Six hundred and seventy-one kilometres north of Nairobi, close to the border with Uganda, Sudan and Ethiopia, lies the dusty town of Lodwar in Turkana County, a rustic regional headquarters surrounded by a vast, sparse, thorny landscape that hosts the largest desert water body in the world, Lake Turkana.
The recent discovery of oil in the region has thrown the county into the national limelight, giving it newfound importance because of its resource matrix. But even as the oil extraction begins, a process that has been marred by opacity, accusations of corruption, and conflict over the division of profits between the locals and the national government, an older discovery remains relatively unknown—archeoastronomy.
Archeoastronomy is the study of how people in the past understood the phenomena in the sky, how they used these discoveries, and what role the sky played in their cultures. It is a multi-disciplinary field that includes geomorphology, art, astronomy, and religion.
The basalt pillars discovered at Kalokol, Lothagam, Manemanya, Lokori and Namoratunga in the Turkana region in 1970s, are said to align with seven major stars: Aldebaran, Sirius, beta Triangulum, Pleiades, Bellatrix, central Orion and Saiph. The name Namoratunga is interpreted to mean either “dancing stones” or “people of stones”. There is contestation as regards the dating of the rock formations, with some claiming they were installed around 300 BC while others say they date as far back as 2400 BC.
Some of the pillar sites have sophisticated underground burial sites containing as many as 160 graves all facing in one direction and marked by horizontal and vertical stone slabs jutting out of the ground.
These rock formations have been linked to similar ones among the Cushitic people of southern Ethiopia, in the Nile Valley in Egypt, and among the Nilotic people of southern Kenya. They comprise rock art, ceramics, symbols, writings, and pottery that are collectively referred to as the “Turkwel tradition”.
The remoteness of the sites, the poor accessibility, and the general insecurity in the area have led to little appreciation and understanding of the centrality of these sites to our historical memory as a people. The widespread insecurity is mainly driven by the ease of access to weapons both within and from outside our national borders.
Guns and raiders
For a country with an estimated 700,000 guns in illegal hands, the story of the arming of the Turkana has many starting points depending on whom you ask. Some place it at the point where the Turkana acquired Austrian Steyr AUG rifles from the Italian troops during World War II and later during the Shifta wars. Soon after, they began raiding their Karamojong neighbours across the border in northern Uganda. That is, until April 1979 when the fall of Idi Amin led to the looting of the famous Moroto Barracks in northern Uganda which gave the Karamojong massive firepower and defences.
It is estimated that the barracks had more than 15,000 guns and roughly two million rounds of ammunition from the Soviets. The raid yielded German-made Gehwer 3 NATO army rifles, AK47 assault rifles, and millions in free ammo.
A succession of events between the fall of Amin, the drought in the Moroto water catchment area, and Tito Okello’s miscalculated act of arming and drafting the Karamojong into the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) essentially brought the entire pastoralist belt into localised modern warfare and the Soviet Cold War circuit.
In the 1970s, rural ethnic politics over pasture and livestock spilled into national concerns over territory and mixed with global Cold War politics that saw Gerald Ford supply Kenya with F-5As/5Es fighter weaponry, as Soviet leader Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev courted Somalia’s Siad Barre. Meanwhile, Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Marxist regime rose in Addis and armed the late John Garang’s fast-growing war machinery, the Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA).
Turkanas meanwhile harnessed their critical geostrategic importance to the Kenyan state as the ethnic buffer at the border, to negotiate with the Kenyatta regime. This happened primarily because an increasingly belligerent Amin threatened Kenya’s territorial integrity, and an expansionist Islamic regime under Defence Minister Gen. Abdel Rahman Mohammed toppled President Jaafar Nimeiry in Khartoum while he was on a trip to the United States.
Further South, the Pokot, faced with threats from the Marakwet to the East, the Ugandan Sebei to the West, the Sabaot to the South-east and the Turkana to the north, amassed their stash of American-made weapons—spoils from the 1977-78 Ethio-Somali Ogaden war. Siad Barre’s men had offloaded their loot of weapons taken from the retreating Ethiopian regiments into the hands of the Pokot fighters.
Former President Daniel arap Moi tried disarming the Pokot thrice, including during the famed 1984 Konyi Lotiriri operation around the Kopokogh area in Pokot north which was followed by a second wave in 1986. But it was the 1989 disarmament, and the subsequent massacre, that underscored the difficulty of removing rifles from private hands in such a conflict-prone region.
