Resources and border disputes in Eastern Africa

Wafula Okumu, Published online: 28 Jun 2010


This article argues that there is a likelihood of inter-state disputes in Eastern Africa as natural wealth is discovered in the borderlands. After providing an overview of the current state of Eastern African borders the article points out that the escalating trans-boundary resource disputes are due to the colonial boundary-making errors, undefined and unmarked borders, poor or lack of border management, poor governance, and population bulge. Besides using a number of case studies to contextualise trans-boundary resource conflicts, the article concludes by recommending establishment of a regional mechanism to address border disputes and a regional framework for managing and sharing trans-boundary resources.


There are heightened tensions and increasing potential for inter-state conflicts in Eastern Africa due to growing discoveries, or rumours of existence, of natural resources on borders or in borderlands. The price boom of commodities between 2001 and 2008 due to the rapid industrial development of Asian countries, mainly China, and their efforts to access African minerals, led to a new scramble for African natural resources.Footnote1 This “new scramble” took place when the populations were burgeoning while governments were increasingly becoming incapable of meeting their most basic needs. With unreliable foreign aid, most governments furiously sought other sources of income to meet the demands of their growing populations. This inevitably increased the values of territories that were hitherto neglected and marginalised as governments partitioned the land into concessionary blocks that were awarded to Chinese and Western companies to hunt for natural resources. Many of the most highly prized minerals, including hydrocarbons, iron ore, bauxite/alumina, copper, manganese, molybdenum (moly), uranium, zinc and platinum group metals (PGMs), have been found in Eastern Africa’s borderlands.

Since the eruption of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea over their common boundary in 1998, and the subsequent failure to demarcate it, there has been a growing concern that there could be more inter-state disputes in Eastern Africa as natural wealth is discovered in the borderlands. The recent (2009) standoff between Kenya and Uganda over the ownership of Migingo Island in Lake Victoria, the 2008 border incident between Eritrea and Djibouti, the continuing Somali nationalism in the region, and border skirmishes between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) over the oil-rich Lake Albert region, all indicate that border disputes are on the rise. In addition to the potential for armed conflict, undemarcated, indefinite, porous, and unmanaged boundaries are being used for illegal cross-border activities that threaten national sovereignties and destabilise regional politics. This paper argues that among the sources of current border disputes in Eastern Africa are the improperly delimited and poorly demarcated colonially inherited borders, the procrastination of post-independent governments to correct the colonial errors, poor border administration and management, increasing populations, and discoveries of mineral wealth in the borderlands and frontiers.Footnote2 The first part provides an overview of the current state of Eastern African borders. The second part explores the history of the Eastern African borders by highlighting the colonial boundary-making errors. The third part explores the factors that contribute to border disputes in the region such as poor, or lack of, border management, poor governance and population bulge. The fourth section contextualises the discussion in trans-boundary resource conflicts in the Albert basin, Lakes Victoria and Malawi, and the Ruvuma delta basin. The paper concludes by pointing out that trans-boundary resource disputes can be prevented by delimiting, reaffirming, demarcating, and managing regional boundaries, as well as developing regimes for trans-boundary resource management and use.

Overview of Eastern African border hotspots

Sharing more than thirty boundaries, each of the countries in Eastern Africa has had at least one border dispute with a neighbour. These disputes are mainly over territorial claims, and are most frequently caused by the lack of clearly defined and marked boundaries, the availability of trans-boundary resources, and security-related matters. At present the hottest border spots are on the Ethiopia–Eritrea border, the Eritrea–Djibouti border, the Somalia–Ethiopia–Kenya borders, the Sudan–Kenya border, the Uganda–DRC border, the Sudan–Chad–CAR–DRC–Uganda borders, and the Kenya–Uganda border. In the second tier of disputes are the Tanzania–Mozambique, Tanzania–Malawi, Tanzania–Uganda, Uganda–Rwanda and the Kenya–Ethiopia borders.

Although disputes over trans-boundary resources have drawn attention only in the last five years, border security has been the main focus in border relations throughout the region over many years, with cattle rustling, drug trafficking, human trafficking, gun smuggling, and auto theft all featuring in the economy of the borderlands. Other security issues relate to terrorist activities, illegal and undocumented immigrations through illegal border points by communities that have relatives on both sides of the border, and illegal cross-border activities, such as the use of herd boys as informers for human traffickers and monitoring the movements of the patrol teams.

