Territorial disputes: Africa (Part 4) [Post 139]

The previous post introduced the issue of natural resources in Africa and its relevance in relation to territorial disputes. Today’s post presents two documents referred to this point. The first study by Chatham House about natural resources conflict introduces the reader to the many elements embedded in differences about natural resources (exploitation and exploration, ownership of the natural resources, ownership of the means for exploration and exploitation, distribution the revenues, and others). The second document is a policy brief centered on an issue mostly overlooked when we discuss Africa and natural resources: maritime borders.


Resource disputes happen on all scales, from the individual (neighbours arguing over a hedge) to the international (neighbouring countries disagreeing about the sharing of transboundary water).

Natural resources – such as land, fresh water, minerals and fishing rights – are critical for the livelihoods and economic well-being of individuals and entire communities. Partly for this reason, they often become loaded with concepts of identity and ethnicity. They are also subject to rapid fluctuations in value or the interest of multinational corporations in ways that can make them highly contentious. In countries with weak governance or a history of conflict, resource disputes can become violent and destructive, damaging development, affecting people’s lives, and posing a significant threat to long-term peace and stability. Avoiding violent conflict requires that national governments address resource disputes more effectively, especially in states that are already fragile.

The natural resource itself is not the only or even the ‘main’ issue. These disputes become bound up with the ethnic differences between the protagonists, historical grievances, personal enmities and so on. Ultimately, though, all are rooted in the power relations among different stakeholders.

It is possible to disentangle four main issues that are, in some form or another, at the heart of most resource disputes: ownership of the resource, power to manage the resource, sharing of revenues from the resource, and damage caused by the exploitation of the resource.


Addressing Natural Resource Conflict


Post-colonial African states have faced numerous challenges in the process of consolidating their sovereignty. Members of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) agreed that upon independence, African states would retain their inherited colonial boundaries. This froze the many boundaries in place. Issues regarding both maritime boundary delineation and management formed a small, but largely neglected part of this process. These issues were set aside or ignored at a time when competing priorities existed with regard to land borders. The maritime domain took a long time to assume the importance it is now perceived to have (a phenomenon often referred to as ‘sea blindness’).

A secure maritime domain is becoming a vital part of a country’s overall sense of security and economic consideration. It is seen as increasingly indispensable in the context of heightened tensions over the exploration for and discovery of oil in Africa.

The interest of states in claiming maritime areas is based on a number of factors. Firstly, improvements in the technological ability to explore and access resources mean the economic viability of such resources has improved. Second, there is growing interest by established and emerging oil companies, and by African states, to open new oil fields, which means that better deals can be secured. The third factor is the quality of African oil and the advantageous geopolitical location of the continent’s oil fields relative to Europe and the USA.

The location of oil fields and natural resources deposits can result in considerable complications when states unilaterally determine and apportion exploration blocks that infringe upon areas of disputed ownership by a neighbouring state. Exploration blocks are delineated by strict lines, yet oil fields often overlap maritime boundaries.


Africa and the Maritime Boundary Disputes


Jorge Emilio Núñez

Twitter: @London1701

04th October 2018

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