Uganda’s oil and the narrative war

Elison Karuhanga

What you need to know:

  • We must address the twin evils of climate change and energy poverty that affects Africa. 

Recently, I had the privilege of hosting the executive director of National Environment Management Authority (Nema), Dr Barirega Akankwasa, the organisation’s head of oil and gas, Isaac Ntujju, on Twitter Spaces. The week before that, I hosted the CEO of the Uganda National Oil Company, Proscovia Nabbanja. 

In both conversations, we had wide ranging and frank discussions about the oil and gas industry in Uganda. It was refreshing to listen to Uganda’s experts on opportunities that the oil and gas sector provides, discussing the challenges it is facing and providing assurance that there are solutions. Our experts understand the environmental challenges and do not hide from the need for energy transition. However, they are alive to the fact that this transition is not a light bulb that can be switched on or off easily.

Admittedly, the world faces a challenge with the climate crisis. To deny climate change is to behave like the proverbial ostrich that buried its head in the sand. Climate change is real and its impacts are real. Similarly, to deny the reality of energy poverty is to engage in a serious act of wilful blindness.

Only 30 years ago, Uganda had a population of 17 million people. Today, she has a population of 43 million people and we are projected to reach 100 million people by 2040. The energy sector in Uganda is predominantly dependent on wood fuel, which accounts for up to 93 per cent of the country’s total energy needs. This has resulted in the depletion of forests, and exacerbates land degradation.

Failure to address energy poverty is simply setting the timer on a gigantic climate bomb. Oil exploration can help in the fight against energy poverty and yes, it must be done in a manner that is responsible, with corresponding investment in conservation. As the Nema ED stated, “Conservation without investment is just conversation.” 

In the same vein, public discourse in form of a zoom call was advertised by an anti-EACOP campaign group. I decided to sign up for this discussion because I believe that it is in respectful discourse that sustainable progress can be made. As regular readers of this column know, I have been rather sceptical of these groups in the past but nonetheless, I have always believed that there is no harm in hearing opposing arguments. 

To my surprise, the audience consisted mainly of senior citizens from the Global North. Some Ugandans have concluded that while it was advertised as stakeholder engagement, it was nothing more than a fundraiser and Ugandans were not the target audience. For the few minutes I was allowed in, I endured listening to their discredited anti-EACOP claims. Shortly after, I was removed from the engagement and numerous other Ugandans were removed too.

Allegedly, the host boasted that he had blocked people “from the oil industry.” And yet, one of the individuals who were removed is associated with a local NGO that advocates for project affected persons. 

This online event, fundraiser or not, confirmed my suspicions; these anti-EACOP movements prefer Ugandans who are seen and not heard, who clap and don’t question, and not those who agrees unless they strongly agree. For almost two years, they have called bankers and their spouses, allegedly on behalf of the “frontline communities” to de-campaign the development of Uganda’s resources. Their strategy is that Ugandans will be spoken for but must not speak. They are less concerned about the views of Ugandan newspapers or politicians and prefer to hear anti EACOP speeches from MPs in Germany like Kathrin Henneberger. Unfortunately for them, a few of us are not content with sitting in a corner while being spoken for. 

There are others still who argue that we are shaking tables a bit too loudly. Well, isn’t it high time that these tables were shaken and doors banged on so that our voices can be heard? This is complimented by efforts to bring Uganda’s decision makers and oil experts to the forefront so they can lend their voices to our development plans and be held accountable. 

We must address the twin evils of climate change and energy poverty that affects Africa. This discussion, unlike many others about Africa, must include and not exclude Africans. Otherwise, we shall continue to knock on closed doors and shake some tables.

Ellison Karuhanga is an advocate and partner at Kampala Associated Advocates 
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