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December 19, 2012

New Wiki Aims to Open up Uganda’s Secretive Oil Industry

by Hilary Heuler

Frustrated by Uganda’s new oil bill and widespread claims of corruption, the Ugandan media and activists are finding new ways to increase transparency in the country's oil sector. These include an oil industry "wiki" -- a website that allows users to add or update content.  The goal is empower the public by sharing knowledge.   

On a hot Kampala afternoon, Jackie Asiimwe stands in traffic handing copies of a newsletter to passing motorists.

Asiimwe is part of a movement called Black Monday, whose aim is to fight corruption in Uganda by mourning its victims.  The country has recently been hit by a string of high-profile corruption scandals, including one involving the office of the prime minister.  But Asiimwe says it can be hard to get people in Uganda to care.

“Uganda is seen as for ‘those’ people, and unfortunately it’s been made out to seem like if you’re not in politics, if you’re not in power, then really Uganda isn’t yours, it’s for those people, and I have to fend for myself," said Asiimwe.  "And, there needs to be a resurgence of that feeling of, ‘my country is me, and therefore I must care and I must do something about my country.’”

Uganda is also home to recently discovered oil deposits, enough to make it one of the top producers in Africa.  But some see the country as an example of the notorious “resource curse” waiting to happen.

One of the best ways to fight this is through free access to information, says Patience Atuhaire of Uganda Radio Network.  

“The more information that people have, the more they are empowered to say, ‘But look, our government is not doing right in regard to this process or this procedure.’  It’s important to put this out, and then when people have it they will choose what to do with it," said Atuhaire.  

As of this week, the Uganda Radio Network is operating a publicly accessible oil wiki, to which everyone knowledgeable about oil is invited to contribute.  Created with the help of the Berlin-based organization Open Oil, the wiki aims to increase transparency by pooling information from different sources and sectors.

“Journalists, civil society organizations, we hope that they will be part of it," said Atuhaire. "We would love to have government officials contribute, because they have a lot of official information that most people might not know.  We hope every player interested in the oil and gas industry should be able to contribute.”

Oil is a notoriously secretive industry and, in Uganda, calls for transparency have largely been ignored. Production sharing agreements have been kept under wraps for years.  And, according to Dickens Kamugisha of the Africa Institute for Energy Governance, the country’s recently passed oil bill gives too much power to the minister of energy.

The minister answers directly to President Yoweri Museveni and the president has a history of using resources to keep himself in power, says Kamugisha.

“He uses the resources, actually, to patronize, to bring more people on his side.  So as a result, he doesn’t use the resources to provide social services to Ugandans," said Kamugisha. "Instead, he invests the resources in the things that actually keep him around.  So, that’s why I think the minister, given all these powers, under the current circumstances it is not going to help us.”

Mr. Museveni, who has led Uganda since 1986, has been credited with creating government institutions to fight corruption, and has vowed to use oil revenues responsibly.  The new oil bill was intended to increase transparency in the sector.

But public debate over oil has not always been encouraged.  Local government officials have blocked activists from speaking on radio shows, and public demonstrations about oil  have been disbanded.

Kamugisha says this lack of informed debate makes it difficult for citizens to hold their government to account.

“If Ugandans are going to expect anything from the oil, they must demand for accountability from those leaders," said Kamugisha. "And, there is no way they are going to demand for accountability if they don’t have the information.”

The new wiki aims to make that information available to everyone.

But, it is not only the public who will benefit, says Open Oil’s Amrit Naresh.  He says members of parliament voting on oil legislation need to be better informed as well, to help them make better decisions.

“Not every member of parliament is an expert on oil.  Not every member of parliament has read Global Witness reports on the pitfalls of enacting faulty legislation with regards to oil," said Naresh. "So it’s really a resource to inform the debate in parliament and also in the media.”  

Naresh says all information on the wiki must be carefully referenced, says Naresh, so those hoping for a Ugandan version of WikiLeaks will be disappointed.  But, with so much buried in obscure company reports and hard-to-find documents, even so-called public information may come as a surprise.