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Oil and accountability in Tunisia: “Winou el pétrole?"

After elections that saw observers laud Tunisia as the Arab Spring’s solitary success story, Tunisians are demanding to know what happens to their country’s natural resources.

Hannah Pannwitz
5 August 2015
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Protesters in Tunis call for greater openness in the oil industry. Demotix/Chedly Ben Ibrahim. All rights reserved.The social media campaign Winou el Pétrole? (Where is the oil?) recently created such a stir on Facebook and Twitter that Tunisia’s newly elected government, led by Nidaa Tounes, was put in the uncomfortable position of responding to a viral campaign for transparency in the country’s enigmatic energy sector. With the hashtag #WinouelPétrole dominating Tunisian Twitter accounts, campaigners have now placed natural resource management high on the political agenda. 

In the afterglow of last year’s parliamentary and presidential elections that saw international observers laud Tunisia as the Arab Spring’s solitary success story, the salience of Winou el Pétrole highlights how socio-economic grievances continue to be voiced by those who feel dramatic political changes in Tunis have yet to substantively address Tunisia’s deep regional disparities. In fact, the answer to the question of what lies behind this seemingly sudden call for transparency in natural resources governance more broadly, and oil in particular, will demonstrate that recovering the trust of Tunisians in the historically maligned interior and south is one of the most pressing challenges facing Tunisia’s new government.

Managing natural resources in the 'new' Tunisia

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Inaugural session of Tunisia's new parliament. Demotix/Chedly Ben Ibrahim. All rights reserved.While much attention has been paid in recent months to questions of security and the economy, particularly in the aftermath of the March 2015 terrorist attack on the Bardo museum, the question of who profits from Tunisia’s resource wealth has been percolating under the surface. In 2013, the National Constituent Assembly acted to ensure parliamentary sovereignty over the country’s natural resources through Article 13 of the Constitution, which guarantees the Assembly’s sovereignty and oversight over national contracts for natural resources. 

Today, in the context of simmering unrest in Tunisia’s south and interior over jobs and investment, the historic distrust in state institutions and their perceived lack of transparency, taken together with rumors of hidden oil reserves, has proven to be an explosive mix on social media. Winou el Pétrole’s call for the government to exercise more transparency in the energy sector betrays a long held suspicion that the government is pursuing a hidden agenda to sell Tunisia’s oil to foreign multinational corporations. In response, the campaigners aim to mobilize the public in support of the nationalization of Tunisian oil.

Although not all those tweeting and posting on Facebook believe in a conspiracy to funnel away hidden wealth, but simply voice demands for more information on the energy sector to be made publicly accessible, politicians who draw their support from the country’s interior and south have seized upon the question of natural resources management to put Tunisia’s new governing coalition on the defensive. For example, former President Moncef Marzouki, who many opponents of the Winou el Pétrole campaign accuse of fomenting the unrest, proposed the establishment of a transparent commission of inquiry that would give a precise accounting of Tunisia’s natural resources.

A regional question?

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A woman holds a placard which reads "Where is the oil?" Demotix/Chedly Ben Ibrahim. All rights reserved.Anecdotal evidence suggests support for Winou el Pétrole comes from Tunisia’s historically marginalized interior and southern regions. These are also the regions where Tunisia’s natural resource wealth resides. The choice of posing the question “Where is the oil?” to spearhead the campaign may seem paradoxical though. Tunisia produces only 55,000 barrels of oil per day, which is equivalent to just 1 percent of Algeria’s daily production. However, supporters of the campaign distrust these official numbers and have demanded an investigation of Tunisia’s oil sector.

A member of Al Bawsala, an independent NGO advocating transparency and access to information, emphasized the regional politics of the issue. This is because if there were any oil, it would be in the south. In addition, the south already feels exploited in terms of resources, as recent strikes and unrest in the mining town of Gafsa demonstrate. Due to a lack of access to services and marginalization, people in these regions feel exploited and sidelined.

Tunisia is, however, not an oil country. Samir Dilou, former Minister of Human Rights and Transitional Justice, pointed out the wealth of Tunisia does not depend on oil, but on work. “I have nothing against strikes or dreams and hopes,” he said, “but we need people to get up and work.” Furthermore, he noted that a revolution is unable to succeed simply with liberties and human rights. Work is essential for Tunisia to succeed and, he continued, “unfortunately we did not have much of that between 2011 and 2015”. According to Dilou, political liberalization must go hand in hand with development.

What now?

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Thousands rally in Tunis to demand reform. Demotix/R. Byhre. All rights reserved.Now that socio-economic disparities have once again been highlighted by Tunisians through strikes and unrest in the country’s interior, and through viral social media campaigns such as Winou el Pétrole, the Tunisian government must shine a bright light on the country’s once secretive natural resources sector. A thorough accounting of the country’s natural wealth, and who profits from it, must be provided through financial and technical inquiries. This will be no easy task. According to economist Mohamed Balghouthi in one of his tweets.  “After 50 years, it will take time to untangle the web of corruption”.

Samir Dilou notes that the government must indeed be a bit embarrassed,  and emphasizes that “the government now has to work on improving its communication and has to show statistics and figures to increase the transparency of the energy sector”.   

Even though Tunisia is not an oil rich country, the demands of the campaigners are based on aspirations for social justice, and disappointment with persistent poverty and lack of access to jobs in the aftermath of the revolution. Winou el Pétrole is about much more than oil; it highlights the continued distrust of state institutions on the part of many Tunisians. The sole thing the government can do now is give voice to its people’s demands and work towards a more transparent energy sector.

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