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Monday, 1 October 2012

Territorial disputes in Eastern Africa: The Mineral factor

Territorial boundaries have always been an emotive issue in Africa and have been one of the contributing factors to civil strife on the continent. Most of this strife has been internal owing to the fact that ethnic groups were mixed up during the partitioning of the continent as the imperial powers scramble for Africa in the late 1800s/ early 1900s. The situation was further exacerbated because some communities that were traditional enemies were colonized together due to their proximity and ruled together via a divide and rule philosophy.

These rivalries have continued to play out themselves in Africa’s fluid geopolitical scene over the last 50 years when African countries first obtained independence.  This situation has sometimes lead to civil strife and bitterly contested elections where ethno centric political parties that win have ruled with impunity over their rivals.

Sovereign boundaries currently add a dynamism to the current mineral and energy rush in Eastern Africa as once peaceful neighbours scramble to maximize the mineral wealth deposits under their soil. Since oil and gas reservoirs know no boundaries and interpretations of where borders pass is at the discretion of current leaders, this are bound to raise tensions and could lead to cross border tensions and even conflict in the future.

Recently there have been either border tensions or disputes in all but two countries in the eastern Africa region. These two countries being Ethiopia and Mozambique.

Currently Sudan and South Sudan are embroiled in a dispute over their common border, a region that is rich in oil reserves and was one of the reasons why their civil war dragged on for a very long time. Recently this dispute has led to hostilities that culminated in a shut down in the flow of oil from the region leading to economic hardships in both countries. When South Sudan split from their unhappy union, it went with three quarters of their oil reserves. The border dispute though ethnic and religious in dimension is fueled by the desire of both countries to lay their hands on the oil deposit in the disputed border region especially the Abiyei State. This state and the neighbouring ones that straddle both countries have an ethnic mix of communities that swear allegiance to the rival governments. In the past week the President of both countries have signed an agreement to resume oil production and created a buffer zone between them without comprehensively solving the border issues.

We have also seen an emerging border dispute between Kenya and South Sudan over a barren piece of land in the North West of Kenya/ south east of South Sudan, the Illemi triangle. As The Sudan civil war dragged on for decades before the two countries split up August 2011. The Illemi triangle dispute was tucked away as Kenya worked to mediate an end to the conflict. Now that South Sudan is independent and oil deposits have recently been discovered in the Turkana County (the region of Kenya where the Illemi triangle lies). There are bound to be issues over this region. It has been reported that South Sudan has forwarded the matter to the United Nations for arbitration, even though their government openly denies this. The story of the Ilemi triangle is chronicled in at article The Ilemi Triangle: A Forgotten Conflict by Charles Haskins (

The Illemi Triangle: Source: Wikipedia

In July of 2012 the Kenyan government completed the allocated all its offshore hydrocarbons exploration blocks available. This prompted the then Somalia Transitional Government (STG) to protest because some of the off shore blocks that were allocated are in disputed territorial waters between Kenya and Somalia. According to the Kenyan Government the convention of boundaries in international water is due east from the point of the on land boundary; this is the agreed convention that governs the offshore boundaries on the eastern Africa coast. However, the STG claims that the border should be perpendicular to the coastline therefore precipitating the dispute. However this dispute can be easily resolved through the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that is the basis of the international maritime boundary dispute resolutions.
The discovery of oil on the Lake Albert, Uganda, a lake in the Great Rift Valley system that acts a border between Uganda and the DR Congo led to a short term period of skirmishes between the two countries over the issue of the exact location of beacons that demarcate the lake’s boundaries. Both countries henceforth agreed to seat down and come up with an amicable solution to this dispute.

The Lake Albert oil discovery has prompted a rush for exploration in other Great Rift Valley lakes such as Lake Malawi that acts as the boundary between Tanzania and Malawi.  Both countries cannot agree on the exact location of the boundary between both states. The issue is currently a highly contested topic between the governments of both countries.

The Lake Victoria, though not a Great Rift Valley lake is the largest lake in the region and the source of the River Nile, has also elicited a dispute between Kenya and Uganda. The dispute is over a barren rock island, the size of a football pitch that acts as a base for fishermen from both countries. Though the island was calibrated to be within the Kenyan border, as per the maps at the independence of both countries. The Ugandan government has laid a claim to it. The waters around the island are known to be rich in fish but the unconfirmed story is that the land under its waters could contain oil or gas deposits.

Though the issues of disputed boundaries and borders is not unique to Eastern Africa, as is the case of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea or The Falkland Islands pitting The UK against Argentina. The disputes in the region are bound to be explosive owing to the recent discovery of hydrocarbons in the vicinity. In most cases there are no clear agreements defining the boundaries nor clear legal frameworks and policies that govern the exploitation of the mineral wealth in cases where mineral deposits straddle boundaries.

The countries in East Africa should come together and draw up a common convention to arbitrate against these potential conflicts that are bound to slow their economic drive on the eve of their hydrocarbon bonanza.