The Good And The Bad Of Kenya's First Oil Strike

For the first time, oil has been discovered in the East African nation of Kenya. The country's energy minister quickly held a news conference. Holding up a bottle of crude, he pledged to make sure oil is a blessing for the people and not a curse. Will Ross of the BBC talks to David Greene about how oil can be a plague on unprepared nations.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Kenya strikes oil - that was the headline in Nairobi's Daily Nation newspaper this week. It's the first time such a discovery has been made in the East African nation. Kenya's energy minister quickly held a press conference with oil company executives. Holding up a glass bottle of crude oil, he pledged to make sure that oil is a blessing for the people and not a curse.

And we're joined now by the BBC's Will Ross in Nairobi to talk about this discovery. Well, good morning.

WILL ROSS: Good morning.

GREENE: So Kenya may be joining the league of oil-producing nations at some point. What is the reaction to this discovery there?

ROSS: Yeah. Well, there's been quite a lot of excitement amongst ordinary Kenyans who are seeing it as a possible way of transforming the economy and they're, you know, all predicting bright days ahead. We ought to put a little warning in here that we've been told that there will need to be quite a lot more exploration done before we know whether the oil down there is in commercially viable quantities. But certainly, the people here are pretty excited.

We've had, you know, so many countries in the region that have discovered oil and Kenya maybe thinks that the days ahead will produce much cheaper fuel. It remains to be seen if that's going to be true or not. An extraordinary, you know, reaction from Turkana, which is where the oil is being found, possibly one of the poorest areas in the entire region.

Just to give you a quote from one person in Turkana, he said God has remembered us and we're planning to have a prayer meeting next month so that the oil deposits can be confirmed in large quantities. It will be a new beginning for us. So that's the kind of excitement coming from Kenyans who think that better days are ahead.

GREENE: You know, I wonder, you mentioned that the oil discovery was in an area that's impoverished. I think about a country like Nigeria, which is, you know, one of the top 10 oil producers in the world and you hear about so much wealth but so much corruption and still a lot of poverty. You haven't really seen oil solve the problem of poverty in that country.

ROSS: Yeah. And I think that's the case in most of the oil-producing countries across the continent. I mean, Nigeria, of course, had the civil war in the '60s, partly because of, you know, arguments over the resource of oil. Those problems still continue. And when you look at, you know, what's happened in Angola, say, another massive oil producer; Equatorial Guinea. These countries simply haven't seen the wealth trickle down to the people.

There was a fantastic cartoon in the Daily Nation newspaper here in Kenya, which had all of the politicians there with their arms up in the air cheering, you know, we found oil, and then a group of very impoverished looking people in Turkana saying: And when will you discover water?

GREENE: Wow.

ROSS: Because basically, up there, their daily struggle is just getting water.

GREENE: That really sends the message, doesn't it? You know, when I think of Kenya I often think of game parks, you know, those sorts of natural resources. Was the discovery of oil a surprise?

ROSS: I think for a long time people have known that it's highly likely that there's oil underground somewhere in Kenya. Because when you look at the region there's simply, you know, so many countries are now finding it. Tanzania is finding oil and natural gas. Prospecting has started now in Puntland, an area of Somalia. South Sudan and Sudan, of course. Uganda to the west. But I think that, you know, the fact that there was no warning that this announcement would be made, it did sort of cause quite a lot of drama and excitement, because suddenly, you know, as you mentioned, the headlines were saying: We've Struck Oil. But I think, you know, many warnings coming from the analysts saying, hang on a minute. Don't get too excited. Show me a country in Africa where the oil has really helped.

GREENE: Will, thanks you very much.

ROSS: You're welcome.

GREENE: The BBC's Will Ross speaking to us from Nairobi about the discovery of oil in Kenya.

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