Global Policy Forum

Border a Geographer's Nightmare

BBC Online
July 23, 1999

The border between Ethiopia and Eritrea is a geographer's nightmare. It is a nightmare which became a reality as soon as the neighbours' once-friendly relationship turned sour.

From 1962 to 1993, Eritrea was ruled as a province of Ethiopia - and any argument over the borders amounted to no more than a squabble between two local authorities. So when Eritrea and Ethiopia separated amicably in 1993, no one paid too much attention to the details of the divorce settlement - least of all to a few hundred square kilometres of sparsely populated land in a region called Badme. But when relations between the two neighbours deteriorated, Ethiopia accused Eritrea of invading a piece of land that was under Ethiopian administration. The Eritreans replied that the land in question was rightfully theirs. The result was a war fought on three fronts at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.

The Eritrean case - Eritrea argues for a return to the colonial boundary that was in force before Eritrea was incorporated into Ethiopia. This frontier was fixed in 1902 by a treaty between the Italian government, which had colonised Eritrea, and the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II - ruler of what was then one of the few independent African states. Much of the border is defined by rivers, but around Badme the treaty stipulates an imaginary line linking two rivers. This straight line is visible on virtually all current maps published outside Ethiopia.

Almost all modern African states have retained the boundaries they inherited from the colonial powers - a principle established by the Organisation of African Unity, and intended to stop Africa from fragmenting into ethnically-based states. In the case of Ethiopia and Eritrea, however, the issue became clouded as the old colonial boundary disappeared for several decades within the territory of a single state.

The Ethiopian case - The Ethiopian government says its "only objective is to reclaim its sovereign territory that was forcibly occupied in May 1998 following the Eritrean invasion". In other words, its case seems to be based on the status quo before the war began, rather than on any specific interpretation of the border. Although Ethiopia has not stated explicitly how far it sees its borders as extending, there are some clues to what Ethiopia sees as being its territory.

Various maps printed since 1993 by the government of Tigrai - Ethiopia's northernmost province - show the border bulging beyond the straight line of the colonial boundary. Most of the fighting in the last 14 months has taken place in the region between the colonial border recognised by Eritrea, and the boundary as marked on the new Tigrean maps.

More than one Badme? Each side accuses the other of illegally invading or occupying Badme. Badme (alternatively spelt Badime, Baduma, or Badame) is the name given to the region that includes the contested territory. But Badme is also a village - or possibly even two villages. Neither side has pinpointed the exact location of the Badme which is supposedly the point of contention. A map published by Michelin in 1994 shows "Badime" exactly on the border. But several other maps2 show "Badime" clearly on the Ethiopian side.

The most recent edition of the Michelin map omits "Badime", and instead situates a village called Yirga on the Ethiopian side. Reports from the area speak of a village officially named Yirga - but commonly known as Badme. The writer Margaret Fielding1 says she visited a village called Badme 5km to the west - ie on the Eritrean side - of the "internationally recognised border", by which she means the straight line of the 1902 treaty. The mystery of the moving village has been attributed to a moving boundary - different surveyors may produce different versions of the artificial line. No village of Badme featured on the 1902 treaty - by some accounts, there was no village there until the 1960s.

Even if, as Eritrea argues, Ethiopia was occupying parts of the Badme region which are rightly Eritrean, it is still possible that Eritrea overstepped the colonial boundary when its troops entered Badme village. One thing that is certain is that at least part of the Badme region has in the past 100 years been administered at times from the Eritrean capital, Asmara, and at other times from Mekele, the provincial capital of Tigrai.

Fighters' agreement - At least one observer3 has traced the current dispute back to the 1980s, when the Tigrean People's Liberation front and the Eritrean People's Liberation Front were both fighting against the dictatorship of Haile Mariam Mengistu. The two rebel groups took control of large areas of Tigrai and Eritrea before overthrowing the government in Addis Ababa. Although the two groups were united against a common enemy, there were minor disagreements between them over the territory that they each held.

In the late 1980s a de facto line of control was established between the two groups to the west of the colonial boundary - in other words, granting the Tigreans control of an area which had been part of Eritrea in colonial days. The TPLF went on to form the core of the present Ethiopian government, and the Eritreans gained independence. The line of control established by the former rebel groups roughly corresponds to the border as marked on the new Tigrean maps.

Other conflict zones - While the Badme region is the main area of conflict in the war, fighting has also occurred along two other fronts: The Tsorona-Zalambessa area in the central border area The Bure area in the eastern border region The 1902 treaty contains ambiguities concerning both these regions.

In Tserona-Zalambessa, local differences in the naming of rivers and tributaries make it unclear which streams are intended by the treaty to form the border. As in Badme, the administrative boundary has shifted at various times. Around Bure, the treaty defines the border provisionally as running "parallel to and at a distance of 60km from the coast" - a definition giving rise to ambiguities in how the 60km is to be measured. The treaty's recommendation that the border be more precisely delineated at a later date was never taken up.

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