This year marks the 100th since the search for oil in Uganda began. In his memoir, the grandfather of oil exploration, Mr E.G Wayland, recorded the first mineral (oil) concession in the Uganda Protectorate as going to Mr William Brittlebank. The date of the concession he approximated was November 1913.
At the time of the writing of the first geological appraisal of Uganda’s oil prospects, Mr Wayland, the director of the Department of Geological Survey at Entebbe, listed five other concessions with regard to oil– all British businesses.
They included Sir Sydney Henn (1920), Chijoles Oil Ltd (1920) Lord Drogheda (1920), Messrs Bird & Co (1920) and Messrs E.S, Grogan, A.F. Dudgeon, A.G Tannerhill and Owen Grant. The latter licences were issued between July and September of the same year.
The memoir was an official publication of the Ugandan authorities titled “Petroleum in Uganda” and included four maps and other illustrations. It was printed by the government printer at Entebbe in 1925 and sold for Shs5.
The history of oil exploration, now turning a centenary, is however technically older. It was preceded by “discoveries” by European explorers, adventurers, militarists and missionaries of naturally occurring seepages of oil, especially around Lake Albert. Having failed to raise money to begin properly prospecting, Mr Brittlebank attempted to trade in oil futures in Uganda, proposing, reports Wayland, to sell back his concession for £200 in 1919.
Uganda’s oil journey
Mr Wayland, himself a government geologist, rejected the offer.
Maps currently being provided for oil exploration of the Albertine Graben have not changed much from 100 years ago. What has changed, however, is the knowledge of the geology of the areas thanks to better technology, and relative political stability.
That change aided further exploration that led to the announcement of commercial oil discoveries in 2007. What has been missing in the Ugandan oil exploration narrative, till probably the writing of this article, has been the historical perspective of the resource exploration. Both politicians and commentators have emphasised the period after 1986, as if prior to this nothing significant happened.
However, this is the story.
At the advent of independence and following unsuccessful drilling by the 1930s by various commercial interests, the Ugandan authorities published a second review of its oil prospects. The report was by Norman Harris, J.W Pallister and JM Brown published in 1956.
At this time, the two world wars had altered the calculus for the British colonial authorities. As a follow-up of Wayland’s work, the 1956 report was a review of what had been known since the pioneering days of the geology of petroleum.
The absence of outright successes in drilling had produced complex technical questions.
Since the cost of exploration was prohibitive for commercial enterprises, many who sought to protect their investment with demands for exclusive licenses, the Ugandan government, through the department of Geology and Mines, undertook much of the work.
A desperate department in 1991, with no money to expand its own exploration, awarded the Belgian company Petrofina exclusive licence for the entire Albertine Graben. However, in the tradition of the governments of the time, every end of year, the director of the department would include in his annual report a technical account of the work of his staff and his budget for taking forward the geological work needed.
Wayland had set the stage from the regular, consistent correspondences he had with his political superiors. Writing to the Commissioner of Mines and the Chief Secretary of the colonial government in Entebbe, he recalls a “safari” to Bunyoro that he had undertaken in 1923 to verify claims by one private company, the Anglo-French Middle East Development Corporation.
At heart, he said in his January, 3 letter, was to answer the “most important question of all, the determination of the source of the Lake Albert Petroleum seepages”. In a language that his current successors at the Petroleum Exploration and Production Department (PEPD) may appreciate today, Wayland argues that the geology was incomplete to support the award of new licenses.
In an interview given to this writer in 2011, the present head of PEPD, Mr Ernest Rubondo, offered the same philosophy about new licenses. He argued that the department would conduct preliminary work on prospective exploration areas and would then invite companies to bid for them.
Today, PEPD, where limited copies of the Wayland and Harris works can be found, is constructing a new headquarters by the lakeside where the old survey department stands. The old buildings remain with their narrow corridors but within them, what would have been considered revolutionary technology has replaced the old government boreholes that promised to deliver oil in the 50’s and 60’s. Concessions and agreements for all Uganda’s prospective areas are being prepared by a newer generation of civil servants.
Besides Mr Rubondo, the leaders of the exploration march include Mr Reuben Kashambuzi, whose account of the eventual discovery of oil makes up for the experiences of the department after disruptions of the civil war of the 1980s.
At the time he joined the department in 1984, the second UPC government was desperate to bring oil revenues online following the devastation of the economy in the 1970s and a civil war after the 1980 elections.
The government passed the 1985 Petroleum Act (repealed this year) and attempted to hold the interest of investors following promising aeromagnetic surveys by a Canadian firm.
This was a step down from seismic surveys later carried out by Heritage Oil and Gas in 1998 that informed drilling then onwards. The UPC authorities were perhaps the most competent but completely unlucky administrators in the post-independence history of petroleum. This jinx was owed to political factors.
Having inherited a competent civil service on the eve of independence, the UPC administrations in the decade of the 1960s and later at the start of the 1980s saw a near decapitation of the knowledge and capacity of the department of geology, mines and surveys. Prior to the political strife, the Ugandan government under UPC was bubbling with confidence in the economy then shored by rising commodity prices, growing industry and the prospect of mineral development through continuous exploration.
On April 24, 1967, the Minister for Mineral and Water Resources, for example, wrote to Milton Obote, urging his boss to grant a company exclusive licence over Karamoja for diamond prospecting.
The company, Mineral Prospecting Ltd had reported prospects of finding diamonds in Karamoja (with prospecting in Lango and Acholi). Choudry, the minister, was supportive but said it would involve “ closing up the whole of the Karamoja District”. Choudry was emblematic of the confidence of both the political and civil service class about the potential of mining and petroleum in the newly independent state.
The political shocks of the 1st and 2nd world wars, and the chaos of post-independence state building, have all conspired to postpone the payday for oil revenues.
As history has shown, however, at no time since when oil was on the colonial chessboard, was the office of the geological department vacant or purported to find petroleum. As the 1990s ended, a British company, Heritage Oil and Gas, would claim the right to first oil in Uganda.
It may be less than coincidence that British geologists (and companies) would commence exploration of oil in Uganda and elsewhere in former British colonies that would end in discoveries a century later.