The paradox of Turkana's raging poverty amid oil riches

Turkana and Oil

As you enter Turkana County from West Pokot through the border town of Kainuk, what springs to mind is a hostile, dry and dusty land. A region of dead calm occasionally awakened by the crack of bandit gunfire as you drive through the perilous South Turkana National Reserve.

The county is associated with cattle rustlers, famine and crippling deprivation. Many hold the opinion that nothing good can come out of here. But the scrublands of South Turkana have billions of oil reserves underneath. Yet, despite the vast mineral resources in their communal land, residents live like paupers in the 15th Century –  a textbook case of the paradox of plenty.

That poverty and wealth always nestle together is not a natural law: It’s the spirit of capitalism. Indeed, whenever natural resources are discovered in developing countries, it is initially greeted with jubilation and hope of economic prosperity. The next phase is usually disillusionment and growing anger. This may be why some of Africa’s wealthiest countries in natural resources are poorer. The examples can be seen in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

All the sponsored wars have destroyed the livelihood of the residents, just for a few people and foreigners to benefit. In Nigeria’s Niger Delta, things are no different. The oil spill from the drilling has killed the fishing industry and agriculture. The protests of the residents were met by government repression, and the turmoil continues with no end in sight.

It is, therefore, understandable that, when British oil exploration firm Tullow Oil discovered the black gold in Turkana in 2012, there were wild celebrations in a region that had been marginalised since the reign of the kings.

Lokichar town is the commercial and administrative base of the county’s rapidly expanding oil operations. In 2019, it produced 240,000 barrels of crude oil that raked in Sh1.2 billion. Although there’s evidence of infrastructural development and growth of social amenities here and there, little seems to have gone into the pockets of the indigenous people.

Mr John Baraka is a community activist and expert in the extractives industry. In the burning sun of the Turkana desert, with soaring temperatures and an unforgiving environment, he stares into the wilderness and reflects on his people’s woes.

“We need a shift in our thinking to avoid the route other oil producers have taken. Transparency in revenues and expenditure is crucial to defeating the resource curse. Our natural resources should, ideally, be used to foster growth and reduce poverty,” says Mr Baraka.

But with no political will to drive real change, both at the local and national level, it seems the situation for those living on some of the richest soils in the nation will remain precarious for the foreseeable future.

“There’s a need to put in place strong anti-graft measures and press for transparency in how much revenue the national and county governments receive and how they spend it,” offers Baraka.

Rather than a blessing, the oil wells have become a bane for the poor. There are murmurings of discontent across the land. They say the money realised in 2019 ended up in the pockets of the political elite in Nairobi.

Community leaders say the windfall was squandered on the trappings of power and self-aggrandising projects instead of being invested productively to lift the standards of living. From new highways and tiled villas to trading centres sprouting up by the day along the Lodwar-Kapenguria highway to cater to the nouveau riche, the image of a region on the move is conspicuous. But at whose cost?

“Money was paid to the county government on behalf of the local community. However, nobody knows how much was paid and where the money is. Large swathes of Turkana are considered communal lands; nobody has a title deed, but the county government was supposed to ensure that the money gets to the communities. They didn’t,” claims Mr Baraka.

“The World Bank, through the Kenya Petroleum Technical Assistance Project, carried out sensitisation programmes on oil exploration here, but that’s not enough. The people wonder why the government never interferes with the cultivation of sugar, coffee or tea, in other parts of the country. Why do the rules change when it comes to oil?” he quips.

In Lodwar town, the county capital about 90 kilometres away, government mandarins flush with cash flaunt immoral opulence and display wealth extraordinaire amid biting hunger and poverty. It’s common to see pot-bellied bureaucrats driving around the brand new roads in their air-conditioned SUVs, guarded by stone-faced guards, while their people spend sleepless nights on empty and gurgling stomachs.

At Kode Kode Kraal, next to the Ngamia-1 well, where Tullow first discovered significant oil reserves, children are starving and women have almost given up hope. Jobs for largely unskilled residents are thinly spread and hazardous.

“We are just next to the oil company but have not benefited in any way. If there are Turkanas who have tasted the sweetness of oil, then it’s not us. As you can see, we have no food; our children are starving. We have buried loved ones here who died of hunger,” says Ms Ngipeiyo Arem, a mother of 10 at Kode Kode Kraal, which has some 200 households.

“The exploration has adversely affected our environment. Since they started, trees have dried up, the grass is gone and our health has deteriorated. Our animals have died; our people have died. We are drained economically; finished like a fish out of water,” she adds. To compound their woes, they must be alert at night as the oil wells have increased risks of attack from a neighbouring community that seeks to stake a claim to lands that could hold more reserves.

Petroleum and Mining Cabinet Secretary John Munyes says Tullow and its sub-contractors invested Sh300 billion in the project and the Sh1.2 billion realised three years ago was all absorbed. The ministry plans to acquire land for the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport (Lapsset) Corridor in Turkana to facilitate Full Field Development.

As a vital component of the Sh2.5 trillion Lapsset project, Mr Munyes says, the 820km pipeline from Lokichar to Lamu is critical for Kenya to realise its ambition of joining the league of oil exporters through the production of 100,000 barrels per day. The CS says the state has acquired land for pipeline development in Lamu, Garissa, Meru, Isiolo and Samburu counties but Turkana is yet to give in.

“The tough stance by the Turkana County Government is to blame for the delay in getting the anticipated revenue-sharing formula for national and county governments and the local community that was agreed to be 75:20:5 in the Petroleum (Exploration and Production) Act 2019,” offers Mr Munyes. Even as the blame game rolls on, the suffering people of Turkana continue to suffer in the land of plenty.

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 Tomorrow, on the ‘Journey through Kenya’ series, the Daily Nation tours the titanium fields of Kwale County and brings you the story of poverty amidst plenty, unfulfilled promises and the cry for justice.