Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana are eagerly awaiting the a verdict from the Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, set to be delivered tomorrow, 25 April. The two countries are caught in a dispute over their maritime boundary. The real issue, however, is the control of a major oil field.
The court will issue a ruling on the Ivorian request filed on 27 February this year, which urged for all Ghanaian activities to be suspended within the disputed area. The final verdict is expected after 2016, with court investigations taking time.
According to experts, the maritime area in question contains a reserve of 2 billion barrels of crude oil and 1.2 billion cubic feet of natural gas. Côte d’Ivoire currently produces between 37 000 and 40 000 barrels of crude oil per day, while Ghana’s daily production is between 110 000 and 115 000 barrels. For both countries, taking advantage of these resources would significantly boost their oil production.
The border between Côte d’Ivoire, a former French colony, and Ghana, colonised by Great Britain, was never formally delineated. Until now, this has not caused major problems. Indeed, the neighbours share a similar history and have communities that belong to the same ethnic group, the Akan. These communities have the same customs and speak similar languages, which may have contributed to their peaceful relationship until the recent dispute.
The parties maintained that they’d find a solution without resorting to an international court
The disagreement began in 2007, when Ghana discovered the so-called Jubilee oil field located on the shared border. To avert any trouble, the Ivorian and Ghanaian authorities created a joint commission in 2008. However, this did not stop Ghana from continuing its offshore exploration and allowing Tullow Oil, a British company, to develop Jubilee in 2010. In 2013, Côte d’Ivoire responded by awarding French oil company, Total, a licence to operate in an oil field in the same zone.
Despite this somewhat hidden legal battle, both parties maintained that they would find a solution without resorting to an international court. They kept up this façade until 19 September last year, when Ghana decided to seek arbitration through the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. It was after this development, which made it clear that negotiations had failed, that Ivorian authorities asked for Ghana’s activities on the disputed site to be suspended.
Both sides both have a strong case. Ghana says Côte d’Ivoire has not challenged the border in over 40 years, based on the fact that in 1970, the Ivorians signed an agreement with an international consortium establishing its eastern limit to this line. Accra further claims that a 14 October 1970 decree, signed by the first Ivorian president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, provides further confirmation of the border. Finally, Ghana claims that Côte d’Ivoire recognises this demarcation in its 2011 to 2030 general strategic development plan.
The disputed space could have been transformed into an area of common interest
Ghana’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Marietta Brew Appiah-Oppong said that ‘the two countries share a maritime border that was mutually recognised for decades, although it has not been set officially. ’She added that this boundary, tacitly acknowledged by both parties, always served as a landmark for maritime activities to oil companies.
Conversely, Ivorian barrister Adama Kamara says, ‘Côte d’Ivoire has never recognised either tacitly or explicitly the existence of any maritime border with Ghana.’ He recalls that this issue was raised for the first time in 1988, within the framework of a joint border commission set up between the two countries, but was never resolved. French professor Alain Pellet supports this statement, adding that the Ivorian Act No. 77-926 stipulates that ‘the delimitation of the sea with neighbouring countries, is done by agreement in accordance with equitable principles.’ Pellet believes Côte d’Ivoire has always considered these boundaries to be undefined, and that even Ghana would have shared this position in 1992.
These opposing viewpoints show just how committed each country is to claiming this oil zone. It brings to mind the Nigerian-Cameroonian border dispute over the Bakassi Peninsula. In this decades-long case, the main issue was the control of fishery resources, with oil resources as a secondary priority. The Hague International Court of Justice ruled in favour of Cameroon in 2002, and control over the peninsula was officially handed over on 14 August 2008. Cameroon took formal possession of the peninsula five years later. The case shows that the judgment process in international courts can be very long. This should have encouraged Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire to settle their dispute outside court, without infringing on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Ivorian and Ghanaian authorities could still return to the negotiating table
The disputed maritime space could have been transformed into an area of common interest if the countries had signed a petroleum product-sharing contract with an agreed allocation, as Nigeria and São Tomé and Príncipe had done in 2001. The former received 60% of the production and the latter 40%. They could also have created a joint operating company like Libyan-Tunisian Joint Oil, which was founded in 1988 by Tunisia and Libya to resolve their maritime border dispute, and whose profits are divided equally between the two countries.
They could additionally have followed Senegal and Guinea-Bissau’s example. The two countries created a mining (which included oil extraction) and fisheries management and cooperation agency in October 1993, allocating 80% of maritime resources to Senegal and 20% to Guinea-Bissau.
It is unfortunate that these two member countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have instead chosen to confront each other in an international court. But the process is not irreversible, as Ivorian and Ghanaian authorities could still withdraw their requests and return to the negotiating table. If not, they are heading towards a sentence that could damage their peaceful history.
It is hoped that this dispute, whatever the outcome, would not negatively impact on the fight against maritime insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea. The maritime actors in both countries should remain focused on the regional maritime activities recommended by the ECOWAS Commission. This is as important, as pirates and other maritime offenders could take advantage of a loosening of the security system.
Barthélemy Blédé, Senior Researcher, and André Diouf, Intern, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division, ISS Dakar