Chapter 13: A Question Of Boundary Lines from the book Somali Nationalism: International Politics and The Drive For Unity In The Horn Of Africa – The Horn of Africa can be thought of as a triangle, whose up-tilted eastern point extends so far into the Indian Ocean that it is approximately due south of Tehran. The “Horn,” of course, is not a definite territorial jurisdiction, but for the purposes of this book, we define it arbitrarily (but conveniently) as the region inhabited mainly by Somalis.


Chapter 13: A Question Of Boundary Lines

From the book Somali Nationalism: International Politics And The Drive For Unity In The Horn Of Africa

Somali Nationalism International Politics And The Drive For Unity In The Horn Of AfricaSaadia Touval

Harvard University Press

Cambridge, Massachusetts • 1963

In this chapter

The Horn of Africa, besides facing the problem of a Greater Somalia, is plagued by disputes of a more limited scope concerning the border between Ethiopia and the Somali Republic. These disputes are formally held to be separate issues, unconnected with the aspirations of Somali nationalism. In reality, it is impossible to make a clean separation. The Somalis’ approach to the border problem is conditioned by their commitment to the principle that all Somali-inhabited territories ought to be placed under the Somali government. The Ethiopians tend to view the disputes not as isolated cases of unfortunate misunderstandings, but as manifestations of Somali expansionist ambitions. With the broader and more fundamental conflict regarding the establishment of a Greater Somalia looming in the background, the solution of the border disputes tends to become greatly complicated.

There are two major disputes in the area. One concerns the border between Ethiopia and former British Somaliland, and the other the border between Ethiopia and the former trust territory of Somalia. There is also a dispute over the Kenya-Ethiopia boundary, stemming from different interpretations of a 1947 Anglo-Ethiopian agreement which amended the 1907 border agreement. The question is about the ownership of the Gaddaduma wells. That area is frequented by Somali tribes, among others, but the quarrel does not directly involve Somali nationalism.[1] And this chapter will be confined to the two major disputes that have unmistakable relevance to the Somali nationalist movement.


The two cases are in part the legacy of the colonial era, when boundary agreements seem to have been influenced more by the rivalries among the European powers than by local conditions in the Horn. Therefore, to review the cases, one must begin by looking briefly again at the nineteenth century.


At the time of the establishment of the British Protectorate in the 1880s, the boundary with Ethiopia was left undefined. British protection was accorded to the tribes, and, theoretically, it extended over the territory occupied by them. In the early 1890s, when the Ethiopians began to expand in that direction and establish their authority in an area with no defined international boundary, they frequently clashed with Somali tribes, some of which were nominally under British protection.[2]

A Question Of Boundary Lines – Somali NationalismThe first attempt to define the border of the Protectorate was made in the Anglo-Italian agreement on spheres of influence, signed in Rome on May 5, 1894. The British dealt with the Italians on this occasion, recognizing the Italian claim of a protectorate over Ethiopia and responsibility for that country’s foreign affairs. As will be recalled, the Ethiopian emperor refused to acknowledge the Italian claim. Consequently, Ethiopia did not consider itself bound by the Anglo-Italian agreement, and moreover, the emperor denied that any communication on the boundary definition had ever reached him.[3]

After the Italian defeat at Adowa and the failure of the Italian attempt to establish a protectorate over Ethiopia, the British government decided to make a direct approach to Emperor Menelik and try to improve relations. British prestige was low among the Ethiopians, who regarded Britain as the ally of the defeated Italians. Moreover, the French, who were quite active in Ethiopia, were doing their best to weaken the British position there. Indeed, Anglo-French rivalry in Sudan made it especially important for Britain to win Ethiopia’s goodwill at that time. The Somaliland border question, though regarded as of only secondary importance, was another matter the British hoped to see settled.[4]

