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Remote, Barren Elemi Triangle Disputed : Sudan, Kenya in Border War--of Words

February 05, 1989|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | Times Staff Writer

NAIROBI, Kenya — In a place where the remotest corners of Kenya and Sudan meet and the nomadic population's greatest concern is cattle rustling, an international incident is brewing: a border dispute over some of the least promising land in East Africa.

At issue is about 3,800 square miles known as the Elemi Triangle, where Kenya's northwest border meets Sudan's southeast. The triangle is so remote from the countries' capitals, or even any major city, that neither has much grasp of its population density, topography or potential.

Yet for the last week the two neighbors have been engaged in a rapidly intensifying war of words over who owns it, a mini-Falklands incident in the heart of Africa.

If, unlike Britain and Argentina in 1982, two countries are far from going to war over the issue, the disagreement has underscored the difficulty in Africa of maintaining any consistent administration of land so remote from bureaucratic centers. Ali Youssef, charge d'affaires of Sudan's embassy here, acknowledged that his government has no administrative, military or bureaucratic presence in Elemi.

Meanwhile Kenya's official atlas shows that the region has no government power, water or other service. Although there are occasional rumors of oil or mineral deposits in the general area, nothing is known to have ever been found near the disputed parcel.

Youssef also conceded that the two governments' dispute probably has no conceivable importance to the few thousand nomads of the Turkana tribe who range with their cattle over the arid and semiarid scrub.

"They don't have any real sense of there being a border there," he said.

Although Kenya and Sudan have held discussions over their joint border for years, the Elemi dispute erupted in earnest a week ago, thanks to the semiofficial and wholly strident Kenya Times. The newspaper discovered that some Nairobi bookshops were selling a British map that placed the triangle squarely inside Sudan.

"It's a Map of Provocation," screamed the headline. A day later, after the Sudanese averred that, historically speaking, they agreed with the map, the newspaper added: "Sudan Claims Kenyan Soil."

Since then, scarcely a day has passed in which a Kenyan government minister has not labeled Kenya's claim to the land non-negotiable. On Friday, the Sudanese raised the ante by complaining that in an official map published by the Kenyan government in November, Kenya seemed to claim three times as much Elemi territory as ever before.

The confusion dates back to 1926, when the governments of Sudan, Kenya and Uganda--all then under British colonial administration--gave Kenya responsibility for protecting the primitive Turkana nomads of the district from tribal raids. The area was considered too remote for Sudanese administrators to reach from the capital, Khartoum. Soon after that, though, an official map drew a line placing the triangle inside Sudan.

For its part, Kenya contends that the triangle became Kenyan soil at the time of its independence in 1963, when all lands under administration by the Kenyan authorities became part of the country.

Sudan's Access Blocked

One of the ironies of the quarrel, as it happens, is that Khartoum is in no better position today than in 1926 to administer the district: The area is thoroughly ringed on the Sudan side by territory controlled by anti-government rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army.

"It's obvious that this is far from the reach of the Sudan army, customs or any official existence," Youssef agreed. "But it's not a matter of letting (the Kenyans) have it if they want it. Because countries recognize national borders by agreement, if this precedent is allowed, then maybe it will happen somewhere else."

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