In less than a month, the UPDF top brass and top spies have held two unusual security meetings in the oil region. During one of the meetings, on May 23 Gen. Aronda Nyakairima, the Chief of Defence Forces (CDF) of the UPDF in Fort Portal announced that the army was keeping an eye on the oil region in order to guard the country’s natural resources, particularly against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).
Hardly two weeks later, the military top brass held another meeting in Hoima District in the heart of Uganda’s oil region. Army spokesman Felix Kulayigye said the closed meeting was meant to appraise the security situation in the region.
“Leaders both political and security in Bunyoro sub-region ought to be aware that there is a threat of ADF across in Congo which has grown in numbers, capacity because in eastern Congo, there a gap in terms of state control,” Kulayigye said, adding, “indeed this region has experienced the coming of refugees as a result of the war in DRC, which has had its own security problems in terms of crime, land conflicts that are also challenges to stability within the districts in this region.”
It is not clear if the security agencies have information about a new threat but the likelihood of a resurgence of attacks from the ADF, a rebel group that as recent as 2008 attacked a school–Kicwamba Technical Institute–and burnt 80 students to death may explain the army’s heavy presence here.
UPDF has hundreds of men at detaches in Kyangwali in Hoima district, which the force plans to expand into a fully-fledged barracks, and another one in Butiaba in neighbouring Buliisa District–which sources say also works as a training ground.
In recent years, President YoweriMuseveni’s government has increased its military budget in what is said to be a need to secure the country’s nascent oil industry – quite logical given that it is located in a politically unstable region bordering DR Congo and Sudan.
According to a diplomatic cable leaked by WikiLeaks on March 13, 2008, Uganda is said to have requested the US government for assistance to train and equip a lake security force, which could enforce Uganda’s territorial waters, protect Uganda’s oil assets, and reduce violent incidents.
The President has justified the purchase of the six Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets at a whopping $740m with suggestions that they will shield Ugandans from external aggression. “The jets are the minvuli [ambrellas] for Uganda,” President Museveni told opposition MPs who were complaining about the cost of the jets at his State-of-the-nation address, recently “When it is raining you need minvuri to protect you.”
As if to close any security breaches, the Special Forces Group — an elite force headed by the First Son, Col. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, has been deployed to be in-charge of overall security in the oil region. Locals say there have been increased boat patrols on Lake Albert, an increase in plain-clothed intelligence operatives and that access restrictions on ordinary people to the oil region have also increased.
The oil installations and several check-points like the one at Biiso, are manned by the UPDF, a clear indication that the army is in charge of security in the oil region.
However, while most people would see the tight security as justifiable given the need to guard investments worth millions of dollars and of course the 2.5 billion barrels of oil that have potential to transform Uganda’s economy, the debate is on whether military presence and army activity here are commensurate to the threat of the ADF or if it is sheer intimidation in a bid to suffocate popular demands.
UK-based anti-corruption watchdog, Global Witness, in a 2010 report described the President’s son control of the forces guarding the oil area and his brother General Saleh’s private security company guarding some of the sites as “personalised militarisation of the oil industry”, which it said was one of the “red-flag warning signals” in the country’s oil sector that should seriously worry its donors and its citizens.
“The responsibility for guarding the oil areas should be removed from the army’s Special Forces unit,” the report notes, “The control of the Unit by the son of the President represents a fundamental conflict of interests and deviation of democratic standards.”
In April, the Inspector General of Police, Lt Gen. Kale Kayihura, while appearing before the Parliamentary Ahoc committee investigating the oil sector, revealed that following President Museveni’s directive, a special police unit–the Directorate of Oil and Gas Protection–was established to cater for the security of the Albertine Region. His boss, State Minister of Internal Affairs, James Baba also announced that the government would withdraw the soldiers and have them replaced by the oil unit.
However, months after the police unit was established and deployed to the oil region, critics wonder why the army is still present and taking charge of security in the oil region. As a result, there is a cocktail of various forces–police, military, intelligence and private security groups in the oil region–something many players are unhappy about.