The British mission to Emperor Menelik, headed by James Rennel Rodd, who was a chief secretary at the British Agency in Cairo at the time, arrived in Addis Ababa in April 1897 after an arduous overland trip from Zeila. The negotiations resulted in the conclusion of a treaty followed by an exchange of notes delimiting the border between the British Somaliland Protectorate and Ethiopia. The treaty included also commercial clauses and assured Britain of Ethiopia’s friendly neutrality in the war against the Mahdists in Sudan.[5]

The settlement of the Somaliland frontier question represented concessions on both sides. The Ethiopians gave up some of their claims, which amounted to about half of the Protectorate’s territory. The British, on the other hand, did not insist on recognition of the frontier agreed upon with Italy in 1894 and ceded to Ethiopia some 25,000 square miles of territory they thought they had acquired in the treaty with Italy. The willingness of the British to compromise on this question was motivated chiefly by their desire to obtain Menelik’s goodwill during the crucial period of the reconquest of Sudan and the competition with France over the sources of the Nile.

The agreement was much criticized in Britain at the time on account of the territorial concessions made to Ethiopia.[6] It was not foreseen, however, that the main weakness of the agreement lay in the practical implementation of its provisions, which were bound to generate friction. The borderline cut across customary grazing areas of Somali tribes; therefore an annex to the treaty provided that the tribes “occupying either side of the line shall have the right to use the grazing grounds on the other side.”[7] Periodical clashes between British-protected tribes and Ethiopian tribes over grazing areas and wells, and occasional jurisdictional disputes between British and Ethiopian officials, became a considerable irritant to both sides. In an attempt to eliminate at least that part of the friction caused by uncertainty about the location of the frontier, an Anglo-Ethiopian commission demarcated the border between 1932 and 1934.[8]

The placing of huge chunks of Ethiopia under British Military Administration during the Second World War was provided for by the Anglo-Ethiopian agreements of 1942 and 1944.[9] Article 7 of the 1944 agreement said:

In order as an Ally to contribute to the effective prosecution of the war, and without prejudice to their underlying sovereignty, the Imperial Ethiopian Government hereby agrees that, for the duration of this Agreement, the territories designated as the Reserved Area and the Ogaden, shall be under British Military Administration.

The “Reserved Area” was a continuous belt of Ethiopian territory touching French and British Somalilands, as well as all land within Ethiopia occupied by the Franco-Ethiopian Railway. The railway was returned to the Franco-Ethiopian Railway Company in 1946, but not the rest of the Reserved Area—that is, the Haud—and not the Ogaden either at that time.

Article 7 had given “the effective prosecution of the war” as the reason for placing these areas under British Military Administration, but it seems that military necessity was not the only consideration in the minds of the British. The arrangement was apparently connected with their plans for unifying the Somali territories and placing them under British trusteeship after the war. After this plan failed to win the support of the “Big Four” Council of Foreign Ministers, the Ogaden was returned to the Ethiopian administration in 1948. Even then the Haud grazing areas south of the British Somaliland border were retained under British administration. Since approximately half the population of British Somaliland cross annually to the Haud for seasonal grazing, the return of the territory to Ethiopia was bound to cause administrative difficulties. Most probably, the British government also feared that the return might arouse political unrest in the Protectorate.

Ethiopian requests for the Haud led to protracted exchanges between the two governments. It seems that the British tried to induce the Ethiopians to agree to a revision of the border. At one stage Britain proposed an exchange of territory whereby Ethiopia would have received an outlet to the sea at Zeila in return for the Haud. Failing in this, Britain offered to administer the Haud on a lease from Ethiopia. But this too was unacceptable and Ethiopia continued to press for its return to the Ethiopian administration.[10]

