It’s time to pull out that map of Africa and get ready for another spotlight in this week’s post to Just Africa! As mentioned in the Spotlight on Swaziland these blogs are meant to highlight different aspects of the continent – countries and regions - whose images and people you may not be familiar with, and that are rarely (if at all) in major newspapers or on television. By providing some brief background and recent developments, I hope to pique your interest to learn more about the great diversity, that can be found in Africa – bringing yourself one country closer to knowing all abut the continent!
This week, the topic is disputed territory in eastern Africa and, depending on the size of your map, you may just need to look very close indeed in order to spot the lines that haven’t been drawn in the sand. Let me make it a bit easier:
The Elemi or Ilemi Triangle is an area of disputed land in eastern Africa, notable because not two but three different countries contest its boundaries: Ethiopia, Kenya, and Sudan. The origin of the dispute goes back to the colonial era and to the unclear wording of treaties between European power seeking to set boundaries that allowed for the movement of nomadic, Turkana herders in the region. These early treaties were often made without the involvement of surrounding African powers and, even later, various colonial territorial commissions disputed the details of the border location while ignoring local people in their demarcations.
Characterized by hilly terrain and good grazing pastures for goats, camels, and cattle, the Ilemi Triangle is an excellent resource for the pastoral people who migrate through the region, though they must compete for the limited browse and scarce water available. Turkana, Didinga, Toposa, Invangatom, and Dassanech communities are common to the region and are members of larger ethno-cultural groups of Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Sudan. At the same time, intermarriage and clan affinities in the area add further complexity to making concrete delineations between peoples.
From a political perspective, the nomadic and pastoral lifestyles makes resolving jurisdiction of the area difficult, as pastoral movement necessarily involves constricting and expanding borders according to need. The modern state, on the other hand is typically all about what is on the actual map i.e. the solid (though invisible) lines between countries. This is an interesting – and important – difference in perspective as far as control of the region is concerned.
The men and women living in Ilemi are not the only ones with a vested interest in the region, however. Natural resources have long been a draw for colonial powers and modern countries, and the Ilemi Triangle has been noted as a potential source of minerals itself, as well as a gateway into the unexplored oil reserves in Southern Sudan. While during the partition of territory in East Africa there was no real need to strictly determine the Kenya-Sudan-Uganda borders, as they were all part of the British Empire, since the early 20th century, borders around the territory have changed numerous times for a diversity of reasons. Here are some of the major changes:
-1902-1903: the Ethiopian emperor Menelik proposes a boundary with the British from Lake Turkana to the Indian Ocean – the British disagree and settle boundaries with other European powers at the “Maud Line” without Ethiopian involvement, placing the triangle in Sudan’s control.
-1907: The Anglo-Ethiopian Agreement treaty between Ethiopia and British East Africa remains vague about the border’s details but maintains the Maud Line
-1938: A Joint Kenya-Sudan survey team establishes the “Wakefield Line” or “Red Line,” temporarily establishing the northern limit to grazing in Turkana after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1936.
-1956: Sudan wins independence and from then until the present day has not administered Ilemi (or much of southern Sudan) due to civil war
-1972: Sudan-Ethiopia boundary alteration does not resolve the issue because Kenya is not involved.
-1978: The Kenyan government begins arming Turkana in the region.
-1990s: Ethiopia begins arming Dassanech in the area, further increasing tension in the area.
More recently, perceptions of the region as economically marginal, as well as instability of the region’s governments have long delayed the resolution of this disputed territory. Since 1978 Kenyan maps have marked the Wakefield/Red Line as its official border and, while Ethiopia and Sudan continue to stake their claims, and the country has de facto control over the region’s administration.
The Ilemi Triangle is a fascinating region of East Africa where ideas and points of view about ownership and boundaries may challenge our own. The turbulence in the area unfortunately obscures the ongoing dispute over Ilemi – but it’s worth reading more about. For more information on Kenya, Ethiopia, and conflict in Sudan check out our resources on Key Countries in Africa and our Campaign to Stop Genocide in Darfur.