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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
A Perilous Free-for-all in the Eastern DR Congo?
A Perilous Free-for-all in the Eastern DR Congo?
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

Podcast / Africa

A Perilous Free-for-all in the Eastern DR Congo?

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood talks to Great Lakes expert Nelleke van de Walle about the escalation of violence in the eastern DR Congo, as Uganda and Burundi deploy troops to fight rebels in the area and Rwanda threatens to do the same.

Neighbouring states are fighting again in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. In November 2021, Tshisekedi invited Ugandan units to cross into the DRC’s North Kivu province in pursuit of the ISIS-linked Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan rebel group blamed for a high profile attack last November in Ugandan capital Kampala. The following month, Burundian soldiers clashed with a Burundian rebel group also on Congolese soil. Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame has suggested that his country’s troops could soon also cross the border to battle Rwandan rebels, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), who are also based in the eastern DRC.

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood talks to Crisis Group’s Great Lakes expert Nelleke van de Walle to make sense of what’s happening. They discuss politics among Great Lakes leaders and Tshisekedi’s efforts to develop closer ties to his neighbours in an effort to stabilise the eastern Congo. They talk about the myriad rebel groups – Congolese and foreign – active in the area, and their local and regional ties. They discuss Kagame’s concerns and how Tshisekedi can better delineate the role of the thousands of Ugandan forces now in the DR Congo. They also discuss how the Congolese president and other regional leaders can dissuade Kagame from sending in Rwandan forces. They discuss the role of the DR Congo’s neighbours in the east, an area that has long suffered from foreign meddling and predatory rebel groups, and prospects for improving the lives of its inhabitants.

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the fighting in the eastern DRC, check out Crisis Group’s extensive analysis on our Great Lakes regional page and keep an eye out for an upcoming briefing on the conflict.

Contributors

Executive Vice President
atwoodr
Project Director, Great Lakes
PMvandeWalle