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Cordaid NL

Different Sides of the Same (Oil) Story

Ever since oil was discovered in 2012 in Turkana, one of the most marginalized counties in Kenya, people have unrealistically high expectations on the benefits it will bring to them. Lack of information, communication and public consultation at community level fuels the risk of tensions over time turning into conflicts. “Local communities in Turkana feel excluded on what is happening in their environment and want to be more involved in the decision-making process around oil revenue management”, says Cordaid’s Lenneke Kono-Tange. “Cordaid is committed to support these communities in becoming better informed and skilled actors in constructive dialogue with the objective to make oil a benefit to all.”

Challenges of the oil sector in Turkana County

What makes the oil industry so complex? “First of all, oil, gas and mining is a relatively new domain in Kenya and clear laws and regulations are not fully in place yet”, says Lenneke, who bases her findings on new Cordaid research, to be published soon. “In combination with limited transparency and a highly politicized devolution process with weak county government institutions, the resource curse is lurking.”

Similar to other new oil producing countries in East Africa, the extractives sector in Kenya is characterized by power imbalance and different interests of the various stakeholders. Furthermore, oil exploration and production activities can have major impacts on the fragile environment in the semi-arid lands of northern Kenya, whereas people who live there usually do not yet have the capacities to articulate their concerns and needs. “During a recent field visit  in February 2015 to Lokichar, a small town in one of the oil-rich areas in Turkana county, the different perspectives of key stakeholders became very clear”, explains Lenneke.

“Now we have no work anymore and struggle to go back to our former life, having lost our animals.”

Community perspective

Tange and others visited Askom, a community living in a vast dry area, not far from Lokichar. Sitting on the sand, under some of the scarce trees, they met up with some male community members, who told their story. “We, the men of Askom, were offered jobs when the oil company arrived. Also women had some income-generating activities, like selling firewood. However, during our absence, the community was left vulnerable and a large part of our animals were stolen. Now we have no work anymore and struggle to go back to our former life, having lost our animals. Our main need is water; we have requested a water tank from the oil company because the closest water point is far away. Since the beginning of oil exploration activities, the government has never helped us and we have not been informed [about oil exploration], let alone asked for our opinion.”

Civil society perspective

A community facilitator of one of Cordaid’s partner organizations in Lokichar, based in a small office near the town center – all devices carefully covered against the dust-, explains that “oil discovery increased employment opportunities, which is good for certain people. On the other hand, with the Petroleum Exploration, Development and Production Bill still languishing in parliament, it is hard to hold the oil companies and government accountable to certain standards. We experience a lot of negative impacts on communities; their living environment is quickly changing whereas they are not informed, neither consulted. The entry point of oil companies into Turkana have been the national and local administration, who often promote their self-interests and do not properly engage the community. Local civil society organizations are working on awareness-raising and empowering communities to bring their interests forward.”

Oil company perspective

The UK-based company Tullow Oil has been in Lokichar for several years and has several fully-fledged camps where most foreign workers live permanently, all facilities being available. “It is not easy to access a camp” Lenneke found out. “They are guarded and you need a valid reason to enter. Fortunately, we were able to arrange an appointment within one of the camps not far from Lokichar.” In the past “many things went wrong” admits one of the Tullow employees.

“The main difficulty for us is that locals see us as the ones that need to develop their communities, but this is the role of the government.”

“However, more recently we have changed our community engagement strategy and undertaken several initiatives to better inform communities. Unfortunately, information has not always been provided in a good way and even been used against us. Also, we used to deal with local politicians, who despite their electoral mandate not always represented community interests fairly. This has created some conflicts. We recently started a new outreach program, focused on better collaboration with communities and more effective engagement. However, the main difficulty for us is that locals often see us as the ones that need to develop their communities, whereas this is the role of the government.”

 The Government, the Church and ‘the New Church’

One key stakeholder perspective missing here is indeed that of the government, which is often absent when it comes to assuring community’s security and interests. With the devolution process now in full swing throughout Kenya, county governments are searching how to best organize their new responsibilities. National government on the other hand is keen to retain some powers at the central level and remains responsible for providing security throughout the country, including the oil areas.

 The Church also plays a very important role since it reaches out to the most remote areas, standing next to people facing difficulties and always keen to support local development and informing local communities. In the absence of a development-oriented government in the northern parts of Kenya, the Diocese of Lodwar has been taking care of basic needs like education, health care and water facilities over the past decades. According to the constitution, development is actually a key responsibility of government. However, as the government has not been effective in these areas for decades, local communities are increasingly expecting service delivery from the oil companies, who are sometimes even called ‘the new church’.

Working towards solutions

From these testimonies it is clear that there is need for capacity building and constructive dialogue at all levels: community, civil society, national and county government as well as oil company. Cordaid is currently working on a number of projects that aim to do just that. 

Read more about how Cordaid tackles the resource curse.