the road to oil: hope and fear in congo

War-torn eastern Congo is preparing for another natural resource struggle: this time for two billion barrels of oil at Lake Albert. Controversial British companies are set to play a defining role.

by Taimour Lay
from Democratic Republic of Congo

To travel the warped, pot-holed road east from Bunia, the war-torn capital of Ituri, eastern DRC, to the shores of Lake Albert, is to follow a trail of old enmity and blood. The first town you pass is Bogoro, site of one of the most notorious massacres of the Congolese civil war (1998-2003)  – 200 civilians killed in just a few hours on 24th February 2003, a crime for which militia leader Germain Katanga is now facing trial at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Then the placid coastal village of Tchomia on 31st May: 250 killed. Next the town of Kasenyi: another 100 lives lost.

On the opposite shore, 40km from Congolese Kasenyi, you can glimpse the vast escarpment of the Ugandan side of the lake, where oil production is due to start in 2011. Two British companies, Tullow Oil and Heritage, the former backed by a billion pound loan arranged by the Royal Bank of Scotland, the latter owned by Tony Buckingham, a former mercenary and associate of Simon Mann, share the licenses and have bought rights in Congo too. The disputed international border runs right down the middle of the water. A mile here or there, west or east, didn’t used to matter so much; now every inch means potential revenue to Kinshasa or Kampala.

The communities of eastern Ituri, eking out a living from the dwindling fish stocks on the lake, found themselves at the frontline ten years ago: in scenes of ethnic slaughter and child-soldiery that shocked the world into intervention. Today, the UN mission (MONUC) maintains an uneasy equilibrium, backing President Joseph Kabila and the hotchpotch of former rebels who make up the national army (FARDC), but doing so with little hope that a functioning state is being built. Kabila’s picture may be prominently displayed on the walls of local officialdom, but Kinshasa feels very far away.

The end of the 40km dirt-road is an expanse of perfect blue: water and sky and new possibilities. Lake Albert runs for 100km north to south, dotted everywhere with wooden fishing boats. An estimated two billion barrels of oil beneath the surface make this a new frontline; the latest natural resource to offer hope, and fear, to local communities. ”They have fought over everything,” one man says. ”Why should oil be any different?”

There is a perversely satisfying logic as you explore the map of conflict here. Eastern Congo is often presented as a kind of medieval chaos, fuelled by brutal rivalries beyond the rational, ethnic Hema pitted against Lendu in a perpetual cycle of violence. But more material explanations are not hard to find. ”A battle was fought there,” you are told, a finger pointing down to a lush, green valley. It could be north Wales on a sunny day. Why? ”The timber from the forest”. ”A massacre there. Charcoal.” ”The militia was based here. Gold.”

Tullow are the latest darlings of the FTSE, with Chief Executive Aidan Heavey, who pocketed over £30m in 2008 alone, regularly profiled by the Times as a ‘business bigshot to watch’. Heritage – whose directors and associates are an extended family of diamond dealers and military contractors, are a classic ”wildcat” company – prospectors who buy up licences in ”risky” places, looking to sell on for a huge profit before production even starts. It is set to make $1.6bn from passing its Uganda deals onto ENI later this year. No one expects them to be around when oil flows in DRC either. It’s been the same in the mining industry here – ‘trading companies’ cut deals and then leave, sometimes only making way yet another wildcat. Speculation, not production, is the money-maker.

The last time the oil companies visited Ituri was in 2007, when Tullow Oil’s Vice President for Africa, Tim O’Hanlon, came to Kasenyi. That summer Uganda and DRC nearly went to war after a series of clashes on the lake. A Heritage Oil worker was killed by the Congolese army. There is a photo of O’Hanlon standing next to the town ‘chef’, or head of administration. He squints and smiles uncomfortably in the bright light, a bringer of promises in a pale suit: schools and hospitals and a prosperous future.

Others have dropped in with more than words. MONUC reported later that year that Heritage had donated speed boats to the FARDC 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 Ituri in an attempt to curry favour.

It wasn’t until 2006 that Tullow and Heritage signed a production sharing agreement with Kabila, only to see the contract ripped up a year later as the government sought new partners in a South African consortium. As the 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.

But it hasn’t only been Kinshasa that Heritage has spoken to. Back in 2002, just as they signed a first memorandum of understanding with DRC, Heritage admitted to seeking consent to the deals in writing from the rebel leaders then in control of Ituri and North Kivu: the MLC of Jean-Pierre Bemba, and the RCD-Kis/ML of Mbusa Nyamwisi.

An influential 2005 report from the Pole Institute noted that manoeuvrings by militias were 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).”

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.”

The rebel threat now has a new face. The FPJC (Front Populaire pour Justice au Congo) operates only 50km south of Kasenyi. Their savvy political operation has already begun to talk the language of oil. “Our movement exists to protect the natural resources of Ituri,” a sharp-suited rebel 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 every day robbing people on the roads?” a fisherman asks.

Reliable reports of heavy weapons being delivered to FPJC positions by helicopter in 2009 have heightened suspicions that at least one regional actor is providing support for the fighters. FPJC leaders operate freely in Kampala. Reported discoveries of gold in FPJC areas open up the possibility of backing from parts of the Ugandan military in exchange for a share of the profits – the old pattern of state collusion and corruption that fuelled the previous war.

The contractual wrangle between Tullow/Heritage and the South African consortium (made up of four companies: Petro SA, SacOil, H-Oil and Divine Inspiration) won’t be resolved until Kabila chooses between them. As a veteran observer in Kinshasa put it, “It’s always about money.” The new companies claim to have paid over $6m in bonuses for two exploration blocks and show little sign of backing down.

Tullow continue to lobby hard. O’Hanlon was back in Kinshasa in October 2009, where he received, according to one well-placed observer, ”an eyebrow-raising amount of diplomatic support” from the UK Ambassador, Nick Kay, and maintained his company’s position that the 2006 contract should stand. Heritage are quieter – but continue to boast to London markets of their ”high-level political connections” – a euphemism for the influence money buys them across Africa. In Uganda, it’s an open secret that the ruling party is hoping to fund its 2011 election campaign with oil-company bribes.

We obtained copies of the confidential contracts in December 2009, revealing that the companies have evaded virtually all legal and environmental responsibilities. Moreover, the state’s share of future revenues is strikingly low; though even if that changes, there’s little hope that the money which reaches Kinshasa will then trickle down to local people. The deals in Uganda, also leaked last year, are little better.

Meanwhile, in eastern Ituri, the machinations of political networks are beyond people’s control. They allow themselves to hope that oil will at least bring a new road or a health centre, though there are few illusions. ”We just don’t want to be another Niger Delta,” a local politician says.

On the journey back to Bunia, we pass a pile of innocuous, broken stones. The driver jumps out eagerly to direct me to the roadside. This used to be the site of a 10ft two-pillared monument to Henry Morton Stanley, he says. During the last of his great militarized expeditions in 1887, Stanley cut east through the then unknown Ituri rainforest, to ‘rescue’ Emin Pasha, the governor of southern Sudan, isolated at Lake Albert following the Mahdi revolt.

In 1982, two men came by horse from the lake and dismantled the valuable white stone, carrying it off precariously in the middle of the night. As a blow to muzungu (white man) triumphalism; against the explorer who negotiated concessions for Leopold II? My impromptu tour guide laughs. ‘No politics. Just to sell the material! This is Congo. It’s always about money.’

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