Are oil and Gas finds fueling border disputes in eastern Africa?

Guarding Crude oil Refinery in South Sudan.

SOUTH SUDAN vs.SUDAN,TANZANIA vs.MALAWI, KENYA vs SOMALIA.. There is a worrying growth of boundary disputes in eastern Africa. The quarrels, given what is at stake, pose a risk of violence in the region. The region has become significant producer fossil fuels. News of discovery of oil or LNG dominated the Pages in the first half- of this year. Visit

To date, an estimated 100 trillion cubic Feet (tcf), of recoverable LNG had been discovered in Tanzania and Mozambique. Kenya for the first time joined Uganda and South Sudan in the crude oil producing class. Kenya is also seeking for LNG for it is estimated that some 286 trillion cubic feet lie off the eastern Africa coast, Kenya included.

 Sadly, the frequent discoveries are rekindling long ignored boundary disputes in the region. Previously silent disputes , such as the Tanzania- Malawi and the Kenya-Somali maritime border are becoming loud and public. Few in these countries knew of the 50 year- old disputes. To many observers in the region, the only border dispute existed between the Sudans.

This dispute was, and still is, an attempt by Sudan to sabotage the independence of the South which impoverished Sudan. At her independence last year, South Sudan took with her 75 per of Sudan's oil output, leaving with a paltry 25 per cent or 125,000 barrels per day. Khartoum then sought to sabotage Juba by raising the cost-transporting crude from the South.

Basically the dispute is about how Khartoum can plug the financial hole left by the departure of the South which turned off the taps for some 350,000 barrels of crude a day. Before the South's independence, Sudan generated some US$15-US$20 billion a year in oil revenue. The cessation of the South reduced that to just about $3.5 billion to $5.0 billion a year depending on the world market prices. Khartoum had been reduced to a pauper by just a stroke of a pen. See

However the boundaries disputes between Kenya and Somalia and between Tanzania and Malawi are surprising. Both are quarreling over Maritime boundaries of long ago. Both are arguing over where the border between them should be.

Kenya would like the maritime boundary to run due east from the point at which the two countries touch on land. However, Somalia would like the border to continue diagonally southeast into the ocean, following the border between the two countries on land.

For their part Tanzania and Malawi are arguing over the ownership of Lake Malawi, also known as Lake Nyasa in Tanzania. Malawi claims that the whole lake belongs to her according to colonial boundaries. Tanzania holds that half the Lake belongs to her.

Both Kenya and Malawi have issued exploration Licenses in the disputed areas igniting protests from the “aggrieved parties.”

It is these latter day protests that have analysts asking: Why have these countries sat over a pestering wound over the past 50 years? Why haven’t they solved it? Why now? Are we witnessing a case of land grab? Are the meek robbing the poor or are the poor robbing the meek?

Are the countries ready to solve their differences or are they going to let it pester, posing a threat to regional security?

Let’s start with the conflict in Sudan, which, to many observers is a continuation of years of hostilities and conflict that preceded the 2005 CPA. Informed South Sudan sources say that the North planned to sabotage the South’s independence through high transit fees for fuel. That failed so the North hoped for military action, in a bid to mobilise the population in the North behind a beleaguered government. The quarrel about boundaries was part of the scheme to sabotage the new government. It will end eventually.

How about the disputes further south? Why the sudden burst of disputes in Kenya and Tanzania? Are the big and stronger neighbours trying to grab the weaker neighbours’ land suspected to contain oil or LNG? Or are the weaker neighbours trying to grab land from the former for the same reasons?

Fossils fuels- if the experience of the Arab world is anything to go by- is a source of massive wealth for countries. Thus each country gets excited about the discovery or the potential of the discovery of fossil fuels in their territory because of the implication in terms of revenue generation. This is a motivation for quarrels among nations.

Unlike the Sudans, which finance 80 per cent of their budget from oil revenues, Kenya and Tanzania fund their budgets from a variety of both domestic and external sources. So they are not seeking to plug financial holes. In fact, for the two countries, fossil fuels discovery simply deepens their pockets. Further, the countries have already discovered fossil fuels in undisputed areas. And there are prospects of discovering even more reserves in the undisputed areas. Why not focus on these, develop them, search in those safe areas and avoid quarrels? Or is greed taking over?

Whatever the case, are the neighbours willing to resolve their disputes amicably? Going by the trend in Sudan, disputes in Africa generate plenty of nationalistic fervor which could lead to stalemates- and stalemates lead to violence. Sometime back, we witnessed some Kenyans yelling their heads off over Uganda’s alleged invasion of one acre of rock in Lake Victoria but common sense prevailed.

Already, in the Malawi- Tanzania boundary dispute, each party is digging in. Even in the Kenya-Somalia dispute, there are signs of hardening positions. This trend could lead to violent altercations that would wipe away the benefits of oil discovery.

On the balance, the two countries are better off not quarreling with their weaker neighbours. Compared to their weaker neighbours, the countries have a lot to lose in the disputes than the former.  Common sense dictates that the two bigger and powerful neighbours should resolve the disputes quickly or simply let go of the disputed areas. Will common sense prevail? Only time will tell.


Popular posts from this blog

AfCTA: Time for action, less talk

Construction of Tanzania’s” bridge over the sea” begins

Kenya's SGR Loan: The Former Controller and Auditor General Lied