The borders of Kenya and Ethiopia with Somalia are the most insecure in the region, being populated by Somali-speakers who have, since the 1960s, nursed irredentist tendencies that have resulted in border and insurgency wars. With increased exploration for hydrocarbons in north-eastern Kenya and the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, both predominantly occupied by Somali-speakers, their common borders with Somalia present a continuing but evolving security challenge. Although secessionist and irredentist tendencies are currently low due to Somalia’s internal problems, there are fears in Nairobi and Addis Ababa that continued marginalisation of the Somali regions will sow the seeds of further radicalisation and further insurgencies. One such insurgency is currently being mounted by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) in Ethiopia, a movement suspected to have links to Islamist militias in Somalia. ONLF also claimed responsibility for attacking and killing 64 Ethiopian and 9 Chinese oil workers at Abole, in April 2007.Footnote3 Elsewhere in the region, a similar situation has emerged around the Tutsi populations spreading across the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda. The Rwandan invasions of eastern DRC in 1998 and 2009, in the guise of protecting the Tutsi population or pursuing the former génocidaires, have more recently been reinterpreted as being functional to the exploitation of the Congo’s mineral riches.Footnote4

Borderlands where mineral resources are being explored or exploited are experiencing increasingly frequent disputes over land claims, delimitation disputes, lawlessness, security alerts, and bitter political exchanges between governments. Recent examples include the Albert basin straddling the Uganda–DRC border, the Elemi Triangle that is contested by Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia, and Migingo Island in Lake Victoria. Border conflicts in such areas seem bound to escalate if local communities are denied the opportunities to benefit from exploitation of the natural resources in their locality. Exclusion, or anxiety about its likelihood, can easily fuel increased illegal and criminal cross-border activities, and might foment support for insurgencies feeding on local grievances relating to political marginalisation and exclusion. The potential for conflict in borderlands is real.

Apart from the bloody Ethiopia–Eritrea border war of 1998–2000 and the Somalia–Ethiopia war of 1978, there have not been major conflicts over borders in the region prior to 2000. However, with an abundance of hotspots on the region’s borders, rumours or beliefs that the boundary areas contain natural resources has served in recent years to magnify disputes.Footnote5 A parallel can be seen historically in West Africa, with the Agacher strip, which was rumoured to hold oil reserves, when armed clashes between Burkina and Mali took place in 1974 and 1985; the Bakassi dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon; and the ongoing dispute over Western Sahara. The phosphate deposits in Western Sahara have influenced Moroccan claims over the region, as have oil in the dispute about offshore islands between Cameroon and Nigeria. Reviewing this experience, Englebert, Tarango and Carter contend: “In general, unequal resources – including water, oil and other minerals, fisheries, and access to the sea –seem to promote conflict.”Footnote6

A border dispute within Eastern Africa that has drawn keen attention in the recent past has been the determination of the boundary between North and South Sudan in the Abyei area.Footnote7 Drawing a firm North–South border is one of the biggest challenges facing Sudan, as the line has implications for the control of oil-rich areas. The delimitation and demarcation has been a divisive issue in both the south and the north, with several groups, notably the Dinka Ngok and the Misseriya, expressing suspicions that the governments in Khartoum and Juba have manipulated local populations to promote their respective interests. Although the Permanent Court of Arbitration issued a ruling in July 2009 that placed the oil wells in the north, tensions have remained in the border area. In an area where border politics are already inflamed by long-standing disputes over the grazing rights of the so-called Misseriya “Arabs”, the question of an equitable sharing of oil wealth has added a further dimension to an already volatile situation.

Historical legacy and errors in Eastern Africa boundary-making

Boundary-making in Eastern Africa was a very deliberate and elaborate process. The current borders in the region were cartographic feats of the colonial powers – Belgium, Germany, Great Britain, Italy and Portugal – whose main objective was to enhance their respective imperial interests. The borders of the region are a reflection of how these interests played out between 1885 and 1925. The Kenya–Tanzania–Uganda–Rwanda borders, for instance, reflect the British obsession to control the source of the Nile and the colonial intrigues to gain access to the mineral wealth of the present eastern DRC.

Examples of borderlands that became sources of profound political intrigue were the Rwenzori, Semliki and Mahagi areas, which were rumoured to have the “biggest gold deposit” in the world, and where the British tried to outwit the Belgians. The Anglo-Belgian Agreement of 1894 defined the international boundary in the area between Lakes Edward and Albert. According to Kibulya, the drawing of the boundary on the 30°E meridian

revealed the ignorance of the colonialists as far as the geography of Africa was concerned. It was easy to write down the meridian on paper at a conference in Brussels, but when it came to the demarcation and delimitation of the boundary on land, the colonial administrators in the Congo and Uganda could not easily trace the meridian on the ground. In Uganda, the Rwenzori were for six years regarded as the western limit of the Protectorate while in Congo the Belgians did not know that their territory extended far east of Beni.Footnote8

The territory and people in between, as shown in Figure 1

, belonged to neither the British or Belgian colonial administration until 1900.

Figure 1.  The Bwamba area, not administered until 1920.

Source: Kibulya and Langlands.

