Troubled borders

Observations on Africa

When Eritrean and Djiboutian troops clashed in the Horn of Africa this month, leaving 12 Djiboutians dead and more than 50 injured, local people wondered if they were caught in a time-warp.

A badly defined colonial border, nervy soldiers, the bloody escalation of a minor incident threatening to lead to all-out war - it was a repeat of the events of May 1998, when Eritrean and Ethiopian forces clashed near the contested village of Badme, leading to a two-year conflict and some 90,000 deaths.

This time the venue was Ras Doumeira, a bleak rock promontory overlooking the Red Sea's strategic shipping lanes. The incident was probably unpremeditated: Eritrean commanders reportedly opened fire in an attempt to recapture a group of deserters who had fled to the Djiboutian side. But it was waiting to happen. For two months, Djibouti had complained about the troop build-up on its frontier, saying Eritreans were digging trenches on land that did not belong to them.

It is unclear why Eritrea should choose to antagonise another neighbour. Analysts speculate that the mobilisation is part of the ongoing contest between the Eritrean president, Isaias Afewerki, with the Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, for the position of regional top dog. Djibouti and Ethiopia are close allies. What is more, Afewerki's drive to present himself as holding the key to peace in Somalia has been undermined by the signing of a peace deal in Djibouti by a breakaway faction of the Somali Islamist opposition he normally hosts in Asmara.

Whatever its deeper causes, the fighting highlighted the capacity of ill-defined borders to create mayhem in a volatile region. Sudden flare-ups are inevitable when hostile forces operate "cheek-by-jowl": Eritrean and Djiboutian soldiers are reported to be inches from one another. But Ras Doumeira is not the only area where that is true. Since the March pull-out of a UN buffer force, there is nothing to stop Eritrean soldiers coming into contact with Ethiopian troops along the 1,000km of their mutual border.

There's also the clucking sound of chickens coming home to roost. When Djibouti first took fright at Eritrea's troop movements at Ras Doumeira, Djibouti's president, Ismael Omar Guelleh, said the border issue could be settled by international arbitration. Eritrea was less convinced - it had trusted arbitration to settle the course of its frontier with Ethiopia.

The ruling pronounced by an independent boundary commission five years ago so infuriated Addis Ababa that the Ethiopians have refused to demarcate ever since. But there have been no repercussions for Ethiopia, donors' darling and key US ally in the war on terror. With this precedent, it is likely that future border disputes in the Horn will be decided at the barrel of a gun, not the negotiating table.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Truly, madly, politically