The negotiations led finally to the new Anglo-Ethiopian agreement in 1954, and the consequent return of the Haud to Ethiopia in February 1955. The new agreement reaffirmed the 1897 treaty regarding the boundary and grazing rights. It also included additional provisions for the regulation and administration of the seasonal migrations of the British-protected tribes into the Haud. Among them was an ambiguous provision for the continued functioning on Ethiopian territory of tribal authorities, including tribal police, “as set up and recognized by the Government of the Somaliland Protectorate.” This authority was to be exercised “without prejudice to the jurisdiction of the Imperial Ethiopian Government.”[11] Differences regarding the interpretation of these provisions soon developed and the British government formally expressed its view that “many of the actions of the Ethiopian authorities . . . proved to be neither in accord with the letter nor the spirit of the Agreement . . . “[12] A British mission headed by A. D. Dodds-Parker, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, visited Addis Ababa in 1956 in an effort to resolve the different interpretations of the 1954 treaty, but apparently met with little success.[13]

As we have seen, the resentment caused by the return of the Haud to Ethiopia was of major importance in awakening political interest in the Protectorate and stimulating the growth of the nationalist movement. The Somali nationalists declared that they did not recognize the boundary established by the 1897 Anglo-Ethiopian agreement, and contended that Britain was not authorized to enter into any agreements affecting the boundary without consulting the population. They further accused the British of breach of faith, and of violating the trust placed in them by the treaties signed between 1884 and 1886 whereby the Somali tribes accepted British protection. The charge of breach of faith, together with reports about the “decline of British prestige” in the Protectorate, received considerable publicity in Britain. The British government, striving to preserve Somali goodwill, assumed an apologetic attitude and seemed to be eager to placate the Somalis. The Secretary of State for the Colonies declared in the House of Commons that he “regretted” the 1897 Treaty, but that it was “impossible to undo it.”[14] Somali delegations visiting London were accorded a cordial welcome. But the British government did not support Somali moves to have the issue placed before the United Nations or referred to the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion.[15]

With the termination of the British Protectorate over Somaliland in 1960, the Somali position on the Anglo-Ethiopian treaties assumed crucial importance. The 1897 Anglo-Ethiopian agreement so heartily disliked by the nationalists contained two major provisions: first, it defined the border, and, second, it established grazing rights for the Protectorate tribes in Ethiopian territory. An official repudiation of the 1897 treaty as not binding upon the Somali Republic would have undermined the legal basis of the tribes’ trans-border grazing rights. A repudiation might conceivably have prompted the Ethiopian government to bar the former Protectorate tribes from access to the Haud. This would have been a disaster to about half the population of the former Protectorate.

These possibilities were probably considered by the British government and the Somali leaders prior to the termination of the Protectorate. During the constitutional conference in May 1960, the British government expressed the view that

the Anglo-Ethiopian treaty of 1897, which, inter alia, provided the legal basis for trans-frontier grazing rights, should be regarded as remaining in force as between Ethiopia and the successor State following the termination of the Protectorate; but the main provisions of the Anglo-Ethiopian Agreement of 1954, which accorded the Protectorate certain facilities and powers concerning the exercise of these grazing rights, would lapse.[16]

The Somali authorities seem to have tacitly accepted the same position. At this writing, they have refrained from officially adopting the views expressed by nationalist leaders prior to independence, namely that they did not recognize the validity of the 1897 treaty. The caution of the Somali government indicated that it was concerned about the possible consequences of repudiating the treaty. There was no certainty, though, that internal pressures would not eventually induce the government to take a strong stand on the border issue. If and when this happens, a major crisis will ensue.


The other major dispute is legally more complicated, though politically perhaps less explosive. The trust territory of Somalia became independent on July 1, 1960, without a legal international boundary with Ethiopia. The borderline currently observed by both sides is the “provisional administrative” line established by the British authorities in consultation with the Italian and Ethiopian governments at the time of the transfer of Somalia to Italian trust administration in 1950.

