Africa's Galapagos

Sedudu Island – An historical account of a Chobe River landmark

Every tourist who steps onto a boat and steams upstream into the Chobe National Park will notice a rather forlorn flagpole flying the beautiful sky-blue pennant of Botswana. This announcement of sovereignty, over a seemingly innocuous piece of land that goes under water every year, has an interesting and rather chequered history dating all the way back to 1890: a time when the colonialists of England and Germany took out their rulers and pencils and divvied up vast tracks of our beloved continent on the dining room table – probably over a glass of sherry.

Their ‘fairness’ of distribution is now legendary in the annals of history….”I say old chap, if we draw a line here you can have Mount Kilimanjaro and we will have Mount Kenya”….”Jawol, ziss is gut. Undve vill give you Zanzibar for ze Island of Heligoland”. The Chobe River didn’t escape this historical cut and paste session and when the boundaries of German South West Africa and the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland were ‘discussed’ it was decided that the southern boundary of the eastern Caprivi shall follow the 18 th Parallel (did they throw a dart at a map and it landed on this latitude?) until it reaches the Chobe River, actually now known as the Kwando River at this point, thereafter following ‘the main channel’ (English text of the 1890 treaty) or ‘thalweg’ (German text) to the confluence of the Zambezi River. The definition of the main channel or thalweg, which my Microsoft Office dictionary reliably tells me, is ‘a line connecting the lowest points of successive cross sections through a river channel or valley’, has caused a tremendous amount of debate and almost got Botswana dragged into the Namibian war of independence, but more on that later.

Map of Sedudu Island

For now, let’s return to 1909. Two administrators would be sent by the pre WWI German government to the Caprivi and both would leave long lasting influences on the area and particularly its people, the BaSubiya. The first was ‘Imperial Resident’ Kurt Streiwolf [You’ve got to love the title of a fellow sent to the middle of nowhere, where if the wildlife doesn’t get you, the malaria will. That’s colonial job marketing at its best.]. He developed a system of indirect rule for the BaSubiya that remained in force and functional up until the independence of Namibia in 1990. This was no mean feat in the wake of the German-Herero war when Germans were regarded with massive
suspicion and hatred. What has this got to do with Sedudu Island you may ask? Well, traditionally, and to this day, the pastoralist BaSubiya of the Caprivi use the floodplains of the Zambezi and Chobe for subsistence agriculture and cattle grazing through the dry season and then retire to higher ground during the perennial flooding. It is quite likely that Sedudu, or Kasikili Island as it is known by the Namibians, was such a resource in years gone by, thereby creating a valid claim for ownership by the BaSubiya, if seasonal occupation can be regarded as ownership.

Without going into too much historic detail, the Caprivi was consecutively administered by the British, then on behalf of the British by South Africa, then South Africa alone up to and through the trials and tribulations of the Namibian independence war. Over this period Sedudu/Kasikili Island became increasingly more prominent as a disputed chunk of ground between South Africa and the British authorities of Bechuanaland, and later the independent Botswana. One of the most vociferous pundits for Namibia’s claim to Sedudu was Major W.E. Trollope – South African Resident Magistrate and Administrator to Caprivi from 1939-1953. His discussions and correspondence with his Botswana counterparts became key components of the final legal wrangle for ownership.

Towards the end of his tenure, Trollope progressively fell out of favour with the newly elected National Party of South Africa and after numerous transgressions, was ordered back to Pretoria – an order he chose to ignore. When his successor arrived to take up office Trollope asked if he had a permit to enter the Caprivi! He resigned and died shortly thereafter; his final resting place is under a large tree on the banks of the Zambezi River in Katima Mulilo. On the back of all of this, and quite some years later, an incidence of aggression sparked the first scientific determination of where the main channel of the Chobe River lies, thereby defining the international boundary and the subsequent ownership of a 3.5km 2 patch of perennially flooded grassland.

