As tensions continue to heighten between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia since the breakdown of the last round of negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in Washington in February, the Sudanese-Ethiopian confrontation in Al-Fashqa on the border between the two countries has added a new layer of complexity to an already complicated situation.
Sudanese positions on the mammoth Ethiopian Dam on the Blue Nile have grown more balanced in recent weeks, finally breaking with the long custom of the former Omar Al-Bashir regime to toe the line with the Ethiopian negotiating position.
After stating that his country was committed to the Washington process as a framework for resolving the dispute over the dam, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok rejected an Ethiopian proposal to sign a “partial agreement” that would consent to Ethiopian plans to begin filling the GERD reservoir in July. His government also launched an intensive diplomatic drive to restart the negotiating process.
However, the repeated armed clashes in Al-Fashqa situated along the Sudanese border with Ethiopia have cast a shadow over the future of Sudanese-Ethiopian relations and stirred speculation on the impact of this dispute on the question of GERD which has recently been the chief issue in that bilateral relationship.
Since the beginning of this year, Ethiopian militias have been staging increasingly frequent cross-border raids against Sudanese villages in Al-Fashqa, a fertile agricultural region in the state of Al-Qadarif located opposite to the Ethiopian Amhara region. Ethiopian bands of highway robbers and militias known as Al-Shafta gangs have driven Sudanese farmers from their land, seized property by force, stolen livestock, and murdered and kidnapped people to hold them for ransom.
Thousands of Ethiopian farmers have moved into the area to cultivate crops or raise livestock under the protection of these armed gangs. Sudanese sources estimate that the Ethiopian farmers currently occupy over a million acres of some of Sudan’s most fertile land.
The phenomenon began decades ago. Ethiopian farmers began to move into the Al-Fashqa region in 1957, a year after Sudan won its independence. The encroachments then persisted, taking advantage of the inability of the two sides to reach an agreement over this border area.
Although Ethiopia has not denied Sudan’s legal title to this land in accordance with the 1902 Nile Waters Agreement followed by a border protocol signed in 1903, it has continually worked to impose a de facto reality on the ground by facilitating the settlement of Ethiopian farmers in Al-Fashqa while procrastinating on border demarcation talks that it has attempted to prolong through endless local subcommittees.
Sudan, meanwhile, has always averted confrontation with Ethiopia, whether out of fear that this might escalate into military conflict or in order to preserve strategic interests that it regards as more important.
The recent attacks starting at the beginning of this year testify to a number of changes that might have important implications for the future of Sudanese-Ethiopian relations. Contrary to custom, the latest spate of attacks occurred in the winter and spring, whereas in the past they had generally been restricted to the harvest season in the autumn. This suggests that the Ethiopian farmers want to deprive their Sudanese counterparts of the opportunity to sow the soil from the outset, thereby facilitating a bid to secure permanent control over the land.
Secondly, the attacks have become fiercer and deadlier. Whereas in the past the Al-Shafta gangs tended to plunder crops after harvest or steal livestock in order to sell the produce themselves, recently higher numbers of Sudanese farmers have been killed or abducted and Sudanese homes and farms have been burned. The intention appears to have been to terrorise the local Sudanese inhabitants in order to lend impetus to designs to drive them off the land.
The Ethiopian attacks also appear to be more organised and systematic, rendering it unrealistic to continue to attribute this phenomenon to mere localised strife between neighbouring communities situated on opposite sides of the border. Indeed, there is mounting evidence that the Amhara state authorities have been involved in organising the expansion of Ethiopian farmers into Sudan and that the federal government in Addis Ababa has been unwilling to take any serious steps to deter them and halt the attacks.
In the short term, the Al-Fashqa crisis is likely to impact negatively on the GERD negotiations as Addis Ababa may seize on it as another pretext to evade talks or use the evacuation of Ethiopian farmers from Sudanese territory as a means to leverage Khartoum into taking pro-Ethiopian positions at the negotiating table.
In the longer term, however, the dispute will put paid to the narrative, dating from the Al-Bashir era in Sudan, that the bilateral Sudanese-Ethiopian was “ideal”, that Sudan had more to gain from the GERD than Ethiopia, and that Egypt was “perpetually scheming” to control the Nile and deprive the upstream nations of their rights to Nile water and development.
The recent border crisis has opened Khartoum’s eyes to the reality of Ethiopian intentions. Ethiopia’s rejection of the 1902 Agreement regulating the construction of hydraulic projects on the Blue Nile and its tributaries is a prelude to a bid to renege on its commitment, under that same agreement, to recognise and respect Sudanese sovereignty over the Al-Fashqa region.
