Independence, energy and security

Elison Karuhanga

What you need to know:

  • Uganda has now discovered oil in commercial quantities. The country has battled with how to develop this resource in the most beneficial way and with the least environmental impact.

At independence, Uganda was a pre-industrial society. It is a truism that no natural resource, oil included, is the ultimate answer to the challenges of a society. A population is the most important asset any country has. However, every country needs to secure its supply of energy. Uganda has always lacked energy security; a landlocked country that depends on neighbouring Kenya for most fuel imports. Any global or regional shock has disastrous consequences on Uganda. Our energy security is dependent on Kenya not being ruled by populists or facists and in turn, Kenya is dependent on the global energy situation.

Uganda has now discovered oil in commercial quantities. The country has battled with how to develop this resource in the most beneficial way and with the least environmental impact. The country finally decided that this oil will be commercialised by the development of a refinery that will produce 60,000 barrels of oil per day, and a pipeline that transports the rest of the crude oil to the Tanzanian port of Tanga. First oil is expected by 2025. The refinery is expected to produce diesel, petrol, jet fuel, heavy fuel oils and other petroleum products by 2026.

Surprisingly, in spite of our inability to have a reliable supply of petroleum products, some argue that we must not develop these resources for political reasons. They contend that they are unhappy with the government and, therefore, until such a time that a government of their choice takes over, the oil should remain in the ground and the project must be stopped. This argument is equivalent to advice that we should cut our nose to spite our face.

Others argue that production should be delayed on account of recent erroneous concerns from the European Parliament. They argue that once we take aid money, we cannot assert independent thought. In other words, when Europe opens its wallet we must close our minds. This is as a result of the long period of African colonialism and neo-colonialism. It has made some reject a development project because an inconsequential resolution from a foreign parliament asked them to. Fortunately, the majority of Ugandans have rejected this form of cultural emasculation.

There are others still who are concerned about Uganda’s commercialisation plan. They ask, why must we export crude oil at all? Indeed, this is a fair argument. Uganda must certainly build a refinery. There is, however, no harm in building a pipeline to export crude oil in addition to the refinery. The most successful oil producing country in the world is Norway. Norway produces two million barrels of oil per day and exports 70 percent of that oil as crude oil to other countries. It refines a small portion of its oil for domestic consumption. The rest goes through privately owned ships and pipelines. For example, the Norpipe Pipeline where Norway owns 18.8 percent of the pipeline through its national oil company. At least 81.2 percent of the pipeline is owned by private companies. Therefore, there is merit in refining for the domestic market and exporting crude oil to the other countries.

One hundred years before Uganda gained Independence, the oil industry as we know it was born.

In fact, Uganda’s colonial period coincided with the rise of the industrial west. In 1886, while we had the religious wars in Uganda, Karl Benz and William Daimler had introduced gasoline-powered automobiles in Europe and thereby revolutionised modern transportation.

In 1914, at the commencement of World War I, Britain declared martial law in Uganda and used Ugandan conscripts in the war. Meanwhile, during the course of the war, oil would change the face of modern warfare with the introduction of vehicles and tanks that relied on gasoline. Fossil fuels did not just change war and transportation, oil also changed agriculture by the use of tractors and other machines. Oil changed agriculture in the industrial world so significantly that agriculture stopped being a major employer. Due to mechanisation, what had required three minutes to produce would take less than two seconds. From war to shipping to aviation to railways and agriculture, oil is at the heart of industrial society.

Oil has the potential to play an important role in the development of Uganda, maintaining its independence and securing a stable supply of energy. In our next 60 years, we must become an industrial society that is energy secure. We owe it to future generations to take the first steps towards industrialisation and energy security today.

The writer is an advocate and partner at Kampala Associated Advocates