Feeble and gaunt from the illness that has eaten away at his body, Fideli Donge wobbled onto the porch of his mud-and-straw home, which is hidden by short palm trees off an isolated, craterous dirt road used mostly by barefooted pedestrians and the occasional bodaboda, an East African motorbike taxi. He’s in his 60s, he thinks, but a lifetime of hard labor and poverty has left him looking closer to 90. A few months ago, as Donge lay bedridden, and as his children and grandchildren — he has 52 altogether — worked the 20-acre farm that his family has owned for nearly half a century, men from the local municipality in his western Uganda village knocked at his door.
“They told me that all the residents here have to leave and that they will give me a house or money,” Donge said. He and his family will have to abandon the land that they rely on for their own food and livelihood; they make pennies from the sale of maize, sugar cane, and cassava, a staple crop across Africa. “We don’t know when we will go, or where,” he said. The municipality promised Donge a new home, one large enough to accommodate his family, with soil rich enough to farm, but he hasn’t heard anything since the officials came to his door. “Until now, we are just waiting.”
Since 2008, more than 7,100 residents in surrounding villages have been given similar offers as part of the Ugandan government’s grand scheme to build an 11-square-mile oil refinery in the Lake Albert basin, along the country’s disputed border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The government hopes that the project will transform the downtrodden and war-torn nation, which just barely cracks the top 20 African economies by GDP, into the continent’s fifth-largest oil producer. The Ugandan government, in partnership with London-based Tullow Oil, discovered commercial reserves eight years ago, but production has been slowed by technical challenges and, especially, bureaucratic hang-ups. In early February, after years of protracted talks, the Ministry of Energy finally announced that it had signed deals with China’s CNOOC, France’s Total, and Tullow to build the estimated $15 billion worth of infrastructure needed to develop the oil fields. If successful, the government estimates reserves of up to 3.5 billion barrels of crude oil — enough to finally make this nation of 36 million people self-reliant for its energy needs.
The Lake Albert refinery is an ambitious venture, particularly for a government plagued by corruption allegations and with a history of empty promises. (Last year, the government’s auditor reported $100 million missing from the national budget.) But, perhaps, this time is different. The refinery is a pet project of President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled the country for 28 years; he has repeatedly gone on record calling the reserves “my oil.” Uprooting Ugandan farmers to make way for a refinery might seem like a surprising move for Museveni, who spends so much time out of the capital of Kampala, at his own cattle ranch in southern Uganda, that he earned the nickname the Gentleman Farmer (it’s one of many). But the refinery plan is, ultimately, the perfect way to shore up a presidency for life. (click here to read more)