Understanding the Sudan-Ethiopia confrontation

Ethiopia Sudan

(Source: Eritrea Hub, By Martin plaut) –

There is a complex reality behind the clashes between Ethiopia and Sudan over two key issues: the Nile and the al-Fashaga triangle.

These issues have been bubbling away for years, but they appear to be coming to a head.

Ethiopia now accuses Sudan of acting as a safe haven for the Tigrayan authorities against whom they are fighting a war. [See below] But this might only be a trigger for a wider conflict.

Ethiopia fears that the Tigrayans will manage to link up with Sudan to create a corridor along which essential supplies can pass – as they did during the last long war that Tigray fought from 1975 – 1991. Hence the first, and most ferocious, attacks of the Tigray war were on Humera: the tripoint between Ethiopia-Eritrea-Sudan.

Ethiopia and Eritrea (together with Amhara militia and special forces) were determined to take the western region of Tigray, which they have largely succeeded in doing.

But this does not explain the underlying problems.

The Nile

The Grand Renaissance Dam, that Ethiopia is close to completion on the Blue Nile, is the product of an American survey in the 1950’s and ’60’s. It was begun in 2011 and is a hydroelectric dam, which only uses the water to produce electricity.

Despite this Egypt has objected to it from the start. Cairo is fearful that the quantity of water it receives from the Nile – on which it depends for over 90% of all its water – will decline.

Sudan also objects, fearing that its farmers will lose the rich silt on which they depend and that if the water in the dam is released in an uncontrolled manner, it will wash away their farms.

Egypt and Sudan argue – correctly – that under colonial treaties they are guaranteed exclusive rights to all of the Nile’s waters.

Ethiopia argues – correctly – that the water falls as rain on its mountains, and it is its sovereign right to decide how to use the Blue Nile, as it flows through its territory.

The three countries have engaged in years of negotiations in an attempt to find a middle way between these positions.

Egypt and Sudan call for international mediation to produce a binding agreement. Ethiopia argues that it will rely on the African Union to find a solution. The parties back these positions because they will believe theywill produce the result they want.

The situation is now coming to a head. In July Ethiopia plans the second filling of the dam. Egypt’s President al-Sisi warns he will act if a drop of Nile water is lost to Egypt. “If it happens, there will be inconceivable instability in the region that no one could imagine,” the president said.

To back his words, Egypt and Sudan have engaged in joint military exercises. Commando and air forces from Egypt and Sudan concluded a five-day military exercise at Merowe air base in northern Sudan on April 5.

The warning is clear: don’t fill the Grand Renaissance Dam, or face the consequences.

The al-Fashaga triangle

Few outside of the region had heard of this border area before the current crisis. But the demarcation of the land between Ethiopia and Sudan goes back to treaties dating from 1900.

In a nutshell, the well watered, fertile area has been controlled and farmed by Ethiopian farmers for many years, even though the Sudanese maintained it is theirs.

When the war in Tigray broke out, Ethiopia was short of soldiers and withdrew the troops guarding the farms to fight in Tigray. This left the farmer, who were from the Amhara ethnic group, exposed. Sudan seized their chance and pushed in its own troops. The Amhara farmers fled to Ethiopia and the Sudanese swore never to give up the land.

But the Amhara are key allies of Prime Minister Abiy – both politically and militarily. With the Prime Minister facing elections in June, he cannot ignore their views.

Eritrean troops have also been seen entering the disputed territory, in support of the Ethiopians.


These forces are pushing Sudan and Ethiopia towards confrontation.

  1. Ethiopian fears that Sudan will serve as a secure rear base to re-supply the Tigrayan forces against which Addis Ababa is fighting.
  2. Ethiopia is worried that al-Fashaga will remain in Sudanese hands, alienating the Amhara.
  3. Sudan and Egypt are furious that Ethiopia refuses to reach a binding treaty over the Grand Renaissance Dam.

Will the recent armed clashes turn into a full-scale war between Ethiopia and Eritrea (on the one side) and Sudan and Egypt (on the other)? Not if the international community can help it. The African Union, Europeans and the USA are all working with the Saudis and the UAE to try to prevent this.

But wars come about when underlying tensions are misjudged and an unexpected event sparks a conflict which none of the parties can away from. We are close to that point.


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