Some Points on the Ethio-Sudan border flap – By Fekade Shewakena

May 15th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

News of boundary demarcation between Sudan and Ethiopia that unfairly favored Sudan and reports of harm done to Ethiopian farmers along the border is a subject of intense debate among many Diaspora Ethiopians. The blockage of the internet, the curtailment on the independent media and jamming of radio broadcast from outside, coupled with the raging fear of government seem to have blackened out the news and discussion inside the country. Diaspora Ethiopian community airwaves and cyber media are saturated with the news. (more…)

News of boundary demarcation between Sudan and Ethiopia that unfairly favored Sudan and reports of harm done to Ethiopian farmers along the border is a subject of intense debate among many Diaspora Ethiopians. The blockage of the internet, the curtailment on the independent media and jamming of radio broadcast from outside, coupled with the raging fear of government seem to have blackened out the news and discussion inside the country. Diaspora Ethiopian community airwaves and cyber media are saturated with the news. Emotions are flaring high at the news that not only was land ceded to Sudan, but also by stories of local villages along the border that were burnt by Sudanese soldiers and that even some workers on farms have been taken prisoners by these soldiers while the Ethiopian government is looking the other way. The government’s response to the demands for explanation is a dismissive and emotional denial and has not been helpful. The press release from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed the whole flap as antigovernment rumor and rant against people who spread these “rumors”. On the other hand, the evidences trickling out from farmers particularly from western Gondar, that include witness interviews on credible news outlets such as the Voice of America, where investors in the area confirmed their workers have been taken prisoner by the Sudanese, and wide coverage on German Radio, statements from Sudanese officials, and publications on the Sudanese side, do not comport with the denials of the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Add to this the low believability credit of Zenawi’s regime. It hasn’t gone far in cooling the rage. The Ethiopian officials seem to be in a position of a thief who stole a camel and wants to hide. There seems to be some fire to this smoke and there is no doubt that the news I just heard as I write this, Siyum Mesfin travelling to Sudan, has something to do with it. But amid the emotional exchange, the substantive issue surrounding the boundary is getting lost and an opportunity for useful public discussion on such an important issue is completely missed. Ethiopia is a country where most of the national boundary is not properly demarcated and whatever the kind of government we have, it has to deal with this issue one way or the other.

The rulers in power in Ethiopia should understand that boundaries are not simple mechanical drawings. They are also mental constructs that develop in culture and history and they are uniquely so in Ethiopia’s case. The fact that this is an emotional subject should not have been a surprise for Meles Zenawi and his officials and to anyone who is familiar with Ethiopia’s history. Ethiopians have fought more than thirty international wars within the last one hundred fifty years alone to secure the country’s territorial integrity. The boundaries and the epic wars that our fathers fought against foreign invaders are part of our folklore and the exhibition of our pride in repulsing aggressive invaders and living in independence throughout the ages. Most Ethiopians have this in their bones. This pride is a good thing that needs to be cultivated. Our parents tell us about these stories when we are yet small kids. For an Ethiopian a map of Ethiopia that doesn’t include Eritrea, even after the separation became real 15 years ago, looks ridiculously ugly because it contradicts that mental construct. Anytime I see Ethiopia and the Red Sea, and look at the strip of land that separated 80 million of us from the Red Sea only 15 kilometers away, I feel a sense of humiliation and shame, not because I am a lunatic “neftegna” land lover as some silly people would want to call me, but because I know a history of Ethiopia that was a big maritime civilization where the red see was at the center. A look at this map lessens our pride in our great Axumite civilization. Even for anyone who doesn’t know the history, the strip of land that appears to be so deliberately carved out of the edge of Ethiopia to look like a fence and to deliberately bar us from the Red Sea, does not appear right. It may look fine for the TPLF leaders who see everything from the point of view of their stranglehold on power, but it affects the psyche of entire generations with serious consequences for our nation building. Pride dignity, and senses of historical achievement are good things in nation building and all countries use it. That is partly why we study our history, is it not? I am happy people are angry and enraged about a boundary issue. Any sane government should be proud of such citizens. It is patriotism in display, it is a national asset and it is good.

