Predicting Africa’s next oil insurgency: The precarious case of Kenya’s Turkana County


Political scientists remain divided on why natural resources are a casual factor for internal armed conflict. One school of thought suggests that the financial revenue generated from the control of resources is itself the primary motivator for the development of armed insurgencies. Conversely, opponents of this ‘greed-based’ theory suggest that control over resources serves as a mechanism to correct inequalities in economic, social, political and/or cultural statuses. Despite disparities between these schools of thought, both are congruent in one tenet of the discourse: there is a positive relationship between the availability of lootable resources and armed insurrection in contexts where political, social and economic marginalisation is apparent.

The insurgency which ensued in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta region is perhaps the most notable corroborator of the aforementioned hypothesis within the African context. Despite annually accounting for more than 60 percent of Nigeria’s annual gross domestic product (GDP), the Niger Delta experienced a protracted insurgency against the region’s hydrocarbon industry due to the negative impacts of oil exploration and the question of profit distribution. The conflict also occurred within a context where incessant outbreaks of ethnically-motivated violence, amid a bourgeoning small arms trade, led to the rapid militarization of the Niger Delta — a condition which further facilitated the development of armed insurrection. A 2009 amnesty agreement formally brought an end to Niger Delta conflict and, while tenuous, the frequency of acts of conflict, kidnapping and terrorism within the region has decreased. As a consequence, and perhaps erroneously so, much of the discourse regarding Africa’s hydrocarbon industry has shifted focus from security developments within the Niger Delta and is instead focusing on the impending East African oil boom and the unprecedented geopolitical  benefits thereof. However, what vested stakeholders have failed to adequately address is the potential adverse impact the resource could bring in areas already experiencing acute socio-political and economic marginalization.

A case in point can be observed within Kenya’s Turkana County. Located at the confluence of Kenya’s porous and ill-defined borders with Ethiopia, Uganda and South Sudan, Turkana County is an arid region which has long claimed political and economic neglect from successive Kenyan administrations. However, in recent months, Turkana County has become a key area of interest for both the Kenyan government and investors alike following reports that British-owned oil exploration company, Tullow Oil PLC, discovered an estimated 250 million barrels of crude oil beneath the region’s sun-baked terrain. While resource extraction is not expected to begin for several years, much of the current discourse surrounding Turkana County’s oil finds has been centered on how oil revenue will be the panacea to ending abject poverty in a region where an estimated nine of ten people continue to live below the breadline. However, despite the positive rhetoric, the prevailing political and security environment with Turkana County is conspicuously analogous with the conditions which catalyzed armed insurrection within the Niger Delta and, if left unaddressed, could potentially see the region become a theatre for Africa’s next oil conflict.

Corruption and economic marginalisation

As was particularly evident within the Niger Delta context, the significant revenues that accompanied the production and sale of the region’s oil trade was accompanied by egregious levels of bureaucratic corruption, particularly pertaining to collusion between corrupt officials and oil exploration companies. The existence of such malfeasance has already been raised within Turkana County. During a two-day consultative meeting held in the regional capital, Lodwar, in June 2012, community leaders claimed that both the Kenyan government and Tullow Oil PLC has committed various malpractices which has intrinsically been aimed at marginalizing the region’s indigenous population. With reference to the Kenyan government, local officials were accused of illegally acquiring title deeds, misappropriating community-owned land and using intimidation and violence to displace communities within the region’s oil-rich Ngamia 1 and Twiga 1 localities. Accusations made against Tullow Oil were equally scathing. The multinational was accused of failing to publicise Environmental impact assessment (EIA) reports, outsourcing basic services and expertise, failing to meet the compensatory commitments made to communities, and bribing local councillors and community leaders as a means of accessing and securing control of resource-rich land. While both the Kenyan government and Tullow Oil have rejected these allegations, and have committed to the immediate implementation of transparent benefit sharing mechanisms, sentiments of mistrust and scepticism will likely continue to ferment until the aforementioned commitments are tangibly realised.

Environmental impact

A grievance which was touted as being particularly central to the formation of armed groups within the Niger Delta was the issue of environment degradation resulting from oil exploration and how this factor, in the absence of financial reinvestment and compensatory mechanisms, further marginalized affected communities. There are concerns that such a scenario may also arise within Turkana County. As mentioned, Kenya’s Turkana County is an arid and highly underdeveloped region with a poverty index of 98 percent. An estimated 60 percent of the region’s inhabitants are pastoralists whose primary form of commerce has been significantly curtailed by seasonal droughts which have decimated grazing fields, resulting in the deaths of thousands of heads of livestock. The situation has deteriorated so significantly within the last decade that it is estimated that at least 250 000 of Turkana County’s inhabitants are currently dependent on food aid for their subsistence. Projects are ongoing in the region as to promote the diversification of economic activities, thus limiting the communal dependency on the livestock trade; however, lack of infrastructural development continues to serve as a significant impediment to such initiatives. While the hydrocarbon industry will undoubtedly produce marked improvements in infrastructure, the potential positives of such developments will likely be counterbalanced by the unavoidable ecological impact of oil exploration. Dwindling reserves of fertile land could be subject to appropriation if they are deemed to contain oil reserves, while already limited water resources will also have to be redirected to mining initiatives. Furthermore, air, soil and water pollution are additional concerns which could be incurred by communities who already face challenges in accessing the most rudimentary of health care services. While stakeholders are currently implement mechanisms to offset any adverse ecological impact of mining activities, these initiatives remain limited in scope and, due to their current focus on building oil sector specific expertise, may remain inaccessible and/or undesirable to many. As a consequence, a failure to yield immediate and tangible response to any potential environmental degradation is only like to further evoke communal antagonism toward the region’s oil industry and, as witnessed within the Niger Delta, could serve as another motivator for armed civil insurrection within Turkana County

