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Hope and frustration in Nebbi, Uganda’s new oil frontier

This is as close as one can approach the Ondiek oil well without attracting the attention of security guards.  (NY)

This is as close as one can approach Ondiek well without attracting the attention of security guards.

PANYIMUR SUB-COUNTY, NEBBI DISTRICT:   “It came around Christmas time” says Sylvester Odongo, LC-1 chairman of Abok village, referring to the red and white drilling rig that towers over the bush a few hundred metres from his compound of four, grass-thatched huts.

It doesn’t trouble them much in the day, he adds—except that when villagers get close to the fenced-off rig, to tend their gardens of cassava and cotton, security guards order them away. Then, at dusk, extra generators kick in to light up the 24-7 drilling operation.  “The noise is terrible and it’s really hard to sleep” the tired chairman complains.

This is the Ondiek—‘hyena’ in the local, Alur language—exploration well.  A French contractor, Caroil, is drilling the well on behalf of the oil major, Total S.A.

Total is the operator of Uganda’s Exploration Area 1, which covers Murchison Falls National Park and adjoining parts of Nwoya and Nebbi districts.

Image: Sylvester Odongo

Disillusioned LC-1 chairman, Sylvester Odongo.

As well as assessing previous discoveries in the area and preparing the oilfields for production, Total is sinking new exploration wells in the hope of adding to the estimated 1.8 billion barrels of recoverable oil that have already been discovered in Uganda.

Ondiek, located a kilometre or so inland from the north-western shore of Lake Albert, across the water from Buliisa and only half a dozen kilometres from the border with the DRC, is the first target in the Nebbi drilling campaign.  Other sites, chosen after extensive—and expensive—seismic surveys, lie close by within Panyimur sub-county and are being prepared for drilling later this year.

Great expectations

Walter Aceronga, the busy and businesslike town clerk of lakeshore Panyimur town, is pleased by these developments.“We are all praying they find oil,” he says.

Panyimur already seems bustling.  By the shore, a group of young men stand waist-deep in the water, loading sound equipment from the Sky Blue Discotheque onto a boat for ferrying across the lake to Wanseko, in Buliisa.  Labourers are pouring concrete for the floor of a new, sheltered market. Traders pile raw cotton onto trucks.   Pick-ups are piling people, and their goods, aboard.

Image: Panyimur market

Women queue for transport home after a day at Panyimur market.

But, according to Mr. Aceronga, the appearance is deceptive.  This is a market day, he points out. People have come from the northern reaches of West Nile region, from the DRC, and from as far afield as South Sudan to buy fish.

Yet the catches are way down because of overfishing, and there is a desperate shortage of other work, leaving youth prey to idleness and waragi—the potent liquor that is sold in small, plastic sachets—or home-brewed spirits.

The town has no electricity and is connected to district centres only by gruelling, murram roads.

Mr. Aceronga hopes oil will raise the town’s fortunes.  He notes that State Minister for Minerals, Peter Lokeris, promised in a recent speech that the government will pave the 38 kilometres of road from Panyimur to Pakwach as soon as any discovery is made. The town clerk’s eyes gleam with satisfaction at the prospect.

In the town of Nebbi, 61 kilometres by very rough road from Panyimur, people seem well aware of the quest for oil in their district and have significant—if not always realistic—expectations.

Image: Boda drivers in Nebbi

Boda drivers at the Satellite 1 stage in Nebbi town expect an oil find would lead to a cheap supply of petrol.

Donald Jakuma, the chairman of a group of boda boda drivers who operate out of the town’s Satellite 1 stage, says he expects an oil discovery to be followed by a drop in fuel prices at local petrol stations.

Joyce Alemondo, who keeps a small shop near the stage, agrees. She also thinks that Nebbi and Zombo (a district that was carved out of Nebbi in 2009) should receive at least half of the revenues from any oil discovery.  Yet she doesn’t believe this will happen—because, she says, government is “very secretive” about oil revenues.

Job dissatisfaction

Another widespread hope is that oil will bring jobs. But this hope is rapidly souring.

“They bring people from Kampala [to work in Panyimur] yet we also want to be part of the establishment and improve our livelihood,” complains Mr. Aceronga, the Panyimur town clerk.

Image: Nebbi shopkeeper, Joyce Alemondo

Nebbi shopkeeper, Joyce Alemondo, says the district should keep most of the oil revenues.

Abok village LC-1 chairman, Sylvester Odongo, insists there is no shortage of local youngsters who, he argues, should be trained to do the jobs that now go to “foreigners.”  He complains that only five people in his community have received any work from oil exploration—and they were taken on only as casual day-labourers.

Higher levels of local government share these concerns. According to Benson Okumu, LC-3 chair of Pakwach town, the lack of opportunities from the oil companies has so frustrated local youths that he recently had to talk a group of them out of a protest demonstration. “They had planned to block the road to the oil camp until they were given jobs,” he says.

