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Another Country: The Cultural and Religious Struggle between Northern and Southern Kenya

10 min read.

Mutual deep-seated xenophobic sentiments define the relationship between Northern pastoralists and Southern agriculturalists. In this final part of a three-part series, Dalle Abraham argues that it will take more than religious tolerance and developmental interventions to bridge the vast spiritual and psychological schism between North and South.

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Late in 2018, Ben Kitili, a popular TV news anchor, wed Amina Mude at a private event. The two had a three-year-old daughter. Ben had proposed to Amina in 2015. This wedding ran into some controversy. It was described by local bloggers as “a cross-cultural and cross-religious” event; TV anchor Ben Kitili is Christian and from the Kamba tribe and his wife Amina Mude is a Muslim and belongs to a Somali clan from Wajir.

Kitili and Mude were derided for their decision to marry. A section of the Somali community couched its biased sentiments in pseudo-Somali “purity” and “morality” language; others quoted Surah Al Baqarah and Al Mumtahanah and concluded that the marriage was religiously invalid. Words like kafir, murtad, sharmuuto, malaya, un-Islamic, slave, and ugly were used to describe how Amina had broken with tradition to marry a “kufr” and an “adome”. A kafir and a slave.

Some said that economics was at play and that Amina had married Kitili for money. For a majority of the social media fanatics, the bigger shame was that Amina had lowered herself to such depths. Warnings were issued to other girls that what Amina had done was unforgivable.

I wasn’t surprised. This was congruent with the sort of stereotypes that fit the Kenyan national social ethos. I had seen this play out before in real life and in fictional worlds.

My friend Abdul captures this complex dichotomy in his short story “The Somalification of James Karangi“. In this story, James Karangi, a Kikuyu, wants to marry Ayaan, Khalid’s cousin, but in order to do this he must first become a Somali. We watch his futile attempts through his “Somalification” process.

When we first meet Khalid, Karangi and Ayaan are in a restaurant in downtown Mombasa. Khalid says:

“I told you from the beginning…there’s little hope along the line of religion. You could be the Imam and lead all of the late-night prayers in the month of Ramadan, but the Somali guy who steals shoes from the mosque would still stand a higher chance of taking her hand.”

Karangi protests, saying that those were tribal and un-Islamic sentiments, to which Khalid responds:

“…..But you better understand that what we are dealing with here is way beyond tribalism. They are talking of differences in appearance, hair-types and such nonsense.”

Ben Kitili and Amina Mude’s wedding offered an opportunity for a candid conversation, but the viral nature of the matter eclipsed any constructive discussion. The small windows opening up were shutting down just as quickly.

Why is there such bile when in Marsabit and Moyale Borana, Somali, and Gabra girls marry Bantu men? Yet this had been going on for a long time; I have cousins who are half Kikuyu, half Kamba, half Luo etc.

But it should be remembered that the further one moves from the cities, the harder the lines become; that in the popular pastoral mindset, such marriages are almost revolutionary. When such marriages happen, people make references to nose size, skin colour and hair coarseness as things that show differences between all the long-established binaries: Christians and Muslims; farmers and pastoralists; North and South; superior and inferior. People wonder, “Was she blind to have followed such a man?”

In the cities, liberalism triumphed over cultural stereotypes. But Kitili and Amina came to represent something more – mutual feelings of superiority.

Ben Kitili and Amina Mude’s wedding offered an opportunity for a candid conversation, but the viral nature of the matter eclipsed any constructive discussion. The small windows opening up were shutting down just as quickly.

It’s precisely this sentiment that Nasra, a Kenyan Somali comedian, shared on the Churchill Show – how a “Kenyan” man who happens to date a Somali lady flaunts this as an achievement. “Bro mimi nimekula hata bui bui” was met with thunderous laughter. Similarly. Joseph Kamaru, in his song Gathoni, describes a tall slender girl with the hair of a Borana, an object of some kind of sexual fetish.

