Oil imports shift and memories of Kenya, Uganda feisty relations

President William Ruto and his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museveni at State House Uganda after he arrived for the county's 60th Independence Day celebrations. [PCS]

President William Ruto’s government is, according to sources, working round the clock to develop a win–win situation in the current petroleum products exports dispute with Uganda.

Uganda President Yoweri Museveni has directed that all petroleum products averaging 2.5 billion litres imported from Kenya annually, valued at $2 billion (Sh300 billion) be sourced directly from Bahrain through Dar es Salaam.

“Expect a statement from the government on that issue soon but at the moment we cannot make any comment on that,” said a senior official in government.

Early this month, it was reported that Uganda felt aggrieved because it was not informed about the government to government deal that Kenya signed with some gulf-based companies to import oil.

It will be interesting to see how the trajectory of the trade stand-off develops because, economically, Kenya and Uganda are joined at the hip.

“Whether they like it or not both official and illicit trade like the coffee smuggling at Chepkube in the 1980s will continue because the same petroleum products will cross the border through illicit trade,” said a political scientist and former University of Nairobi lecturer now serving in the Kenya Kwanza administration, who requested anonymity.

He argues that the big economic imbalance that exists between Uganda and Kenya forces the populace to get a way of benefiting trough the black market, which governments cannot control given the porosity of the border.

Hundreds of trucks pick petroleum products from the Eldoret and Kisumu depots daily bound for the Uganda, Eastern DR Congo and South Sudan markets.

Uganda claims Kenya abandoned a transparent and price-competitive open tendering system and started importing directly through some companies in the Gulf without consultation.

Uganda Energy Minister Ruth Nankabirwa recently announced that the partnership for Uganda oil imports will be financed by Vitol Bahrain E.C of Bahrain.

She added that the company will provide a working capital facility backed by its global balance sheet and work with Uganda National Oil Corporation (UNOC) to ensure competitive pricing of fuel and oil products.

More worrying to Kenya businesses is that its western neighbour also plans to construct a storage facility at Mpigi which is about 40kms south west of Kampala in central Uganda

“Vitol Bahrain E.C. will also pay for the construction of additional capacity in partnership with UNOC which provide more 320 million liters of storage capacity at Namwambula, Mpigi,” said Nankabirwa.

 In so doing, Uganda expects it will also service suppliers in neighbouring countries like South Sudan, Rwanda and DRC, which currently depend on Kenyan imports.

Political fallout

Kenya has had a feisty relationship with Uganda in the past but most of those quarrels were on political fallouts. This is the first time the two countries are having a major trade dispute that could have a serious hit on the former’s economy.

The political scientist traces the difficulties between the two countries back to 1976 when President Iddi Amin Dada laid claim to half of the country saying the border be moved to Naivasha.

 Although his claim was a historical fact, the boundary had long changed because the British colonial rulers found it convenient to administer large parts of present day western Kenya that were earlier part of Buganda Kingdom from Nairobi.

Until 1970, parts of Turkana County were, for example, still part Uganda but ruled by Kenya before the boundary was later these regularised in the course of time.

“Before 1982, many Ugandan rebels also used Kenya as the base for subversive activities before President Daniel arap Moi and former Uganda leader Milton Obote agreed to repatriate those dissidents,” said the former MP.

Ugandan author Charles Onyango Obbo, a former Editor at Mail and Guardian, who has written extensively on the relationship between the two East African countries, has also described how betrayal by Kenya in 1982 shaped Uganda’s political future.

He writes that in 1982, when Kenyan security officials seized and handed over Uganda rebel leader Balaki Kirya, they set in motion events that went beyond what they would never have imagined.

He wrote that the former minister and influential rebel leader — was allegedly “sold” to the Milton Obote government by Kenyan security officials, which was a huge score for the Uganda president and his government.

Several events then followed because Kenya stopped being a sanctuary for Ugandan dissidents, leaving the people fleeing persecution little choice but to go directly to the bush to join Yoweri Museveni’s rebellion.

In 1995, Kenya repeatedly warned of a guerrilla threat by dissidents based in Uganda led by Brigadier John Odongo, who was working with, among others, Bukusu elder John Wangamati and student leader Wafula Buke, in the February Eighteenth Movement (FERA).

President Moi claimed FERA was working with registered opposition parties in the country as they allegedly planned to overthrow his government.

Opposition politicians initially dismissed FERA as a figment of the government’s imagination but in March 1995, Museveni acknowledged FERA’s existence and the presence of its leader, Brigadier Odongo in Uganda.

Opposition politicians led by the then Ford Kenya leader Wamalwa Kijana also dismissed claims that they were working with FERA but in the months that followed, there were a series of reported arrests and trials of alleged FERA activists most of them from Wamalwa’s political backyard.

Meanwhile, attacks on official targets such as police posts continued near the Kenya-Uganda border areas which the government in Nairobi said were mounted by FERA with the support of Uganda.

Some observers noted similarities between the trials of alleged FERA members and those of another underground movement known as Mwakenya, in the mid-1980’s.

In the 1980’s, during Amin’s rule, hundreds of thousands of Ugandan refugees fled into Kenya fearing persecution but most were forced to relocate back to their country years later by the government because of FERA activities.

UN refugee agency UNHCR reported that the presence in Uganda of Brigadier Odongo was probably the trigger of a threat in March 1995 to expel all refugees in Kenya after President Moi alleged they were engaged in criminal or subversive activities.

It later emerged that President Moi was angered by the UNHCR’s decision to resettle Brigadier Odongo from Uganda to Ghana, far away from East Africa.

“Kenya cannot continue harbouring refugees who have no respect for its laws. Let the UNHCR Commissioner get them shelter in another country,” said Moi

Some months earlier, in November 1994, President Moi had accused Ugandans of being responsible for growing crime in Nairobi, following the arrest of three Ugandans for murder.

A diplomatic row emerged when Ugandan diplomats claimed authorities in Nairobi was harassing their nationals because Ugandans were often being picked up by police and held incommunicado until they had paid a bribe.

In the 1990’s, most Kenyans who were opposed to the one party rule like Raila Odinga and Koigi Wamwere also used Uganda as an escape route to avoid a government crackdown on political activists.

In his articles, Obbo has written how a crackdown on Ugandan dissidents during the Obote administration helped Museveni’s National Resistance Army rebel movement.

“Others left Kenya and moved to southern Africa or the West, but several also joined Museveni in the bush. A scheme designed to undermine the Uganda rebel movement, thus turned into one of its biggest boost,” wrote Obbo.

After Kirya’s extradition, the next high-profile exchange of rebels was that of  Wamwere who was arrested by Kenyan security agents in Uganda while on one of his visits from exile in Norway.

In September 1990 when Museveni was in power, Wamwere was seized from Uganda by Kenyan security officials — with the collusion of some Ugandan elements.

According to Obbo, relations between Uganda and the Moi government soured because Nairobi accused Kampala of supporting leftist Kenyan underground groups.

“Indeed in 1987 and 1988, Uganda and Kenyan forces exchanged fire at the border but by 1990, Museveni and Moi had made up and conversations about the revival of the East African Community had started,” writes Obbo.

He says Koigi was a frequent visitor to Ugandan newsrooms, marketing his anti-Moi message whenever he visited from Europe wearing his camouflage jackets and dreadlocks and so Kenyan intelligence in Kampala would know very easily when he was in Kampala.

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