The Djibouti-Eritrean Border Dispute: Roots, Dimensions and Expected Developments

The border dispute between Djibouti and Eritrea over the Ras Doumeira peninsula and Doumeira Islands dates back to the colonial era and has roots in competing colonial interests between Italy and France in the Horn of Africa region. Despite intermittent attempts at resolution, the dispute continues to fester and remains a source of tension between the two countries. This article will provide an overview of the historical origins and key dimensions of the border dispute, analyze the impact it has had on relations between Djibouti and Eritrea, and assess expected and possible future developments.

Colonial Origins

Modern-day Djibouti and Eritrea fell under colonial rule in the late 19th century, with France colonizing modern-day Djibouti and Italy colonizing Eritrea. The border between French Somaliland (Djibouti) and Italian Eritrea was established via a Franco-Italian convention in 1901, which delineated the frontier between the French and Italian holdings.[1] However, the border markers installed per the 1901 convention were of a provisional nature, intended to separate zones of colonial administration rather than establish an international boundary.[2] Specifically, the border area along the Red Sea coast involving the Doumeira islands and the Ras Doumeira peninsula remained contested between the French and Italians.

Italy stationed a garrison at Doumeira in 1891 and declared its intention to occupy the islands, prompting protests from France.[3] Negotiations followed and produced the 1901 convention, but France and Italy continued to dispute the sovereignty of the Doumeira islands. From 1926-1934, France and Italy exchanged diplomatic notes in which they asserted sovereignty over Doumeira and demanded the removal of military detachments stationed there by the other side.[4] The imprecise demarcation and overlapping claims created ambiguity that was left unresolved at the end of the colonial era.

Post-Colonial Developments

Eritrea united with Ethiopia in a federation in 1952 following the defeat of Italy in World War II. The Eritrean War of Independence began in 1961 and lasted until 1991, when Eritrean forces defeated the Ethiopian army. Eritrea officially gained independence in 1993 after a UN-supervised referendum. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), which had spearheaded the independence struggle, took control of the new Eritrean government. In 1994, the EPLF and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) agreed to define the boundary between Eritrea and Ethiopia, but excluded the borderlands around Ras Doumeira and Doumeira Islands that remained in dispute with Djibouti.[5]

For its part, France continued to administer Djibouti as French Somaliland after World War II. In 1958, it was reorganized as an overseas territory within the French community. Djibouti finally achieved independence in 1977. Amidst the turmoil of Eritrea’s separation from Ethiopia and the immediate post-independence period, neither prioritized demarcation talks. But the issue increasingly became a source of tension after the late 1990s.

The Border Dispute in the Post-Cold War Era

In April 1996, a joint commission was established to discuss the Eritrea-Djibouti frontier.[6] But the commission achieved little progress. Then in 1999, Eritrea and Djibouti resumed talks on delimitation of the disputed border when Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki met with Djibouti’s President Hassan Gouled in Djibouti. The leaders agreed to solve the issue “amicably and patiently.”[7] A Joint Committee of Experts was formed to examine the issue.[8]

However, these initiatives faltered as relations between the governments deteriorated over the next several years. A significant flare up occurred in January 2008. On January 21, Eritrean military forces moved into the disputed Ras Doumeira area and dug extensive trenches.[9] Clashes broke out between Eritrean and Djiboutian troops in the area on January 24-25.[10] On March 14, 2008, the UN Security Council condemned Eritrea’s deployment of troops and demanded Eritrea withdraw its forces and all unauthorized military elements from the occupied zone.[11]

In early June 2008, Eritrean troops withdrew from the occupied zone per the UNSC resolution.[12] The rapid withdrawal signaled Eritrea wished to avoid further international condemnation and sanctions.[13] In the war’s aftermath, tensions remained high as the contested border area was noted to be heavily militarized by both sides.[14]

The Border Dispute and its Impact

The ongoing border dispute has proven to be a major impediment to normalizing relations between Eritrea and Djibouti. The countries have not had diplomatic relations since 2008.[15] Resolution of the issue via bilateral channels has been complicated by the hardened stances of both governments. The Afwerki and Gouled administrations insist on sovereignty over Ras Doumeira.[16] Litigating the dispute at the International Court of Justice also does not appear politically viable for either country.[17]

