Global Policy Forum

Conflict Beyond the Oil Barges


By Angelo Izama and Melina Platas

Daily Monitor - Kampala
August 13, 2007

The Ituri region bordering Uganda has a large share of what some say is the misfortune of wealth. The region directly borders the districts where Uganda is exploring oil

In the hit film, Blood Diamond, an old man pleads with actor Djimon Hounsou to ask his companion Leonardo Di Caprio, who plays a South African mercenary, not to shoot him. The two who are in search of a "super diamond" discovered and hidden earlier by Hounsou (who goes by the name Solomon) stumble on the senior citizen in a village located in a diamond belt that had just been attacked by rebels of the Revolutionary United Front. Dazed and surrounded by dead bodies and burning huts the old man is told by Hounsou, that Di Caprio is not interested in him- only diamonds.

"I hope they don't discover oil. Then we will be in real trouble" the old man sighs. Mercenaries, militias, diamonds, and oil are the real deal in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). And they are constantly revising the script of life for millions of destitute people who live next to these mineral riches.

The Ituri region bordering Uganda has a large share of what some say is the misfortune of mineral wealth. The region directly borders the districts where Uganda is exploring oil. Indeed, parts of the oil fields belong to the DRC on the other side of the border. On Friday August 3, a Briton employed with Heritage Oil and Gas which is exploring for oil on Lake Albert was shot dead after his barge was jumped by soldiers of the Congolese national army. Less than a week before in the same spot, four Ugandan army soldiers were "abducted" by Congolese troops. At midnight on Wednesday, August 8, armed men attacked Bukogota, a small trading centre in Kanungu District which is south of the oil fields killing three people, including a student of Makerere University.

Officially, the DRC government has not responded to a protest by Kampala over the latest attacks even if local Congolese commanders have accepted responsibility for the assault on Lake Albert. "What we don't know is whether [the attacks] were on instructions from Kinshasa or local action" said Daudi Migereko, the Minister of Energy in an interview with Sunday Monitor. He was responding to questions whether renewed border tensions were related to Uganda's petroleum exploration programme. Migereko, however, reassured that: "We have taken care of our security interests", when it was suggested that possible further attacks could upset oil exploration. This is the position taken by the Ugandan military. He did not elaborate though, hinting instead that it would not be inappropriate to comment on the nature of security measures being taken by Kampala. Security Minister, Amama Mbabazi, who is also the Secretary General of the ruling National Resistance Movement on Thursday last week said that the Ugandan government could re-enter Congolese territory.

Mbabazi, a close confidant of President Yoweri Museveni, is also part of Uganda's often unofficial foreign policy and has engaged in extensive shuttle diplomacy of Uganda in the Great Lakes region. Mbabazi has been active in regional relations since his days as head of Uganda's External Security Organisation, minister for regional cooperation and defence minister. During this time which begun in '90s, Uganda pursued an aggressive policy in DRC, twice invading its territory and occupying the Ituri. Military sources have told Sunday Monitor that the Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF) was strengthening its presence in the western border. "Two more battalions will be added to the 2nd Division," a source said, adding that Uganda was also considering beefing up airborne capacity with attack helicopters to protect the country's interests. Already, over the last year the UPDF Alpine Brigade, an elite unit, had strengthened its positions in the mountainous western Rwenzori region, possibly in anticipation of such a development.

One of the notable military personalities who has spent time in the region is Maj. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, President Yoweri Museveni's son, currently on a one-year officer's course at the Fort Leavenworth academy in the United States. Maj. Muhoozi's presence underscores the importance of the western border - which if rendered vulnerable would directly affect the main areas of support for the Movement- but also the integrity of the oil find. As a member of the Presidential Guard Brigade, the presence of Muhoozi in the area, also speaks volumes. Uganda appears frustrated even as it takes precautionary measures. An expression of the frustration is in the statements made by Mbabazi.

The minister who was in charge of external intelligence in the period preceding the first Congo invasion (1986-1992) and later the Minister for regional affairs and defence through Uganda's troubled occupation of Ituri region between 1998 and 2003 has noted that: "We reserve the right of self defence," Mbabazi is quoted as saying. His comments delivered to residents of Bukogota, the scene of Thursday's attacks are the most ominous, coming from a high ranking government official.

Mbabazi's statements come after a joint communiqué issued by the heads of the Ugandan and Congolese armed forces following emergency meetings last week to review the border situation. The communiqué agreed that a political solution be found to put out the fires that are threatening to engulf the border.

