22 January 2013

Uganda: Hope and Pain in Nebbi, Uganda's New Oil Frontier

Oil in Uganda, a website owned by ActionAid, and operating with funding support from the East Africa office of the Ford Foundation, carried this piece about the impact of oil in Nebbi. The Observer reproduces it in a three-part series.

Panyimur Sub-County, Nebbi district: "It came around Christmas time," says Sylvester Odongo, LC-1 chairman of Abok village, referring to the red and white drilling rig that towers over the bush a few hundred metres from his compound of four, grass-thatched huts.

It doesn't trouble them much in the day, he adds--except that when villagers get close to the fenced-off rig, to tend their gardens of cassava and cotton, security guards order them away. Then, at dusk, extra generators kick in to light up the 24-7 drilling operation. "The noise is terrible and it's really hard to sleep," the tired chairman complains.

This is the Ondiek--'hyena' in the local, Alur language--exploration well. A French contractor, Caroil, is drilling the well on behalf of the oil major, Total S.A. Total is the operator of Uganda's Exploration Area 1, which covers Murchison Falls national park and adjoining parts of Nwoya and Nebbi districts.

As well as assessing previous discoveries in the area and preparing the oilfields for production, Total is sinking new exploration wells in the hope of adding to the estimated 1.8 billion barrels of recoverable oil that have already been discovered in Uganda.

Ondiek, located a kilometre or so inland from the north-western shore of Lake Albert, across the water from Buliisa and only half a dozen kilometres from the border with the DRC, is the first target in the Nebbi drilling campaign. Other sites, chosen after extensive--and expensive--seismic surveys, lie close by within Panyimur sub-county and are being prepared for drilling later this year.

Great expectations:

Walter Aceronga, the busy and businesslike town clerk of lakeshore Panyimur town, is pleased by these developments. "We are all praying they find oil," he says.

Panyimur already seems bustling. By the shore, a group of young men stand waist-deep in the water, loading sound equipment from the Sky Blue Discotheque onto a boat for ferrying across the lake to Wanseko, in Buliisa. Labourers are pouring concrete for the floor of a new, sheltered market. Traders pile raw cotton onto trucks. Pickups are piling people, and their goods, aboard.

Women queue for transport home after a day at Panyimur market. But, according to Aceronga, the appearance is deceptive. This is a market day, he points out. People have come from the northern reaches of West Nile sub-region, from the DRC, and from as far afield as South Sudan to buy fish.

Yet the catches are way down because of overfishing, and there is a desperate shortage of other work, leaving youth prey to idleness and waragi--the potent liquor that is sold in small, plastic sachets--or home-brewed spirits. The town has no electricity and is connected to district centres only by gruelling, murram roads.

Aceronga hopes oil will raise the town's fortunes. He notes that State Minister for Minerals Peter Lokeris promised in a recent speech that the government would pave the 38 kilometres of road from Panyimur to Pakwach as soon as any discovery is made. The town clerk's eyes gleam with satisfaction at the prospect.

In the town of Nebbi, 61 kilometres by very rough road from Panyimur, people seem well aware of the quest for oil in their district and have significant--if not always realistic--expectations. Boda boda drivers at the Satellite 1 stage in Nebbi town expect an oil find would lead to a cheap supply of petrol.

Donald Jakuma, the chairman of a group of boda boda drivers who operate out of the town's Satellite 1 stage, says he expects an oil discovery to be followed by a drop in fuel prices at local petrol stations.

Joyce Alemondo, who keeps a small shop near the stage, agrees. She also thinks that Nebbi and Zombo (a district that was carved out of Nebbi in 2009) should receive at least half of the revenues from any oil discovery. Yet she doesn't believe this will happen--because, she says, government is "very secretive" about oil revenues.

Job dissatisfaction:

Another widespread hope is that oil will bring jobs. But this hope is rapidly souring.

"They bring people from Kampala [to work in Panyimur] yet we also want to be part of the establishment and improve our livelihood," complains Aceronga.

A Nebbi shopkeeper, Joyce Alemondo, says the district should keep most of the oil revenues. Abok village LC-1 chairman, Sylvester Odongo, insists there is no shortage of local youngsters who, he argues, should be trained to do the jobs that now go to "foreigners." He complains that only five people in his community have received any work from oil exploration--and they were taken on only as casual day-labourers.

Higher levels of local government share these concerns. According to Benson Okumu, LC-3 chair of Pakwach town, the lack of opportunities from the oil companies has so frustrated local youths that he recently had to talk a group of them out of a protest demonstration. "They had planned to block the road to the oil camp until they were given jobs," he says.

His concerns are shared by the LC-5 chairman of the district as a whole, Robert Okumu [no relation to Benson], who is himself a native of Panyimur, and whose family home is only a few hundred metres from the Ondiek well. Locals, he complains, qualify only for the least-skilled and lowest-paid jobs.

Oil industry insiders often emphasise that it is essentially capital-intensive rather than labour-intensive, and that the technical jobs require years of specialised training. But this message is evidently not getting through in Nebbi. And with rural youth unemployment in Uganda widely estimated to run as high as 80 per cent, it is not a message that many people want to hear.

In the next part, the article explores how oil exploration has fueled commercial sex in the area, among other interesting perspectives.

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