Devil’s Excrement

17/02/2011

The short stretch of road from Fihoni village was so dusty. It had recently been excavated. The ride was bumpy but Omari demonstrated his riding prowess by the manner in which he negotiated the rough road. There were a number of tippers on this road, some loaded with ballast and others on a return trip to the quarry to fetch some more.

It is not usually like this, they water the road after every 30 minutes but today they haven’t, that’s why it is so dusty. Omari informed me.

I wonder whether it will be like this for 15 years I hear it is going to be 20 years. He said referring to the period of time the company would carry out mining operations.

He stopped his bike to let me have a clear glimpse of the quarry- a crater of about 50 metres wide*100 metres long *10 metres deep. This is the place where the mining company was fetching murram and ballast to construct a new tarmac road to the main site.

They are tarmacking the other road but I don’t think they will do the same to this one. They only did some scraping to enable the Lorries ferry the ballast and murram from this quarry with ease. You see they have struck water? I don’t know what will happen to this big pit. Or may be it will become a big dam. You never know!

I am told in Shimoni they are looking for oil and gas. I would rather they don’t find it.

I forced a laughter despite the dust that was nearly choking me.

You are laughing? Oil is not good at all, even other minerals, they are not good. Omari quipped in a resigned voice.

Why do you say so?

Look at Nigeria, look at DRC even Sierra Leone. They fight for Minerals. Minerals might bring war. I wish they discovered these minerals somewhere else. Not anywhere near.

But you can’t say that Omari. Most of the locals here have gotten jobs with the company, I wonder why you didn’t get employed in the mining company like many people from your village ? I asked him.

You see, I make more money than most of these people. You have seen my shop? It fends for my family, pays school fees for my kid and still leave me with something little to save. I also do boda boda. This bike and the other one, the one whose Logbook I showed you, give me Kes 400 a day each. In the mining company it would take me 4 days to make the money I make in a day.

That was a conversation I had with Omari, I had gone to appraise his business for a credit facility. I boarded a Matatu back Ukunda. On the way, a lot of thoughts crossed my mind. I was pondering about Omari’s reservations on the discovery of rare earths and oil. The country was striking natural resources in various places. Coal had been discovered in Ukambani, Titanium was being mined near Omari’s village, Oil had been struck in Ngammia1, there were hopes that Kenyan Coastline could be having large reserves of natural gas after the same was struck in the neighbouring Tanzania.

This was good for a country whose main exports were agricultural products, tea and coffee to be precise. But Omari’s fears made me feel a little bit tetchy about this “goodness”. Omari was right in his observations. Any country in the world where natural resources are not managed properly, there is civil strive and some people call it ‘the curse of mineral resources’. To quote Juan Pablo Perez Afonzo, one of the OPEC founding luminaries, oil is the“ Devil’s Excrement”. It visits misery to the populations of countries where its revenues are mismanaged. The question in my mind was what Kenya should do to avoid falling in the category of states where natural resources have brought suffering to the people instead of improving their welfare. Would the mining going on just next to Omari’s village improve his livelihood or would it mean doom for his dreams to grow his small retail kiosk, to buy a few more motorbikes and possibly a car, to give his three children a good education so that they would get good paying jobs and not have to toil and moil like their father did to fend for them? How best could the country apply these new resources keeping away the perennial war and corruption that afflicts most African nations?

I summed up a few points that ought to be followed to ensure that these discoveries do not send our beloved country to the dogs. That we don’t end up having local Niger Delta, Kivu, Abyei or Cabinda

1. Establish effective public institutions.

This doesn’t need much expounding. We need effective public institutions with teeth to bite when necessary. Not to bite the contents of the national coffers but to bite those who are caught with their fingers in the purse.

2. Entrench democracy and transparency.

The will of the people of Kenya should be respected. We should have a government that serves the people, a government that never ignores the Wananchi’s needs. Our political processes should be transparent and issue based. We shouldn’t have leaders who are occupied with nothing else but the scramble for a share of the nation’s wealth. We should not have corrupt tyrants who, to borrow from Saro Wiwa, progressively degrade our nation.  Plundering a nation’s wealth impoverishes the population. An impoverished people, once they are fed up with bad leadership, are likely to take up arms against them. When the People take up arms against a government that has access to easy wealth, a protracted civil war is highly likely to ensue. Our constitution vouches for democracy and transparency and it is our duty as Kenyans to protect it .

Talking of transparency too, the government should have the details of contracts with the mining companies transparent. It should also ensure that it deals with multinational corporations of reputable nature.

3. Promote other sectors of the economy and regulate the Kenya shilling to prevent it from reaching so high a price.

With the export of the various mineral resources, the value of the shilling will undoubtedly go up. The exchange rate will rouse imports and hold back the export of other commodities with the exception of the mineral resources. This will kill agriculture (the spinal cord of our economy), tourism and manufacturing.

To counter this, the government should put more emphasis on these alternative income earners i.e. agriculture, tourism and manufacturing such that the natural resources will never at any time account for more than 40% of the economy reason being, if the other sectors are stifled and bearing in mind that mining cannot employ more than 10% of the country’s workforce, most Kenyans will be rendered jobless and income inequalities will be so much pronounced- a recipe for disaster.

It is very important that the revenue realized from mining goes along way in promoting the other sectors so that they remain at the forefront.

4. Good governance and decentralization of power

 Kenyans have a major part to play in electing persons of unquestionable character integrity as their leaders. In the coming   elections we should shun all bad leaders. Bad leaders will embezzle the national purse and minority elite –comprising of these leaders and their cronies will live in opulence while the ordinary Mwananchi will be left wallowing in abject poverty. On the other hand, leaders who are upright and have the nation’s interest at heart will strife to ensure equitable distribution of the revenues generated from the sale of natural resources.

With the coming of the county governments we seem to be headed the right direction. There will be no so much power to be wielded by an individual. An individual possessing too much power in a resource based economy is much more likely to misuse the revenues to keep themselves in power. The fact that they can manage to run the country without depending on taxes collected from Wananchi can make them become pokerfaced and unaccountable to the country’s populace. The decentrarilzed county governments should rid us from this predicament. The Kwale County Government, for example, should have a say in planning how the revenues obtained from the mining that is being carried out near Fihoni is utilized.

5. Sound Planning.

Once the revenue from these resources start trickling in, the government should avoid spending unwisely. By spending unwisely I mean starting overambitious development projects just because there is availability of funds. Such programs would be the first to be abandoned if by any chance the revenues diminished. The capital investment in these programs would go to the drain once abandoned.

When planning, government should never be lured by the readily available cash from the mineral exports as to fail to put into consideration what could happen in the event that prices of the natural resources took a nose dive as is common in the global markets. A reserve fund for a “bad day” should thus be always maintained.

6. Promote education.

The best investment a country can have is an educated populace. Education is the fundamental resource that surpasses all other. To achieve sustainable economic development, we must invest substantially in the education sector. Good education will improve Wananchi’s understanding of themselves and their environment. This will in turn improve the livelihood of the populace by making them more productive, creative and competitive. It will bring about technological advancements while at the same time promoting entrepreneurship. This way, the country will have a diversity of income generating sectors thus not depending entirely on mineral resources which is in its self is a bad situation as highlighted earlier.

My prayer is that the powers that be will be guided by the grace of God to implement the above points so that in ten years to come, the officer who will go to Fihoni to appraise Omari for a loan facility will find a village with all the amenities- running water, electricity, a local school and probably a hospital- not the dilapidated village that is Fihoni today.