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Predicting Africa’s Next Oil Insurgency: The Precarious Case of Kenya’s Turkana County

The recent discovery of oil deposits in Kenya’s Turkana County could increase insecurity in the region.
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Kenya's Turkana County. Photograph by Filiberto Strazzari.

Political scientists remain divided on the link between natural resources and armed conflict in Africa. One school of thought suggests that competition over the control of resources is itself a motivation for the development of armed insurgencies. Others – opponents of this greed-based theory – suggest that control over resources serves as a mechanism to correct economic and political inequalities. But all agree on one thing: there is a positive relationship between the availability of lootable resources and armed insurrection, and this is particularly the case where populations have been marginalised.

Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta follows this pattern - the Delta experienced a protracted insurgency against the region’s hydrocarbon industry due to the negative impacts of oil exploration and the question of profit distribution. The conflict occurred in a context of ethnically-motivated violence and a burgeoning small arms trade, leading to the rapid militarisation of the region.

A 2009 amnesty agreement formally brought an end to the Niger Delta conflict and, although the peace remains tenuous, the frequency of violence, kidnappings and terrorism has decreased. As a consequence, the world's attention has shifted towards the impending East African oil boom. Most vested stakeholders have focused on the potential geopolitical benefits of the boom, but fail to address the potential impact these resource discoveries could bring to areas already experiencing acute socio-political and economic marginalisation.

A case in point is Kenya’s Turkana County. Located at the meeting of Kenya’s blurred borders with Ethiopia, Uganda and South Sudan, Turkana County is an arid region, long neglected by successive Kenyan administrations. However, in recent months, Turkana County has become a key area of interest for the Kenyan government and investors alike following reports that British-owned oil exploration company, Tullow Oil PLC, discovered an estimated 250 million barrels of crude oil there.

While resource extraction is not expected to begin for several years, the Turkana oil finds have been celebrated. Oil revenue is seen as a solution to poverty in the region, where nine out of ten people live below the breadline. But behind the optimistic rhetoric, the prevailing political and security environment in Turkana County is looking conspicuously similar to that which sparked insurgency in the Niger Delta. If left unaddressed, we could potentially see the region become a theatre for oil conflict.

Corruption and exclusion

If history in the Niger Delta is anything to go by, it is far from guaranteed that the population of Turkana County will benefit from the potential oil revenue. The existence of corruption has already been raised. During a two-day consultative meeting held in the regional capital, Lodwar, in June 2012, community leaders accused local officials of 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 localities.

Equally scathing accusations against Tullow Oil were made. The company was accused of failing to publicise Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) reports, paying insufficient compensation to communities and bribing local councillors and leaders as a means of securing control of resource-rich land. The meeting also identified economic exclusion, accusing Tullow of outsourcing basic services and expertise, denying jobs to local people.

Both the Kenyan government and Tullow Oil have rejected these allegations and committed to greater transparency to ensure local populations can see concrete benefits. However, until commitments have been realised, mistrust and scepticism will remain.

Environmental impact

The potential for further environmental degradation in already fragile ecological conditions is a key concern for those living in the oil zone. An estimated 60% of the region’s inhabitants are pastoralists who have long struggled with seasonal droughts, which led to the deaths of thousands of livestock.

The situation has deteriorated significantly over the last decade and it is estimated that 75% of the population is reliant on food aid. Projects are ongoing in the region to promote the diversification of economic activities, thus limiting dependency on the livestock trade; however, lack of infrastructural development continues to serve as a significant impediment to such initiatives.

While the hydrocarbon industry will undoubtedly produce marked improvements in infrastructure, this is likely to be counterbalanced by the unavoidable ecological impact of oil exploration. Dwindling reserves of fertile land will be appropriated for mining activities, and risks of air, soil and water pollution are significant.

While the government is quick to assure that mechanisms will be in place to offset any adverse ecological effects, environmental degradation is likely to lead to communal antagonism toward the region’s oil industry and, as witnessed in the Niger Delta, could contribute to armed civil insurrection within Turkana County.

Small arms proliferation

Although based in deep-rooted grievances, the role small arms proliferation plays in fuelling internal armed insurrection cannot be overstated. Again, the Niger Delta serves as a timely reminder. In the early-2000s, a thriving small arms trade developed as light weaponry flowed readily over the porous borders of Cameroon, Gabon and Guinea-Bissau. The subsequent militarisation of ethnic groups within the Niger Delta would later serve as important vehicles of the violence directed against the region’s oil industry.

In Turkana County, the availability of light weaponry has been identified as playing a critical role in sustaining communal conflict. An estimated 50,000 small arms are already in circulation, created in part by neighbouring conflicts in South Sudan and Uganda’s Karamoja sub-region. Growing land and resource scarcity has significantly increased tensions, leading to frequent and protracted outbreaks of violence.

Organised crime

For some in Turkana County, access to weaponry has become the only means of socio-economic survival. Organised and well-armed gangs regularly engage in acts of criminality, usually in the form of cattle rustling and highway banditry. If left unchecked, such entities may pose a significant security threat to the region’s future hydrocarbon industry.