Away from the fictional world of Ayaan and Karangi, or the reality of Kitili and Mude, we have seen these confrontations playing out before in many everyday scenes. They are captured in xenophobic names like “Gurale” (Blacks) used by Borana speakers when referring to what they call “Bantus”. Other words used are “Gererr” (coarse hair) and “Adome” (slaves). These are words used by Somalis in everyday lingo to refer to the rest of the Kenyan non-nomadic and non-Islamic ethnicities (collectively referred to as Bantu).

Xenophobia

Beyond meta narratives of negations, the canonical biases, the media frames created by the Kenyan media and newly minted utopian narrative of development and of opportunity that sought to supplant half a century of negative state policies and unequal economics through LAPSSET lies something more: an uneasy and intractable cultural division between the North and the South of the country, which is often unexplored and taken for granted.

Opening up the “closed” Northern Kenya cannot suture the badly grafted relationship between the North and the South, between Cushites and Bantus. While the xenophobic relationship between Northern Kenya and Southern Kenya has been noted at different times, its true form has not been fingered properly.

The new development and policy changes on Northern Kenya will have little relevance if they ignore the cultural question, which is premised on mutual suspicion. If Somalis have their stereotypes, so do the Bantus.

In his essay “The Rise of Somali Capital”, Parselelo Kantai, writing in the Chimurenga Chronicle 0f 2013, says:

“Anti-Somali xenophobia has a long tradition in Kenya. The image of the Waria – derogatory slang for Somali – was permanently captured in the 1970s and 1980s in Vioja Mahakamani, Kenya’s longest-running TV court-room comedy…In Vioja, the image of the Somali is represented by Chief Superintendent Wariahe, a tall, light-skinned policeman whose rectitude is only betrayed by his appalling Kiswahili, the source of enduring mirth.

Outside the Wariahe’s clean-cut image, lies another stereotype: that of the Somali as a dirty, khat-chewing Muslim pastoralist more and more at home in the wastelands of Northern Kenya than in the city. In this particular construction, the Somali in the city is a stranger, an invader.”

We meet a version of this Wariah in Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir, One Day I Will Write about This Place. This Waria is selling items on Kenyatta Avenue:

“…with strange scripts in Arabic, or wrong bottles in the wrong box, or a slightly off-kilter brand name. Porchi. Poisone. Sold by thin thin men from Somalia. Dominos of nations tumble around Kenya – and Somali men walk about, overstimulated, and thrust their faces into yours, dribbling chewed khat, eyes bleary, jacket open and say … Kssss, Kssss, ….Rolexxx….Xss…xxxsss…..SeyKo.”

On the cultural and artistic front, the image of a Northerner has remained the same: infantile, culturally misplaced. Cartoons in the papers depict this one-dimensional character. The image of Wariah, the phlegm spitting, ill-placed nomad, has since the 1970s gone mainstream, jumping off screen, in newspaper clichés, making cameo appearances in Kenyan novels. The ill-fitting pastoralist arrives in agricultural Kenya through these frames. Any Cushite is “Wariah”. (Wariah literally means “hey you!” in Somali, but in Kenya it has become a derogative term used by non-Somalis to refer to Somalis.)

There is another Wariah tag variant that has captured the social dislocation of the pastoralist in the city – “Maasai”. Maasai has become an urban metaphor for clumsiness; to be referred to as “Maasai” is to be made an invalid. “Wacha Umaasai” translates as “Stop your stupidity”.

The function of this division

Our primary school syllabus says that there are three categories of people in Kenya: Bantus, Nilotes and Cushites. But in our minds, there are only two groups: farmers and herders. One sedentary, the other mobile. One Christian, the other Muslim. Both impatient with each other.

Events of these kind speak of a certain Kenyan way of being. Parsalelo argues:

You also understood that this was a crude form of southern Kenya public therapy. For a people for whom ‘negative ethnicity’, the newspaper euphemism for the prevailing ethnic rancour that had shredded the nation into a farcical edifice of a thousand cuts, ‘othering’ the Somalis restored a sense of collective indignation. Hate and rancour were the only things holding us together.”

In order to understand what this cultural divide has done, we have to look at the past closely. The negative political attitude forged by the Kenyan state against pastoralism found some of its reasons as an offshoot of this cultural division, which is also a function of ecology, geography, religion and lifestyle. The Kenyan state is also modeled on the Westphalia Christian structure. In Kenya, cultural distances between the North and South are found in different structures. The cultural distance is like Sahelian acoustics meeting the rhumba revolution of the sub-Saharan soundscape.

