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Newly discovered oil fuels hope and fear in Kenya

March 27, 2012 | 10:19 am

Kenya has struck oil, a discovery that has fueled hope and fear in the East African country. President Mwai Kibaki broke the news Monday, telling Kenyan media that although the country was still years away from producing oil and that its commercial viability is uncertain, "it is very good news for our country."

The Tullow Oil company said that a well in Turkana, an arid region in northwest Kenya, had turned up oil much like "the light waxy crude discovered in Uganda." At least four exploratory wells are expected to be drilled this year, Bloomberg News reported.

"To make a good oil discovery in our first well is beyond our expectations," Tullow exploration director Angus McCoss said in a statement Monday. "We look forward to further success as seismic and drilling activities continue to gather pace."

The discovery elated some Kenyans.The Turkana people in the region where the oil was found are an ethnic minority that has had to contend with drought and hunger, relying on aid to survive.

"We will have provision of services that will mean schools, networks, bursaries; it will mean everything that an ordinary Kenyan will need for their lives to move on," Lion Lepalo, executive director of a Turkana nonprofit group, told Kenyan radio station Capitol FM.

One television report from Kenyan-based Citizen News showed Turkana people breaking into song and dance as they learned of the oil. "The black gold could be the ultimate game-changer," the report said.

But others were wary, fearing that oil wealth might be exploited without returning the profits to the Kenyan people. Almost half of Kenyans live in poverty, according to the most recent World Bank figures.

"With the discovery of oil, Kenya is at a crossroads where it must take the highway to heaven or hell," opined Tim Wanyonyi in the Daily Nation. In Russia, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, he wrote, "instead of this black gold helping them improve the quality of life for their people, it has caused suffering."

"But not all oil producing nations are cursed and Kenya has a chance to choose which way to go," Wanyonyi concluded.


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Video: People in the Turkana region react to news that oil has been found nearby. Credit: Citizen News