It is sometimes the tiniest things that cause the countries to fight tooth and nail for. That is the case of Isla de Mbañe, a minuscule island in the waters of Gulf of Guinea. It has been a bone of contention for Gabon and Equatorial Guinea for decades.
The small island, only about 20ha, lies in a sea shelf potentially rich in oil and gas. Exploitation of oil and gas deposits, beginning in the 1990s, has driven economic growth in Equatorial Guinea, however the imperfect management and natural exhaustibility have led to the natural resources decrement, that if not addressed will result in a severe economic crisis in the Republic of Equatorial Guinea.
Gabon as well heavily relies on the oil and gas income. Located on the Atlantic Ocean, it borders Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and the Republic of Congo. Gabon is the fifth largest oil producer in Africa: the oil sector has accounted for 80% of exports, 45% of GDP, and 60% of fiscal revenue on average. However, as the country is facing a decline in its oil reserves, which urges the Gabonese government to look for solutions.
Several years ago, a critical decision has been made by both states to take up the issue with the International Court of Justice in the Hague. The arbitration process is incredibly slow and almost no progress has been made in years, however now the wheels start to move faster. On Tuesday, February 08, 2022, the President of Gabon Ali Bongo Ondimba received a delegation of the National Monitoring Commission of the Gabon-Equatorial Guinea Territorial Dispute led by its president Marie Madeleine Mborantsuo. Appointed last year, the agents authorized to bring the State before the International Court of Justice in the framework of the border dispute between the Gabonese Republic and the Republic of Equatorial Guinea.
The situation looks less and less positive for Equatorial Guinea, as Gabon is backed a powerful global player, the former colonial power. Paris has interests in the region mostly because of the presence of the French business there. While the main partner of Equatorial Guinea in oil production is the USA, France tries to have a well-established presence in the region through hydrocarbon juggernaut Total, who is lobbying Gabon’s interests in Mbañe dispute.
The lack of global back-up for Equatorial Guinea is quite vivid. The reputation of the Obiang regime is one of the reasons why Equatorial Guinea is internationally ostracized. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has been in power for almost half a century and is always portrayed in the Western media a classic case of an African dictator. His son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, is even more obnoxious: пreedy, power-thirsty and delusional. More than once the possible heir to the Equatoguinean throne has been found guilty of budget allocation and misappropriation of state funds.
The resource curse that affects both countries makes the small island of Mbañe a tasty morsel for Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. But Gabon seems to be very serious about taking the Mbañe area into its official borders. President Ali Bongo gave the exceptionally professional and ruthless team of lawyers all the directives necessary to be represented in the court of law. The case seems lost on the part of Equatorial Guinea and the loss of another oil-rich area will definitely hit hard on the undiversified economy of Equatorial Guinea.
- Masie is a political scientist specialising in West and Central Africa.