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Story Publication logo November 29, 2014

Kenya: The Oil Race Is On in the Cradle of Humanity


Turkana, Kenya. Image by Guillaume Bonn. Kenya, 2014.

Turkana in Kenya’s arid north is the most important place you’ve likely never heard of...

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"Turkana Boy" is one of the most complete early human skeletons ever found. A picture based on facial reconstruction makes him look like a morose Shrek, with almost no forehead, ears that sit in-line with his temples, broad cheeks and mouth. Scientists believe that every person alive today is related to Turkana Boy's community, which lived 1.6m years ago in northern Kenya at the far end of Lake Turkana, where the borders of Kenya and Ethiopia meet.

Despite being one of the world's richest archaeological treasure troves, Turkana County is the poorest in Kenya. Home to the minority Turkana tribe, its land is unproductive - a place where until now few people chose to go. Its 73,000 square kilometres of semi-desert are inhabited by just 880,000 people, according to the most recent census. But that is changing, because the same earth that nurtured human life has fostered another highly-prized commodity: that of oil.

Turkana Boy's skeleton now lives 800km south of where he once roamed the Earth, displayed behind a spot-lit, polished glass cabinet in Nairobi's National Museum.

Johnson Gitonga, an undergraduate whose holiday job is to steer visitors like me around the museum, has a plan to claim his share in Kenya's growing fortunes that will take him to Turkana's place of birth.

"In Nairobi, everything has been earmarked. There's nothing left," he says. "In Turkana, there's space for expansion and in the next ten years, it'll be one of the best counties in the country in terms of investment and development."

A few kilometres up the road from the museum is another flagship building, the shiny-glass West End Towers. At the top of its automated lift shaft lies the head office of Tullow Oil in Kenya.

This Anglo-Irish exploration company catapulted Turkana into the spotlight when the Kenya government announced Tullow had discovered oil there in 2012. Within two years, the company found an estimated 600m barrels and in January, it announced that potential for drilling more than one billion barrels.

In the interests of transparency, Tullow ­voluntarily disclosed that it has paid the Kenyan government nearly $22m last year in fees as stipulated by its production sharing agreement. The Ministry of Energy says that none of that money went directly to Turkana; it stayed in Nairobi where it was included in the pot for the national budget.

In Turkana, oil is not the only thing driving change. The world's largest desert lake, Lake Turkana demarcates the county's eastern boundary. Islands made of volcanic craters erupt like giant barnacles from the water's surface. Part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, they provide breeding grounds for one of the world's largest crocodile populations (although their numbers have been decimated in recent decades) and food for some two million flamingos who fly in each year. North of the lake, Ethiopia is building the continent's largest hydroelectric power project, including the Gilgel Gibe III dam, which many believe could, at best, shrink the lake, at worst, dry it up.

So much hope for development. So much investment. But in the scramble for resources the question is: are we ransacking one of the most historic places on earth?

When the Tibetan plateau rose-up some 50m years ago, it started sucking moisture out of East Africa, making the once rain-forested region increasingly dry. Meanwhile, a gash in the Earth's crust beneath East Africa began tearing the continent apart. This gave rise to lakes, volcanoes, a giant valley – known as The East African Rift – and highlands at its sides. Apes who did not wish to move west to stay with the shrinking forest had to adapt to new diversity in order to survive. And it was that ecological imperative that created the species we are today.

Turkana Boy, who was found in Turkana on the floor of the rift valley in 1984, is the poster child for this titanic change on earth. His 1.6 metre (5ft 3in) frame graced the front covers of magazines and was subject to countless works of non-fiction; you can even buy your own exact replica for $6,000 from the National Museums of Kenya. After a three-hour drive on axle-breaking tracks, I come to a barely inhabited riverbank on the edge of Nariokotome village, five kilometres west of Lake Turkana. I am standing next to ­Turkana Boy's grave.

The only people here, an elderly couple – Ekiru and Nakwaan Ngikomosoroko – show me around. For the early part of their lives, they were Turkana Boy's unwitting custodians. They lived on top of his final resting place, keeping their goats in corrals made from thorny acacia branches. The goats' skulls litter his empty grave, tokens of the ongoing drought. The only evidence of his excavation is a small open quarry just ten metres wide.

