Ordinary people in two of West Africa’s poorest countries stand to gain if conflict is avoided and a long-standing border dispute is resolved amicably: As hearings at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague on the Burkina Faso-Niger border ended on 17 October, delegations from both countries expressed hope the verdict will strengthen relations between them.
Low-level tension has been simmering for years between Niger and Burkina Faso over their 650km border. The dispute originated in 1927 when the then colonial power, France, imprecisely demarcated the border in an administrative decree.
''I hope the judgment of the court will help further strengthen the good relations between our two countries,'' Niger’s foreign minister, Bazoum Mohamed, told reporters at the close of the hearings.
The judgement is due in four to six months.
The ICJ must determine the Burkina Faso-Niger border based on the description used in the colonial decree as well as on the details of a 1987 agreement reached by a joint technical commission to address the issue.
The two countries have tried to work out the issue peacefully in the past without resorting to the ICJ: In 2006 leaders in the border regions met to dissipate tensions caused by incursions by security forces and customs officials on either side of the border. A compromise stipulated that each party must inform the other before undertaking any infrastructure development.
But tensions did not dissipate, said Bazoum, with ongoing disagreements over issues such as Nigerien military police allegedly working on Burkinabe territory; or Burkinabe schools operating on Niger-claimed land.
Under dispute are both pastoralist Sahelian land and a forestry zone appropriate for agriculture, said Burkinabe geographer Claude Obin Tapsoba.
Both countries have submitted boundary cases before to the ICJ: In 2005 the ICJ resolved a dispute between Niger and Benin, and in 1986 between Burkina Faso and Mali.
The African Union Border Programme encourages African states to clearly define their borders by 2012.
The implementation of agreements can drag on - as has been the case with the ICJ’s 2002 ruling over Bakassi on the border between Cameroon and Nigeria.
Burkina Faso and Niger have 18 months to implement any ICJ decision.