A NEW African border conflict could be escalating. The stakes in February's border skirmishes between Nigeria and Cameroon are as uncertain as the geographical dimension of the dispute.
Only two facts are clear. First, there was at least one armed clash. Second, Nigeria has created what geopolitical scientists call ``facts'' on the ground: Its troops hold the disputed Bakassi Peninsula, which both sides claim as their own. But the squabble transcends fishing villages and fishery rights. Claims to offshore oil fields are inseparably linked to control of the coast.
Cameroon's oil fields are 20 to 50 kilometers (12 to 30 miles) offshore. If Nigeria establishes its onshore territorial demand to the peninsula, it would have a claim to the offshore oil that Cameroon now exploits. Cameroon wells now yield about 125,000 barrels per day (b.p.d.) in oil production. There are also attractive prospects adjacent to those wells, including newly licensed exploration tracts in the Rio del Rey basin.
The skirmish is viewed potentially as the first stage in another war over oil. Nigeria's move could be a first foothold from which to appropriate Cameroon's offshore oil resources - Cameroon's largest source of foreign currency earnings.
Revised map of border
On the surface, the bone of contention is not prepossessing. The Bakassi Peninsula is a tangled patch of several hundred square kilometers of mangrove swamps, dotted with a few habitable fishing villages. It lies east of the Cross River estuary, the coastal boundary of the presently demarcated border between the two countries.
But Nigeria's claim is more ambitious. A Nigerian Embassy map shows a revised border line, which juts southeastward along the eastern confines of the Bakassi Peninsula, extending the new economic zone out into the Bight of Bonny, so that it either embraces the currently producing oil fields or at least comes precariously close to them.
Nigeria asserts a historic claim to the area based on the linguistic and tribal affinities of the peninsula's occupants. Indeed, Nigeria's rationale for occupying the peninsula was an appeal by the English-speaking locals, Cameroonian nationals, to Nigeria for protection against the plunderings of the Cameroonian national police.
Nigeria's Embassy here denies any ``incursion'' because, since the peninsula is within Nigeria, the troops are deployed on its own borders.
Cameroon, on the other hand, has invoked a 1913 Franco-German accord that delineates its pre-World War I colonial boundaries in West Africa, assigning, possibly by accident, the peninsula to France. The haphazard logic of those borders is well known.
The oil fields are unmistakable, however. About 150,000 b.p.d. of production is gleaned from about 40 platforms and about 300 producing wells clustered just to the south of the disputed peninsula. The wells are shallow, as is the water, so that the oil is moderately profitable in spite of low well flow rates (500 b.p.d.) and a proliferation of platforms.
No onshore facilities are reported; oil from the wells is piped to storage/transshipment tankers moored offshore from which the export tankers pick up cargoes. Nonetheless, the platforms and loading points cannot be defended.
Cameroon has appealed to the European Union for arbitration, to the United Nations for help, and - more ominously - to France for protection, invoking the generic military defense and cooperation agreements with France that were negotiated after independence from colonial rule decades ago.
``Technical advisers'' have been dispatched by the French and the Vendemaire, a French frigate, was moored in Douala harbor. Official French sources emphasize that the frigate's visit had been scheduled earlier, that it is now at sea, and that only a few platoons of ``advisers'' are involved.
The dispute puts France in a quandary. Elf, formerly the French state-owned oil company, and a second small French-based firm together control more than two-thirds (110,000 b.p.d.) of Cameroon's oil production. But Elf has almost as much oil production in Nigeria. If France were to intervene, the Nigerian oil could be at risk.
The French are mindful of Nigeria's nationalization of British Petroleum's interests in the wake of an earlier contretemps with Britain. By protecting one interest, France jeopardizes the other.
France's interests at risk
France must weigh its response carefully. It has been seeking to disengage from some of its post-colonial obligations, as witnessed by its recent 50 percent devaluation of the CFA franc, the French-supported external franc circulating in West Africa. France would not welcome a confrontation with Nigeria. Yet France's credibility vis-a-vis the other former colonies could be tested if it were to spurn Cameroon's appeal.
The political and economic tradeoffs are awkward. While burdensome politically, the ex-colonies are still very desirable trading partners. Unlike the rest of the world, they are still locked lucratively into French goods and services. Cameroon and other African ex-colonies are almost captive markets, typically spending 40 percent or more of import funds on French products, a one-sided trade relationship which is profitable and still important to France.
The diplomatic signals are ambiguous, but significant. After the skirmish, French President Francois Mitterrand's personal adviser on African affairs and the Quai D'Orsay's director for Africa arrived in Yaounde, Cameroon's capital. For the first time in more than a decade, France recently conducted joint military exercises with Benin and the Ivory Coast and announced that its Rapid Action Force, France's equivalent of the US Rapid Deployment Force, had been reinforced with newer Mirages jets. A connection is denied.
Diplomatic observers hold that the border squabble is domestically very useful within Nigeria, given the country's economic malaise and political unrest. The additional revenue from Cameroon's oil wells would also be a needed stimulus to Nigeria's ragged economy.
Given the economic and political weakness of both parties dangerous escalation is all too possible.