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Turkana: Another “Niger Delta” in the making?

For decades residents of Turkana County in Northern Kenya have crisscrossed the hills, valleys and plains that mark the borders of their county with herds of animals looking for pasture and water for their malnourished animals. Theirs is a story of a neglected community that has over time learnt to fend for itself the most basic of amenities governments deserve to provide its people with.

It is not uncommon to meet Turkana Morans moving with herds of cattle from one pasture land to another, guns on their backs to provide them with that all important security just incase a rustler is hiding somewhere in the bushes. The entire county has not seen a single inch of Tarmac, other infrastructure such as electricity, piped water, and health facilities are hard to come by if not totally unavailable.

This marginalization was birthed by the colonial government who thought “nothing good could ever come out of the sun scorched earth of Turkana.” One of Kenya’s Governors during the British rule is said to have said that the best thing he could do for Turkana was to give them a British flag. This marginalization sad to say did not end with the “Whiteman’s rule.” Post-independent governments continued with the trend and 50 years down the line, the people of Turkana still don’t feel as if they are part of this country. When visiting the county the residents will always ask you to “say hi to the people of Kenya” on your way back.

Energy Minister Kiraitu Murungi announcing the oil discovery.

Things however took a dramatic turn in March 2012 when the government announced the discovery of oil deposits in the county. Immediately there was a sudden surge in interests in Turkana County and the week to follow they were to receive media coverage like they never did before. Everybody wanted to be associated with Turkana and suddenly they were now part of Kenya.

Then came the subsequent discovery of oil deposits in other parts of the county and to crown it all there was the discovery of water – a precious commodity that had eluded the residents of Turkana for ages. It was valued to be so much that it can quench Kenya’s thirst for the next 70 years.

As we are busy making plans with Turkana’s oil, gas and water, we as people from the other parts of Kenya who have had a fair share of the “national cake” when it comes to infrastructure and social amenities have not stopped to think of the poor herdsman in Turkana who has suffered decades of neglect.

This is what brings about “resource curse” that has been associated with several nations in Africa such as the Congo, Sierraleone and of course the Niger Delta. Political scientists remain divided on the link between natural resources and armed conflict in Africa, with one school of thought suggesting that competition over the control of resources is itself a motivation for the development of armed insurgencies. Other opponents of this greed-based theory suggest that control over resources serves as a mechanism to correct economic and political inequalities. They all however agree that there is a positive relationship between the availability of “lootable” resources and armed insurgencies, especially where populations have been marginalized.

The recent demonstrations witnessed in Turkana are just but a manifestation of some of the underlying issues
that must be dealt with if Kenya is to positively benefit from the recently discovered natural resources in various parts of the country. What is interesting though is that this issue is not something new to the stakeholders in this venture; there was the recent (somewhat controversial) school play by Butere Girls High School students dubbed “Shackles of doom” that somewhat prophesied some of these issues that are now coming to fore.

Oil Exporation site in Turkana Kenya

As much as extraction work is yet to start and the claims might as well be a perception as Tullow Oil PLC recently claimed, there are deep issues that the National Government and the mineral extracting companies must pay attention to which if left unaddressed might turn Turkana and indeed other mineral rich parts of Kenya into a theatre of mineral conflict.

Poverty and inequality makes oil and water protests inevitable Turkana, unless government and oil and water companies take great care to support local communities in the early stages of exploration and extraction.

In a recent TV interview on Jeff Koinange Live on Kenya Television Network, Mr. Ekuro Aukot, a respected Nairobi lawyer who hails from Turkana highlighted several corrupt practices that have seen government officials illegally acquiring title deeds, misappropriating community-owned land and using intimidation and violence to displace communities within the region’s oil-rich Ngamia 1 and Twiga South 1 mining blocks, a serious recipe for armed uprising.

The people of Turkana county have for a long time been providing themselves with security using guns and other crude weapons, this coupled with the fact that the county shares a long porous border with Ethiopia, South Sudan and Uganda proliferation of small arms can play a huge role in fueling these demonstrations that we have started experiencing into a full blown armed conflict.

It is therefore vital that as the government and the oil companies ponder over their next move, the grievances of the people of Turkana and other marginalized areas with mineral wealth are taken into account. There might be challenges in getting skilled manpower to work in the exploration and extraction blocks in some of these regions but the government and the oil companies must be seen to be doing something about it because it is rather perception – not necessarily fact that fuels resource conflicts.

Above all the government needs to swiftly develop natural resource management policies now that Kenya is joining the league of continental mining giants so that the gains from this venture can be felt by all stakeholders.

                                              Follow me on Twitter @IamOminde



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