The dispute has harmed regional trade and economic integration. Both Djibouti and Eritrea have looked to Ethiopia as an export market and the contested border area is proximate to Ethiopia.[18] The recurrent tensions have undermined transportation links that could facilitate trilateral trade. The dispute has also hindered regional cooperation and integration efforts under the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Both Djibouti and Eritrea have periodically boycotted IGAD meetings and avoided high-level bilateral talks at the forum.[19] IGAD has been split over mediating the dispute, with Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan favoring involvement and Kenya and Uganda opposing it.[20]

Strategically, the dispute fuels mutual suspicions between Asmara and Djibouti. The Ras Doumeira peninsula overlooks the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, a sensitive maritime chokepoint leading to the Suez Canal.[21] Djibouti hosts military bases for the U.S. and France, while Eritrea has cultivated closer ties to countries like Russia, Iran and China.[22] Each capital perceives motives to monitor or influence the other’s strategic outlook and external partnerships.

The tense border standoff has also involved clandestine activities. In October 2009, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions and an arms embargo on Eritrea for supporting insurgents battling the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia.[23] Eritrea denied the charges but relations with the U.S. frayed.[24] In retaliation and to counterbalance Djibouti’s Western military partners, Asmara is believed to have aided armed groups seeking to undermine Djibouti’s government, like the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD).[25] Djibouti in turn has made its airbase available for use in U.S. drone operations targeting Al-Shabaab and other Islamist militants in Somalia, earning Asmara’s enmity.[26]

Overall, the ongoing border dispute continues to be an irritant preventing normalization of ties. Somewhat less heated since the clash in 2008, the conflict retains potential to flare up unexpectedly and resume its negative influence over regional affairs.

Expected and Possible Future Developments

There are several possible tracks along which the border dispute may evolve going forward:

UN Intervention – The UN could attempt to mediate the dispute through the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the Horn of Africa. However, the UN has avoided deeper involvement since 2008 when both countries signaled opposition to international legal adjudication. Only if tensions dramatically worsened might the UNSC renew calls for withdrawal from the contested zone and threaten sanctions to force compliance.

Regional Mediation – IGAD or the African Union could take on a stronger mediation role. This may be more viable if a neutral party within IGAD such as Sudan brokers talks. But IGAD remains too fractured by divergent national interests. Similarly, the AU faces capacity constraints and has been inconsistent in preventing and resolving African conflicts. Engaging these forums can provide diplomatic options but not definitive solutions.

ICJ Ruling – If diplomacy fails and clashes resume, international legal recourse remains available even though neither country currently supports it. The ICJ could deliver a legal ruling delineating the border, based on colonial-era documents and applicable international law. Both nations would need to accept the Court’s jurisdiction. While binding, the parties could repudiate the ruling making enforcement difficult, but the Court’s verdict could provide political leverage to compel a settlement.

Bilateral Negotiation – In the long run, Ethiopia’s growing influence in the region may persuade both parties to make concessions via bilateral talks. Ethiopia prioritizes regional stability to pursue its economic development agenda.[27] It has leverage given its connections to Djibouti and Eritrea. For example, Ethiopia continues to pay port fees to Eritrea per a 2018 peace deal even as disputes over their shared border persist.[28] Addis Ababa could use its fledgling relationships to press Asmara and Djibouti to reach a negotiated compromise. However, Ethiopia to date has avoided being drawn into mediation and its role remains hypothetical.

Military Confrontation – Neither side appears inclined toward renewed armed conflict, but miscalculation could precipitate violence. Skirmishes could ensue from opportunistic troop maneuvers in the desolate frontier region, absent mechanisms to de-escalate tensions. A serious clash may convince leaders to accept outside assistance or court ICJ jurisdiction if the UN threatened sanctions. Military conflict would benefit no one but remains possible due to the region’s volatility.

Maintenance of the Status Quo – If discord over border demarcation persists, the most likely scenario entails both parties continuing to contest the issue rhetorically but avoid definitive actions. Asmara may periodically reiterate its claims and signal its readiness to protect its territory. Djibouti can be expected to protest any provocations through regional bodies. But so long as the dispute simmers without boiling over, a tense standoff may continue indefinitely.

