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We are mere spectators, says Nwoya District Chairman

In an exclusive interview with Oil in Uganda, Patrick Okello Oryema, the Nwoya district Chairman complains about what he perceives as systematic exclusion of his people and region from participating in the oil and gas sector. Nwoya district in Acholi sub-region is one of the districts in the Albertine Graben where a substantial amount of oil has been discovered. The district boasts of oil wells such as Jobi, Rii, Mpyo and Lyec among others, where Total E&P (U) Ltd is the main operator.

Patrick Okello Oryema

Patrick Okello Oryema

The issue of oil is a new phenomenon in Uganda and as Nwoya district, it took us time to understand it fully.  First of all, oil in Nwoya district is within a protected area (Murchison Falls National Park). That in a way made it very difficult for our community to see and understand what was going on and get acquainted with the process unlike in other districts like Buliisa or Hoima where oil is drilled within the community. For our case, oil is in the Park.

So, in a way, this created a lot of suspicion on how our community is going to benefit from the oil. What I want to say is that the oil exploration has not yet benefited our people much even in terms of Corporate Social Responsibility [CSR].

What can be noted as a benefit is the Local Sponsorship Programme introduced by Total. As we talk now, we have 15 of our students benefiting from this Scheme [since 2013]. They have been taken to really good schools in Kampala which, if their parents were the ones to pay, there is no way they could have afforded such expensive schools.

So, we look at this as a benefit. Out of these 15 students, 10 have already completed their A-level and some qualified for government scholarships at university.  As a district, we believe this (sponsorship) can go a long way in addressing the challenge of skills gap in our people. The second benefit is a few employment opportunities that our youths were able to get. We have been able to send 207 of our youth to go and work as casual labourers with the oil companies.

But generally, when you compare the Corporate Social Responsibility that was done in other districts, then you realize that the oil company [Total] has really not done much for Nwoya. When you go to Buliisa, in addition to scholarships, you are able to see hospitals fully constructed, schools fully renovated, water points constructed in the communities; which is not the case here.

How do you want CSR to be handled?

We believe that a company should really come to the local government. We are not attempting to give the company a shopping list, but as a district, we have priority areas that we believe should be addressed. So, I believe oil companies should look at priority areas of the district and make a choice on which ones to support and not just dreaming and coming with something that is not necessary.

That is why I recently rejected mosquito nets from Total. When government started distributing mosquito nets, that is the time when Total also came to us, that we are giving you mosquito nets as CSR, I said what is this? We stopped them. I can’t allow duplication of services.

The Acholi Technical Working Committee on Oil and Gas (ATWCOG) has often complained to the President about the unbalanced development of oil infrastructure. That most of the infrastructure projects are going to Bunyoro and a few are planned for Nwoya, have you got a response from government?

This has been a very disturbing matter for us. Our view is that not every infrastructure should go to Bunyoro, Acholi is also producing oil. If you have a refinery in Bunyoro, there should be something for Acholi region. We have already tabled this issue in the Acholi sub-region leader’s forum and we have also already tabled this before the Acholi Parliamentary Group.

Government’s response has been to establish a petroleum college in Nwoya district. We are now looking for the land where it is going to be constructed. We cannot have oil and fail to benefit. So, we hope that this petroleum institute that is to be constructed in Nwoya will attract courses at a higher level. We want government to establish this as a Petroleum University, that is our stand. It should be something big. You see, the refinery is in Bunyoro, so why can’t we have a petroleum university and other infrastructure in Acholi?

There should be a win-win situation, because this is one thing that can easily divide Uganda if not balanced. As we talk now, there is a lot of suspicion that government has already put pipes underground and is taking oil to Bunyoro, it is because we see a lot of these things being done on the other side [Bunyoro] and for us we are like spectators. It something that government needs to critically handle, otherwise it will be like a time bomb which can explode any time. Issues of regional balance must be fully addressed if oil is to benefit all of us.

Another manifestation of regional imbalance in the sector is seen in representation on oil Boards (Petroleum Authority and Oil Company). You don’t see any name starting with O (most names in Acholi start with letter O) and wonder what is happening. You see, we would like to see our people also in charge, appointed on oil Boards but when you see names from a region that does not have oil, you really wonder where we are headed. Those are some of the things government should handle to avoid suspicion and mistrust.

If government doesn’t look at the question of balance, it is going to become an issue. There is no way we can do away with politics on a resource that is key to the country. As Acholi sub-region, we want to know what is our take? What is the intention of government towards the resource within our sub-region?

As Acholi leaders, you wrote a Memorandum to the President in which you raised these same issues, has he replied you?

We have not got the response up to day. We really insist that we need a response, we shall continue to put this before him.

Have there been any initiatives in the district to empower the locals, for example, to supply oil companies.

There has not been much although there was an attempt to train the business community. What is important here is to first look at the capacity. The Tradelinks in Bunyoro is training the local people to meet international standards but for us here, we can’t talk about meeting international standards when our people don’t have that capacity.

Our emphasis is how to accommodate the people of Acholi to meet these standards gradually. If you look at the training that they gave, for one to do business with an oil company, you need to at least have capital of 100 million shillings, do we have such kind of people? But if you have capital of 10 or 20 million shillings how can you be accommodated. Yes, the law already talks about locally produced goods, but they (goods) must also meet the standards. So the issue is how we accommodate our people within the district or the sub-region so that they are not left out.

Should we just continue allowing our people to be spectators and allow international companies because they have standards? There should be a way our business community must be accommodated within these international standards. Technically, I may not have the answer, but how I look at it, it is very possible.

You see, when you are doing a business in my community and I’m not getting the benefit and someone comes from far, gets the benefit, will I own what you are doing in my area? That explains conflict in resource rich areas because communities remain spectators as outsiders reap the benefit. So, there should be a deliberate effort to make communities own projects in their areas.

Aren’t there local companies doing business in the oil sector?

Today, not a single local company is doing business with the oil company. So, how do you expect the community to say oil is theirs? What we are seeing today as Nwoya district is just waste dumping and that is how the government is rewarding the people of Nwoya.

Is the waste dumping still rampant?

It has stopped because there are no activities, but if you ask anybody from Purongo sub-county what they can easily say about oil, it is waste dumping. People shouldn’t be talking about waste, they should be talking about business opportunities. We still have a problem with elephants. The rate at which elephants are crossing to people’s land is very alarming. Some people believe they are poor because of elephants destroying their crops. So, it remains an issue. There is need for deeper studies to find out the relationship between oil exploration in the park and animals crossing to people’s gardens.

As a district, the Public Finance and Management Act gives you 6 percent of the royalties from oil, are you already looking at how you will utilize the oil money?

Of course, our target is infrastructure. When you look at Nwoya, it is a very productive district but with a lot of spring rivers. We need many community access roads in order for our farmers to be able to take their goods to the market and for the business people to be able to access the villages, so that is our target. Again, our schools are not in good shape, the health centers are not in good shape. Our target is investing that money in infrastructure mainly and scaling up production.

Questions put by Edward Ssekika