Tensions are rising between Sudan and Ethiopia on the back of the failure of the last round of tripartite negotiations – with Egypt – over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). An unresolved border dispute between Khartoum and Addis Ababa has contributed to the problem, but there are additional reasons for escalating tension.
Sudan has been bearing the burden of tens of thousands of Tigrayan refugees who fled their region in northern Ethiopia following clashes between Tigray and the central government, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, in Addis Ababa. The UN estimates that over 200,000 Tigrayan refugees have fled to Sudan, adding pressure to Khartoum’s ailing economy.
Tensions with Sudan cannot be seen separately from Ethiopia’s domestic developments: the war in Tigray, and Amhara militias’ fighting in the north and to the west on the Sudanese border.
Ahmed is counting on the Amhara political circle, which has been the ruling class for centuries. He is eager to draw support from the political and intellectual middle class now that he has lost the backing of his own people, the Oromo, following the protests that flared up as a result of the murder of famed singer Hachalu Hundessa last year.
The Amhara believe Ethiopia should go back to being a unitary state, the way it was before 1991, when the Tigray took control of the country following the defeat of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam (1974-1991). It was then that the Tigray-led Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front divided the country into nine regions based on the ethnic components of the “federal republic”.
Ethiopia has some 80 ethnicities, 10 of which have a population of over a million each. The biggest ethnic group is the Oromo, from which Ahmed hails, making up 34 per cent of the Ethiopian population, followed by the Amhara, comprising 27 per cent, the Tigray and Somali, each making up a little over six per cent.
All of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups want the federal system to remain in place because it gives them relative autonomy. The Tigray in particular know all too well that a unitary state will marginalise them due to their small number compared to the Oromo and Amhara. On the other hand, the Amhara, the most educated group and the most qualified to rule, believe a unitary state will enable them to control Ethiopia’s army, institutions and economy.
The presence of over 250,000 trained Tigray fighters raises Addis Ababa’s fears of renewed conflict with Sudan. This adds to concerns regarding Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) accused Eritrean forces of accessing the Tigray region to support the central forces. The accusations were denied by both Asmara and Addis Ababa. Observers, however, believe the Tigray accusations are not baseless. Asmara regards the TPLF as its enemy. A large number of Ethiopians outside Tigray circles believe the Ethiopian war with Eritrea was simply a conflict between former prime minister Meles Zenawi and the Tigray on one side and Eritrea on the other.
If it were true that Eritrea did intervene, many Ethiopians would feel bitter, especially since Ethiopia lost tens of thousands of lives in the 1998-2000 war and refused to comply with the International Court of Justice ruling the majority of Badme lands should be handed over to Eritrea. Eritrean forces nonetheless announced that they retrieved these lands in tandem with the launch of the war in the Tigray region, and now the Sudanese Minister of Information declared that Sudan has regained Fashqa from Addis Ababa following a battle against Ethiopian militias.
This is the opposite of what happened in the aftermath of the Ethiopian-Eritrean war, when Addis Ababa seized lands from Asmara and began negotiating with Sudan in a dispute over the 744-kilometre border. Fashqa was the most contentious point in the border dispute. International treaties in 1902 and 1907 prove Fashqa to be Sudanese land, but rich Ethiopian farmers settled there, paying taxes to the Ethiopian government.
Following years of negotiations, Ethiopia recognised Sudan’s sovereignty over Fashqa in 2008, and Khartoum allowed Ethiopians to farm on its land.
What sparked the conflict recently is that the Amhara, who support Ahmed, who came to power in 2018, see the agreement as a “secret deal” the Tigray sealed when they were in power, and demanded a final border line be drawn to end the “soft borders” state in a way that does not disrupt people’s livelihoods.
Therefore, during talks in Khartoum on 24 December between Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen and Sudanese Minister of Cabinet Affairs Omar Manis, Addis Ababa requested renegotiating the border issue and cancelling the 2008 agreement. Sudan rejected the Ethiopian demand, maintaining the status quo and while adding border markers on the disputed land.
The Ethiopian position was a retreat from the consensus reached between the two delegations when the Border Commission was formed in May, as the two countries agreed on an amicable solution to the border issue in accordance with the documents signed between them. The agreement stipulates that the Technical Border Commission will begin demarcating the border in October 2020 and finish its work in April 2021.
To stall negotiations, Addis Ababa demanded compensation for the Ethiopian farmers who were expelled by Sudanese forces from Fashqa, as the Sudanese Fashqa residents had returned to their lands after nearly two decades of leaving them.
Earlier last week, however, reports revealed that Ethiopia was mobilising forces on the border with Khartoum. Sudanese military and political leaders pledged not to let go of their lands no matter the circumstances.
This is a point of no return for the Sudanese government, especially after mobilising the masses to the cause of regaining Fashqa. The mobilisation couldn’t be more evident than on social media platforms.
Moreover, many Sudanese people supporting the transitional government believe that restoring Fashqa would correct a mistake committed by the Islamist government led by toppled president Omar Al-Bashir, who let go of Sudanese lands to join forces with Addis Ababa against “common enemies”.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.