According to Mbabazi, diplomatic efforts were unsuccessful because the Congolese establishment was not interested. "They behave as if it is not their business, continuing to harbour those who are terrorising our people," Mbabazi was reported to have said. Quite frankly, the Congolese government has a limited ability to maintain order in these regions, largely due to the long history of conflict in the area and perhaps the lack of proximity to Kinshasa.

Thousands of kilometres away and cut off by almost non-existent transport infrastructure, Kinshasa is on one side of DRC, a country the size of western Europe, far flung from the potential oil fields along her border with Uganda. Uganda's petroleum exploration has added to the complexity of the diplomatic situation already poor because of Kinshasa's lack of effective control of eastern Congo. According to Migereko, Uganda, which signed a joint exploration agreement with Congo in 1990, will try to use this document to interest Kinshasa in pursuing a common approach to the border zones. The agreement was signed between Uganda and the government of former president Mobutu Ssese Seko (RIP). According to the1990 agreement, the two countries wanted the same company(s) to explore and exploit their oil. The agreement also agreed in principle to a joint investment in infrastructure, revenue sharing and so forth. The national boundaries, which are today a sign of friction, were to be considered ‘non-existent' for purposes of the agreement. One article noted: "The two governments affirm that the common field will be developed and exploited in a common and indivisible entity". The agreement still stands. "What has happened shows the need to reinvigorate our agreement. We have to work on our relationship with Congo. We have to build on it. We are neighbours, we need each other," Migereko said. Both the government and Heritage Oil and Gas which is conducting exploration have said the petroleum programme will continue.

Indeed Migereko said Heritage which has a partnership with Tullow oil - has also been having a tough time with Kinshasa. "Heritage and Tullow have applied for exploration licenses on the Congo side. They have been going to Kinshasa for the last five years [and have not been issued one]," Migereko added.

Even then Heritage in particular is not unfamiliar to working in hostile environments. And because of this it has been associated with the private military corporation, Executive Outcomes (EO), for a long time. EO has been protecting Heritage's mineral concessions in Africa. One of the many military businesses of Heritage is Saracen Security which researchers say in Uganda is linked to Gen. Salim Saleh, President Yoweri Museveni's brother. It was Saracen that responded to the attack on the oil barge in which the British expert was killed.

It was Executive Outcomes which was introduced to Angola by Heritage CEO, Tony Buckingham. The organisation was culled out of a motley crew of ex-commandos from the South African Defence Forces – and it helped the government of Angola clobber the Unita insurgents with amazing success in the 1990s when fighting in that country had resumed following the collapse of a peace agreement in 1992. Again, Buckingham introduced Executive Outcomes to the Freetown government in Sierra Leone as it fought RUF rebels. It is the mayhem in Sierra Leone that is fictionalised in the movie Blood Diamond.

The association of Heritage in military business has drawn a lot of criticism from human rights campaigners in part because of the belief that it helped the company obtain cheap concessions at the expense of local communities that may have suffered abuses. With regard to the recent border skirmishes it appears nevertheless that Heritage is able to continue its activities unruffled.

One view of the spat between Uganda and Congo is that perhaps the Congolese government is uncomfortable with the progress Uganda has made in its petroleum programme. Another view is that Kinshasa is happy to allow rebels to operate in the lawless East as long as they do not regroup to threaten the power of President Joseph Kabila. However, the reported presence of Ugandan rebel groups in the East is a thorny issue - as are Kinshasa's alleged contacts with them.

Since November 2005, the Lord's Resistance Army which has fought the NRM government over the last 18 years has relocated to DRC's Garamba National Park. Since then security sources claim both Sudanese and Congolese government personnel have been in contact with the LRA - even if the Ugandan rebels have been engaged in peace talks with Kampala for over a year.

According to one diplomat, who spoke on condition that his name be withheld, the lack of cooperation by the Kabila regime is partly because in the last election, Kampala supported Jean Pierre Bemba, Kabila's rival. "Bemba who has fled Kinshasa is threatening to return and Congo is afraid Uganda may continue supporting him," the diplomat said. However, Sunday Monitor has also been told that Uganda has approached Kabila in the past few months through DRC's foreign minister, Mbusa Nyamwisi.

Mr Nyamwisi, a former rebel supported by Uganda, is being viewed as a go-between Kampala and Kinshasa. He is also from the east of the country. If the sources are to be believed it will now depend on Mbusa's ability to create renewed rapport between Kampala and Kinshasa- and perhaps even replace Bemba as the pro-Uganda power. In the meantime the resource curse continues to plague the region. However the words of one elder from North Kivu, DRC, who was interviewed in 2003 by the Pole Institute on the discovery of oil: "We can see war coming on the horizon" are haunting.

More Information on the Security Council
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