Eritrea and Ethiopia have set aside their differences over their border, but there are still many issues to be resolved. Among them, how to transfer land that was part of one country in the past, but was awarded to the other.
This will be a complex process, but both could learn from how Britain went about a similar problem back in the 1930’s.
Or – to be more accurate – Addis Ababa and Asmara could recall the work done by Ethiopia and Britain to map the boundary between what was then British Somaliland and Ethiopia.
How this took place was laid out in considerable detail by Lt Col. E. H. M. Clifford at a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society held in London on 20 January 1936.
From the paper that Colonel Clifford read that
evening you would never know that the mission had some fairly tough encounters during their time along the border during which there was some fierce fighting with the Italians. [See below]
During the clashes 107 Ethiopians were killed and a further 45 wounded.
The border had come about through a series of treaties dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with conflicting Ethiopian and Italian claims over part of the area.
There matters might have rested, but in 1924, when the Emperor Haile Selassie visited Europe he “expressed the desire to see all the frontiers of Ethiopia demarcated”, wrote Col. Clifford. “Great Britain, alone of his neighbours paid any serious attention, and it was agreed that a start should be made with the Somaliland frontier.”
The Boundary Commission met in Berbera on 8 January 1932, and then set off on its mission. The border itself was marked by clearing a lane 2 meters wide on either side of the line, with pillars erected at intervals of no more than 2 kilometres.
In some areas ditches were dug, but they Commission hit a problem when they reached what the Colonel described as ‘lava country.’
“After a good deal of head-scratching and some trial work, we decided to ‘scrape’ a path through the boulders and gravel, astride the line. I am confident that this gives a permanent result; for paths are rare and bad, and this will undoubtedly be used by men and animals; while its straight line and regular edges declare it to be artificial.”
One can only wonder if there is any sign of the boundary today.
Having read the paper, the Ethiopian ambassador to Britain was asked to comment on what had been said. The ambassador, Azaj Worqueh Martin, said that “It has been a great pleasure to the Ethiopian Government to have an opportunity of completing the boundary between Ethiopia and British Somaliland.”
He then said – with considerable wisdom – that “There was of course no real necessity for it, because so long as people are really kindly and justly inclined there will be no difficulty. However it is always wise to make sure.”
The Ambassador commented that drawing the boundary had contributed to feelings of goodwill between Ethiopia and Britain, and both sides had come to trust each other.
As a result, the Boundary could be drawn with some confidence. There were additional benefits. Mr H. W. Parker, of the Natural History Museum, commented that a member of the Boundary Commission became interested in the Somali fauna.
As a result several hundred species were observed – some fourteen or fifteen of which were – as he put it: “new to science.”
The Commission drew a detailed map, which showed the area in considerable detail.
None of this is to suggest that British colonialism was a good idea and of course Col. Clifford presented the issue from his own perspective, with the biases this implies.
But it is worthwhile considering how the British sent about resolving the border issue. It would seem they worked closely with their Ethiopian colleagues.
Treaties were made, maps drawn and studies conducted. When completed much of the information was published.
If Eritrea and Ethiopia are to resolve their border issues, they could do worse than following this example.
Fighting during the work of the Boundary Commission
Source: Orders, medals and decorations in 2016 auction
“Clifford returned to Foreign Office employ as Senior British Commissioner on the Somaliland-Ethiopia Boundary Commission in November 1931, in which capacity, in November 1934, he and the Ethiopian commissioners were subjected to Italian aggression, an episode summarised in his R.E. Journal obituary:
‘During the study on the ground of the trans-frontier grazing rights of the nomadic British and Ethiopian Somalis the Commission were confronted at Walwal by armed Italian native levies. Clifford’s calm and sound advice were instrumental in getting the Ethiopian Section to agree to withdraw along with the British Section from the immediate area. Later when the Italians attacked the Ethiopian escort with armoured cars and light aircraft, he ordered all the transport resources and medical facilities of the British Section to evacuate the Ethiopian wounded and stragglers across the waterless region to the nearest waterhole, where an emergency hospital was set up.’
No less than 107 Ethiopians were killed and a further 45 wounded – see Lion by the Tail, by Thomas M. Coffey, for a full account of the incident and frequent mention of Clifford (copy included). Awarded the C.B.E., Clifford returned to the U.K. at the end of 1936 and took up appointment as C.R.E. of Welsh Area, Western Command.”