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An attempt by the British administrator and explorer Sir Harry Johnston in 1900 to address this issue created further problems. The area occupied by the Bwamba people on the Congo side of the border remained outside the jurisdiction of the Belgian colonial administration, despite the work of the Uganda–Congo Boundary Commission of 1906–08. Confused efforts by Belgian administrators to demarcate the border persisted until 1924. The boundary was supposed to follow the course of the Lamya River, but the Belgians mistook it for the Semliki River. When they discovered their mistake 10 years later, they placed the border at Rwamya River, about 10 miles west of Kamango.Footnote9 It was not until 1920 that this further error was corrected and the present border was established. As Langlands observes:

the Congo–Uganda boundary reveals in particular the difficulty of using astronomical lines for boundary definition especially in unexplored country and indicates that a later concern for national frontiers was also beset with problems and had produced results unsatisfactory from many points of view.Footnote10

The colonialists (British, Belgians and Germans) heavily relied on the lakes in the region and the 30°E meridian to define boundaries in Eastern Africa. The British and Germans divided East Africa using “a line from Kilimanjaro ‘direct to the Eastern side of Lake Victoria Nyanza which is intersected by the 1°S latitude’”. Using the hinterland doctrine, which stated that there should be no annexation of the other’s sphere (particularly unoccupied regions by the other without consent), the British and Germans claimed territories between Kilimanjaro and Lake Victoria up to the 30°E meridian. While these two claimed the rights to own the land in what is the present day East Africa, the Germans reached an agreement with the Belgians to claim the land up to 30°E and Lake Tanganyika. However, the British and Belgians had no agreement on the boundary between Uganda and Congo, although King Leopold II of Belgium had the intention of claiming the whole of the Congo basin up to the 30°E meridian.

Thus, despite the 1887 British–German agreement, a major controversy arose as to whether 1°S also applied to the delimitation of the border west of Lake Victoria. The British and Germans entered an agreement on 1 July 1890 to define this border as follows:

(a) point on the eastern side of Lake Victoria Nyanza which is intersected by the first parallel it follows the parallel to the frontier of the Congo Free State where it terminates. It is however understood that the west side of the lake the sphere does not comprise Mount Mfumbiro; if that mountain shall prove to be south of the selected parallel, this line shall be deflected so as to exclude it but shall nevertheless return so as to terminate at the above-named point.Footnote11

The challenge of using natural features to delineate boundary points is illustrated here in the reference to “Mount Mfumbiro”. Mfumbiro is of course not a single peak, but a range of mountains also stretching south of latitude 1°S and west of longitude 30°E. With only a vague understanding of the local geography, both parties to the 1890 agreement assumed that the mountain lay east of 30°E. This effectively placed Mfumbiro within the British area, but when the actual geographic position was plotted this was found to be in contravention of the agreements with the Belgians that established their boundaries at 30°E. This was not the only geographic ambiguity in the 1890 agreement, with the precise location of Lake Edward being acknowledged as “uncertain” but “expected to fall between Congo and British spheres of influence”.Footnote12 Border delineation in this area has continued to be a bone of contention from the early 1900s to the present.

Another area that has a current potential for natural resource conflict and a long history of contestation is the Kenya–Tanzania border, which was defined by two Anglo-German agreements. The first section of the border between Ras Jimbo (Vanga) and Lake Jipe was delimited in the Anglo-German agreements of 25 July 1893 and 14 February 1900, while the second section, from Lake Jipe to Muhuru Bay, was described in the draft Anglo-German agreement of 1914 but this was never signed. These agreements effectively divided the Maasai peoples between the two countries, each of which subsequently developed differing national policies on pastoralist communities and natural conservation. This border also has serious implications on the annual north–south wildlife migrations.

The current dispute over the ownership of the Migingo Island can also be traced to the limitations of colonial boundary-making using natural features as markers. The Kenya–Uganda boundary was established by the 1926 “Kenya Colony and Protectorate (Boundaries) Order in Council”, that states in schedule 1 that the border should run from 1° south latitude, through Lake Victoria to the mouth of the Sio River. The full text of the schedule reads:

Commencing in the waters of Lake Victoria on a parallel 1° south latitude, at the point due south of the westernmost point of Pyramid Island; thence the boundary follows a straight line due north to that point; thence continuing by a straight line, still northerly to the most westerly point of Ilemba Island; thence by a straight line, still northerly, to the most westerly point of Kiringiti Island; thence by a straight line, still northerly, to the most westerly point of Mageta Island; thence by a straight line north-westerly to the most southerly point of Sumba Island; thence by the south-western and western shores of that island to its most northerly point; thence by a straight line north-easterly to the centre of the mouth of the Sio River.

Like other parts of the Kenya–Uganda–Tanzania border, that used natural features and latitude 1° south, this part of the Kenya–Uganda border used pillars on land and islands in the Lake Victoria as markers. Other features, including other islands, lying between those points named in the schedule, were not clearly delineated in this agreement, and do not even feature on the colonial maps produced during the inter-war period (see Figure 2

). This somewhat incomplete boundary-making between the two countries might be explained by the fact that both colonies were British ruled, and thus there was little prospect of any serious dispute arising. Indeed, between 1902 and 1970 a number of territorial transfers were made between Kenya and Uganda. In 1902, all of eastern Uganda, between the present border and approximately 36°E longitude, was transferred to Kenya (then the British East Africa Protectorate). The reasons for these boundary re-alignments ranged from maintaining tribal unity to administrative convenience – officials thought it desirable to keep the Kavirondo ethnic group (the present Luhya) under a single administration, and were also keen to bring the Turkana and Pokot under effective control. Colonial border adjustments were also sometimes made to accommodate local interests, as in 1924 when residents of Kissaka district petitioned the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations to correct the mistakes of the previous Milner–Orts Agreement and to be reintegrated into Rwanda in 1924.Footnote13 Through these many adjustments, large and small, the colonial powers in Eastern Africa continued to trade in boundary politics well into the 1930s.