If you disarm the Turkana, they could be easily obliterated by the Merille who are north of Todonyang on the Ethiopian border. The Turkana had coexisted with the Merille until their fallout in the mid-1990s after which the Merille fled north into the Omo Valley and the Turkana clans fled south to around Longwarek village on the northwest shores of Lake Turkana.
Disarming the Turkana also risks a repeat of the 1989 Pokot-style massacre, either by the Toposa of Kapoeta in South Sudan, or by the Jie, or the Karamojong of Uganda. The arms inside the pastoralist belt are therefore a case of mutually assured destruction or at the very least represent the risk of strategic damage to the powerful tribes by the lesser ones.
Conflict over pasture, land and livestock puts water prospects into sharp focus, with the Eliye Springs, the Loboli swamps and Aiyanginyang water catchment areas a playing strategic role in the provision of water for sustenance, and leading to clan-based resource conflicts in the region.
The politics of the colourless gold
Previously known as Lake Rudolf, the 6,500km² Lake Turkana is fed by the Omo River from south-western Ethiopia, and the Turkwel and Kerio Rivers from the south and southeast of the lake, respectively.
Water is becoming the centre of region-wide ecological, demographic, and societal pressures in this arid landmass and conflict over water and pasture have emerged as the real strategic risks. To properly define what will be at stake in a few years based on the county’s current resource trajectory, we must begin with the recently discovered aquifers.
The mapped Turkana and Lotikipi aquifers hold more than 250 billion cubic metres of water against an annual national usage of just 3 billion cubic metres. For context, the two aquifers —the Lotikipi Basin Aquifer and the Lodwar Basin Aquifer—could supply the water needs of the entire country at the current population rate for at least 70 years. The two aquifers were identified using advanced satellite exploration technology.
The discovery resulted from the GRID MAP (Groundwater Resources Investigation for Drought Mitigation in Africa Program) groundwater mapping project, and was announced at a 2013 international water security conference in Nairobi. The find was then confirmed by drilling conducted in 2015, but there is a need for further studies to more accurately quantify the reserves and assess the water quality.
But it was the 1989 disarmament, and the subsequent massacre, that underscored the difficulty of removing rifles from private hands in such a conflict-prone region.
The Lotikipi Basin Aquifer is located west of Lake Turkana basin and studies show it to be a part of previous surges in the size of Lake Turkana hundreds of years ago. The technology combined seismic mapping, remote sensing, and available groundwater data to explore and ascertain the presence of groundwater over such a large, arid, and rocky area. On its own, Lotikipi could potentially triple Kenya’s strategic water reserves and meet its medium-to-long term water needs.
The relatively smaller Lodwar Basin Aquifer could serve as a strategic reservoir for Lodwar, Turkana County’s main town, and the Lokichar, Kainuk, and Lokitaung areas. Three other aquifers have also been identified in other parts of Turkana County but are still subject to mapping and confirmation by drilling and assessment.
The politics of black gold
In 2012, right around the time the aquifers were discovered, Kenya discovered oil in the Lokichar area. Categorized as light and sweet with a light to medium oil grading API scale of 32-38 and a sulphuric content below 0.5%, the discovery has a high wax content, which would make production, transport, and storage costs relatively high.
Even up to the time of the sale of the first 200,000 barrels to Singapore at a cost of US$1.4 billion, the actual breakeven cost of Turkana crude oil remained a closely guarded piece of information. At US$60 a barrel, the sale was a US$2 discount on the day’s market prices.
The Lokichar crude fields contain an estimated 560 million barrels in proven and probable reserves and are expected to produce up to 100,000 barrels per day from 2022. A barrel is a standard unit used by the oil industry representing 159 litres or 42 gallons of crude oil.
The logistical challenge of extracting the oil in Lokichar, 912 kilometres away from the port of Mombasa, Kenya’s largest port, further complicates the economics of mining and exportation.
Water is becoming the centre of region-wide ecological, demographic, and societal pressures in this arid landmass.
The project was already facing headwinds when the Kenyan government, through the Ministry of Petroleum, hired an undisclosed firm to audit the petroleum prospects and projections in 2016. So when the British oil explorer Tullow Oil served the Ministry with a KSh204 billion bill for its six years of work in the Lokichar oilfields, the state was ready, waiting to challenge that invoice.
