In March, Kenya announced its first oil discovery by British-based explorer Tullow Oil in remote Turkana County, which borders South Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda.
“My nightmare is to have a Kony-type group say: ‘You marginalised us all these years and this is our wealth and therefore we want to break away’, and basically just start an insurgency that’s endless,” Mohamed Elmi, Minister for Northern Kenya and Other Arid Lands, told AlertNet in an interview.
He was referring to Joseph Kony, an internationally wanted war crimes suspect whose Lord’s Resistance Army has trapped much of north Uganda in a nightmare of bloodshed, hunger and fear.
East Africa has become a hot spot for oil and gas exploration. Neighbouring South Sudan is an oil producer, while commercial oil deposits were found in Uganda, and there are vast natural gas deposits in Tanzania and Mozambique.
In Kenya’s Turkana County, 60 percent of the population are pastoralists who depend upon their livestock for survival. Successive droughts have hit them hard, leaving millions dependent on food aid.
The sun-baked, scrubby beige flatlands are awash with small arms, often smuggled over the border from neighbours such as Somalia.
Cattle rustling and clashes over grazing land and water are common among pastoralists, with well-armed raiders often crossing over from Ethiopia and Uganda to steal cattle.
“There are high levels of poverty. There are excessive illegal arms. In Upper Rift Valley alone in around 1997, it was estimated that they had over 200,000 guns,” said Elmi, interviewed during a trip to the Turkana district capital Lodwar.
The Ngamia-1 well, where oil was discovered, is in the Lokichar basin that is part of the East African Rift System.
“I don’t see how any legislation will pass without saying a certain amount will go to the county for its development, purely for the security side, to avoid problems,” the minister said.
OIL LAND ROW BREWING
Many African oil producers have fallen prey to the “oil curse” with their economies becoming totally dependent upon the black gold. Oil has fuelled massive corruption and conflict as different players fight for a share of the spoils.
To avoid this trap, experts advise that oil revenues should be channelled into sectors like infrastructure and education to build a sustainable base for future development.
Elmi stressed the need for oil revenues to trickle down to local people in the Turkana region.
In Nigeria’s Niger Delta, billions of dollars of oil revenues have gone to the federal government while local residents complain of poverty, unemployment and environmental pollution, which has resulted in years of armed insurrection.
“Will the drilling of that whole place create any employment? Will Turkanas have enough technical staff that will work there? Or will it just be extracted and move and go and develop the rest of the country?” said Elmi.
Some fear that given the endemic corruption in Kenya, the new-found oil wealth will just be siphoned off by the elite.
A row is also brewing over the ownership of the land on which oil was discovered. Turkana County Council claims it was acquired illegally as the local authority was not involved.
Traditionally, Turkana community land is managed by 27 clans, each with their own territory. The community wants an upcoming Community Land Bill to give each clan a title deed and clarify how shareholding agreements between the community, government and private investors should be drawn up.
“We are concerned that some people have already grabbed the oil land,” said Turkana Central MP Ekwee Ethuro.
“It’s community land. It is trust land. On the current legal regime, where we have trust land, there is a process of appropriation which, to the best of my knowledge, was never undertaken,” he said.
Turkana leaders have written to the energy and lands ministries to find out how exploration licences were acquired.
“We want the documentation,” said Ethuro. “Who were these fellows? Did money actually exchange hands? What is the status of that land if it is sold?”