What is stunningly surprising is the insensitivity of the Meles Zenawi’s regime and its blind supporters to this aspect of our history and the demand of citizens for transparency of the actions of the government on the Ethio-Sudanese boundary. I know sensitivity is not any of the virtues of Meles Zenawi. But even dictators have a limit to the contempt they have for their subjects. Granted that all governments have to deal with neighbors and boundaries, but I cannot understand why Meles chose to do it in secret, behind the back of the Ethiopian people, if his intentions were good.

Some basics about boundaries:

1. The boundaries of every nation are inseparable from the evolution of the nation in question. Like the country, the boundaries also evolve and pass through stages of development. In fact, if you look at their history, you will see marked stages in the evolution of all boundaries. At their first stage all boundaries are horizons, zones of land, separating countries or regions. It is only an initial claim to a mass of land whose extent is only an estimate. At later times, and when interaction between the neighbors gets more intense, political forces on two sides of this horizon come into conflict and are forced to make political agreements to delineate the boundary. This is the first political decision in the making of boundaries. This is followed by demarcation, the identification of geographic coordinates and the actual marking on the ground of the boundary mark. In cases where a combination of both history and political decisions are carefully considered and weighed to the benefit of each side, demarcation will be successful and is always good. Where boundaries are made with these considerations, there are little boundary conflicts. The lucky countries that have no boundary conflicts with their neighbors have made it this way.

2. The highest and last stage in the evolution of boundaries is administration. Administration is the confirmation of your authority within the land bound by the boundary. In fact, administration supersedes every factor of decision making regarding boundaries. Nobody in their right mind, except those who need military conflict for its own sake would dare to demand a boundary mark within the boundary that a sovereign nation is known to have administered without risking war. That is why many countries argue the “administration” argument rather than any cartographic mark when a boundary contest based on colonial cartography threatened their territories. No unilaterally made or superimposed colonial boundary can, for example, be acceptable on a territory that has been administered under the authority of the country, or its regional and local governments. You only have to prove that you always administered it and you can be justified to militarily defend it. The Badame historic mistake occurred because of this egregious mistake on the part of the TPLF. It could have argued it on grounds of administration rather than allowing the admission of defunct colonial boundary treaties that were null and void when the Italians abrogated it and invaded Ethiopia. (This poor student of Ethiopian geography was among those who cried at the top of their lungs to stop the admission of colonial maps in the Algiers Agreement with Eritrea).

3. Boundaries are of three types and the boundaries of nations are made of one or any combination of them. The first types are natural boundaries that are marked by rivers, mountain chains or escarpments and other physical features. The second types are known as geometric boundaries, where boundaries are marked by drawing lines connecting dots (geographic coordinates) on maps. The straight line boundaries that separate Egypt and Libya or the boundaries that separate many of the states of the United States are examples of geometric boundaries. The third are ethnic boundaries which follow settlements inhabited by ethnic groups. Ethnic boundaries are mostly undefined and often geographic continuum becoming perennially disputed. Inside Ethiopia, such ethnic boundaries have always been zones of conflict between adjacent tribes. Nonetheless, the people often have mechanisms of resolving these conflicts without outside intervention. When outsiders and central governments get involved and do it with little input from local populations, their history and cultures, the conflicts often intensify. If you have heard ethnic warfare and conflicts in Ethiopia recently on a scale unheard of before, the reason is the hasty zoning and regionalization made by the current regime. This ethnic regionalization of the country by central authority was done with complete disregard for history, sociology and local knowledge. That is what the TPLF/EPRDF did in Ethiopia. That is the reason of continuous bloodletting between ethnic groups in parts of Southern Ethiopia. I hear that there are several hundred thousand internally displaced people in southern Ethiopia currently living in tragic conditions. Look at the Guji-Sidama conflict. There are similar situations along the national borders. In some of the cases the boundary lines run right in the middle of tribes and even extended families and make it complicated. This is also a serious factor that makes boundary demarcation with neighbors a difficult exercise.

When viewed from these perspectives, and as a matter of fact, Ethiopia’s national boundaries have not completed their evolution over most of their extents. Most of the boundary of Ethiopia with its five neighbors still remains unmarked. A good part of this is because of the unique history of Ethiopia. Unlike most of the countries of Africa where colonial powers made the decisions sitting on both sides of the border, decisions on Ethiopia’s side have been made by sovereign Ethiopian rulers. In many cases, the decisions have been made unilaterally by the colonial power sitting on the other side. Ethiopian rulers were often pressured and threatened to accept super imposed boundary decisions by colonial forces.

