Monday, December 4News That Matters

Opinion: Did You Forget The Rant About Oil?

By Joseph Kabuleta

‘Find Me Guilty’ is a 2006 comedy thriller based on the true story of what was the longest mafia trial in American history. The main protagonist was a felon called Giacomo DiNorscio, a member of the Philadelphia crime family (acted by Vin Diesel), who defended himself, and turned the trial into a protracted comedy.

In one of his lines he tells a story of a stingy man who never left money home for his housewife. Every time she asked for cash, he would pull out a new 100-dollar bill, stretch it out in front of the mirror and say: “Do you see that money (pointing to the reflection), that’s yours. But this one —- as he folded the note and put it back in his pocket —– is mine. And off to the bar.

And so he always did; offered her the reflection and took the real note.

One day he came home drunk as usual and found dinner of steak, plenty of it.

“Where did you get the money to buy this meat,” he asked.

His wife walked to the same mirror, threw off her clothes and spread her legs.

“You see that **** (pointing to the reflection), that’s yours.

But this one belongs to the butcherman.

I can’t think of a better metaphor to describe Uganda and its rich natural resources.

As someone who comes from Hoima, but perhaps more as an observant Uganda, I have keenly followed the story of Uganda’s oil and all its incongruences. About ten years ago, the oil speculation reached a volatile peak, as a bevy of wealthy Kampala speculators swarmed around the Butiaba regions of (what was then) Hoima district causing inflation. Acres of land that had only been good enough for cassava gardens were fronted as sh80m take-it-or-leave it propositions.

In the run-up to the 2006 elections, the president had promised people of the “Oil City” that the refinery would indeed be built in Hoima. Using flowery brewing imagery, he told them that the hole where bananas are squashed to make ensande (eshande, or omubisi) cannot be dug far away from the plantation.

In the years that followed, oil stories dominated the papers, with New Vision famously having a Front Page picture of Museveni sniffing at it from a tin, with the exuberant look of a gambler smelling new banknotes after a good round at the table.

But around 2012, something changed. There was a sudden hush. Oil stories died out, and the president went about dampening expectations; all of which climaxed with his recent speech in Masindi where, with a sneer, he told Banyoro to stick to whatever it was they’ve been doing and not put their hope in oil.

Engineers at one of the Oil Fields in Hoima District

But in reality, that’s when the action started. That’s when trucks of nondescript people, trained combatants it would seem, arrived in Hoima town and kick-started a katayimbwa reign of terror. The benefits of the oil might come later — if at all – but the proverbial curse began about six years ago.

Several people were clobbered to death with metal bars on their way home, several of them at dusk, as early at 7pm, one of them a renown nurse ambling home from a shift at the hospital. The curious thing is that these assailants never stole anything; wallets, phones and tabs were found beside the corpse the following morning.

The town was struck with terror. Police was as bewildered as residents.

What could possibly be the motive for these mindless murders?

Nobody dared to step out of their house after nightfall. But the few who did swore that they saw queues of huge trucks, heavy with some kind of product, passing through the town from the direction of the oil wells. How ironic that at the time when everyone stopped fussing over oil is when it started flowing in earnest.

TOTAL was doing most of the drilling and Transtrac did the ferrying of crude across the border to Kenya, escorted by military cars. These chaps mustered the art of disguise. The cylindrical tanks that ferry crude are built into 40-feet containers in such a way as not to rouse suspicion. It’s a well-oiled heist (pun intended).

Other companies involved are Watertech (which does all the water works), MSL (which transports food items, personnel, especially engineers), and Civicon, which handles heavy machinery. The one thing they have in common is they are owned by the ruling class.

The actual drilling is done with the dexterity of a pickpocket. There is special equipment that is used to carefully lift the vegetation off the surface and neatly place it at the side. Then the soil beneath it is also removed with plenty of care before the pipes are sunk and drilling starts. When that ridge (or well) is finished, the soil and the grass are placed back in such a way that nobody could notice that they were ever removed. Then they move to the next ridge, and the next — thousands have already been dug up —- and the fuel tanks concealed in containers continue to drive across the Kenyan border.