Figure 2.  The Kenya–Uganda boundary in Lake Victoria.

Source: War Office, 1938 Kenya Colony Map.

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However, contrary to many claims, not all the boundaries of Eastern African countries were arbitrarily drawn. Detailed surveying was used to define some boundaries, and there are cases where considerable efforts were made to avoid dividing communities or to guarantee rights to water and grazing land to the pastoralist communities. But it remains apparent that wherever colonial political interests were seen as paramount, local interests were totally overlooked. One such case was an order issued in 1912 to transfer the southern potion of what was then known as the Lado Enclave from Sudan to Uganda, thus enabling Uganda to control both banks of river Nile.Footnote14

Colonial boundary-making errors were perhaps understandable given the lack of detailed maps for much of the region before the 1940s. For all of Africa, only 200,000 square miles of territory had been surveyed in detail by 1914, when “some 3.8 million square miles remained unexplored by Europeans.”Footnote15 This meant that mapping of the newly acquired colonial territories was a key requirement of effective administrative control.Footnote16 Although the British had prior experience of demarcating their North American colonial possessions, they faced “severe logistical problems” in Africa, where “the boundary demarcation parties often had to carry out surveys in areas that were largely unexplored by Europeans and were … either sparsely inhabited or uninhabited”. Demarcations were complicated further by the fact that many “boundaries had to be delimited in the absence of any real knowledge of what existed on the ground”.Footnote17 However, the presence of mineral and other natural resources made a big difference on the pace and precision of the demarcation exercise. For instance, it is clear that the British paid more attention to the western boundaries of their East African colonial possessions, where mineral wealth was believed to be located, and to areas relevant to then control of the Nile waters.

War played a major role in prompting the colonial powers to make proper maps of their African possessions. Lessons were learned from the huge British reversals in the Second Anglo-Boer War that were partly attributed to the poor quality and lack of detailed maps available to the British military. Motivated by the need to ensure that “proper mapping was available for the Army” in future African wars, the British therefore formed a Colonial Survey Committee to produce maps of Africa. This Committee had the primary function of promoting “imperial interests” and preparing maps to be used “for the defence of the colonies”.Footnote18 Military activity, wherever it took place in Africa, generally contributed to an improvement in the maps available for that area.

But when the military was involved in drawing up maps of border areas, a lack of scientific knowledge, technical deficiencies and simple carelessness could have contributed to serious errors and misunderstandings. To the military, a map of features could be more important than a detailed and accurate demarcation of a boundary. This could partly explain the sloppiness in early map making. A notable case of sloppiness in boundary-making is surely the Malawi–Tanzania border. Reviewing this example, John Donaldson has commented that “rigorous demarcation was much less of a priority than survey and mapping”.Footnote19 The boundary commission delineating this colonial border placed emphasis on the use of natural features, except for “six straight lines” comprising of 29 miles out of the 250-mile boundary. The predominance of natural features allowed the commission to use only 23 pillars as markers along this entire boundary.Footnote20 Natural features such as streams and rivers were preferred simply because they required fewer boundary pillars and made the work of the commission easier and speedier. Thus, expediency and cost were critical factors in such demarcations. Colonial officials might also be reluctant to undertake complete demarcation in remote and inaccessible areas, and frequently complained of the destruction of boundary pillars by local populations. In practical terms, survey maps utilising natural features presented a better tool for the busy administrator asked to resolve a boundary dispute on the ground. As Donaldson adds:

(the) rigorous marking of colonial boundaries would have required regular maintenance from local colonial surveyors or administrators who were not often available in these peripheral areas of the Empire, particularly in the early decades of colonial administration. It was far easier and more cost-effective for British colonial administration to simply “know” or “imagine” the extent of colonial territory in Africa through boundary maps than to make those boundaries evident on the ground for local borderland populations.Footnote21

Colonial boundaries on the ground were thus seldom as precise as they appeared on the maps that purported to delineate the extent of territorial sovereignty. These were the same maps inherited and largely accepted by Africa’s independent states.

Poor and lack of border management/administration

The poor management or lack of respect for borders might also be partly explained by the resilience of traditional African relations to land. To Europeans, boundaries denote ownership of land and the exclusive use of property by the owner and others authorised for its use. In many traditional African societies, in contrast, land was neither individually owned nor used, giving a quite different meaning to an imposed physical boundary. While communities had a general understanding of the span of the area in which they could either grow food and/or graze animals, this was mediated by demographics and was inevitably fluid. Europeans arrived with an ideology of private ownership that changed this fluidity, fixed boundaries, and limited claims to land use. Although many Africans were forced to embrace this ideology of ownership, they generally did not discard the pre-existing notions of rights of access and use – based on cultural practices of reciprocity that allowed use of others’ land when needed so long as it was not a permanent occupation. This attitude towards borders might account for the poor maintenance and management of national boundaries by Africa’s independent states, but the failure to accept colonial territorial definitions was most powerfully displayed at the local level where communities purposefully exploited undefined or ill-defined boundaries.

