The potential benefits are clear. Countries that have historically lacked investment in infrastructure will see roads and pipelines built. Handled well, the capital investments and the revenues could be a shot in the arm for economies that are already on an upward curve, experiencing strong and sustained economic growth — albeit from a very low base — for the better part of a decade. However, with the hope that oil money will amplify East Africa’s business boom, come fears of the ‘resource curse’ — the corruption, environmental degradation and social disintegration that has often resulted from the exploitation of hydrocarbon reserves in the developing world. Few would begrudge Kenya an opportunity to escape the poverty and aid dependence that has dogged it since independence, but the risks of haste are huge.

The spectre of the Niger Delta, 3,000 miles west on the Atlantic coast, looms large. In exploiting this frontier region’s natural resources, Nigeria’s entrenched elites have fostered decades of criminality, corruption and violence. Institutionalised graft means oil revenues are squandered and misappropriated. Average citizens see little of the benefits of the industry.

In the Delta, local minority peoples, such as the Ogoni, were already discriminated against before oil raised the stakes. Leaders from the central government took advantage of the under-development and under-representation of locals to take their land. They passed land rights on to oil companies and maintained their own power through systems of patronage, with the right mix of ‘dash’ — bribes — creating a culture of dependency that remains almost impossible to break.

At the same time, Nigeria’s government escalated the repression of dissident locals, violently cracking down on nascent protest movements. The execution of the environmental and social activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995 still stands as a testament to the inhumanity of Nigeria’s military administration. Saro-Wiwa and eight others killed at the same time — Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuine — were leaders of a non-violent protest group, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, campaigning for representation and the enforcement of environmental regulations in their region.

The oil industry’s big players have themselves paid a big price for the entrenched conflict and corruption of the Delta. In August 2012, Shell’s security bill in Nigeria was leaked to the pressure group Platform: in the course of three years, the company had paid $383 million to mitigate the risks of violence around its plants. Oil money has fueled graft, kidnapping and militancy, and allowed companies to pay their way out of responsibility for environmental damage. Ultimately, it has led to the industry being widely seen as corrosive to the country’s future.

Ogoniland is on the other side of the continent, and Kenya is not Nigeria. But local and international observers have pointed to some alarming similarities.

Land and ethnic identity have often been at the center of Kenya’s troubles. Politicians have fostered economic opportunities for their kinsmen. Some have even moved their people en masse onto better land, displacing indigenous people from the forests in the Mau or the fertile lands of the Central region, and creating generations of violent conflict. The pressure valve last blew in 2007, when accusations of vote-rigging in a general election exploded into ethnically charged violence. Neighbors killed neighbors. More than 1,000 people died and many more were displaced.

Institutionalised nepotism in central government has also contributed to a total neglect of Turkana county, both before and since independence. The Turkana are poorer, less healthy and have less access to education than their countrymen. The region feels viscerally like another country — another world — after the skyscrapers, expat bars and traffic jams of Nairobi.

Article by Peter Guest (read full article here)