Uganda’s Secretive Oil Deals

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I believe that it is about time that parliament, forced the hand of government – in particular the president – to reveal who the main shareholders of Tullow Oil and Heritage Oil are

[Global News: Africa]

Global oil politics, whether in the Middle East, South America, or in Africa, have taken center stage during this environment of world economic malaise.

It’s important to monitor how governments handle information about new oil discoveries –and the subsequent allocation of proceeds once the oil is commercially exploited.

In Uganda, the country’s president, Yoweri Museveni, said in a recent press statement: "Uganda has a good deal, which could earn it up to 70 per cent of the proceeds. The government has however refused to disclose the production sharing agreements that it has signed with the oil companies, saying there are confidentiality clauses barring parties from disclosing it."

I’ve gone over the last sentence in this statement repeatedly and I’m still perturbed by it. Why? If a head of state, who has always beaten the drums of African Liberation and fighting against Neo-colonialism starts to proclaim all these commercial legalese; it means he is suddenly on the side of big-business, multi-national corporations, the very neo-colonial vehicle he has always trumpeted a cause against.

More worrying still, I believe that with-holding such information from the masses, the nation, the citizens of the country is not just illegal but unconstitutional. My apologies if I am wrong; but on a quick browse through the Ugandan Constitution, I happened upon an Article [41] that alludes to citizens rights of access to information:

41. Right of access to information. (1) Every citizen has a right of access to information in the possession of the State or any other organ or agency of the State except where the release of the information is likely to prejudice the security or sovereignty of the State or interfere with the right to the privacy of any other person.

(2) Parliament shall make laws prescribing the classes of information referred to in clause (1) of this article and the procedure for obtaining access to that information.

There is an element of company law that deems that a company is, by definition, a "person" but this is a bona fide case of national assets under public ownership. What will happen tomorrow if "we" residents of Amuru suddenly discover that our own, private lands are awash with these recently discovered minerals such as gold and diamonds? Shall we then be permitted to claim confidentiality in relation to its exploitation?

Government’s [Museveni’s] claim that the information is subject to a confidentiality clause is a non-starter and I believe that in the eye of a court of law, that is unconstitutional.

The other worrying point is this; oil is a natural resource, which, in other words is a mineral resource. The constitution is clear on the issue of minerals, its exploitation and more worryingly, the rights of land owners (see below). This leads us to believe that ‘investors’ clambering to lease land for sugarcane, bio-fuel production etc.’ have been a front for land acquisition with a hidden agenda:

244. Minerals. (1) Subject to clause (2) of this article, Parliament shall make laws regulating—
(a) the exploitation of minerals;

(b) the sharing of royalties arising from mineral exploitation;

(c) the conditions for payment of indemnities arising out of exploitation of minerals; and

(d) the conditions regarding the restoration of derelict lands.

(2) Minerals and mineral ores shall be exploited taking into account the interests of the individual land owners, local governments and the Government.

(3) For the purpose of this article, "mineral" does not include clay, murram, sand or any stone commonly used for building or similar purposes.

I believe that it is about time that parliament, forced the hand of government – in particular the president – to reveal who the main shareholders of Tullow Oil and Heritage Oil are; what their agreement with the GOU covers and what the terms and conditions of exploitation of oil in Northern and Western Uganda are.

How can a national asset be subject to secretive dealings? That means that a whole nation could be leased off (if it hasn’t already been done) simply with a veiled pledge that it is in the citizens’ national interest but the details cannot be revealed because it is subject to a confidentiality clause. Whose benefit is the clause? It should be the citizens’ benefit and in that case, it should not be a matter of secrecy then should it?

Ugandan members of parliament, particularly lesgislators from Amuru, and the Acholi Parliamentary Group (APG) –Amuru is in Acholi region—should take note and act on this issue as a matter of urgency.

The writer is a lawyer and member of a think tank on land issues

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