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Black Gold in the Congo: Threat to Stability or Development Opportunity?
Black Gold in the Congo: Threat to Stability or Development Opportunity?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The Reluctance of Joseph Kabila to Cede Power Could Push Congo to the Brink
The Reluctance of Joseph Kabila to Cede Power Could Push Congo to the Brink
Report 188 / Africa

Black Gold in the Congo: Threat to Stability or Development Opportunity?

Renewed oil interest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) could nurture communal resentments, exacerbate deep-rooted conflict dynamics and weaken national cohesion.

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Executive Summary

Although it should provide development opportunities, renewed oil interest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) represents a real threat to stability in a still vulnerable post-conflict country. Exploration has begun, but oil prospecting is nurturing old resentments among local communities and contributing to border tensions with neighbouring countries. If oil reserves are confirmed in the east, this would exacerbate deep-rooted conflict dynamics in the Kivus. An upsurge in fighting since the start of 2012, including the emergence of a new rebellion in North Kivu and the resumption of armed groups’ territorial expansion, has further complicated stability in the east, which is the new focus for oil exploration. New oil reserves could also create new centres of power and question Katanga’s (DRC’s traditional economic hub) political influence. Preventive action is needed to turn a real threat to stability into a genuine development opportunity.

Potential oil reserves straddle the country’s borders with Uganda, Angola and possibly other countries and could rekindle old sensitivities once exploration commences. In the context of a general oil rush in Central and East Africa, the lack of clearly defined borders, especially in the Great Lakes region, poses significant risk for maintaining regional stability.

Clashes between the Congolese and Ugandan armies in 2007 led to the Ngurdoto Accords establishing a system for regulating border oil problems, but Kinshasa’s reluctance to implement this agreement and the collapse of the Ugandan-Congolese dialogue threaten future relations between the two countries. In the west, failure to find an amicable solution to an Angolan-Congolese dispute about offshore concessions has worsened relations between the two countries and led to the violent expulsion from Angola of Congolese nationals. Instead of investing in the resolution of border conflicts with its neighbours before beginning oil exploration, the Congolese government is ignoring the problem, failing to dialogue with Uganda and officially claiming an extension of its maritime borders with Angola.

The abduction in 2011 of an oil employee in the Virunga Park, in the Kivus, is a reminder that exploration is taking place in disputed areas where ethnic groups are competing for territorial control and the army and militias are engaged in years of illegally exploiting natural resources. Given that the Kivus are high-risk areas, oil discovery could aggravate the conflict. Moreover, confirmation of oil reserves in the Central Basin and the east could feed secessionist tendencies in a context of failed decentralisation and financial discontent between the central government and the provinces.

Poor governance has been the hallmark of the oil sector since exploration resumed in the east and west of the country. Even with only one producing oil company, the black gold is the main source of government revenue and yet, with exploration in full swing, oil sector reform is very slow. Instead of creating clear procedures, a transparent legal framework and robust institutions, previous governments have behaved like speculators, in a way that is reminiscent of practices in the mining sector. Reflecting the very degraded business climate, they have allocated and reallocated concessions and often acted without considering the needs of the local people and international commitments, especially regarding environmental protection.

The official division of exploration blocks includes natural parks, some of which are World Heritage Sites. It also directly threatens the resources of local populations in some areas. Initiatives to promote financial and contractual transparency are contradicted by the lack of transparency in allocating concessions. The state’s failure to adequately regulate the diverging and potentially conflicting interests of companies and poor communities is clearly causing local resentment, which could easily flare up into local violence that could be manipulated.

In a context of massive poverty, weak state, poor governance and regional insecurity, an oil rush will have a strong destabilising effect unless the government adopts several significant steps regionally and nationally to avert such a devastating scenario. Regionally, it should draw on the close support of the African Union (AU) and the World Bank Group to design a management model for cross-border reserves and help facilitate a border demarcation program. Nationally, the government should implement oil sector reform, declare a moratorium on the exploration of insecure areas, especially in the east where the situation is again deteriorating, until these territories are made secure, and involve the provinces in the main management decisions concerning this resource.

