Friday, August 17, 2007

Will Rukwanzi lead to oil war between Congo and Uganda?

An obscure tiny island is threatening to become a flashpoint between African neighbours Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Ugandan-Congo border bisects Lake Albert, the northernmost of the Great Rift Lakes. But the 160km watery frontier it is difficult to demarcate and police. Border tensions at the lake have been exacerbated as Congo and Uganda tussle for ownership of the tiny island of Rukwanzi which lies at the southern tip of the lake. Although the island is barely three kilometres wide, Rukwanzi is seen as a strategic location for oil exploration which has been going on in the area for several years.

Rukwanzi Island is claimed by both Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Congo’s claim is based on its fishermen who live on the island. Uganda’s claim is based on a 1971 map by its Department of Lands and Surveys indicates that the island is in Uganda, three and a half kilometres away from the boundary line with the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the local language Rutoro, Rukwanzi means ‘shiny bead’. “We were told that it was named that because it hangs on the water and swings like a bead on a person’s chest. It was named at the time when our great-grand-parents were trading in beads,” said local fishmonger Mukirane. “As a child, my mother cautioned me to always take care while fishing at Rukwanzi. Fishermen would fight for fishing space around that place.”

Tensions exacerbated on 4 August when gunmen on Lake Albert attacked a barge operated by Canada's Heritage Oil Corp killing a British geologist. The Briton worked for IMC, the company doing the seismic studies for Heritage Oil. Ugandan troops blamed Congo. "Congolese soldiers crossed into Uganda and attacked the boat between 1:00am and 3:00am," western Uganda army spokesman Lt. Tabaro Kiconco told The New Vision. Our troops also came in and responded. One Congolese soldier was killed in the fire-fight and one was injured."

In the past two weeks, Uganda's western border suffered three cross-border attacks that left three others dead. Now the Ugandan army has threatened to re-enter the Congo to quieten its western border if incursions do not stop and diplomatic efforts fail. "We are using incremental reactions, softer means, talking to each other, trying to persuade [the Congolese government] to see reason," Defence Minister Crispus Kiyonga said at the weekend. "If these soft measures do not work, we will take harder options including re-entering Congo."

However not all diplomatic efforts are failing. The two countries announced last week they would re-survey their common border to establish ownership of Rukwanzi in order to end growing border tensions between the two countries. “There is no cause for alarm and the situation is under control,” said Ugandan Defence Minister Crispus Kiyonga. “We have agreed to form a joint commission involving officials from Uganda and Congo side to re-survey our borders. This was part of the agreement with DRC President [Joseph Kabila] and we are committed to it.”

Now Congo’s troops have occupied the island. Congolese troops first set up a military detachment on the island in 1993 and have recently beefed up their contingent. They now join the 1,000 residents, mainly Congolese fishermen. Fishermen on the Ugandan side claimed that Congolese armed personnel were routinely harassing them on the lake. "They are ruthless," said a Ugandan fisherman Deo Mugisa. "They will arrest you at gun point, take your boat and fishing net and sometimes fishermen completely disappear."

As well as they oil concerns, border tensions have been increased by a leaked Congolese external security report which notes that Kinshasa is worried that Congo's exiled former Vice President Jean Pierre Bemba might be plotting to resume insurgency against his country from Uganda. Bemba was the leader of the rebel Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), which was supported by Uganda during the Congolese civil war of 1998-2003. Bemba went into exile in Europe when he refused to disband his security force after his defeat in the 2006 election by President Kabila. Bemba now plans to return to the Congo and some diplomats believe Uganda may continue to support him. The statement of one elder from North Kivu area of Congo after the discovery of oil in 2003 remains prophetic: "We can see war coming on the horizon".

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