Ekiru and Nakwaan make unlikely tour guides. They are angry. The fossil hunters who came here in 1984 robbed them, they say – but to this day they don't understand of what. Their house is a circular hut overlooking the dry bed of the Nariokotome river. On the rare occasion that rain clouds muster the strength, water flows from here into Lake Turkana, where gigantic crocodiles darken the shallows.

Pictures from the excavation, which took place over a number of seasons, show a tanned and topless 39-year old paleo-anthropologist, Richard Leakey, in safari shorts sitting head down in concentration. Today, Leakey's body is a scrapbook of the battles and triumphs of an extraordinary past – extraordinary enough to entice Angelia Jolie to direct a film, Africa, about his life. Penned by Eric Roth, the man who wrote Forrest Gump, production is expected to start next year.

By his early 20s, Leakey was already on the way to discovering Koobi Fora on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana, the richest and most varied site for early-human remains in the world. In 2005, after careers in anti-poaching and politics – and the loss of both his legs ­– Leakey founded the Turkana Basin Institute, an academic organisation that promotes new discoveries in the remote region. He now divides his time between conserving Africa's natural and cultural heritage, and hatching a plan to see Turkana and its residents benefit from their resources. One day, he hopes, Ekiru and Nakwaan's descendants will speak of their home with pride.

As Leakey and his colleagues came and went from Nariokotome village thirty years ago, excavating a large area in collaboration with the National Museums of Kenya, Ekiru and Nakwaan watched from afar. They recall their fear as "the white men and their helpers," as they saw it, wrapped their spoils with great care and drove them away. Unknown to people in Turkana, specialised "preparators" then worked feverishly behind a cloak of secrecy in Nairobi, to get Turkana Boy ready to meet the world.

The government makes money from the skeleton, selling replicas and charging fees to see it in the capital. But the couple were never offered anything for the find. So they vowed to do things differently next time and made a pact to resist all future excavation on their land.

A few months after Turkana Boy was unveiled in Nairobi, a group of tourists travelled to Nariokotome to visit his grave. They found their passage blocked by an angry young couple. "We tried to obstruct them," Ekiru recalls.

But Ekiru and Nakwaan don't technically own this land. Outside of the urban areas in Turkana, almost no pastoralists hold legal titles to land. Most of it is communal, held in trust for the community by the county government for the people of Turkana. As the race for acquisition and development ramps up, so the need for adjudication and allocation of land becomes critical, for individuals to have some say over what to do with it.

There is still no paved road to Nariokotome village, no secondary school, no water point, no phone signal. But now its inhabitants want Turkana Boy back. They are not alone. The 22-month old Turkana County government, one of 47 established after the 2013 elections according to Kenya's new constitution, is making demands on its national leaders and they believe that the fossil belongs to them. The county governor, Josphat Nanok, said in June that the county needs all of its archaeological finds back to boost local tourism. "The fossil of the Turkana Boy will make more sense when tourists see it in Turkana County," he said.

Peter Lokoel, the deputy governor, added: "For many years the Turkana story has been told by outsiders who do not understand the community and the county."

Leakey agrees. In his Nairobi office, he slides two sheets of A4 across his desk. Working with the county government, his proposal is to construct the most comprehensive museum of the history of mankind – showing what happened, where it happened – in the desert in Turkana. He plans to include the region's first planetarium, an exhibition with a lifesize Tyrannosaurus rex (traces of which were also found in Turkana), and interactive presentations that transition from early man into the modern world, presenting oil discovery, its recovery, and its uses.

Daniel Libeskind, the architect selected to lead the reconstruction at the World Trade Center site in New York, is on board to design it. So far, Leakey says a single donor has given $10m, but he refuses to be drawn on his or her identity.

After what he's calling the science park, he hopes to see schools and hospitals built to rival those in the capital – not as an oil city, but a development facilitated by oil wealth. The constitution does not currently allow the county government to borrow money, so Leakey is talking about funding the development through a non-profit organisation working in partnership with the national and county governments and the local communities, mobilising grants and concessional loans from a host of partners: private companies with stakes in the region, including oil companies, multilateral and bilateral partners, and private philanthropists.

