NAIROBI (Reuters) - A member of Kenya’s parliament said on Thursday he had been accused of inciting his community for taking part in a protest against Tullow Oil that led to the British firm suspending its operations in northern Kenya.
The government has said James Lomenen led a group of about 400 people to Twiga 1 drilling camp in Turkana County who broke down the fence and “engaged in wanton destruction of property and looting” when security officials barred their entry.
Lomenen, MP for the Turkana South, told Reuters the demonstrators were peaceful and said he prevented any violence, although he said those involved had been “very furious” at Tullow for not giving them enough jobs or contracts.
He said protesters only sought dialogue with the firm.
Tullow’s suspension of drilling shows the challenge energy firms face in managing local expectations of swift returns while trying to build an oil and gas industry from scratch in Kenya and east Africa, a hot new region for hydrocarbons.
With investor confidence already rattled by a militant attack on a Nairobi shopping mall in September, the government said it was seeking reassure investors it would do all it could to provide a “safe and secure investment atmosphere”.
“I have been summoned. I will be appearing in court tomorrow (Friday),” Lomenen said at his parliamentary office in Nairobi, saying the hearing was in the northern town of Lodwar.
In that hearing, he said he would be formally charged with incitement and robbery with violence - an accusation that can carry the death penalty although such a punishment has not been implemented for years. He denied the accusations.
Although protesters said Tullow discriminated against them, Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku said in a statement on Wednesday there was no evidence of bias given more than 800 of the firm’s 1,400 employees were from Turkana.
The minister also said the government was investigating allegations that Lomenen had a vested interest in tenders coming from Tullow.
Lomenen, who is aligned to President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubileee coalition, dismissed the idea of any vested interests.
“I don’t have any company. I am there to ensure the local capacities are strengthened,” he said, adding protesters had only wanted Tullow to listen to grievances and offer the community more of the benefits from the company’s work.
Tullow had no immediate comment.
Additional reporting by Humphrey Malalo; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by James Macharia and David Evans