At some stage, the locals around the Kabale area of the wells started showing signs of agitation when all the stealthy activity never showed signs of improving their lives. Within a short time piped water and electricity arrived in the locality and the people were placated for a while. If they threaten another revolt, they might get a couple of UPE schools, possibly a hospital, and a few more lectures on wealth creation (insert appropriate emoji). If that doesn’t calm them down, the regime might be tempted to withdraw the carrot and bring the stick of military red berets.

But the system ain’t leak-proof. In spite of the decent pay at the wells, the turnover of employees is very high. One of them whom I met in Hoima told me that he quickly resigned into unemployment after he noticed that a couple of his colleagues, chatty folks who were thought to be too garrulous to keep the secret, were sent for ‘medical check-up’ and returned as cabbages with saliva dripping from their mouth, permanently consigned to a psychotic life. One of them died soon after.

In my search, I met a number of these former employees in diverse places and they collaborated this information. The consensus is that the only way to survive in that place is by acting dumb and asking no questions. Even then, timing your exit is crucial.

But now the richest ridges are no longer in Buliisa; they are in Pakwach, mostly in the Murchison National Park area. Tourists who visit the park for wildlife are now given a strict route to follow away from the drilling, all enforced by the military. The Pakwach crude travels through Lira, Soroti and to the border. It has been doing so for several years.

Many people who worked at those wells know these things but dare not say them. One of my sources, a gentleman from Gulu who was employed as a driver, told me that a French engineer once said to him: “You don’t have a president, you have a thief.”

But that’s not the worst thing he said. Even if he was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the whole process, he often suffered morality attacks and expressed sorrow over the fact that Uganda is selling its crude at a giveaway price, far less than the market value; almost like a phone thief selling the latest I-phone at 100k.

But he also had some good news for Ugandans. My source asked him if the oil would soon run out and he laughed out loud. “It will take about 25 years for it to even start reducing,” he said.

And those are just the wells that have been dug so far. In parts of Amuru district, the swamps are soggy with black water, a sign of what lies beneath. Most of the land in that area has been bought by the ruling class, including Jezebel, Saleh and them all. The rest is being given to Indians for sugarcane growing; that being the guise often used by the avaricious regime apparatchiks to claim land rich in extractives.

Museveni is so comfortable telling lies that the truth escapes him like a loud fart in public. When he said it is “my oil”, and recently when he told people in Masindi to forget about the oil are one of the rare times his heart and his mouth were in concurrence.

The personalization of national resources has been smoldering beneath the surface for twenty years through the well-marketed chimera of foreign investors; who are in actuality nothing more than mostly-Asian custodians of the regime’s various business interests.

And Museveni’s ‘wealth creation’ national tour is all about showing desperate Ugandans the crisp 100-dollar bill in the mirror, as he folds the real note and puts it in his bottomless pocket.

But of course Ugandans will stick their heads in the sand and pretend that we have a proper nation. Members of Parliament will continue acting like their verdict matters, even if they rubber-stamped a decision to award $380m to an Italian hospital ‘investor’ long after the money had been handed out without their consent. And it just got worse. They passed the 2019/20 budget without the usual charade of a debate. We have always known that what the regime wants is what ultimately passes the floor, but at least in times past our legislators gave us the illusion of a debate, after all, even a beautiful belle smitten by her suitor first puts up some desultory resistance before she gives in. It’s part of the game. But our MPs jumped in bed at the first hello.

Yet we can hardly blame them. They aren’t the only thespians.

The judiciary continues acting like they are unaffected by the not-so-subtle pressure from the executive, as if anyone ever expected them to overturn a presidential election or even the Age Limit decision. Nobody thought those verdicts could go any other way, but we still held our breath because that’s our scripted role in this giant movie that is Uganda.

The media continues reporting like their stories matter and discussing agendas that have been handed down by the political elite. When they dare to step out of their kraal to discuss real issues, Mutabazi and his UCC show up to remind them of “minimum broadcasting standards”.

The civil service is awash with highly qualified people who joined with noble intentions and novel ideas but were trimmed to size by the system they found in place. Most of them picked up the movie script and settled into their roles without a fuss.

The businessmen, voters, clergymen all grew weary of fighting and also found their scripts, memorized them and joined the show.

Just like that we became a nation of actors; a few lucky people are stars, the rest of us are support cast. This enthralling drama series is written and directed by … you know who.

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