Turkana Oil Discovery: Is It A Curse or A Blessing?

On Monday 26 March, the government announced that Kenya has struck oil in Turkana County in Rift Valley Province joining the league of states in the East African region that are endowed with this resource. Turkana County, some 15 per cent of Kenya’s landmass, is extremely arid and vulnerable to climate shocks. In many parts of Kenya, the weather has become increasingly unpredictable, with strong winds, frequent droughts and floods. For about 900,000 Turkana residents of north-western Kenya, climate change is today’s reality. In Turkana County, climate-driven environmental change is creating new levels of environmental degradation, destitution and conflicts, as pastoral raiding takes place in an attempt to re-stock herds, depleted by drought, or because of competition for increasingly scarce resources.  The problems in Turkana are not only, or at all, about global climate change. Environmental degradation is taking place because of more proximate causes, including, oil exploration, sedentarization, which can lead to overgrazing. Insecurity from inter-ethnic raiding connected to political processes and environmental pressures prevents pastoralists from moving to pastures in an optimal fashion. The moving of multinationals to explore oil and gas in Turkana and other pastoralist areas is going to increase the impacts of global warming creating a tragedy of enclosure for pastoralist communities as witnessed in Maasai pastoralist areas like Kajiado, Narok and Trans Mara. In these areas, access to grazing land rights by herders has been restricted because of land fragmentation-land has been sub-divided into small uneconomical units, which  have undermined sustainable pastoralism.

Turkana is a trust land and it’s communally-owned by the Turkana people and managed by Turkana County Council as their custodian. The commons must be protected and multinationals should not increase environmental scarcities already facing this arid and semi-arid region. But instead they should observe both national and international environmental protection conventions, where Kenya is a signatory. The current and future oil prospecting companies and the general Kenyan public investors should be warned of dubious land brokers as this is a trust land.

Multinational companies must be cautious with the so called “gatekeepers” of Turkana. These gatekeepers’ do not represent the local residents’ voices. As part of their corporate social responsibility(CSR), multinationals prospecting and exploiting oil, gas and wind in northern Kenya, should invest in sustained employment, education, healthcares and clean drinking water to help reduce poverty and human development in the region. CSR activities  will prevent future conflicts over natural resources exploitation in this region. Turkana county council should also maintain inclusive democratic governance to rid any cases of corruption in oil land deals.  As  architects of sustainability put it: “What you do today will determine the lives of the present and future generation.”

Livelihoods are also changing in Turkana. Climate change is exacerbating poverty vulnerability, conflicts, migration, leading to new, more intractable problems for the Turkana, and other ASAL pastoralist communities who are already socially, economically and politically marginalized. The livelihoods are also changing because of urbanization, education, exposure to markets and wider social and cultural transformation.

In Kenya, the highest poverty levels are found among the northern pastoralists, with huge proportions of the population falling below the national poverty line. Turkana County is the poorest in Kenya with a poverty index of 95 per cent compared with a national average of 53 per cent. Turkana is among the highest recipient of the Constituency Development Fund (CDF), devolved funds. Since 2003, Turkana has received about 1.4 billion Kenyan shillings (equivalent US$18 million/£1.1 million). This is in addition to local authority transfer fund (LATF) and other billions of shillings pumped by aid agencies and development partners every year, but deepening poverty is a daily struggle. Though Turkana, a home to the world renewable energy deposits, including geothermal, solar and wind. The weekend discovery of oil deposits is unlikely to transform the socio-economic lives of the Turkana people given the historical marginalisation and poor governance.

The geopolitical manipulation by Kenya’s ruling political elites has for the past four decades subjected and isolated the Northern Frontier County from national development. So, what makes Turkana important now? Turkwel hydroelectric power plant in Turkana is one classical example of how the Turkana have been dispossessed of their land and investment.  Though the power plant sits in Turkana County but still disputed by Pokot political elites, Kainuk, the nearest urban centre to the power plant, received electricity 22 years after  Turkwel Gorge dam was constructed in 1985.  The plant supplied electricity to Eldoret, 400 kilometres away, to feed industries and mainstream society, while the nearest town, Kainuk, barely 10 kilometres, received the electricity in 2007, thanks to Kenya Power Rural electrification programme.

