Border tensions mount between Sudan, Ethiopia

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On Sunday, Ethiopian forces stationed in the Abdel-Rafi area fired mortar shells towards a Sudanese reconnaissance force crossing the Abu Teyyour Mountains, according to news reports. No casualties were reported.

Ethiopian authorities have called for dialogue on condition that Sudanese forces leave the disputed border region. Senior leaders in the Sudanese army, however, have stressed that Sudan will not back down from land that, according to them, constitutes sovereign territory. “Going backwards will not be among the options of the Sudanese army,” a military source in the Sovereign Council told Ayin on the condition of anonymity. “What is Sudan negotiating? There is no negotiation. This is our land.”

The head of Sudan’s Sovereign Council, Lieutenant-General Abdel Fattah el Burhan, said in a recent fiery speech that Sudan had been patient about this borderland for a long period, enduring “25 years of offences and threats and accusations, but everything has a limit”. Both sides claim ownership of the fertile Al-Fashqa region. “Sudan did not start the conflict, Ethiopia did, and now it’s eye for an eye,” Burhan said.

Sudan has long claimed that the disputed border Al-Fashqa region falls under Sudanese territory, according to a 1902 colonial border demarcation. But Ethiopian authorities refused to recognise this border setting during December talks in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. The meeting ended, as it did in 1998, without an agreement. The matter is further muddled by the fact that former Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir had maintained a “soft border” for the 600 square kilometres of fertile borderland for decades. Bashir had allowed Ethiopian farmers to settle in Al-Fashqa in return for political support.

But since November, under a new transitional government, Sudanese forces have positioned themselves along the disputed border, while Ethiopia has launched sporadic attacks in protest. 

Armed Ethiopian gangs known as the Shifta killed at least eight civilians in the Wad A’arood and al-Liya villages along the border earlier last month. 

Authorities in the border area of El-Gedaref state, Sudan, claim residents of 34 villages near the border have been displaced. According to Sudanese political analyst Mohammed Abdelaziz, the attacks are being carried out by militias from the Amhara tribe, Ethiopia’s second-largest ethnic group, in a bid to “carry out terrorist attacks against civilians to intimidate them and push them to evacuate the area”.

On 13 January, Sudan’s ministry of foreign affairs said Ethiopian warplanes had crossed over into Sudanese airspace — a move the foreign ministry termed “dangerous and unjustified”. 

Dam talks denied

Tension is not only focused on this border area but also further south, along the border of Sudan’s Blue Nile State and Ethiopia’s most ambitious hydro-electric project in sub-Saharan Africa, the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd). 

Since November, Sudan has toughened its stance over tripartite negotiations between Ethiopia and Egypt over the dam and its influence over the Nile waters. Talks on Gerd were suspended after Sudan demanded a change in the negotiation methodology, calling for a greater role for the African Union in reaching a binding agreement. Sudan’s Minister of Water and Irrigation, Dr Yasser Abbas, said the “talks were going in circles”. 

One of Sudan’s key demands is a binding agreement to avoid what Ethiopia did last year: filling the dam in July 2020 without consultation. “Proceeding to fill without an agreement is a huge risk for Sudan; we need to work on not making this the most probable scenario,” the minister said. “Sudan isn’t a weak country to always be begging for its rights.”

A militarily occupied Ethiopia, an emboldened Sudan?

The fact that Sudan became vocal over the border area and Gerd around the time Ethiopia’s attention was focused on the Tigray conflict in November may not be a coincidence.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched an offensive against the former ruling party-turned insurgents, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in northern Ethiopia last November. The conflict seemingly emboldened Sudan and other actors to take a tougher stance on several long-term outstanding contentions — not least the disputed borderland territory.

Sudan’s army took control of the border area of Khor Yabis in Al-Fashqa in early December. By the end of the year, Sudan’s Acting Foreign Minister Omar Gamer El Din told reporters the army had “recovered” all agricultural areas occupied by Ethiopian farmers and militiamen in the disputed border area. The acting minister claims Sudan has documents confirming ownership of the border areas where the Sudanese army is deployed. The minister said markers are being placed every two kilometres to identify the territory.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s ambassador in Sudan, Yibeltal Aemero, accused the Sudanese military of taking advantage of the war in the Tigray region to seize disputed land. “When the Ethiopian National Defence forces moved to the Tigray region on 4 November, the Sudanese army took advantage and entered deep inside Ethiopian territory, looted properties, burned camps, detained, attacked and killed Ethiopians while displacing thousands,” Aemero claimed. 

