Tuesday March 25 2014

Secrecy, patronage: The oil story as told from the DRC perspective

An oil exploration site in Bunyoro. PHOTO BY

An oil exploration site in Bunyoro. PHOTO BY GEOFFREY SSERUYANGE 

By Isaac Imaka

As communities living in oil-exploration areas of Kaiso-Tonya and Sebigoro complain about lack of access to casual jobs, limited social services and general uncertainty, something probably worse is cooking in the neighbouring DRC.

It is not the corruption by immigration officers at the Goma border-they do it shamelessly with the strictness, finesse and the generosity of an old man–even with a visa from the Kampala embassy, they had denied us entry until we paid another $60. One gets a feeling it is an institutional congenital practice.

It’s not even the M23 rebels. It is the fear of an oil curse.
The story of minerals in DRC being plundered and the countries resources being pillaged by the ruling class and ambitious neighbours is not news- it goes back to King Léopold’s time when the Belgian monarchist treated the country as his personal garden.

Unlike Taiwan, DRC is one of, if not the most, well-endowed country on earth yet the country remains poor.

Taiwan is a barren rock with no natural resources, it even has to import sand for construction yet but it has the fifth-largest financial reserves in the world- $391,000 million as at December 2012.

Most of DRC’s minerals have felt the miner’s shovel, yet the country’s reserves remain at a paltry $6,033 million with 71 per cent of its people living below the poverty line.

But as the country grapples with its sad mineral story, another beast has reared its ugly head-oil.
Oil activities in the DRC didn’t start yesterday; exploration began in the 1960’s along the country’s 22 km Atlantic Ocean coastline at the estuary of the Congo River.

It continued during the 1970’s and early 1980’s and by 1983, 41 wells had been sunk and five operating oil fields and 1 gas field were discovered. Currently, the estimated oil reserves stand at 180 million barrels of oil, with a daily oil production of 28,000 barrels per day.

The equally worrying environment issues aside, the common man in DRC has been dangerously left in the dark on this oil question, they are actually envious of the stories they keep hearing from Uganda.

“Uganda is way ahead of us and we have lessons to learn from them for us to be able to help our people,” Mr Pacifique Borauzima, an activist in Goma, says.

While the nodding donkey is already sucking oil out of the ground in the western part of the country, confessions of how the people are never involved, how the government is thinking about money but not the welfare of its people, how legislators and local leaders seem oblivious to what impact of oil came to the fore at a two-day petroleum conference in Goma early this month.

“I see people moving machines in our area and they tell us they are looking for oil, how different will this oil be from the minerals that have caused us problems

“Is it possible to ask government to just give up on the project all together because we have had enough and we don’t want to suffer anymore,” one of the locals who attended the conference said through an interpreter.
Pole Institute organised the conference to launch its first report on entitled, “Hydrocarbons in the Albertine: Development opportunities or risks of instability?”

From the different testimonies, it was clear that DRC doesn’t have a local content approach, so the local people are left to fend for themselves and local businessmen are left to subscribe to political patronage, the existing legal regime is shaky and information flow from government to the people is almost non-existent.

This particularly has been one of the causes of oil curses in western Uganda.
Of all countries in Africa, DRC should be the most well-placed country to know how not to manage mineral resources. That the government in Kinshasa has chosen the secrecy and non-accountability approach to the oil and gas question is worrying and only spells more doom for the country.

Before going any further, the DRC Executive, the legislators, civil society and all stakeholder should advocate for transparency and accountability, tight oil management policies and laws and put more pressure on oil companies to ensure that oil becomes the switch that turns on the sleeping African giant.