On Congo’s 59th independence anniversary, Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso announced the discovery of oil with reserves of 359 million barrels in the north of the country. The oil discovery, he said, was made by a Congolese oil company, Petroleum Exploration and Production Africa (PEPA).
The field in question, Ngoki Block, lies deep in the rain forests of northern Congo, an area that had previously been spared by the oil industry.
Few weeks after Sassou Nguesso’s independence speech, he was invited to Paris by French President Emmanuel Macron were both leaders signed letters of intent that promised $65 million in European aid to the Central African nation to protect the Republic of Congo’s forests.
But recent research by Global Witness, Der Spiegel, Mediapart, and European Investigative Collaborations reveal that the alleged oil discovery was faked and that Europe had been deceived. Apparently, the site of the supposed oil discovery, Ngoki Block, had been explored by Total and Shell years ago and had been found to be unprofitable.
Similarly, the Petroleum Economist magazine described the hype around the oil find as “seemingly bogus” orchestrated by the Congolese government which underscores the waning credibility of Sassou Nguesso’s endemically corrupt administration.
An analyst told the magazine that there is “market skepticism” about the oil find.
“The oil and gas industry is fairly transparent when it comes to geology and drilling. The market is looking for these kinds of deals—hedge funds, private equity funds, big players. If you are going to talk about a 940,000bl/d field, you would see every Jack and Jill in the oil and gas industry clamouring towards it,” NJ Ayuk, executive chairman at business association the African Energy Chamber said.
According to Global Witness, the supposed oil find was a smokescreen to blackmail rich European governments’ conscious of environmental protection to secure cash for Congo’s ailing economy.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) in May 2019 said Congo’s debt stock stood at $9.49 billion. The country was also desperate for cash to implement anti-corruption reforms to secure a $448.6 million, three-year IMF loan programme in July 2019.
Sassou Nguesso mentioned in his 2019 independence speech the “presence of high-grade reserves” in the Ngoki Block.” Protecting the environment is thought to be a recurring theme for him to secure funding aid from Europe.
In 2016, he launched the Congo Basin Blue Fund with plans to raise $100 million by 2020. Germany contributed €550,000, nearly $650,000, to the “Fonds Bleu,” according to Der Spiegel. In 2018 Sassou Nguesso hosted the third meeting of the Partners of the Global Peatlands Initiative in Brazzaville to protect the world’s largest tropical peatlands.
The investigations also uncovered that there is no current environmental impact assessment of the discovery of a huge deposit of peat in the Cuvette Centrale. Meanwhile, more than 60 percent of the Ngoki Block is peatland yet the outdated environmental impact assessment did not examine the risk to the peatland from oil drilling.
Cuvette Centrale is “one of the biggest carbon time bombs on the planet” – if the region were to be exploited by oil companies, according to Global Witness. President Sassou Nguesso said he wants “serve humanity” by protecting the peatlands. Global Witness quoted him as saying “Our country has never ducked the obligation to protect the peatlands and has no intention of doing so.
However, a former high-ranking member of the government official told Der Spiegel that the message from Sassou Nguesso was clear: “If you don’t give us the money, we’ll destroy the jungle.”
The investigations also revealed the sham in the supposed oil discovery, noting that oil company giants Total and Shell had previously explored the Ngoki Block and concluded that drilling would not be profitable.
Although President Sassou-Nyuesso said the Ngoki Block has 359 million oil reserves, Claude Wilfrid Etoka, the head of PEPA, the company that announced the oil discovery, told Der Spiegel it would likely only be 140,000 barrels per day.
Wilfrid Etoka is the richest man in Congo (net worth US$500 million) and is said to have benefited from his ties with Sassou Nguesso’s family. According to Global Witness, one of the president’s nephews was appointed director-general of PEPA.
“Files from a French investigation, Etoka benefits handsomely from his dealings with Congo’s state oil company,” According to Der Spiegel