Uganda’s oil sector is a buzz with activity. Over 2bn barrels already confirmed and further exploration in high gear. Even more exciting is the anticipated production phase that will see over $10bn worth of investments injected into the sector soon.
And perhaps a sign of the oil sector’s growing clout, the Petroleum Exploration and Production Department (PEPD) in Entebbe is one of the only two government departments to get a new modern office building this year, the other being the President’s office.
Unlike other sectors, oil brings with it high expectations especially regarding employment and the expected increase in government revenue makes even the least optimistic of a Ugandan excited.
Asked what government policy is regarding gender equitability towards employment in the oil sector, Mr Mubarak Munaya, the Principal Gender Officer in the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development reveals that such sector-particular policy is yet to be put in place and the process is just being initiated.
“We have been at exploration stage and the oil is just a recent discovery,” he says, noting that now is the exact entry-point for policy makers, program implementers and capacity developers at the Ministry.
“It is like building a house. You can’t be brick-laying and then start sweeping,” He relates.
“Check on us in six months,” he jokes before revealing that the Gender, Labour and Social Development Ministry is in close contact with the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development regarding policy formulation for the sector which will start soon.
But if Mr. Munaya has his eyes on the policy, then his counterparts at Energy and Mineral development have other thoughts. Mr. Bukenya K. Matovu, the Senior Assistant Secretary in the latter says there will be no such policy because govt’s priority is to recruit competent personnel regardless of their gender.
“A sector this nascent can not afford to get into such politics,” declares Mr. Bukenya, noting that Oil and Gas is a very technical field and therefore can not compromise on skills and competence. “We will not discriminate against women but neither can we push for incompetent or incapable people,” adds Bukenya.
He notes that just operating a drilling rig needs internationally certified personnel and Uganda which has none remains with no choice but to out-source that kind of work.
Expected to employ between 10,000-20,000 people, he says that the oil sector is a bee- hive of activity that people should not limit it to just two products of oil and gas. “The establishment of a refinery opens up a lot of related industries and all people are encouraged to start companies irrespective of whether they are women or men,” he says.
He says plastics, bio-chemicals, industrial chemicals, electric generation, and synthetic industries are some of the industries that will be created as a result of the refinery. There are also opportunities to be service providers to these oil companies. “So, women should not sit and expect to be handed a share of the action on a silver platter. Let them compete for deals because govt won’t be handing out businesses since it does not control the private sector,” he notes.
He says the other angle is that the private sector by its nature seeks to minimize risk, loss and maximize profit. There is no way government will prevail over them to ensure gender equitability because in the oil sector, you either know something or you don’t.
“Women should form credible companies otherwise government will not suppress skills because this is a capital intensive, hi-tech, profit-oriented and private sector dominated affair,” he assures.
Generally though, Mr. Bukenya says the oil industry world over has reservations on women because it’s labour intensive and takes into account natural factors to do with women.
“All in all, business is not a charity and women must demonstrate competence in this highly competitive world. It’s the only way and we shall not stop them,” declares Bukenya.
But Hon. Florence Ibi Ekwau, the Shadow Minister for Gender, Labour and Social Development expresses displeasure at how government drags its feet when it comes to policy regarding gender and women affairs.
“Gender has a fully-fledged department, what have they been doing since the discovery of oil in 2007?” she questions. “Women ought to be involved at all stages but government always remembers us only during election campaigns,” she says.
“It is disappointing to see that women lead those three line ministries yet none of them is defending the interests of women in the lucrative oil sector,” she notes referring to Hon. Syda Bumba, Hon. Irene Muloni and Hon. Maria Kiwanuka who lead the ministries of Gender Labour and Social Development, Energy and Minieral Development as well as the Finance Ministry respectively.
“We should not be left to “prostitution” and cleaning in this lucrative sector by being given smaller things while kept in the dark when it comes to bigger things,” says Hon Ekwau noting that women are good managers and are good candidates to head the planned Petroleum Commission and the Petroleum Authority.
“Promoting one woman translates into elevation of many families,” she notes.
“How many women are apart of the undergoing training at Kigumba Petroleum Training Institute?” wonders Hon. Ekwau noting that since no particular percentage was allocated to women, the oil boom will turn out to be another male-dominated affair again.
“I am going to pursue the matter of Kigumba and ensure women don’t end up with peanuts,” she vows.
But although previous reports show that training is underway at the Kigumba Petroleum Training Institute, officials at the Ministry of Education insist the training is yet to commence and therefore the question of numbers should not arise.
“Nothing is going on yet but we are working to get this started,” says Mr James Mugwerwa, the Acting Assistant Commissioner for Technical, Vocational Education and Training at the Ministry of education and Sports leaving one to wonder what training strategy government has in place.
Peter Christopher Werikhe, the Secretary General of the National Organisation of Trade Unions (NOTU) urges caution though. “There is already good will on the side of government to promote women,” he says, adding that nothing can stop that.
“Women are everywhere now and what they should instead seek to enhance and strengthen is the unionization of labour in the oil sector,” he advices.
“Unionization ensures equitability and fairness for all,” says Werikhe adding that NOTU’s only worry is the entry of the Chinese into the sector because they have a history of not tolerating unionization and gender equality issues in their country.
“Govt should be tough on the Chinese to ensure they respect both gender and union laws of this country,” he says.
The two oil companies leading the concession race, Total E& P and CNOC decline to comment on issues regarding their gender policy because technically, they are not yet operating in Uganda.
However, a source at the former who asked not to be revealed because they are not authorized to speak to the press says the company has quite an impressive number of women in its hierarchy. “One of our lead Geological Engineers is a woman who used to work with the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development,” the source says adding that a number of other women occupy senior offices including the legal office.
Mr Jimmy Kiberu, the communications officer at Tullow Oil & Gas which is the lead exploration company operating in Uganda says while they emphasize skills and competence, Tullow Oil & Gas is an equal opportunity employer. “We do not discriminate against anyone on the basis of gender,” he notes.
For many an average Ugandan, the oil sector presents a vital opportunity for transformation of the country. The sector holds the hopes of many young Ugandans who yearn for an era of abundance and accelerated development.
Ankunda Pearl, a 22 year old student of Business Studies at Makerere University Business School says she expects to get a well paying job with an oil company after graduation which will enable her take care of her mum and siblings.
Mukisa Farahan, 34 and a motorbike transporter based in Kampala says he hopes that this will lift people out of poverty but he expresses fear about the rate of corruption in the public sector. “The oil money might never reach us,” he says.
Charity Komujuni, 28 and an administrative Secretary also based in Kampala says those who will benefit are already doing so. “The rest of us are blindly cheering on,” she notes, also expressing reservations over corruption.
Doreen Ngonzi, a 26 year old Nursing Assistant at Masindi regional hospital in Masindi says she hopes to see better health facilities in the region and improved working conditions as an impact of the oil.
But at the backdrop of this are concerns over government’s failure to set a minimum wage hence leaving room for possible exploitation of workers by employers in the oil sector.
Meanwhile, excitement continues to grow over Uganda’s oil fortunes as production is expected to start in less than a year. Government seems to have adopted a liberal approach on the sector. And as parliament pushes government to urgently table laws to govern the oil sector, women can only hope that they will ensure equitability for all.