Equatorial Guinea and Gabon have agreed that a UN mediator should settle their territorial dispute over a handful of small islands that hold the key to potentially oil-rich offshore waters.
The foreign ministers of both countries signed a communiqué in New York on 19 January, accepting the appointment of Yves Fortier, a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, as mediator, and outlining several steps to be taken in future talks.
The dispute concerns Mbanie, Cocotiers and Congas, three small islands in Corisco Bay , just north of the Gabonese capital Libreville, near the border with the continental territory of Equatorial Guinea.
The dispute has been simmering away quietly since 1972 and has prevented oil companies from carrying out a full exploration of the nearby offshore waters.
However, it came to a head in February 2003, when Gabonese Defence Minister Ali Bongo, the son of President Omar Bongo, visited the Corisco Bay islands and reasserted his country's territorial claim to them.
Gabon and Equatorial Guinea are already major oil exporters and Nicholas Shaxson, a Berlin-based expert on oil and gas issues in Africa, said there was a good chance that the disputed waters held large commercially exploitable reserves.
“There are fields on both sides of the Corisco Bay area. These wells generally have reserves of several hundred thousand barrels of oil and there are very probably more wells of a similar size here,” he told IRIN.
The Corisco Bay dispute is the latest of several border quarrels to arise in Africa, where hopes of finding oil have encouraged both sides to dig in their heels.
Nearby Nigeria has been arguing with Cameroon for years over the disputed Bakassi peninsular and hopes of finding oil onshore have exacerbated Ethiopia's border dispute with Eritrea over the small town of Badme.
The underlying problem is that Africa's modern boundaries were drawn up by European colonizers 100 or more years ago and all too often they were not clearly demarcated. Even where land boundaries were thrashed out and by the people who lived there, many maritime boundaries have remained vague.
One European expert in maritime law familiar with the Corisco Bay dispute said the Spanish colonial authorities in Equatorial Guinea removed a French presence on the disputed islands in the mid-1950's without provoking any protest from Paris. The argument over their ownership only reemerged two decades later after both Gabon and Equatorial Guinea had become independent, he noted.
Shaxson, who is an Associate Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, said the United States was particularly keen to get the Corisco Bay and Bokassi Peninsula disputes settled quickly so that oil companies could move in their drilling rigs.
Concerned about the security of oil supplies from the turbulent Middle East, Washington is made no secret of its ambition to import more oil from more reliable sources in West Africa.
“The United States is particularly keen to get disputes in the area resolved as quickly as possible, worried as it is about the future of OPEC,” Shaxson said.
When Ali Bongo visited Mbanie, a 30-hectare island inhabited by a handful of fishermen, and declared it part of Gabon, there was a swift reaction from Equatorial Guinea.
Prime Minister Candido Muatetema Rivas said in a radio broadcast: “My government expresses its deep concern and its indignation vis-a-vis Gabon’s illegal occupation of the small island of Mbanié.”
The African Union and United Nations then intervened to try and resolve the dispute before rising tensions got out of hand.
Gabon, whose oilfields are mainly operated by the French multinational TotalFinaElf, is a mature oil producer which is struggling to maintain its current output of 250,000 barrels per day.
A diplomatic source familiar with the region said that France, the former colonial power, had in the past lent strong support to Gabon's claim to the disputed islands, which could hold the key to bolstering Gabon's falling reserves.
Equatorial Guinea, on the other hand, only discovered oil in 1995 and is increasing its oil and gas production rapidly.
It has already overtaken Gabon and is currently producing around 350,000 barrels per day
However, whereas France controls the oilfields Gabon, Equatorial Guinea's offshore oilfields are mostly operated by the US oil giants ExxonMobil, Amerada Hess and Marathon.
“It is very acrimonious,” Shaxson said. “President Omar Bongo is being usurped as the oil power in the region by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema (of Equatorial Guinea), who is now asserting himself. Bongo in the past helped out Nguema but now the tables have turned somewhat.”
According to the Bank of Central African States (BEAC), which manages the CFA franc currency used by both countries, Equatorial Guinea has already overtaken Gabon in terms of national prosperity, even if the full benefits of black gold do not filter down from the ruling elite to ordinary people.
BEAC estimates that thanks to the oil bonanza of the past decade Equatorial Guinea's 500,000 people now enjoy a gross domestic (GDP) per capita income of nearly US$7,000.
Gabon's 1.2 million inhabitants, on the other hand, have a GDP per capita of less than $5,000.
However, that is still 10 times the average for Sub-Saharan Africa.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimated that in 2001, Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole had an average GDP per capita of just $475.
While Washington may be pushing for a quick solution to the Corisco Bay dispute, the UN mediation is not guaranteed to produce a quick fix.
Nigeria and Cameroon refered their dispute over the Bakassi Peninsula - 1,000 square km of densely populated swamp land - to the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 1994.
However, Nigeria rejected the court's ruling in October 2002, that the territory should belong to Cameroon.
As a result, the dispute smoulders on.