Ms Grace Akiiki firmly holds my left hand as we stroll down a stony path. After a short distance, she slowly swings her left foot as if to kick a lazy stone. She then makes an abrupt stop and with a straight face looks directly in my eye and asks, “People say the Banyoro are very lazy but do we have the information to position ourselves so as to benefit from this oil?”
Ms Akiiki is the proprietor of Kon Tiki Hotel in Hoima Municipality, one of the few hotels with a serene environment, grass thatched cottages with a provision for warm water, a swimming pool and a restaurant with a captivating tinge of African culture.
Although she has so far housed Tullow Oil workers, and government executives, her concern is an echo of the worries of the people in the oil districts of Hoima and Buliisa.
A cocktail of suspicion, lost hope, uncertain expectations and a struggling economy is what sticks out when one interacts with politicians, youth, civil society and community elders.
According to figures from the Petroleum Exploration Department, 2.5 billion barrels of oil have so far been confirmed from 40 per cent of the entire Albertine Graben. And although one billion barrels of the current oil reserve is recoverable, the department envisages that oil production will go on for at least 25 years.
This year, intensive oil activity is expected to return to both Hoima and Buliisa as Tullow starts extended well testing and appraisal drilling in preparation for eventual production.
However, apart from the new accommodation units near Tullow offices in Buliisa town council, the locals do not seem to be doing anything to tap into the oil sector.
The roads are dusty and thanks to the excruciatingly hot temperatures, the town gets covered in dust whenever a car passes through.
The three eateries that I saw in the trading centre are still housed in one roomed units and if you want to have a cold drink, you have to get it at the only shop with a solar energy-powered refrigerator, about 100 metres away from the closest eating joint.
Mr Isaac Nkuba, the chairperson NGO Forum Buliisa says the Banyoro are spending a lot of time fighting for what should be theirs (royalties) rather than finding ways of supplying services and goods to the camps.
“We are not aware of what is going on [in the oil sector],” he says. “We only get information from the NGOs. Government will never tell you the negative impact of oil. They will only talk about the positive side.”
Mr Angalia Mukondo, a village elder, says lack of information coupled with poverty cannot allow the locals to strategically position themselves so as to drink from the petro-dollars cup.
And as if to buttress Mr Mukonda’s fear, Mr Blasio Mugasa, the county chief, who also doubles as the kingdom representative warns, “Oil will be become a curse if people do not get the right information.”
But to ensure that locals, especially those without start-up capital are not left out when production starts, Tullow Oil’s corporate communications manager, Ms Cathy Adengo, says, the company is to roll out an agro enterprise project to boost the level of agricultural production.
“There is a proposal to get local farmers in the region to get involved in indirect supply chain of agricultural products,” she said.
The Hoima story.....
Save for the old dilapidated buildings and, according to Municipality Mayor, Ms Grace Mary Mugasa, unplanned streets, most of the locals are not doing much to tap into the sector.
Save for a few indigenous Banyoro, most people from all over Uganda are positioning themselves to tap into the opportunities. They have put up hotels, supermarkets, petrol stations and banks.
According to Ms Mugasa, there has been an influx of people into the municipality from all over the country looking for jobs.
On your way from Kampala, if you do not buy food at Busunju trading centre, you will drive all the way into Hoima without getting anything to eat on the road.
The district chairman prides in the new, first ever and so far the largest supermarket, the New Age supermarket along the Kampala Hoima road, owned by Mr Gerald Kasigwa.
“I can now see people are getting used to shopping in supermarkets and many of such things will come up,” he said.
But the Municipal mayor maintains that some “sons of the soil” have, since the 2006 discovery, returned to invest and develop Hoima.
Though the civil society in the area, according to the district chairman Mr George Bagonza, is hinged on blaming government and the oil companies for anything negative, the community elders see nothing good forth coming. Politicians do not seem to be reading from the same page and their political differences and failure to dialogue for a common cause has not helped in preparing the locals for the oil boom.
The majority of the youth, to follow Ms Mugasa’s explanation, have developed what Chinua Achebe in The Trouble with Nigeria, called the cargo cult mentality– the illusion that without any sustained hard work, a fairy ship will dock in their harbour laden with freebies, and every goody they have always dreamed of possessing.
“They say after all we are going to get rich. They will put money in our accounts after all oil is in our region and we expect to have petrol stations that will give us free petrol,” says Mugasa.
Similar concerns are expressed by Mr Bagonza, who says that instead of investing in the service sector, the Banyoro believe that they will have direct benefits from the oil industry by virtue of the fact that oil is their area.
“Why should I expect to get a dollar oil cheque for doing nothing?” he asks.
But Ms Akiiki who says never had oil in her plans when she bought her first piece of land to build the hotel in 1998, is not ready to miss out on the petro-dollars. Her hotel, which started with one cottage, can now accommodate 45 guests.
“Now that oil is in the picture, I am going to improve on all the rooms and furnish them with state of the art furniture and services so that I can attract more people,” she said. “I do not want to miss out.”
What should be done?
The Banyoro, she says, need to change their attitude and know that the oil is for all Ugandans and must now devise means of tapping into the opportunities.
To counteract the universally held notion that oil companies have a standard quality of services that have to be met before hiring local service providers, the district chairman says the people should first know what these companies want.
“Invest in hotels, farming and other activities where they can earn income as result of the increased population,” he says.
And to ensure that the locals are trained in quality service provision, the district has partnered with an Irish company, Trade Links, to offer the training.
“We will put in the money to construct abattoirs, and cold rooms so that your [people’s] meat can reach international standards,” says the district chairman.