The growing Sudanese awareness of this, combined with the increased frequency and hostility of the confrontations in the region, will increase the chances of more strenuous Sudanese objections to the GERD which, indeed, presents a looming threat to Sudan. In fact, Sudanese voices have already grown louder now that the Al-Bashir regime is no longer around to suppress them.
RESPONSES: Largely due to the unusual developments in the mode of attacks, official responses on both sides have appeared confused, and in fewer than three months there have been several waves of escalating tensions followed by periods of calm.
Faced with the growing belligerence and ferocity of the Al-Shafta gangs since the outset of this year, the Sudanese armed forces have had no choice but to break with custom and actively intervene to protect Sudanese lives and property. On 8 March, a small contingent of the Sudanese army was deployed to drive out the Al-Shafta gangs. Two Sudanese soldiers and three Ethiopian gang members died in the exchange.
Then, as the Sudanese became more determined to clear the area, they crossed to the eastern bank of the Atbara River for the first time in about 25 years. Sudanese forces have been absent from this area for so long because they have been preoccupied with engagements on other fronts in Darfour and South Kordofan.
But when the Sudanese forces entered Al-Fashqa they clashed with Ethiopian armed forces that claimed they were present on Sudanese territory in order to protect Ethiopian citizens. This development confirmed Ethiopian designs to prevent Sudanese forces from establishing a permanent presence in the areas under dispute.
The skirmishes prompted Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan, president of the Transitional Sovereign Council (TSC) in Sudan, to make an unscheduled visit to inspect the state of security in Al-Qadarif. Accompanied by the Sudanese army chief-of-staff and the director of intelligence, the TSC president reviewed the second infantry division in Al-Qadarif and the 6th Infantry Brigade command in the Doka region. The visit also occasioned the redeployment of a full regiment of the Sudanese armed forces to Al-Fashqa.
In the aftermath of a round of escalation in early April, Sudan and Ethiopia tried to defuse the crisis. On 9 April, Al-Burhan called Ethiopian Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy. Soon afterwards, Ethiopian Chief-of-Staff Adam Mohamed visited Khartoum at the head of a high-level Ethiopian delegation, after which the two sides announced a new agreement on the border demarcation and the return of Ethiopian farmers to their country.
Then, on 17-21 May, a high-level Sudanese delegation visited Addis Ababa to discuss a number of issues of mutual concern, foremost among them being a resolution to the problem of Ethiopian farmers in Al-Fashqa. The two sides agreed that a joint border demarcation committee would begin installing border signs in October and complete its work in March 2021.
Despite these efforts, the renewed violence on 27-28 May showed that they were insufficient to resolve the problem. The clashes between the two sides, involving a larger engagement of the Sudanese armed forces, resulted in the death of a Sudanese officer with the rank of captain and six Sudanese conscripts.
On 30 May, tensions escalated further when Sudan recalled the chargé d’affaires of its embassy in Addis Ababa to Khartoum in protest against the latest Ethiopian militia attacks. The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry issued what the Sudanese described as a “feeble” response on its Facebook page, stating that it “sees no reason” for a state of hostility and prefers to “deal with such matters through diplomatic dialogue”.
The bumpy road to a resolution of the Al-Fashqa crisis could diverge into three possible courses, one being further escalation. This would occur, for example, if either or both sides thought it to their advantage to try to capitalise on the crisis to enhance their domestic legitimacy or their regional profile. If such a scenario led to a large-scale military confrontation, this could reshape the demographics of the area in a manner determined by the outcomes of the military confrontation.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is a quick and definitive solution to the Al-Fashqa crisis. There is no reason why this should not be possible in the light of the close relations between Khartoum and Addis Ababa since the fall of the Omar al-Bashir regime in Khartoum. An agreement that stresses the close and historic relations between the two sides could include important concessions from the Ethiopian side (the aggressor) that would lay the dispute to rest once and for all. Given the tinderbox at the border, the two sides could draw on the unanticipated Ethiopian-Eritrean border resolution initiative in 2018.
Option three, which falls between rapid escalation and a rapid solution, is temporary containment. The two sides have traditionally resorted to this option, which assumes the dispute to be limited, local, and apolitical. This would be convenient in that it merely requires some conventional reconciliations between tribal or other local leaderships, with some input from the local administrations in Al-Qadarif and Amhara. Unfortunately, arrangements of this sort have been short-lived in the past, even if they have offered some temporary reprieve to the two sides, which both want to avert escalation at present.
Generally speaking, a full-scale conflict seems unlikely in view of various domestic, regional, and international factors. On the other hand, while the prospects of a more permanent solution with the border demarcations that should be carried out by March next year seem positive, the more likely scenario is the middle-of-the-road approach of a fragile, patchwork solution.
The writer is head of the African Studies Unit at the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly