In a packed wooden hut on the docks of Rukwanzi, a cacophony of Swahili, Lingala and French fills the air. Islanders’ hands shoot up to demand answers. Will the companies make us leave? Is Uganda already taking the oil? How will a joint production area work? What will happen to the fishermen if there’s a spill? Taimour Lay visited Ituri, eastern DRC and Rukwanzi and tells the story.
The 3,000 people here, eking out a living from the dwindling fish stocks of Lake Albert, find themselves at the centre of an area believed to contain up to 2 billion barrels of oil. They also live on the volatile, disputed border between two neighbours only just beginning to re-establish diplomatic ties after decades of conflict.
Eastwards across the water, you glimpse Uganda. To the west, the shore of war-torn Ituri, eastern DR Congo. Oil will either force the countries together as partners, or create tensions that lead to a future war – no one on the ground is willing to say which is more likely.
Kampala claims this 4km of land in the heart of the lake is sovereign Ugandan territory. But the majority Congolese population beg to differ. It is the yellow starred flag of the DR Congo which flies high on the waterfront and the only mention of Uganda is to express outrage and frustration.
The memories of the military escalation in July and August of 2007 have not faded. Details and responsibility remain unclear but a series of tit-for-tat clashes, from the arrest of Ugandan marines on the island, the death of a Heritage Oil worker and the alleged murder of 11 Congolese on a passenger ferry by suspected Ugandan army troops, have left a bitter legacy.
More recently, islanders claim Ugandan patrols have become more aggressive and the military presence on the lake more pronounced. Despite the rapprochement between Presidents Museveni and Kabila, the status of the Ngurdoto Agreement (signed on September 8, 2007) which pulled the two sides back from the brink of war – including settlement of the border dispute and moves towards joint-exploration of oil fields - remains precarious.
Few believe that oil revenues will reach the island. The closer you are to a natural resource in DR Congo, the more it damages, rather than benefits, you. ‘’People have fought over gold, tin, charcoal, timber, everything,’’ one man says. ‘’Why should it be different with oil?’’
An hour’s boat ride to the DR Congo shore and we are in Kasenyi, a town that was hit hard by the Ituri civil war (1998-2003). Militias battled over the lucrative and strategically vital lakeside landing points, the timber and charcoal from local forests, and launched attacks on civilians as Hema-Lendu ethnic identities became a convenient justification for war.
The last time the oil companies came to Kasenyi was in 2007, when Tullow Oil’s Vice President for Africa Tim O’Hanlon visited to promise schools and hospitals and a bright new future. Others have dropped in with more than words.
The United Nations Mission in Congo (Monuc) reported later that year that Tullow’s partner in the license, Heritage Oil, owned by former mercenary fighter Tony Buckingham, had donated speed boats to the FARDC (Congolese national army) in March and had also been responsible for the delivery of 30 Land Rover jeeps to Bunia, which were then distributed to local commanders across the region.
The national army remains a fragile and controversial presence in Ituri, seeking to assert central authority while also committing widespread human rights abuses, from routine ‘’tracasserie’’ (harassment) to corruption and sporadic violence. Cooperation between companies and soldiers – of any stripe – breeds suspicion and fear here.
Kasenyi’s residents are as desperate for answers as the islanders of Rukwanzi. They too know they are at the centre of something but two years after Tullow’s visit, there’s no sign of exploration starting. In June 2003, this exhausted, though now bustling town, was razed to the ground by Germain Katanga’s Lendu FRPI militia group.
Local people claim the oil companies were involved – the kind of conspiracy theory that, however far-fetched, is the standard currency of politics and social attitudes. Locals have suffered too much to be trustful. “They wanted to clear these areas to make exploration easier,” claims one man. “The militia knew how valuable these places would be soon so they came to become players.”
It was not until 2006 that Tullow and Heritage signed a Production Sharing Agreement with Congolese leader Joseph Kabila, only to see the contract ripped up a year later as he sought new partners in a South African consortium.
