Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki rarely displays emotions in public but he on March 26 made an exception (the other comparable time he did so was when the east African country promulgated its new constitution, after years in the making).
This time around, Mr Kibaki interrupted his speech to announce a major breakthrough: Tullow Oil had just discovered oil in the country’s north-western Turkana frontier region. According to Tullow, Kenya’s new find was beyond their initial expectation, even if its commercial viability is yet to be worked out.
After decades of coming up empty, it was an exciting piece of news for the entire country. But that was not all.
Last week, the country's prime minister, Mr Raila Odinga, announced that the country had struck even more oil reserves than earlier announced, based on information from the oil explorers.
Apparently, Kenya could end up with more oil than neighbour and friendly rival Uganda--just what many Kenyans wanted to hear.
In the same week, international experts met in Kenya, not for the usual talk shop but to this time debate issues of oil and how the country could take advantage to propel itself to economic prosperity.
In the past, Kenya, just like most of the east African countries, has had to seat on the periphery of the oil and gas frontiers as the Gulf of Guinea and most of northern Africa took centre stage. Not anymore: Uganda is working towards exporting oil; Mozambique has discovered new gas reserves and there is a fourth new gas find in Tanzania.
In the case of Kenya, the oil find means a lot. First, the billions of shillings spent on oil imports could go to other areas. We are talking about $3 billion (2008) or $4.1 billion (2011) here.
Then there are jobs and related benefits but it’s the economic muscle, which could boost the country’s influence on international issues that is even more important.
After Uganda struck oil, Kenyan authorities were worried about its future prospects as the regional powerhouse.
The country has sought to position itself as the regional transport hub, especially targeting Southern Sudan, whose oil transportation dilemma persists after the newly independent country disagreed with Sudan over pipeline levies and the security of its oil.
With oil, Kenya is now more emboldened. But there are issues that the country must deal with if this resource is to help move the wheels of development.
The economists meeting in Nairobi had their prescriptions. Here, I list five small but key things that Kenyans must DO if the oil find is to benefit every citizen in the country.
- Start respecting traffic lights and simple rules of decency. Many Kenyans have no time for traffic lights, something that leads to all manners of sins on the road. This is a reflection of a bigger social ill that wastes a lot of time o the way. If Kenyans can’t respect simple rules, why should they expect their leaders to? Who will be accountable to whom? Especially when the petro-dollars start flowing in?
- Ask their leaders the hard questions especially on international politics, especially on the status of the Ilemi triangle, around Turkana, that has never been resolved. And now even Somalia is claiming a piece of Kenya's offshore oil frontiers.
- Read at least two thought-provoking novels a year. This way, Kenyans will be able to think critically and engage their leaders at that level, unlike today when the government is almost operating at their own leisure.
- Join the social media. This is where great men with great ideas are interacting. On joining the microblogging site, Kenyans, especially the so called ordinary folks, would be able to grasp pertinent oil issues and weigh in on the discussion.
- Interact with news, both local and international. This does not mean watching or listening to radio, television etc passively but doing so actively. This way, energy issues are interrogated and dealt with, from a wider angle.
These are my five "revolutionary" ideas that would save Kenya from the oil curse, what would yours be?
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