What the Turkana need, Leakey says, is not more wells or basic primary schools, but a total reversal of the status quo, where select residents in Nairobi get the best and those in Turkana get only enough to survive. In the long run, he also wants Turkana Boy to return home so the Turkana benefit from him rather than, "simply saying 'bye-bye' to their fossils and hearing that they're in Nairobi."

Turkana County is united by one tribe, and one language, bordered by mountain ranges and the lake. Its people are used to isolation and nationhood remains a foreign concept. "We're going to Kenya," the Turkana still say of Kitale, the nearest town south of the county border.

Thirty years after Turkana Boy's remains were removed, Ekiru and Nakwaan believe their land is once more to provide fame and fortune for foreigners, but not for them. The planes started overhead a few years ago - small planes that never land and that fly unusually low. Ekiru has heard it said that there is oil beneath the ground, but he doesn't know what oil is, nor what it is used for. When I point to the plastic beads around his neck and to Nakwaan's flipflops, she squeals in disbelief: "Ei!"

Do they stand to benefit from the oil? The history of hydrocarbons in Africa is not encouraging. Research has shown that a strong democracy with transparency and accountability is necessary to avoid what's become known as "the resource curse."

Kenya already has a notoriously corrupt government. It is in the bottom quartile of Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index 2013. Despite a pledge by President Kenyatta to back full disclosure of petroleum agreements, they have not all been made public. (Tullow Oil is in favour of disclosure but will only do so with the government's permission.)

In Turkana, more than 80% of the population are illiterate. In the swathes of ungoverned semi-arid desert, guns are ubiquitous and armed conflict already rife.

The educated few among the Turkana are steeling themselves to take on the national government, oil explorers, neighbouring tribes, and even local government if they must, to ensure that their communities receive fair profit.

A local newspaper, The Turkana Times, was set up in 2013 with the strapline "the arid voice" to report on Turkana from Turkana for the first time. Paralegals and educated local leaders are demanding appropriate legislation and transparency. But if their voices are not heard, and their demands not satisfied – which means more employment, more contracts going to Turkana, and a solution to the insecurity on Turkana's borders where pastoralists engage in reciprocal cattle raids and fight over access to land and waterpoints – then they will be forced to use violence to achieve their goals.

Yet, despite ultimatums by Turkana leaders, and proclamations from those leaders that they are ready to be embraced by Kenya for the first time, the national government still seems keen to denigrate those living in the arid north.

Turkana's largest urban centre is not Lodwar, the county capital and it is not Lokichoggio, the 90s boomtown that was a base for humanitarians and gunrunners during the 20-year-long civil war in Sudan. Nor is it Lokichar, the oil town stealing Lokichoggio's boomtown mantle. It is Kakuma, a blisteringly hot, 6,000-acre refugee camp in the desert that houses 160,000 people, the majority from South Sudan and Somalia. If granted Kenyan citizenship, the refugees would swell Turkana's population by a fifth. Having fled their homes, they live in a haphazard, temporary city under identikit rectangular sheets of galvanised steel that have been handed out by aid groups. It's seen as a place where nothing grows.

In September 2013, Somalia-based militants al-Shabaab attacked the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, the worst terrorist attack on Kenyan soil since the bombing of the US embassy in 1998 by Islamic extremists. Following investigation of the attack, a Kenyan parliamentary committee reported that the terrorists who stormed the shopping centre killing 67 people came primarily from Kakuma refugee camp in Turkana.

The government's response included rounding up some 4,000 refugees, predominantly Somalis, who were living in the capital. Those who could paid bribes to secure their release; the police netted thousands of dollars in the process. Others were kept in cages before being removed wholesale – in contravention of international law – to the refugee camps in the neglected north, the same camps that the government had declared breeding grounds for Islamic militancy. There is a real fear that the north of Kenya, with its large and vulnerable refugee population, could provide a new anchor point for militant Islam in Africa.

On 26 October 2013, thousands of angry Turkana, politicians among their ranks, stormed two of Tullow's drill sites. The protestors believed that the government and the oil company were not giving them enough benefits. Across the county, Tullow's staff were evacuated and its operations shut down for almost two weeks.