Although well aware of the imprecise character of Africa’s colonial boundaries, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), fearing to open a Pandora’s Box of territorial claims, merely took the easy way out by adopting the legal finality of colonial boundaries (uti possidetis juris) in July 1964, when it adopted resolution AHG/Res.16(1) at the Cairo Summit. This resolution bound African states to “respect the borders existing on their achievement of national independence”.Footnote22 For over 45 years, this OAU decision has maintained a “false peace” over border disputes, for although the resolution is apparently widely accepted and is frequently quoted, numerous border disputes have continued to rumble on between African states. More recently, the CitationAfrican Union (AU) has elected to maintain the illusion of the sovereignty of colonial boundaries and keep the lid on Pandora’s Box by adopting a principle that calls on its member states to “respect borders inherited on achievement of independence”.Footnote23 This statement is aimed at reducing conflicts, but does not address the continuing difficulty posed by boundaries that remain undefined or ill-defined. The OAU’s resolution, endorsed once again by the AU, is in fact based upon a faulty understanding of the correlation between peace and borders. Victor Owhotu asserts that “the concept of border is a dynamic and highly volatile issue since it is related directly to fundamental aspects of identity, sovereignty and jurisdiction, and self-preservation”.Footnote24 State boundaries are defined by sovereignty. Laremont argues that there is a likelihood of instability and civil wars breaking out “when states are not consolidated”, lack “effective political institutions” and “nationalist projects remain incomplete”. Consequently, adds Laremont, “stable governments are most often built after more or less stable boundaries have been established”.Footnote25

This has very real implications for the present politics of the region. Undemarcated, indefinite, porous, and unmanaged boundaries now present a serious security challenge to all the countries of Eastern Africa. Unconsolidated borders are a reflection of weak states that lack the capacity and/or the political will to correct colonial errors. The marginalisation and lack of governance of frontier territories in Eastern Africa has engendered instability, seen at its worst when combined with irredentist or secessionist aims. The presence of mineral wealth in these border territories only intensifies this instability. At the end of 2009, it is apparent that most countries in the region are not in total control of their territories or their populations. Besides their inability or unwillingness to stabilise borders, governments in the region also face enormous difficulties in maintaining law and order and providing public services and goods. Stabilising and legitimising boundaries would surely contribute to the development of more effective state institutions, but without effective state institutions it is not easy to stabilise and legitimise boundaries. The relative neglect of borderlands by Eastern Africa’s states has amounted to a diminishment of sovereignty. Accordingly, state sovereignty must be re-established beyond the capital cities and major urban areas. In remote border areas marginalised communities need to be reconnected with the state. Warlords such as Laurent Nkunda, for example, have not only exploited the political vacuum left by a government that has failed to extend its authority over a “neglected territory” with natural resources, but also uses the border to exploit these resources to wage war.

But are governments in this region capable of controlling their borders? As populations have grown in the region, governments have struggled to meet basic needs such as education, health and infrastructure. Of the 5 countries with East African Community (EAC) membership, and according to Tables 1 and 2, Uganda faces the most daunting challenge. Uganda’s population, with an annual rate of 3.3%, is the fourth fastest growing in the world. In order to meet the basic needs of this population, the economy will have to grow by at least 10% per year. Table 3 shows that while national wealth is only modestly growing, the population is skyrocketing with a consequent impact on settlement density. This population bulge, especially acute in the cases of Uganda and Rwanda, is likely to impact very directly on border areas, with increasing cross-border mobility and likely in-flows to areas where resources appear more abundant. It is doubtful that Eastern Africa’s governments are equipped to tackle the challenges of service provision and political control that this population bulge will create.

Table 1. East African population in millions: 1950–2010 actual.

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Table 2. East African population projections in millions.

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Table 3. East Africa profile in 2007.

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Resources and emerging border conflicts

We will now consider several cases where resource explorations and initial exploitation are already fomenting border conflicts in the region. So far the most critical case is the Lake Albert basin, which is shared by the DRC and Uganda. In this section we will take a closer look at how this dispute and similar conflicts on Lake Victoria and Lake Malawi have developed recently.

Lake Albert basin

The Uganda–DRC border is a hotspot due to the mineral riches of diamonds, gold, coltan and oil that have attracted fortune hunters, militias, rebel groups, and armies to the eastern DRC. The ecstatic announcement by the Uganda government in May 2006 that it had discovered oil deposits in the Lake Albert region was met with nervousness by some people who feared that this discovery would turn out to be a curse rather than a blessing. These apprehensions appeared well founded, when in August 2007 a border dispute erupted between the two countries over the strategically placed Rukwanzi Island in Lake Albert. The incident resulted in violent skirmishes between troops from the two countries, leading to the death of a contractor of the Heritage Oil Company and six civilians on a Congolese passenger boat on Lake Albert. Conflict blew up again in October 2008, when Ugandan Police arrested 11 Congolese fishermen at “Kaiso warf on lake Albert in Kabwoya with illegal fishing gear, immature fish in their boats and with sharp and pointed objects ostensibly for self-defense purposes.” This incident was widely interpreted as a further political provocation.Footnote26

Figure 3.  The Uganda–DRC boundary in Lake Albert.

