Is our oil dream getting blurry?

What you need to know:

With only 15 percent, Uganda is only one of the minority shareholders of the project

The European Parliament, on September 15, passed a resolution condemning the planned East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project and its associated infrastructure due to environmental, social, and governance concerns.

Following the resolution, I have been shocked by the response of our government and ‘keyboard warriors’ who seem to be fighting a war they have no idea about.

The Deputy Speaker of Parliament labeled the EU Parliament colonialists, imperialists, and racists. These same sentiments have been echoed by the keyboard warriors and a group of demonstrators who stormed the EU offices in Uganda on September 20 and students who demonstrated yesterday, with placards demanding the EU respect Ugandan sovereignty.

What the government and its social media warriors forget is that the European Parliament’s resolution was directed, not at them but at a European company, Total Energies of France, which has been seeking financing from European banks to implement EACOP.  The same government officials ignore the fact that Uganda is part of a global community and we depend on funding and support from partners in the European Union.

Going by the sentiments from the government side, and looking at the facts surrounding EACOP, we can as well say that if indeed the European MPs are colonialists, then the colonialist has not come to colonise us, but rather we have sent an agent to the colonialists to deal with our business. In other words, we have requested the colonialists to colonise us and gone ahead to cry foul over our own decision.

Rather than get emotionally charged, we need to borrow some humility and work with Total Energies (a European company) to forge a way forward.

As a pro-EACOP Ugandan, I believe we need to respond to key stakeholders with better arguments than calling their resolution racist. The discovery of oil in Uganda in 2006, came with the promise of economic transformation, considering the several countries that became rich with oil money. Sixteen years later, that promised transformation remains a blurry dream.

Even more, scary is the fact that the world is now more environmentally sensitive due to the global climate crisis and slowly transitioning away from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The European Parliament, while evaluating EACOP considered the new reality that demands that all businesses be evaluated from the sustainability angle. And the environment is a critical part of that matrix. Human rights is another big issue that companies look at seriously.

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) must question their own company, Total Energies’ position on the environment and human rights. They must ensure that any project financed by European banks and carried out by European companies should not jeopardise the various international commitments to protect the environment such as the Paris Climate Agreement, the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), and the Ramsar Wetland Convention. Probably, this would not have been the case several years ago, when the global environmental crisis was not much of a talking issue.

One of President Museveni’s favourite proverbs is, “kandinde’hweyo akacumita omukyira”, which talks of a hesitant hunter, who delayed throwing his spear and only managed to hit the tail of his targeted animal. As a result of this hesitation, the hunter had no meal for his dinner.

The oil dream has dragged on. In 2020, Tullow Oil exited the scene after initially proposing to build a refinery for the local and regional market. TotalEnergies bought out Tullow oil’s stake but it now looks increasingly possible that they could fail to raise the finances needed to execute this ambitious project.

But government keyboard warriors, while shouting about sovereignty, ignore the fact that 62 percent of this key oil infrastructure belongs to a European company, Total Energies, and eight percent to CNOOC of China, while we equally share the remaining 30 percent with Tanzania, even when we own the oil.

With only 15 percent, Uganda is only one of the minority shareholders of the project. How ironic! TotalEnergies have also been granted a 10-year corporate tax holiday, a withholding tax of five percent, and are exempted from any VAT deductions of materials and equipment that will be imported for the project.

Uganda negotiated from a desperate position. I do not know of local Ugandan businesses that have found such favour before the government. Government has laid out the red carpet for TotalEnergies to take the leading role in getting the oil flowing, but I am afraid our desperation is now getting sidetracked by our lack of strategy on how to respond to concerns about the environment and human rights.

Our President needs more than just fishermen in government and keyboard warriors to salvage the oil deal. Screaming racism when a European company owns the project we hope to benefit from, is not a clever tactic.

We need to engage and explain the project to the MEPs. Insulting them when they have a lot of leverage over the majority shareholder in EACOP and adopting a victim mentality cannot be a strategy.

Rebecca Tumwebaze

Farmer from Gwafu, Mukono