By Patience Akumu/The Observer
African elephants in the Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda. Photograph: Eric Nathan/Alamy
Ugandans fear curse of oil wealth as it threatens to blight ‘pearl of Africa’. Oil drilling may bring benefits in healthcare and education, but critics are concerned about corruption and the effect on wildlife.
Most of Uganda‘s oilis in the Albertine Graben region in the west of the country, an expanse of lush green vegetation that is home to about half of Africa‘s bird species. There are also baboons, antelopes and elephants.
A visit to Murchison Falls, one of five national parks in the region and the biggest game reserve in Uganda, reminds one why Winston Churchill thought the nation was the pearl of Africa. But tucked away behind all this startling beauty are 13 oil wells, right inside the national park. Drilling for oil in Uganda is caught between the demands of nature, public interest and commerce.
“You should bring your friends and family here before everything changes,” a ranger tells me, sweeping his hand over an area of short, sprouting grass, the site of an unsuccessful drill that has been left to rejuvenate.
It is just a matter of time before oil extraction in Uganda starts in earnest and tourism revenue, contributing 4% of GDP, becomes a drop in the sea of oil dollars. The ranger says: “There is already a lot of activity at this early stage. The animals are moving further away. What will happen when drilling actually starts?”
The speeding trucks that force us to pull to the sides of the narrow roads, the towering oil rigs and the crews walking around in Total uniforms are a blight on the serenity of the park and a reminder that things may never be the same again.
Britain’s Tullow, France’s Total and China’s CNOOC operate in Uganda. Amid criticism of the industry, they emphasise they are doing their part to make sure the country does not turn into another sad oil curse story, and that oil brings prosperity rather than instability and poverty.
Commercial oil production in Uganda is expected to begin in 2018 and carry on for 30 years. Dates have been changed as stakeholders iron out the bureaucracies and complications of producing this rather waxy oil. But once production begins in earnest, revenue from the estimated 3.5bn barrels is expected to turn around the impoverished country whose president, Yoweri Museveni, has been in power for 27 years.
Oil money is expected to bring electricity to the 90% who live without it, revive the ailing universal primary education system, put beds in the dilapidated hospitals and finance an ambitious presidential initiative (Vision 2040) to put Uganda in the league of upper-middle-income countries.
So what if oil comes with some risks? While studies show that oil mining will affect the ecosystem and destabilise the rich wildlife, it is hard to say for certain to what extent. And government, lured by the promise of oil reserves rich enough to fund the country for the next 20 years, has chosen to cut through the foliage to find liquid gold.
However, critics have expressed doubts that oil will deliver its promise of transformation. They say that from the beginning oil has been an area shrouded in suspicion. At the onset of exploration, the government refused to release the production-sharing agreements to the public, ruling that they were confidential. After pressure from civil society, parliament was given limited access to the agreements, but the public still cannot access them.
Allegations of corruption, residents disgruntled over property compensation, indecisiveness over the best infrastructure (refinery or pipeline, and how big?) for the industry, and painfully slow government bureaucracy are responsible for Uganda’s delayed oil production. Countries such as Ghana, which discovered oil later than Uganda, have already started production.
As a 2013 Chatham House report by Ben Shepherd, a consultant on the Great Lakes region, points out, the delay is a frustration and a blessing. Commercially viable oil in Uganda was discovered in 2006, since when the country has had time to prepare for the production phase, says Shepherd. Parliament has debated and passed legislation, policies are in place and there is no lack of environmental impact assessment reports. These are the “successes” the government brandishes as proof the country is on the right path to crude production.
Critics accuse the government of bungling the entire process – from the withholding of information from the public to displacing and compensating local communities through an ambiguous and unfair system, to commissioning a refinery whose economic viability is still uncertain.
“They come here and force us to sign documents. They say if we do not, we shall lose our land,” says Stella Keihangwe, a woman who accused the government of coercing her into signing over her property to her son and husband, disregarding her marital rights. Innocent Tumwebaze, whose land the government also acquired for the oil project, says he was arrested and beaten with a gun barrel for questioning government activities in the region.
Oil is a sensitive topic, and those who dare to meddle risk their lives. They often receive threats from the government, which has labelled dissidents economic saboteurs. Faced with government power and handicapped by poverty and lack of education, the people most affected feel helpless to defend their rights.
It is situations like these that have caused people such as the Ugandan development lawyer Busingye Kabumba to declare that the oil curse is already on the country.
Still, Ugandans are optimistic. Local and international NGOs, many of them funded by Britain, Uganda’s second biggest donor, are watching and reporting on the oil sector. Their presence can be felt in spite of government disapproval of their “foreign agenda”.
Some Ugandans still doubt that a government whose president has already declared that “it is my oil” will use revenue from the industry to benefit the people. Their reality – the poor-quality services and poverty – has not changed in spite of the billions already paid out by oil companies in the pre-production stages.
“Everything good is in Kampala [the capital]. We will not see any oil benefits here,” says the hired motorcycle rider who takes me around the dusty oil district of Hoima. “We have been hearing that there is oil for a long time, but we have seen nothing.”
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