 Communal conflict and small arms proliferation

Although the existence of deep-rooted grievances is fundamental to the development of internal armed insurrection, the role small arms proliferation plays in both starting and fuelling such conflicts cannot be understated. Again, the Niger Delta serves as a salient example of this supposition. In the run-up to the formal commencement of the Niger Delta insurgency the mid-2000’s, frequent outbreaks of communal conflict, led to the development of a thriving small arms trade as light weaponry flowed readily through the country’s porous borders with Cameroon, Gabon and Guinea-Bissau. The subsequent militarization of ethnic militias within the Niger Delta would later serve as an important facilitator of violence directed against the region’s oil industry. In Turkana County, the threat posed by communal conflict and the subsequent availability of light weaponry has been assessed as critical.  Growing land and resource scarcity within Turkana County has significantly increased communal tensions within the region leading to frequent and often protracted outbreaks of communal conflict. The violence has similarly led to a rapid militarization of the region with communities viewing the access and possession of weaponry as being the only means of securing their economic interests. Conflict in neighbouring countries such as South Sudan and Uganda’s Karamoja Sub-region has created a glut in small arms availability which has and continues to be readily transported across Kenya’s porous borders. Indeed, according to a statement released by Kenya’s Parliamentary Security Committee in July 2013, it is estimated that in excess 50,000 small arms are currently in circulation within Turkana County. Precedent has shown that the availability of small arms has the potential to provide disenfranchised peoples with the requisite mechanism to correct any perceived imbalances in their economic, social, political and/or cultural statuses. This is of particular concern within Turkana County where the use of violence has become an essential component of socio-economic survival.

 Organized crime

Small arms proliferation combined with economic deficiencies, especially in contexts where political and security structures are weak, also exhibits a positive correlation with organised crime. This is particularly evident in Turkana County where organised and well-armed criminal gangs regularly engage in acts of criminality which have generally taken the form of cattle rustling and highway banditry. If left unchecked, such entities may pose a significant security threat to the region’s future hydrocarbon industry. As was witnessed in the Niger Delta, oil production has the propensity to support a thriving criminal enterprise. Oil bunkering, the process where oil is siphoned illegally from pipelines, remains rife within the Niger Delta and it is believed that as much as 7 percent (an estimated 150 000 barrels) of Nigeria’s crude oil is stolen daily. Revenue garnered from oil bunkering is often used for arms purchasing which can result in conflict and/or criminal groups becoming more militarized and subsequently expanding their operational acumen. As such groups expand, so does their modus operandi and incidents of oil bunkering, which pose an ancillary security threat to the oil sector, could escalate into more direct threats to the industry which could include acts of terrorism, sabotage and kidnapping for the purposes of ransom and extortion.

 Managing the risks

As mentioned, with oil production within Turkana County still several years from being realised, both government and commercial stakeholders have the opportunity to address key socio-economic factors which could mitigate the threat of the region becoming a focal point for a resource-driven conflict. From a government perspective, oil sector legislative need to be intrinsically pro-development and implemented with transparency and impartiality. Furthermore, any government-sponsored infrastructural development needs to occur over and beyond the needs of the oil industry and specifically be aimed at providing economic opportunities by developing both existing and oil-related industries. In addition, stronger policing and judicial structures are also required within the Turkana County which will mitigate the need for communal self-protection and which should be focused on small arms control.

From a commercial perspective, stakeholders need to ensure that contracting, exploration and exploitation of oil needs to be an inclusive process which is subject to stringent policy adherence. Multinationals should also be transparent and candid in their assessment of the industry’s anticipated environmental impact and should ensure that proactive and fair compensatory mechanisms are in place for affected communities. Where possible, the oil sector, and any peripheral industries, needs to be biased towards local employment and should limit the use of service and expertise outsourcing. Corporate social responsibility initiatives, which should undoubtedly accompany the hydrocarbon industry, should be consultative and be coordinated in accordance with local needs as opposed to industry-specific requirements. Community leaders and civil society groups also need to shoulder some responsibility. First and foremost, these entities will need to manage local expectations by educating affected communities that any potential economic benefits derived from the oil industry are unlikely to occur overnight. Finally, Key decision-makers should also at all costs resist the venality which will likely accompany the oil trade and continue to monitor industry compliance via the undertaking of consistent and transparent social audits. Ultimately, any future oil industry within Turkana County has to be beneficial to the overall social-economic well-being of the region’s inhabitants. If not, communities may very well resort to violence as a means of achieving this goal.

Laud of  War



%d bloggers like this: