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Thursday, 10 October, 2002, 13:19 GMT 14:19 UK
Border dispute an African colonial legacy
Offshore oil rig
Border disputes can hinder oil developments

The dispute between Cameroon and Nigeria over the Bakassi peninsula is yet another of Africa's throwbacks to the colonial division of the continent.

In drawing up the boundaries between their "possessions" in Africa there was often little precision and only the vaguest of documentation.

For Nigeria and Cameroon this has led to years of conflict and periodic outbreaks of fighting. It is by no means certain the ICJ ruling in favour of Cameroon will end this.

If we lose Bakassi, we lose our eastern access to the Atlantic

Nigerian naval officer

The area in contention is a swampy peninsula projecting into the Atlantic at the Gulf of Guinea. Not, it would seem, a valuable piece of real estate worthy of diplomatic let alone military conflict.

But the coastal areas of the Gulf of Guinea have proved to be rich in commercially viable oil deposits.

Already there are US, Swiss and French oil companies jostling to get their drills into the deposits and who keenly awaited the decision of the International Court of Justice along with Nigeria and Cameroon.

This is why the two countries have come to blows repeatedly since 1994, when the area became a source of dispute and was first referred to the international court.

The court decision was preceded by a UN-brokered agreement by the leaders of the two countries that they will respect the ICJ ruling and then discuss demilitarising the area.

But even before the announcement of the decision there were indications that the Nigerian military was worried by the prospect of a negative ruling.

Strategic fears

Cameroon referred the dispute over the ownership of Bakassi to the international court in 1994.

While Nigeria has a huge oil industry based in the Gulf of Guinea, Cameroon has so far benefited little from the regional oil boom.

The judgement in its favour could now bring it a lucrative slice of the oil action.

France's TotalFinaElf oil company already has an interest in the fledgling Cameroonian oil industry to match its existing involvement in the Nigerian sector.

ExxonMobil and Baker Hughes of the USA and Addax Petroleum of Switzerland have operations or interests on the Nigerian side of the Bakassi divide.

News agencies reported tension along the border as the court decision was awaited.

For Nigeria's President Obasanjo, the defeat at the court following his commitment to respect the ICJ decision could become a domestic liability ahead of next year's elections and anger Nigeria's politically active military officers, according to the Reuters news agency.

He has a very tricky path to tread in reacting to the ruling.

Nigerian naval officers told Reuters that the loss of Bakassi would cause severe strategic problems for the Nigerian Navy by rendering the naval base at Calibre useless.

"If we lose Bakassi, we lose our eastern access to the Atlantic. Our naval ships cannot move freely to southern Africa, for instance, without Cameroon's approval, one officer said.

Meaningless maps

Such dilemmas over borders have been commonplace for African heads of state. The continent was bequeathed 103 border disputes by its former colonial rulers.

Arbitrary lines drawn on maps - notably by colonial powers sitting at the Conference of Berlin in 1884 and 1885 - have left countries with meaningless boundaries with no rhyme or reason in the geographical, topographical or ethnic character of particular regions.

These have led to countless disputes, some leading to war, others to years of diplomatic and legal wrangling.

In Bakassi's case, there were clashes in 1994, 1998 and 2000. Nigeria has frequently accused Cameroon of sending troops or paramilitary police into the disputed region.

In September this year, Cameroon released about 150 Nigerian civilians arrested in the Bakassi regions it controls.

BBC's Francis Ngwa Niba
"We are talking about oil"
Cameroon / Nigeria border ruling: Was it the right decision?



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