The oil is here but are we ready for it
It is no longer news; East Africa is the next gulf. In case you have not been following events in this region, allow me to inform you that Uganda and Tanzania have just been joined by Kenya as countries with oil deposits.
Kenya is yet to find out whether the oil in the Turkana region is commercially viable but I am convinced the tests will be positive. My conviction stems from the fact that Kenya’s neighbour to the north, Somalia has also been found to have significant oil reserves.
In other words it is becoming clear that the region could be simply sitting on a stretch of oil all the way from Sudan and Somalia and southwards to Tanzania and the Lake Albert area on the Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo border.
If we are to even imagine the scenario of the East African community having South Sudan and Somalia, then we shall be having so much oil in the community that it will be understandable for citizens to expect a Utopian life. Unfortunately it is never rosy when oil comes into the picture.
The announcement of Kenya’s discovery was received with so much joy and the social media scene exploded with the hash tag #TurkanaOil trending globally in a matter of hours. Such announcements tend to give social commentators like me something to work with.
The perennial writers’ block runs for its life as your head goes through a maze of angles for the big story. As expected, many have pointed towards the possibility of the oil curse. In general, most countries where this lucrative resource has been discovered gloom has followed.
In simpler situations, societies have to deal with massive environmental degradation as a result of the exploration. This could be in form of oil spills or leakages into water sources. Then you may also have situations where other economic activities like agriculture are abandoned on grounds that the oil money is enough to maintain a lifestyle of imported food.
The worst case scenarios of striking gold are usually of two kinds. One is the massive corruption that often sees the profits from the oil only benefiting a few political elites while the rest of the population wallows in poverty. This has been the case in most African countries with Nigeria, Angola and Equatorial Guinea standing out.
Another likely scenario is civil unrest or even war. This also tends to happen in two ways. One is the civil unrest involving the local residents of the oil producing areas arguing that they are not getting their fair share of ‘God-given’ resources as is the case in the Niger Delta area.
The most extreme case of the oil curse is the situation where foreign powers especially the United States of America which I mention without fear of contradicting myself, come in to take the oil resources under the pretext of things like exporting democracy or fighting terror as exemplified by the ongoing situation in Iraq.
Three of the East African Community members now have known oil deposits while three of our neighbours South Sudan, Somalia and D. R. Congo also have oil with South Sudan already at the exploration stage, we can safely say the region is the new Gulf. Not forgetting the natural gas deposits in Tanzania as well as the Methane gas under Lake Kivu in Rwanda.
The million dollar question here is whether we are prepared to stave off the oil curse and get onto the highway of prosperity. Chance favours the prepared, and if we are not prepared enough then the oil will only worsen our lives instead of improving them.
There must be a sound legal framework to ensure that profits from the oil are not just heading to the foreign oil companies but that even that which ends up in our pockets is utilised well.
Sovereign wealth funds like what Norway has in place could be used for infrastructural development or subsidising life in sectors like health and education. Young people should be trained to take up the employment opportunities that the oil will bring to this region.
We also need to have the necessary infrastructure such as pipelines, roads and refineries. It will be sad if we end up exporting crude oil and importing refined oil. Already the Lamu port (LAPSSET) project that was targeting South Sudan oil is already a step in the right direction.
Contact email: ssenyonga[at]gmail.com