How search for oil is inflaming tensions in Kenya

03 April 2016, Kerio Valley — James Rotich’s parents struggled to send him to school. Only during the good years, when there was enough rain and the maize grew high, would they choose a goat from the herd to sell to cover his fees.

*Tullow Oil.

*Tullow Oil.

Decades later, when the oil company arrived, it occurred to him that life could be different for his own children.

He had heard of Tullow Oil, the Anglo-Irish oil exploration firm whose lorries barrelled down the winding, unpaved road towards his small village. The company had made headlines a year earlier when they discovered a billion barrels of oil in Kenya’s impoverished Turkana County, some 350 kilometres north of the rural farm James calls home. That day in 2013, as the trucks drove deeper into the valley towards him, James couldn’t help but hope that there was oil under the land he had been growing maize and beans on for his entire life.

“I was proud,” says James, now 53, standing in the middle of his plot in Muchukwo, Baringo County. “I thought to myself that if there is oil in our area, we are going to be rich. We are going to be the next Iraq.”

Trouble brewing in Turkana

Muchukwo is a small village on the eastern bank of the Kerio River, a narrow stretch of water connecting the northern and southern points of the Kerio Valley.

In the heart of the greater Rift Valley, the Kerio is home to herding and farming subclans of the Kalenjin ethnic group. The river, vital for their livestock, divides the valley in two: Baringo County to the east and Elgeyo-Marakwet County to the west.

In partnership with the Canadian company Africa Oil, Tullow had been doing aerial surveillance in search of hydrocarbons – which indicate the presence of oil – in the area for months.

Billing itself as Africa’s leading independent oil firm, Tullow has been exploring for oil in Uganda and Ghana for a decade.

The discovery of oil in Kenya seemed like a stroke of luck for a country that had been an energy outlier in a resource-rich continent. In 2014, Tullow contributed $162.5m to Kenyan coffers in tax revenue and investments. The same year, Kenya’s Institute of Economic Affairs estimated that the country stood to earn at least $650m a year from oil exports. But as Tullow’s exploratory aircraft flew over James’ plot, trouble was brewing around Tullow’s projects in Turkana.

One of the poorest regions in Kenya, the arid Turkana County in northwestern Kenya was in a precarious state before Tullow arrived.

Traditional inter-ethnic conflict between the Pokot and Turkana people stretched back for centuries. Communities fought over access to scarce water resources and grazing land, tensions that were exacerbated by climate change and small arms that flowed in from bordering Uganda, Ethiopia and South Sudan.

The area faced extreme poverty, high unemployment and an 80 percent illiteracy rate, and expectations that Tullow would immediately bring the jobs and development the region needed permeated local communities. Competition over land, suddenly more valuable than ever, heated up.

Conflict between the Turkana and Pokot escalated. Reports of armed cattle raids and dozens of deaths were reported by the local media. Meanwhile, thousands of people, angry that Tullow’s search for oil had yet to generate jobs and money, stormed the company’s drilling sites.

The community accused Tullow of colluding with national politicians, bribing local officials, and failing to compensate them for damage to communally owned lands. Operations were temporarily halted and Tullow employees whisked away to safety.

The company decided to change tack, promising more local investment and the creation of a formal grievance mechanism for communities to seek compensation for damages. Local groups criticised the move as a quick fix with no enforcement mechanism. Was the violence that Tullow’s exploration for oil inflamed a case of badly managed expectations in a desperate community? Or was it a sign that Kenya, plagued with corruption and ethnic rivalries, was predisposed to the resource curse?

Worlds apart

Today in Turkana, tensions have tempered as the price of oil has plummeted. Despite the pressure the global downturn has placed on Tullow – reporting a $1bn after-tax loss for 2015 – the firm continues to explore for oil in Turkana and the Kerio Valley.

In some ways, Turkana and the Kerio Valley are worlds apart. Economically marginalised with few resources (before the discovery of oil) and neglected by the national government, Turkana has long existed on the periphery of Kenyan politics. In contrast, the Kerio Valley and the Kalenjin clans within it are considered to hold greater political and social influence in the region.

But even in the Valley, some worry that lives will be lost as communities are caught between a desire for development and an oil company operating alongside a national government eager to facilitate, and benefit from, their work. Like Turkana, though to a lesser extent, the Kerio Valley is also affected by environmental stresses brought on by climate change that have exacerbated violent competition for land. Literacy and education rates are low, poverty widespread and development desperately craved.

As Kenya races to be the first East African country to export oil, international experts say that patterns are emerging in the Kerio Valley that mirror those witnessed in Turkana, pointing to trouble in the future: complaints of damage to communally held lands, lack of compensation and collusion with political elites. Rights abuses have already taken place, say communities within the Kerio, and tensions might rise as exploration ramps up.

  • Al Jazeera
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