IntelBrief: Mixing Oil and Water in Northern Kenya

Bottom Line Up Front

  • In the past 18 months, scientists and oil exploration companies have discovered an estimated 300 million barrels of crude oil and 250 billion cubic meters of water in the impoverished county of Turkana, in northwest Kenya
  • Lethal battles over water and livestock are rampant, and the population is mobilizing to demand jobs and benefits from international firms seeking to capitalize on the finds
  • Turkana’s abundant natural resources will be difficult to access without law enforcement upgrades to reduce the threat of pastoralist conflicts and international terror attacks (such as al-Shabab’s strike on the Westgate mall in Nairobi in September).

As of December 2013,
the British-based oil and natural gas company Tullow Oil PLC has made four exploratory drilling attempts for oil in the northwestern Kenyan county of Turkana—the first well in March 2012, and the fourth in September 2013. Two aquifers with reserves great enough to satiate Kenya’s water needs for the next 70 years have been found in the Lotikipi and Lodwar Basins. 

But in late October, local protests over the shortage of oil-related employment and contract opportunities—backed by Turkana’s parliamentary representatives—led to the temporary suspension of Tullow’s operations. Drilling resumed nearly two weeks later after a memorandum of understanding addressing some key concerns was signed between the company and the Kenyan Ministry of Energy. But local expectations are rising faster than Tullow can keep up with them, and oil production has yet to commence.

An increasingly precarious situation
Local disputes over profit-sharing are just the beginning. Ensuring smooth production of oil and distribution of water will be difficult in a region scarred by poverty, porous borders, and persistent conflict. A long tradition of cattle rustling between the tribes of northern Kenya and neighboring Ethiopia, Uganda, and South Sudan has inhibited enduring peace in Turkana. In recent years, the violence has intensified with the proliferation of 50,000 light arms to the region and changing climate patterns (the 2011 drought was East Africa’s worst in 60 years). The central government’s failure to address the economic woes of Turkana residents and equip the region with adequate law enforcement has accelerated the militarization of pastoralist culture and the vicious scramble for diminishing pasturelands. In November 2012, in what the BBC News called “the most deadly attack on the police in Kenya’s history,” cattle rustlers armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades ambushed police forces pursuing raiders, leaving at least 42 law enforcement dead.

Nor is it good news that Somali-based extremist cells have focused on Kenya as a preferred target for terrorist attacks. After launching the assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall that killed 67 civilians, al-Shabab has sworn to continue to “strike Kenyans where it hurts the most” for as long as its troops remain on Somali soil as part of the African Union’s peacekeeping mission. Kenya’s economy is fragile in the wake of the Westgate attack, and a strike on Turkana’s oil infrastructure would further dampen investor enthusiasm.

Turkana’s Kakuma refugee camp has not experienced the terrorist episodes that have plagued the neighboring Dadaab refugee camp. But Kakuma is the third-largest camp in the world, and half of its 120,000 refugees have fled from the conflict in Somalia, and Nairobi fears that it, too, may become a recruiting and staging-ground for al-Shabab.

At the least, it is likely that the oil and water discoveries will invite unwelcome actors into an already unstable region. Pastoralist communities from Uganda, South Sudan, and Ethiopia will be tempted to cross over into Kenya to access Turkana’s water supply in times of drought. Armed tribes, foreign militants, and criminal networks may find oil bunkering a profitable way to fund their interests. And local communities may grow increasingly discontented if they perceive a shortage of benefits and opportunities in the wake of the discoveries.

Enlisting local support
A greater law enforcement presence alone will probably be insufficient to deter crime in the region. To reduce popular discontent, Nairobi cannot postpone investments in Turkana’s human development. Ensuring that Turkana receives its fair provision of water is the first step. Managed effectively, water will create alternate schemes for the Turkana pastoralists to make a living, and reduce the impetus for resource-based conflicts that have proven so lethal in recent years. Water has the potential to transform the region into an economic hub by supporting the development of a strong agricultural sector and providing employment for the majority of the local population; in turn, this can serve as a disincentive to take part in illicit or violent activities.

The more it works to engage Turkana communities in matters of wealth-distribution and economic development, the more the central government will receive support from local stakeholders to protect the lucrative resources and cast a wider net of vigilance. The devolution experiment has yet to play out in Kenya, but a bid by the central government to withhold power from Turkana authorities will only add fuel to the fire. After a cattle raid left three dead last month, residents in Turkana South have accused the Kenyan government of redirecting the county’s precious security forces to oil exploration sites at the cost of the Turkana residents who remain endangered. A clean, transparent approach is essential. An attempt to deny Turkana residents of what they believe are their rights to oil and water may result in a destabilizing rebellion.

Strategic implications
Turkana’s destabilization would deal a blow to Kenya’s economic ambitions, and would significantly complicate counterterrorism efforts in East Africa.

Nairobi has long recognized the inadequacy of its northern border security but has been painfully slow to react—despite the intensification of attacks by al-Shabab and the influx of Somali refugees since the famine of 2011. Now that Turkana, so far from Nairobi’s reach, has assets worth protecting, it’s probable that Nairobi will redirect more of its defense forces north in the form of border patrols and intelligence gathering. This may strain Kenya’s security apparatus, but with increasing US and European military cooperation in the wake of the Westgate attack, as well as foreign firms looking to secure their share of Kenya’s oil, Turkana may soon find itself a hotspot of global counterterrorism initiatives.

The private sector’s role in these initiatives will likely be limited. Their contributions to enhancing a security framework in the region will focus on maintaining operational capacity. Tullow Oil, for example, has erected a massive security complex around its first exploration site, complete with guard towers and barbed wire, and staffed by 150 policemen. However, with pipeline infrastructure spanning the country, oil companies may find themselves cooperating more frequently with governments than they had initially anticipated.

• A major outbreak of violence in Turkana is unlikely to occur until foreign infrastructure is in place, and oil production is still six years away
• Kenya is likely to see an influx of security assistance from global partners looking to secure energy interests, and this could bolster the country’s security capacity
• Unless the central government begins to invest in human development initiatives in the county, aggrieved locals are more likely to be motivated to obtain their share of oil profits through illegal channels—or at worse, align themselves with extremist goals or criminal elements
• Turkana’s security environment is difficult to envision or predict once oil starts to flow; insurgency, while currently unlikely, is not impossible, and Kenya’s challenge with terrorism is likely to intensify
• In a worst-case scenario, a marriage between extremist factions and local insurgency in Turkana will mean that Kenya will find itself in a state of crisis not unlike that seen in Nigeria.