Source: FAO.

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Rukwanzi Island, which is sparsely populated but strategically located in the southern tip of Lake Albert, was generally unknown and unattractive until oil was discovered in the Lake Albert basin. Since the discovery, Uganda has tried to own every inch of the lake and moved with lightening speed to exploit the oil deposits estimated at more than 2 billion barrels, and without seeking any cooperation from the DRC. For their part, the Congolese are now deeply concerned that Uganda is purposefully enlarging its territorial claims in order to secure mineral rights and in the process seeking to exclude the DRC from any claim to oil deposits in the Lake basin. The Ugandans insist that the continuing lack of governance in eastern DRC has not only contributed to its own insecurity, but now threatens to delay plans to exploit the “black gold” of the lake basin. Ugandan political determination over this intensified as the world market price for oil soared to over $150 per barrel in mid-2008. According to one Ugandan newspaper, the decision taken at that time to push ahead with “the early Production Scheme”, despite the lack of serious oil exploration activities on the DRC side, only “increased suspicion between the two countries”.Footnote27 Uganda is exasperated that, despite entering into an agreement with President Mobutu Sese Seko in 1990 to jointly explore and exploit the trans-boundary mineral wealth, especially oil, the government of Joseph Kabila has not been able to consolidate its power in the east of the country, giving rise to continuing militia and rebel activities across the common border with Uganda. But there are also suspicions in Kinshasa that Uganda would like to keep north-eastern DRC unstable and would prefer to have a weak central government that cannot contain the insurgency. This would then conveniently allow the Museveni government to exploit the trans-boundary oil without sharing the revenues.

Although Museveni and Kabila met in May 2008 and agreed to cooperate in remarking the border, the dispute has not been completely resolved, as demarcation has not taken place. A joint technical committee was set up on 8 September 2007, after the Arusha meeting between Presidents Joseph Kabila and Yoweri Museveni. This technical committee met in Bunia, eastern DRC, from 16 to 20 January, and from 10 to 24 March in Entebbe, Uganda. At these meetings they examined supporting documents, and “conducted a preliminary survey of Rukwanzi, including border points at Mahagi and Vura, northern district of Ituri, in DR Congo’s Orientale Province”.Footnote28 In September 2008, Uganda claimed, through its military spokesperson, Major Paddy Ankunda, that a survey had been carried out and that Rukwanzi was found to be about 2 to 3 kilometers within Ugandan territory. Ankunda claimed further that the Congolese authorities had accepted the verdict. This, however, turned out not to be true, as the Congolese immediately dispatched senior military officials to Kampala to lodge a protest. The Ugandan authorities subsequently withdrew the claims and profusely apologised for the faux pas of its military spokesman. As Uganda now moves ahead with its plans to extract oil from the Albert basin, this dispute remains unresolved.

Lake Victoria

The critical issue relating to Lake Victoria is how the three countries bordering the lake can manage it as a common resource for the benefit of the region. For the past five years, there has been a serious dispute between Uganda and her neighbours over the cause of a drop in the water level of the lake by 1.5 metres between 2004 and 2006. While Tanzania and Kenya have blamed Uganda for causing the decline by over-draining the lake for hydroelectric production, Uganda has attributed the drop to climate change.Footnote29 Uganda was also in July 2008 accused of entering into a secret agreement with Egypt to release more water into the Nile to meet Egypt’s increasing needs. This was regarded by Uganda’s neighbours as a violation of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), the negotiated agreement that seeks to forge closer cooperation between the riparian countries of Burundi, the DRC, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. Tanzania and Kenya’s concerns were prompted by Uganda’s construction of a parallel hydropower station, the 200-megawatt Kiira plant, besides the old 180-megawatt Narubare (formerly Owen Falls) plant in 2000.Footnote30

The disputes in Lake Victoria are an illustration of the lack of regional arrangements over the sharing of trans-boundary natural resources (water and fish). Beginning in 2003, the exploitation of lake resources has become increasingly contentious, with several incidents resulting in the harassment and arrest of fishermen accused of trespassing in the territorial waters of their neighbours. The lake is a chief source of livelihood for many communities in all three countries, hence there is a recognised need to find a jointly managed solution for the lake’s resources, but it is also appreciated that defining and marking clear boundaries on the lake itself presents very real problems. The fisheries ministers from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania held a meeting in November 2008 in which they agreed to demarcate the boundaries in Lake Victoria using bright beacons, but little progress was made until the eruption of hostilities over Migingo Island almost brought the two neighbours on the brink of war in 2009.Footnote31

When the ownership row over Migingo Island began, most observers quickly saw it as a scramble for the Nile perch.Footnote32 Measuring a mere half an acre of land, filled with barren rocks, Migingo Island is neither the largest nor the most resourceful of Lake Victoria’s many islands; however, it is located in a part of the lake that is rich in fish and provides a major source of livelihood for several thousand Kenyan fishermen from the communities in western Kenya bordering Lake Victoria. The island has been used by these fishermen for both the transit and drying of the fish catch, and a thriving industrial fishing community has grown up on this small, barren rock. Tables 4 and 5 below show how lucrative Nile perch exports has become over the years, and indicate why Migingo and other islands like it are so important in the local fisheries business.

