In Depth

British oil firm 'paid soldiers who silenced opposition'

Soco International accused of paying soldiers who beat, intimidated and killed opponents of oil exploration

An exposé by pro-transparency think tank Global Witness has accused British oil firm Soco International of bankrolling members of the Congolese military who intimidated, bribed and even killed opponents of the company's plans to search for oil in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  

Soco International denies the accusation, stating that payments it made to the army were intended to cover the cost of military protection, and were therefore entirely legitimate.

What is Soco International?

Soco International is a global oil and gas exploration company, headquartered in London. It was first founded in 1991 by Ed Story, who continues to hold the position of company president and chief executive officer. Listed on the London Stock Exchange in 1997, Soco now sits on the FTSE 250 Index.

What is Virunga National Park?

Virunga National Park is a Unesco world heritage site within the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Although world heritage sites are protected from damaging industries, The Guardian recently reported that the DRC's prime minister is now petitioning Unesco to allow exploration of the park's natural resources. Any industrial development is particularly controversial in Virunga because the area is home to a quarter of the world's mountain gorillas, which are critically endangered.

What is the background to the dispute?

The political situation in the DRC is fraught, and has been for some time. The country has been ravaged by a bitter civil war, often dubbed "Africa's world war" due to the number of nations involved in the fighting, for the last five years, the BBC reports. Government forces are supported by Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe, while rebel forces are backed by the governments of Uganda and Rwanda. Fighting has been fuelled not just by political causes but by economic factors too. The DRC's extensive natural resource wealth has attracted the attention of both sides in the conflict, and, of course, multinational companies.

What led to the current controversy?

According to Global Witness, Soco International paid more than $40,000 (£25,000) over a two-week period to Major Burimba Feruzi, the company's military liaison officer to the Congolese government. The alleged payments were made as the company sought to gain access to the park for oil exploration. Feruzi – who commanded soldiers around Soco's base – was caught on camera offering a senior Virunga park manager a $3,000 bribe by the makers of a documentary called Virunga. Feruzi also stands accused of ordering the beating and detaining of Soco's opponents, while locals say that two fishermen who resisted the company's presence were killed by soldiers connected to company resources. In one case documented by the humanitarian group Human Rights Watch, Virunga National Park's director, Emmanuel de Mérode, was shot and seriously wounded by a group of men in April 2014. A number of human rights and environmental activists also received death threats.

What does Soco International say?

Soco says it has never denied making payments to the Congolese military, but rejects any allegation that payments were connected to acts of intimidation or violence. In a statement in the New York Times, Soco said, "We strongly refute any suggestion that this funding was in any way improper or connected with alleged acts of intimidation or violence. "During our seismic operations in the DRC, we were unable to enter the area without a military escort. The soldiers assigned to Soco's security escort were always under the full command and control of the DRC army."

What happens now?

For now, Soco says it has finished its operations in the area, The Guardian reports. However, the company has not yet answered a World Heritage Committee request for "for a clear and written commitment […] not to explore nor exploit oil and gas in any World Heritage site, including Virunga National Park". Global Witness says that it now falls to the Serious Fraud Office in the UK, and Department of Justice in the US, to launch an inquiry.  Nathaniel Dyer, the group's Congo leader, called for "a full investigation into the company's practices in Virunga, especially into whether it breached bribery and corruption laws". Neither the SFO nor the DoJ have yet responded to the reports.

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