years, it has in recent years been attracting a coterie of new money, mostly made in the Mwai Kibaki era between 2003 and 2013. The businessman I was meeting was one of the fellows who made his millions during that time.
“In 2013, we Kikuyus voted for both Uhuru and William Ruto as a team. There was an understanding that after Uhuru’s 10-year two terms, he would support Ruto. This is publicly acknowledged within the community…”
The middle-aged businessman, after soaking in thufu wa thenge (he-goat’s soup), mutura (traditionally-made sausages) and ndudero (stuffed intestines), turned to me and said straight to my face: “Ni ithue twathanaga guku…Kahura ni waigwa? Uthie ukandeke uguo niguo ndaiga nii ndurika ya wa Susana.” It is we [presuming himself to be part of the Uthamaki cabal] who rule this country. Kahura have you heard? You can write that’s what I’ve said, me, a braggart and son of Susan. “Nitwarekania na Ruto…Ruto no riu? Ndagecirie tutioe uria ekire…MoU ya Raila twameikirie kioro, ona ya Ruto noguo tukumeka.” We are finished with Ruto…who is Ruto by the way? He shouldn’t for a moment think we’ve forgotten what he did [referring to the 2007/2008 post-election violence in the Rift Valley region]…we threw Raila’s MoU into the toilet…that’s what we are going to do with Ruto’s.
In December 2002, the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc), fronted by Mwai Kibaki, defeated Kanu, whose flag bearer was the neophyte Uhuru Kenyatta. Narc comprised Kibaki’s Democratic Party (DP), Charity Ngilu (today the governor of Kitui County)’s Social Democratic Party (SDP), Michael Kijana Wamalwa’s Ford Kenya and the breakaway Kanu group that was led by Raila Odinga and consisted of, among others, George Saitoti, Joseph Kamotho and William Ntimama. This Raila group morphed into the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). (Saitoti, Ntimama, Kamotho and Wamalwa are no longer with us; they all died under different circumstances and are therefore not part of any current coalition.)
In an MoU that is presumed to have been agreed upon by Raila and his LDP group and Kibaki and his DP brigade, in the event that they took power, each group would equitably share cabinet positions. More significantly, there was an understanding that once Kibaki took on the presidency, he would appoint Raila as the prime minister. The long and short of that MoU is that it was never honoured. Five years later, in 2007 (an election year), Raila cobbled up another political party, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), that took on Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU), which had also ditched Narc.
Ruto: The key to peace in the Rift Valley?
The disputed presidential vote count in December 2007 led to the massacre of more than 1,000 people, and the displacement of more than 500,000 others, the majority of whom were Kikuyus from the Rift Valley. To cut a long story short, the businessman told me: “Twamurutire nyama ee kanua…eke uria ekaga aria samaki na atofoke rui, kai Ruto ariwe wena ny…e cigana?” We snatched the victory from the lion’s mouth, (basically to mean), we grabbed back power from Raila, who had won it and we told him to go jump into Lake Victoria and do his worst…we were ready to deal with him. So this Ruto, how many b….s does he have?
The duo boasted that if Ruto lives up to January 2020 to be in government or indeed even anywhere, “niukumenya ndiaruire rui Ruaka.” You’ll know I wasn’t circumcised by the Ruaka River, said the braggadocio. “We tamed this Raila man who has given us enough headaches, put him in his place…save for Ruto who entered politics just the other day. I say yet again, we govern this country, we decide among ourselves who will rule the country. The other communities must wait for us to dish out positions to them, and they must be satisfied with what we give them. It is not for nothing that our political and business elites are the most powerful in the country.”
Fast forward to January 2020 and it is the Kikuyu electorate that finds itself torn between the devil and the deep blue sea: it must choose what should “devour” it. Whatever option it takes, it will not be an easy choice because Ruto has presented the Kikuyus with the greatest dilemma. If they do not support Ruto, is there a risk that the violence of 2007/8 will be repeated? As a food seller from Banana in Kiambu County told me, “It is true, the memories of 2007 are vivid, yet were it not for Ruto, Uhuru would not be president and our people in the Rift would not be living in peace and harmony.”
I met the feisty food seller who runs a kibanda (foodshed) 150 metres from the gates of the United Nations complex and US Embassy in Gigiri in December 2019. Serving me chapati and coco beans, she confessed that it had been a most difficult year. “People don’t have as much money in their pockets as they used to do, but God is great, we are alive.” I asked her why the Kikuyus, who had willingly chosen President Uhuru, were now complaining. She said, “We don’t want to hear that name – he has really annoyed us, it is unbelievable what he has done to us and now to make it worse, he wants to impose Raila on us.”