His concerns are shared by the LC-5 chairman of the district as a whole, Robert Okumu [no relation to Benson], who is himself a native of Panyimur, and whose family home is only a few hundred metres from the Ondiek well.  Locals, he complains, qualify only for the least skilled and lowest paid jobs.

Oil industry insiders often emphasise that it is essentially capital-intensive rather than labour-intensive, and that the technical jobs require years of specialised training.  But this message is evidently not getting through in Nebbi.

And with rural youth unemployment in Uganda widely estimated to run as high as 80 percent, it is not a message that many people want to hear.

A difficult role

Moses Ogamdhogwa, Total’s community liaison officer in Nebbi, has the tough job of trying to manage local expectations. He at least has the benefit of previous experience in community work, having earlier served for two years as coordinator of the Nebbi District NGO Forum.

Image: Moses Ogamdhogw

Moses Ogamdhogwa, Total’s community liaison officer in Nebbi.

In rather more than a year with Total, he says, he has helped recruit around 800 people in Nebbi, mainly for short-term, casual labour at a rate of 17,000 shillings (USD 6) per day.

The industry’s main needs, he explains, are for labourers to work on improving roads and making new access roads to the oil well sites so that equipment can be brought in, and on clearing land where surveys and other ‘oil activities’ take place.

The Pakwach-Panyimur road, although still made of murram, has been widened and levelled to improve access for oil industry trucks.  In a curious development, instead of speed bumps in the villages and trading centres scattered sparsely along the route, people have been hired to sit in the shade of a tree, jump up when a vehicle approaches, and wave red and green flags to encourage drivers to slow down.

It’s not the kind of job you’d need much training for, and it doesn’t promise much in the way of a future career.

The other, main oil-related job opportunity for locals is slashing away vegetation, including crops, to clear the way for technical experts.

To conduct a seismic survey, Mr. Ogamdhogwa explains, straight lines about a metre wide must be cut over distances of up to a kilometre.  Then, along these paths, technicians lay cables rigged up at regular intervals with hammer-like devices.  Heavy equipment is then used to pound the earth to cause vibrations and the emerging sound wave echoes are picked up by sophisticated equipment, giving a kind of ‘ultrasound’ picture of what lies beneath the surface.

This technique is fundamental to modern oil exploration.

Image: Ondiek well, seen from a distance

The Ondiek well (centre, top), seen in the wider terrain where seismic surveys were carried out.

Yet, the community liaison officer points out, it can hardly be done by locals who have only basic education.  They just supply the muscle to clear the route.

To hire day-labourers, Total has developed a lottery system of which Mr. Ogamdhogwa seems proud.  According to him, Heritage Oil—which used to work in Exploration Area 1, before selling on its exploration rights at a profit of around a billion dollars—recruited labourers through local chiefs and notables.  Total felt this wasn’t fair.  Better to have a list of hopefuls, and draw their names out of a hat.

But, whatever the selection system, occasional labour at a few dollars a day seems unlikely to earn much gratitude to a company that might walk away with a billion.

Sex and the town

The development of oil infrastructure may, however, stimulate another industry: commercial sex. This is a serious concern in a country where HIV infections are reportedly on the rise after initially impressive efforts to contain the virus.

Across the world, oilmen often work on an alternating, one-month-on, one-month-off basis, living in self contained ‘oil camps’ during the month of work.

According to Moses Ogamdhogwa, Total’s Tangi camp, located a few kilometres from Pakwach on the West Nile-Karuma tarmac highway, is as strict as a boarding school.  The oilmen must respect a nightly curfew, and any worker found to be having sex with a local woman is summarily dismissed. The guilty party’s supervisor or line manager is also liable to dismissal.

Oil in Uganda staff writer vcaptures the perspective of a small trader in Nebbi

Oil in Uganda staff writer captures the perspective of a small trader in Nebbi town.

However, Mr. Ogamdhogwa acknowledges, some of the sub-contractors and their labourers do not live in the same camps are not bound by the same rules.

“These [oil industry] people behave like tycoons” according to Collins Komakech, who works with a community-based organisation, Panyimur Aids Awareness Control Support for Vulnerable Children and Orphans (PACASO).

“They flash their money and our girls are attracted. Village girls today move around almost half naked to attract the rich men in town!”

He also claims that the price of commercial sex in Panyimur, and the price of the by-the-hour rooms where it takes place, has almost doubled.

Higher-up district officials consulted by Oil in Uganda share these concerns, and are worried by what they say is a noticeable in-migration of commercial sex workers.

Compensation wrangles

Local leaders are also dissatisfied with the compensation system for land, crops or other property forfeited in the exploration process.

