By Gregory McGann | –
UK oil company Soco is waging a war of violence and intimidation against those opposing its plans to drill for oil in Virunga national park, writes Gregory McCann. It has paid genocidal armed rebels, encouraged attacks on park rangers, financed phoney demonstrations, and is linked to the attempted murder of head ranger Emmanuel de Merode.
Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a world heritage site and contains some 220 critically endangered mountain gorillas – a quarter of the total global population.
Yet the park is grievously threatened by the ambitions of London-listed company Soco International PLC – one of the UK’s 200 largest companies – to drill oil within its boundaries.
Soco and its contractors have made illicit payments, paid off armed rebels, and kindled fear and violence in eastern Congo as they sought access to Africa’s oldest national park for oil exploration.
Through its choice of powerful local collaborators Soco has created an atmosphere of intimidation around its base in Nyakakoma, making it harder for anyone to speak out.
The explosive allegations come in a new report by Global Witness: ‘Drillers in the mist‘: How secret payments and a climate of violence helped UK firm open African national park to oil, based on an undercover investigation by UK film-makers.
Park rangers arrested, stabbed, imprisoned, shot
Activists and park rangers in Nyakakoma have been arrested, imprisoned, and in some cases beaten or stabbed, by soldiers and intelligence agents after criticising or obstructing Soco’s operations. On one occasion, a senior ranger was beaten and imprisoned.
But the dangers run by rangers seeking to protect the park were starkly illustrated by the attempted assassination of Emmanuel de Merode, the Belgian manager of Virunga’s 300 rangers, in April 2014 by unknown gunmen.
The same day as he submitted a critical report on Soco’s activities to a public prosecutor, de Merode was shot twice, in the stomach and in the chest.
Although a number of groups had reason to remove de Merode, the connection with Soco was made more likely by a series of threatening text messages in which activists were told: “Don’t think that if we missed your director [de Merode] that we will also miss you.”
Soco, while denying direct involvement in de Merode’s attempted murder, admits that the threats may have been issued by its supporters.
Soco’s ‘accomplices’ in bribery
One key figure in Soco’s campaigns of bribery and thuggish intimidation is Major Burimbi Feruzi. He is recorded as offering $3,000 – equivalent to a year and a half salary – to a ranger in exchange for his becoming an “accomplice”.
He is also strongly implicated in the deployment of soldiers to intimidate opponent’s of Soco. Congolese NGOs have singled out Feruzi, saying: “he has been used by Soco International; his military status has been utilised to silence anyone who has questions about the true impact of the oil project.”
Strong evidence suggests that Soco also employed the services of a Congolese MP – Célestin Vunabandi – who even admits on his linkedIn profile that the company took him on as a consultant. He spoke in favour of Soco at public meetings, in the media, and in meetings with NGOs and regional politicians.
Three sources from North Kivu claimed that Vunabandi was the first person to hold public meetings about plans for oil exploration in Virunga, and that he did not reveal that he was a consultant for Soco.
He is also believed to have facilitated a phoney demonstration in the town of Vitshumbi in support of Soco’s activities. This ‘demonstration’ was attended by Soco agents giving 40 local organisations envelopes full of cash.
Soco’s field Operations Supervisor, Julien Lechenault, acknowledged that Soco had paid for the demonstration.
And when bribery doesn’t work …
When bribery proves insufficient, Soco’s opponents – not just park rangers but also activists, journalists and even fishermen – have been arrested, beaten and received death threats.
A member of a fishermen’s committee in Nyakakoma was arrested on 15 July 2013 by soldiers said to be acting on orders from Major Feruzi – shortly before he was due to speak about the impact of oil production in Western Congo.
In September 2013 an activist with a local human rights group was arrested by local navy officials for allegedly taking photographs of Soco’s camp in Nyakakoma. The activist was arrested again in February 2014 after having asked a question deemed to be critical of Soco at a public meeting.
In another incident, Gaïus Kowene, a freelance journalist for Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster, was attacked hours after he broadcast a critical report on Soco in Virunga in October 2013.
Six armed men “dressed in military uniforms” beat him at his home in Goma and stole his laptop before fleeing, according to Congolese NGO Journaliste en Danger.
Soco: ‘We’ll be back!’
Soco carried out six weeks of seismic testing inside the park from April 2014. A deal with WWF, which had initially complained to the OECD about the company’s activities, allowed Soco to complete the tests and give the Congolese government data on Virunga’s oil potential.
Soco has publicly registered its desire that the Congo and UNESCO “come to some kind of accommodation, as has been demonstrated in many other places where they have accommodated things in world heritage sites by redrawing boundaries and by agreeing to certain activities being conducted in certain ways.”
In an agreement announced jointly with the WWF, Soco pledged that after completing seismic testing, it would not “undertake or commission any exploratory or other drilling within Virunga National Park unless UNESCO and the DRC government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its World Heritage status.”
However, it is clear that Soco believes its operations in the park will continue: Soco’s Congo country chief José Sangwa wrote that “disengagement from oil exploration activities in Virunga National Park … is inaccurate.” Soco will process its oil exploration data by mid-2015.
Financing rebels linked to the Rwandan genocide
In one recorded exchange, Soco International official Julien Lechenault and a British subcontractor admit that the company cooperated with and paid money to Congolese rebels who control much of Soco’s Block 5.
Specific reference is made to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a group linked to the 1994 Rwanda massacre.
The murderous activities of these heavily rebel groups within the park and around its boundaries present one of the greatest long term threats to the park and its wildlife. Over 140 Virunga park rangers have been murdered since 1996, most recently in January 2014.
The danger of violence is also highly damaging to tourism in Virunga. A study by WWF estimates that the park could be the foundation of a $400 million per year tourism industry, bringing huge benefits to the impoverished region. But so long as potential visitors fear attack by armed rebels they will stay away.
Soco’s willingness to accommodate, even finance armed rebel groups linked to the Rwandan genocide therefore bodes ill for the future – not just for Virunga but for the entire region, as it breeds continuing violence, poverty and political instability.
The outcome of the clash over Virunga will now set the tone for how Congo’s fledgling oil industry develops. Huge areas of forest in Congo’s central basin have already been subdivided into oil blocks.
Soco is eyeing these potential riches and says it has applied for a “large interior block” in Congo. “The whole central basin is virgin territory”, Soco’s Africa head Serge Lescaut has declared. “We must explore it.”
Gregory McGann is a writer, journalist, researcher and scholar based at Exeter College, Oxford.