Global Policy Forum

The Course of Oil in the Great Lakes of Africa


By Joseph Yav*

Fahamu - Oxford
October 3, 2007

The exploitation of natural resources has played a central role in the conflict in the Great Lakes region and the DRC. Joseph Yav offers a perspective on how to transform conflicts by using resources as "tools for reconciliation and and reconstruction in the Great Lakes region.

"I hope they don't discover oil. Then we will be in real trouble". [Blood Diamond]


To adapt an old metaphor, one could say, when the Great Lakes Region of Africa sneezes, the entire world including Africa catch a cold. Several interconnected elements shaped conflicts in the Great Lakes region, including the interests of neighbouring countries, competition over natural and economic resources concerns over instability and lack of security, and ethnic chauvinism, to name but a few.

The oil prospects of the Great Lakes region appear at once more dangerous. Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo are sitting on what prospectors believe could be oil reserves of up to one billion barrels in the Albertine Basin which they share. At the time of writing, the oil region of the eastern DRC was the theatre of clashes culminating in killing of civilians and militaries by the Ugandan and Congolese armies. This is now leading to fears that the lake Albert conflict may spread and make a renewed cross-border conflict involving other negative forces and countries. This may lead to another case of conflict over resources and well described in a recent movie named " Blood Diamond" where the old man sighs: "I hope they don't discover oil. Then we will be in real trouble".

Yes, one could say that the old man of the above-mentioned movie is right; the Great lakes region of Africa is in real trouble. If realistic possibilities for conflict resolution and transformation are to be developed, concerns about oil and other resources will have to be addressed. This article will focus only on the issue of resources as a source of conflict or a resource for peace and reconstruction and will offer a perspective on how to transform conflicts by using resources as tools of reconciliation and reconstruction in the Great Lakes region.

History of conflict over resources in the Great Lakes Region

One of the most perplexing issues in the Great Lakes region of Africa and especially in the DRC conflict has been, and still is, that of the exploitation of the DRC's natural resources. Illegal exploitation of the DRC's mineral resources has been a constant feature in discussions about the war in general and especially in the eastern part of the country. There is a debate about whether the exploitation of mineral resources is a main aim for foreign intervention or whether mining initiatives is a way of financing the war effort. It has long been established that the exploitation of these resources, including 'coltan' (columbite-tantalite), gold, and diamonds in the eastern Congo, and diamonds, copper, cobalt, and timber in central DRC, contributed to and exacerbated the conflict in the country. Concerned with reports of pillaging of resources by the foreign forces, the UN Security Council mandated an independent panel to investigate these allegations.

In fact, in its presidential statement dated 2 June 2000 (S/PRST/2000/20), the Security Council requested that the Secretary-General establish a Panel of Experts on the illegal exploitation of natural resources and other forms of wealth of the DRC. The objective was to research and analyze the links between the exploitation of the natural resources and other forms of wealth in the DRC and the continuation of the conflict. In its four reports, the UN Panel of Experts has named senior Ugandan and Rwandese armed forces officers and senior government officials and their families, who are allegedly responsible for illegal exploitation of the DRC's natural resources and other abuses.

It has also proposed that measures be taken against the states, individuals and companies most implicated in the exploitation, including travel bans, financial penalties and reductions in aid disbursements. In January 2003, in response to complaints raised by companies and some governments, the Panel's mandate was extended to 31 October 2003. In its final report from October 2003 the Panel largely documented the nexus of economic exploitation, arms trafficking, and armed conflict, stating that illegal exploitation remains one of the main sources of funding groups involved in perpetuating conflict. The Panel of Experts also listed companies based in Belgium, China, France, Germany, Israel, Spain, the UK, and the United States, that were allegedly involved in the illegal arms trade in the DRC.

Regional actors have been accused of aggression and 'foreign adventurism' with regard to Congolese territory and natural resources. In other words, while parties to the conflict in the DRC may have been motivated originally by security concerns, their continued presence in the DRC can be attributed to economic gains derived from the DRC. The report further stated that criminal groups linked to the armies of Rwanda, Uganda and Zimbabwe and the Government of the DRC have benefited from such conflicts. This is critical to the peace process, because according to reports, these 'groups will not disband voluntarily ... they have built up a self-financing war economy centred on mineral exploitation'.

The rationale for intervention by neighbouring states became self-enforcing and the localised conflicts became regional. As such, the conflicts within and among the countries of the Great Lakes region require regionally based and targeted solutions, along with the cooperation of other, relevant neighbouring states.

Current situation: Oil wars in the Great Lakes of Africa?