At the beginning of this year, religious leaders from Bunyoro, Acholi and Rwenzori sub-regions during a meeting under the Inter Religious Council of Uganda in Hoima Town, demanded the army’s exit from the region–claiming it was limiting their access to oil installations and thereby hampering their advocacy role. They wanted the army replaced by the police unit on oil and gas.
But Kulayigye, the Army spokesman, could not take any of that. “If anybody is well-intentioned, why should they demand the removal of security from the Albertan area where there is oil?” Kulayigye asked in a recent interview with a local newspaper. “Do they want to preach to the oil?”
Abbas Byakagaba, the police chief in charge of the oil and gas unit, told The Independent in a recent interview that he did not see any problem with the army being in the region.
“This is the Uganda army, where do they want it to be?” he asks. “It is a matter of collaboration and there are many roles to be played.”
Micheal Werikhe, the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee of Parliament who also heads the Adhoc Committee on Oil, also said he did not see any problem with the army presence because they are there for general security purposes.
But civil society activists see it as a big problem. The accumulation of guns in the oil region, they argue, is not a good sign but a harbinger of conflict like has been the case in Southern Sudan and other countries.
The activists also say that Uganda needs to avoid situations like in DR Congo, Nigeria, Liberia where the military has aided oil companies to violate human rights, distort the environment in the pursuit of their business interests.
“It is very dangerous when you have people who are trained for direct combat doing policing work,” says Henry Bazilla, the chairman of the Civil Society Coalition for Oil and Gas (CSCO), “they are making it hard to access the area and hinder the public’s oversight function.”
Analysts say the region could see an escalation in migration, land disputes and social disruption leave alone border tensions with neighbouring countries, which the security build up won’t address. More guns in the area means more instability, not less, they say.
The thorny issues in the oil region in recent times have been sharing oil royalties, land grabbing, lost livelihoods, and environmental degradation due to oil waste – issues that the government has so far not been able to engage politically and which activists fear, it would want to deal with using military might.
Dickens Kamugisha, who heads the Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), says it is creating anxiety. “There would be no problem with the government policy of providing security but such a presence of the army is militarization, it creates uncertainty and raises questions as to what is there that cannot be protected by the police.”
Kamugisha says that the militarization points to politicization of the sector. “Oil has been turned into a security issue that can only be handled by only top government officials,” he says. “This can only be justified if the government assures people that the Albertine has gone beyond what can be handled by police.”
But the UPDF hierarchy is adamant that the reinforcement in security is meant to deal with the rebel outfit ADF, which has been said to be “regrouping with intensions of attacking the country and thus the need to be ready for any eventualities.”
However, analysts say if they consider the oil region to be dangerous then they must begin answering some of the questions Ugandans are now asking – because that is where the most insecurity lies.
A report titled, “Oil Extraction and the Potential for Domestic Instability in Uganda,” which was released last year by American professors, Jacob Kathman and Megan Shanon, indicated that President Museveni’s strategy of looking at insecurity from across the borders is mistaken because the biggest danger could be internal. The report notes that the primary security threat posed to Uganda lies in the domestic effects of large-scale oil exploitation – not far-fetched given that the majority of people in Bunyoro believe that barring the recent oil activities, their region has suffered historical abuses and has been marginalized by the government for decades.
Those claims could have credence. Earlier this month, the Omukama of Bunyoro Solomon GafabusaIguru, stormed Parliament demanding a share of 12.5% of all revenue that will accrue from the oil industry in the region as royalties payable to the Kingdom. He said the Bills being discussed in Parliament were silent about the royalties.
Naturally, such talk is what President Museveni does not want to hear from the Bunyoro kingdom leadership for fear that it could arouse resentment among locals, which could eventually pose a security threat. And he has intelligence people on the ground to listen out for any such negative voices. For instance, the office of the Resident District Commissioner (RDC) in Hoima has warned Bunyoro Local Oil Advocacy Group (BLOAG)–a pressure group on oil over alleged incitement. Officials at the office believe that BLOAG is being used as a platform to incite the community to sabotage the ongoing oil exploration.
