Early 2009 I met a girl that changed my life; her name was Esther Kyosaba and we met in the most unlikely places – a district hospital of Buliisa in mid-western Uganda. Esther was 14 months old; she never knew her father and she had been abandoned for dead in a mud and wattle hut by her mother. After two days, the neighbors broke into the hut and rescued her, they passed her on to her polygamous grandfather who in turn abandoned her the second time to Buliisa Hospital in the care of his young wife that didn’t care much. That’s when we met.
When I met Esther, she was lying on a papyrus mat, covered by a towel that doubled as her blanket. The hospital at the time never had any children’s beds, no mosquito nets and no bug nets in windows. Esther was severely malnourished by marasmus-kwashikor, an illness that can be overcome by nutrient supplements worth 2000/- ( USD$1) per day for only 14 days! According to nurse Annette the hospital had neither these nutrient supplements nor the money to purchase them. Together with colleagues of mine on that same day we raised money for all Esther’s medical requirements including taking her from the hospital to the nurse’s home and recruiting a maid. Esther showed promise for the first three days, but she died on the fourth, our assistance had come a week too late.
She died in a district that holds 1/3 of the currently proven oil resources in Uganda, but couldn’t afford 2000/- for her a day. Esther’s death left Uganda a message; if our petroleum resources are harnessed well, they can bring lasting change to thousands of Esthers across many districts of Uganda today who continue to die because those meant to protect them – starting with their families and down to public systems can’t afford to save them. But also who sometimes die because the resources meant to respond to their needs are fraudulently mismanaged.
One of Uganda’s most promising resources to meet such needs as those of Esther is oil and gas. Our country has found upwards of 2 billion barrels of oil equivalent which is enough to produce 100,000 -350,000 barrels of oil per day for at least 20 years. These vast oil resources are a long-awaited blessing that could take us out of a long night of want into the glorious days of prosperity - satisfying many of our basic needs particularly for those under-represented groups like the Esther belonged.
According to the East African Business week – the 33 million Ugandans in 2009 earned only USD $1.6 billion from all their exports including, fish, coffee, cotton, tobacco etc combined. Compare with a single transaction where Heritage Oil sold 50% of its interests in Block 3A and Block 1A, and earned nearly USD $1.6 billion for a single transaction! Uganda’s oil resources hold very great opportunity, but equally are the challenges we must overcome to realize them.
In the recent past, our country’s record of public systems’ accountability and transparency has been brutally bedeviled with corruption scandals involving millions of dollars ranging from the CHOGM, NSSF, Global Fund corruption scandals. With greater finances expected to be realized from petroleum resources, , the temptation is even greater for these corruption and mismanagement scandals to prevail over the relatively new institutional and legal framework of the petroleum sector which is not even well understood by the majority of Ugandans. It is however true that while the economic windfall from Uganda’s petroleum resources comes with great opportunities to meet the needs of many millions of Ugandan’s it will not be able to satiate the greed of a few. This is why several civil society organizations have come together into a coalition called the Civil Society Coalition on Oil in Uganda (CSCO) with a mission to ensure that petroleum development extends maximal and equitable benefits to all Ugandans.
We believe that a successful petroleum industry in Uganda rests squarely on the shoulders of us all, including government, petroleum companies, local communities and civil society. WWF Uganda together with 16 other local and international civil society organizations in the CSCO call to all stakeholders to take equal responsibility in ensuring the following; transparency, good governance, accountability, truth, environmental conservation, fundamental human rights, social justice, hope, tolerance, dignity and security of persons and property in the development of the petroleum resources.
Whether in government, living in a nearby village, working for an oil company or civil society on oil, if you are a Ugandan aged above 18 years, some gigantic truth stands at the door of your life today. That is; Uganda’s development over the coming decades will revolve around her petroleum resources and there is an important opportunity for you and I to stand with civil society on the right side of our nation’s history. There is an opportunity for us to stand for what is right for the success of Uganda’s petroleum industry.
In the pursuit of justice, equity and transparency, there is often a dear price to pay; Nelson Mandela paid with a 27 year jail term while Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi paid with the greatest price of all, life itself. You may be afraid you will be imprisoned, afraid you will lose your pensionable job, afraid that you will be whisked away in the night unaccounted for or thrown in prison for phony charges.
What’s the alternative? It is death! If you are a Ugandan aged above 18 years and you refuse to stand for what is right, you may go on to live until you are 90 years, but you will be just as dead as Esther was at 14 months. The cessation of breathing at your ripe age of 90 will merely be a belated announcement of your earlier death of the spirit. Along with every Ugandan that died each time you refused to stand up against corruption, against greed, against impunity, you died and that’s why the death of your body at 90 will just be a useless reminder of your earlier spiritual death.
The flow of relevant information from stakeholders with development proposals and challenges in a respectful manner and without suspicion will pave way for a sense of ownership, participation and transparency in the petroleum sector.
It is against this background that members of the Civil Society Coalition on Oil (CSCO) have chosen to taken a position that will enlighten the masses and forge a positive way forward for the petroleum sector in Uganda. We have taken a stand for what is true and just. We choose to be voices for the voiceless millions such as Esther across Uganda who eagerly await the glorious day break of petroleum opportunity which will free them from their dark nights of poverty and avoidable premature deaths. We shall not give up and we will not quiver until transparency, environmental conservation and fundamental human rights along with all the other noble convictions required for a responsible petroleum sector in Uganda brings equitable development. Will you join us?
NOTE: The Civil Society Coalition on Oil meets 10:00am every first Tuesday of the month at the Host Organization which for this year is Advocates Coalition for Environment and Development (ACODE), Plot 96 Kanjokya Street, Kamwokya (Tel: +256-414-530-798).
Written by Robert Ddamulira
WWF Uganda Oil and Gas Project Manager
Member of CSCO steering committee