CORRECTION: Ethiopia’s Sudanese nightmare

Haitham Nouri , Tuesday 25 Apr 2023

Ethiopia stands to lose a great deal if the Sudanese army wins its battle against the Rapid Support Forces, reports Haitham Nouri



Despite the holy month of Ramadan and Eid Al-Fitr, two weeks of bloody clashes in Sudan have left hundreds dead and thousands injured with no prospect of a solid ceasefire. So far, the capital Khartoum has seen the most violent confrontations.

Even on the days when the the drums of war sounded milder, such as on the first day of Eid, there were tensions and rumours not only in Khartoum State – comprising Khartoum, Khartoum North through the Blue Nile, and Omdurman through the White Nile – but also in neighbouring countries, particularly Ethiopia.

The Sudanese Armed Forces, currently engaged in fighting against the “rebellious” Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia, monitored unusual mobilisation movement by Ethiopia, the newspaper said, without revealing whether this movement was undertaken by the regular army or the Ethiopian Amhara militia, which is allied with the RSF. The newspaper mentioned no details regarding the Lesser Fashaqa conflict, nor did it report on casualties and loss of arms on either side.

This attack, however, reveals the magnitude of the impact that fighting in Sudan has made on neighbouring countries, especially Ethiopia, Eritrea, Libya, Chad, South Sudan, and Central Africa.

The government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is fearful that the Sudanese army will emerge victorious against the RSF, which were founded by former president Omar Al-Bashir and are made up of Janjaweed militias implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity in the westernmost region of Darfur.

A large portion of Ethiopians believe the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime headed by Al-Bashir in December 2019 was a major loss for Ahmed’s government. Ahmed had hoped that Al-Bashir would join him and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki in the two year war against the Tigray to eliminate the Tigray People’s Liberation Front once and for all, said Al-Amin Magzoub, a former officer in the Sudanese army.

“Al-Bashir had repeatedly used the RSF in Libya, Yemen, and Chad. It was expected he would use them once more to serve Ahmed’s interests,” Magzoub added. “The toppled president of Sudan had wanted to solidify Ahmed’s rule to consolidate his own position in the face of his regional, Arab, and African conflicts concerning the Brotherhood, Libya, and other topics. However, the popular revolution of December 2019 put an end to all such plans.”

The army leaders that took over from Al-Bashir restored the whole of Fashaqa more than a decade after the Brotherhood handed it over to Ethiopia.

It was in 2008 that Al-Bashir left the agricultural region of Fashaqa to Amhara farmers as part of his alliance with the late Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi against South Sudan, Eritrea, Chad, Uganda, and Rwanda. Indeed, the Sudanese army grew more popular on the street after restoring Fashaqa and seeing bringing Sudanese farmers back to their land.

Addis Ababa also fears greater Egypt-Sudan collaboration if the Sudanese army wins the war against the RSF.

“Following the fall of Al-Bashir, the Sudanese army rejoined the Bright Star military drills for the first time since the Brotherhood rose to power in Sudan in 1989 with Egyptian support and US approval,” said Magzoub.

Military exercises involving the Egyptian and Sudanese armies are ongoing.

“Since 2020 Russia has supplied the Sudanese military with a number of Sukhoi aircraft, tanks, and weapons that will contribute to tipping the scale in favour of the army in the present war,” Magzoub also pointed out.

Despite the agreement between Sudan and Ethiopia on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Addis Ababa is worried the Tigray war will erupt again if the army wins, in which case the military will support Tigray in its war against the central government in Ethiopia.

“In this case, Ahmed and Afwerki will not be able to beat Tigray or starve its people through imposing an embargo like they did all through 2022,” Magzoub added.

Khaled Mahmoud, an expert on African affairs, said the clashes in Sudan are “a nightmare for Ethiopia. If the war persists in tandem with the Horn of Africa famine the UN has been warning about for many years, this will spell the end of Ethiopia as we know it.”

He added that “the Tigray are not a mere minority. They have ruled Ethiopia alongside the Amhara and the people of the national church – not the byproduct of Western Christian missionary.”

The Tigray defeated the Italians in the late 19th century and again when they supported emperor Haile Selassie (1918-1974) in the mid-1930s. They were the first group to take up arms against the communist Derg regime led by colonel Mengistu Hailemariam (1974-1991).

“The Tigray area is mountainous and impossible to infiltrate or occupy, which means either an ongoing war or dividing Ethiopia,” Mahmoud said.

On the other hand, Ethiopia is enduring several wars already. The government is fighting in the Beni-Shangul-Gomaz region, home to the GERD, on the border with Sudan, with common history, cultural, social and familial bonds between Arab tribes.

“If Sudan is to support the rebellion of the Arab tribes of Beni-Shangul, the GERD may end up in a Sudanese region,” said Magzoub.

Sudan shares long borders with the Ethiopian Oromo region. The Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest national group, are in revolt against Ahmed’s government. Supporting them may “open the doors to hell” on Ethiopia, Mahmoud added.

The Ethiopian prime minister’s father is a Muslim Oromo and his mother is an Orthodox Amhara. Ahmed converted to Pentecostal Christianity and rose to the helm in 2018 following Oromo protests against the regime which had been in Tigray hands since 1991. After becoming prime minister, Ahmed “disavowed” the Oromo, according to his Oromo proponents.

The Oromo make up 34 per cent of the Ethiopian population according to official statistics. Addis Ababa is situated in the Oromo region and the government’s expansion of the capital at the expense of the Oromo’s agricultural lands was the main reason for their revolt against Ahmed.

It is difficult to win over the Oromo because they comprise Muslims and Christians, rendering their affiliations complicated.

Victory for the Sudanese army would mean an alliance with the South Sudan government, which claims that it has sovereignty rights in Gambella region – in western Ethiopia – populated mainly by the Dinka and Anuak.

The Dinka is the largest ethnicity in South Sudan, and the one from which President Salva Kiir and the majority of the South Sudan army hail. The group extends through the White Nile and all its branches, including those from the west of the Ethiopian Plateau.

“The Sudanese army’s victory will be a living nightmare for Ethiopia, because in this case Sudan and South Sudan will be able through their newfound alliance to interfere in the Ethiopian conflicts from the north in Tigray to the southernmost part of Gambella,” Mahmoud said.

“This interference will tempt other parties to demand Ethiopian regions, such as Somalia which has been demanding the accession of the Ogaden region to its lands,” he noted.

This may even drive Kenya to intervene. Kenya had filed a complaint before the UN Security Council against the Gilgel Gibe III Dam which impounds the waters of the river that feeds Lake Turkana, the largest desert lake in the world.

The water level in Lake Turkana has dropped by over a metre since the operation of the dam in 2016, threatening the livelihoods of herders and fishermen living in economically exhausted Kenya.

Correction: We apologize for the error that was published in our article, which was based on information from Al-Sudani newspaper, regarding the alleged invasion of Sudanese territory by Ethiopian forces and the subsequent military response by the Sudanese Armed Forces. It has come to our attention that Al-Sudani newspaper made the correction after our article had already gone to print.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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