Race to exploit oil reserves drives conflict in Congo

The real story behind the crisis is that the conflict in Ituri province is being fuelled by the race to exploit the region’s rich oil reserves. File picture: Alexis Huguet/AFP

The real story behind the crisis is that the conflict in Ituri province is being fuelled by the race to exploit the region’s rich oil reserves. File picture: Alexis Huguet/AFP

Published Jan 21, 2022


Doctors Without Borders sounded the alarm this week about the escalating conflict in the eastern Congo – just one MSF field hospital in Ituri is attending to 65 000 people.

But the real story behind this crisis is that the conflict in Ituri province is being fuelled by the race to exploit the region’s rich oil reserves. The suspicion being that violence is a cheap way to rid the land of its inhabitants without paying to relocate them.

At least that is what many local inhabitants believe, as well as several archbishops in the region who constantly refer to the ‘invisible hands’ that help organise attacks and provide money and communications equipment. In a statement issued from the archbishops, they warn of powerful forces trying to “pit ethnic communities against each other to empty these areas of their inhabitants for unknown interests.”

Conflict is easy to stoke in that region given the deeply-rooted local political conflict between the Hema and Lendu for access to land, resources and political power. The Hema community, who are historically herders, were favoured by the Belgian colonials, placing them higher up on the social hierarchy. The Lendu community, who are agriculturalists, have historically felt stripped of their land, resources and political power.

Conflict between the two ethnic groups had raged between 1999 and 2003, affecting tens of thousands of people, but the escalating violence since 2017 has been particularly gruesome, and attacks are now occurring on a monthly basis. The government has struggled to identify the ringleaders or what is motivating them, and it is increasingly difficult to characterise what is happening as inter-ethnic conflict.

Militias like the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), who are allied to neighbouring Uganda, are also responsible for widespread, systematic, and brutal human rights abuses in Ituri and North Kivu provinces. The greed for the region’s resources explains the heavy involvement of both Uganda and Rwanda. Illegal resource exploitation has long been a pillar of the continuing violence. All this violence has succeeded in forcing one million inhabitants to flee over the past six months in Ituri and the Kivus, according to the UNHCR.

In situations of such brutal internecine conflict, it is often useful to ‘follow the money’, and inevitably the economic interests of multinational corporations usually emerge in one form or another, intersecting with local groups vying for power and wealth on the ground. Ituri is incredibly rich in oil, and Lake Albert makes up much of the province’s eastern border, and is the main source of oil in the region.

There has been a substantial increase in oil discovery over the last decade, and it is largely accepted that oil is now an undoubtable key driver of the conflict. The oil exploration in Lake Albert, which straddles both eastern Congo and Uganda, is divided into five blocks, and French oil giant Total has started exploiting oil reserves in this region. Civil society groups believe that the project is likely to negatively affect the iconic Murchison Falls National Park as well as local communities.

Concern both for the climate and the environment have been growing. A year ago, Congolese civil society and environmental organisations active in North Kivu addressed an open letter to DRC President Felix Tshisekedi requesting the cancellation of oil exploration and production permits in Virunga National Park. Their plea was that he abandon the former minister of hydrocarbons plans to launch tenders for 19 new oil blocs.

Virunga National Park is the home of the endangered mountain gorillas, of which it is estimated there are only 880 left in the wild. The intention of the previous government of Joseph Kabila had been to open up the protected areas of Virunga and Salonga National Parks to oil exploration, but even the federation of local fishermen protested that the new President needed to prohibit all oil extraction in Virunga National Park and Lake Edward.

Total and South Africa’s SacOil had obtained a concession (oil Block III) in an area that partly lies within Virunga Park, although Total declared in 2013 that it would not start drilling in the park. Total did, however, start operating in the Lake Albert region. The fact that South African oil companies are involved in the region is of concern, given the link between ongoing conflict and the prevailing interests in oil exploitation.

As Doctors Without Borders will attest, the violence on the ground is only getting worse, with consecutive attacks at the end of November significantly worsening the humanitarian and security situation. As a result of four consecutive attacks in the Djugu area, 40,000 people were forced to take refuge in a refugee camp. It is the women and children who typically bear the brunt of the suffering in such circumstances, and we owe it to them to expose the ugly underbelly of what is really behind the latest conflagration.

* Shannon Ebrahim, Group Foreign Editor