Dr. Lisa Otto discusses Territorial Disputes: Where Borders and Resources Meet


Maritime Security Briefings Issue 15

Territorial Disputes: Where Borders and Resources Meet

Author: Dr Lisa Otto, Research Associate in Maritime Security


Disputes over border demarcations in Africa often coincide with the existence of natural resources. There are numerous examples of this including the Bakassi Peninsula in West Africa, and the Cabinda region in Angola. Borders, drawn arbitrarily by colonial overlords, continue to be problematic in the post-colonial era, but equally, natural resources present immense economic opportunities in the context of low-income, poorly developed countries. Natural resources have the potential to turn economic wastelands into places of prosperity. Thus, when competition over borders and resources meet, tensions are bound to run high.

The latest example of this is being seen in East Africa, where Somalia and Kenya are battling it out at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over a 100,000 square kilometer patch of ocean, beneath which there is thought to be vast resources of oil and gas. Countries along Africa’s eastern coastline have in recent years begun exploration with a view to commercial exploitation of oil and gas from the northern reaches of Mozambique, through Tanzania, into Kenyan waters, and inland toward South Sudan. The littoral states mentioned are relatively new to the oil and gas market, but no doubt see the potential that it would offer. With speculation that these resources could be some of the largest deposits in the world, it is understandable that the countries that stand to benefit would want to reap maximum benefits.

For Somalia, however, the stakes could not be higher. This is a country that has been wracked by conflict, terror, and destruction for the last two decades and where poverty and want is pointed among neighbours in the region who live in comparable comfort. Despite having had its first elections for two decades in 2012, the country is still reliant on others for the provision of economic and security needs, and a large deposit of oil and gas could have the potential to propel the country toward genuine independence.

An agreement had been signed between Kenya and Somalia to resolve the matter through diplomacy rather than the courts, but this has nonetheless been brought before the ICJ due to a post-2012 Somalia seeing the 2009 agreement as violating its Federal Charter. Any changes in demarcation brought forward by this case would threaten existing exploration activities, particularly in Kenya.

These kinds of tensions are likely to become more pointed as littoral states in Africa begin to see the sea as more for a space for economic development than a space to which they are blind. This will mean that African states will need to start thinking laterally with respect to the maritime space in appreciating that sea-based economies also require negotiation, protection, law and enforcement. How then can African states develop novel ways of resolving these kinds of disputes in the maritime domain? How can we assure that resources are used for wide-spread and sustainable benefit? And that concerns that challenge the resources at sea are addressed for mutual benefit? Will the October summit at Lomé provide opportunities in this regard? And will states be bringing this degree of strategic thinking to the table at Lomé?

The blue economy certainly presents plentiful opportunities for development, but it will not be low-hanging fruit. Now that the blinkers have come off and sea-blindness is starting to dwindle, it is pertinent that this domain be approached with a greater degree of strategy and willingness for cooperation.

For more information on CTPSR’s work in Maritime Security, please contact lisa.otto@coventry.ac.uk