Although just a few hundred kilometres from Nairobi, the county of Turkana, where newly-confirmed oil reserves are set to go on stream in the next few years, feels more like a million miles away from the gleaming skyscrapers and concentrations of power and money found in Kenya’s capital.
Residents of Lokichar, the closest settlement to the viable oil concession, speak of “Kenya” as if it were an entirely different country and of “Kenyans” - or “the people with long trousers” - as if they were foreigners.
Turkana’s socioeconomic indicators do indeed set it apart. More than 96 percent of its predominantly pastoralist population are categorized as poor, the highest proportion in the country. Turkana also trails near the bottom of national leagues in terms of employment, literacy and healthcare spending.
Only 39 percent of the youth aged 15-18 in Turkana attend school, compared to the national average of 70.9 percent.
Can oil, coupled with an unprecedented process of political devolution enshrined in a new constitution, reverse Turkana’s fortunes?
In Lodwar, the region’s main town, where the principal economic activity has long been basket-weaving, there are few positive signs.
Among the new businesses springing up is the Ngamia-1 Mobile Phone Repair Shop, named after the promising oil well. There are also several new hotels, guest houses and restaurants.
Formerly half-empty flights to Lodwar now tend to be fully booked.
As climate change, cattle-raiding and agricultural development erode the viability and attraction of the pastoralist livelihood, many in Turkana hope some of their most pressing needs will soon be met.
“Until recently many people did not know what oil as a resource means. Most of them were asking if water could instead be drilled for them,” said Lokichar resident Robert Kamaro.
“The government needs to build schools for our children, drill boreholes. We believe that we will benefit, especially the vulnerable,” Simon Esekwen, who lives close to Lokichar, told IRIN.
Lodwar resident and doctor Lawrence Lomuria said the oil find was an opportunity for the Turkana people to embrace education. “We do not need to fear education; this can act as a motivator for the Turkana to study and to do well.”
“Oil is being seen as a ladder to help the people go up,” said Christopher Ekaru Loskipat, coordinator of the Catholic Peace and Justice Commission (CPJC) in Lodwar.
“When the companies come here, the local people expect employment. If this is not done, we are anticipating conflict. What will the government trickle down as the benefit to the community?” he asked.
“We are happy with the oil find,” Lokichar resident Lokapel Katilu told IRIN. “We pray that the find is real. We are just idle, there is no work. We just walk around. Before, we would rely on grazing, but the herds have been stolen.”
One young resident, who left school before completing his primary education, said: “We understand that we have limited skills, but we would want all those casual jobs given to us.”
No jobs bonanza
But according to oil industry analyst Antony Goldman, no major jobs bonanza is on the horizon.
"Typically oil is capital- rather than labour-intensive: unlike mining, it does not yield many unskilled or semi-skilled jobs,” he told IRIN.
“In the case of an inland discovery, there may be pipeline construction jobs, and oil does bring - in the boom period of expansion - a range of opportunities in the service sector... The question is the extent to which indigenous communities can compete for any but the most basic tasks,” added Goldman, a director of Promedia Consulting, a London-based risk analysis consultancy.
Katilu said that to date he knew of only a few people who had found oil-related work, “to control traffic and to prevent people from accessing the rig site”.
Lokichar resident Kamaro said there was a widespread fear that lack of local skills would “lead to people from Kenya coming in” to the area.
People here “are afraid of an influx of foreigners, that there will be congestion, that the foreigners will bring diseases, that their culture will be polluted,” said Kamaro.
Others have warned that any oil rush could lead to a rise in crime, prostitution and sexual exploitation of minors.
Child protection challenges
“The coming of oil to an `illiterate’ community will mean an influx of expertise and money and in exchange maybe there will be child protection challenges,” warned Eunice Majuma Wasike, a children’s officer with the Catholic Diocese of Lodwar.
“If we can empower the community to know about child protection, have legal officers to take up cases pro-bono, have rescue centres in place, then this would help us in addressing the potential protection challenges.”
For Joseph Elim, coordinator of Riam Riam, a local NGO, “there is a need to manage people’s expectations. Information should be unpacked and the people mobilized to receive information, and feedback collected and monitored.”
“I heard some people ask, `What will happen to pastoralists?’ or `Will they deport us to Sudan?’ There is a need for information to counter the alarmists. The people are saying: `We do not want people with long trousers coming here because they have colluded with those who have sold the land’,” he added.
These attitudes chime with Goldman’s analysis that in the longer term the real impact of the oil find will be on “land prices and government revenue... The challenge for the industry in Kenya will be to develop an inclusive strategy that benefits all stakeholders," he said.
Patrick Imana, an official with the Agency for Pastoralist Development (APaD), another local NGO, put it more bluntly: “Will we see militias like in Nigeria or the elite looting oil riches?”
Mindful of the “resource curse” risks that have plagued other African countries with major oil reserves, the Kenyan government has professed its commitment to ensuring “natural resources should generate long-term economic and social benefits for the country and in particular for the host communities.”
“This will involve reviewing the existing legal and regulatory framework to conform to best international practice and to align it with the new constitutional dispensation,” the Ministry of Energy adds on its website.
There are hopes that the new constitution, adopted with overwhelming public support in 2010, will help reverse decades of marginalization and check the endemic corruption that continues to pervade the highest echelons of power in Nairobi. (In Transparency International’s 2011 corruption index, Kenya was ranked 154 out of 182 countries, i.e. near the bottom).
“Devolution will help to remove fear. We will have a county assembly in Lodwar,” said APAD’s Imana. “We need a vibrant county assembly with civil society activists to take the government to task,” he added.
People in Turkana are also worried about being left out of any appreciation of land prices that are likely to arise from development of the oil field. Land in the county is communally owned, and managed by the county council.
“When the oil was found, people started saying, `Now we are in Kenya, good things are coming out of this place’. But coming from a pastoral community that did not attach monetary value to land, now [they wonder]: `What about this whole mass of land that investors are going to be interested in’?” explained Riam Riam’s Elim.
“Here we do not have title deeds, people live without documents,” said the CPJC’s Loskipat.
“The situation will be threatening for those without land documents and some people may capitalize on this. There is a possibility that at the end of the day the vulnerable will easily give away their land or sell it at throwaway prices,” he said.
Others fear that the Turkana people’s closest neighbours and historical resource-conflict adversaries, the Pokot, may also try to claim land near the oil installations.
“There is a need for security to protect us from the hostile communities around us,” warned Elim, noting that the region was awash with small arms.
“We need to wake up from the slumber [delusion] that if the people are attacked, it is [just] their culture, or a normal conflict around water and pasture: oil will raise the stakes,” he added.
And for some, the very concept of individual land ownership is as alien as the “men in long trousers”. “How can you sell soil?” asked one young man in Lokichar.