Wifred Ngabiirwe is the executive director of Global Rights Alert and a campaigner for good governance in Uganda's petroleum industry.
She is also the national coordinator of Publish What You Pay - Uganda chapter (PWYP-U), a coalition of civil society organizations pushing for transparency and accountability in the oil sector. She told Edward Ssekika why signing up to Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative [EITI) is important for Uganda.
Publish What You Pay has been at the forefront pushing government to sign up to EITI; how far have you gone?
We are still pushing on and we shall not give up. Government seems uninterested in transparency and accountability. We are asking ourselves what it is that government fears to sign up to EITI. We have explained the benefits but government doesn't seem to be comfortable with openness.
Peter Lokeris, the junior minister for minerals, recently said there were strong transparency provisions in the Public Finance Bill 2012 and, therefore, there was no need to sign up to EITI
You see, EITI is beyond tabling reports and figures in Parliament. It is about broader governance principles. Most of these reports are going to be postmortems, just like the Auditor General, who periodically releases reports of money that was stolen. We are tired of postmortem reports.
We should be able to prevent money from being swindled. Therefore, signing up to EITI opens many avenues for oversight. The framework creates a multi-stakeholder group comprising of government, oil companies, civil society, public and independent auditors coming together to discuss how oil revenue is to be utilised for the benefit of the people.
It looks at what companies are extracting from a country and under what legal framework, and whether the contracts are in line with the country's laws. It also looks at [what] the country is supposed to get [from the contracts] in form of fees, royalties, signature bonuses, taxes and other revenue streams.
Then it looks at whether companies have paid what they are supposed to have paid; if yes, did government receive what companies claim to have paid and finally how the money will be utilised.[This is] meant to ensure that what has been realised from the extractive industry is wisely invested and delivered results that can transform the country.
The Public Finance Bill doesn't tell us, for instance, how communities are going to be monitoring this money. Tullow disclosed what it paid to government in 2012 and 2013. Isn't that good enough?
But we also don't know whether what Tullow claims to have paid to government is what they should have paid.
An Act of Parliament doesn't contain everything; possibly, that might be in other regulations.
You see, EITI is a platform that opens so many windows of accountability.
What makes oil money so special to even have special monitoring?
Currently, local governments, advocacy groups, civil society organisations and the communities themselves are monitoring what their money is doing. But [what] makes oil money special is that it is a lot of money, coming in for a certain period of time [25-30 years] and after that, it is gone.
But with that money, it's an opportunity that we have as a country to develop and, therefore, we should do it right, and one way to ensure this is that in addition to legal framework, there is actual citizen participation. Otherwise if we miss it today, it will not only be us, but the next generation will also miss out.
Looking at politics, usually when we have governments like ours that has been in power for 30 years [28 years], it might be tempted to use oil money to entrench and extend itself in power and we have seen that in many countries. For instance, we have heard that some money from oil was used to buy jets, whether that is true or not, it speaks volumes.
Is EITI a panacea that once we sign up everything will be fine?
No, it is not a magic bullet but it will give us information and guiding principles that will help us scale down on the rate [at] which money could be swindled. If we know how much money companies are supposed to pay, then we can demand that money is paid. If we know how much money government has received, then we can ask where this money is.
Tullow disclosed how much the company paid government in 2012 and 2013. Have you inquired from government where it is or how it has been spent?
We have asked that question to the ministry of Finance and we have not yet got answers. Even when we ask URA, they don't give us answers.
Government looks at us as people asking for things we shouldn't be concerned with. But with EITI, we have government representative on the table, we have oil companies, CSOs, and by the time we create that multi-stakeholder group, we have already agreed and appreciated that openness is important and, therefore, you are willing to provide this information.
Uganda has a lot of systemic failures, including corruption and poor governance. Do you expect the oil and gas sector to be an island of excellence?
So, should we not try because we are such a corrupt country? No, we shall give it our best and we shall get our best. Ugandans have the ability to hold our government accountable at all levels: village, district, and national level.
But Ugandans have not held government accountable for the corruption and theft of their money.
I think what has been missing is the platform and timely information. In most cases, we get postmortem reports of corruption that happened many years back; therefore, there is little that we can do because it has already happened.
Now that oil production is going to start, this should be an opportunity for us [Ugandans] to put our foot down. As we begin production, can we start on the right footing and put a lock on those avenues that exacerbated corruption in other sectors.
Does our Parliament have the capacity to check on the powerful executive to ensure the oil benefits Ugandans?
No. I don't think we can get the best out of Parliament. It is the president with a final say. I saw this in the debate of clause 9 in the upstream law, they had debated it well, but when the president was not satisfied, he directed them to debate it and it went his way. On paper they have the power, but practically, the real power lies with the president.
Finally, what are the gender dynamics brought about by oil that you have observed?
Land and compensations have triggered a lot of gender issues in the oil-host communities. We have issues, where women got compensated for the value of their crops [mainly in Buliisa] and they had never got such amounts of money.
There are cases where you find that a woman has been struggling with a poor and abusive man, but now that money has come, she realizes that this is time to break away from this poor man and go and have another life. So, some women are investing secretly and families have started breaking [up].
Then men also have a lot of fears. They think that when women get money, they will become big-headed and powerful and finally men fear they are going to lose the respect and their status as men. But for us we don't look at women rights alone, we involve the men as well, because to whom are women going to claim their rights, definitely from their husbands.
If husbands are not aware of the rights women are claiming, then you are wasting time. Therefore, both men and women have fears, but both have opportunities they could tap into. For women, particularly those who are in the refinery area, they have issues. This oil development is on land and women spend a lot of time on land to fend for their families, tilting the land for survival.
Where a big truck passed, the soil was pressed so down and hard so that you can't grow anything there, so you are reducing on land they have for cultivation. In Hoima, it [is] the issue of who owns versus who utilizes the land.
Traditionally, land is owned by men; when valuing it, women were left out because they were valuing property that belongs to men. Then the money for land went to the men. Men are receiving the money and running away from their families; so, women don't know where the money is.
There is a lady called Stella; her husband had abandoned the family and had married another wife and they were staying in Entebbe. When the evaluation exercise started, the man went back to Hoima to claim compensation. So Stella asked, "when you get this money, where are you going?
You have not been here." Clearly he was going back to Entebbe after getting the money. Then she asked: "Where do you want me and my children to go?" She complained and she [was] at first dismissed until authorities intervened and they found a way of sharing the money.