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Oil refinery: the people matter too

For months, the press has been awash with expert arguments and counter arguments on the commercial viability of having a refinery of whatever capacity in a landlocked country that is Uganda.

The oil companies have reportedly been strongly opposed to the idea which has at times spilled into public confrontations with the executive.

Speaking on the fringes of the East African power convention in Nairobi last week, the state minister for energy, Simon D’Ujanga, confirmed the government’s plans to have a petroleum refinery constructed in Hoima to process an initial 60,000 barrels of oil per day.

According to the plan, the refinery will sit on 29 square kilometres of land, which, according to the minster, has been identified and compensation of residents is underway. So, the refinery will happen. And it will happen in Hoima.

The discovery of oil in the Albertine region in 2006 has largely been viewed as a precursor to glory days for the region and the country. Now with the government’s confirmation that the refinery will definitely be built, one would think it couldn’t get better.

The promised jobs, infrastructural developments and reduced prices of fuel for internal consumption are, indeed, worthy of acclaim. We all should welcome the latest developments.

However, as a native of the region, I am drawn to a joke which is common among the petroleum industry workers that the farther one is from the oil wells, the richer and better off they become.

Consequently, people who start their careers as engineers and workers at the wells strive to become managers and directors to move away from the wells and occupy some of the most glittering offices in high-rising towers located in capitals miles away from the production sites.

Unfortunately the same mobility is not afforded to the common men and women born and bred in the petroleum-producing areas. These are the lot who suffer the vagaries associated with exploration, production and transportation of oil.

They are the ones who are displaced in masses to pave way for oil installations and infrastructure, they are the ones who suffer deaths when it all goes wrong with spills and explosions, and they are the ones who die slowly from dangerous sulphuric and carbon emissions and harmful environmental destructions.

Destruction of a community’s social and cultural fabric also occurs as families disperse and foreigners, experts and casual workers, arrive with different cultural and social practices. An English acronym NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) has been coined to describe communities that resist new developments, though beneficial, preferring that they be constructed somewhere else.

As we welcome this latest instalment of the ever-incoming good news, there is need to call for a transparent plan for adequate compensation for the residents who will be displaced from plots of land and structures they have known and called home for their entire lives.

“We are paying off people to make way for the construction,” the minister is reported to have said.
Details of the compensation process or even how many people are involved remain everyone’s guess.

The way compensation has been handled in the past has been questionable at best. In fact, there were unconfirmed media reports to the effect that residents were paid between Shs 8,000 and Shs 50,000 as compensation for land and property to give way for the construction of Hoima-Kaiso-Tonya road in Hoima.

(Bunyoro residents complain about unfair compensation for their land, New Vision Thursday April 25, 2012). Compensation is not a tick and tick exercise where as long as every affected resident’s name is typed on a list and ticked as having been compensated, it is about adequate compensation.

This is what is meant by our constitution when it provides that no person shall be compulsorily deprived of his/her property without timely, fair and adequate compensation. (Article 26).

A properly handled and transparent compensation exercise is as needed as the refinery itself.

The writer is a postgraduate student of LLM in Petroleum law and policy at the University of Dundee, UK under the Tullow Scholarship Scheme.

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