Transboundary natural resource disputes in Africa: Policies, institutions and management experiences

Co-Authored Paper

Originally Published on:

Africa’s rich natural resources have the potential to fuel its economic growth and transformation but only if effectively governed. Increased global demand in the last 20 years has heightened intra- and interstate resource disputes, jeopardizing regional stability. If managed correctly, these resources can push the continent from exporting low-value commodities to establishing high-value, labor-intensive manufacturing sectors. Over the past 20 years, global demand for primary commodities has increased, leading to African resources becoming a source of conflict between states. These conflicts have jeopardized peace, security, and development. Yet, surging demand and unresolved historical border issues exacerbate conflicts. Many African nations lack domestic dispute resolution frameworks, leading to international intervention. Disputes, such as those between South Sudan and Sudan, can lead to wars and massive economic fallout. Beyond high-value resources, these conflicts also affect pastoralists, key contributors to food security and trade.

To address this, African continental bodies, including the African Union, have established numerous institutions, conventions, and frameworks for managing these resources. These bodies often mediate in resource-related disputes. The African Union Border Programme deserves recognition for addressing border delimitation issues, furthering regional integration, and encouraging cross-border cooperation.  Despite these efforts, disputes over resources have escalated due to rising middle-income countries and booming resource extraction industries. Previously dormant border conflicts have re-emerged, challenging ownership claims. Few African nations have systems in place to address internal or international border disputes. As a result, international institutions like the International Court of Justice often intervene.  While some border disputes have been resolved quickly, others, such as the ones involving South Sudan, Sudan, and Egypt, remain unresolved for years. Successful dispute resolutions, like those between Sudan and Ethiopia or Nigeria and Cameroon, emphasize the importance of viewing borders as opportunities rather than barriers. Disputes over resources can lead to wars with significant human and economic tolls. The conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia and its economic implications exemplifies this. Beyond traditional resources, transboundary disputes can arise over pastoral activities. Despite their importance for food security and regional trade, pastoralists face numerous challenges. The AU, RECs and the UN could mitigate the challenges associated with transboundary resources by implementing some transformational policy measures.

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