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Long-ignored Uganda on oil boom cusp

  |   Nov. 10, 2011 at 12:45 PM
KAMPALA, Uganda, Nov. 10 (UPI) -- Uganda, a long-ignored by-water in Africa's Great Lakes region, is widely seen as being on the cusp of an oil boom that will make it a medium-sized producer.

But it is also thrusting the East Africa nation into the treacherous cauldron of international geopolitics and the turbulent conflicts afflicting the region, including the adjacent Horn of Africa.

China, snapping up energy resources across the continent, is zeroing in on Uganda's emerging oil bonanza around Lake Albert. The reserves there are listed as at least 2.5 billion barrels and some estimates go as high as 6 billion barrels.

Since the 2006 find at Lake Albert in Africa's Great Rift Valley by Irish wildcatter Tullow Oil there has been a score of other confirmed strikes in the region.

The Albertine Trough, as the hot zone is known, is likely to be the biggest onshore field found south of the Sahara Desert in two decades.

It will elevate East Africa as a key producer even if it will remain overshadowed by the larger oil bonanza in West Africa. That's a zone now of vital interest to the United States and which is expected to produce one-fifth of U.S. imports by 2025.

The Lake Albert field is considered to be only a fraction of a major oil zone that extends into the neighboring war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo, a multi-sided conflict, largely fought over the country's mineral wealth, in which Uganda has been involved.

And that might shed some light on U.S. President Barack Obama's plan to send a 100-man military detachment to Uganda to advise in the fight against a pathological, quasi-Christian warlord who's already on the skids and poses no threat to U.S. interests.

"Terrorism is, of course, not the only thing the Obama administration is looking at in Africa," observed John Feffer of Foreign Policy in Focus in October.

"Securing access to oil is a key priority for the United States and it needs only relative stability to guarantee the access.

"Uganda is only just starting up a new oil industry. Energy corporations are ramping up their exploration in Kenya. To the north, the oil fields in South Sudan have outside investors salivating," Feffer noted.

"The discovery of new oil fields in Africa raises the stakes considerably" and has transformed the U.S. military into a global oil-protection force.

"The maps of oil fields in Africa and U.S. military involvement correspond all too closely.

"The threat of terrorists from Africa sponsoring another lone suicide attack on America certainly captures headlines," Feffer added.

"But the threat of terrorists disrupting the flow of oil from the region is the more immediate concern of national security officials."

Meantime, the prospect of an oil bonanza is widening serious rifts within Uganda's fractious tribal groupings and President Yoweri Museveni has been putting the oil sector under lock and key.

In 2010, he ensured control of the oil zone by placing it under the authority of his son, Lt. Col. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who commands the army's Special Forces.

The anticipated oil boom, with foreign investment likely to hit $3 billion and revenues of $2 billion a year by 2015, is likely to trigger internal unrest, with the Americans having to play nice to yet another unsavory regime to ensure energy supplies.

But, noted The Economist, "oil can be a curse. It is far from certain that all of the country's 30 million people will benefit" under Museveni, a former bush fighter who's been in power since 1986.

The kingdom of Buganda, one of Uganda's four major regions, is demanding more autonomy and access to oil revenues.

The autocratic Museveni was sworn in as president for his fourth five-year term May 13 amid street protests alleging vote-rigging and intimidation by Museveni's security services. His image was further damaged by allegations he trafficked in "blood diamonds" during the Congo war and committed human rights abuses.

But Museveni has ingratiated himself with the Obama administration by sending thousands of troops to bolster an African Union peacekeeping force in neighboring Somalia to prop up the fragile U.S.-backed Transitional Federal Government battling Islamist al-Shabaab insurgents.

However, the United States has no guarantees it will secure Uganda's oil. Right now, France's Total and the China National Offshore Oil Corp. hold all the cards.

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