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Oil, gas, mines… how Africa’s inherited colonial borders fuel discord

By Marie Toulemonde
Posted on Monday, 13 September 2021 10:08

The continent’s often imprecisely demarcated borders, inherited from the colonial era, have given rise to numerous disputes between African nations. Each country seeks to benefit from these disputed areas, especially when they contain natural resources.

According to the African Union (AU), only a third of African borders have been precisely defined and materialised. At issue are the maps with approximate outlines, left by colonists at the time of independence, which are open to interpretation. This is the case in the Gulf of Guinea, where the question of maritime borders became thorny from 1990 onwards, when hydrocarbon deposits were discovered there, which provoked a race to appropriate the various seas between the countries in the area.

15 ongoing disputes

Since 20 August, the DRC and Zambia have been on the verge of putting an end to a decades-old dispute by resuming demarcation work along the 200km between Lakes Moero and Tanganyika, which are not far from the region’s major copper deposits. Although some disagreements have since been resolved, notably through arbitration by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), about 15 disputes are still ongoing, some of which are more than 50 years old.

For example, Kinshasa has been disputing the size of its Atlantic maritime zone, located between Angola and its province of Cabinda, for years. As per the rules of the 1982 Montego Bay Convention, if the country were to gain access to this area, it would become one of the continent’s largest oil producers.

The border dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon over the hydrocarbon-rich Bakassi peninsula has led to armed conflict. After multiple appeals to the ICJ, Yaoundé officially obtained sovereignty over the territory in 2008. But the wound has not yet healed. At the beginning of January 2021, the positioning of certain boundaries was still a source of tension.

Boundaries demarcated by 2022?

To settle these disputes, the African Union Border Programme, of which 26 countries are beneficiaries, was launched in 2007 to help the continent finish drawing its borders. But the programme, which was originally scheduled to end in 2012, has fallen behind schedule. The new target is now 2022.

However, as long as borders are not rigorously delimited and marked, nothing can prevent the continent from awakening conflicts seemingly put to rest, often from just a rumour of a deposit.

From the Great Lakes to the Mbanié and Conga islands as well as the breakaway region of Abyei, we have examined all the areas of tension linked to resources on the continent.

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