I saw an Asian man walking past one of the booths I was squatting at with a noticeable number of guards and the press. I was surprisingly allowed entry into the tightly-controlled room, and lo and behold – it was Ban Ki-moon, United Nations Secretary-General. It was one of the most incredible moments of my life, as my teammates would attest to if my fangirling was any indication.
I managed to compartmentalise my excitement to learnt that he was hosting a signing ceremony of a bilateral agreement between Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of Gabonese. He commended President Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea and President Ali Bongo Ondimba of the Republic of Gabonese, and stated that ‘the event today is a testimony to the determination of the countries to move with a common vision to strengthen and respect the international rule of law, and contribute to lasting peace and good neighbourly relations.’
The ceremony marked the successful conclusion of the UN mediation that started in 2008 but was attempted even earlier by former Secretary-General of UN, Kofi Annan, on finding a mutually acceptable solution to the border dispute between the two countries for submission to the International Court of Justice.
The dispute involves three small islands in Corisco Bay, Mbanie, Cocotiers and Congas that are near the border of the continental territory of Equatorial Guinea. It can be traced back to 1972, although it ‘peaked’ in 2003 when Gabonese Defense Minister Ali Bongo visited the islands and reasserted Gabon’s territorial claim to them.
What is interesting, is that the disputed waters are expected to hold large commercially exploitable reserves with fields on north sides of the Corisco Bay area to have wells with reserves of several hundred thousand barrels of oil each. The dispute has prevented oil companies from carrying out a full exploration of the nearby offshore waters.
It is notable that both countries are major oil exporters, with Equatorial Guinea being the Sub-Saharan Africa’s third biggest oil producers while Gabon’s crude petroleum export contributes to 80.9% of the country’s total exports in 2014 as Africa’s fifth largest oil producing country. The UN has been working on resolving the sovereignty dispute over the Gabon-occupied Mbane Island and create a maritime boundary in the hydrocarbon-rich Corisco Bay, so yesterday’s ceremony should be good news… or, is it?
Equatorial Guinea is ruled by a dictatorship and is criticised to use the oil revenues to fund lavish lifestyles for the small elite, meanwhile less than half of the population has access to clean drinking water, and nearly 10% of the children do not live to 5 years old. Corruption, poverty and repression reign the country that has the highest wealth ranking in Africa, ranked in the top 12 list of most corrupt states by corruption watchdog Transparency International.
The Republic of Gabon on the other hand heavily depends on the export of oil and manganese to sustain its export-driven economy. However, it has been reported that about 30% of the population remains vulnerable, living with monthly incomes below the guaranteed minimum wage and that basic social services such as healthcare, drinking water and electricity have deteriorated in 60% of the regions in the country. So what does this mean?
I could not find Equatorial Guinea’s NDC, but the Republic of Gabon states that within the period of 2010 – 2025, it intends to reduce GHG emissions by 63% but also that land change accounts to 63% of current GHG gases. What I am concerned about, is whether this ‘compromise’, in the words of President Ali Bongo Ondimba would result in greater exploitation of oil reserves which is contrary to the direction we would want to go in reducing GHG emissions and use of fossil fuels.
However, I can’t help but wonder if I am thinking from a paternalistic ‘developed country’s’ point of view by judging their use of natural resources to accumulate wealth. After all, I am sure Spain and France had suffered no qualms in exporting their resources back home during their colonisation. It is also interesting how the historical context of this dispute as well as others, can be pointed to the territorial boundaries drawn by European colonisers. This was mentioned by one of the national negotiators I spoke to and got me thinking about these disputes as yet another effect of colonisation. But this is a conversation for another day.
My point, however, is the distribution in the use of resources and the priorities of these countries in using the oil reserves that I am certain they will. Will the profits be used to line the coffers of the top elite in Equatorial Guinea and further stack power to quell dissent, or would they be used to such an extent that resources diminish, but the welfare of people are still stagnated or if developed, not in proportion to the environmental and climate cost? Would the riches gained from them be used to equip themselves and the most vulnerable communities like the Pygmy, to adapt to climate change?
I was ecstatic that I could witness such a momentous event with my own two eyes, even taking a full half hour to stop squealing like an excited pig. However, digging a little deeper has muddied it for me – I am not concerned about what the agreement would mean to climate change. Yes, in the words of President Ali Bongo Ondimba, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon are ‘brothers’ bound by history and geography, but would this relationship be shouldered and later polluted from the petroleum industry as the private petroleum companies clap their hands in glee?
Written by Nachatira Thuraichamy
Edited by Choy Moon Moon
- http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13317175; http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/gabon/overview; http://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/profile/country/gab/