Chama oil, if only it had become a reality – maybe the recent fuel shortage and the many before would not have happened. Yes, if the Chama oil had become a reality Zambia would have been an oil producing country.
At the height of President Kenneth Kaunda’s rule particularly in the mid-1980s, there was very serious oil exploration going on particularly in the Luangwa valley. As it turned out Chama, a somewhat remote rural district on the northern most tip of Eastern province, became the talk of town in oil exploration, mining and political circles. Yes, the phrase Chama oil was almost always on Kaunda’s lips. He used every opportunity to refer to the prospecting of oil in Chama district by Placid Oil.
As far as I remember Kaunda bubbled with confidence that with the discovery of oil in Chama, Zambia would stop depending on copper for export and most certainly get out of economic doldrums. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) induced structural adjustment programme (SAP) would be a thing of the past with Zambia joining the ranks of oil producing countries. “There is light at the end of the tunnel” is what Kaunda would say.
One of the reasons Kaunda may have been so confident about the Chama oil was because of what became known as ‘oil from grass’ in Chiawa by a man of European descent I only remember as Winston. Kaunda personally flew by Zambia Air Force (ZAF) chopper to Winston’s ‘oil from grass’ factory on several occasions. Even though Kaunda hailed it as a miracle and in his wisdom trusted Winston there was nothing much to it. Winston’s machines were crushing or grinding grass alright, but on the other side what was coming out was used oil sourced from wherever. It was a bluff but in the process Winston had also earned himself a diplomatic passport.
In 1987 while working for the Zambia Broadcasting Services (ZBS) I found myself on assignment in Chama to cover a provincial party conference of the once mighty United National Independence Party (UNIP) at Chama Secondary School. It was a three day conference and on the second day while the UNIP delegates closed their doors to the media I sneaked out with a cameraman and a UNIP driver to go and see exactly were the oil rigs and wells were.
With the help of a local resident working for the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in the area I located one area and the cameraman was filming all the time. I also found out that people were actually prohibited from getting anywhere near Placid Oil operating areas. I never saw any oil rigs or wells but was informed that somewhere Placid Oil had drilled some oil wells, work which started in 1986.
Having sneaked out of the UNIP conference and fearing repercussions I quickly had to do with what was before me, my cameraman captured two long stretches of cleared land, what one could infact mistake for roads, which I was told were as sign of the presence of crude oil.
I was also shown a plan of how Chama was going to look like a few years after the commencement of oil drilling and I must admit Chama would have been transformed into a mega city with modern structures all over the hilly and mountainous terrain, only if Chama oil had become a reality. By 1988 when Placid Oil closed the oil wells it was clear that the Chama oil was not to be. When I got back to Lusaka I did a special TV report highlighting among other things that there were no oil rigs or wells and that the whole operation was shrouded in secrecy. This report must still be there in the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) library.
Some experts say that that Placid Oil failed to find hydro-carbons in Chama mainly because they did not penetrate the prospective Lower Karoo formations even though the wells did provide valuable information on the sub-surface geology of the area. Whether this meant that there is actually no oil in Chama has never been made clear.
What is encouraging though is that in the last few years we have heard of oil and gas prospecting in North Western and Western provinces. May the end result be positive as this may bring a great deal of prosperity to Zambia. But as for the Chama oil, if only it had become a reality!