Borders Are not Mere Lines on Maps: Insights from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Northern Ethiopia

Dr. Alexandra Dias

A strict interpretation of borders based on their territorial dimension fails to capture their complex relationship to nationalism. This paper seeks to revisit Ethiopia's and Eritrea's political projects of state and nation building in light of recent developments, specifically since the rapprochement between the two (2018), considering the re-opening , the reclosure of the border and the undertakings in-between in order to create (or not) buffer mechanisms. The paper will draw on original empirical data collected during fieldwork in two borderland areas, one between Ethiopia and Eritrea on Ethiopia's side of the border (January 2019) and in a domestic borderland area within Ethiopia between the regional states of Amhara and Tigray (January 2020). The paper develops a qualitative methodological approach combining both participant observation with semi-structured interviews. This paper's seeks to understand the extent to which Federalism in Ethiopia and the redrawing of provincial boundaries was ever based on exclusive ethnic criteria? The Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front re-drawing of domestic boundaries was based on the broad distribution of languages rather than on ethnicity. Indeed, in Ethiopia languages became the predominant criteria because ethnic geography was not consolidated territorially. But, if this was the case at the onset, when the Transitional Government of Ethiopia put in place this new political project how has the situation changed since 1994, specifically in these two borderlands? Has ethnic geography become more consolidated territorially? What words do borderland groups both domestically and internationally use to refer to these lines? Is there an equivalent in the various local languages to borders, what are the nuances and the contradictions? What are the changes (if any) introduced by the new model of social engineering and the continuities with previous models of social organization? How are these reflected not only geographically but at the level of languages? With these questions in mind the paper aims to contribute to an important on-going debate on the contradictions and challenges to the relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea, as well as between different nations and nationalities within Ethiopia.