Delimitation of the Elastic Ilemi Triangle: Pastoral Conflicts and Official Indifference in the Horn of Africa
by Nene Mburu
This article observes that although scholars have addressed the problem of the inherited colonial boundaries in Africa, there are lacunae in our knowledge of the complexity of demarcating the Kenya-Sudan-Ethiopia tri-junctional point known as the Ilemi Triangle. Apart from being a gateway to an area of Sudan rich in unexplored oil reserves, Ilemi is only significant for its dry season pastures that support communities of different countries. By analyzing why, until recently, the Ilemi has been ‘unwanted’ and hence not economically developed by any regional government, the article aims to historically elucidate differences of perception and significance of the area between the authorities and the local herders. On the one hand, the forage-rich pastures of Ilemi have been the casus belli (cause for war) among transhumant communities of Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya, and an enigma to colonial surveyors who could not determine their ‘ownership’ and extent. On the other hand, failure to administer the region in the last century reflects the lack of attractiveness to the authorities that have not agreed on security and grazing arrangements for the benefit of their respective nomadic populations. This article places the disputed ‘triangle’ of conflict into historical, anthropological, sociological and political context. The closing reflections assess the future of the dispute in view of the current initiative by the USA to end the 19-year-old civil war in Sudan and promote the country’s relationship with her neighbors particularly Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia. However, the author is cynical of attempts to enhance international security and political stability that do not embrace ‘peoples of the periphery’, such as the herders of Ilemi, into the economic, social, and political rhythm of the mainstream society.
Nene Mburu is a retired army officer and currently a part-time lecturer for Amersham & Wycombe College (United Kingdom). He obtained his Ph.D. in War Studies at the University of London in 2000, and has several refereed publications in The Nordic Journal of African Studies. This article is original work although some of the ideas on colonial boundaries are extracted from the author’s Ph.D. thesis on the Shifta conflict in Kenya.