Renewed oil interest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) could nurture communal resentments, exacerbate deep-rooted conflict dynamics and weaken national cohesion.
Black Gold in the Congo: Threat to Stability or Development Opportunity?, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, warns of a potential “oil curse” in the still vulnerable country. Oil exploration in the east and the Central Basin could aggravate conflict in the high-risk areas of the Kivus, and feed secessionist tendencies in a context of failed decentralisation and financial discontent between the central state and the provinces. If confirmed, oil discoveries could redefine the country’s geopolitics, and notably question mineral-rich Katanga’s political influence.
“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”, says Marc-André Lagrange, Crisis Group’s Central Africa Senior Analyst. “Oil reserves straddling the country’s borders with Uganda and Angola have already caused tension”.
Eastern DRC is plagued by rebel groups that are already illegally exploiting natural resources, along with the Congolese army. The April 2012 failed mutiny by General Bosco Ntaganda, wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes since 2006, and the emergence of a new armed group (M23) are illustrations of this longstanding instability. In the west, while offshore oil production for Angola started several years ago, Kinshasa is contesting the definition of maritime borders.
In addition, poor governance has been the hallmark of the oil sector since exploration resumed. Black gold is the main source of government revenue and yet, with exploration in full swing, oil sector reform is several years behind schedule. Instead of creating a transparent legal framework and robust institutions, the previous governments behaved like speculators.
The state’s failure to adequately regulate the diverging and potentially conflicting interests of companies and poor communities is fuelling resentment, which could easily flare up into local violence. Exploration blocks include natural parks and a World Heritage Site.
Regionally, the government should work with neighbouring countries and the African Union to design a management model for cross-border reserves and launch a border demarcation program. Nationally, it should reform the oil sector and declare a moratorium on exploration in unstable areas, especially in the east, and involve provinces in the main management decisions concerning this resource.
“In a context of massive poverty, a weak state, poor governance and regional insecurity, an oil rush will have a strong destabilising effect”, says Thierry Vircoulon, Crisis Group’s Central Africa Project Director. “To avert such a devastating scenario, the government should, at the regional level, favour dialogue with its neighbours to solve border disputes, and, at the national level, regulate oil exploitation to improve governance and accountability”. [International Crisis Group]