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Border Agreement Creates Model for Other African Nations - 2004-07-08

With much fanfare, the West African countries of Equatorial Guinea and Gabon have signed an agreement to settle their border dispute. At the African Union's summit this week in Addis Ababa, the agreement was seen as an example of how other African countries can resolve border disputes.

Gabon's President Omar Bongo and Equatorial Guinea's President Obiang Nguema Mbasogo hugged for the cameras after signing the agreement and pledged to end their often violent dispute over the ownership of an island called Mbanie and the waters around it.

Mr. Bongo said he was optimistic the rival territorial claims will be settled soon.

He says he thinks it is important to show the world that the two countries will keep their promise.

His counterpart from Equatorial Guinea was also upbeat, calling Mr. Bongo his brother.

He says the conflict is rooted in the historic struggle between the two colonial powers, Spain and France, over the island, and it is now up to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea to settle it.

Both countries inherited the territorial dispute from their colonizers, Spain and France. The two colonial powers signed a treaty in 1900 to mark the borders in the Gulf of Guinea, but did not resolve a rival claim to three small islands, including Mbanie.

Gabon and Equatorial Guinea have been quarreling over the border since their independence, coming close to blows in the early 1970s. That lasted until last year when the two countries accepted a UN offer to act as a go-between in negotiating a solution.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters at the African Union summit earlier this week the Gabon-Equatorial Guinea agreement is a historic event for Africa.

"This is one of the rare occasions when two African leaders come together to resolve their differences peacefully," he says. "This is a continent with lots of conflicts and I think this is an example for other leaders that differences can be resolved peacefully."

A UN adviser on the border dispute, Stephen Drymer, says oil is at the heart of the dispute.

"The territorial dispute has not been resolved but the parties have agreed that, pending resolution of their territorial dispute, they will work together to implement a joint development agreement which will allow them to benefit from the resources jointly, even as the mediation of their territorial dispute continues," he says.

He says other countries in Africa should follow this as a model in dealing with their own border disagreements.

One such disagreement is between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The exact location of the border was the cause of a brutal war between the two countries from 1998 to 2000 in which an estimated 70,000 people died.

As part of a peace deal signed in 2000, a boundary commission was set up to mark the borderline. But Ethiopia rejected the commission's subsequent decision to award an area called Badme to Eritrea and the commission pulled out.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has admitted the two countries are at loggerheads over Badme, but pledged to work out the dispute peacefully.

Eritrea, which was notably absent from the AU summit, maintains Ethiopia should accept the boundary commission's ruling and says there is nothing to negotiate.

But negotiation is producing results in another border dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon over the oil-rich areas around Lake Chad and the Bakassi Peninsula.

Following a 2002 ruling by the International Court of Justice, the two countries set up a mixed commission to determine the borderline in the disputed territory. Nigerian presidential spokeswoman Remi Oya says only an agreed solution will have a lasting effect.

"Political solutions last long because the people are committed to one another. And, after all, what is Africa? Africa has just been divided by the colonialists. We're all one. And it is important for us to continue to realize that," she says.

She says the best way to do tackle problems is to seek political, not military, solutions.