Major oil reserve tapped in remote northern Kenya

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 26, 2012 

NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenya soon could join the ranks of oil-producing countries after the president and oil companies announced Monday that a major oil find had been discovered in the country's arid, remote north.

The find in the Kenyan region of Turkana is the latest in what's been a surge in oil exploration in the wider East African region. South Sudan and Uganda hold substantial proven oil reserves. Additional exploration is going on in Somalia and Ethiopia in what — due in part to political instability — is one of the world's last promising but unexplored subterranean areas.

"This is the first time Kenya has made such a discovery and it's a very good news for our country," President Mwai Kibaki told a conference Monday in Nairobi, Kenya, according to the AFP news wire.

"To establish commercial viability they have to drill multiple wells," AFP quoted President Kibaki as saying.

The find could complicate the country's rocky politics ahead of elections in one year. Throughout its history, Kenya's winner-take-all brand of tribal politics has stoked tensions underneath an otherwise stable facade that's bolstered it as the favored regional base for diplomats and aid workers.

Those core strains cracked to the surface in blazing fashion after Kenya's December 2007 disputed polls, which spun the nation into a frenzy of ethnic bloodletting, with militias patrolling the countryside, torching rival homes and searching vehicles at checkpoints for perceived political opponents.

The violent free fall ended in a negotiated coalition and sparked an investigation by the International Criminal Court that's indicted four Kenyans on charges of crimes against humanity, including a top aide to Kibaki and two declared presidential candidates.

The region where the oil was discovered is one of the poorest and least developed in Kenya. The local Turkana continue to live a semi-pastoral lifestyle, with few signs of modernity. The tribe has little political representation, and the find is likely going to reopen a sensitive national debate about sharing wealth across the country instead of mostly in its geographic and political center.

Tullow Oil, the London-based company that found the oil, said that "following this discovery the outlook for further success has been significantly improved."

"To make a good oil discovery in our first well is beyond our expectations and bodes well for the material program ahead of us," Angus McCoss, the company's exploration director, said in a statement on the company's website.

The oil block is 50 percent owned by Africa Oil Corp., a Canadian company under the Lundin group led by sons of the late Swedish energy magnate Adolf Lundin, whose oil explorations in South Sudan during Sudan's civil war have been criticized by rights groups. That's resulted in an ongoing investigation by Swedish prosecutors in connection with alleged war crimes in its area of exploration. The oil company denies any wrongdoing in Sudan and has claimed that its activities helped lead to the 2005 peace agreement that ended the war.

Last year, two Swedish freelance journalists were arrested in Ethiopia's rebellious Ogaden region while trying to investigate Africa Oil's ongoing oil explorations there, and were sentenced to 11 years each in jail.

There's no timetable for commercial drilling to begin in Kenya, but production remains at least several years away.

(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is underwritten in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues.)

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