Civil society restless
Analysts say the government is worried that the ADF could take advantage of the public discontent over the oil activities in the region to recruit disgruntled locals into the rebel outfit. This, it is feared, could plunge the region into perpetual insecurity, which could send the country several decades backwards.
AFIEGO’s Kamugisha suggests that the government should guard against human rights violations and maginalising the communities in the oil region because these can be a source of reinforcements for the ADF or create own militias.
Bazilla agrees. He says militias emerge mainly when citizens feel cheated. “It is people who will have acquired skills and feel that they can cause trouble if they do not benefit and feel cheated, that is why the government needs to be transparent,” he says. He adds that the extractive companies are not angelic–they have in some countries like Congo and Liberia financed conflict because they like going about their business without scrutiny.
Indeed, Bazilla’s fears are not far-fetched. In a recent report titled, ‘Righting Resource-curse wrong in Uganda: The case of oil Discovery and the Management of Popular Expectations, the Economic Policy Research Centre at Makerere University, alluded to unrest and conflict, noting that oil abundance in developing economies typically generates valuable rents that tend to trigger violent forms of ‘greed-based’ insurgencies and secessionist wars.
Earlier studies elsewhere also showed that the discovery of giant oil fields is likely to fuel internal conflicts in countries with recent histories of political violence. For instance, internal conflict has continued in the oil regions of Nigeria, fuelled by a sense of grievance among the local population, who feel deprived of their ‘fair share’ of the oil revenue.
But it is also a fact that investors expect that their personnel and property must be secure if they are to carry out the exploration and production successfully.
Jimmy Kiberu, the Tullow Oil Uganda, Corporate Affairs manager, says they are working with the government to ensure that security is guaranteed. “We co-operate with the Government of Uganda over security requirements and we also have our own, locally-sourced, security arrangements but overall responsibility for this sensitive and volatile border area must be for the GoU,” he says.
Civil society activists point to an incident in 2007 to illustrate the fears of the community. Last month, Corporate Watch, a research firm based in the UK, released findings of a two year investigation (carried out by Lay) indicating that Heritage Oil, a British company, was to blame for the shootout in which the UPDF killed six Congolese civilians on a passenger boat sailing to Congo.
Uganda authorities however; deny anything to do with the deaths insisting that they just exchanged fire with Congolese troops.
But the report quotes a senior UN source saying that Uganda’s claims that the passenger ferry was in fact a Congolese army boat are “complete nonsense” and that it was Heritage’s mistaken panic call to the UPDF that triggered the indiscriminate killing of the civilians.
The investigation unearthed photos – which were published for the first time – showing the bodies of the civilians including a 3-year old child. The investigation is corroborated by a UN report, a Wikileaks cable and a UK Foreign Office email, which were obtained by the international oil watch dog Platform.
“Residents of Rukwanzi reportedly told Corporate Watch on a visit to the island in 2009 that the families of the dead had been promised $100 (about Shs 250,000) in compensation by the Congolese authorities but that the money never arrived. Attitudes towards Uganda have hardened, while many are concerned offshore oil drilling will affect the fishing industry,” says the report.
Following two incidents–one in which a Heritage oil employee was shot dead reportedly by Congolese soldiers and another in which the UPDF is accused of shooting dead six Congolese, coupled with disagreements over who owns Rukwanzi island and the possibility of rebel attacks, the oil region remains a tense zone. But questions will persist as to whether the solution to this tension is such heavy military deployment.
It adds that security agreements for the production of oil by Tullow, China National Offshore Oil Corporation and Total have not been made public but the UPDF has announced plans to build a military base overlooking the lake to provide security for the companies.
Whether or not the army deployments and the avalanche of military hardware would succeed in quelling the public agitation in the region remains to be seen but analysts suggest that transparency, dialogue and involving the people in the oil sector is what will offer better long term security to the region and the country at large