Discovery of Oil Destabilizing Great Lakes RegionNovember 16, 2007 By Rachel WeisshaarThe unearthing of significant oil reserves in 100-mile long Lake Albert—shared by Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)—has already led to violence, and the conflict could easily escalate further. Tullow Oil and Heritage Oil Corporation, which have drilled wells in the lake, recently estimated that it contains at least 1 billion barrels of oil. Uganda and the DRC both want the lion’s share of this treasure, and their competing ambitions have ignited violence in parts of the disputed Uganda-DRC border.
Uganda and the DRC deployed troops in the area once the discovery of oil was reported, and on August 3, 2007, Congolese soldiers attacked one of Heritage Oil’s exploratory oil barges, killing a British contractor working for the company. The Ugandan army retaliated, killing a Congolese soldier. Following the incident, Congolese President Joseph Kabila and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni met in Tanzania and agreed to pull back their troops. But later in September, an incident between the two sides resulted in the deaths of six civilians.
The discovery of oil is causing outright violence in the region, but it is also harming local communities’ health and livelihoods. Rukwanzi Island, located in Lake Albert and claimed by both countries, was partially evacuated earlier this week by DRC authorities due to a cholera outbreak. Oil-related security concerns prevented health workers from treating patients effectively, so DRC police evacuated children and the elderly—two particularly vulnerable populations.
Congolese and Ugandan fishermen who depend on Lake Albert for their livelihoods have been caught up in the hostilities. A Ugandan fisherman told Reuters, “Congolese soldiers have started arresting us, saying we are in their waters. It’s not safe to fish anymore.” Congolese soldiers arrest Ugandan fishermen, and Ugandan police retaliate by arresting Congolese fishermen, making fishing a dangerous and less-profitable enterprise.
The discovery of oil—and the destabilization it can bring—could also involve other Great Lakes countries. Vangold Resources Ltd. recently signed an agreement with the Rwandan government to conduct an extensive geophysical study of a portion of Rwanda’s East Kivu Graben basin, which, structurally, is the southern extension of the Albertine basin. The survey will be completed—and its results released—within 18 months.
Africa’s Great Lakes region—particularly the DRC—has a history of natural resource-driven conflict. Trade out of the DRC in gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt, coltan (used in cell phones), and timber has contributed to devastating internal violence, corruption, and poverty, as well as conflict with other countries. We can only hope that the discovery of oil in Lake Albert does not follow the same path.
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