East Africa yet to resolve border disputes ahead of deadline

Thursday January 19 2017

East Africa's unresolved border disputes. TEA GRAPHIC | FILE

The border dispute between Rwanda and Burundi has once again drawn attention to the unresolved territorial contests across the continent.

The deadline set by the African Union for all African countries to delineate and demarcate their borders by the end of 2017, but only 30 per cent of the entire 80,000km borders on the continent have been demarcated.

The African Union Border Programme (AUBP) launched in 2007 had initially provided all countries with outstanding border disputes to delimit and demarcate their boundaries by the end of 2010.

However, the deadline was pushed to the end of 2017 because of lack of funding and technical expertise. Most of the disputes arise out of the scramble for natural resources or personal differences between leaders of neighbouring countries.

Hills and water

Burundi at the beginning of the year raised the stakes by claiming Sabanegwa Hill as the bilateral relations between Kigali and Bujumbura deteriorate over claims that Rwanda is housing and training Burundi rebels. The dispute over the hill started in 2007, and is being handled by a joint border demarcation commission.


READ: Burundi picks a hill to launch fresh attack on Rwanda

Kenya and Somalia too have a dispute over the maritime border in the Indian Ocean. Somalia in 2014 filed a case at the International Court of Justice accusing Kenya of encroaching on 100,000 square km of marine territory with potential oil and gas deposits. The case is yet to be concluded.

Timothy Walker, a maritime specialist at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, said that maritime disputes if not resolved through negotiations and consensus, are likely to endanger vital maritime economic activities that could otherwise be beneficial to both countries.

READ: Maritime border row: Experts advise Kenya, Somalia to join hands

Kenya and Uganda are also both claiming ownership of the fish-rich Migingo Island on Lake Victoria. The dispute has been ongoing since February 2009, while the joint survey team that was set up to review the colonial map is yet to produce its reports after the Ugandan government withdrew its participants for consolations.

Oil deposits

There is also the Elemi Triangle border dispute between Kenya and South Sudan that is yet to be resolved because the latter is still to settle after gaining independence in 2011. The Triangle which has been claimed by Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia in the past 50 years is believed to have oil and mineral deposits.

Last year, a South Sudanese delegation led by the then Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Barnaba Marial Benjamin, visited Nairobi to launch discussion over delineation and demarcation of the 14,000 km border.

READ: Kenya, Ethiopia, South Sudan in talks over disputed land

Africa’s youngest nation is also yet to complete its border demarcation with Sudan as per the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, especially the disputed Abyei region. The civil war in South Sudan has made it difficult for Juba to concentrate on negotiations over Abyei, which failed to conduct a referendum in 2011 due to a standoff between Juba and Khartoum over who was eligible to vote.

READ: Khartoum and Juba ask AU to help mark border


Farther north, Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a two-year war over the disputed border area of Badme between 1998 and 2000 in which an estimated 80,000 people died. The Ethiopian-Eritrea Boundary Commission sitting at The Hague in 2002 ruled that Badme belongs to Eritrea, with Ethiopia accepting the ruling “in principle” but demanding further dialogue with Eritrea.

Lake Malawi or Lake Nyasa?

Another border dispute between Tanzania and Malawi began in 1967 over Lake Malawi. Tanzanian maps show that the border runs down the middle of the lake, while Malawi maintains that all waters between the two countries is in their territory. The mediation process under the leadership of former present of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano, collapsed in 2014.

READ: Tanzania to deploy three cargo ships on disputed Lake Nyasa

ALSO READ: Tanzania issues new map, Malawi pulls out of talks

So far, the border between Mali and Burkina Faso has been delimited and demarcated, as have the boundaries between Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. The maritime boundaries between the Comoros, Seychelles, Tanzania and Mozambique have also been delimited.

On the other hand, Nigeria and Sao Tome and Principe established Joint Development Zones in 2003 after it became clear that the two countries could not agree on their maritime borders.