“Historic deed” to avert border war

Ministers from Burkina Faso and Benin say that a recent meeting called to reduce tensions in a contested region which lies on their joint border has resolved the issue for good.

“Things will radically change from now… for more than ten years we have had difficulties to manage this area due to differences in juridical interpretations that was opposing us and our brothers from Benin”, said Clément Sawadogo, the Burkina Faso minister of territorial administration and decentralisation (MATD)

“It is a historic deed that we have decided to manage the area with intelligence through measures for a concerted, pacific and appeased management of the locality”, Sawadogo added.

Good example

The high level delegations, which met on 7 March at Porga in the north of Benin, committed that neither country would make any “visible sovereignty act” in the 68 square kilometre zone which includes three villages - Koalou, Niorgou I and Niorgou II.

The proscribed acts include building paramilitary or police stations, and the presence of any flag in the area. The populations in the area will be allowed to vote in the country of their choice, said the final communiqué of the one day meeting.

Both countries have also agreed to activate a joint commission on the border before June this year to oversee joint work to build infrastructure. The delegations noted that the lack of juridical clarification has meant Benin and Burkina Faso had not invested in basic social infrastructure.

''...It will be a good example for the rest of Africa where border issues are often solved through wars. Our heads of state have said 'No' to guns...''

“It will be a good example for the rest of Africa where border issues are often solved through wars. Our heads of states have said 'No' to guns,” General Félix Hessou, Minister of Public Security of Benin said after the meeting.

“Both countries have ambitions for the area… the one that can build a school should do it. We need knowledge and why should we deprive the populations of school because of an imaginary line dividing our countries,” Hessou added.

Conflict averted

Benin and Burkina Faso came close to conflict in 2005 when the headmaster of a school built by Burkina Faso in the contested zone was expelled. The tension was so high that a scheduled meeting of the joint commission to delimit the border was cancelled.

In 2007 tensions flared again when an inhabitant of the contested region was transported to a prison in Benin where he later died.

The meeting on 7 March came after local officials in the contested villages had made several accusations of unidentified security forces harassing people living there. To prevent security breaches and protect the civilians who complain of harassment, there will now be joint security patrols at the border, the meeting determined.

People who live in the zone are nonetheless sceptical. “I am glad to hear the discourse but I want to see actions follow it”, said Roger Thiombiano, a city council member of the town of Pama in the east of Burkina.

“We still do not know if tomorrow or the day after tomorrow it will be something else because we have always been told same things in the past and later we are harassed and sometimes populations cannot cross the border”, Thiombiano added.

Colonial Legacy

According to a decree of 22 July 1914, the border between Burkina Faso (formerly called Upper Volta) was limited at the natural line of the Pendjari river. According to that agreement, the village of Koalou belongs to Burkina Faso. However the Beninese authorities have a document signed by a colonial administrator in 1938 which gives Benin ownership of the contested piece of land.

Last year Burkina Faso and its northern neighbour Niger, with which it shares 600 kilometres of frontier, submitted a border dispute for adjudication to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. Officials on both sides of that border have regularly traded accusations of populations being abused and harassed.

Burkina Faso and Mali fought two wars in 1973 and 1985 before they settled their border dispute in the 1990s, also through the ICJ.

Burkina Faso gained independence from France in 1960. Most of the difficulties it has faced in determining its border stem from a French decision in 1933 to remove the territory of what was then called Upper Volta in 1933 and share it among its neighbours. The country was later rehabilitated in 1947 following protests from local traditional leaders.