Documents sourced by Platform play a key role in a new Corporate Watch investigation revealing how British oil company Heritage triggered a Ugandan military operation that led to six Congolese individuals being killed, including a three-year-old child. The two-year investigation in East Africa exposes a cover-up and raises further concerns over oil extraction in the region.
The incident, in which the Ugandan army opened fire on a Congolese passenger ferry on Lake Albert, was a direct consequence of Heritage Oil, founded by former mercenary Tony Buckingham, making a request for military assistance after its Ugandan exploration team had illegally strayed over the Democratic Republic of Congo border.
Despite the controversy over what happened on 24 September 2007, no full investigation was pursued by Heritage or Uganda. The Ugandan army claimed it was attacked by two Congolese army soldiers on the ferry who refused to give up their AK-47s and disputed that anyone had been killed. More credibly, Congolese witnesses accused the Ugandan People's Defence Force (UDPF) of firing indiscriminately almost as soon as they arrived.
Mika Minio-Paluello of Platform said “Heritage called in the cavalry, and six civilians were killed. The company's close cooperation with the UPDF in militarising Lake Albert clearly led to this tragedy, even though Heritage later colluded in covering up the events.”
A photograph published by Corporate Watch for the first time and confirmed as genuine clearly shows two bloody casualties, while another shows coffins of the six people killed.
A United Nations fact-finding report, seen by Corporate Watch, also reveals that a three-year-old child was among the dead. A Foreign Office email, obtained through a Freedom of Information request by oil watchdog Platform, reveals that the Ugandan military confirmed to the UK High Commission in Kampala that its soldiers were on a “rescue mission” to help the Heritage team when it encountered the Congolese boat.
A leaked US diplomatic cable also confirms Heritage “mistakenly thinking that the approaching [UN] boats belonged to ‘negative forces’ put out an SOS call to which the UPDF’s patrol boats responded”. The new evidence directly contradicts Heritage’s claim at the time that the deaths were a “separate, unrelated, isolated incident” involving “no employees or subcontractors” of the company.
Taimour Lay, who conducted the investigation, says: ''Congolese lost their lives due to Heritage’s reckless behaviour and intimate relationship with the Ugandan army. After five years of denial, the new evidence opens up the potential for the victims' families to finally take the company to court.''
Mika Minio-Paluello added "Heritage has now sold its Ugandan holdings, but still bears a responsibility for the decisions that led to Congolese civilians being killed. Meanwhile, Tullow, Total and Cnooc continue to drill in a conflict-heavy zone, partnering with the Ugandan military while refusing to publish their military-security procedures.”
While Heritage is no longer active in Uganda, the company is drilling and exploring in Northern Iraq and Pakistan, and broke into Libya in 2011.
Platform's previous report "A Lake of Oil" raised concerns over the co-operation between oil companies and military groups and the likelihood of escalating resource-driven war in eastern Congo.