Table 4. Nile perch exports to EU countries (in tonnes).

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Table 5. Nile perch exports to EU countries (in Euro).

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Of the three countries, Uganda’s Nile perch exports have been increasing while those of Kenya and Tanzania have been declining. Uganda managed to double its earnings from these exports between 2003 and 2005. But the amount of tonnage exported has also doubled within 10 years, leading to overfishing of the lake and a significant decline in the fish stocks. By 2008, “Uganda’s fish export earnings dropped by $5.2m (Shs 10,244bn) to $112.2m (Shs 221,034bn) from $117.4m (Shs 231,278bn) the previous year. This is far less than the US $150bn (Shs 300bn) the industry exports topped in 2005, signifying a continuous downward trend.”Footnote33

Uganda and Kenya have yet to agree on demarcating Lake Victoria and establishing on which side of the border this tiny island of Migingo lies, but the quarrel over the location and ownership of Migingo has drawn attention to those questions already highlighted in this paper – the history of boundary-making, the poor definition of Eastern African boundaries, the challenges of managing and sharing trans-boundary resources, and the lack of mechanisms to address border disputes in the region. Lake Victoria’s wider boundary problems and resource disputes also remain to be resolved, and Migingo serves as a timely example of how these issues can so easily erupt into serious conflict.

Lake Malawi (Nyasa)

Though less widely publicised, a similar and outstanding dispute over the demarcation of boundaries on Lake Nyasa continues between the governments of Tanzania and Malawi. This case highlights one of the most blatant colonial boundary-making errors. The Anglo-German treaty of 1890 placed Lake Nyasa exclusively in Malawi. This was contrary to the common practice of sharing water resources among contiguous states. After gaining independence, Tanzanians contested the colonial definition of the border, asking “Why … were other great African lakes, such as Victoria, Tanganyika, Albert, and Edward, divided, more or less equally, between neighbouring states, while Nyasa alone forms the exception?”Footnote34

Tanzania’s claims are controversial, however, since President Julius Nyerere’s government had made a commitment to respect the uti possedetis principle in 1964 – despite pressures from local chiefs to seek economic control of lake resources. Nevertheless, relations between the two countries soured in 1967 when Tanzania accused Malawi of “cartographical aggression” in seeking to claim the entire lake. When Tanzania then set down a formal claim over half the area of the lake, Malawi retaliated by claiming ownership of the lake and three Tanzania districts lying to the north and west.Footnote35 A flurry of note verbale exchanged between the two governments in the 1970s made no progress in settling the dispute. Subsequently, the conflict has become more complex due to the settlement of Tanzanian citizens on the islands in the lake. The dispute now seems likely to draw in Mozambique, should Malawi formally stake a claim to the islands of Likoma and Chizumulu. If Tanzania’s argument about the division of the lake carries the day, Mozambique could also claim that these islands are within “its waters”. Historically, these two islands were only recognised as Malawian territory due to the fact that they were occupied by Anglican missionaries based in Malawi. Malawi’s ownership of these islands and the whole of northern portion of the lake is a factor of colonial power relations. The British, who colonised Malawi, grabbed the two islands from the Portuguese and the northern portion of the lake from the Germans using the same skills that were used to carve out the Rwenzori district and acquire total control over the Nile waters.

Figure 4.  Lake Malawi.

Source: CIA.

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There are two challenges posed by the boundaries disputes in Lake Nyasa. First, settling boundaries on the lake is made more problematic by large fluctuations in the lake water level. Second, as on Lake Victoria, fishing rights are the most likely flash point in this dispute. The lake has several economic species, such as the cichlid, that are important export commodities for the three countries that share the lake. Among the boundary hotspots in the lake are the islands of Hongi, Lundo, and Mbamba. And in all of this the historical documents are unlikely to be of much help. Although the 292-miles Tanzania–Malawi border was defined by a joint British and German boundary commission in 1898 and the Anglo-German Agreement of 1901, it is not determined in detail. Aware of this, Tanzania has challenged the delimitation,Footnote36 arguing that the boundary was wrongly set and should have started from the mouth of the River Songwe, and then followed the median line of the lake to a tri-point with Mozambique.Footnote37 This is not an interpretation that Malawi is likely to share.


There are many other border hotspots in this region that seem likely to generate political problems in coming years. The Elemi triangle seems among the most volatile and unstable, and could yet see a dispute between four protagonists – Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Southern Sudan – especially if rumours of oil discoveries in this long-disputed area prove to be well founded. Uganda has also been accused by Kenya of tampering with their common border north of Mt Elgon, again in the context of mineral exploration and rumours of valuable deposits. Kenya’s border with Somalia will surely continue to be tense and experience trans-boundary insecurity given the political circumstances in Jubaland, and here, too, rumours of oil deposits in the Mandera area and the current (2010) mineral explorations throughout Kenya’s north-eastern region seem likely to add weight to Somali territorial claims while also making the Kenyans more anxious to ensure border security in this area.

