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Rift Valley Institute

Making local knowledge work

Contested Borderlands

Aims of the Project

The Contested Borderlands reports are authoritative studies of borders and border communities in Eastern and Central Africa, informed by historical archive work and anthropological field research. The series brings local knowledge and academic rigour to urgent questions of the present, with practical recommendations for those working in the region at policy level and in project implementation.


Across the Eastern and Central African region, state-level crises are compounded by territorial disputes along national boundaries. Inhabitants of border areas are critically affected by these disputes, which complicate cooperation between them over shared natural resources and exacerbate existing local conflicts. The disputes are often deepened by competition between states over oil deposits and other extractive resources. As well being an area of conflict, for its inhabitants a boundary may also be a resource—for trade, legal or illegal, and for social interchange between neighbouring groups. Many border areas have become zones of flight and refuge during civil wars: crossing a border can alter status in international law and provide the means to access life-saving assistance. Members of ethnic groups that span borders can exploit claims to citizenship in two, or sometimes three countries.

This ambiguity brings its own complications. Border zones are also the realm of insurgents and predatory formations, which may be supported by one state against its neighbour, and are often beyond the control of either. And some are areas of influence of terrorist movements, or threaten to become so. Despite their position on the periphery, border areas may pose a threat to the central state. Understanding issues on the ground is of critical importance in governance and economic development, in emergency aid programming, in developing prophylactic measures to reduce human suffering, and in the resolution of political disputes in the region, at local and international level.


The Contested Borderlands series was launched in 2011 with two book-length reports on the Sudan-South Sudan border: The Kafia Kingi Enclave: People, Politics and History in the North-South Boundary Zone of Western Sudan by Edward Thomas and When Boundaries Become Borders: The Impact of Boundary-Making in Southern Sudan’s Frontier Zones by Douglas Johnson. Based on extensive field research in Sudan and South Sudan, and a unique knowledge of archival material in Sudan and the UK, the two books continue to be widely cited in the unresolved dispute over the border between the two countries. Both are also available in Arabic. Between Somaliland and Puntland by Markus Hoehne appeared in 2015, and Dividing Communities in South Sudan and Northern Uganda by Cherry Leonardi and Martina Santschi appeared in 2016.

Future titles in the Contested Borderlands series include studies of the Gambela Enclave, a key section of the frontier between South Sudan and Ethiopia and the Ilemi Triangle in the Kenya-South Sudan-Ethiopia tri-border area.

The Contested Borderlands series is conceived and implemented by the Rift Valley Institute. It has been supported by Humanity United and has received technical assistance from the Max Planck Institute of Social Anthropology and Addis Ababa University.

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