Uganda and the DRC share Lake Albert, which has become an important new frontier in the search for oil on the continent. Lake Albert, also Albert Nyanza and formerly Lake Mobutu Sese Seko, is one of the Great Lakes of Africa. It is Africa's seventh largest lake, and ranks as the world's twenty-third largest lake by volume. It is located in the center of the continent, on the border between the DRC and Uganda. It is the northernmost of the chain of lakes in the Great Rift Valley; it is about 160 km long and 30 km wide, with a maximum depth of 51 m, and a surface elevation of 619 m above sea level. In 1864, the explorer Samuel Baker discovered the lake; he named it after the deceased Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria. The late and former Congolese president Mobutu temporarily named the lake after himself.

Conflict is arising over oil found in Lake Albert. Reserves are estimated at less than 100,000 barrels a day for about 10 years when production starts. Tensions began to rise at the end of July beginning of August when a unit of Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC), captured four Ugandan marines who had apparently strayed towards the Congolese west bank of Lake Albert. But on August 3, the situation grew serious. FARDC soldiers patrolling the lake attacked an oil exploration barge belonging to Canada's Heritage Oil Corporation and killed a British contractor working for Canada's Heritage Oil Corp. The Ugandan army retaliated and a Congolese soldier died in the short shoot-out while a Ugandan soldier was wounded.

Since then, tension has been mounting along that part of the Uganda-Congo frontier that runs north-south down the 160 kilometre-long lake - although the alignment of the border has never been precisely defined. Following the discovery of oil in the Albertine Basin, both the Ugandan and Congolese armies have been deploying heavily around the shores, with some observers saying there is now a threat of all-out war.

To ease the tensions, Congolese president Joseph Kabila and his counterpart, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, held a one-day summit meeting in Tanzania on September 8 in an attempt to sort out the border dispute. They signed an agreement to immediately pull back their troops 150 kilometers from the border to ease tensions over an oil-rich border lake. They agreed to work together to explore and exploit oil in the Lake Albert area and to lay a joint pipeline to distribute any oil and they signed the agreement in the presence of Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, diplomats and journalists. They also agreed that a joint team will begin work to demarcate the contested area of the lake. Further, they agreed to meet once a year and to raise their diplomatic missions to ambassadorial level to help improve relations.

However, few days after the meeting and agreements another military clash erupted on the lake on September 24. Reuters reported that six civilians were killed when Ugandan soldiers opened fire on a Congolese passenger boat on Lake Albert. In a conflicting version of the shooting incident, Uganda's military reported two soldiers killed, one from each country, in what it said was a gunfight during a dispute over an oil exploration vessel working on the border lake. There is therefore an urgent need of transforming resources from source of conflict to options for reconciliation and reconstruction in the Great Lakes region.

Concluding remarks: Transforming the Oil concern from the Source of Conflict to a Resource for Peace in the Great Lakes Region

Reconciliation and reconstruction are essential elements of peacebuilding. The key to transforming conflicts is to build strong, equitable relations where distrust and fear were once the norm.

In the Great Lakes region, as in many other African countries, violent conflict has become the 'normal' state of affairs. Control of economic resources has become an important factor in motivating and sustaining armed conflicts. Complex political economies, which often hide behind the outward symbols of statehood and national sovereignty, have been rooted in the pursuance of conflict. The challenge therefore is to transform regional and national political 'parasite' economies that rely on violent conflict into healthy systems based on political participation, social and economic inclusion, and respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Accordingly, any attempt at transforming conflicts to ensure reconciliation and reconstruction in the region requires stimulating positive developments in the region. Such developments will reassure the affected countries that their security and economic interests are better served through fostering stability and improving relations with their neighbours than through allowing their neighbours' turmoil to deflect them from their objective of peace, reconciliation, democracy, and economic development.

Moreover, in terms of ensuring security, ignoring the tensions and misunderstanding among the DRC and Uganda will have far-reaching implications for the stability and socioeconomic development of the region because resources will be diverted from human and economic development to warfare. For this reason it is important for these countries to cooperate towards the restoration of peaceful dialogue and cordial interstate relations. In this regard, armed incursions and clashes can lead to rising tensions and full-blown interstate armed conflict which, if not promptly addressed, will affect the long-term well-being and socioeconomic development of both populations.

The Great Lakes region is rich in the natural resources that are at stake for many actors in the conflict. However, natural resources also harbour potential for post-conflict rehabilitation and development. Countries should therefore examine ways of limiting the exploitation of such resources -especially oil in this case- for the purpose of funding conflict. They should furthermore seek to identify and promote the means by which such resources can be safeguarded and managed in a way that will reduce conflict and ensure benefit to the population. Equally, there is a need to develop institutions and frameworks for the integration and transformation of the informal economy to a formal economy, governed by a reasonable rule of law, transparency and efficiency, without marginalising local and regional actors.

About the Author: Joseph Yav is a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He works with a network of African research institutes in support of the African peace and security agenda.

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