The legal history is long and complicated. It commenced in the 1890s when the Italians, expanding inland from their coastal possessions, encountered Ethiopian forces establishing their emperor’s authority in southern Ogaden. The contact between the two forces necessarily raised the question: just where was the boundary between Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia? The first attempt to regulate the frontier question by agreement between the two countries was connected with Major Nerazzini’s peace negotiations in the autumn of 1896, following the Italian defeat at Adowa in March of the same year. In 1897 an agreement was supposedly reached between an Italian mission and the Ethiopian emperor on a provisional border, running parallel to the coast at a distance of 180 miles from it. However, the precise terms of the agreement are not known because no documents have been preserved.[17]

The only boundary agreement of which records are available is the Italian-Ethiopian convention of 1908.[18] This treaty was supposed to provide the basis for the demarcation of the border. But differences soon developed regarding its interpretation, and the demarcation was never carried out on the ground. The difficulty stemmed partly from the reliance of the 1908 treaty upon “the line accepted by the Italian government in 1897,” of which no authentic record was available. Another defect of the 1908 treaty was its attempt to define the international border as coinciding with the boundary between tribes. The signers apparently did not take into account that some of the tribes migrate and do not afford a suitable reference point.

As we have seen, during the Fascist era the absence of a clearly defined border served Italian expansionist aims. The Italians encouraged Somali tribes to move northward, and Italian posts were established in the Ogaden. This policy led to continuous friction with Ethiopia, culminating in the Wal-Wal incident of 1934.

The vexing border question was temporarily eliminated during the period between 1935 and 1948, when the Ogaden was administratively merged with Italian Somaliland, first under the Italians, then under the British.

After the establishment of the United Nations trust territory of Somalia, under Italian administration, the U.N. General Assembly recommended in 1950 that direct negotiations be undertaken between Italy and Ethiopia with the object of reaching an agreement on the exact location of the frontier.[19] Negotiations were delayed at first by the absence of diplomatic relations between the two countries; but, even after relations were restored late in 1951, no progress was achieved. In 1954, the General Assembly reiterated its recommendation that the two parties arrive at a solution by direct negotiation. It recommended that if no agreement were reached by July 1955 they resort to mediation.[20] No attempt was made to submit the issue to mediation. Direct negotiations were carried on intermittently but failed to bring results. Italy claimed that the international border lay west of the “provisional administrative” line and that certain areas administered by Ethiopia properly belonged to Somalia. Ethiopia argued the reverse, namely that the boundary lay east of that line and that areas administered as part of Somalia actually belonged to Ethiopia. At one stage of the negotiations, Ethiopia indicated a willingness to withdraw its claims and compromise on the provisional administrative line as the permanent boundary. No concession appeared to be forthcoming from the other side; so Ethiopia reverted to its former claim.[21]

Next, the General Assembly in 1957 recommended arbitration.[22] During the following year, progress was limited to the establishment of an arbitration tribunal consisting of three jurists. The parties were unable to agree on an “independent person” to assist in drawing up the tribunal’s terms of reference. The General Assembly, therefore, recommended in 1958 that the “independent person” be nominated by the King of Norway.[23] The King nominated the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Trygve Lie, who attempted to obtain an agreement between the parties on a compromis d’arbitrage, defining the terms of reference of the arbitration tribunal. A draft compromise submitted by Lie to the Ethiopian and Italian governments was accepted by them late in 1959 as a basis for discussions; but both governments presented amendments to it which were mutually unacceptable.[24] The negotiations reached a deadlock. During the General Assembly’s 1959 session, its Fourth Committee debated the issue but made no progress and submitted no recommendations.[25]

The principal obstacle was a fundamental disagreement between the Italian and Ethiopian governments on the proper approach to the problem. The Ethiopian government insisted that the dispute was strictly a legal one, concerning the interpretation of the 1908 treaty. The Italian government contended that the problem was not strictly legal and that questions of equity ought to be taken into account as well. Throughout the different stages of negotiations, progress was hindered by the insistence of the parties upon these radically different approaches.[26]

The Ethiopian government’s insistence on a strictly legal approach probably stemmed from the fear that if principles of equity were admitted as a basis for a solution, considerations involving the ethnic composition of the population would be brought to bear on the decision. Any decision based upon ethnic composition would have created a precedent, providing a basis for future territorial claims. Moreover, a strong undercurrent of Ethiopian distrust toward Italy greatly influenced the talks. Italy’s insistence that the arbitration tribunal be empowered to consider international agreements other than the 1908 treaty amounted to a contention that agreements between Italy and European powers on spheres of influence in Ethiopia be admitted as relevant. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Italian approach failed to elicit much goodwill from the Ethiopian side.

