OPINION: Kenyans need to cry less over the Uganda-Tanzania pipeline

Thursday September 17 2020


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

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 in Kenya, it has been a surprisingly emotive subject in Kenya. In part, it is because the decision was unexpected, as most news reports suggested the pipeline would be built from oil fields of Hoima in western Uganda, through Lokichar in Kenya, and onward to Lamu. Ever since then, if you look at the long-read think pieces analysis why and the strategic significance of the choice, there are far more appearing in the Kenyan media than in Uganda and Tanzania.

Recently, Uganda President Yoweri Museveni was in Tanzania, and signed a pact to commence construction of the $3.5 billion 1,445 kilometre-long crude oil pipeline. By Tuesday, every Kenyan newspaper worth its salt had put out a full-throated analysis. There was nothing equivalent 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. Sometimes, we give our politicians too much credit.

So, what do we know as the official and public reasons for why Uganda chose 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 always affected by monsoon winds for up to three months annually.

Secondly: it was harder to secure land in Kenya, since it takes about 24 months to compensate land owners. On the other hand, in Tanzania the government owns all the land, and a presidential signature would get the pipeline all the land it needs without much hassle.


Thirdly: it was cheaper to route it through Tanzania, although the Uganda-Kenya direction, had it materialised, would have been only 55 kilometres longer.

Fourthly: had the pipeline been built to Lamu, it would have been more vulnerable to attacks by Al-Shabaab 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 discovery of the oil was 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. That said, the pipeline drama is striking in how little regional media appreciate the security mind-set in Uganda that informs decisions like on the pipeline, and the political motivation for the political class.

For example, implicit in the idea that land is more expensive in Kenya, and it would have got bogged down in compensation battles, is a single word: corruption. As happened with the standard gauge railway, politicians and speculators would have bought up the land along the route - and jacked up the cost. However, corruption would be 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, etc., 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 likely played a role in tipping the oil pipeline decision to Tanzania. These security considerations, were more domestic, than geopolitical. The oil pipeline to Tanzania runs in the western part of 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 northeastern route to Kenya, which is more politically contested. But even more significant, a central strategic objective of Kampala - just like for other hinterland countries like Rwanda - is to spread the risks on key transport infrastructure.

With Kenya the key ground export and import route for Uganda, and the standard gauge 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 that Ugandan security mindset, the surprise is that the Kenya route was ever seriously considered at all.