More planning needed for oil exploitation

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By Matsiko Kahunga

Posted  Sunday, December 29   2013 at  02:00

My early childhood days in the part of Nkore where I was born, witnessed the dying days of game hunting before it was declared illegal. Among the stories we were told was that of an elephant ‘falling’ and people rushing to ‘cut’. ‘Falling’ was a euphemism referring to the fact that one of the wazee who owned hunting rifles at the time had ‘touched in blood’.

Fast forward to 2013 Uganda. The oil ‘debate’ is back. In the interim following the ‘debate’, ‘inquiry’ and ‘findings’ by Parliament, there has been a lull and tranquility, with life back to ‘normal’, the way it would return to my village a few weeks after one fallen elephant had been cut, till the next episode.

Uganda, in this 21st Century still behaves like the hunter-gatherer, waiting to rush and cut the fallen elephant. This is where we are set to lose out. Unlike my natal village of yore, which would cut and feast on its elephant undisturbed, with the hunter only deriving satisfaction from praise-names as his kinsmen shared the kill, oil is not simply a village fallen elephant.

It is a strategic global resource, which explains the current wave of global conflict. The hunter who has killed this ‘elephant’ in Uganda is not a village patriarch only content with feeding his kindred. This hunter comes from a world system so sophisticated, and profit-seeking. We should master the sophistications of the industry.

The ‘debate’ is focused on exploitation and production and it betrays our hunter-gatherer perception of this oil thing. We all seem to be waiting for that ‘big fall’, to rush and ‘cut’. Expecting the ‘big boys’ in the industry to tell us the implications and opportunities of the production stage, is to live in times long gone-by.

If the exploration was spearheaded by the Ugandan experts trained by government, has the same government trained experts for the production stage and its resultant linkages? This is the time when our gurus in industrial chemistry and related sciences should be at the centre stage.
Technology is advancing so fast that if we were focused, what is a potential environmental hazard from drilling and refining waste would be an industrial resource. Today technology enables the harnessing of gas, alongside the oil.

The Ugandan economy must be positioned to become an oil economy, namely an industrial economy driven by the proceeds from the oil, both as a product and a raw material. The local content debate should seek to answer such questions as: how many types of petro-chemical industries are under plan and how are we preparing the manpower for these and the linked sectors? What specific skills do we need?

Perhaps we may want to draw lessons from two hitherto mundane hunter-gatherer resources that have since gone commercial and industrial: ensenene and mushrooms. Ensenene and mushrooms used to ‘fall’ in given seasons and we would collect, feast and wait for the next ‘fall’.

Today, ensenene still ‘fall’ in November and May, but have been structured into a whole industry that directs their ‘fall’ to particular places, where they are harvested, processed and sold as a commercial good. Mushrooms, which sprout in October, have been harnessed meticulously: the science and art has been so mastered that one entrepreneur whom I visited, says there are as many as eight product lines from this resource.

Our experts, while you focus on the oil ‘debate’ and conduct certificate of attendance courses in ‘oil governance’, one Kenyan bank is sponsoring young Kenyans in foreign universities to study the art and science of oil and petrochemical industries and their linked sectors. In the next five years or less, they will be here, alongside other foreign experts, manning the key positions in the sectors that will emerge out of oil refining, as our voices grow hoarse debating ‘local content’.