Elephant and egrets
Elephant grazing at Sedudu Island with Cattle Egrets as guests

In October 1984, a South African Defence Force boat doing a routine patrol [This according to official  reports though angling for tiger fish was more likely. The Caprivi was a cushy posting by all accounts.] ventured into the southern channel of the Chobe River and was fired upon by the recently formed and highly conscientious Botswana Defence Force. Both parties rightly claimed that their respective maps showed the channel as being ‘theirs’. What could have escalated into yet another regional conflict was mutually decided to resolve peacefully through the determination of which branch of the Chobe, north or south, constituted the main channel. However, this opened up its own can of worms!

Through the United Nations resolution stating that South Africa’s mandate over South West Africa was no longer legal, South Africa lost its treaty making powers for the territory and Botswana could not legitimately enter into negotiations over this boundary dispute. Discussions were held with the UN Council for Namibia and the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) in order to gain their blessing for negotiations to proceed. In December 1984 it was agreed that a joint survey would be undertaken to unequivocally determine where the main channel of the Chobe River is located.

Enter, at last, the sanity of science! Using echo-sounding equipment and qualified surveyors it was determined that the average depth of the thalweg of the northern channel was greater than that of the southern. A joint report presented in July 1985 stated that, ‘The main channel of the Chobe River now passes Sedudu/Kasikili Island to the west and north of it’. Problem solved? No chance!

Botswana’s repeated requests that South Africa confirm the location of the boundary fell on their selectively deaf ears – in a way that only the South Africa of that period could choose to ignore such requests to relinquish territory. Unperturbed, Botswana did the next best thing, and in the tradition of the very colonialists that started the whole fiasco….they hoisted their national flag over the island!

Buffalo - Chobe National Park

In early 1992, 2 years after Namibia’s independence, Windhoek lodged its first official protest to the Botswana government over the latter’s proprietary claim. This, under the oversight of Robert Mugabe, led to the creation of a forum of experts from both Namibia and Botswana to try and reach
a resolution. Numerous rounds of discussion eventually led to a deadlock and in 1994 it was recommended that the dispute be brought before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Belgium. A mere five years later on the 13 th of December 1999, The Hague said this:

In its Judgment the Court finds, by 11 votes to 4, that “the boundary between the Republic of Botswana and the Republic of Namibia follows the line of the deepest soundings in the northern channel of the Chobe River around Kasikili/Sedudu Island” and, by 11 votes to 4 again, that “Kasikili/Sedudu Island forms part of the territory of the Republic of Botswana”.

The Court adds unanimously that, “in the two channels around  Kasikili/Sedudu Island, the nationals of, and vessels flying the flags of, the Republic of Botswana and the Republic of Namibia shall enjoy equal national treatment”.

And so finally, this small but stunningly beautiful piece of land was ceded to Botswana to form an integral part of our Chobe National Park, yet may be enjoyed without prejudice by Namibians. Why, you may ask, was there so much fuss? Well, when you quietly drift past this island, chilled glass of wine in hand, watching the numerous herds of lechwe, hundreds of elephants, thousands of buffalo and tens of thousands of birds, ask yourself, ‘Who wouldn’t want to own this little piece paradise?’.

Article by Grant Nel

Game Viewing long the Chobe River

About the Author

Grant Nel based at Kubu Lodge offers privately guided Chobe cruises and game drives to individuals or specialist groups. “ we even saw a ‘lifer’ the near threatened Bat Hawk”

Sundowner Cruise
From the lodge we offer a quiet sunset cruise to the confluence of the Chobe and Zambezi Rivers aboard our ‘Finfoot’ boat. This is the only place on earth where four countries meet at one point.

Nature Trail
Take a stroll along the lodge nature trail that meanders for 2km through a mix of riverine and miombo woodland. Catch a glimpse of one of the resident Chobe Bushbuck or follow a troop of mongoose as they forage

Bat Hawk in Flight