Kinshasa/Nairobi/Brussels, 11 July 2012

Op-Ed / Africa

The Reluctance of Joseph Kabila to Cede Power Could Push Congo to the Brink

Originally published in The Guardian

The actions of President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) make clear his intention to stay in power beyond his second term. But with the people set against it, and a strong and unambiguous two-term limit in the constitution, his ambitions are leading his country to a dangerous impasse.

Since 2010, Kabila has deployed various tactics to delay the elections, hoping that this will allow him to stay on in a transitional arrangement. He has already achieved one of his goals: the timetable for presidential elections this year is no longer feasible.

This is a hazardous strategy. Riots in January 2015 killed dozens of people. Since then, the government has locked up leaders of civil society movements fighting to protect the country’s hard-won constitution. Given the scale of the organisational task and the lack of progress, the country will not be able to hold elections until well into next year.

Presidents clinging to power can destabilise countries. In neighbouring Burundi, breaking a post-civil war promise not to extend a presidential mandate has quickly undermined the trust, social cohesion and political accord needed to avoid conflict.

Congo-Brazzaville is plagued by unrest after President Sassou Nguesso changed the constitution and then went on to win a controversial election in March. Where governments remain highly centralised and institutions weak, the guarantee that power will change hands is vital to ensure that grievances are expressed peacefully.

DRC suffers from overly centralised government and a patronage system in the hands of the incumbent. The deal that ended the civil war in 2002 shared the spoils of peace among former warring parties and other political hopefuls in the form of a government of national union, and then through a broad-based governing majority.

The limit on presidential terms gave a guarantee that power would eventually be rotated, even if, at the time, short-term gains were at the forefront of most minds. Unless Kabila moves on, prominent and popular politicians, many his former allies, could be out in the cold for good. Facing a stubborn regime with less and less legitimacy, some may decide that violence is the only way to force change.

Activists see term limits as a weathervane of democratic progress. Term limits are now in place across southern Africa, although in countries dominated by strong liberation parties, the presidency has passed to someone from within the ruling party: Tanzania, Namibia and Mozambique. In Nigeria, Zambia and Senegal, presidential ambitions to stay on have been thwarted by rival elites or strong institutions, such as parliament and civil society. The president of Niger’s bid to cling to power was thwarted by his own army.

Central Africa has a particularly bad record. Weak institutions and centralised power have handed incumbents a huge advantage, not only in winning elections, but also in changing constitutions. International partners, including some aid donors, have not voiced concern often enough, worried that too much democracy could upset fragile stability. Since the democratic advances of the early 1990s, Central African Republic is the only state to have had a proper democratic handover of power, in 1993. That’s a very troubling record.

In DRC, the peace agreements of 2002 that introduced the presidential term limit brought welcome stability. But the deal kicked justice issues into the long grass and did not address centralised and corrupt governance. Kabila, like his counterpart in Burundi, is almost certainly worried that justice for violence committed in the civil war may catch up with him if he leaves office. 

Trust, stability and the cohesion of the political system therefore lie at the heart of the “third term” question. African leaders considering these issues, in the African Union (AU) and elsewhere, face complex dilemmas. Some don’t believe in the principle of regularly handing over power. Others don’t want to interfere in the internal affairs of a neighbour, unless the instability threatens their borders.

Western powers promoting term limits therefore have no common African position to rally behind. They have also been frustratingly inconsistent, playing down Rwandan president Paul Kagame’s machinations to serve another term, while condemning the decision of the Burundian president, Pierre Nkurunziza, to run for re-election, peddling more softly on Kagame than Nkurunziza.

Pressure needs to be put on those unwilling to leave, but there comes a point when leaders are so entrenched that there seems little point in challenging their right to hold office. Calling it early is therefore vital. That is what the international community failed to do when Kabila removed the second round of the presidential elections in 2011 and went on to win a fraudulent election in November of that year.

A political system is based on trust that everyone will abide by the rules to at least a minimum extent; without that, stability will be short-lived. The international community should speak out at the right moment against leaders overturning constitutional provisions to suit their own agenda. This is especially true when previous conflict means trust is in short supply or faith in elections as a means of transferring power has been undermined.

Failure to speak out sends a message to opposition leaders that the only way to power is through violence – a conclusion that would spell disaster for DRC and other countries in the region.