Ever since Uganda in April 2016 announced it would build the pipeline to export its crude oil through the Tanzanian seaport of Tanga rather than Lamu, it has been a surprisingly emotive subject in Kenya.
In part, the decision was unexpected, as most news reports suggested the pipeline would be built from oilfields of Hoima, western Uganda, through Lokichar in Kenya. Since then, more of the long-read analyses on the strategic significance of the choice appear in the Kenyan media than in Uganda and Tanzania.
At the weekend, Uganda President Yoweri Museveni was in Tanzania and signed an agreement to commence the construction of the $3.5 billion (Sh350 billion) 1,445-kilometre pipeline.
By Tuesday, every Kenyan newspaper worth its salt had put out a full-throated analysis. There was nothing of the sort in Uganda.
There was an evident sense of injury — and even peril — with one commentator saying in one of the analyses that Uganda had stuck a knife in the back of Kenya, its main trading partner in the region. It went conspiratorial, suggesting that, somehow, Uganda and Tanzania were in cahoots to deny Kenya the pipeline as a way of ending its regional economic dominance.
Harder to secure land
Sometimes we give our politicians too much credit. So, what are the official and public reasons for Uganda choosing Tanzania? On the surface, they look quite sensible. For one, Kampala said the Kenyan route would delay the project as it lacked roads and was affected by monsoon winds for up to three months annually.
Secondly, that it was harder to secure land in Kenya since it takes about 24 months to compensate landowners. But in Tanzania, the government owns all the land and a presidential signature would easily get the pipeline all the land it needs.
Thirdly, that it was cheaper to route it through Tanzania, although the Uganda-Kenya direction, had it materialised, would have been only 55 kilometres longer. Fourthly, that the pipeline would have been more vulnerable to attacks by Al-Shabaab militants from Somalia.
It’s important to remember that Uganda was already supposed to be exporting oil by now but all sorts of issues delayed that. It is 14 years since the discovery of the oil was first announced, in October 2006. It will be interesting to see how much of the latest action is timed to create a “progress” narrative, after many missed deadlines, ahead of the February 2021 election.
The pipeline drama is striking in how little regional media appreciate the security mind-set in Uganda that informs decisions like that on the pipeline, and the political motivation for the Kampala political class.
Implicit in the idea that land would have been more expensive in Kenya, and it would have got bogged down in compensation battles, is a single word: Corruption. That, as happened with the standard gauge railway (SGR), politicians and speculators would have bought up the land along the route and jacked up the cost.
However, corruption is one reason why Kenya would have been chosen, not why it lost. The business and corruption networks between Uganda and Kenya are deep and have a long history. The Ugandan chapter of the networks would have delivered the pipeline to their compadres in Kenya, so that they eat merrily together. That Tanzania is cheaper and land easier to get is, actually, a disadvantage.
To better get a handle on the decisive calculations, one need only look at the photographs of the weekend in Tanzania. Museveni and his entourage were fully face-masked. President John Magufuli and his part were not — reflecting the strange mix of denialism, mild superstition and religious fundamentalism that is the Tanzanian government’s Covid-19 policy.
A Ugandan online publication claimed that, upon return, the Museveni contingent was quarantined — just in case. At a wider level, it illustrated the Museveni state’s security mind-set, which may have played a role in tipping the oil pipeline decision to Tanzania. The considerations were more domestic than geopolitical.
The oil pipeline to Tanzania runs in western Uganda, through regions that are staunchly pro-Museveni. As he heads into the sunset of his rule, there is less political risk to his regime — and, therefore, the pipeline — in these strongholds than through the north eastern route to Kenya, which is more politically contested.
Even more significant, a central strategic objective of Kampala, just like for other hinterland countries such as Rwanda, is to spread the risks on key transport infrastructure. As the key ground export and import route for Uganda, and the SGR, too, lined up, Kenya was in the back of the grid.
There is, of course, the understandable seduction to use the failure to snag the pipeline to knock the Jubilee government, but knowing the Ugandan security mind-set, the surprise is that the Kenyan route was ever seriously considered at all.