Ugandans on island caught in a battle for oil riches

June 4, 2008
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RUKWANZI ISLAND, June 4 – The blood of countless fishermen stains the sand of this tiny island. Their crime? They were Ugandans living on top of an oil reserve wanted by both Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"Where is our boundary?" asks fisherman Misaka Kyalimpa, 34, pointing to the murky grey waters of Lake Albert, where Rukwanzi Island sits. Mountainous green hills rise out of the lake\’s edges.

The island is informally divided into halves, each of which is owned by one of the Great Lakes neighbours. Though the exact location of the liquid border has shifted over the years, no one has cared until now.

In 2006, Canada-based Heritage Oil discovered oil near the Congo-Uganda border and positioned Rukwanzi Island as a strategic drilling point. The UK-based Tullow Oil says it also just struck oil and natural gas deposits in the Lake Albert Rift Basin in May.

Oil officials estimate that there may be oil reserves of up to two billion barrels, most of it under Lake Albert, raising problems for the already-tense border countries — and for the innocent bystanders on the island.

"We are beaten and chased away by the Congolese soldiers when we go to fish," Kyalimpa says as his gumboot-clad feet sink into wet, black marsh.

"The border is unclear; they have now taken over the Ugandan side, too. Fishermen are held for ransom and their boats are taken."

Behind him, dense plants grow wild, unmarked by roads or paths.

Fragile reed-thatched shacks dot the land, each shielded under brightly-coloured plastic from the drizzling rain.

Only 100 Ugandans live on the undeveloped island; the community was forced to relocate to another side of the island six months ago when the violence began to heighten between the conflicting sides.

— Fishermen say they are left to defend themselves —

Last August, a British geologist working for Heritage was killed by gunfire between Ugandan and DRC troops. Several more clashes between soldiers and gunmen from the two countries have erupted since.

"When these things happen, we try to report to our leaders, but nothing happens. So we have to defend ourselves," says Muhamed Obimu, 22, who has been arrested by Congolese authorities multiple times.

But Ugandan MP Aggrey Awori, who has been present at oil-sharing negotiations, said the fishermen would not be left to their own devices.

Uganda\’s President Yoweri Museveni and DRCongo\’s President Joseph Kabila, along with their foreign ministers, met in Tanzania on May 11 to settle issues of border security and joint oil exploration, but official border demarcation has still not begun.

When a problem occurs, "senior military officers will be in communication, instead of one capital reacting to the other," Awori said.

He added that extremist rehtoric played up on both sides — igniting fears of a war — had been toned down.

Back on the shores of Kabukanga landing site, however, fishermen say they are too afraid to even go near the island.

"When the Congolese fishermen cross over, they are treated well.

But it is not the same for us; when you go there you are constantly questioned," says Irumbe Kambamba, 45, perched on a canoe amid sand-covered men washing piles of fish in plastic basins.

"Rukwanzi has never been a happy place for fishermen."

Local leader Elvis Kamugisha, 20, said the area had been relatively quiet for the past two months, but that local fishermen were regularly beaten and robbed when they treaded near the island.

Reports of fishermen even being killed also float around the dock.

"There is good fish there, but it is better not to go at all," he said, walking past the sandy beach littered with massive pelicans, buckets, moss, and trash.

Uganda is expected to start oil production next year. Both Heritage Oil and Tullow Oil say they are waiting for clearance from President Kabila to operate safely in eastern Congo.

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