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Connecting the dots in Kwale mining saga

OPINION
By - Jenny Luesby | August 13th 2013

By Jenny Luesby

What does it truly mean for Kenya to be the fourth most corrupt country in the world?  We all know the impact it has on our daily lives, the never ending graft.

Why can’t we receive a simple form from the County Council to pay a cheque for our business permits? Why do we have to act a skit just to deal with people who are supposed to be police, upholding law and order, not institutionalised bandits?

It exhausts us all the endless eating and yet most of us must be pretty flaky on our own account, or this wouldn’t be close to the worst corruption in the world.

Objective

Yet, even by the everyday track record of endless thieving, I’ve struggled in the last week to be OK and fine and feel like everything is just great in the face of the Cortec events.

I am too close to the Cortec story. In fact, let’s just say I am compromised as a journalist. Journalists are objective. But I was involved last year with a community relations project for Cortec. Those Kwale villages are so poor. Next to the hill that has the niobium and rare earths, they have these tiny shambas, with pathetic patches of vegetables growing on them, and every 30 metres or so, a youth, or children, or a woman, stand to keep the monkeys off.

When I met a woman at the Coast who campaigns for the monkeys, and told her about the children not being in schools in those impoverished communities, and about them guarding the shambas all day, she told me “they have nothing better to do”. Like going to school isn’t better?

Gleeful moment

The whole story, for me, has been too tragic an illustration of the African tale. There was the gleeful moment when several of us calculated how much would have gone to those villages if the mining had begun. But how much of it would have even made it, truly? The miners had shown us texts from county councillors demanding free weekend stays at top class hotels for them and their girlfriends.

They showed us emails from senders who were plotting to mess up the Nema application so as to get money from them. They played us tapes that they had recorded of so many conversations where they were being asked for bribe after bribe after bribe.

They were offended. They were angry, and back then, unspeakably frustrated. Their geologist had lost his work permit under the new rules locking foreigners out. Their applications to Nema were mired in nonsense. Nema was claiming they needed to send geologists to the hill to investigate damage to a spring that didn’t even exist.

The whole area was geologically mapped in the 1950s, and the hill a geological formation that simply could not (and did not) have a spring. Just for our own peace of mind, and to find out if our miners were somehow liars, my team even rang the Kwale Water Company, and they told us too that there wasn’t a spring anywhere near the hill, not for more than 16 kilometres as I recall.

But there was Nema blocking the application over a non-existent spring. And that was after Nema ‘lost’ five sets of the submission documents apparently. And so much more.

But what does one do as a journalist who knows too much and saw too much of it, when the story is too bad? When no one wins? When no one can win? I kept my mouth shut. It was an untellable tale. Last week, I mourned with my friends, one of whom did some of the visits with me last year, and another journalist who, like us, has heard many of the bribe tapes.

Stockpile

We’ve been told that the endgame is a play to keep the mine from ever opening. Is it true? I tried telling colleagues, at least, that there was this connection with China, that it controls more than 90 per cent of the world’s rare earths, and that you can’t support modern technology without them: not a computer, or a phone, not a solar panel or a modern lightbulb can be manufactured without rare earths.  I tried explaining that it was the new oil and the new Opec.

And they laughed at me. In news meetings that I stayed away from I was told that the China connection was ridiculed.

So I said, look it up. Type ‘rare earths China’ into Google. Just two editors did, and finally saw what I was going on about. I said type in ‘Toyota rare earths’, and ‘Nissan rare earths’.

China nationalised its rare earths and then closed many of the mines. The global prices shot up. It has plenty of rare earths that are not in use. And it is a monopoly supplier, a fact that has been causing tension with Japan, which is now stockpiling, and with the US.

Why would China want a big mine to open in Kenya as an alternative supply, when they have the whole tap to 21st century technology?

But what can you do? The kids will stay hungry in Kwale. They won’t get to school in their rags and bare feet. The story is too big and too ugly, and I guess I just committed professional suicide over it.

And for what? The police will still take bribes on every highway next year. And maybe, by then, we can be the most corrupt country in the world, just in case being fourth isn’t hurting us enough.

The writer is Consulting Editor at The Standard Group.

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