KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 25 (UPI) -- Recent oil strikes in the Democratic Republic of Congo have raised fears they will exacerbate the resource-driven war that's been raging in the mineral-rich eastern sector of the African state for nearly two decades.
"In the context of massive poverty, weak state, poor governance and regional insecurity, an oil rush will have a strong destabilizing effect, unless the government adopts several significant steps regionally and nationally to avert such a devastating scenario," said Thierry Vircoulon of the International Crisis Group.
He's the Central Africa project director of the ICG, a conflict resolution group in Brussels.
Given the Kinshasa government's inability to enforce its authority or impose its will over the warring militias battling 1,000 miles from President Joseph Kabila's power base in Kinshasa, there doesn't seem much prospect of that happening.
Fighting in eastern Kivu province, a flash-point region, has escalated since April, causing a major security crisis for foreign oil companies such as Total of France operating in North Kivu that border Rwanda, a key player in the DRC's years of bloodshed.
The violence is taking place amid a string of major oil and natural gas strikes across East Africa, starting with the 2006 discovery of oilfields in the Lake Albert region. These contain reserves estimated as high as 6 billion barrels, the biggest strike in sub-Saharan Africa in decades.
The main finds have been in the Ugandan sector of the lake but the oil-bearing strata runs into the DRC's waters as well.
This has triggered a rancorous border dispute between the two countries that has hampered exploration.
Recent strikes, largely offshore, in Mozambique and Tanzania, and good prospects in Uganda, Kenya and Madagascar, point to East Africa becoming a major energy-producing zone that could, regional dictators permitting, transform East Africa's economies.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that recoverable gas reserves of 440 trillion cubic feet may lies in the Indian Ocean off Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique.
That compares to 186 tcf in Nigeria, currently Africa's biggest energy producer.
The DRC's oil and gas reserves remain unknown quantities so far and are virtually untapped. The country produces 25,000-30,000 barrels of oil a day, a relatively miniscule volume.
But industry sources say this war-torn land contains at least 4 billion barrels of oil and probably trillions of cubic feet of gas.
"In the context of a general oil rush in Central and East Africa, the lack of clearly defined borders, especially in the Great Lakes region, poses significant risk for maintaining regional stability," observed Marc-Andre Lagrange, ICG's senior analyst for Central Africa.
"Oil reserves straddling the country's borders with Uganda and Angola have already caused tension."
Poor governance and transparency, shortcomings that plague so much of Africa, are also a key factor in the political instability, and one which is likely to intensify in the DRC if oil exploration continues despite the deteriorating security.
"The state's failure to adequately regulate the diverging and potential conflicting interests of companies and poor communities is fueling resentment, which could easily flare up into local violence," the ICG cautioned.
"Oil exploration in the east and the Central Basin could aggravate conflict in the high-risk areas of the Kivus, and feed secessionist tendencies in a context of failed decentralization and financial discontent between the central state and the provinces.
"If confirmed, oil discoveries could redefine the country's geopolitics and notably question mineral-rich Katanga's political influence."
The ICG warned that the upsurge of fighting in the spring, "including the emergence of a new rebellion in North Kivu and the resumption of armed groups' territorial expansion, has further complicated stability in the east, which is the new focus for oil exploration."
The main fighting is between government forces and a mongrel militia known as M23 led by a fugitive warlord named Bosco Ntaganda, wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes as far back as 2002.
Other independent militias, including the notorious FDLR, a rebel group from neighboring Rwanda, where the 1994 genocide by Hutus against the rival Tutsis triggered the Congo bloodletting, have joined in the multi-front battle for minerals, money and power.
"The crisis in Congo is the worst it's been for years," said Samuel Dixon, policy adviser in the Goma region for the British relief organization Oxfam.