As no solution seemed in prospect prior to Somalia’s becoming independent, the parties informally agreed in December 1959 that the provisional administrative line should remain in force until a final settlement was made.[27]

It was hoped that the negotiations would be resumed when Somalia became independent, and that direct negotiations between the Somalis and Ethiopians, without the presence of Italian representatives, might proceed more smoothly. After independence, however, the reopening of the negotiations was postponed pending the accreditation of a Somali Republic diplomatic mission in Addis Ababa. Budgetary difficulties, but perhaps political reasons as well, delayed for a while the establishment of such a mission, and, even after the mission was accredited, negotiations did not begin immediately. As this is written, negotiations have not begun.

The negotiations are likely to be difficult. Somali aspirations for national unification and for the establishment of a Greater Somalia would require far greater territorial concessions on the part of Ethiopia than were claimed in connection with the border. To isolate the legal dispute over the boundary from the fundamental political problems raised by these Somali aspirations will probably be impossible. Indeed, so long as the fundamental conflict between Somali nationalism and Ethiopia persists, the border question is likely to remain open.


[1] On the Kenya-Ethiopian border dispute see British and Foreign State Papers, vol. 100, 1906-1907 (London: H.M.S.O., 1911), pp. 459-460; and vol. 147, 1947, part I (London: H.M.S.O., 1955), pp. 791-795.

[2] H. G. C. Swayne, Seventeen Trips Through Somaliland, third edition (London: Rowland Ward, Ltd., 1903), passim.

[3] On the 1894 agreement see The Map of Africa by Treaty, third edition, ed. Sir Edward Hertslet (London: H.M.S.O., 1909), vol. Ill, p. 951. On Ethiopia’s reaction see Sir James Rennell Rodd, Social and Diplomatic Memoirs, second series, 1894-1901 (London: Edward Arnold & Co., 1923), pp. 164-165.

[4] Rodd, pp. 109-114; W. L. Langer, The Diplomacy of Imperialism, second edition (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956), pp. 546-547. On the Anglo-French rivalry over the sources of the Nile and the French use of Ethiopia as a base for some of their expeditions, see Langer, pp. 537-577.

[5] Rodd, pp. 162-188. For the text of the treaty, see Hertslet, Map of Africa by Treaty, vol. II, pp. 423-429. For an account of the mission see Count Albert E. W. Gleichen, With the Mission to Meneli\, 1897 (London: Edward Arnold, 1897). See also Swayne, pp. 268-292. The questions of the Ethiopia-Sudan border and the border between Ethiopia and British East Africa could not be resolved and were deferred for subsequent negotiations.

[6] Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, fourth series, vol. 53, cols. 1527-1528, 1579-1605 (1898).

[7] Hertslet, Map of Africa by Treaty, vol. II, p. 428; Rodd, pp. 167-169, 181-183.

[8] Lieut.-Col. Ε. H. M. Clifford, “The British Somaliland Ethiopia Boundary,” The Geographical Journal (London), vol. 87 (1936), p. 296.

[9] Agreement and Military Convention between the United Kingdom and Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, 31st January 1942 (Cmd. 6334); Agreement between His Majesty in respect of the United Kingdom and His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, 19th December 1944 (Cmd. 6584). For a comprehensive discussion of British Military Administration over the area see Lord Rennell of Rodd, British Military Administration of Occupied Territories in Africa, 1941-1947 (London: H.M.S.O., 1948).

