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Nigeria, Cameroon Struggle to Redraw Border


The Nigeria-Cameroon commission is meeting in the capital of Cameroon to help resolve a decades-old and, at times, violent border dispute that has become a drawn-out legal process. Phuong Tran reports from VOA's West Africa Bureau on the challenges both countries face as they delineate their new multi-million dollar boundary.

Five years ago, the Hague-based International Court of Justice decided to give the Bakassi Peninsula and other contested border areas to Cameroon.

Last year, Nigeria gave Cameroon the peninsula, which offers access to offshore waters thought to hold oil reserves.

The United Nations court has painstakingly redrawn the boundaries between the two countries, which were blurred by colonial agreements.

Officials from both countries are negotiating how to implement the court's ruling. The negotiating body, known as the Nigeria-Cameroon Mixed Commission, is chaired by U.N. Special Representative for West Africa Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah.

"We have to demarcate about 1,700 kilometers. It is the largest demarcation process of current U.N. operations, more than Ethiopia-Eritrea, Iraq-Kuwait, East Timor-Indonesia combined," he said.

After more than a dozen meetings since the court's ruling, the group agreed on marking almost 500 kilometers of the new border. This leaves in question more than 1,000 kilometers that cross remote rain forests and a 3,000-meter high mountain range.

John Donaldson, a research associate at the British-based International Boundaries Research Unit, says this is a huge project.

"Often these areas are in the periphery of the state. There is very little transport infrastructure. You have to bring out survey teams in order to survey the position of the pillars, [and] build the pillars out of reinforced concrete," he said.

Donaldson says the task is complicated by not only surveying remote regions, but also covering so much territory. His office helped with archive research for the International Court of Justice case that Cameroon originally brought against Nigeria in 1994.

"It was one of the most complicated boundary cases that the International Court of Justice had ever faced, because it entailed the full length of the boundary between the two states. In most cases, the dispute will only center on a section of the boundary," he added.

Donaldson says the issue also affects possible oil reserves.

"If you do not have a maritime boundary between two states and they have overlapping claims, then sometimes oil companies will be reluctant to drill in those areas because there is a potential for dispute," he explained. "The sooner [the countries] can iron out the maritime boundary issue, the sooner they can award concessions."

Commission Chairman Ould-Abdallah says access to water was also important.

"Wrongly or rightly it is seen with more prospect[s] for gas, oil and fisheries. It has become, in a way, symbolic, part of a dispute between the two countries. [The issue] is sovereignty officially, but it is an increasingly an economic and resource issue," he said.

At meetings on Thursday and Friday, the commission is reviewing survey work from a visit last November by cartographers, armed with nautical charts and a mission to, essentially, divide water.

Chairman Ould-Abdallah says that his group hopes to complete the demarcation process in about two years.

The project's budget is $12 million, of which roughly $8 million already has been raised from Cameroon, Nigeria and international donors.

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