Petro-politics in Uganda: get-rich-quick won’t pay

What does an oil sector in its infancy look like from the inside? Our researcher Amrit Naresh is in Kampala, Uganda for three weeks working with Uganda Radio Network to launch a new wiki on Uganda’s oil. This is the first in a series of blogs he’ll post while there.

At a pub Monday night in Kampala’s Bukoto district, I was sitting with a friend I’ll call Mike, a music promoter who runs a recording studio in the area. At 10pm a flash came across the television screen in the corner and he rapped my shoulder and pointed: “Look, oil! This is what I was telling you about.”

The nightly news came on and it was a session of Parliament going through final deliberations on Uganda’s draft petroleum bill. The ten or so others loitering around the bar also snapped their heads up. There were plenty of distractions – boda-bodas screeching by, street vendors yelling, reggae music blasting – but their attention to the tv was rapt.

It’s no secret why. Parliament was supposed to vote on the bill the next day. But when Tuesday came a contingent of MPs refused to vote because of a provision in the bill vesting the energy minister, and by extension the president, with absolute power over Uganda’s burgeoning oil sector. Many distrust the president and his advisers – after all you don’t stay in power for 26 years just by kissing babies – and if this provision in the bill passes, much of the promise of oil could be wasted.

The dissenting MPs want a semi-autonomous Petroleum Authority to have final say on oil matters, and instead of hastily passing the bill to get a revenue boost, they would rather delay the flow of petroleum and its revenues until this kind of management framework is in place.

With the petroleum bill hanging in the balance, it’s a pivotal moment for Uganda. Together with two other bills up for debate – a public finance bill and an oil transportation bill – this legislation will determine whether the oil sector can deliver social and economic development in a country where three quarters of the population still lives on less than $2 a day.

So it’s no wonder why all the party-goers’ attention was focused on the tv Monday night. Oil touches everything in Uganda right now, even before it starts flowing.

Mike, the music promoter, uses studio equipment to record sessions of parliament and has hours of tape of people facing eviction from oil areas voicing complaints. He says he plans to use the tapes to inspire his artists when they write lyrics. Ugandan musicians are socially conscious above all, he tells me, and as their promoter he sees ample opportunities in the market for song lyrics concerning oil. And, in me, I think he had confirmation that it’s not only Ugandans who are following Uganda’s oil sector with a keen and critical eye.

This is why I like you, you know, Mike confided in me. Because this president and this bill, they are already hurting the people of Uganda with this oil business. People need to know. People from Europe and America, they don’t see what’s happening here so we need you, you journalists, to show the world what’s going on so we can stop it.

Ok, so this was why he liked me and took me under his wing. I had thought it was for my mzungu accent or my smile. But in any case he’s right. These next few months – these three pieces of legislation – represent a moment in history that will determine whether oil’s benefits might actually reach beyond a select few.

The fifty years since independence have been rocky: Uganda has seen two dictators bring the country to physical, emotional and economic ruin, until 1986, when President Yoweri Museveni began his current stint.

Some Ugandans that I’ve met in my first few days here give Museveni credit for putting Uganda on a slow but steady path of growth. The Ugandan economy has grown by an average of about 7% over the past ten years, and revenues will skyrocket once oil actually starts pumping. The value of the oil windfall is estimated at $2 billion annually over a period of twenty years, a mind boggling sum when compared to Uganda’s annual budget of $2.4 billion or its GDP of $17 billion.

If managed properly, the oil sector could provide jobs for tens of thousands and some of the revenues could be invested in sorely needed schools, hospitals, housing and social service infrastructure. But if left unchecked a corrupt and unaccountable government threatens to derail the whole scheme.

As such it’s a fascinating time to be in Uganda working on oil. Rarely do you get to see a country sitting on a couple billion barrels of oil reserves while civil society and a solid chunk of MPs duke it out with vested government interests on the Parliament floor. Some argue that Uganda needs to start reaping the profits of its oil reserves right now. But in my (admittedly somewhat tree-hugging) mind, I’d rather see this petroleum bill stall, stall, stall than have Tullow et al begin pumping Uganda’s oil before responsible legislation is in place.

My impression is that Mike the music promoter and other Ugandans I’ve met agree. I hope the president’s attempt to hustle through ‘yea’ votes on his power over the oil sector continues to meet stiff resistance. If Tuesday’s non-vote is any indication, there’s a long, good fight ahead.

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