- Title: [SW News](BBC ) Border a geographer's nightmare
- Date :[12 May, 2000]
Border a geographer's nightmare
Friday, 12 May, 2000, 11:15 GMT 12:15 UK
(BBC)Border a geographer's nightmare
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
At least one observer 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
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
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.
1. Bad times in Badme, International Boundaries Research Unit, University of
Durham, UK 1999
2. Cartografia (Hungary), Geocenter (US), International Travel Maps (Canada)
3. Jean-Louis Peninou, The Ethiopian-Eritrean Border Conflict, International
Boundaries Research Unit, University of Durham, UK 1998