Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

A Wider War Looms as Sudan and Ethiopia Clash Over Contested Border

Sudan Ethiopia Border
A boy fills up a jerry can in the Atbarah river, also known as the Black Nile, located in Al-Fashaga agricultural region of Sudan’s eastern Gedaref state on March 16, 2021.

Mat Nashid

A border dispute between Sudan and Ethiopia risks triggering a wider conflict that destabilizes the Horn of Africa. The contested territory is Al-Fashaga, a 1,600km area of fertile land where the north-west of Ethiopia’s Amhara region meets Gedaref state in east Sudan.

The conflict dates back to the colonial era. In 1902, a document known as the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty attempted to demarcate the border between Ethiopia and Sudan, the latter which was under British control.

Both countries drew their own conclusions from the map. Ethiopia’s claimed the entire territory, while Sudan saw the area as part of al-Gedaref state.

In 2001, Addis Ababa and Khartoum agreed to compromise by creating a joint border committee to connect and integrate Gaderaf state with Tigray state in Ethiopia. Seven years later, Addis Ababa recognized al-Fashaga as Sudanese territory, in exchange for reassurance that Ethiopian Amhara farmers could continue living on the land.

The arrangement was mutually beneficial. Ethiopia provided all farmers in al-Fashaga – including Sudanese – incentives to sell crops to its marketing board.  But the status-quo was upended shortly after Abiy Ahmed – Ethiopia’s new leader and Nobel Laurate – was elected president in 2018. Hard-line Amhara leaders pressured Abiy to annul the border agreement with Sudan, claiming that they were not consulted prior to the 2008 agreement.

In December 2020, Sudan deployed military forces to secure al-Fashaga, evicting thousands of Amhara farmers from the area. By then, Addis Ababa was boggled down in a brutal war in Tigray state. Although caught off guard, Abiy sent government forces to fight alongside Amhara militiamen against Sudanese troops.

So far, the death toll is uncertain. In March, the Sudanese military claimed that a dozen of its soldiers had been killed, while Sudanese residents blamed Ethiopian farmers for slaughtering several unarmed civilians. Ethiopia didn’t disclose its number of casualties, but it did claim that more than 2,000 people were displaced from what it views as a Sudanese incursion.

In Sudan, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan – the head of the military, and the Chairman of the Sovereign Council – appears to be exploiting the border dispute to boost his patriotic credentials. Burhan has two goals: He wants to shape Sudan’s future and undermine the influence of the civilian-half of the transitional government. A border war with Ethiopia, which has garnered popular support in Sudan, serves both purposes by boosting the legitimacy of the military.

Sudan’s move to consolidate control over al-Fashaga also appears to be an attempt to gain leverage in negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Since the ouster of former Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir, Khartoum has aligned with Cairo on the Nile dispute. The two countries have since pressured Ethiopia into iinking a legally binding agreement on the GERD.

A legally binding agreement is necessary to ensure that enough water flows downstream. Cairo understandably fears that if the dam is filled too quickly, it will drastically reduce its share of fresh water and thereby cripple the livelihoods of Egypt’s rural population.

For Sudan, the dam could provide the country with cheap electricity, but it might also threaten its own water supply. In February, Sudan’s Irrigation and Water Resource Minister Yasser Abbas  called the GERD a national security threat.  Ethiopia has retorted by accusing Egypt and Sudan of capitalizing on its internal discord in Tigray by seizing al-Fashaga.

That may be partly true, yet diplomats have told the non-profit International Crisis Group that Sudan’s large deployment into al-Fashaga indicates that the army had planed a major offensive for a long time. Weeks into the war in Tigray, Sudan cleared land and built military outposts that lead directly to al-Fashaga, according to satellite imagery.

Abiy is now between a rock and a hard place. He relies heavily on the Amhara’s political and military support, especially for his ongoing military campaign in Tigray. Securing that support entails backing Amhara’s claims to al-Fashaga, even if it means stretching government forces thin.

On the other hand, placating domestic constituents – in Ethiopia and Sudan – could spark a protracted war. It doesn’t help that Abiy and Burhan are making maximalist demands. The former insists for all Sudanese troops to withdraw from al-Fashaga before starting negotiations. The latter demands concessions from Ethiopia on every major dispute. This includes recognizing Sudanese sovereignty over al-Fashaga, inking a legally binding deal on the GERD, and removing Ethiopian troops from the U.N peacekeeping mission on South Sudan’s border.

Submitting to these demands – especially all at once – would be political suicide for Abiy. Both leaders should compromise to ensure that the border dispute doesn’t converge with the war in Tigray.

That’s a very real possibility. Just last week, a bridge used to deliver goods to Tigray  – where the U.N fears thousands will die from hunger due to a government blockade – was destroyed. Alex de Waal, a renown scholar on the Horn of Africa, now warns that Tigray forces could launch an offensive to open up a humanitarian corridor from Sudan.

This would allow aid agencies to operate across an unofficial border to reach civilians in need. But doing so could provoke Abiy to claim that Sudan is aiding the Tigray Defense Forces, thereby triggering a multidimensional war. Of course, Abiy can prevent this scenario by lifting the blockade on Tigray immediately.

However, it is equally imperative for the international community to support mediation efforts to end the dispute in al-Fashaga. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is uniquely positioned to assume a mediation role due to its economic clout over both countries.  And despite its authoritarian nature, the UAE has previously played a positive role in the Horn of Africa when it helped mediate an end to the Ethiopia and Eritrea border war in September 2018.

In April, the UAE tried to repeat that success by hosting talks between Sudan and Ethiopia. Abu Dhabi mustered up a draft agreement that would have allotted a quarter of al-Fashaga farmland to Amhara, yet neither side accepted the terms.

The global community should encourage the UAE to double down on its efforts. If left unaddressed, the border war could bring in Eritrea and Egypt on the side of Ethiopia and Sudan, respectively.

The most realistic compromise is a return to a soft border agreement that allows Sudanese and Ethiopian farmers to live and work on the land.  Hard-line Amhara leaders may accept that arrangement if Sudan doesn’t insist on an official demarcation at this time.

Ethiopia and Sudan have too much to lose if cooler heads don’t prevail. Abiy and Burhan must realize that any significant escalation in al-Fashaga – whether intentional or accidental – could compound domestic unrest, dash their aspirations, and doom the political transition of their respective countries.

The choice is theirs.

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