As the same companies have worked towards the start of production on the Uganda side of the lake, they remain mired in a political and legal battle with Kinshasa, further complicated in March 2009 when the new Congolese oil minister, Mr Rene Isekemanda Nkeka, invited Tullow back into one of the blocks, on the proviso it take on ‘’new partners’’.
But it was not only Kinshasa the companies spoke to. After all, the central government had no control over the recognised exploration areas.
Back in 2002, just as they signed a first memorandum of understanding with the DR Congo government, Heritage admitted to seeking consent to the deals in writing from the rebel leaders then in control of Ituri and North Kivu: the MLC (Mouvement de Libération du Congo) of Jean-Pierre Bemba, and the RCD-Kis/ML of Mbusa Nyamwisi. Both groups had Ugandan troops at strategic locations on their territory.
A 2005 report from the Pole Institute noted that manoeuvrings by politicians and militias was at least partly being determined by considerations of future oil deals.
“Since [the Heritage deal in 2002], the two movements lost control of some of the most interesting parts of the concession - hardly a coincidence. New masters of Ituri until March 2003 were the Hema fighters of the rebel movement UPC (Union des Patriotes Congolais), which was allied with Congo’s biggest rebel movement, the pro-Rwandan RCD (Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie) based in Goma, a sworn enemy of Uganda, Kinshasa and the RCD-ML,’’ the report noted.
UPC foreign minister Jean-Baptiste Dhetchuvi said at the time: “In Ituri, we are in an oil war. When you look at the oil map of Lake Albert region and compare it to the massacre map, there really is a strange similarity.’’
It was to extinguish the influence of Thomas Lubanga’s UPC in Ituri that Lendu militia launched a series of systematic attacks on civilians in 2003.
Travelling the road from Bunia to the shore of Lake Albert is to follow a trail of enmity and blood. Bogoro witnessed the most infamous massacre – 200 civilians killed in just a few hours on February 24 that year, a crime for which Katanga is now facing trial at International Court of Justice, The Hague.
Then the coastal village of Tchomia on May 31: 250 killed. Then Kasenyi 10 days later: 100 dead.
Today, these fragmented groups have faded away or integrated with the national army which, backed by Monuc, maintains an uneasy peace in the region. But Kinshasa still feels very far away.
Kabila’s picture may stare down from the walls of government buildings but politics remains driven by local power-brokers and shifting alliances. And the ever present fear that the fighting may start again.
The rebel threat now has a new face. The FPJC (Front Populaire pour Justice au Congo) operates only 30km south of Kasenyi, with a base at Tchey. They are an amalgam of fighters rejecting the 2006 peace deal, refusing to integrate into the FARDC.
Estimates of their strength vary, from the low hundreds to thousands, but their political operation has already begun to talk the language of oil. “Our movement exists to protect the natural resources of Ituri,” a member tells me. “Kinshasa cannot sign contracts and pursue oil exploration without consulting the communities. And we represent the communities.”
In Tchomia, local people are in no doubt that oil will bring risks but question the claims of the miliciens. After all, they’ve heard this sort of rhetoric before. “If the FPJC are here to protect Ituri, why are they out robbing people on the roads?” a leading politician asks.
Reliable reports of heavy weapons being delivered to FPJC positions by helicopter in 2009 have heightened suspicions that someone nearby is providing support for the fighters.
Given the history of Ugandan and Rwandan involvement in Ituri, and the role international mining companies have played in North Kivu in support of various armed groups, analysts see the potential for the fragile peace to be shattered by new incentives.
‘’The problem is that the peace deal and Monuc’s mission has frozen the problems but not solved them,’’ says Aloys Tegera at the Pole Institute in Goma. ‘’The ingredients are still there: Ethnic division, land disputes, and the absence of central authority. When Monuc leaves, what was frozen can be reactivated. It won’t take long for people to reject oil deals Kinshasa has signed if they are not benefiting people.’’
