Words from Kenya

Oil isn’t a curse it’s inequality that does the damage.

Turkana Men

Oil isn’t a curse, it is the inequality of wealth and power that so often accompany oil that is the problem. When large oil deposits are found in an area as poor and marginalised as Turkana there is the potential for that gap to be at its most extreme.

The word ‘marginalised’ is used a lot in relation to communities in northern Kenya but it is worth stating exactly what it means regarding the people of Turkana. It means that the local people have not had a direct or indirect voice in the governance of their area. Not directly because civil society is weak or non-existent and because government positions are elitist, requiring skills and qualifications most do not possess. Not indirectly because the availability and level of education is so little and so low, communications are limited and roads of any kind are few.

The local people live off the land (mostly as semi nomadic pastoralists and some as agro-pastoralists) but the land is unproductive, consequently people are extremely poor financially. The gap between these people and any large business operation would be big, but the gap between them and one of the largest profit generating and most powerful industries the world has ever known is immense.

There is plenty of research to show that inequality is at the root of many social ills and that it plays a significant part in the instigation and continuation of a great many violent conflicts. The responsibility of government to reduce this gap is obvious but these days it is accepted that large business also has a part to play. It is widely regarded as not enough for a powerful company to merely discharge its legal responsibility; they have a social and moral obligation too.

While oil companies working in Turkana can in no way be held responsible for the current marginalisation of the population they can, and should, be held responsible for not taking adequate steps to reduce the inequality gap between themselves and the local people.

This responsibly needs to be taken seriously. Tullow Oil, for example, offers scholarships for post graduate education; ten places were available to Kenyans this year. They are also offering sponsorship for secondary school, with 30 places available to students from Turkana County. However in Turkana merely getting more than a year or two of primary education is a rarity. The company may well have had the best of intentions but their actions are in fact bolstering current elitism. They are rewarding the few families who are, relatively speaking, wealthy and educated enough to put their children into schools that provide a good enough education to take them to the successful completion of their primary exams. It is rarer still for a Turkana child to get to university so if any from Turkana benefit from the postgraduate scholarships they will already be part of the privileged few.

Successive governments have left the people of Turkana to fend almost entirely for themselves. This can be seen in the abysmal provision of basic services such as education and health care but perhaps most brutally in the provision of security and policing.

The approach of government to Turkana security is most starkly felt in the areas along the international borders. There you will find Administration Police (normal area police) and General Service Unit (elite police) but the security personal rarely venture more than a kilometre or two from their bases when on patrol. All the real security work, the work of fending off the well-armed raiders from Ethiopia, Sudan or Uganda, is undertaken by the local Kenya Police Reservists (local men who are provided with guns by the government, but no training, to protect their own communities). It has been standard government policy for many years to arm the locals to fight for themselves (and often amongst themselves) and to man the county’s borders rather than to provide professional security.

Like politicians the world over who have armed militia to fight for them and are then surprised when the militia turns against them, there is genuine concern that some in Turkana could display their anger about the inequalities between them and the oil business through violence.

So far, though both the current government (local and national) and the oil companies are drafting and enacting proposals to mitigate the inequality gap, none of them are suggesting or delivering solutions on a scale to match the potential inequalities in Turkana. Unless they start thinking in terms several orders of magnitude greater than they currently are there is little chance of avoiding serious trouble in Turkana. The warning signs are there for all to see, the protests and the increase in violence, and experts from all over the world are calling the alarm, but so far nobody in a position to do something about it seems to be paying much attention.

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