The British Empire Library

Ilemi Triangle: Unfixed Bandit Frontier claimed by Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia

by Nene Mburu

Courtesy of OSPA

Oliver Knowles (DO Lokitaung 1949-50)
This is a scholarly work with 270 footnotes and references. Its author. Dr Nene Mburu, a former Kenyan soldier and a PhD in War Studies from Kings College, London, is uniquely qualified to write what is likely to become the standard textbook on this subject.

The Ilemi Triangle, at up to 5,405 square miles in area depending where its boundaries are drawn, is larger than some African countries, and is at the point where the frontiers of Ethiopia, Kenya, and the Sudan meet. Its present economic value is as a seasonal grazing area to which five ethnic communities, the Turkana, Didinga, Toposa, Inyangatom (or Dongiro) and Dasseneh (or Merille) can lay some claim. When the European powers started to draw lines with a ruler on the map of Africa at the Berlin Conference of 1884-5 it was of little interest to any of them. But it had not escaped the gaze of the Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia, who was then consolidating his boundaries against the claims of various European powers and also the Muslim world. In 1896 Menelik decided to claim for his empire a chunk of the land of the Turkana, which he would deny to the Europeans. At the time his main European ally was Russia which had missed out in the scramble for Africa. In 1897 he launched a three-pronged invasion with the assistance of Russian officers. Within four months Ethiopia had conquered an area of over 18,000 square miles where it raised the Ethiopian flag in the fashion of its European competitors. In 1899 Lake Turkana was reached and a column penetrated south of Lodwar and Mt Kulal towards Loiyangalani. British flags were removed and the Ethiopian flag was planted near the mouth of the River Omo. The British too saw the strategic value of Turkana and signed treaties with the local people, playing a cat and mouse game with the Ethiopians. The Anglo-Ethiopian agreement of 1902 eventually gave to the British land to the West of the River Kibish and to the Ethiopians all land to the East of this river. There is no evidence that any of the border tribes were consulted or have seen this document.

With the partition of Africa by the European powers there was no urgency to delimit the Kenya-Sudan-Uganda boundaries as Britain administered all three countries - and right up to the time of Kenyan and Sudanese independence the British District Officer in Lokitaung was being gazetted as a magistrate in both Nairobi and Khartoum to ensure his jurisdiction. Another chapter of the book describes how Pax Britannica was gradually imposed in the land of the Turkana, and further chapters describe the desultory attempts that have been made from time to time to delineate the boundaries and to settle disputes.

A final chapter considers the future of the Ilemi Triangle, which to this day is being mostly administered by Kenya. Its potential economic importance has greatly increased with modern communication and transport facilities and the discovery of substantial quantities of oil in both Northern Uganda and the Southern Sudan. Traces of gold have also been found in the Triangle. Provided that the Merille tribe and the Ethiopians retain control of the River Omo, and Ethiopia and the Sudan can resolve the problem of the Bayro salient, the problem is essentially one to be resolved between Kenya and the Sudan. There would appear to be every possibility of solving this problem amicably by negotiation.

There is an editorial error at page 161 where the Kenya boundary representative on the Kenya-Ethiopia boundary commission is referred to as "Leslie Walters" instead of "Leslie Whitehouse".

Dr Mburu deserves our congratulations for writing so knowledgeably and clearly about a complex situation.

British Empire Book
Nene Mburu
Vita House Ltd
978 0 9555847 01


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