DR Congo + 1 more

DRC/Uganda: Lake Albert spat imperils wider region - May 29, 2008

Originally published
SUBJECT: The causes and impact of border tensions around Lake Albert.

SIGNIFICANCE: After several years in which the relations between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda defined the political outlook for the whole Great Lakes region, interactions between DRC and Uganda are now emerging as the key factor for wider peace and security.

ANALYSIS: Relations between Kinshasa and Kampala have been marked by mutual acrimony since Uganda's 1998 invasion and occupation of parts of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In October 2003, joint accusations followed the publication of a report by a UN Panel of Experts in which the Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF) were accused of plundering Congo's gems and other minerals resources during the Second Congolese War (1998-2003). The two governments clashed again in late 2005 over the outcome of a case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in which Uganda was ordered to pay more than 10 billion dollars in reparations for crimes committed during the war (although almost all of this money has yet to be paid).

Border tensions. In mid-2007, the situation deteriorated significantly, when a series of border incidents threatened to escalate into full-blown war between the two countries:

- Four members of the UPDF were arrested in late July by the Congolese Army (FARDC) for having allegedly driven their patrol boat into Congolese waters on Lake Albert.

- Barely a week later, a Uganda-registered barge belonging to the Canadian company Heritage Oil was attacked by another FARDC patrol near Rukwanzi island, on Lake Albert, killing a UK civilian oil worker. Kinshasa again claimed that this barge had illegally crossed into Congolese waters, although this was strenuously denied by the Ugandan authorities, who insisted that Rukwanzi is in Ugandan waters.

- The UPDF and FARDC engaged in a number of skirmishes in September on, or around, Lake Albert, resulting in several fatalities on both sides. Following each skirmish, both sides claimed that the other had violated its sovereign territory.

Ngurdoto Agreement. In response to these growing tensions, in late September, strong international pressure resulted in a summit between Presidents Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Joseph Kabila of the DRC, which took place in Ngurdoto,Tanzania. A deal was reached -- the 'Ngurdoto Agreement' -- that included several provisions:

- Joint boundary commission. A commission was to be created to define better the DRC-Uganda border as it passes through Lake Albert, and to the north of the Lake. Both sides admitted that the recent clashes had been exacerbated by a lack of clarity as to where this border actually lies. The ambiguity stems from the fact that the current border was originally demarcated through an Anglo-Belgian Agreement in 1915, at a time when the geography of the region was not well understood.

- Oil development cooperation. Once again, both sides recognised that competition over access to exploration wells on Lake Albert had been a key factor in all of the clashes, and that a commitment to joint explorations should therefore end such skirmishes. Moreover, it was anticipated that joint operations would not be difficult to implement, given that all of the major concessions on both sides of the border were held by the same companies: Heritage Oil and the UK-based Tullow Oil.

- LRA. A commitment was made by the Congolese to engage the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), in their then base in DRC's Garamba National Park. Uganda insisted on this clause, despite the fact that it was at the time involved in peace negotiations with the LRA.

- Refugees. An agreement was reached that the Ugandans would move all Congolese refugee camps at least 150 kilometres (km) away from the border. Kabila (accurately) insisted that when located near to the border, these camps had become a key recruitment ground for various Congolese rebel groups.

Throughout late 2007 and early 2008, the Ngurdoto Agreement was widely hailed as a great success for international diplomacy, and seemed to mark not only a reduction in current tensions, but also a more general thawing in DRC-Ugandan relations.

Return to confrontation. However, on May 2, the FARDC moved the Congolese customs post between Aru in the DRC and Vura in Uganda, north of Lake Albert, from 5 km to within 300 metres of the agreed Ugandan border, and erected a sign saying 'Welcome to Congo'. The Congolese officially withdrew from the joint boundary commission three days later. The DRC authorities then cancelled the Congolese mining contracts of Heritage Oil and Tullow Oil -- which were subsequently reallocated to South African PetroSA -- a move which also took DRC out of the joint exploration agreement.

The Congolese were motivated by various factors:

1. Suspicions. Despite the positive noises they made at the time, the Congolese were in fact always suspicious of the Ngurdoto Agreement, and only signed it because of international pressure. In particular, they were concerned about the significantly different wording of the French and English versions of the document (the former of which they signed, and the Ugandans the latter).

2. Oil finds. Thus, many in Kinshasa were sceptical that the agreement over joint exploration would hold when a series of significant oil fields were found on the Ugandan side of the border. Kinshasa appears to have reasoned that it could have a stronger claim on these new deposits by pressing the border issue directly, rather than by staying within the Ngurdoto Agreement. The stakes have only risen with the May 9 discovery by Tullow Oil of potentially more significant oil deposits at Taitai (just inside Ugandan territory in Block 2).

3. Reparations. Some in Kinshasa had hoped that by entering into the agreement, Kabila would be able to restart negotiations with Kampala on the outstanding reparations bill from the 2005 ICJ case. However, the Ugandan government has since steadfastly refused to make any concessions on this matter, instead insisting that this debt is outside the terms of Ngurdoto.

4. Opportunism. The Congolese decision to act now also demonstrates a certain political opportunism on its part. Specifically, it seems designed to exploit current weaknesses in Museveni's own domestic position. He has been under intense pressure in recent weeks, following:

- the breakdown of the LRA peace talks

- increased parliamentary scrutiny; and

- new demands for autonomy from the Bunyoro caucus of the National Resistance Movement -- one of the largest voting blocks in the national party, and thus a key plank of Museveni's domestic support.

The latter two of these developments have been themselves fuelled by the recent oil finds at Lake Albert -- the Bunyoro area extends along the lake's shore -- and by internal concerns in Uganda over how funds from these reserves will eventually be distributed.

Outlook. The current standoff has significantly increased tensions between the two countries. However, it is unlikely to lead to any more serious military conflict at this stage, and can instead be interpreted as brinkmanship on the part of the Congolese.

This much has already been signalled by Kabila's willingness to meet Museveni face-to-face -- in Tanzania on May 11 -- and present the Ugandan president with a well-developed set of Congolese demands. Museveni will probably have to agree to at least some of these, including the transfer of 30 megawatts of Uganda's excess power capacity to the DRC.

CONCLUSION: The events of recent weeks are significant in demonstrating the emerging importance of DRC-Uganda relations for wider peace and security in the Great Lakes. They also highlight the potential for competition over natural resources to fuel conflict and tension in this area.

Oxford Analytica
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