Fast forward to January 2020 and it is the Kikuyu electorate that finds itself torn between the devil and the deep blue sea: it must choose what should “devour” it. Whatever option it takes, it will not be an easy choice because Ruto has presented the Kikuyus with the greatest dilemma. If they do not support Ruto, is there a risk that the violence of 2007/8 will be repeated?
The lady, who looked to be in her mid-40s, told me she would be voting for Ruto come 2022. “At least the man is firm, focused and resolute.” The food peddler said that deep in their hearts, Kikuyus know they owe Ruto a political debt: “We entered into a pact with the Kalenjin people, that they would help our son capture power and protect our people in the Rift. In return, we would lend our support also to their son after Uhuru’s terms ended. It would now be disingenuous for the Kikuyu people to renege on that promise…it actually would be dangerous. I have relatives in the Rift and I can tell you, they are not sitting pretty.”
“So you are alive to the post-election violence of 2007?” I asked her.
“Oh very much so.”
“How then do you explain the violent backlash from the same people you claim to have been protecting your relatives?”
“We forgave Ruto,” the lady said to me. “As Christians, we are called to forgive our transgressors…but we’ll never forget, no, we cannot forget. It was very painful. But remember also, Ruto was working under the command of Raila. He takes the bigger blame. Raila is very wicked, absolutely wicked – he will never be king in this country. Look now at what he has done after realising he cannot win through the front door. He has gone ahead to confuse Uhuru so that he can capture power through the back door.”
The woman claimed that Uhuru is a victim of Raila’s charms, machinations and political whims. I asked her what she meant. “Can’t you see how he crafted the handshake – Raila is the architect of the handshake and BBI and Uhuru fell for the ploy. “Uhuru ni kirimu gitu.” Uhuru is our stupid son. President Uhuru has thoroughly let down the community…“No ona kuri uguo, mwana muciare ndateagwo.” You do not throw away a baby you have given birth to. Even though President Uhuru has wasted the aspirations of the Kikuyu people, he still remains painfully one of our own.
Raila: The central hate figure
I learnt that the Kikuyu people were back to stereotyping Raila, and by extension, the Luo community: the insults and innuendoes have been revived. “We will never let the country be ruled by an uncircumcised man. Let me ask you, why is Raila so eager to rule Kenya? The day the Luos take power in this country we’re finished, so that will never happen. That’s why we’ll reject anything to do with Raila and Uhuru together…so take it from me, we’ll shoot down that BBI of theirs.”
Once again, Raila is the central hate figure of the Kikuyu people. “It is this handshake that worsened our economic plight,” said a straight-faced Peter Macharia, a businessman who runs a tours and travel company. “Raila should have stayed in the opposition because he is best at checking the government, but not as a president, because anyway, he’ll never be.” According to Macharia, Raila was born to dabble in opposition politics and not the politics of leading the country as its head of state.
“Uhuru, during the presidential campaigns, reminded us – for the umpteenth time – that Raila was uncircumcised, and was therefore a boy and that national leadership was not for boys. Now we see them holding hands. Did Uhuru circumcise Raila?” asked a woman from Kagio Market, in Kirinyaga County. “Uhuru should stop joking with us; if he has circumcised him, he should come back here and tell us so.”
A lady pastor who runs an evangelical church in Githurai, Nairobi County, said that she would vote for Ruto. “There’s a way he connects with the people of God. The good Lord could be using him to pass a special message to us Kikuyus. I don’t trust Raila – why does he exhibit an unbridled thirst for power? I’ve always doubted whether he’s Godly.
“Have you ever heard of the dog whistle theory?” asked a mzee from Kiambu. The Kikuyu people had been conditioned to be wary of Raila’s movements, utterances and whatever else he did, the old man said. “When Raila opens his mouth to speak, they automatically interpret their own things, totally different from what other communities have heard him say. Lazima tupambane na hii ufisadi vilivyo. (We must slay the dragon of corruption relentlessly.) The Kikuyu interpret the statement to mean: We must deal with these Kikuyus firmly wherever they are.” The mzee said right now to sell Raila and anything associated with him in central Kenya is like pounding water in a mortar with a pestle.