The Ethio-Sudan Case: The boundary between Sudan and Ethiopia is largely unmarked. There have been some agreements on some parts of the boundary, (clique here to read a 1902 Anglo-Ethiopian Agreement written in both Amharic and English). You will see that the British were more concerned about their control of the Nile and its tributaries than the boundaries.

It is true that both Haile Sillassie and the dergue wanted to resolve the boundary between Sudan and Ethiopia but could not succeed simply because it was hard. A lot of time has gone by since the agreements with the British and there have been changes on the ground since then. The Sudanese know that the boundaries lined by their colonial masters, particularly by one British army major, the so called Gwen Line, are useful to them. It gives them a fertile chunk of land that the Ethiopians in the surrounding area have always claimed as theirs and used. Our fathers love land and there is no logical reason they would ever cede to conquer that fertile piece of land full of alluvial soils on the edge of intensively cultivated western highlands, save their fear of seasonal Malaria and other tropical diseases.

Since the TPLF/EPRDF government does its negotiations in secret, I don’t know what they plan to make their agreements on and what actually is going on. I have suspicion that they are going to repeat what they have done in the Badme case, using crude colonial agreements instead of the more plausible “administration” argument. If that is what they are doing they are doing it at Ethiopia’s expense. Yes, there are international laws regarding boundary demarcations that must be accepted. But one has to be so stupid to think that these laws can be applied mechanically without considerations of local circumstances and history and the socio-economy of the area.

Had the TPLF/EPRDF argued the administration argument instead of allowing nullified Italian maps, Badame would not have been given to Eritrea and we should not have been in this shameful position now of rejecting a binding agreement after the fact. Siyum Mesfin and Meles would have saved themselves from that shameful press release calling us to dance on the streets after the arbitration court’s decision. I am ashamed of what they did as an Ethiopian but more than anything else this shame will follow this “tenured” Foreign Minister of 18 years to his grave. If this is the same principle being applied in the Ethio-Sudanese case, there is no doubt that it will be another disaster for Ethiopia. It means loss of a huge chunk of fertile alluvial farmland that would feed a good part of the population.

One sad aspect of the current discourse is that the TPLF and its supporters are twisting the public outrage and demand for clarification as something that has to do with the people of Tigrai. It now has become a pattern that anytime you oppose Meles Zenawi and his actions, it is construed as if you are against the Tigrean people. Any sane human being understands that the Tigrean people are in the dark as the rest of their fellow Ethiopians and have nothing to do with this boundary decision. I am sure, and I personally know that there are many Tigreans who are angry that this is being done behind their backs. I am not sure how the equation of equivalence is made between the people of Tigrai and the handful of TPLF rulers who keep messing the country. This twist being pursued by pro-TPLF media outlets is getting absolutely ridiculous and devoid of responsibility. An editorial on Aigaforum, a TPLF outlet, has gone to an extent of using language that makes the Nazis less vitriolic against the Jews when it insulted the critics as “Zerebisoch” (people with trash origin) before it tries to tell us the role of Tigreans in our history, which no one denies. I only hope this kind of language is coming out from among the most ignorant of the TPLF operatives and not condoned by the leadership. In many places I know in Ethiopia, anyone would feel justified to blow your head off if you call him a “Zerebis”. Another pattern in the blame game is attributing every bad thing on Shabia, OLF or ONLF and attributing this so called rumor on them. This stupid argument is based on the assumption that we are all stupid and cannot find the truth on our own.

I suggest that we all need to take a step back and deliberate on the issue as one people with calm and reason and well founded evidence. I hope the TPLF/EPRDF officials would let us know what actually transpired regarding the boundary issue rather than rant at us. If they choose to keep denying and close us out, we will get the information from somewhere else. Hey, this is the information age. The TPLF supporters should also understand that they are not helping any cause by blindly touting the official line and should instead stand for transparency. On the side of the opponents, I urge calm and the need to build informed and substantive argument. At the end of the day, the Ethiopian people and history will have to give their verdict. Sooner or later there will be someone to account for any misdeed, if not for us as a people, at least for history.

  1. Kelem
    | #1

    What a wonderful educational aricle. No wonder the woyane’s hated you and fired you from AAU. Obviouly they could not stand you. Sad Ethiopian Students are missing such wonderful lecturers. I cry for my country.

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