Dangerous Discovery

If there is one thing that the Democratic Republic of the Congo arguably doesn't need, it's oil. The country's northeast Ituri province, abutting Uganda and Rwanda, has been a hellish killing field for the last four years. Fighting between as many as a dozen tribal groups has killed some 50,000 people. Some of the violence stems from the rival-ry between the majority Lendu and the minority Hema tribes; some has been fomented by Ugandan and Rwandan proxy armies. But much is about naked greed: Ituri is a trove of gold and timber.

Now comes another log for the bonfire. A small company named Heritage Oil, controlled by a British businessman named Tony Buckingham (thought by many to be a former mercenary, a description he denies), says it may have found black gold in an area straddling the Uganda-Congo border in the Great Rift Valley. A report by an independent engineering consultancy, Scott Pickford Associates, says there is a 10 percent chance that 1.2 billion barrels of oil are located in the immediate vicinity of Heritage's first test well in Uganda. In comparison to Nigeria's reserves, such a find would be a drop in the well. But in this volatile, impoverished region, barren and wasted by war, the mere possibility of striking oil is enough to spawn wild rumors and conspiracy theories--and even threaten a fragile peace. "Everyone is dreaming of oil, even if it's not there," says a U.N. official in Ituri.

Officially, the war in Congo is "over." A new transitional government, headed by Joseph Kabila, has taken office under a South Africa-brokered accord. A 4,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force is to be-gin patrolling Ituri this week. Tribal enmities remain, however, and are playing into the Heritage drama. Hema chief Kahwa Mandro says he fears marauding bands of Lendu will massacre his people and take their land, which lies on the Congo side of the geologic formation where Heritage is drilling. In June he approached Libyan dictator Col. Muammar Kaddafi for help; Kaddafi agreed to give Mandro "humanitarian assistance" for his people, according to officials with knowledge of the meeting. But there was a catch: Kaddafi demanded that Mandro convert to Islam and build mosques in the province. Mandro denies that the two discussed oil, but ever since, the oil industries in both Uganda and Congo have been buzzing with rumors that Tamoil, the Libyan state-owned oil company, has set its sights on Congo. And Mandro isn't shy about his visions for his homeland. "We're hoping this area will be like a Saudi Arabia of Africa," he now says, after having converted to Islam.

The involvement of Buckingham--who helped found mercenary firm Executive Outcomes, which was accused of involvement in the blood-diamond trade--has also set tongues wagging. The company began oil exploration in neighboring Uganda six years ago, under a deal sealed and closely monitored by President Yoweri Museveni. Until last year, the Heritage drill site in Uganda, six kilometers from the Congo border, was guarded by a private security firm partially owned by Muse-veni's half brother Salim Saleh and a South African businessman named Heckie Horn. The United Nations has repeatedly accused Saleh of illegally plundering natural resources in Congo--and then audaciously exporting them from the safety of Uganda. Saleh maintains the allegations are false. In addition, U.N. investigators concluded last fall that Saleh was using the security company to train a paramilitary group that would look after his commercial interests in Congo. After the United Nations exposed the scheme, Heritage dropped the company. But it retained a new one owned by Horn, who remains under U.N. investigation for his ties to Saleh. Horn denies wrongdoing.

The Kabila regime in Kinshasa is on the verge of granting Heritage drilling rights in Ituri. Perhaps the company will find nothing. Or, at least, so many in the region hope.