Oil secrecy raises spectre of conflict in Bunyoro

Saturday March 17 2012

A boy playing near his home in Kaiso Tonya. Oil discoveries have been made in this region. Picture: Morgan Mbabazi

The secrecy that shrouds Uganda’s oil sector is fuelling perceptions of economic and political marginalisation in communities around the Lake Albert Region where oil discoveries have been made.

(Read: Museveni’s twin-track approach to oil policy raises eyebrows)

A new study by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) says this perceived marginalisation could provide fertile ground for the Somali insurgent group Al Shabaab to foment rebellion in Bunyoro through the Ugandan rebel outfit Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) with which it is believed to have links.

Both Al Shabaab and ADF, the think tank concludes, “have Islamic Salafist political orientations, and share a common enemy in the form of the Museveni government.”

Both have attacked Uganda in the past in nearly similar fashion; the ADF is blamed for being responsible for a series of grenade attacks on buses and in a number of busy places around Kampala in the late 1990s. Al Shabaab is also accused of setting off bombs at two entertainment spots during the finals of the 2010 World Cup, killing over 70 people, apparently to punish Uganda for sending troops to lead the African Union Mission in Somalia, Amisom.

Uganda has the largest number of personnel in Amisom, which has forced Al Shabaab out of Mogadishu and established relative normalcy in a city that has known only anarchy for much of the past 20 years.


(Read: Uganda defence spending to grow with Somalia 'war')

The study says the rebel group could disrupt the country’s oil operations by tapping into rising local discontent. The think tank argues that this would lead to further militarisation of Uganda as the government moves to guard the resource against rebel incursions.

The study says that while Uganda could defuse this potential threat by simply adopting a more transparent and inclusive oil governance regime, the government is more likely to be inclined to respond militarily.

Last year, Uganda reportedly spent $740 million to buy eight fighter jets, tanks and other military hardware, apparently to secure the country’s oil industry on its western border with the DR Congo, not far from where the ADF operates in the eastern part of the DRC.

No information

“Villages along Lake Albert and those located in an area earmarked for the construction of an oil refinery are confronted with severe uncertainty and fear. These fears and uncertainties stem from tensions... that precede oil exploration and infrastructure development operations,” the SAIIA report reads.

“A lack of information on oil activities, and high expectations of what oil could mean for the region, foment all kinds of rumours and ideas about oil,” Dr Kock told The EastAfrican.

His report indicts the government and oil companies equally for withholding information and excluding communities from planning processes.

The effect of this, Dr Kock opines, is it creates a dangerous political situation where “fears, high expectations and a lack of appropriate local and national governance interventions” may cause new conflicts and political tensions to emerge.

“The government and oil companies may be slowly but surely fomenting socio-political resistance to the oil activities owing to their non-existent attempts at informing residents about planned activities,” says Dr Kock in his report.

But Bukenya Matovu, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Energy, said the so-called secrecy in the oil and gas sector has been blown out of proportion.

“This government is not doing anything that is contrary to the expectations of its people anywhere in the country,” Mr Matovu told The EastAfrican.

“Right now, we are engaging people at the grassroots levels through community development officers whose mandate is to disseminate government policies, actions and activities and listen to the concerns of the people and bring them up for action,” Mr Matovu added.

The report then, according to him, doesn’t reflect the true picture on the ground.

“Local people are engaged and informed. In some cases, like in seismic activities, they are even employed. So how can it be that they don’t know? That the government is deliberately withholding information?” Mr Matovu asked.

The report compares Bunyoro to the Niger Delta, which produces much of Nigeria’s oil, because in both places oil occurs in densely populated and historically unstable areas unlike, say, in Angola, Ghana or Namibia, where the oil finds are predominantly offshore. 

The Niger Delta has been dogged by conflict since oil was discovered half a century ago because successive governments have neglected the interests of local communities. Their concerns have included being given a fair percentage of oil revenues, protecting alternative livelihoods, demands that oil companies clean up their waste and conserve the environment.

Unsurprisingly, the same concerns are gathering traction in Bunyoro. After all, both areas have a history of marginalisation and instability.

SAIIA says it is “an independent, non-government think-tank focused primarily on making effective input into public policy, and encouraging wider and more informed debate on international affairs with particular emphasis on African issues and concerns.” It bills itself as South Africa’s premier research institute on international issues.

(More: East Africa’s Black gold rush)