Opinion: Why oil and gas was a tie-breaker at Uganda’s Innaugral presidential Candidates’ debate

By James Muhindo…

Uganda recently held a presidential candidates debate on January 15, 2016 at the Kampala Serena Hotel. The debate was organised by the Inter Religious Council on conjunction with the Elders Forum chaired by Justice Ogola.

One of the outstanding issues from the debate that has continues to trend both on social and mainstream media is the question on Uganda’s oil and gas. This question to me unearthed hundreds of reasons for every Ugandan out there to get concerned about the future of our oil and gas 10 years after its discovery.

However, I found it rather disheartening, absurd and archaic that none of the seven contenders for the presidency of this country has had access to the Oil agreements (Production Sharing Agreements) that Uganda entered into with the international oil companies operating in Uganda.

For clarity’s sake, production sharing agreements are binding contracts signed between a government and Oil Company stating how much of the oil extracted shall be taken by Government and how much the oil company take. It is by these agreements that Uganda’s oil fate was literally sealed.

The questions then are; If none of these seven (men and woman) have seen the agreements, then who has? With such secrecy, can we surely have any transparency and accountability in the oil sector? Or on a lighter note, does the secrecy justify one of the candidate’s reference to “fortune Bhutto” when asked about oil? And the questions go on and on and on.

Having Oil and Gas as one of the critical issues at the debate was not surprising, given that Uganda is currently undergoing a dual transition; a political one of succession and an economic one, to move to an economy anchored on oil. It’s been argued by some analysts that the fact that commercial production of Oil is ambitiously slated to start in the next term of office, would intensify the race for state house. The predisposition to manage the oil sector can be read into the manifestos of some presidential candidates and political parties.

Some candidates have, in their manifestos and on the campaign trail, made some commitments to this effect. FDC‘s Kizza Besigye talks of optimising returns from oil to rehabilitate Uganda’s failing economy.  Go Forward and TDA’s Amama Mbabazi promises the local communities in the oil region to benefit from the revenues and to compensated persons affected by Land Acquisition while NRM’s Museveni reiterates that government is consciously and strategically developing the oil and gas sector to ensure that the country gets the maximum possible benefit.

Despite of his short comings at the debate (that have since earned him fame on social media) Eng. Joseph Mabirizi’s position on Oil is, not to abandon other sectors at the expense of oil. Professor Venansius Baryamureeba says his government would uphold transparency in the oil sector by making sure that Oil companies publish what they pay to government and government also publishes all its revenues. He also promises to sign on to the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI), a position that Dr. Abed Bwanika also agrees with for the sake of international oversight.

Without prejudice to the above, it is apparent that if transparency and accountability are kept out of Uganda’s oil and gas sector; the “black Gold” may turn into a curse rather than a blessing to the country, especially to the host communities of this resource.

It is important that the discussion of having oil and gas shape the 2016 general elections is already ongoing, however I also strongly believe that citizens can never have a better time to extract promises and commitments from politicians, than during campaigns. I, therefore, implore every Uganda not to only focus on the looming political transition that is hovering over our country, but also pay attention to the eminent economic transition to an Oil economy, that will shape Uganda’s future for the next 20- 30 years.

James Muhindo is a lawyer and human rights advocate working as the project officer at Global Rights Alert

This article was first Published by the New vision Newspaper

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