What a national government should provide and what a private company should provide is hard to assess. Tullow is considered to be one of the most responsible oil explorers in Africa. Even the campaign group Global Witness refers to it as "squeaky clean".

"We consult every single day on absolutely everything that we can," says Tullow's social performance manager, Andy Demetriou, an engaging British man who grew up in Kenya. "But it's just never enough."

Analysis by data journalist Eva Constantaras suggests that their efforts are indeed not enough. Funded by the European Journalism Centre, she analysed a leaked database of sub-contractors' employees, confirmed as genuine by Tullow Oil, showing that top management positions are held almost exclusively by foreigners, sub-contractors hire Kenyans from elsewhere and some firms hired by Tullow employ no Turkana at all.

A key problem for both the community and the oil companies is that Kenya lacks the legislation to provide operational frameworks, something that is putting off prospective investors. Kenya's long-awaited revision of the Petroleum (Exploration and Development) Act is still under review. The act is expected to increase the obligation of oil companies towards local communities, and to increase government profits. Another key piece of legislation the Turkana hope will be passed is the Community Land Bill, which expressly provides for, "the recognition, protection, management and administration of community land."

After decades of political isolation, violent conflicts with neighbouring tribes, an increasingly deleterious reliance on food-aid, and perennial drought, Turkana and its people are frazzled. But, if you look beyond the wornout land and the pastoralists' daily battles to survive, there are signs of growth.

The county got its first new tarmac road in decades this year, 2.3km of progress. For the government in Nairobi, hydrocarbons present a tremendous opportunity to reduce its reliance on foreign aid and achieve ambitious development goals set for 2030. East of the lake, a giant windfarm that will power millions of homes is catalysing another new road. If the scientists tap into a vast underground aquifer, the arid parts of Turkana may one day yield crops.

Managing expectations and entitlement will not be easy. Richard Leakey has commissioned an obelisk that will be erected at Turkana Boy's excavation site on a small area of protected land, with backing from the county government, as part of Kenya's national heritage. Simple seating will surround it, and a sign in Turkana, Kiswahili and English will explain its purpose.

It should be up by the end of the year. Tullow is improving the main road that runs close to Nariokotome, and Ekiru and Nakwaan will put up a small curio stall, to sell their handicraft.

Standing on top of the excavation site looking at where Turkana Boy once was, I relay news of the statue to the couple. Ekiru frowns. "We need good food and water to live well. After taking the fossil from us, they come and use money from that fossil to put a monument up? I'm not sure we'll be ready to accept that."


Thirty years ago, the promise of shade and water lured Richard Leakey, then director of the National Museums of Kenya, and a team of fossil hunters to camp by the Nariokotome River while they explored west of Lake Turkana.

On a typically hot day in late July, world-renowned Kenyan fossil hunter Kamoya Kimeu was taking a stroll when he happened upon the holy grail of ­fossil-hunting: what looked like a piece of early-human skull bone lurking in the pebbly ground. The fossil hunters suspected it would turn out to be an isolated piece, but in the coming weeks and months, scepticism turned to ecstasy.

They had discovered not just one, or even a handful, but 150 fragments of early human bone, with teeth to boot. It was a miracle that Turkana Boy's skeleton survived. Our ancient ancestors didn't bury their dead, and if they were not killed by a predator, a scavenger usually got to them before sediment could preserve them. Scientists believe Turkana Boy fell into a swamp and floated face-down for a while, before being trampled by passing beasts, then embedded in mud where fossilisation took place.

He had died a sickly child aged between nine and twelve with a spinal deformity and an infection in his jaw.

Paleoanthropology has a cloak and dagger reputation: significant new fossils are often kept under wraps for years, their secrets poured over by just a select few; competition b etween teams of researchers is ferocious. Researchers must accept that they can't study certain fossils because they can't access them. Sometimes, people who take the trouble to find fossils don't want to let anyone else see them, in case they steal the glory by publishing findings first. Also, governments restrict replication of fossils on the basis that it would reduce the income from foreign researchers coming to study them. Turkana Boy, however, was unveiled quite quickly, in 1985, to media and scientific acclaim.


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