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Imbert-Vier Simon, Tracer des frontières à Djibouti : Des territoires et des hommes aux xixe et xxe siècles, Paris, Karthala, 2011, 479 pp. + 40 maps and plans + 9 graphs.

Shiferaw Bekele

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1Suddenly, in 1998, the brotherly and friendly states of Eritrea and Ethiopia went into a bloody two-year war that stunned the world by its ferocity, the extent of human casualties and the destruction of resources. One of the root causes was the boundary between the two countries, which was never demarcated. But this was not the first boundary war in the troubled Horn of Africa. In 1964 and again in 1977-8, Somalia launched war on Ethiopia; the latter was massive and bloody. Much later, Eritrea and Yemen got into a military conflict over the ownership of Greater Hanish, an island in the Red Sea, from 15 December to 17 December 1995. The last military clash was the one that Eritrea took up with Djibouti over parts of the boundary line between the two small and, even worse, poor states. The confrontation took place from June 10 to 13, 2008 leading to fatal casualties.

2Clearly, boundaries and frontiers are critical factors to establish peace and stability among the Horn countries. Yet, research into the issue has not been as extensive and deep as one would expect, even if a couple of major studies were done by David Hamilton (a 1974 Oxford University thesis on the making of the boundaries of Ethiopia) and a major book by Federica Guazzini (1999) on the history of the boundaries of the Eritrean colony. The book under review is without doubt a welcome addition to this rather short list. Tracer des frontiers à Djibouti reconstructs the history of the making of the entire space of Djibouti from the point of view of its frontiers. The study identifies five boundaries – ethnic, internal (administrative), international, the railway line and maritime boundary – for investigation and narrates how these lines were invented at the end of the 19th century and then how they were put on the ground. It analyses the evolution of these lines and the impact they came to exercise on the identity and way of life of the people.

3The book is divided into three parts. Part I (chapters 1 and 2, 107 p.) reconstructs the creation of the national boundary, the making of the railway line and, a novel theme in the study of boundaries in the Horn, the genesis of internal boundary lines between provinces (cercles). Established between 1884 and 1889 by the colonial state, this Djiboutian space was an “invention” because it was first imagined by the French, then put on paper in a protracted negotiation with external and internal forces, and finally staked out on the ground. After thus setting the scene, the book moves on to the meatiest part of the work, Part II (subdivided into three chapters comprising 153 p.), which deals with the evolution of these spatial arrangements. Once made, whether international or maritime or administrative, boundaries have their way of imposing themselves on the state that made them and on the people who live within them. In the three chapters of Part III the account takes the narrative to the middle of the 20th century when all the boundaries got their final shape. Entitled “Transforming boundaries” the Part indeed demonstrates that the period after the signing of the treaties is as important in the creation of national identities as in those of ethnic and local identities. Part III (the smallest of the three divisions of the book (comprising two chapters, 96 p.), focuses on how boundaries are used by the state. The book is well-supplied with maps even if the reproduction leaves much to be desired.

4Contrary to what is being said about boundary making in Sub-Saharan Africa, Dr. Imber-Vier demonstrates that the national boundary of this tiny Horn of Africa nation was not arbitrarily made, that important geopolitical factors lay behind the drawing up of the lines, and that the interest of the country (French Somaliland at the time, today the Republic of Djibouti) was kept in mind when they were drawn.

5The research is based mainly on French colonial archives. The author is keenly aware that he was not able to bring out the voices of the colonized, the dominated. There is nothing he can do about it because the colonized did not produce archives on this topic. The book shows that he has mastered his sources because he moves deftly from the reconstruction of one frontier to the next without a hitch. He skillfully brings to light processes, which he calls “evolution.” Thus, he has written a very reliable and authoritative history of boundaries in the Republic of Djibouti. Even if this book is the first to be written by the author on boundaries and frontiers, it displays characteristics of a masterly synthesis of archival sources and the published literature, a talent to undertake in-depth analysis and a skill to present balanced and dispassionate interpretations.

6An intractable problem in the study of frontiers and boundaries has been identification and mapping of territories that nomadic groups (clans or sub clans or lineages) “owned”. Seasonal transhumance is a central feature of the mode of production of nomads. But they did not move to any place that captured their fancy. Following the seasons, they moved only into areas, which they “owned”. Since nomads in the historic past did not, on the whole, document their movements and their “landed possessions” (the way agrarian civilizations did), it is difficult for historians to map these spaces. To what extent was the transhumance of the Afars and the Issas affected by the demarcation of the boundary lines between Ethiopia, Eritrea and British Somaliland, on the one hand, and French Somaliland on the other? It is extremely difficult to address this question adequately because of paucity of sources.

7The book is rich in maps but the publishers did not do justice to the high value of the book (and also to their reputation!) by producing maps that are not easily visible. This is a pity because most of the maps were taken from archives, being primary sources in their own right!

8In spite of this shortcoming, this book fills a major gap in our knowledge of the history of Djibouti and that of the Horn. It is a book that should be recommended as a must read to all those interested in the peace and stability of the Horn.

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Référence électronique

Shiferaw Bekele, « Imbert-Vier Simon, Tracer des frontières à Djibouti : Des territoires et des hommes aux xixe et xxe siècles, Paris, Karthala, 2011, 479 pp. + 40 maps and plans + 9 graphs. »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 137 | 2015, mis en ligne le 23 mai 2014, consulté le 05 octobre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Shiferaw Bekele

Department of HistoryAddis Ababa University (Ethiopia)

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