This power plant has continued to be a geopolitical weapon used by some local communities (Pokot) to suppress their future economic competitors, Turkana.  The horizontal inequality perpetuated by successive governments has led the Turkana into brinks of poverty. The political class are using cattle raiding as a weapon to exclude and force Turkana living in the disputed national power-plant to flee their ancestral land.

The government favours Pokot community and has gone ahead to duplicate names to confuse the issue. This is evident by the recently released Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) boundaries reports where names of Turkana areas have been duplicated in the West Pokot County. The government has also created administrative units with similar names and appointed chiefs to administer the same areas. This duplication of names is purposely done and is a recent development. There were no duplicated names before now. Because the government favours the Pokots, only the Turkana can save their land and resources by standing up and fighting both Pokots and their government in court.

In the past month, hundreds of thousands of Turkana people have fled their homes in Lorokon area of Turkwel Hydroelectric power, Kaputir, Nakukulas, Kapedo, Lochwakula and Silale among others. The same plays out at the geothermal deposits sites in Silale and Loriu claimed by the Pokot community at the border of Turkana East and Baringo East District. The oil belt has been a conflict hotspot for a couple of years since prospects of these minerals started. These are some of the reasons why Turkana are yet to celebrate about the oil discovery. They have been socially, economically and politically marginalised.

The constant conflicts along Turkana County border areas with West Pokot and Baringo East are becoming increasingly insecure and making poor people’s daily survival harder. The continuous pokot raids are not just due to scarce resources and grazing. The raids crossed that line long time ago. The raids are now about Pokot expansionism and Pokots desire for Turkana resources. It is about Pokots wanting land they know pretty well belongs to Turkana.

The clear picture of the situation played out last weekend, Friday 23 March. More than 15 Turkana were killed by armed Pokot raiders during planned multiple attacks in Kaputir, Kogito, Kaituko, Kapelibok and Lokuyam of Turkana South District and Kotaruk in Loima district. The spate of conflicts have overwhelmed Turkana residents. The oil discovery and exploration is a worrying revelation particularly in a region where security is a mess.

What needs to be done in Turkana? Insecurity must be a priority for the Kenyan Government to fix it. The man-made administrative boundaries dispute between the Turkana and Pokot communities must be addressed the earliest. The Government must degazette the duplicated administrative units  created on the Pokot side to reduce the tension and claims by Pokot of Turkana historical areas in East Turkana, South Turkana and Loima Districts. Similarly, the IEBC should review similar duplicated wards created in West Pokot and Baringo East. This is a recipe for future identity conflicts between the Pokot and Turkana communities.

Another issue, the main road from Kitale town to Lodwar is insecure. Bandits terrorise, rob and rape commuters. Motorists always need police escort. The Kitale-Lodwar road, 325 kilometres, connects South Sudan and the Turkana County with Nairobi. The old tar road needs to be repaired.

The Kenyan government has to face up to the challenges that are bearing down on Turkana people. It needs to take personal responsibility and tackle constant conflicts in the North Rift  as only political commitment at the highest level can prevent these conflicts. The government needs to revoke all existing bogus licenses for all the oil wells in Turkana County. It also needs to investigate and prosecute all those behind the oil companies’ scandals starting from the concerned line Ministries officials to the Turkana County Council officials, past and existing staff.

The civil society movement needs to put pressure on the government to act now to find a solution to drivers of climate change, overwhelming poverty, droughts, famine, conflicts, livestock diseases, internal displacements and migration in Turkana. In the absence of political will, efforts and solutions to reduce poverty, conflicts, famine, malnutrition, health and lives of thousands of people across Turkana will be at risk.

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