“Kikuyus are waiting for Uhuru to tell them this is the direction we the Kikuyu community will be taking,” said the old man. “If he says we’re going west, they will take the opposite direction. That’s what they plan to do because they want to teach him a lesson by acting contrary to his wishes.”
Anger begets anger. “Kikuyus plan to vote for Ruto to punish Uhuru. Absurd as it may sound, Kikuyus have resolved to give President Uhuru the contempt card because he has already shown he doesn’t want Ruto to succeed him. After re-electing him for a difficult second time, the Kikuyus are bitter with President Uhuru for exposing them by not grooming a fellow Kikuyu to succeed him. Instead he looks like he’s rooting for Raila.” In the logic of the Kikuyu people, said the mzee, it is akin to a man who, hoping to evade stepping onto urine, jumps straight into faeces.
The Kikuyu people’s political wisdom can be puzzling, said mzee Kimiti from Gikambura in Kikuyu constituency, Kiambu County. “I describe them as oogi aa jata aria matoi kendu, the wise men who know nothing.”
“In 2002,” recalled Kimiti, “the Kiambu people went against the grain and voted for Uhuru Kenyatta to a man when practically every other Kikuyu was rooting for Mwai Kibaki. In their strange logic, Kibaki wasn’t one of their own – even though he spoke the Gikuyu language, hailed from central Kenya and had served in prominent positions, including as an influential finance minister and vice president. These were not enough to qualify him to be called a son of the soil.”
Anger begets anger. “Kikuyus plan to vote for Ruto to punish Uhuru. Absurd as it may sound, Kikuyus have resolved to give President Uhuru the contempt card because he has already shown he doesn’t want Ruto to succeed him…”
But in 2007, the people of Kiambu turned around and voted for Kibaki. “Do you know why?” posed the mzee. “Because Uhuru had joined Kibaki’s PNU bandwagon. Had he not, they would have followed him to wherever he would have taken them, abstained, or thrown their votes to the dogs. Now they are rallying against President Uhuru but still waiting for him to show them a sign. Brainwashed into believing that voting for Raila as president would be the beginning of their end, they are currently confused with the newly found bromance between their son and Raila. [Kiambu] Kikuyus can kill you with their wisdom: their very own Uhuru is finishing them from within, yet they firmly believe that Raila, who has never done any harm to them, will actually finish them.”
Gakuo said the only option Kikuyus currently have is to hedge their bets on Ruto. “President Uhuru has been waging war on Ruto… for what? When we voted for them for the first time in 2013, we knew both were running away from the ICC [International Court of Justice]. Uhuru therefore knew Ruto’s character. Why is he now turning around, telling us Ruto is the most corrupt state officer in his government? Uhuru arenda gutukuwa urimu niki? Why is Uhuru taking us for fools? That narrative of Ruto being the greatest thief is neither here nor there and in any case it’s already late in the day. Muceera na mukundu akundukaga taguo. He who is in the company of a thief is also a thief. They [the Kenyattas] have stolen from their very own Kikuyu people. What have they done for the people?”
Amid the confusion and paradoxes reigning in Uthamakistan, an urgent need for the Kikuyu people to assuage their collective guilt is also quietly at play. Businessman Ndiritu Kanyoni told me that Kikuyus want to vote for Ruto because it would ostensibly “right” the “wrong” of being the only community that doesn’t vote for those who are not from their own ethnic group. “They want, for the first time, to prove to the other ethnic communities that they indeed can vote for a non-Kikuyu,” said Kanyoni. “The guilt of being seen as the most tribalistic people when it comes to voting for the president has been gnawing at them. Voting for Ruto will, in their view, assuage that guilt.”
The businessman said in 2003 the Kikuyu political elite shafted Raila (read Luos) and the result was the post-election violence of 2007/2008. In 2013, the same elite shafted Musalia Mudavadi (read Luhyas) when Uhuru Kenyatta claimed demons had visited him and caused him to change, a presumed pact between him and the son of Moses Substone Mudavadi. The result, pointed out the businessman, was creating an unnecessary mistrust among a community that today the Kikuyu people would be counting as its political ally. After 2017, the elite has unashamedly shafted the Kalenjin by labelling Ruto as the most corrupt man in this part of the world and therefore unfit to be president. “We cannot be the tribe that shafts every other ethnic community.”