“Sudan wouldn’t have moved an inch had it not been for the Tigray war,” says Chalachew Tadesse, a journalist and former intelligence analyst for Ethiopia’s foreign ministry. “I think they move in by putting aside the border negotiations, believing that the Ethiopian army wouldn’t risk fighting on two fronts.”

But some say the same could be true on the opposite side. When Amhara nationalists took over territories in Tigray, they claimed the area was historically theirs, says William Davison from the international think-tank, International Crisis Group. This, Davison says, may have led to some fears in Sudan that the Amhara farmers and militias would also claim the land in Al-Fashqa as their own.

A war nobody wants

Both sides would agree tensions have risen between them, but both sides would also likely agree that neither side would benefit from war. 

While Sudan contends with hyperinflation, long bread lines and peace agreements with former rebel groups within its borders, Ethiopia’s army is stretched, already dealing with multiple internal conflicts. 

Ahmed is contending with conflict in the north in Tigray, the Oromo in southern and central Ethiopia, and calls for autonomy from the Sidema ethnic group in southwest Ethiopia. The country had around 1.8-million internally displaced persons even before the conflict in Tigray started. 

But multiple conflicts and economic headaches may not be the key reason neither leader wants to go to war: Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Ahmed are reportedly friends. Hamdok has spent considerable time living and working in Addis Ababa and, according to some sources, remains very close to his Ethiopian counterpart. 

Calling the shots

But how much control either leader has over the restive situation is debatable. Hamdok’s power has been repeatedly compromised by the military that seemingly makes key foreign policy decisions without even consulting the civilian government. 

Further, Sudan’s military may likely benefit politically from such a conflict with Ethiopia. “Sudanese generals within the Transitional Sovereign Council clearly want an open war with Ethiopia to solidify their power against the civilian part of the transitional government, and to gain more legitimacy by invoking patriotism in the name of territorial integrity,” Tadesse said. “That is what their recent statements and utterances point to.”

Similarly, it is unclear how much power Ahmed has over the Amharic militias who, according to residents in the eastern border city of El-Gedaref, are purposely displacing Sudanese residents to recapture the borderlands. The premier is relying on these same tribal militias to counter the TPLF since he has lost support from his own ethnic community, the Oromo, who constitute the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia.

There is, however, one key reason Ethiopia may not want to escalate tensions with Sudan vis-à-vis the Tigray conflict — Sudan holds the key in determining whether this conflict will be brief or long-term, Tadesse told Ayin. As long as Sudan continues to block the border, preventing TPLF from gaining an external base, the TPLF remains landlocked, with few outlets to access and restock supplies, he said. Currently isolated, the TPLF are forced to scatter and continue a limited but protracted guerrilla war. 

“I think that the TPLF has had all the possible avenues closed to it,” said former army spokesperson Brigadier-General Swarmi Khaled in an interview with Vice News. “It isn’t easy for it [TPLF] to win while being totally cut off … currently it doesn’t have any possible source of support except Sudan. It cannot win unless it can get support from Sudan.”

But if the military is calling the shots in Sudan, siding with the TPLF could turn into a reality, Tadesse added. Sudan’s military has close ties with the TPLF, including Burhan, stemming from their past experiences during Bashir’s regime. Many Sudanese generals, Tadesse said, developed close ties with the TPLF during this period.

An influx of the displaced

All of this border uncertainty takes place while over 60 000 Ethiopian refugees have fled into Sudanese refugee camps. Sudanese authorities opened a new camp for Ethiopian refugees on 3 January in Al Tanideba, El Gedaref state, when another refugee camp, Um Rakuba, became full. Now authorities are transferring around 500 refugees per day from the Hashaba reception centre to the new camp, the UN reported. The sudden influx of refugees has put a strain on existing infrastructure and the health services in Sudan, says Kiera Sargeant, the former medical co-ordinator for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Sudan. “This came on top of existing fuel shortages and steep inflation in Sudan, which have caused logistical and financial difficulties for everyone involved,” Sargeant said. 

As tensions mount, both sides are aware that neither can truly afford launching another conflict in the region — least of all the thousands of displaced Ethiopians who have been forced to flee their homes, often only with the shirts on their backs. “All the residents of the town had [to] run for their lives,” Ethiopian refugee Adish Sulimano told Ayin after fleeing the Tigray region to Sudan. “I saw too many corpses scattered and injured women and children along the way. I don’t know where my family members are […] I don’t know if the rest of us made it to safety or died back home.”

This report is published by the Mail & Guardian in collaboration with Ayin, an independent Sudanese media house, which provides a platform for Sudanese journalists to report on sensitive issues. For their own safety, the journalists write anonymously

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