WikiLeaks: Angola-Congo relations

This is the second in a series of postings based on extracts from US embassy cables obtained through WikiLeaks.

It used to be that close observers of the Congo would locate the main regional fault line between Kigali and Kinshasa. Things appear to have changed. In meetings with diplomats in Washington and Brussels, the relations between Angola and Congo are increasingly mentioned as a matter of concern, although even high-ranking officials admit these dynamics are opaque and difficult to understand.

Since 2007, the two countries have been embroiled in disputes over border demarcation, oil extraction and the expulsion of citizens. As WikiLeaks documents indicate, the oil dispute is probably the most contentious. The offshore Block 15 is the crown jewel of Angola’s oil production – the four wells operated by Exxon Mobil pump 30% of the country’s entire production, and the field contains estimated reserves of 4 billion barrels.

In July 2007, according to a Kinshasa embassy cable, a joint Angolan-Congolese commission agreed to “a 50/50 share of production and revenues from new oil wells developed in an offshore Zone of Common Interest extending from the 15 km coastal zone in a 10 km strip to the 375 km (200-mile) limit.” This arrangement would not affect the current wells in the area, which include Block 15 and possibly Block 14, 0 and 1 (see map below). The deal also suggested that the two countries would have joint ownership over a $2 billion highway linking Luanda and Cabinda across the Congo, as well as over gas and oil pipelines.

However, the deal was never signed, and later in 2007 the Angolan government expelled thousands of Congolese migrant workers from diamond fields in the north of the country, prompting Doctors Without Border to accuse their security services of systematic rape and abuse. When Kinshasa proudly held the summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in Kinshasa in September 2007, President Dos Santos failed to show, leading many – including the embassy – to speculate about rising tensions.

A cable from the embassy concluded: “It is difficult to judge exactly what motivated the GOA to expel illegal DRC aliens at this moment.  Many have speculated that Angola is unhappy with DRC attempts to have the maritime boundaries redrawn, which would apparently involve a significant transfer of off-shore oil fields to the DRC.  Some have speculated that Luanda is unhappy with the on-going rapprochement between the DRC and Rwanda, and therefore wanted “to remind” the DRC where its real interests lie.”

The situation continued to fester. The Congolese protested that they never received any of the promised share of revenues from the oil in the contested territory. The Congolese government set up a committee of 35 experts led by Prof. Kabuya Lumuna, a respected professor and Kabila ally, to study the issue. The Congolese Foreign Minister asked the US government to mediate, but Washington appears to have kept an arms length from the dispute.

Expulsions from both countries continued. Since 2004, the Angolans have expelled 400,000 illegal immigrants, most of them Congolese and many of them working in diamond fields.  The Angolan ambassador in Kinshasa complained to the US embassy that his country had lost between
$350-700 million in lost diamond revenues as a result of unauthorized artisanal mining.

Nonetheless, in a July 2009 cable, the US embassy wrote that “The prospect of the DRC becoming a major oil producer is the simplest explanation for the mounting tensions between DRC and Angola.” They professed ignorance as to which maritime claim was more legitimate, but reported that Angola had gone so far as to make an offer of $600 million in arrears for the use Congolese maritime space. However, Africa Confidential estimates that the production from the contested area could have been as high as 150,000 barrels/day in 2009 ($12 million at today’s prices) and might increase to 1,2 million barrels/day ($100 million). The Congolese have been holding out for a better deal and in 2008 mooted going to international arbitration, which infuriated the Angolans.

In December 2009, the embassy suggested another possible reason for Angolan ire. Quoting a contact with good access to the Congolese presidency, the embassy reported: “According to our contact, Angola exposed DRC Communications Minster Lambert Mende’s involvement in a corrupt oil deal, which Katumba [Mwanke] apparently arranged.” Katumba, who had just been unseated as the head of Kabila’s AMP coalition, had reportedly facilitated the sale of a number of Congolese oil blocks, which Luanda believed belonged to Angola.  The embassy continued, still quoting their contact: “Compounding the issue, Katumba then sold the blocks to friends, including Israeli businessman Dan Gertler, who have no capacity to exploit the fields.  They rather plan to sell their concessions to major oil companies.”

The situation, however, changed. Far from falling from grace, as the embassy had speculated at the time, Katumba has since emerged as an even stronger figure. But little has since been heard of those dubious oil contracts with Mr. Gertler. And President Kabila has apparently softened his position on the oil blocks. He visited Luanda in September 2010 to confirm his friendship with the Angolan president, and has since pulled back from international arbitration. On January 18 of this year, the Congolese commission suggested that they may take until 2014 to finish negotiations with their Angolan partners.

It is probably a good idea for Kabila to make sure that he maintains good relations with all of his neighbors in this election year. There are already persistent rumors in diplomatic circles that one of his main opponents Vital Kamerhe is receiving financial backing from Angola. And, those of us fond of conspiracies, consider this: Francois Soudan, the author of the recent shellacking of Kabila in Jeune Afrique, is married to a cousin of Denis Sassou-Nguesso, president of Congo-Brazzaville and close ally of the Angolans.