Uganda’s Minister of Energy, Hilary Onek, has promised improved government communication and greater openness to civic participation in managing the country’s oil resources.
“If government has made mistakes we are prepared to accept where we have gone wrong and improve on it” he said during a keynote speech at the May 10 launch of an International Alert project to improve public knowledge and understanding of oil-related issues.
“The oil laws are coming, and in deciding Bills and managing revenues civil society will have their input” Onek said, with reference to resource and revenue management Bills to be put before the new parliament. “You are at liberty to examine the policies and if you think there are improvements to be made we are ready.”
“Government is very transparent about oil,” he added. “There is nothing that we are doing under the table and we are willing to come out with whatever information you need.”
However, the government’s record on transparency was challenged in a later address by Chairman of the Parliamentary Forum on Oil and Gas, Henry Banyenzaki. He complained that constitutional commitments to freedom of information have so far been implemented in a “lukewarm” way with respect to oil, and that the public has only “limited access to information.”
“In ten years, parliament has received only two updates [on oil],” Banyenzaki said. He went on to describe his—so far, unsuccessful—efforts to persuade the government to share with parliament details of agreements it has made with international oil companies.
The Parliamentary Forum on Oil and Gas was formed “to bridge the gap between government and civil society” explained Banyenzaki, who represents Rubanda County West in parliament.
Alert to information gaps
International Alert’s new project aims to improve oil information and communication flows, enabling “a strong and informed civil society and parliament,” according to Richard Businge, the organisation’s Senior Manager for the Uganda and Great Lakes region.
Activities will include occasional publications and community outreach, especially in oil producing districts, where oil information centres will be established. Support will be given, through the project, to civil society and parliamentary groups engaging in oil-related research and information dissemination.
Businge described International Alert, a UK-based NGO that has had an office in Uganda since 2008, as conflict prevention and peace building organisation that promotes “conflict-sensitive business practices” and “evidence-based advocacy.” He emphasised that “We don’t engage with government based on hearsay but based on evidence.”
These words were echoed by Henry Mugisha, co-Chair of the Civil Society Coalition for Oil in Uganda, in his address to the launch meeting. He noted that “the relationship between government and civil society has improved enormously” but urged NGOs to make their case “by being credible and presenting information that is thoroughly researched.”
International Alert’s new project is known as Harnessing the Potential of Oil to Contribute to Peace and Development in Uganda, which was also the title of a report on oil in Uganda that the organisation published in 2009 (and which can be downloaded here.)
Irish Aid and the UK’s Department for International Development and Irish Aid are supporting the project with funds of around 1.5 billion Ugandan shillings per year for a period of three years.
In his keynote address to around 50 civil society, government, development partner and oil industry representatives, Energy Minister Onek acknowledged that “Up to now we are not effectively on the ground with information.” It has been difficult, he said, to manage the expectations of different stake-holders.
He called for “a well managed and responsible information flow about oil development” and disclosed that the government has appointed a communications consultant to advise on public information. Strategies already approved include training for journalists.
However, he also complained of “rumours started by political opponents” and of “irresponsible” journalism. Citing recent coverage of walk-to-work protests over rising fuel and food prices, he cautioned that “It is better that you be responsible if you do not want our country to be set on fire.”
According to government and oil industry estimates, Uganda has at least 2.5 billion barrels of recoverable oil reserves and 15 million cubic metres of recoverable gas in the Albertine Graben bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo. Of 55 exploration and appraisal wells so far drilled, 51 have found commercially viable deposits.
Reserves are sufficient to produce 200,000 barrels of oil per day for at least 20 years. Under current plans, 60,000 barrels of this will be refined near Hoima and used for national consumption, including power generation and supply of by-products to pharmaceutical and plastics industries. The remainder will be piped to Mombasa, Kenya, for export.
Commercial production is expected to begin within the next two years.