Musalia was “a safe pair of hands,” opined Kanyoni: “innocuous, malleable, stands for nothing…the Kikuyu political elite would have easily controlled him…But the elite is know-it-all, tactless and full of hubris.”
The “other” Kikuyus
Wairimu from Zambezi reminded me this was not the time to “annoy” Ruto by reneging on a deal that every Kikuyu knows about. “For the sake of the Kikuyus living in the North and South Rift – Ainabkoi, Burnt Forest, Eldoret, Endebess, Kericho, Kitale, Londiani, Moi’s Bridge, Matunda, Molo, Mt Elgon, Njoro, Soy, Timboroa, Turbo and others places – we Kikuyus will vote for Ruto. Call it political insurance, safety and security and survival for our people.”
“The only person who can ensure the protection of Kikuyus in the Rift is William Ruto – not Uhuru Kenyatta, not Raila Odinga,” said Wainaina, one of the wealthier Kikuyu businessmen in Eldoret town. Wainaina said that the notion that the state can protect Kikuyus who live away from the motherland was false and misleading: “Mwai Kibaki was the president when violence was visited upon the Kikuyus in the Rift Valley. Why didn’t he protect us? Since then, we’ve been sitting ducks and we’re on our own and we know it. If violence were to erupt in the Rift Valley, it’s us Kikuyus who’d suffer the brunt and Uhuru would be nowhere – he’s been unable to protect our businesses, what about our lives? We’re not gambling. Ruto ndio kusema hapa Rift Valley,” Ruto’s the final word in the Rift Valley…that’s it.”
Amid the confusion and paradoxes reigning in Uthamakistan, an urgent need for the Kikuyu people to assuage their collective guilt is also quietly at play. Businessman Ndiritu Kanyoni told me that Kikuyus want to vote for Ruto because it would ostensibly “right” the “wrong” of being the only community that doesn’t vote for those who are not from their own ethnic group.
After the post-election violence, the Kikuyus from the Rift Valley region came to the conclusion that their aspirations and those of the Kikuyus from the motherland were incongruent: “They consider us collateral damage, a political expediency to be toyed around with. They don’t care if we’re killed in huge numbers,” said Wainaina. “When some of our people retraced our ancestry back in central Kenya, they were not welcome. They told us to go back to where we belonged, that there was no space for us…that we’d left many years ago. It was as shocking as it was painful.”
In his machismo style, the businessman at Sagret Hotel said: “It’s we, the Kikuyus from central Kenya, who tell the Kikuyus in the Rift what to do politically and they follow. What have been their options? If some of them are caught in the political melee, well, it’s because we’ll not cede ultimate power just because some of them will be slaughtered.”
“Hustler” and “dynasty” are two narratives that have entered into the Kenyan political lexicon. It appears that the hustler narrative has been accepted by the Kikuyus’ wretched of the earth. It implies “emancipation from the predatory Kenyatta family”, said a politician from central Kenya.
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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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.”
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.
With growing attention to climate breakdown and the need for expanded use of renewable energy sources, the mineral resources needed to make batteries are emerging as a key site of conflict. In this context, cobalt – traditionally mined as a by-product of copper and nickel – has become a subject of major interest in its own right.
Competition over supplies of cobalt is intensifying. Some reports suggest that demand for cobalt is likely to exceed known reserves if projected shifts to renewable energy sources are realized. Much of this competition is playing out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The south-eastern regions of the DRC hold about half of proven global cobalt reserves, and account for an even higher proportion of global cobalt production (roughly 70 percent) because known reserves in the DRC are relatively shallow and easier to extract.
Recent high profile articles in outlets including the New York Times and the Guardian have highlighted a growing ‘battery arms race’ supposedly playing out between the West (mostly the US) and China over battery metals, especially cobalt.
These pieces suggest, with some alarm, that China is ‘winning’ this race. They highlight how Chinese dominance in battery supply chains might inhibit energy transitions in the West. They also link growing Chinese mining operations to a range of labour and environmental abuses in the DRC, where the vast majority of the world’s available cobalt reserves are located.
Both articles are right that the hazards and costs of the cobalt boom have been disproportionately borne by Congolese people and landscapes, while few of the benefits have reached them. But by subsuming these problems into narratives of geopolitical competition between the US and China and zooming in on the supposedly pernicious effects of Chinese-owned operations in particular, the ‘arms race’ narrative ultimately obscures more than it reveals.
