Turkana residents use oil protests to drive a tough bargain

Turkana South MP James Lomenen stops for refreshment along the Lodwar-Lokichar highway. [Peter Ochieng', Standard]

The Government’s dream of turning the country into the region’s leading oil producer has run into resistance from those they least expected.

Residents of the expansive Turkana region have paralysed the transportation of crude oil to Mombasa, effectively holding the key project hostage until certain demands are met.

Two of their lawmakers James Lomenen (Turkana South) and his Turkana East counterpart Mohamed Ali put their expectations bluntly: no oil will leave the county until residents have a stake in jobs and their security is assured.

With President Uhuru Kenyatta said to be keen to have the stalemate resolved, a regional security team held a meeting with local leaders in Lokori area in Turkana East yesterday.

It remains to be seen how swiftly a litany of complaints raised by leaders will be resolved. Concerns listed include land encroachment, highway robberies, unclear oil policies, environmental hazards and land compensation.

Barely a month after President Kenyatta flagged off the first oil consignment under the Early Oil Pilot Scheme at Ngamia 8 in Lokichar, residents set up a blockade at Kalemngorok centre along the Lokichar-Kitale highway, forcing oil exploration firm Tullow Oil to halt operations.

Peter Erukudi, a resident, insisted that the community needed representation in Tullow. He accused leaders of standing in their way to ensure that only their relatives and cronies benefited.

“We are fighting for contracts but some leaders are distributing them to their families. Leaders should not shortchange us but ensure equity for the community.”

But the MPs blamed Tullow for allegedly awarding jobs and tenders to individuals from outside the county. “Oil is in our land and it is our birthright. We shall not allow it to leave this place until our grievances are resolved,” said Ali.

The residents also complained of rampant insecurity in Turkana East, which hosts a number of oil fields.

“A day after Uhuru flagged of the transportation, our people were killed by assailants and animals stolen in Lokori area. Does it mean that oil is more important than people's lives? All stolen livestock should be recovered and returned to owners before oil transportation resumes,” said Thomas Ekai, another resident.

Turkana Central MP John Lodepe said the residents were using the stalemate as a tool to bargain for their safety and jobs.

“The locals have been telling us that it seems the State can only listen and heed to their demands through the use of oil. It has always been our plea to them to separate their issues from the oil business because we know the dangers it can bring,” said Lodepe in a telephone interview.

He added: “At the moment, we are all at a loss due to the delay in evacuating oil to Mombasa. Economic sabotage will eventually eat into the international donors’ time and our hopes of enjoying the oil proceeds. But the issues raised by locals must also be handled.”

The MP claimed to have received firm instructions from State House to find an amicable solution to the standoff.

State House

“Time is running out and State House is waiting for feedback from us before Friday. Mr Kenyatta has made it clear that he does not want any confrontation that will lead to loss of lives. But our major concern is to have Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i tour the region and assure residents of their security and concerns raised.”

Fred Ogola, a sustainability expert, warned the delays would translate to major losses.

“Most of the equipment they (Tullow) use is leased and some cost as much as $250,000 (Sh25 million) per day. The capital expense spent will be very high if the delay continues. The delays will lead to major losses and since Tullow has to recoup the billions it has invested, it will pass the costs on to the government."

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