How did this cultural and political orientation confront each other?

What form, if any, did the cultural/political rivalry take?

Has the zenith of this collision been reached?

Is there fear, loathing and intolerance in its construct? Yes. Even an impatience.

Proximity to power and access to resources exacerbates biases. For certain ethnic groups, feelings of nativity and indigeneity take on the form of ethnic entitlement. For others, the Kenya state has its owners. 

Our primary school syllabus says that there are three categories of people in Kenya: Bantus, Nilotes and Cushites. But in our minds, there are only two groups: farmers and herders. One sedentary, the other mobile. One Christian, the other Muslim. Both impatient with each other.

Kenya must learn to acknowledge and confront these biases and actively seek to demolish the constructs that continues to divide us.

Muslims in a Christian state

Ali Mazrui showed how “people’s ideas about God can condition their ideas about government”. Kenya is a Christian state in official matters, in its iconography and in its official moral language.

When I was applying for a passport, I sat in the corner where Northern Kenya denizens gather. A young Somali man with his young family sat with me and shared his frustrations. He said, “There is nothing for us Muslims in this country, heri tutoke.”

It was precisely this kind of social division that Al Shabaab wants to exploit by targeting non-Muslims. The church bombings, the selective murder of Christians in Mandera, in Garissa University etc.

Opening up the “closed” Northern Kenya cannot suture the badly grafted relationship between the North and the South, between Cushites and Bantus.

The introduction of police officers as sentries in Kenyan churches resulted in the targetting of any Cushitic-looking believer in the church. Many kinds of humiliation were meted upon the Borana and Rendile Christians in Kenyan churches. They were barred from entering churches, and forbidden from partaking in the Eucharist. They were escorted out of the church for looking like Al Shabaab.

In Kenya, even the school curriculum follows state policy; in its design, the Kenyan syllabus curtails and suppresses cultural and religious differences. In many Kenyan schools, Muslim students are forced to study Christian religious education. For many Muslims joining secondary schools, this fact becomes apparent when they receive admission letters. This prejudiced intolerance will follow them into many offices.

In the late 1990s, as the years of Daniel arap Moi’s presidency in Kenya were waning, a charismatic Member of Parliament, who had served as Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Minister and was at the time the deputy KANU chair, was poised to be the presidential running mate of Uhuru Kenyatta, who was then a rookie politician being fronted by Moi. Curiously, a delegation of Mt. Kenya politicians went to Moi to voice their dissatisfaction with the possibility of Bonaya Adi Godana from North Horr being fronted as Uhuru’s presidential running mate. Their reason was quite simple: they said as a Muslim, Bonaya Adi was unfit for that position. Unbeknownst to them, Bonaya Adi was a Christian.

Ecology as the mother of cultures

Spiritualism was necessary for pastoralist communities facing many uncertainties. Ecology has been a key player in what form of spiritualism was forged. Kenya is highly divided between its green highlands and its arid and semi-arid regions. These two environments induce different forms of spiritualism. This then becomes another key arena where the North-South cultural split plays out.

The Libyan writer Ibrahim Al-Koni in an interview (“In the Desert We Visit Death), locates this as an old problem. He says:

“The human community was early on split into two major tribes. They were so completely different, as if they came from two different worlds. This evolved through time and resulted in the nomadic tribe and the settled tribe. The nomadic tribe’s capital was freedom. They had no ties to a certain area. So they turned to contemplation which gives birth to freedom. The settled people’s capital was ownership – and all the disasters that ownership entails.”

Ibrahim Al-Koni goes on to say that the “spirit among settled people is dead”. He cites St. Augustine who “called the nomadic tribe the divine tribe because it was a spiritual tribe”. He says this problem has existed since creation. “All the wars that took place in the ancient times took place because of this split.” And that a bitter feud between the spirit (nomadic people) and body (settled people) has been ongoing.

Thus a long history of intervention in changing nomads has been spearheaded by NGOs and the Kenyan state. It is a system that tries to “rehabilitate” the Northern landscape and livelihoods through irrigation agriculture schemes, resettlement, and restocking.