There is unquestionably a scramble for cobalt going on. It is centered in the DRC but spans much of the globe, working through tangled transnational networks of production and finance that link mines in the South-Eastern DRC to refiners and battery manufacturers scattered across China’s industrializing cities, to financiers in London, Toronto, and Hong Kong, to vast transnational corporations ranging from mineral rentiers (Glencore), to automotive companies (Volkswagen, Ford), to electronics and tech firms (Apple). This loose network is governed primarily through an increasingly amorphous and uneven patchwork of public and private ‘sustainability’ standards. And, it plays out against the backdrop of both long-running depredations of imperialism and the more recent devastation of structural adjustment.
In a word, the scramble for cobalt is a thoroughly capitalist scramble.
Chinese firms do unquestionably play a major role in global battery production in general and in cobalt extraction and refining in particular. Roughly 50 percent of global cobalt refining now takes place in China. The considerable majority of DRC cobalt exports do go to China, and Chinese firms have expanded interests in mining and trading ventures in the DRC.
However, although the Chinese state has certainly fostered the development of cobalt and other battery minerals, there is as much a scramble for control over cobalt going on within China as between China and the ‘west’. There has, notably, been a wave of concentration and consolidation among Chinese cobalt refiners since about 2010. The Chinese firms operating in the DRC are capitalist firms competing with each other in important ways. They often have radically different business models. Jinchuan Group Co. Ltd and China Molybdenum, for instance, are Hong Kong Stock Exchange-listed firms with ownership shares in scattered global refining and mining operations. Jinchuan’s major mine holdings in the DRC were acquired from South African miner Metorex in 2012; China Molybdenum recently acquired the DRC mines owned by US-based Freeport-McMoRan (as the New York Times article linked above notes with concern). A significant portion of both Jinchuan Group and China Molybdenum’s revenues, though, come from speculative metals trading rather than from production. Yantai Cash, on the other hand, is a specialized refiner which does not own mining operations. Yantai is likely the destination for a good deal of ‘artisanal’ mined cobalt via an elaborate network of traders and brokers.
These large Chinese firms also are thoroughly plugged in to global networks of battery production ultimately destined, in many cases, for widely known consumer brands. They are also able to take advantage of links to global marketing and financing operations. The four largest Chinese refiners, for instance, are all listed brands on the London Metal Exchange (LME).
In the midst of increased concentration at the refining stage and concerns over supplies, several major end users including Apple, Volkswagen, and BMW have sought to establish long-term contracts directly with mining operations since early 2018. Tesla signed a major agreement with Glencore to supply cobalt for its new battery ‘gigafactories’ in 2020. Not unrelatedly, they have also developed integrated supply chain tracing systems, often dressed up in the language of ‘sustainability’ and transparency. One notable example is the Responsible Sourcing Blockchain Initiative (RSBI). This initiative between the blockchain division of tech giant IBM, supply chain audit firm RCS Global, and several mining houses, mineral traders, and automotive end users of battery materials including Ford, Volvo, Volkswagen Group, and Fiat-Chrysler Automotive Group was announced in 2019. RSBI conducted a pilot test tracing 1.5 tons of Congolese cobalt across three different continents over five months of refinement.
Major end users including automotive and electronics brands have, in short, developed increasingly direct contacts extending across the whole battery production network.
There are also a range of financial actors trying to get in on the scramble (though, as both Jinchuan and China Molybdenum demonstrate, the line between ‘productive’ and ‘financial’ capital here can be blurry). Since 2010, benchmark cobalt prices are set through speculative trading on the LME. A number of specialized trading funds have been established in the last five years, seeking to profit from volatile prices for cobalt. One of the largest global stockpiles of cobalt in 2017, for instance, was held by Cobalt 27, a Canadian firm established expressly to buy and hold physical cobalt stocks. Cobalt 27 raised CAD 200 million through a public listing on the Toronto Stock Exchange in June of 2017, and subsequently purchased 2160.9 metric tons of cobalt held in LME warehouses. There are also a growing number of exchange traded funds (ETF) targeting cobalt. Most of these ETFs seek ‘exposure’ to cobalt and battery components more generally, for instance, through holding shares in mining houses or what are called ‘royalty bearing interests’ in specific mining operations rather than trading in physical cobalt or futures. Indeed, by mid-2019, Cobalt-27 was forced to sell off its cobalt stockpile at a loss. It was subsequently bought out by its largest shareholder (a Swiss-registered investment firm) and restructured into ‘Conic’, an investment fund holding a portfolio of royalty-bearing interests in battery metals operations rather than physical metals.
