The resource curse is here, get ready for the coming tsunami

Riot police on the outskirts of Uganda's capital Kampala, February 20, 2016. REUTERS/James Akena

A number of seemingly unrelated events in the region point ominously at trouble in the days ahead, courtesy of the resources being discovered in our midst.

Initially, positive reports about the likelihood of striking oil and gas deposits elicited great public enthusiasm that was only dampened by the long wait for reports on commercial viability. That is no longer the case today, with oil companies taking a keen interest in rolling out the infrastructure for mineral exploitation.

Of course, East Africa is well endowed in other key minerals. Tragically, the people of the region have hardly ever benefitted from the riches in their midst, which are shared between their kleptocratic rulers and multinational firms.

In Africa, what has come to be known as the resource curse – in particular associated with oil – is of special interest. Those countries that have discovered oil have largely been engulfed in conflict rather than development. In the past, this was partly due to the East-West divide of the Cold War years, when Africa became a theatre for superpower politics between the former Soviet Union and the United States.

But even the fall of the Berlin Wall did not improve matters for African citizens. In particular, the corrupt regimes in power – which had largely been held in power by Western countries – sought to continue their old-age practices. This has ensured the continuation of internal dissent in many resource-rich countries, from Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo to newly-independent South Sudan.

But one could easily argue that these countries have other deep underlying problems that have hindered national reconciliation, and that such factors do not exist in countries such as Kenya and Uganda that are looking forward to join the oil club. Recent events have now demonstrated that such presuppositions simply aren’t true, and that we could all be headed down that well-trodden path of conflict.

In Uganda, the focus over the past couple of weeks has been on the government clampdown in Kasese to the west of the country. Apparently, the cultural king in the region supported a secessionist militia. When Ugandan troops moved in, they are said to have adopted a scorched earth policy, raping and killing en masse. Gory images began circulating in social media of the unfolding disaster, even as East African leaders kept silent about the unfolding crisis.

Given the arbitrary nature of colonial boundaries, which ignored previous state systems existing on the continent, secessionist movements have been alive throughout the post-independence era. The discontent is usually worsened by perceived marginalization, but this has largely been contained – with intermittent violence – in countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

It can safely be presumed, then, that the escalation in secessionist politics in western Uganda has to do with the discovery of large oil deposits in the area. While local residents are obviously anxious about the distribution of the gains from the resources on their land, the national government will often want to extract these resources with little, if any, participation of the people.

It is such concerns – and a general lack of transparency in mineral contracts – that fuel these types of conflicts. As is usually the case in such scenarios, international actors may be partly responsible in fuelling tensions, since they are known to incite combatants in such conflicts with the hopes of sharing the spoils.

In Kenya, too, trouble is bound to brew with the alienation of community land in such areas holding great potential. Ostensibly, this land is set aside for conservation purposes, especially under the National Rangelands Trust that has now quietly come to control 44,000 square kilometres of Kenya’s total land area. As pastures dwindle and mineral exploration takes up more territory, it is a no-brainer that conflicts will arise. In addition, areas where there has been unsuccessful exploration have largely been left without being returned to their pristine condition.

There are already so many armed conflicts going on in the region, with Somalia and South Sudan topping the list. How the region handles the resources being discovered will determine its long-term stability. From recent events in Kasese, that future is not encouraging. The ground, it seems, is being prepared everywhere for the kind of prolonged conflict that has bogged down the Niger Delta. It will take statesmanship – rather than military muscle – to ensure that peace prevails.

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