Can China resolve Niger-Benin border dispute?

Tensions between West African neighbors Niger and Benin began with the July 2023 military coup in Niger and the arrest of the country’s democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum.

West African bloc ECOWAS condemned the coup and imposed sanctions on the Nigerien military regime led by General Abdourahamane Tiani.

In Benin, the protests against the coup leaders were particularly explicit. Beninese President Patrice Talon loudly demanded Bazoum’s reinstatement and even advocated for a military intervention by ECOWAS troops against the coupists in Niger.

Kombobild: Patrice Athanase Guillaume Talon und General Abdourahamane Tiani
A conflictual relationship: Benin’s President Patrice Talon (left) and Niger’s ruler General Abdourahamane TianiImage: Yanick Folly/AFP/Getty Images, ORTN/TÈlÈ Sahel/AFP

Niger closes borders to Benin

Niger’s military leaders responded promptly by closing the borders with Benin.

Ulf Laessing, head of the Sahel Regional Program at the Bonn-based Konrad Adenauer Foundation think tank, who recently visited Niger, described the situation at the Niger-Benin frontier.

“The borders remain closed and Niger does not seem ready to reopen them soon,” said Laessing. “There are Nigerien army troops stationed at the border with Benin. The Nigerien government is still afraid that ECOWAS or France could try to reinstall the ousted president through military intervention.”

Laessing told DW that there is a certain degree of paranoia in Niger.

What are the implications of the border closure?

Trade between Niger and Benin has practically come to a standstill, resulting in significant financial losses, especially on the Beninese side.

Before the coup, almost all of Niger’s imports — food, cars, consumer goods, etc. — traveled through Benin’s port of Cotonou .

Alternative routes, such as through Togo’s port of Lome and then through Burkina Faso, were considered complicated, not to mention unsafe due to an Islamist insurgency Burkina Faso.

Despite the risks, Niger increasingly shifted its imports through Burkina Faso, and expanded its cooperation with the country that has been ruled by a military junta since a violent coup in January 2022.

The fact that Burkina Faso and Niger are now politically and economically approaching each other while trade relations between Niger and Benin collapse has raised eyebrows in Benin.

After the lifting of ECOWAS sanctions against Niger, Benin demanded that Niger immediately reopen their shared borders.

“To emphasize the demand, Benin has now resorted to a highly effective means of pressure,” said Laessing. “Benin says that Niger’s oil exports to China through a newly built Chinese pipeline to the port of Cotonou can only begin when the borders between the two countries are reopened.” 

Niger – making a new home in a transit country

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Conflict escalates

Benin’s decision not to allow ships carrying Nigerien crude oil to enter the port of Cotonou has threatened the survival of Niger’s military junta.

More than 90,000 barrels of crude per day were earmarked for shipping to China through a pipeline that travels through Benin.

The Chinese state-owned company China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) had even signed a memorandum of understanding to this effect — and completed an almost 2,000-kilometer (1,200-mile) pipeline between Agadem in eastern Niger and Seme-Kpodji, near Benin’s port of Cotonou.

But for the time being, Benin is thwarting Niger’s plans and prohibiting the loading of Nigerien crude oil onto Chinese ships — a decision that was made on May 6 at the highest government level and communicated to the Chinese ambassador in Benin as well as the pipeline management company.

Is the blockade legal?

According to Beninese political analyst David Morgan, Benin’s decision to temporarily block the export of Nigerien crude oil to China through Beninese ports is “at least understandable.”

Benin could justify invoking the principle of state sovereignty and the principle of reciprocity, meaning that the Nigerien side had also closed the borders with its neighbor, and thus must expect a similar countermeasure, said Benin.

“This measure by Benin aims to force Niger to reopen its borders so that the populations on both sides of the border can resume conditions for common trade,” Morgan added.

At the same time, Morgan suggests that Benin’s decision to block Niger’s crude oil exports might potentially contravene international law.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international agreement providing a legal framework for all marine and maritime activities, landlocked states like Niger are legally guaranteed access to the sea.

“Now it needs to be examined whether the decision of the Beninese government corresponds to this internationally anchored guarantee of access by landlocked states to the sea,” Morgan told DW.

Workers from Niger and China on the construction site of an oil pipeline in Gaya, Niger, in October, 2022
Nigerien authorities in November inaugurated the giant pipeline that will carry crude oil extracted by the CNPC to neighboring BeninImage: Boureima Hama/AFP/Getty Images

Great economic damage

The conflict inflicts great economic damage on both countries, according to Ulf Laessing, who told DW that Niger and Benin depend on each other.

“But Niger, it seems, needs Benin more than vice versa because oil exports can only go through Benin,” Laessing said. “The pipeline was built that way. The oil pipeline, which was supposed to go into operation these days, runs through Beninese territory.”

Indeed, Niger urgently needs revenue from oil exports to China. Since the 2023 coup, Niger has been facing major financial difficulties.

Laessing pointed out that Western countries have suspended development aid, except for humanitarian assistance. Therefore, oil exports are crucial for the Nigerien regime.

A tug boat manoeuvres in the Port of Cotonou in Benin
Benin has blocked exports of crude oil from Niger via its Port of CotonouImage: AFP via Getty Images

Can China mediate a solution?

“The key lies with China, which maintains good relations with both countrie,” said Laessing. “China will probably try to mediate. After all, China built the oil pipeline. And it’s also Chinese companies that buy oil from Niger.”

All three countries involved — Niger, Benin and China — attach great importance to the business of crude oil and the pipeline.

As recently as April, representatives from the three nations celebrated the completion of the Seme-Podji pipeline as a “trailblazing” project.

Ultimately, Niger and Benin need each other.

The port of Cotonou wants to continue handling imports for Niger. And Niger urgently needs to pump its crude oil through Beninese territory towards Cotonou to prevent state bankruptcy.

“In this respect, I hope that both countries, apart from the hostile rhetoric, will come together again soon, with the mediation of the Chinese,” said Ulf Laessing.

Rodrigue Guezodje contributed to this article, which has been adapted from German.

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