And because of this, for Northerners, allegiance to Kenya (spiritually) was fraught with ambiguities. And as a result, they developed an indomitable nomadic spirit that no level of political, social and economic oppression can break.

Superiority complexes 

My friend, a Somali lady, who is liberal, foreign-educated, worldly, progressive and very articulate, someone whose accent can easily be described as “bourgie”, feels very strongly about this matter and has voiced her resentment towards what she considers “Bantu self-disrespect”. She had returned to the UK for a Master’s degree and I somehow expected a change in perspective. I ask her whether she still considered the Bantus to harbour the same feelings. I approached the issue tentatively. I asked, “What do you make of the Southern Kenya people …?” She saw through my caution.

“Who? You mean the Gurales?” and then she laughs

“Yes…..and how Gurale, Adome are racist’s sentiments.”

“It’s their fault, they allow it …when I argue with my friends I often get we wacha kunidharua…It’s like they expect it…”

She broadens the perspective further.

“I often go out with Kikuyu or other Bantu men but the kinds of comments their friends give…ohhhh…manze umewahi!! Umeangukia jo! Eh? Umemtoa wapi msomali…and it makes me feel terrible as if my presence with them was an unattainable goal.”

Sasa nani amejidharau hapo?”

“When Somali guys see me with Kikuyu men, they look at me with eyes that say I am bringing myself down low.”

“But madharau iko!” I say

“Yes…but it’s the way they see themselves…not how we treat them.”

Simple perceptions, media-engendered images, and minor incidents speak of these cultural divides and impressions: ideas about racial purity, of a superior religion coalescing around one’s ethnicity have easily been intensified, repurposed and allowed to be toxic. This leads to stereotypes of hungry women who almost died when giving birth, who are frigid even, because they were cut up badly while undergoing FGM.

Alienating development projects

To expect mega-infrastructure to suture this division would be to heap a psychological responsibility on physical projects. Zoe Cormack, in her paper “The Promotion of Pastoralist Heritage and Alternative ‘Visions’ for the Future of Northern Kenya “explores how pastoralist heritage and culture is being revalorized in the context of large infrastructural development plans in Northern Kenya”. She mentions the prevailing and perverse anxiety that characterises local perceptions of the new infrastructure projects where “fears have been raised of coming exploitation and that the north will be culturally and politically assimilated into the privatised, sedentary and neo-liberal model of the central state.”

To expect mega-infrastructure to suture this division would be to heap a psychological responsibility on physical projects.

This privatised, sedentary neo-liberal model is visible in the towns of the North. Policies on conservation, rehabilitation of rangelands, and administrative boundaries have led to decreased mobility, which has impacted the pastoralist lifestyle.

How do we confront this bitter reality?

In Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s novel Dust, when Odidi and Ajany join school, they take up hobbies: music for Odidi and painting for Ajany.

“Music and painting bandaged soul-holes.

They forgot teachers who asked ‘ati, from where? Is it on the map?’ Drowned out classmates: ‘You people cook dust to eat.’”

Many students from the North face similar scornful comments that follow them silently throughout their lives.

The capital accumulated by Somalis offered better socio-political and economic mobility and increased prospects of fusion and synthesis.

Parsalelo argues that “that ethnic capital mobilised at both an individual and communal level (the notional claims to ethnic-blindness notwithstanding) is still the most effective route to securing economic and political legitimacy.”

The current media presence of a certain class of Somali journalists from Northern Kenya is encouraging. Political representation is also increasing. Uhuru Kenyatta’s regime has been particularly receptive to and accommodative of Northern Kenya politicians.

However, the participation of a few elites in the ivory towers of Kenya’s uneasy and often unholy construct should not be confused with full integration. Other internal ethnic and cultural politics need to be addressed; once Kenyans learn to place a high value on unity and ethnic diversity, then cross-regional cultural harmony can be forged.

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The author is a writer based in Marsabit, 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Politics

Nashulai – A Community Conservancy With a Difference

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

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

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

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

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

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

A reckoning

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

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

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

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

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

A colonial hangover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s who’s doing the work

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

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

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

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

The community conservancy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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