Perspectives 9 - WINOU EL PETROL?! – A debate on transparency of natural resource extraction in Tunisia

* Opinions expressed in the articles are those of the respective authors and interviewees, and not the Heinrich Böll Stiftung.


Interview with Fedia Gasmi (FG), Expert, Tunisian Institute for Democracy & Development

Interviewed by: Simon Ilse (SI), Program Coordinator, hbs Tunis


In Tunisia, considerable parts of civil society engaged in environmental degradation and pollution are focused on the governance of natural resource extraction. The debate around “Winou El Petrol” is an important mirror of their struggle.  


SI: What was ‘Winou El Petrol’?


FG: Originally, it was an initiative to bring NGOs in the resource-rich regions together to advocate for their right to benefit from their natural resources. It is striking that the resource-rich regions in Tunisia are the last on the list when it comes to development indicators. If you look at the IRD, the regional development indicator,[1] you’ll find Medhila ranking 243 and Southern Tatouine 197 out of 264 Delegations. That’s why Winou El Petrol[2] was an initiative to push the Tunisian government to live up to international standards on transparency and good governance of extractive industries (EI). This refers primarily to oil and the mines, especially phosphate. And we’re talking about companies that have an important share of our economy. Oil and Gas represented 6.2% and Phosphate 0.5% of our GDP in 2012.


SI: So how exactly did the initiative Winou El Petrol begin?


FG: An international NGO called the ‘Natural Resource Governace Institue’ received funding from the UK to push for greater accountability in state-owned entreprises, and disclosure of information related to the oil sector. Then, six NGOs from different regions became part of the initiative and a network called La coalition tunisienne de gouvernance des mines et du petrol emerged. Local NGOs were trained to increase their capacities and better understand international standards, it focused specifically on the EITI (Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative), the international transparency index.  After the training in February 2015, NGOs started implementing their programmes on the ground. They held workshops in the regions and tried to transfer the knowledge they received to local citizens. Even some parliamentarians were involved and present at meetings. In Tataouine more than 20 NGOs participated and signed a petition. This is how they started to collect citizens signatures. We are talking about 10,000 signatures between March and May 2015.


SI: So during the trainings, local NGOs asked people to sign a petition for more transparency?


FG: The petition was about Tunisia joining the EITI and its benefits for the citizens. The question was, and still is: Why can’t a small amount of the money gained from natural resources be reinvested in the regions they are extracted from? The idea was not only to get signatures, but to deposit the signatures at parliament and give a copy to the energy and anti-corruption committees. The goal was to push for a hearing at the Ministry of Industry and Energy to explain why Tunisia stopped the process of joining the transparency initiative. In 2012, there was an expressed intention by the prime minister to join, so we used that as an argument. There was a campaign on Facebook. Some websites were created to promote the cause of EITI, one was called, launched by a Tunisian NGO. There were also a lot of parliamentarians from the South interested in the topic, mainly from the finance, energy and mining committees as well as the anti-corruption committee. So for the first time the Minister of Industry and Energy Zakaria Hamad was publicly quizzed in June 2015 on the question of access to information and government accountability for transparency over natural resources.


SI: How did the campaign develop after the petition?


FG: The initiative spread to other governates, because people there could sympathize with the cause. The petition had good citizen outreach. We also trained journalists to cover the campaign and activies. But unfortunately the campaign ended strangely.

Rumors started about the campaign being about hidden petrol reserves in Tunisia, and some journalists picked up on this. So things got out of hand, and the question of good ressource governance took a back seat. In the end, there was a counter campaign trying to discredit the original one by saying that it was merely made up of troublemakers interested in finding more oil, not in transparency. Other rumors were that the campaign caused companies to stop investing due to demands for more transparency or because of protests emerging from the initiative. The accusations were mostly coming from companies or individuals who were afraid of information regarding corruption.


SI: What exactly are the accusations of corruption in public companies?


FG: They are mostly related to employment and employment selection criteria, for example that the people hired are not qualified and do not fit the criteria but get the job because of their contacts. Another issue is the question of phosphate transportation. After the revolution,  phosphate transportation was switched from train to trucks. Transportation by truck is five times more costly than by train, because the train is public property. So there are a lot of questionsmarks as to how they selected the transportation companies and who offers these services. Recently, someone even built a wall accross the railway to prevent the transportation being switched back to the trains!

There are also issues related to so called governmental special funds. There is a fund that recieves contributions from the main phosphate company in Gafsa to invest in job creation. But there are a lot of legitimate questions as to how these funds are used. Sometimes the government is not only not  able  to find solutions, but is creating new problems. For example, they founded  special companies, a kind of a civil service for people to work in gardening, parks and public spaces. However, these initiatives have no effects. Most of the employees stay at home and are paid at the end of the month. So part of the problem is related to this virtual, fictive employment. Unfortunately the government is duplicating the problem by creating the same thing in Tataouine where there is oil and 51%  youth unemployment. Now there is a special fund that the oil companies contribute to and together with the public oil company (ETAP) they want to invest in Tatouine. However,  they havent started yet, they’re still assessing how to contribute to regional development in Tataouine.  Other problems are linked to resource extraction, for example the techniques used, their environmental effects, or land ownership of the extraction sites and their surroundings.


SI: During the peak of the Winou El Petrol campaign, the president Beji Caid Essebsi was on television in a school and declared that, ‘A lot of Tunisians are currently asking winou el petrol so I respond to them that our children are our oil’.


FG: It’s a political statement and a diplomatic way to respond to the campaign by saying that the real wealth in Tunisia is the education and future of its youth. However, the question of transparency is primordial. Part of our GDP is lost due to governance issues and we are regressing on the transparency indicator.[3] We are loosing opportunities for our development due to governance inefficiencies.


SI: Thanks a lot Fedia.


FG: You’re so welcome.


[1] The indicator of regional development (IRD) is calculated at the level of the regions (governorates) and delegations (municipal districts) on the basis of statistical data produced by the National Institute of Statistics (INS). The indicator is the average of 18 variables.

[2] ‘Winou El Petrol’ literally translates to ‘Where is the oil?’