The contractual wrangle between Tullow/Heritage and the South African consortium (made up of Petro SA, SacOil, H-Oil and Divine Inspiration) means Uganda is likely to reach production many years before DR Congo.
Considerable confusion remains over precisely what is causing the impasse and when to expect a decision from the Congolese President. As a veteran observer in Kinshasa put it: “It’s always about money.”
The new companies claim to have paid over $6 million in bonus money for Blocks 1 and 2 and show little sign of backing down. By way of comparison, Uganda extracted only $300,000 in signature bonuses for each of its five blocks.
The long-standing allegation has been that the former energy minister, Mr Lambert Mende, had links to Divine Inspiration and sought to elbow out Tullow/Heritage in the South Africans’ favour in 2008.
But it may be more complex than that, with suggestions that the South African companies were also connected to key players around Thabo Mbeki; Kabila may be reluctant to go through with the deal if it risks alienating new President Jacob Zuma.
The South African businessman to watch is the controversial Tiego Moseneke, founder of the influential Encha Group which controls SacOil and directs the consortium.
He is reported to have close relationships in Kinshasa, including with Kabila’s brother, Zoe, and with Nozi Mwamba, a Congolese ‘consultant’ to Divine Inspiration, who has twice been accused of major currency fraud and links to militias.
Mr Moseneke is no friend of Mr Zuma and may now lose out due to his former political connections.
Meanwhile, the two sides continue to lobby hard. O’Hanlon was back in Kinshasa in September 2009, where he received diplomatic support from the UK Ambassador and maintained his company’s position that the 2006 contracts, amended in 2007, should stand.
Tullow is also on the public relations offensive, with some success. Congolese communities and civil society repeatedly voice the view that the Tullow/Heritage contract offer better terms for the country.
Platform, a UK-based environment and governance watchdog, last month obtained copies of the 2006 and 2008 contracts and can reveal that both deals fall a long way short of providing confidence that oil will be extracted responsibly, and in the interests of local people.
In particular, the state share of profits is strikingly low – stuck at just 45 per cent in the Tullow/Heritage deal (though since amended in 2007) and reaching only 60 per cent in the 2008 contract for Block 1, meaning the South Africans are likely to have used their payment of large bonuses to extract a better long-term share of revenue for themselves.
Back in Kasenyi, people allow themselves to hope that oil companies will at least bring a new road, a new school or a pharmacy. There are few illusions that the billions of dollars in revenue will ever trickle down from Kinshasa to transform the area.
‘’We want a company that is honest, and wants development and will not cause conflict,’’ the chief of the local administration says. ‘’That’s perhaps the most we can expect.’’
On Rukwanzi, the community meeting finishes with another barrage of demands. ‘’People were dying here two years ago. Why? Who were the interest groups? We talk about oil and it’s like a dream. We know it could change everything, but will it be for good or ill? What will it bring us?’’
Albert region at glance
l Like many colonial-era frontiers, the borderline through the lake between DRC and Uganda was drawn up by European powers with inaccurate maps and scant regard for geographical features or local people.
l First, it ran though the Congolese town of Beni, then later they moved it back miles to the Semliki River flowing out of southern Lake Albert.
l March 2006 - Thousands of Congolese civilians in the northeastern district of Ituri arrived at the port town of Kasenyi on Lake Albert, on the border with Uganda, after they fled fighting between the national army and militia groups, a local official said.
l In 2006, gunmen on Lake Albert attacked a boat operated by Canada’s Heritage Oil Corp. killing a British contractor, Uganda’s government said.
l Troops repulsed the pre-dawn raid -- the first such attack on an oil interest in a country becoming a key frontier in the hunt for crude on a continent where West African sources have held sway.
l In early 2009, Tullow Oil announced the discovery of 400-1,000 million barrels of oil in the region, on the border with the DRC.
l In early March 2009 Presidents Museveni of Uganda and Kabila of DRC signed an agreement to continue military co-operation and to work together in exploiting oil discovered by Lake Albert.