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Sudanese-Ethiopian border dispute: Before and after

Attia Essawi , Tuesday 22 Dec 2020
Sudan
Refugees who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region wait to get cooked rice served by Sudanese local volunteers at Um Rakuba refugee camp in Qadarif, eastern Sudan, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. AP
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The stalled process of demarcating the border between Sudan and Ethiopia received a big push when Sudanese military forces entered the Khorshid region, the last point on the common border, to regain lands seized by Ethiopian farmers decades ago with the support of Ethiopian armed militias, supported in turn by the Ethiopian army.

Although Ethiopia has officially recognised Sudanese sovereignty over the eastern border region Al-Fashaqa, it took no serious measures to proceed with the border demarcation process and continued to furnish protection to Ethiopian farmers there.

Also, former Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir had announced in August 2017 that a full agreement had been reached with Ethiopia to demarcate the borders, stressing that there were no differences over the terms of demarcation. He said in a joint press conference with former Ethiopian Prime Minister Haile Myriam Desalegn in Khartoum: “All that remains is border marking."

Despite this, all efforts have failed to settle it until now. Sudanese authorities had to send troops to Al-Fashaqa, the site of sporadic clashes, where Ethiopian farmers seize and cultivate thousands of acres of fertile land inside Sudanese territory.

"The Sudanese armed forces continued to advance on the front lines inside Al-Fashaqa to recapture the stolen lands and take up positions on the international lines," Sudan's SUNA news agency said.

Sudan's army said troops were attacked in an "ambush by Ethiopian forces and militias inside Sudanese territories." Sudanese media said four soldiers were killed and 27 wounded.

To stop more deterioration, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok agreed with his Ethiopian counterpart Abye Ahmed on the sidelines of the IGAD summit in Djibouti last Sunday that the Sudanese-Ethiopian Joint Commission for Border Demarcation will return to work on 22 December. However, it is too early to say if it will succeed this time.

The last meeting on border demarcation was held in May 2020 in Addis Ababa. A new meeting was to be held a month later, but it was canceled.

Al-Fashaqa has a long story, sometimes bloody. 

On Thursday 28 May, the Sudanese army 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 the 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.

Then, 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 warning was accompanied by renewed tensions in Al-Fashaqa, a region in the Sudanese state of Al-Qadarif. Then, Ethiopian militias infiltrated 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 then governor of Al-Qadarif, complained that Ethiopia had seized more than a million acres of Sudanese land in Al-Fashaqa and that the area had been completely cut off from Sudan. The approximately 250-square-kilometre area is reputed for its large expanses of fertile land.

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, Ethiopia has officially recognised Sudanese sovereignty over Al-Fashaqa.

Nevertheless, Ethiopian farmers have refused to leave the area they had 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-Fashaqa Minor and established 70 agricultural projects in Al-Fashaqa Major.

Their designs were aided by the fact that successive Sudanese governments were preoccupied with 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-Fashaqa until the border demarcation was complete.

In 1993, the situation took a dangerous turn 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 Sudanese.

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 militias. But the Ethiopian armed forces did intervene on behalf of the Ethiopian farmers as well, especially during the period following the assassination attempt against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa, which precipitated severe strains in Addis’s relations with Khartoum.

In 2013, the border demarcation committee suspended its activities although there had been mounting complaints from Sudanese citizens that Ethiopian farmers were encroaching on their land, expelling them from their homes and plundering their possessions with the aid of Ethiopian militias.

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 Ababa decides to use that process as a means of blackmailing Khartoum into paying excessive compensation to Ethiopian farmers or to compel the Sudanese government to side with Addis Ababa against Egypt in the negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

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