This points to a hidden scepticism within the Kenyan petroleum circles as to the reliability of the explorer, and the viability of the oil reserves. The tussle between Tullow and the state arises right at the point where about 40 wells have already been sunk over the last 7-year period.
On the revenue-sharing front, Turkana leaders accepted a 5 per cent share for the locals (down from a proposed 10 per cent share) and 20 per cent for the county coffers. The remaining 75 per cent is to go to the National Treasury.
Devolution meets oil
The lure of the petrodollar has seen nearly 10,000 firms move into Turkana’s once sleepy transit town, establishing retail space, guesthouses, leisure outlets, offices, malls, petrol stations, housing, eateries, and agribusiness. Devolution and auxiliary services to the oil economy have pushed the county’s GDP ranking to about KSh11 billion as per the 2017 County Gross Product report.
Still, the boom has not translated into much in the lives of the locals, as a 2018 report put the poverty incidence at 756,000 of the 1.2 million residents, and the illiteracy rate at 80 per cent.
Additionally, the Lokichar crude fields carry the implicit risks of crowding out the other economic sectors and disincentivising capital investment in pastoralism, education, transport, and hospitality that have been the economic mainstay for decades.
For the oil explorers and related service providers, relations with the locals have not always been rosy. Protests by locals in 2013 during Tullow’s drilling launch, and in 2018 during the first shipment of crude, regarding jobs and other benefits, led to a truce and better engagement by the firm and its stakeholders. Loss of pasture as urban development and gazetted blocks crowd out grazing fields does not augur well for the pastoralist communities.
The discovery of oil has triggered border conflicts in Kalingorock, Lorogon, and Nakwamoru, and as far away as Kainuk town in the South. Juluk and Napeitom areas have not been spared either, even as a section of neighbouring Pokot leaders lay claim to the Lokichar basin.
Decades of a pastoralist lifestyle have left the broader community with few modern skills and local subcontracted firms trying to hire specialists and experts in machining, fabrication, refrigeration, manufacturing, engineering, energy, and construction, as well as service-sector workers are facing challenges.
Three major initiatives have been undertaken to upskill, reskill and build the capacity of the local workforce. The county government has already spent KSh90 million setting up, upgrading and retooling village polytechnics, while Mount Kenya University has set up a KSh600 million (US$6 million) campus to offer oil and water-related courses. The Canadian-headquartered local oil explorer Africa Oil has invested KSh100million (US$1 millions) to upgrade the Lodwar Youth Polytechnic to teach a variety of blue-collar skills.
The Kapese airstrip in Lokichar, owned by African Camp Solutions (ACA), received a major KSh175 million facelift to extend the runway to cater for larger local planes. Regional airlines have now started operating daily flights to Turkana, including Phoenix Air, Astral Aviation, Safarilink, Flying Doctors, Tropic Air, and other chartered aircraft contracted by Tullow Oil to ferry its staff.
Land prices in the area have increased five-fold as prospects for oil bring in speculators, with the attendant complaints of land grabbing, zoning disputes, land titling challenges, and lack of access roads. An eighth of an acre piece of land that cost KSh50,000 in 2013 now prices at around KSh400,000.
Tullow has also leased 420 acres from residents in the Kapese area to build a new camp, located just seven kilometres from Lokichar town and 90 kilometres from Lodwar. This will be Tullow’s fifth camp as it was already operating from Ngamia and Twiga camps, as well as in the Engomo and Ekales camps.
Land prices in the area have increased five-fold as prospects for oil bring in speculators.
In early 2021, Tullow Oil, the primary driver of the oil exploration, promised to provide a six-month review of the viability of its operations after the planned sale of its stake in the venture fell through. The fate of the county’s oil boom and the related industries is heavily tied to the report’s final findings, which are expected by the end of 2021.
High production costs due to the nature of the Lokichar crude oil, weak output in Ghana, and the March ethnic clashes in the South American petrol state of Guyana led to announcement of a 16-year low in oil production for Tullow in 2020. Amidst the COVID-19 meltdowns, the firm has warned of a further 16 per cent dip in its production capacity for 2021.
In light of the above issues, it just might be time for Turkana County to begin diversifying its economy away from the oil prospecting industry.
Tapping into the potential benefits of the Lapsset project, the county’s water resources, the Namoratunga sites, and devolved powers, will spur the local economy even as the leaders await the findings of the December 2021 oil report, and its recommendations about the economic viability of the oil deposits in and around Turkana County.