FEATURE-Ugandan oil region wary of future as election looms

Wed Feb 16, 2011 10:53am GMT
 

* Ugandan national elections on Feb. 18

* Rural, urban divide over how to vote

* Locals frightened of return to civil war

By Barry Malone

LAKE ALBERT, Uganda, Feb 16 (Reuters) - A track of seared orange leads through burnished yellow fields then gives way to a patchwork of brilliant green treetops and sugarcane farms, as the glistening blue water of Uganda's Lake Albert appears.

But attention has focused on this remote part of the east African country because of efforts to extract something with a much darker hue than its multi-toned earth: oil.

With presidential and parliamentary elections on Friday set to decide who will guide the country through its emergence as a Top 50 oil producer the stakes could not be higher in what has become a fierce and bitter tussle.

Posters of President Yoweri Museveni and his main rival Kizza Besigye plaster every available wall in the few small towns that sit on the Ugandan shore of the huge lake that is shared with Democratic Republic of Congo.

Locals say they do not know much about oil, they are not sure how it will benefit them, if at all, and that it is unlikely to influence their voting choices.

"The oil business is a pocket business for Museveni and his family," says opposition candidate Bbiira Kiwanuka, touching on corruption, the biggest election issue and a constant worry for foreign oil firms investing in Uganda.

Other opposition candidates say that if the impending petrodollars do not filter down to the most desperately poor locals, they will despise the companies.

Bulisa, a shabby town in a mainly farming district, has not changed much since oil was discovered in the area five years ago, though the signage on one small building looks more polished than the rest: "Tullow Oil Uganda."

"YOU WILL BE BOMBED"

British-based Tullow Oil is the lead explorer in Uganda and says that despite a tax row with the government it will start oil and gas production in 2012.

A dirt road leads about 6 km (4 miles) from the Tullow office to a giant drill, its dull thud sounding over the plains. White oil workers decked out in high-tech gear file in for the night shift past a boy herding goats into a wattle and daub hut.

In Masindi, a nearby town housing both Besigye's Inter-Party Cooperation (IPC) and ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) offices, NRM candidate Ernest Kiize says the newly-discovered wealth will benefit everybody.

"Oil will be good for people," he says at the local radio station he owns, surrounded by photos of a smiling Museveni. "Corruption is there in Uganda, yes, but the police and the government are doing their jobs and fighting it."

Five minutes across town, candidates and members of the four-party IPC coalition readily admit they are stronger in towns than the countryside, where about 80 percent of Uganda's estimated 33 million people live.

They claim the NRM is using a massive election war chest to buy the votes of the rural poor -- sometimes with just a bag of sugar, a bar of soap or a T-shirt -- and to bribe opposition politicians into stepping aside or joining them.

Opposition activists also says rural people have been frightened by the government. As they speak, a fighter jet buzzes low over the town, the roar of its engines drawing people from the shade as it banks right and soars over a row of shops.

Opposition candidate Isaac Kanyaamu, eyes wide with rage, steps forward: "It started appearing two weeks ago," he says. "Officials are going door-to-door and saying, 'Look at that jet up there. If we lose the elections you will be bombed'."

STABILITY PARAMOUNT?

Though they say it is a close race, most analysts expect Museveni to win despite a fierce challenge from Besigye, who has lost to the president in two previous polls.

But Besigye has worried foreign investors and donors by pledging to release his own tally of the results and, if they do not match official figures, he promises his supporters will cause "chaos" in the country.

He insists he was cheated of victory before and says Supreme Court rulings were wrong and biased. The Court admitted the 2001 and 2006 elections were marred by vote-rigging but said it was not sufficient to affect the overall results.

The fiery 54-year-old now often compares Uganda, where Museveni marked 25 years in power last month, to Egypt and Tunisia ahead of their uprisings.

Along the 300 km route from capital Kampala to the oil-rich lake region, there is a clear divide between urban and rural voters. People in towns say they are more likely to vote for the opposition, but the often very poor living in villages favour the ruling party.

Many cite stability as the reason they will chose Museveni.

After independence from Britain in 1962, Uganda entered a period of civil wars and rule by feared despots such as Idi Amin -- before Museveni seized power after a five-year guerrilla war.

"We can move freely," a woman tending a rural banana stall says, as others chorus their approval. "Other leaders before, especially Idi, killed people. Museveni has not killed many. Why try a new president who might?"

(Editing by David Clarke)

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