Or, to put it another way, there is as much competition going on within ‘China’ and the ‘West’ between different firms to establish control over limited supplies of cobalt, and to capture a share of the profits, as between China and the ‘West’ as unitary entities.
Thus far, workers and communities in the Congolese Copperbelt have suffered the consequences of this scramble. They have seen few of the benefits. Indeed, this is reflective of much longer-run processes, documented in ROAPE, wherein local capital formation and local development in Congolese mining have been systematically repressed on behalf of transnational capital for decades.
The current boom takes place against the backdrop of the collapse, and subsequent privatization, of the copper mining industry in the 1990s and 2000s. In 1988, state-owned copper mining firm Gécamines produced roughly 450 000 tons of copper, and employed 30 000 people, by 2003, production had fallen to 8 000 tons and workers were owed up to 36 months of back pay. As part of the restructuring and privatization of the company, more than 10 000 workers were offered severance payments financed by the World Bank, the company was privatized, and mining rights were increasingly marketized. By most measures, mining communities in the Congolese Copperbelt are marked by widespread poverty. A 2017 survey found mean and median monthly household incomes of $USD 34.50 and $USD 14, respectively, in the region.
In the context of widespread dispossession, the DRC’s relatively shallow cobalt deposits have been an important source of livelihood activities. Estimates based on survey research suggest that roughly 60 percent of households in the region derived some income from mining, of which 90 percent worked in some form of artisanal mining. Recent research has linked the rise of industrial mining installations owned by multinational conglomerates to deepening inequality, driven in no small part by those firms’ preference for expatriate workers in higher paid roles. Where Congolese workers are employed, this is often through abusive systems of outsourcing through labour brokers.
Cobalt mining has also been linked to substantial forms of social and ecological degradation in surrounding areas, including significant health risks from breathing dust (not only to miners but also to local communities), ecological disruption and pollution from acid, dust, and tailings, and violent displacement of local communities.
The limited benefits and high costs of the cobalt boom for local people in the Congolese copperbelt, in short, are linked to conditions of widespread dispossession predating the arrival of Chinese firms and are certainly not limited to Chinese firms.
To be clear, none of this is to deny that Chinese firms have been implicated in abuses of labour rights and ecologically destructive practices in the DRC, nor that the Chinese state has clearly made strategic priorities of cobalt mining, refining, and battery manufacturing. It does not excuse the very real abuses linked to Chinese firms that European-owned ones have done many of the same things. Nor does the fact that those Chinese firms are often ultimately vendors to major US and European auto and electronic brands.
However, all of this does suggest that any diagnosis of the developmental ills, violence, ecological damage and labour abuses surrounding cobalt in the DRC that focuses specifically on the character of Chinese firms or on inter-state competition is limited at best. It gets Glencore, Apple, Tesla, and myriad financial speculators, to say nothing of capitalist relations of production generally, off the hook.
If we want to get to grips with the unfolding scramble for cobalt and its consequences for the people in the south-east DRC, we need to keep in view how the present-day scramble reflects wider patterns of uneven development under capitalist relations of production.
We should note that such narratives of a ‘new scramble for Africa’ prompted by a rapacious Chinese appetite for natural resources are not new. As Alison Ayers argued nearly a decade ago of narratives about the role of China in a ‘new scramble for Africa’, a focus on Chinese abuses means that ‘the West’s relations with Africa are construed as essentially beneficent, in contrast to the putatively opportunistic, exploitative and deleterious role of the emerging powers, thereby obfuscating the West’s ongoing neocolonial relationship with Africa’. Likewise, such accounts neglect ‘profound changes in the global political economy within which the “new scramble for Africa” is to be more adequately located’. These interventions are profoundly political, providing important forms of ideological cover for both neoliberal capitalism and for longer-run structures of imperialism.
In short, the barrier to a just transition to sustainable energy sources is not a unitary ‘China’ bent on the domination of emerging industries as a means to global hegemony. It is capitalism. Or, more precisely, it is the fact that responses to the climate crisis have thus far worked through and exacerbated the contradictions of existing imperialism and capitalist relations of production. The scramble for cobalt is a capitalist scramble, and one of many signs that there can be no ‘just’ transition without overturning capitalism and imperialism on a global scale.
This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).
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