Kenya can set the standard and avoid the ‘oil and minerals curse’

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By Florence Gichoya

Many African countries that are rich in minerals and oil have had a symbiotic relationship with conflict. Where oil, gold and diamond thrive in plenty, conflict has not been far from these countries.

Kenya recently exported the first batch of base titanium to China and we could soon become an oil exporter. But when we strike the ‘black gold’ and it becomes viable, will it boost our GDP or do we have to worry about the ‘oil curse’?  For a long time Kenya has been the biggest non-mineral economy in Sub-Sahara Africa.

Already, there have been numerous cases of demonstrations by people in Turkana County who demanded for more employment opportunities from the exploration company Tullow Oil. The local leaders have also been agitating for a bigger share of the oil revenue should benefit the locals. The county had been marginalized consistently by previous regimes and with the recent discovery of oil and water aquifers shows that God has finally smiled on the region.

But even as we celebrate our new found wealth, we need to be deliberately cautious so that we don’t become another statistic. The worldwide demand of oil and other minerals supersedes the supply and that’s why pundits have always said that oil revenues tend to increase corruption, incidences of anarchy and dictatorship.

Oil spill in Niger Delta, Nigeria Photo by EPA
Oil spill in Niger Delta, Nigeria Photo by EPA

Africa has many bad examples of the trend, for instance the conflict in Niger Delta region in Nigeria between oil companies and local communities. South Sudan has now been plunged into violence and there is the narrative in media reports that the conflict is due to power struggles between President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar. However, one can’t ignore the hidden agenda of controlling the country’s vast oil resource. Central African Republic (CAR) has also recently fallen to anarchy with violence between different factions. The country has seen a lot of instability over the years because of coups and counter coups. CAR has large deposits of gold and diamonds. In fact, 80% of the CAR’s diamonds are gems which are of higher value than industry diamonds and their quality is ranked fifth best in the world.

DRC is a another gloomy statistic of how minerals have been exploited by vested interests at the expense of conflict, human rights violation and high levels of poverty among the people. The illegal mining of cassiterite, coltan, gold and tungsten is managed by rebels and illegal cartels that fan conflict so that they can support the supply chain to multinationals that manufacture computers and mobile phones. These companies’ silence on use of conflict minerals is proof of their culpability. So far only one multinational company, Intel, has stated that it’s no longer using conflict minerals in making their products.

All the same oil and minerals are our heritage and can be a blessing if managed well. Kenya can learn a lot from Norway and Canada. The countries have observed democracy over the years and managed to use their oil revenue responsibly. They have invested in education, health, infrastructure and their citizens reap directly from their resources. Here in Africa, Botswana has managed to avoid conflict as it is a major diamond exporter.

We have to do things differently on how we manage our oil and minerals. Transparency and accountability by the government and stakeholders is key. The public should be aware of the flow of minerals from the source, export and process to the final product. Most of the conflicts arise from inequitable sharing of revenue and corruption by government officials.

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