A lot is talked about Kenya’s dispute with Uganda over Migingo island but only a few people know of another quiet but consequential border dispute over the so-called Ilemi Triangle between Kenya and the Republic of South Sudan.

Unlike Migingo island where the worst that has happened is an arrest here and there or the closing of a drinking joint, the Turkana people residing near the Ilemi Triangle have seen their share of death and tragedy due to skirmishes with the Cushite Dassanech tribe (mainly residing in Ethiopia) over grazing rights dating back to pre-colonial days.

With both sides armed to the teeth allegedly by the Kenyan government (for the Turkana) and the Ethiopian government (Dassanech) coupled with rumors of oil deposits in the region, this is probably an area we will hear more about in the future. 

At this point Kenya controls the Ilemi Triangle and is included as the northwest tip of the official Kenya map. Ethiopia at this time lays no claim on the Triangle while South Sudan now believes it is part of its territory. According to the author Robert E Collins in his book, Civil Wars and Revolution in the Sudan: Essays on the Sudan, Southern Sudan, efforts by the Kenyan government to officially resolve the border dispute has been fruitless except for gentleman’s agreements along the way.

Map1- The Ilemi Triangle (By No machine-readable author provided. Roke~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=654925)

In fact, the nations of Sudan and South Sudan have their fair share of disputed land between themselves and their neighbors as shown in the map below. The discovery of minerals will only continue to escalate these disputes.

Map 2- In Red: Sudan’s Disputed Regions with the Ilemi Triangle shared by Kenya, South Sudan and Ethiopia (By Lencer [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

But here is a short summary of how the evolving Ilemi Triangle demarcation lines came to be:

  • The “Maud Line” named after Philip Maud of the Royal engineers in 1902-1903 was the first attempt to clarify the border.
  • The border was extended to what we currently see on the official Kenya map today. This border represents the “1914 Line” which was an attempt by the British to curb Menelik of Ethiopia’s expansionist ambitions.
  • The “Red Line” was introduced in 1931 to define the northern limits of the Turkana tribe’s grazing land.
  • The 1938 “the Wakefield Line” or the modified “Red Line” named after R.C. Wakefield (who was Director of Sudan Surveys) was drawn to extend the 1931 “Red Line” eastwards.  A land swap in which Sudan would cede part of Ilemi Triangle to Ethiopia and more land to Kenya was proposed. In exchange Ethiopia would surrender the Baro Salient to Sudan. However the Italians who were occupying Ethiopia at the time rejected this proposal, once again leaving the dispute in limbo.

Subsequent attempts by the Kenyatta government to readjust the provisional border from the 1914 Line to a permanent one marked by the Red Line were unfruitful.

It is interesting to note that prior to 1978 the Ilemi Triangle border appeared as a dotted line on many official maps meaning it was a provisional border, but now it appears as a solid line (making it a permanent border). 

Does that mean that the Ilemi Triangle dispute was resolved in a secret deal between Kenya and South Sudan?

It is rumored that indeed a gentleman’s agreement was reached quietly by President Daniel Arap Moi and Dr. John Garang, with the latter handing over the Ilemi Triangle to Kenya in return for Kenya’s continued support of the SPLM during the Sudan civil war.

But at that point the State of South Sudan was not in existence meaning that the Ilemi Triangle was not “officially” Garang’s to give.

Swimming In Warm Water At Lake Turkana

Read this detailed paper on the history of the of the Ilemi triangle by Prof. Maurice Amautabi.