[10] See Exchanges of Notes between His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom and the French Government regarding a Proposed Cession of Territory in the Zeila Area to Ethiopia (Cmd. 7758, May 10, 1949); Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, fifth series, vol. 537, col. 1684 (Feb. 25, 1955). See also M. Perham, The Government of Ethiopia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1948), pp. 388-400; D. J. Latham Brown, “The Ethiopia-Somaliland Frontier Dispute,” International and Comparative Law Quarterly (London), April 1956, pp. 245-264.

[11] Agreement . . . relating to certain Matters connected with the Withdrawal of British Military Administration from the Territories designated as the Reserved Area and the Ogaden (Cmd. 9348, Nov. 29, 1954).

[12] H. Hopkinson, Minister of State for Colonial Affairs, Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, fifth series, vol. 546, col. 907 (Nov. 17, 1955).

[13] The Times (London), April 14 and 26, 1956.

[14] Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, fifth series, vol. 537, col. 1285 (Feb. 23, 1955).

[15] The Times (London), May 5, 6, 10, 13, Oct. 18, 1955; Africa Digest (London), January-February 1956, p. 12. It is interesting to recall that the issue of whether the Protectorate population ought to be consulted was raised in 1935 in connection with the British offer to transfer to Ethiopia a portion of British Somaliland territory with an outlet to the sea—as an inducement to Ethiopia to make concessions to Italy and thus avert war. The British compromise proposal was rejected by Mussolini. See Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, fifth series, vol. 303, cols. 2004-2008 (July 4, 1935), and vol. 304, cols. 5-7 (July 8, 1935).

[16] Great Britain, Colonial Office, Report of the Somaliland Protectorate Constitutional Conference (London: H.M.S.O., 1960), Cmd. 1044. See also the Prime Minister’s statement expressing this view in Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, fifth series, vol. 621, col. 105 (April 11, 1960). For a detailed discussion of the legal aspects of the problem see D. J. Latham Brown, “Recent Developments in the Ethiopia-Somaliland Dispute,” International and Comparative Law Quarterly, January 1961, pp. 167—178.

[17] C. Rossetti, Storia Diplomatica dell’ Etiopia (Turin: S.T.E.N., 1910), pp. 404-416; M. Magini, Variazioni territoriali nett’ A.O.I, dal 1880 al ig¡¡8 (Florence: Carlo Cya, 1939), pp. 47-48.

[18] For text of convention see Hertslet, Map of Africa by Treaty, vol. Ill, pp. 1223-1224.

[19] General Assembly Resolution 392 (V), Dec. 15, 1950.

[20] G.A. Res. 854 (IX), Dec. 14, 1954.

[21] See U.N. Docs. A/3753, A/3754.

[22] G.A. Res. 1213 (XII), Dec. 14, 1957.

[23] G.A. Res. 1345 (XIII), Dec. 13, 1958.

[24] For the draft and the proposed amendments see U.N. Doc. A/4325 (Dec. 3, 1959)·

[25] U.N. Doc. A/4350. For the discussion in the Fourth Committee see U.N. Docs. A/C.4/SR. 986, 990, 991, 997-1001.

[26] Besides the documents just cited, see U.N. Docs. A/3753, A/3754, A/4030, A/4031, and A/C.4/SR. 779, 782-786, 789, 797.

[27] U.N. Doc. A/C.4/SR. 1001.

To be continued …..

About This Book

In this first book on the emergence of Somali nationalism, Saadia Touval draws on extensive research and firsthand knowledge to explore the complex and dangerous situation in easternmost Africa. He describes the land and people, the spread of Somali tribes with their Moslem culture, the arrival of Europeans during the nineteenth century, the development of national consciousness, politics in the new Somali Republic and French Somaliland, problems presented by the Somalis of Kenya and Ethiopia, and the overriding question of boundary lines. Finally, he discusses the prospects for a peaceful solution.

About the Author(s)

Saadia Touval lectures on Political Science and African Politics at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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