The Ilemi Triangle 'Sovereigntyscape' (Part One)

Ilemi Triangle map

The Ilemi Triangle is an area of disputed land in East Africa of approximately 10,000 square kilometres. Kenya (the state with de facto control) and Sudan have been the principal claimants of the territory although Ethiopia has also played a role. Imperial conquest, treaties and mapmaking are central to the contemporary problem although precise delimitation of the three imperial spheres—Ethiopia, the British in Kenya and Uganda, and the joint British-Egyptian administration of Sudan—was not something that took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nonetheless, the intersection of these forces meant that Ilemi became important precisely because of the lack of attention that it received during the colonial boundary-making process of 1914. Ilemi's sparse settlement, remoteness, lack of infrastructure and variously inhospitable swampy and mountainous landscapes all meant that the area could be treated as relatively insignificant.

But Ilemi, like other areas of south Sudan, is potentially rich in oil. 'Nevertheless,' writes Nene Mburu (2003), 'no explorations have been made in the contested territory partly due to insecurity from the . . . civil war in southern Sudan and partly due to a hands-off attitude by each regional government.' Ilemi's value may also be recognised in its dry-season pastures which have been 'the focus of incessant conflicts among transhumant communities and an enigma to boundary surveyors who previously failed to determine its precise extent and breadth' (Mburu). This article, the first of two on the Ilemi Triangle will narrate a brief historical account of the Ilemi problem and the trajectory that the future resolution of the dispute may take. The second will consider the Triangle in the context of recent work by in political geography on 'sovereigntyscapes', principally by James Sidaway (2003). Indeed, Ilemi might be pointed to as an example of deficiency in African sovereignty itself but, as this work argues, rather than perceive a crisis of sovereignty we might more usefully recognise a crisis of interpretation. In this sense, weak or failed sovereignty in Africa should be considered in light of excess hegemonic, often Western, power rather than through the reproduction of an orthodox discourse on the characteristic deficiency of African sovereignty.

Read the full article here.