Eritrea – Ethiopia: the crucial question of Tsorona and Irob

When Eritrea and Ethiopia finally come to discuss the border issue, there could be many sensitive issues, but questions of just where the frontier lies in the Central Zone could be critical.

Can there be some flexibility? Possibly, and this has been welcomed by the commentator Kjetil Tronvoll.  As he Tweeted:

According to PM Abiy of has accepted land swapping as part of border demarcation. This is as it has earlier been constantly rejected by . Good news for Ethiopian and Eritrean .

The article Professor Tronvoll was referring to was by Reuters.

In it Prime Minister Abiy said: “There will be lands swapped between the two countries but that will not matter – there will not be a border between us as our relationship will strengthen.”

Light on the Tsorona – Irob issue can be found in the very useful article by Jean-Louis Péninou, which is here: Jean-Louis Péninou EE Border

Below is an extract.


Jean-Louis Péninou EE Border

IBRU Boundary and Security Bulletin Summer 1998 ©

The Ethiopian – Eritrean Border Conflict

by Jean-Louis Péninou

Disputed Areas in the Central Zone

There are several smaller contested areas, located in the central-eastern part of the border, where the Mareb is no longer the limit between the two countries. The alignment of the border in these areas is rather sinuous but, as the area is densely populated, it is well remembered by villagers.

Two disputed places are north of the Belesa river: Tsorona (a big village) and Belissa. Another one, Alitena is clearly north of the Muna river. Between these two groups of contested pockets, Zalambessa is traditionally the main border post, on the Asmara-Addis Ababa road. In recent years all these areas have been administrated by the Ethiopians.

The de-facto border post since 1991 has been just at the northern exit of Zalambessa. There is room for legal controversy in the area where the boundary quits the river Belessa in order to reach the Mai Muna banks. This is because it is unclear which streams are called Muna due to the variety of different local names given to these streams at the turn of the century. An attempt to jointly demarcate this section of the boundary in 1904 failed and no new attempt was subsequently made.

The social background of these places differs.

Tsorena, Belissa and Zalambessa are populated by villagers who are Coptic Christian Tigrean-speaking people, like the overwhelming majority of highlanders both in Tigrai and Eritrea.

The population of Alitena is quite different. It is Saho and the area is known as Irob. The Saho Irob are, like other Saho, semi-nomadic people, organised in tribes and their language is closely related to the Afar language. Most of the Sahos are Moslems but among the Irobs, since the middle of the last century, there are a lot of Catholics. Their grazing lands, which had long been raided and disputed between the traditional lords of Akele Guzai (a district in Eritrea) and Agame (a district in Ethiopia), were divided by the establishment of colonial Eritrea.

People from Asimba, on the Ethiopian side of the colonial border, are closely related to those of Irob on the Eritrean side and, during the brief period of the Italian conquest of Ethiopia (1935-1941), the Italians established some Saho Irobs up to Adigrat in order to further Catholic teaching in this part of Tigrai. It is a remote area and the people used to trade in both Eritrea (Senafe) and Ethiopia (Adigrat).

Alitena, not far from the dividing river, was administered by the Italians, but some uncertainty remains about the status of this peculiar place, resistant as it has been to all external authority, even before the arrival of Italians at the end of the last century. The map communicated in 1948, by the British authorities to the Special Inquiry Commission of the Four Powers, shows the Irob area in Ethiopia. But a United Nations team, sent two years later, reproduced Italian maps with Alitenia clearly in Eritrea.

During the confused years which followed the fall of Haile Selassie’s imperial regime, Irob was, like Badme area in the west, a refuge for all kinds of guerrilla groups fighting against the new Addis Ababa power. And people from Irob could be found in almost every rival’s guerrilla groups of that time (Ras Mengesha’s Tigrean Liberation Front (TLF), TPLF, EPRP, ELF, EPLF etc). In 1978, for example, Alitena was controlled, for several months by the EPRP, whose social background is to be found far to the south in the central Ethiopian regions. Subsequently, the TPLF displaced those EPRP forces and established itself in Alitena.

Tigrean nationalists consider that Irob must be part of Agame and have always contested the “Muna river line” conceded by the Shoan Menelik II. Early in June 1998, one month after the beginning of the border war, the Eritrean army retook the place.

Concluding remarks

The Eritrean president asserts to every foreign mediator he meets that the Eritrean-Ethiopian border is one the most clearly defined of all African boundaries. Clearly – and this is rarely the case in Africa – he may call upon international treaties for the entire boundary. But it is quite obvious that the non-demarcation on the ground and the post-colonial history have created many uncertainties and contradictory claims. To try to settle them looks like a tough challenge for the OAU. But it must succeed. If it does, it could well inaugurate a new chapter in the history of fixing the African boundaries.

Jean-Louis Péninou is a freelance journalist writing mainly on diplomatic issues.

2 comments

  1. Border of eritrea &ethiopia at the midle place around Tsorona&Geresrnay the main border Belesa Munna sream river,
    So the commission border arengement the decision line.Kudoweiba,Mayagam,Sobo,qolobrdo,&Akhran eritrean’s villages,therefore the sraight line Belesa.correct it

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