Oil discoveries also threaten to increase conflict in the Ruvuma basin, where Tullow Oil has concessions to explore and exploit gas and oil concessions on the Tanzanian portion.Footnote38 The Ruvuma Delta Basin, which is shared by Tanzania and Mozambique, is regarded by Tullow to be “geologically analogous to some of the great delta systems being developed today, such as the Niger Delta, Mahakam Delta and the Gulf of Mexico”. This extensive area, Tullow claims, “provides large-scale exploration potential for hydrocarbons” which are being eyed by “major oil and gas companies”.Footnote39 There is no publicly available information as to whether the two countries have an agreement on joint exploration of these natural resources. The exploration of these resources could be complicated by the changing boundary that is based on the river estuary, which has changed courses on many occasions.

Boundary disputes in Eastern Africa commonly pre-date the discovery of mineral resources, but they have certainly been intensified by the recent flurry of explorations. This article has shown that there is a high potential for border disputes in Eastern Africa as a result of discoveries or increased exploitation of trans-boundary resources. Border incidents, such those over the Rukwanzi and Migingo Islands in Lakes Albert and Victoria, are a harbinger of trans-boundary conflicts, as weak states fail to provide for the basic needs of the bulging populations. There are no established or functioning regional mechanisms yet in place to address such conflicts. Besides the need for states to strengthen their governance structures and for leaders to wisely use national resources for the benefit of the populace, bodies such as the AU, the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the EAC also need to build or strengthen their capacities to handle trans-boundary disputes in the region. These institutions, along with the governments, should take proactive measures of delimiting and demarcating borders in the region as a conflict prevention measure.


I would like to thank Drs Jakkie Cilliers and Epaminondas Bellos for their insightful comments on the paper, and Jimmi Lutete Larsen for his research assistance.


1. CitationCooney and Nanto, “Minerals Price Increases and Volatility.”

2. Richard CitationDevetak defines borders as lines drawn to demarcate state boundaries (or establish sovereignty), and frontiers as marginalised peripheral areas of a state where the population feels excluded from the centre. CitationDevetak, “The Project of Modernity,” 27–30.

3. “Scores Die in Ethiopia Oil Attack,” BBC News, April 24, 2007,

4. United Nations, Report of Expert Panel on Illegal Exploitation, and CitationICJ Ruling on Case Concerning Armed.

5. CitationKum, “The Central African Subregion,” 49–71.

6. CitationEnglebert, Tarango and Carter, “Dismemberment and Suffocation,” 1098. Also, CitationAsiwaju, “West Africa,” 72–99.

7. CitationDeng, “Justice in Sudan.”

8. CitationKibulya, “Geographic Contrasts,” 11.

9. CitationKibulya, “Geographic Contrasts,” 2.

10. CitationLanglands, “The Uganda–Congo Boundary,” 57.

11. CitationHertsletMap of Africa by Treaty, 642–52.

12. CitationHertsletMap of Africa by Treaty, 70.

13. CitationBrownlieAfrican Boundaries, 983; CitationMcEwenInternational Boundaries, 154–5.

14. CitationBrownlieAfrican Boundaries, 1003.

15. CitationCollier, “The Colonial Survey Committee and Mapping of Africa.”

16. CitationCollier, “The Colonial Survey Committee and Mapping of Africa.”

17. CitationCollier, “The Colonial Survey Committee and Mapping of Africa.”. Boundary-making is an expensive endeavour that has radically evolved over the years. In the old days surveying was done on foot then later four-wheels and helicopters, and now by satellite technology. See CitationSmith, “The Backbone of Colonial Mapping in Eastern Africa.”

18. CitationColonial Survey CommitteeSurveys and Explorations of British Africa.

19. CitationDonaldson, “Pillars and Perspective,” 477.

20. CitationDonaldson, “Pillars and Perspective,” 485.

21. CitationDonaldson, “Pillars and Perspective,” 486.

22. Africa Union, From Barriers to Bridges.

23. CitationAfrican Union, Constitutive Act, Article 4(i).

24. CitationOwhotu, “Borderland Equilibrium in Africa,” 248.

25. CitationLaremont, “Borders, States and Nationalism,” 2.

26. “11 DR Congolese Fishermen Arrested in Uganda,” African Press Agency, October 26, 2008.

27. Monitor Reporter, “Involve Locals in Oil Deals – Civil Societies,” Daily Monitor, September 8, 2008.

28. “Kinshasa, Kampala Discuss Efforts to Demarcate Common Border,” Xinhua, June 11, 2008.

29. “Who is to Blame for Falling Lake Victoria Water Level?” The New Vision, January 27, 2009.

30. A point openly acknowledged by the Tanzanian Director of Water Resources in the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, Washington Mutayoba.

31. CitationWekesa, “Old Issues and New Challenges.”

32. CitationMatshanda , “The ‘Scramble for Fish’ in Lake Victoria.”

33. CitationHabati, “Politics of Fish.”

34. CitationMcEwenInternational Boundaries, 200.

35. CitationMcEwenInternational Boundaries, 200.

36. CitationBrownlieAfrican Boundaries.

37. CitationAndersonInternational Boundaries.

38. See


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