Muzarabani’s ‘Black Gold’, no rush plus capital wagging State’s tail

THE government of Zimbabwe held a Press conference at which President Emmerson Mnangagwa initially announced that a private company, Invictus, had made oil and gas discoveries in Muzarabani district. No more than a day after the presser, the company whose representatives had been at the Press conference issued a statement refuting an actual discovery of oil and gas, contrary to what the mainstream State-controlled media had published.

By Takura Zhangazha

It stated that it was only doing an exploration of oil and gas in Muzarabani. The government later on, through the Mines minister Winston Chitando, also retracted any claims at ‘discovery’ and emphasised the issue of exploration.

Social media, while not quite going apoplectic over these awkward statements from the government and its new oil exploration partner, did query the veracity of the claims as well as raise issues about the integrity of the company.

A couple of friends of mine were delighted at the changed news that there was no oil or gas discovery, or at least the tentative possibility that the ruling Zanu PF party would not be able, in the immediate, to profit politically from it.

For the most part, the general public did not trust the announcement. Not least because of their mistrust of how government handled the Marange diamond fields, where allegations remain about not only looting and self aggrandisement of politically-connected individuals, but also the violence that accompanied the extractive process.

Investment analysts were also quick to comment about how such projects should be handled by government. They cited, for example, the fact that the Invictus outfit was looking for investors via its stock exchange listing and, therefore, was trying to stall the competition over its competitive find in Muzarabani.

Or alternatively, that the government should have kept the deal under wraps, at least for a while. In the interests of the company (stalling competition or questions of transparency) and preventing what would be a black gold rush in the long, neglected valley. They preferred that the company issue its own statement and then government enter the fray.

The reality of the mater is that both government and the private investor messed up their public relations on the matter. But this ‘messing up’ is obviously done with purpose.

I would not know whether it was deliberate to have a whole President announcing an initial confirmation of oil and gas in Muzarabani, but it would be clear that the end effect still favours government and the primary investor of the special oil exploration permit.

The fact that it is now in the public domain means that there is a serious possibility that there shall be fracking of the basin by 2020. And, therefore, that the scientifically arrived at assumption of probability that there is oil and gas is not a prophecy or a rumour. The only catch is that, in relation to the investor and less so government, is it profitably feasible in terms of the current global petroleum markets and standards?

It is a question I do not have an answer to, but I certainly perceive that where capital wags the government’s investment policy tail (refuting a President’s Press statement and getting a confirmation retraction), then the caution points to control as opposed to clarity.

Further, the exploration exercise/confirmation, as it begins now and is projected to be finalised in 2020, the fracking exercises that will be undertaken there will have serious consequences for the environment and the local population that relies on the valley for their livelihoods. So what better way to keep environmental activists at bay than to claim no oil discovery, but just exploration?

What is clear is that there is a definite escalation of oil and gas exploration that is going to happen in Muzarabani that will change its land use and attendant political economy. While this suits the ruling party’s narrative of bringing investors into the country as per its electoral promise, it is the model or framework that should get all Zimbabweans worried.

The government is utilising a neo-liberal economic model in order to garner the confidence of international capital. And this includes turning a blind eye to the environmental effects of onshore oil drilling as well as protecting private capital while selling State capital simultaneously. Hence the over enthusiasm and quick fire Press conference on the purported discovery and exploration of oil and gas, all in order to demonstrate either the ‘ease of doing business’ or to prove to a domestic political audience that the government is working closely with global capital, especially via companies that are linked to the Sydney (Australia) Stock Exchange.

We can politicise the exploration (and likely ‘discovery’) of oil as much as we want, but there is certainty to capital’s intentions and government’s willingness to play ball, even if it appears to be in sixes and sevens.

We should ask for greater transparency and accountability of all of the exploration that is intended with a full-scale environmental impact assessment and guarantee of the protection of livelihoods of the people in Muzarabani and surrounding environs, even before the ‘discovery’ is eventually made.

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