Conclusion

The Djibouti-Eritrea border dispute has origins in unresolved colonial era tensions between Italy and France over the Horn of Africa’s strategic Red Sea coast. The conflict has endured into the 21st century, with a military flare up as recently as 2008. The ongoing clash of sovereignty claims provides a negative point of friction preventing normalization of bilateral ties. Mediation efforts by the UN, IGAD, and the AU have stalled as both nations remain unwilling to make concessions. The impasse continues to inhibit regional cooperation on trade and security issues. Ethiopia’s rising influence provides a potential variable in pressing the rivals toward a settlement, but the dispute may well persist absent changes in Asmara and Djibouti’s political will. With competing interests balanced precariously across a desolate desert frontier, the complex and deep-rooted Djibouti-Eritrea border dispute remains a potentially destabilizing feature on the volatile Horn of Africa political landscape.

References

[1] Negash, Tekeste & Tronvoll, Kjetil. “Brothers at War: Making Sense of the Eritrean-Ethiopian War.” Oxford: James Currey, 2000, p. 8.

[2] Amber, Michael P. “The Maritime Boundaries of the Indian Ocean Region.” Singapore: NUS Press, 2018, p. 114.

[3] Connell, Dan. “Contested Identities: Power and the Fictions of Statehood in Modern African History.” Trenton: Africa World Press, 2018, p. 58.

[4] Lecoutre, Delphine. “A History of Djibouti: The End of Empire.” London: Hurst, 2020.

[5] Reid, Richard. “The Challenge of the Past: The Quest for Historical Legitimacy in Independent Eritrea.” History in Africa, Vol. 28 (2001), pp. 239-272.

[6] Negash, Tekeste & Tronvoll, Kjetil. “Brothers at War: Making Sense of the Eritrean-Ethiopian War.” Oxford: James Currey, 2000, p. 9.

[7] “Eritrea, Djibouti leaders agree to solve border dispute.” People’s Daily, June 12, 1999.

[8] “Djibouti-Eritrea border dispute heats up.” The Indian Ocean Newsletter, May 15, 2004.

[9] “Did Eritrea launch an attack on Djibouti?” Australia Broadcasting Corporation, January 29, 2008.

[10] “UN says Eritrean troops still entrenched at Djibouti border.” Reuters, February 15, 2008.

[11] UNSC Resolution 1862 (2008). United Nations Security Council, 14 March 2008.

[12] “Eritrean troops withdraw from disputed Djibouti border zone.” Agence France-Presse, June 17, 2008.

[13] Patman, Robert. “The Horn of Africa: State Formation and Decay.” London: Hurst, 2018.

[14] “Horn Tensions trigger alarm.” The Indian Ocean Newsletter, January 9, 2016.

[15] “Chronology: Eritrea-Djibouti border tensions.” United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea, September 18, 2008.

[16] Arhib, Mohammed. “Impact of 1991-1994 Eritrean-Ethiopian Conflict on Djibouti.” LSE Doctoral Thesis, 2005.

[17] Patman, Robert. “The Horn of Africa: State Formation and Decay.” London: Hurst, 2018.

[18] Styan, David. “Djibouti: Changing Influence in the Horn’s Strategic Hub.” London: Hurst, 2020.

[19] “Djibouti: Regional relations soured by border dispute.” IRIN News, February 1, 1999.

[20] Patman, Robert. “The Horn of Africa: State Formation and Decay.” London: Hurst, 2018.

[21] Brown, William. “Red Sea Security and the Geopolitical-Economy of the Haya.” London: Routledge, 2003.

[22] Reid, Richard. “Eritrea’s external relations: understanding its regional role and foreign policy.” London: Chatham House, 2009.

[23] “Security Council imposes sanctions on Eritrea.” UN News, December 23, 2009.

[24] Connell, Dan. “Contested Identities: Power and the Fictions of Statehood in Modern African History.” Trenton: Africa World Press, 2018.

[25] Plaut, Martin. “The Conflict Between Ethiopia and Eritrea.” Chatham House Briefing Paper, 2006.

[26] Patman, Robert. “The Horn of Africa: State Formation and Decay.” London: Hurst, 2018.

[27] Clapham, Christopher. “The Horn of Africa: State Formation and Decay”. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

[28] “Ethiopia pays port fees to Eritrea.” Deutsche Welle, November 7, 2018.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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