Friday, 28 June 2013

Indigenous Community Rights Versus a Letter From Nairobi: The Case of Tullow Oil and The Turkana People

Minorities and indigenous communities across the globe continue to face myriads of problems that come with the search for minerals conspicuous among which is arbitrary eviction from their lands and destruction of pastoral grasslands by private sector development projects that focus on promoting the home countries of companies that initiate the oil exploration process. The truism of what is commonly referred to as the ‘oil curse’ is greatly felt by these low-profile citizens of the world. While the oil company and the government department in-charge of energy meet in boardrooms in the cities to deliberate on which forests the bulldozers of the oil company shall begin tearing down, the sons and daughters of God are kept in the dark and only learn of the said exploration when after waking up in the morning, they realize the huge tree that acted as the meeting place for herdsmen and boys to shelter the scorching sun is no more and the beautiful pastures that were the favorite of the old mzee’s fat he-goat have been scattered by the snake-eating Chinese and their bulldozers roaming around the pastureland. This is the worst thing one can do to the people residing in the valleys and hills of Ngamia One in the name of development. The after-effects of oil and gas exploration if not remedied before getting out of hand shall create a huge internal impasse between the host community and the rest of the world.
History has demonstrated times without number that if not properly guarded, consulted and involved, the indigenous people can throw away the pretence and launch a rebellion to the enemy that seeks to exterminate their very existence. In The Jambi island of Sumatra, local Indonesian police allegedly worked with the staff of a palm oil plantation, controlled by the Singapore-based Wilmar Group to evict Suku Anak Dalam indigenous people from their settlements and burn down their houses in August 2011. The ongoing construction of the Ilisu dam on the Tigris River in Turkey will displace as many as 65,000 Kurds, create environmental pollution and affect water supply to communities in Iraq and Syria. In the Niger Delta, gross human rights violations were committed against the indigenous population in that country and their lives have never been the same again. One wonders whether there is any wisdom in extinguishing the traditional way of life for the local community while hunting for an underground mineral that might altogether happen to have a commercial-viability of zero.
There is this fallacious notion that community land is a free for all Toms, Dicks and Harrys and has no legally defined owner. It is this misguided assumption that is to blame for the senseless scramble for and partition of pastoralists’ land in Northern Kenya since Tullow Oil broke the bad news to the world of Kenya. The ‘black-gold rush in itself is not what has adversely contributed to the irregular and irresponsible land grabbing in the larger Kode Kode area (Ngamia one). In blatant disregard of the law relating to government’s conversion of private or community land to public land for a public purpose of oil exploration, no single penny was allocated to the people of Ngamia One by the government nor the oil company as compensation for the disruption of their once peaceful modus vivendi. No wonder the pastoralists see the oil thing as another underhand tactic by the untrustworthy Kenyan government to hoodwink them into signing agreements that would otherwise be the conduit pipe which will ferry the infamous war-mongering Arabs to the richest county, destroying it forever.
Having worked with Tullow oil and its associates in the initial oil and gas exploratory stages, my people constantly staged protests to frustrate our urge to destroy pasture and huge trees some of which the ancestors ensured withstood the vagaries of nature in order to serve the people of their soil. At one point, a truck belonging to the oil company ran over a herdsboy along the Lokichar-Lokori highway in Nakukulas area of Turkana South extinguishing him instantly. As expected, the criminal offence never went beyond the driver of the vehicle and his employer and despite numerous follow-ups by human rights activists; there is nothing tangible that has so far been reported on this serious issue of national concern. Was the boy a third class low profile citizen and a child of a lesser God? Let the oil-drinking Irish mboys managing Tullow Oil Plc answer this on the judgment day.
While the debate as to whether or not the oil is commercially viable continues to elicit mixed reactions, not a single analyst has delved into dissecting the disastrous side-effects the oil-rush has had on unsuspecting true kanas. Ranging from sometimes forceful evictions to destruction of pastoral land, it is incumbent on right thinking members of the Kenyan society to put pretence aside and answer hard-hitting questions. After all, this is Kenya’s both natural and national resource. However, the people ‘sitting on top of the oil’ are also Kenyan and the manner in which we treat our vulnerable brothers through our silence and refusal to put the oil company to task will show whether or not the Kenyan people shall benefit from the oil discovery. Methinks rolling our sleeves and questioning Tullow’s omissions and commissions occasioning grave human rights abuses in Turkana County is the better option. Sitting on the fence and spectating will not do much.
It is indeed the defined duty of government and the oil company to thoroughly examine the resultant effects of the oil exploratory process especially on the locals. There can never be a greater irresponsibility on the part of government other than that of watching while its helpless citizens are butchered, arbitrarily evacuated from their aboriginal domiciles without consultations and the due process of compensation. The compensation to be determined by the secretary in charge of Energy, the host community and the government as stipulated in the draft Community Land Bill 2013. But we cannot be surprised if the government conspires with the oil company to literally exterminate a whole generation of young productive men and women. Weird things have so far happened in Kenya.
Given the emotive manner in which Kenyans have handled the land question, given historical land injustices meted by government officials on Kenyans, the Turkana-Tullow issue might be a bomb in the making and will explode in the very near future. Large tracts of land in Ngamia One have been allocated to the oil company, totally jeopardizing the lives of over 10,000 Kenyans. The turkana consider the land God-given or at least an inheritance from ancestors regardless of how you look at it and whether it is a legally registered community land is another long story and a subject of another article. My good friend Lemukol Moses Ngasike rightly warns the land grabbers- invade pastoralist’s land at your own risk, lest you regret. The punishment of our ancestors will befall Tullow-the latter day land lords of our land which we have undisputedly occupied for more than two hundred years. We cannot be tenants of an Irish crown. Watch out while you rush to get a “share” of your plot with some letters from your land offices in Nairobi.

Ekai Nabenyo is a law student at the University of Nairobi and blogs at


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