By: Leslie Stubbs
Ghana’s top two exports now complement each other perfectly, gold and black gold, as oil recently surpassed cocoa as the second largest export commodity. In 2007, back when oil prices were trending upwards, the Jubilee oil field was discovered off the coast of Ghana. This discovery was seen as a boon for the Ghanaian economy but, at approximately 100,000 barrels a day, the discovery is paltry compared to the continent’s leader, Nigeria, which pumps over one million barrels a day. The Ghanaian government, working with Kosmos Energy, Tullow Oil, Ghana National Petroleum Corporation, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation and PetroSA, has embarked on a new project in the Gulf of Guinea. The Tweneboa, Enyenra and Ntomme (TEN) project, discovered in 2009, lies just to the west of the existing Jubilee field.
The TEN project was approved by the Ghanaian government in 2013 with production expected to start the beginning of 2016. With a capacity of 80,000 barrels per day and estimated reserves of 200 million to 1.2 billion barrels, this field is expected to produce oil for close to 20 years. The production timetable impressively avoided delays until Côte d’Ivoire sought to remap the territorial waters it shares with Ghana. In an effort to cease and desist further production and harmful effects against Côte d’Ivoire, they filed a request with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in February. Côte d’Ivoire’s request seeks to suspend all oil exploration and operations, prevent Ghana from issuing any new permits and acting unilaterally as well as preventing information used from previous explorations to be used against Côte d’Ivoire.
This move, which Ghana views as reactionary and predatory, brings to international attention the development of a new dispute over maritime borders and the coveted resources that lie beneath. The issue centers on an unofficial boundary that has existed for 40 years and has been acknowledged in business, oil production and government documents by both countries. Even Côte d’Ivoire’s own 1977 law, which has yet to be amended, uses the original and previously agreed upon “equidistance boundary” in a law delineating their maritime zones. Joint surveys, oil exploration and respect for each other’s territorial waters persisted during this time. When seismic testing was performed along the historic border, permission for vessels to cross into each other’s territory was sought and granted. The launching of the TEN project and the subsequent financial prosperity revived with new vigor the maritime dispute between Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Such a decision to proceed with Côte d’Ivoire’s request could take upwards of two years, resulting in considerable losses for all parties involved; Ghana’s Attorney-General estimates the loss at over 2.2 billion dollars by 2017.
According to Ghana the dispute over the water began in private in 2009 when Côte d’Ivoire informed them in bilateral talks that the existing equidistance boundary was no longer acceptable. In its submission to ITLOS, Ghana maintains this is the first mention of such a disagreement over the maritime borders and Côte d’Ivoire failed to follow through with their claims in any other way. Côte d’Ivoire’s concession holders, oil exploration companies like Tullow, were not informed nor were their laws updated to match their position. Following the emergence of the dispute, claims were filed with the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf regarding the narrow strip of water where the TEN project lies. Since then three separate boundary lines have been proposed by Côte d’Ivoire, each one inching ever more east into Ghana’s historic claims. The latest line, Bisector 1, was proposed in November 2011.
Côte d’Ivoire believes the dispute began in 1988 during the Joint Commission on Land Boundary Redemarcation. On ten different occasions between 2008 and May 2014 the two countries met to resolve the issue within the framework of the Joint Commission. Despite this Ghana continually acted unilaterally, issuing licenses and further developing the area as if the disputed waters were their own. In direct affront to Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana broke off negotiations in September 2014 without explanation and then notified Côte d’Ivoire of their submission for an arbitration over the dispute. Despite the launch of legal proceedings Ghana’s Minister of Justice announced that oil production would continue during the arbitration process. Côte d’Ivoire’s claims rest on preserving their sovereign rights to its maritime boundaries as well as the maritime environment.
The inundation of witness statements, maps, supporting evidence and submissions by Ghana alone exhibits the importance of this project. Even the COO of Tullow, Paul McDade, wrote a statement submitted by Ghana’s legal team on the matter. Interestingly both countries work with Tullow on separate oil exploration endeavors, but Tullow was unaware of the existence of a maritime dispute until now. Ghana’s reliance on previous precedence and Côte d’Ivoire’s inaction for 40 years is compelling in the court of public opinion, but its legal standing is yet to be determined. A decision by ITLOS is expected in the coming weeks on whether to pursue Côte d’Ivoire’s request.
The potential halt of the TEN project has greater implications for Ghana beyond increasing its oil production and export capabilities. The Jubilee and TEN oil fields could provide much needed relief to Ghana’s natural gas problems. The imported natural gas via the West African Gas Pipeline originating in Nigeria has diminished since 2011 and become unreliable. There are plans to commercialize the natural gas from Ghana’s oil productions for power generation and fertilizer production. The TEN project is central to expanding its natural gas production.
The use of terms like sovereignty, historical precedence and resource rights in the Gulf of Guinea dispute are reminiscent of the continuing South China Sea debate. The Gulf of Guinea is certainly no South China Sea in scope, potential, and the players involved, but the need and desire is no less diminished comparatively. The situation is more civilized in this coastal water as a legal remedy to the dispute between Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire is pursued. There is little fear of unilateral actors, as outside forces could manipulate and force either country’s hands into compliance. Nor are Ghana or Côte d’Ivoire heavyweight powers that can act unilaterally the way China acts in its own region. Similarly, Tullow is unlikely to ignore the decision if it goes against Ghana as the company has already been downgraded by Moody’s over the dispute. The discovery of oil and development of the TEN project has been publicly available for a few years now; Côte d’Ivoire’s public request for international mediation is certainly timely.
Leslie Stubbs is a master’s student at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. She is studying International Security and Commerce with core interests in non-state actors, the intelligence community and a regional focus on Africa. Leslie can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on LinkedIn.