Teaser: Emerging energy hot spot Lake Albert, located on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, could be the flash point for a conflict between the two countries

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Uganda, DRC: Eyes on the Prize of Lake Albert

Emerging energy hot spot Lake Albert, located on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, could be the flash point for a conflict between the two countries.

The governments of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo agreed to resurvey the their shared border, media reported May 12. A redrawing of the border through energy-rich Lake Albert is unlikely, though, and thus the stage is set for a conflict between the two energy-dependent countries for control of the region's emerging energy supplies.


The governments of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) agreed to resurvey their common border, media reported May 12. Neither side is likely to budge on a new demarcation of the Lake Albert part of the border, however, and the standoff could spark conflict for control of the region's emerging energy supplies. The two countries' presidents met in the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam and released a communique stating that the new border survey would take place, adding that the status quo should be maintained along the border.
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Until recently, the border demarcation was a non-issue; the border was originally drawn up in 1915 and divided in half length-wise by colonial powers Britain and Belgium (the border itself was divided in half length-wise, or the border divided the territory in half? The border divided the lake in half lengthwise). But over the past couple of years, foreign energy companies' growing interest in emerging oil and gas fields located in the Lake Albert basin bordering the two countries has made the border demarcation a very significant issue between Kampala and Kinshasa. The increased exploration of sizeable oil and gas fields in Lake Albert means that the border region -- and its energy wealth, which so far has only been tapped on the Ugandan side -- is unlikely to go uncontested.

The standoff over Lake Albert comes amid record high global energy prices and unrest in both Uganda and the DRC as a result of spiraling food and energy costs. Both the DRC and Uganda are energy-dependent countries, and both experienced significant disruptions to their energy supplies in the first quarter of 2008 (in DRC, the disruption hit its eastern region) as a result of the election crisis in neighboring Kenya.

Uganda and the DRC are seeking to exploit energy blocks currently being explored on Lake Albert. The Ireland-listed Tullow Oil company announced May 13 it made an oil and gas find on the Ugandan side of the Lake Albert basin that could contain 1 billion barrels of oil. The Tullow announcement comes two weeks after the Canadian-listed Heritage Oil company announced its own find in Lake Albert in a block that could prove to host reserve estimates as high as 700 million barrels of oil.

The Ugandan government is pressing for oil production from Lake Albert to begin by 2009 and for the construction of an oil refinery. The two moves are aimed to wean Uganda from its dependency on imported crude and refined energy products trucked in from Kenya. The moves could also transform Uganda into a regional energy hub, as other neighboring countries -- such as Rwanda, Burundi and the southern region of Sudan, in addition to the DRC -- depend on Kenya's supply chain infrastructure for their energy imports. None of the countries are natural allies, however, and would only support Uganda's energy development as long as they received a material benefit greater than their existing supply network from Kenya.

The DRC government has challenged the border demarcation by reinforcing its security presence on the border at the southern point of the lake and revoking Tullow's concessions on its side of the lake.  Uganda has maintained its own security forces on its side of the lake. In addition to its desire to secure independent energy supplies, Kinshasa is compelled to maintain a forward deployment to prevent Kampala from expanding its territorial reach to include de facto control over the DRC side of Lake Albert. Though on paper both sides control only their side of the border, in reality the eastern part of the DRC is contested territory which several governments and rebel groups are competing for, and Kinshasa is but one contestant. Rwanda's intervention in the North Kivu province of the DRC -- through its support of the rebel Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda -- located south of Lake Albert is essentially a resource grab to compensate Rwanda for an otherwise meager domestic economy. Rwanda's intervention indirectly supports Uganda's interests at Lake Albert by keeping DRC armed forces dispersed, though that does not mean Kampala and Kigali are close allies. 

With energy prices at historic highs making room for second tier energy companies including Heritage and Tullow to successfully explore emerging fields like Lake Albert, governments facing domestic unrest are also pushed to secure their newly found energy supplies. With the DRC and Uganda being highly energy-dependent -- as well as mistrustful of each other's territorial and economic interests -- conflict between the two countries over the largely meaningless de jure border demarcation is the likely outcome in the potentially oil-rich region.

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