Named after a British prince, and classified as an important international wetland, Lake Edward is the smallest in Africa’s Great Lakes region. Why are Uganda and DR Congo at odds over it?
Home to a rich biodiversity that includes many fish species and migratory birds, Lake Edward is located on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The lake got its current name after British explorer Henry Morton Stanley first came across it in 1888. He named the lake after His Royal Highness Albert Edward, The Prince of Wales.
The lake's name was changed to Lake Idi Amin after Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada in 1973, but after he was overthrown in 1978, the lake resumed its former name. The freshwater lake is one of the world's 2,231 Ramsar sites, a designation which marks it out as an important international wetland.
For many fishermen from the two countries, Lake Edward is a vital source of income. However, armed groups have used it to destabilize the two countries.
Recent clashes between Ugandan and Congolese forces reportedly left at least a dozen people killed. Violence erupted after the Congolese navy said it sent a mixed civilian and military patrol on to the lake to investigate reports that several Congolese fishermen had been stopped by Ugandan forces in Congolese waters.
One fisherman from DRC who chose not to reveal his identity told DW, Ugandan soldiers have a history of arbitrarily arresting Congolese fishermen. "They [Uganda's army] have turned it into a business. They arrest Congolese fishermen everyday, they even come into Congolese waters, take them to Ugandan waters and then accuse the fishermen of illegally crossing into Ugandan waters."
According to Arthur Bainomugisha, a lecturer in Peace and Security studies at Makerere University in Uganda, such disputes are bound to continue until Uganda, DRC and many other African countries get clear border demarcations especially on water bodies. "The boundary dilemma which stems from the colonial times has remained one of the biggest challenges to African peace and stability," Bainomugisha told DW.
Need for border demarcations
According to the Ugandan scholar, there is need for an international border commission. "We need to clearly demarcate our borders to avoid [such] skirmishes."
Interestingly, Lake Edward which is believed to be rich in energy resources, lies within Congo's Virunga National Park — known for its mountain gorillas — and Uganda's Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Since the start of 2018, tensions have been mounting between Uganda and DR Congo over who has the right to the lake's natural resources.
Read more: Virunga park rangers in DRC killed in ambush
Uganda's military spokesperson, Brigadier Richard Karemire, denied reports that there had been fighting between the two countries. "The [Ugandan Defense Forces] UPDF has not attacked DRC forces, these are friendly forces from a brotherly country," Karemire told DW. "There have been some activities that have been exacerbated by illegal fishermen, they are the cause of these issues, so all those will be sorted out and discussed," he added.
The oil and rebel factor
In 2014, British oil company SOCO abandoned plans to start drilling in Virunga National Park, following pressure from conservationists. There were reports that villagers who tried to prevent oil exploration were beaten or tortured. Kinshasa has always insisted that it has the right to drill for oil anywhere within its territory.
Last year, the bodies of 17 people fleeing violence in DRC were discovered in Lake Edward. They were reportedly seeking refuge from heavy fighting between the Mai-Mai armed militia group and Congolese forces.
Whereas DRC blames Uganda for frequently violating its territorial integrity, Uganda has long accused Congo of not doing enough to stop rebels who use the area surrounding Lake Edward to stage cross-border attacks.
This week, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni criticized the United Nations and the DRC for not fighting rebels of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). Museveni blamed the rebels for a spate of killings and kidnappings in Uganda's capital Kampala.
Read more: Uganda in the grip of violent crime wave
When pressed by DW to confirm the recent clashes between Ugandan and Congolese forces, Karemire chose to remain ambiguous. "We remain on the border [of course] to ensure that there are no incursions, especially by the ADF."