Land may be taken for access roads, oil camps and storage facilities, and each drilling site occupies a 100 metre by 100 metre area. In addition, farmers are entitled to compensation for crops lost during seismic surveys.

According to Moses Ogamdhogwa, acquiring land for long-term use has not involved significant disputes. When Total needs land, he says, they hold several meetings with communities to determine exactly who owns it, and this has succeeded in avoiding later conflicts.

However, he acknowledges that there have been complaints over delays in payments of rent for land that Total leases.  These arise, he says, partly because the company requires the owners to open a bank account, so they can receive regular payments in a convenient and easily accountable way.   Also, the company does not start paying rent until it has built the facility for which it acquires land, because only then can the amount actually used be assessed accurately. These measures are meant, Ogamdhogwa says, to be fair to landowners; but, he reports, some lose patience with the process.

The view from Abok village is more critical.  LC-1 Chairman Odongo reports that land belonging to a neighbour of his is being used as a vehicle park for the Ondiek well, but that the neighbour has received no payment.  The landowner in question was not available for interview, so Oil in Uganda was unable to establish whether this might be a case of ‘delay’ of the kind outlined by the community liaison officer.

LC-5 chair, Robert Okumu, believes that the compensation matrix—the tool used to determine what to pay out—is unfair in any case. This matrix, updated annually, is supposed to be developed by the local government and certified by the chief government valuer.

Yet, Mr. Okumu claims, “The matrix that Total uses is the same one used in Buliisa [where Tullow made earlier oil discoveries] and an old version at that.” The Nebbi district government played no part in developing it, he says.  “Total has been shutting out local government.”

“Crops which are destroyed when marking out the land are not always fairly compensated, yet the law calls for collaboration between the local government and oil companies to achieve fairness.”

Only recently, according to Okumu, did Total approach him to discuss compensation: and that, he claims, was after they had begun to encounter problems with communities, and needed him to intercede.  A meeting has been scheduled for February to discuss the matter.

Don’t neglect us!

The district chairman will have other grievances to present.

“Because of the increased air pollution [from road construction], cough and influenza are common among the residents,” he claims. “In fact, the community wrote a letter to the district commissioner complaining about the dust.”

He also faults Total for failing to keep promises they made to the community. “Total agreed with the local government to drill a borehole for locals in Panyimur. This they did, but then diverted it to their own camp in Nyamutagana, leaving our people disheartened.”

Mr. Okumu’s complaints are not confined to Total. He also accuses the central government, including the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development, of keeping his district out of loop.

Nebbi is not invited to important workshops called by the Ministry to discuss oil and gas issues, he says. “We are in the dark . . . We are not considered when oil opportunities come up, unlike people from Hoima, Buliisa and Masindi, who are always given the first priority when it comes to delicate oil decisions.”

District ambitions

In Pakwach, LC-3 Chairman Benson Okumu has a similar list of complaints.  He showed Oil in Uganda a letter he wrote to Total, late last year, “to bring to your attention the dismay and the concerns of Pawkwach Town Council and the Community in regard to various companies that Total E & P Uganda have sub-contracted to work in the industry.”


LC-3 chairman for Pakwach, Benson Okumyu, hopes the area will gain status as a distriict in its own right.

The letter names Civicon, Pearl, Excel and MSL Logistics, who it accuses of “shortcomings” in “issues of . . . bribery, unskilled (casual labourers) being employed from outside the area of operations, HIV/AIDS components, corporate social responsibilities” and more.

It summons these companies to a meeting, adding in a postscript that “issues of facilitation of this meeting remains your responsibility as this concern is created by you and your team.”

The LC-3 chairman’s apparent determination to assert authority over the oil industry is perhaps connected to political ambitions. He openly admits that he wants Jonam-the area comprising the sub-counties of Pakwach, Panyimur and Alwi—to split from Nebbi and gain administrative status as a district in its own right, and is confident that this will happen next year.  That way, local government’s eventual share of any oil revenue will fall within his patch.

Slightly better news

Altogether, this does not seem a promising start to Total’s community relations strategy.

On a brighter note, however, Oil in Uganda found no evidence, and heard no reports, of the ‘land grabbing’ speculation that has notoriously marred the oil exploration process in Bunyoro, where Uganda’s first commercially viable oil discoveries were made.

Perhaps this is because, as Moses Ogamdhogwa claims, the local government has done a thorough job of ‘sensitising’ local people on this issue, warning them against speculators.

Or it could be because Oil in Uganda did not stay in the area long enough, or dig deep enough, to uncover cases.

Or it may simply be that Nebbi has been so overlooked in the national oil conversation that speculators didn’t know it had petroleum prospects.  With Total’s new discovery of oil in neighbouring Nwoya district—first revealed to the world by Oil in Uganda this week—that’s likely to change quite soon.  And then things in Nebbi may get even more complicated.

Report by CM, FN, BO and NY.  Phtotos by NY.