A 40-year border dispute between Gabon and Equatorial Guinea has officially been referred to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Netherlands.
The international court will now arbitrate in the protracted maritime row over oil-rich islands in the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa.
The two countries have been staking claim to the Mbanié, Cocotiers and Congas islands due to oil prospects, according to observers. The dispute dates back to 1972 and has considerably jolted diplomatic relations between the two neighbours.
The spat reached an all-time high recently when Gabonese soldiers moved to expel Equatorial Guinea citizens from the less than 100-acre island of Mbanié.
At the side-lines of the ongoing global climate change conference in Marrakech, Morocco, yesterday, President Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea and his Gabonese counterpart Bongo Ondimba signed a special agreement referring the matter to ICJ, which is the UN’s main judicial organ.
The signing was witnessed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who said the two leaders had demonstrated political willingness to amicably resolve the dispute.
“I commend President Nguema of Equatorial Guinea and President Bongo of the Gabonese Republic for demonstrating true political leadership, courage and wisdom in reaching this mutually acceptable agreement, in accordance with the spirit and letter of the United Nations Charter,” the UN boss said.
He added: “Today’s event is a testimony to the determination of your 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 signing of the agreement is a culmination of winding negotiations that lasted decades but whose outcome the UN is optimistic will bring the matter to rest.
In September, the UN picked a Swiss legal expert Nicolas Michel as a special adviser to mediate in the conflict after it became apparent a quick fix was not in the offing in the dispute.
But during the signing ceremony in Morocco this week, an optimistic Ban praised the two countries for the compromise. Documentation and the necessary paper work is now being finalised for submission to the ICJ.
“The UN and the international community stand proud of your accomplishment,” the UN Secretary-General remarked.
He urged countries facing similar border disputes to follow suit by exploring peaceful means of resolution devoid of name-calling and counter-accusations.
The Gabon-Equatorial Guinea dispute over rich islands rekindles memories of the Kenya-Uganda row over Migingo island in Lake Victoria.
The matter remains steeped in controversy, with Kenyan fishermen facing harassment by Ugandan security forces.