As was witnessed in the Niger Delta, oil production has the propensity to support a thriving criminal enterprise. Oil bunkering, the process where oil is siphoned illegally from pipelines, remains rife within the Niger Delta and it is believed that as much as 7% (an estimated 150,000 barrels) of Nigeria’s crude oil is stolen daily. Revenue from oil bunkering is often pumped back into armed groups.

As these groups expand, incidents of oil bunkering become more than an auxiliary threat to the oil sector. Rather, actions escalate into more direct threats, including terrorism, sabotage and kidnapping for the purposes of ransom and extortion.

Oil and water

It is not just oil that lies beneath Turkana County. Recently, massive water reserves have been discovered in the region. Many believe this water wealth could provide the solution to water insecurity not just in the drought-blighted regions in the north, but for the entire country.

With both water and oil drawing all eyes to Turkana County, government and commercial stakeholders must act now to ensure the recent discoveries are to the benefit of local populations and to prevent the region becoming a focal point for a resource-driven conflict.

Socio-economic development must come first. Forthcoming oil sector legislation needs to promote development and put the needs of the local population - and particularly the new hopes for the elimination of drought - above those of the oil industry. In addition, stronger policing and judicial structures within Turkana County will mitigate the need for community self-protection and should be focused on small arm control. For the economic stakeholders, there is a responsibility to ensure that the exploration and exploitation of all of the region's resources is an inclusive process which is subject to stringent controls.

First and foremost, these players will need to manage local expectations by educating affected communities that any potential economic benefits derived from the oil and water discoveries are unlikely to occur overnight. Ultimately, any future industry within Turkana County has to be beneficial to the overall well-being of the region’s inhabitants. If not, communities may very well resort to violence.

By Ryan Cummings, Chief Analyst for Africa for red24.

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I almost stopped reading this after the opening paragraph as the author of this article clearly doesn't understand the debate surround the resource curse. There is a direct contradiction in the text - firstly you say that one school of though thinks that resouces can be managed to deal with inequalities, then you say that all agree on the 'positive relationship between the availability of lootable resources and armed insurrection'. Not only does this go against what has just been written it's also simply not true. That's where the debate over the resource curse comes in... lazy writing. 

@adam taylor If making theoretical criticisms, please first ensure that the theory your are criticising is indeed correct. As far as I am concerned, the author has made no reference, nor should he have needed to, to the resource curse in terms of explaining the situation in Turkana. The resource curse (also known as the dutch disease) is a theory which explains how many countries who possess an abundance of resources fail to use the revenue garnered from such resources to actually promote economic growth and poverty reduction. In many cases, economic regression is what takes place in such contexts. The resource curse can be a precursor to conflict but there are many cases, Equatorial Guinea being the prime example, where this has proved to not be the caseIf you were to criticise a theory being forwarded here, it would have to be focused on the debate regarding greed vs grievance. I will concede that the author's simplication of the surrounding the theory is way to simplistic and problematic. That said, from what ive read, the greed vs grievance debate is only raised in this piece to highlight that the fact that their is a correlation between resources and conflict in contexts where grievances are apparent, especially if arms are easily availabe and security/political structures are weak. The exact reason for the start of the conflict (greed or grievance) is irrelavant to the argument being made.What I took away from this piece was that the focus on the East African oil industry often completely overlooks the socio-economic conditions which already exists within areas which have oil reserves and how governments are very unwilling to take note of lessons which could have been learnt from the Niger Delta

Dear Adam. Many thanks for your feedback. I do believe that there is a contradiction in the text. I opened this piece by stating that division exists pertaining to the role resources play in conflict. However, the supposition I made at the end of the opening paragraph reads ambiguously. What I meant to say was that there is a positive correlation between resources and conflict in contexts where deep-rooted grievances exist and security/political structures are weak. Please note that I never asserted that resources can be managed to deal with inequalities but rather that resources and the control thereof can be used as a financing mechanism for armed groups seeking to correct perceived imbalances. Nonetheless, as mentioned, I do appreciate your feedback and i can completely relate to your concerns regarding a possible misrepresentation of the theory.

Thanks for this piece-- there are a lot of interesting points here on the risks of oil exploration in Turkana.  But I question the author's conclusion that the government's responsibility is to manage community expectations.  The Turkana area is home to minority groups, who have the right under international and Kenyan law to participate in decision-making about their territory.  The government is obligated not only to manage their expectations, but also--more fundamentally--to  consult them on development plans prior to development.  Oil exploration can have major effects on pastoralist communities' traditional ways of life, and their rights should be at the centre of any discussion of oil exploration.  See, for example, this article about the concerns of one pastoralist community on the impact of oil exploration on grazing lands.

Hi ChelseaThank you very much for your postive comments about the article and, more importantly, for taking the time to provide feedback. In terms of your critique, please note that I wholeheartedly agree that all decision-making needs to be inclusive and that the Turkana communities need to be consulted before any development takes place. My reference to the 'government managing local expectations' is purely focused on the government ensuring that local communities are cognisant of the fact that any potential economic benefits of Turkana's hydrocarbon industry wont be realised overnight. There is a lot of evidence suggesting that community leaders are maing unreasonable promises as a means of getting communal consent to oil exploration inititiaves. If these expectations are not going to be met, it is only likely going to further heighten sentiments of distrust and frustration among the Turkana populace.