While Ethiopia has been bogged down in the Tigray conflict, new tensions have emerged with Sudan over a disputed border territory. Can efforts to prevent a greater fallout in the Horn of Africa succeed?
Sudan and Ethiopia face unprecedented tensions over a decades-long border dispute, and violent clashes have so far crushed any hopes of finding common ground. The dispute is over the al-Fashqa region (also spelled Fashaga), an area of fertile land within Sudan’s eastern border where Ethiopian farmers have settled, and which Addis Ababa has claimed as its own.
Khartoum accused Addis Ababa of an “unforgivable insult,” after Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry said on February 17 that the Sudanese government’s military wing is promoting a conflict that only serves thea “interests of a third party at the expense of the Sudanese people.”
To date, Ethiopia’s deadly conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) since November 2020 has attracted greater international attention, due to its vast humanitarian consequences. However, Khartoum and Addis Ababa’s increasing antagonism has triggered new regional efforts to resolve the quarrel.
This follows controversy over Ethiopia’s US$4.6 billion Grand Renaissance Dam project on the Nile river. Ever since Addis Ababa began the dam’s construction in 2011, Sudan and Egypt have protested the project, fearing it could cut off their own access to the Nile’s waters. External mediation efforts from the African Union (AU) have failed to appease either side, and Addis Ababa is determined to pursue the dam’s completion.
In February, Sudan reiterated its complaints about the dam, and Khartoum’s Water Minister Yasser Abbas called Ethiopia’s planned second phase of filling the dam, scheduled for July, a “direct threat to Sudanese national security.”
A Historic Dispute
Ethiopian ethnic Amhara militias and Sudanese army forces have clashed over parts of al-Fashqa that are located inside Sudan’s internationally recognized borders. Sudan has asserted its own right to the territory, arguing that the region should return to Khartoum’s control. Although Ethiopians have long settled there, cultivated the land, and paid taxes to the Ethiopian authorities.
Arguably, the arbitrary colonial era border has created ambiguity over the territory’s rightful owner.
Ethiopia accused Sudan of sending troops to al-Fashqa in early November 2020, and by December, Sudan’s military said it had seized most of the region. From Addis Ababa’s perspective, Khartoum was taking advantage of Ethiopia’s focus on the Tigray conflict, after its forces left the border region to fight in Tigray.
Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and his Ethiopian counterpart Abiy Ahmed met in December to address the border dispute. However, the meeting made little progress, as clashes renewed in early January. Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry accused Sudanese forces of killing “many civilians,” while earlier in February, Sudanese and Amhara forces clashed once again with the reported killing of one Sudanese soldier.
Khartoum primarily accuses what it calls Ethiopian “militias” of attacking its own farmers, while Addis Ababa has distanced itself from these forces, calling them “outlaw” groups, and therefore blames Sudan for stoking an unnecessary conflict.
Sudan’s Foreign Ministry recalled its ambassador to Ethiopia on February 17, showing tensions are currently spiralling out of control.
“The recent conflict in Ethiopia between the central government and the TPLF signalled a wider powershift within the country’s ruling coalition. While power was previously held by several ethnic groups, the central government now relies nearly completely on Amhara support in domestic politics,” Jos Meester, Senior Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute, told Inside Arabia.
“My reading is that this has emboldened certain ethno-nationalist Amhara, prompting them to push to settle a range of longstanding border issues. Initially this focused on clashes between Amhara and Tigray regions and population groups within Ethiopia, and has expanded from there, as many of the political constraints previously upheld by the power sharing in the center are now gone.”
Growing Regional Concerns
Sudan and Ethiopia’s failure to see eye-to-eye has raised the prospect of mediation from external powers. One candidate that may take a greater role is Turkey. Ethiopian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Dina Mufti said in an interview with Anadolu Agency that the border conflict can only be resolved diplomatically and urged Ankara to tell “our Sudanese brothers” that war is in neither countries’ interests.
Mufti, however, further stated that Sudanese forces must withdraw from al-Fashqa region for diplomatic talks to progress, which underscores Addis Ababa’s wishes to counteract Khartoum. Turkey has meanwhile sought to boost its soft power in the Horn of Africa, which includes growing investments in Ethiopia, and therefore could support mediation for this reason.
“The African Union (AU) has shown a desire to mediate. The bloc announced the appointment of Mauritanian diplomat Mohamed Hassan Ould Lapat to help appease the tensions.”
The African Union (AU) has also shown a desire to mediate. The bloc announced the appointment of Mauritanian diplomat Mohamed Hassan Ould Lapat to visit Khartoum to help appease the tensions with Addis Ababa, the Mauritanian daily Al Akhbar reported on February 17.
Additionally, an unnamed African diplomatic source told Al Jazeera Arabic on February 19 that the AU Commission’s Chairman, Moussa Faki, had proposed an initiative to contain the border crisis.
The diplomatic source linked the move to Lapat’s meeting with the President of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, where he handed him a written letter from Faki, though the letter’s details were not disclosed. However, the source noted that the AU Chairman had blamed Sudan for exacerbating the crisis.
“I do not think the Sudanese, nor the Ethiopian central government, have an appetite to escalate the border situation into an interstate war,” said Meester. “Especially given that both regimes showed a degree of cooperation in the conflict in Tigray, have considerable overlap in their foreign supporters, and both face more pressing domestic problems.”
Sudan currently faces a sharp economic crisis, which has prevailed since before the revolution that toppled Omar Bashir in April 2019, and under the subsequent transitional government established in August that year. The coronavirus pandemic has worsened the country’s pre-existing issues, which include growing inflation and hard currency shortages. Khartoum’s transitional government also faces ongoing protests due to the economic circumstances and public opposition towards government figures tied to war crimes.
“Both countries’ own domestic trials would for now outweigh any desires to confront each other over the al-Fashqa border issue.”
Meanwhile, aside from its own economic insecurity, Ethiopia considers the conflict in Tigray a greater urgency. Therefore both countries’ own domestic trials would for now outweigh any desires to confront each other over the al-Fashqa border issue.
Meester noted that “both governments are in poor positions to restrain the local actors in their own countries fueling the tensions. These local actors may be significant supporters of the national governing coalition, and thus draw national interests in.”
Should mediation efforts to resolve the crisis remain futile, more long-term tensions could emerge between Sudan and Ethiopia. Not to mention, the lack of measures to resolve Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam as a prominent risk factor, which could further stoke political fractures within the Horn of Africa.