Oil in Turkana: Curse or blessing for Kenya?

On March 26th, 2012, President Mwai Kibaki made an historic announcement: Kenya has struck oil in Turkana County!

The announcement had barely been made before the debate was on in every office, café, bar, and online medium on whether this was a curse or a blessing.  Online news sources and blogs went into a frantic mode, jokes immediately started flying on SMS, and Facebook statuses about the oil discovery generated instant and intense debates.

Pessimists predicted that Kenya would be overwhelmed by the oil curse, that thuggish politicians would get even greedier and more ruthless, and that local militias would pop up in Turkana to start a secession war. The optimists, on their side, saw a rapid transformation of Kenya into an Emirates-style oil haven in Africa.

As usual, the probable scenario is most likely something in the middle, i.e quite far from both the most pessimistic and the most optimistic predictions.

It is true that for many African countries, discoveries of vast mineral resources have often been a curse rather than a blessing. Also, few would deny the fact that a significant share of Kenya’s politicians are thuggish to the point, where vultures might feel insulted by being compared to them. Those are the main reasons why pessimists seem to think that striking oil in Turkana spells unrecoverable doom for the Kenyan state.

I would consider myself a cautious optimist in this case:  Cautious, because most members of the old political class in Kenya make Al Capone look like Mother Theresa. Optimistic because of the direction I have seen Kenya take over the soon to be 10 years since I first set foot in this country.

Since the dawn of Kenya’s Second Republic in August 2010, an increasingly independent judiciary, has emerged. Under the leadership of a former civil society activist, courts are increasingly displaying their teeth and claws, and their readyness to use them. Free from political interference, judges are no longer afraid to step on any toe in the country, regardless of the office held by its owner.

An activist, vigilant civil society won’t hesitate to expose rot, and to drag politicians overstepping their mandates to court. Kenya’s increasingly powerful civil society has long and old traditions, but the new independence of the judiciary, make them a far more formidable force.

A fierce, free and fearless press has since the demise of the Moi regime, developed into a key force for transparency. As the Standard raid in 2006 showed, any attempt to muzzle them will backfire terribly!

Combined with the increasingly stronger determination of people to stand up and say “hell no!” to corrupt politicians, and the emergence of an almost American-like constitutional vigilance, Kenyan “wananchi” (common people) are unlikely to quietly accept future attempts by politicians to serve their own interests to the detriment of those they purport to represent.

Of course, no force in the world will ever stop the sharks of impunity from attempting to grab their unfair share Kenya’s potential future oil wealth, and we only need to look to Angola, Nigeria or Equatorial Guinea  to see why that resource can be a curse. Kenyans should brace for a continuous battle, in which the old political elite, and their new sycophants, will use every trick in the book in the battle for the black gold in Turkana.

If the fight is kept up, it is not just plausible, but even probable that in the years from now, until the oil money starts trickling in, Kenya will manage to build a strong and fairly transparent institutional framework that will allow the oil money to benefit the country, and the communities from the areas where the oil will be pumped up. In that case, the discovery made on March 26th will turn out to be a blessing.

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