The Sudanese army has for the first time publicly accused the Ethiopian army of supporting Ethiopian militias that have invaded Sudan and clashed with the Sudanese army. The accusation combined with the warning that Khartoum will keep all options open if Ethiopian violations continue is a clear sign that Sudan has come to the end of its tether over the long-standing crisis over a border area where some 1,800 Ethiopian farmers seized about a million acres of fertile agricultural land and drove out local Sudanese farmers with the help of Ethiopian militias.
On Thursday, 28 May, a Sudanese military spokesman announced that “Ethiopian militias supported by the Ethiopian army continued their assault against Sudanese land and resources.” The Ethiopian forces withdrew later that day. The following day the spokesman told Al-Arabiya news channel that a precarious calm prevailed at the border, and then said: “All options are open if the Ethiopian aggression persist... We have sent reinforcements to the border to prevent any violations. The involvement of the Ethiopian armed forces in the recent assaults was evident.”
The warning was occasioned by renewed tensions in Al-Fashqa, a border region in the Sudanese state of Al-Qadarif. On Thursday, Ethiopian militias infiltrated across the border, attacked agricultural projects in the vicinity of Birkat Nourein and Al-Fursan village and clashed with Sudanese military forces there. A Sudanese officer and a child were killed and nine soldiers and civilians were wounded in the fighting.
A week earlier, Sudanese Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Omar Qamar Al-Din said: “There are 1,786 Ethiopian farmers on Sudanese land... We have agreed with the Ethiopians that the joint border demarcation committee should start installing border demarcations in October and complete the work in March 2021.”
In 2016, Mirghani Saleh, the governor of Al-Qadarif, complained that Ethiopia had seized more than a million acres of Sudanese land in Al-Fashqa and that the area had been completely cut off from Sudan. The approximately 250 square kilometres area is reputed for its large expanses of fertile land. Generally, the sowing and harvesting seasons experience the most frequent border infiltrations and assaults from outlaw Ethiopian militias that refuse to abide by the terms of any agreements between Addis Ababa and Khartoum.
Although Ethiopia has officially recognised Sudanese sovereignty over Al-Fashqa in accordance with an agreement signed between Emperor Menelik II and the British in 1902, a subsequent protocol in 1903 and a bilateral agreement with Khartoum in 1972, Ethiopian farmers have refused to leave the area into which they infiltrated in 1957. They also effaced some of the border demarcations, built a village they called Barecht, and turned the Sudanese village of Al-Jamama into a city of their own. They then seized the whole of Al-Fashqa Minor and established 70 agricultural projects in Al-Fashqa Major. Their designs were aided by the fact that successive Sudanese governments were preoccupied by the rebel movement in southern Sudan and by Sudanese reluctance to act against the farmers, as a token of gratitude to Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie who was instrumental in brokering the 1972 agreement that brought the rebellion to an end. Meanwhile, the farmers themselves were encouraged by an earlier agreement signed between Khartoum and Addis Ababa in 1965 which gave Ethiopian farmers permission to continue working the land in Al-Fashqa until the border demarcation was complete.
The situation took a dangerous turn in 1993 when Ethiopian forces intervened to protect its farmers who had encroached on some 55,000 acres of land that had been allocated to Sudanese farmers. In 1994, Khartoum and Addis Ababa worked out an agreement to distribute the land in that area between Sudanese and Ethiopian farmers, allocating two-thirds of it to the former. As the agreement prohibited national military forces from intervening in disputes that erupted between the Ethiopian and Sudanese farmers, the latter were left at the mercy of militia gangs. But Ethiopian armed forces did intervene on behalf of the Ethiopian farmers as well, especially during the period following the assassination attempt against Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa which precipitated severe strains in Addis’s relations with Khartoum.
Although Ethiopia officially recognised Sudanese sovereignty over Al-Fashqa, it took no serious measures to proceed with the border demarcation process and it continued to furnish protection to Ethiopian farmers there. Then, in 2013, the border demarcation committee suspended its activities.
In April this year, following a visit to Khartoum, the Ethiopian Chief-of-Staffs Lieutenant General Adam Mohamed Mahmoud said that talks with Sudanese officials covered border issues, including fighting cross-border crime, smuggling and human trafficking. An Ethiopian source told Asharq Al-Awsat that the visit also dealt with the dispute over Al-Fashqa, which forces affiliated with the Ethiopian Amhara Region had seized from Sudanese farmers during the era of ousted Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir. According to the source, the Ethiopian chief-of-staffs and Sudanese officials agreed on a plan that called for the armed forces to withdraw to their international borders within two weeks and for the border demarcation committee to begin installing border signs immediately.
Sudan and Ethiopia are both eager to keep rising tensions contained, especially since last week’s armed clashes. Sudan needs Ethiopia for many reasons, not least of which is its electricity requirements. Sudan suffers a 40 per cent deficit in electricity production and is looking forward to meeting its needs from GERD. Khartoum is also keen to sustain good relations with Addis Ababa to ensure that the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) does not receive assistance that will strengthen its power in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, both of which are adjacent to Ethiopia. Ethiopia, for its part, needs to remain on good terms with Khartoum in order to maintain easy access to Sudanese ports on the Red Sea and to prevent assistance from reaching the Oromo Liberation Front with its agenda for autonomous rule, if not secession from the Amhara dominated government.
Under former Sudanese president Al-Bashir, Khartoum signed an agreement with former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn that would grant Sudan electricity at preferential prices. Work on the electricity linkup has actually begun. Informed sources revealed that Khartoum, at the time, had approved the Ethiopian request to rent Sudanese land for the purposes of constructing a river port to facilitate riparian freight transport. A more important development towards cementing the bond between the two countries was revealed by informed sources in Khartoum in late December 2015. It involved preparations for what the sources described as the largest joint agricultural project in Africa to be carried out in the vicinity of Sudanese border villages of Al-Qallabat and Al-Qadarif. It was hoped that this would end the problem of Ethiopian tribes moving in to take over these fertile areas every autumn.
The Sudanese state of Al-Qadarif occupies 265 kilometres of Sudan’s 902-kilometre-long border with Ethiopia. Evidently there have been mounting complaints from Sudanese citizens in the area that Ethiopian farmers were encroaching on their land, expelling them from their homes and plundering their possessions with the aid of Ethiopian militias. The complaints have roused considerable concern in Khartoum, including the Sudanese parliament which demanded the deployment of Sudanese forces along the border and an acceleration in the border demarcation process.
The Sudanese are impatiently looking forward to the completion of the border demarcation process in March 2021. But their hopes might be in vein if Addis decides to use that process as a means to blackmail Khartoum into paying excessive compensation to Ethiopian farmers or to compel the Sudanese government to side with Addis Ababa in the negotiations over GERD and to refuse to sign the draft agreement that Egypt had initialled in Washington in February. A recent remark by the Sudanese military spokesman indicates that officials in Khartoum are wary of just such a scenario. He said: “The Ethiopians are dragging their feet on the border demarcation. But we continue to adhere to the peaceful solution... There are Ethiopian construction activities in Sudanese territory and ongoing attacks.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly