Another war in the Horn? Rising tension at the Ethiopia-Sudan border

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Could the Horn of Africa be set for another war?

The prospects for a fresh conflict are certainly increasing. Both Ethiopia and Sudan are in extremely vulnerable positions since the change of power in the two countries in 2018 and 2019. Ethiopia is also at war with the former ruler TPLF in northern Ethiopia.

At the same time, clashes are taking place on the border between the two countries, and there is speculation that a full-scale war is developing. It may seem rather incomprehensible that this happens when both countries face so many internal challenges.

But it is precisely these internal problems that can explain why there is an escalation at the border right now. In other words, domestic and international politics cannot be separated.

The Al-Fasheqa Triangle

At the heart of the conflict is the Al-Fasheqa Triangle, a fertile agricultural land that stretches from the border with Eritrea and southwards along the border between Sudan and Ethiopia, with the regional states of Tigray and Amhara on the Ethiopian side and Kassala, Gedaref and Sennar on the Sudanese side. Situated between three rivers (Atbara, Angareb and Setit), this triangle is very attractive for commercial farming and livestock grazing.

In November 2020, shortly after Ethiopian forces entered Tigray, Sudanese armed forces took control of land in Al-Fasheqa that had been in the hands of Ethiopian farmers and protected by Amhara militias. In March 2021, there were also reports of fighting as far south as Basunda in southern Gedaref, involving Eritrean forces on the Ethiopian side.

In other words, domestic and international politics cannot be separated.

The border dispute extends all the way back to colonial times when Sudan was under British control. Since the attempt at British demarcation in 1903, the two countries have disagreed on where the border should go. In practice, however, both countries have had a soft border control in the local areas, and people have been allowed to farm and trade across the border without much ado. But in periods of conflict between the Ethiopian and Sudanese regimes, as in the 1960s and 1970s, local groups have exploited the impasse to expand territorial control, and the level of conflict at the frontier has increased.

The war of words

Differing interpretations of the old colonial agreements and negotiation processes in the 1970s between Emperor Haile Selassie and President Nimeri are central to the war of words that erupted between the regimes following the clashes of November 2020. Sudan claims that Haile Selassie accepted the British 1903 border line in 1972, and that this is what applies now. Ethiopia says that the emperor accepted the 1903 line as a basis for a new demarcation, which the two countries had to renegotiate.

Sudan also points out that Ethiopia under the TPLF made a number of agreements with former President Bashir, who largely accepted Sudanese control of Al-Fasheqa, and that the country was in fact handing over land from the Amhara to Sudanese in the area around 2008. But these agreements were not ratified and made official, and have been criticized for secrecy by the opposition in both countries. Ethiopia is therefore very reluctant to discuss what happened between the TPLF and Bashir, and sees them largely as illegitimate processes.

New leaders, old problems

The changes of power in Khartoum and Addis Ababa has had a direct impact on the situation in Al-Fasheqa. Abiy Ahmed, who took over the EPRDF thanks to an alliance between the Oromo and Amhara parties in the coalition, has throughout the three years in power become increasingly dependent on support from Amhara nationalists. Amhara militia and regional forces are instrumental in the fight against TPLF in Tigray. So Ahmed is in many ways forced to listen to input and wishes from Amhara groups, including Amhara farmers backed by Amhara militia pushing for occupation of new land in Al-Fasheqa.

In Sudan, the civilian government led by Prime Minister Hamdok struggles with controlling the military apparatus, which also built an economic empire under Bashir. The military leader Burhan was quickly on the ground in Al-Fasheqa after the conflict broke out in November 2020, and the Sudan Armed Forces are heavily involved in the construction on infrastructure in the recently re-occupied land. It is likely that Burhan has an interest in mobilizing against Ethiopia both to expand the scope of action for the armed forces in Sudan, but also for to defend the army’s economic interests in the area.

So what’s next?

What is the next step in this border dispute, which has now evolved from being dormant and manageable to flammable and seemingly unsolvable? Is a conventional war developing?

If you look at history, tensions have died out, and what looked like an inevitable escalation has been dealt with. The hope now is that history will repeat itself. Recurrent clashes between Sudanese police and army forces and Amhara militias in the 60s and 70s, for example, did not lead to war, but to a pragmatic solution. Both countries were accepting the status quo until a final agreement would be reached. That meant a soft border administration where people could cultivate land and trade on both sides of the border. This was also the solution to negotiations between TPLF and Bashir in the 2000s.

What makes such a solution less likely today is that both countries are historically unstable, and the regimes are too weak to keep forces that have interests in Al-Fasheqa and other border areas in check. The instability in Ethiopia makes it especially difficult to predict what Abiy Ahmed’s next step will be. The war in Tigray shows that he is willing to take up arms. But the burden of the Tigray war may make him less willing to go to war with Sudan. In a speech to the Ethiopian Parliament in March 2021, he confirmed that it was not in Ethiopia’s interest to go to war with Sudan.

Still, Ahmed is under strong pressure from the Amhara state government and militia and the Amhara wing of the Prosperity Party. Ahmed has been willing to consider whether areas in Tigray taken by Amhara militia during the Tigray war should be re-incorporated into Amhara. This is a sign that the PM is receptive to forces that desire territorial expansion for the Amhara,  and this may also include Al-Fasheqa.

Preventing border conflicts

Pressure from new, non-traditional international actors may, however, help to prevent the border conflict from developing into a conventional war. Following Abiy Ahmed’s speech in the Ethiopian parliament, the Sudanese government has approved an initiative by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for a UAE-led international negotiation. The UAE wants a process that addresses both the conflict over the Ethiopian Nile Dam, strongly opposed by Sudan, and the border dispute. Ethiopia has previously refused to link these two processes, has insisted on holding bilateral negotiations on the border, and has rejected negotiating initiatives from the African Union, the EU, the US and the UN on the Nile Dam.

The UAE initiative may nevertheless prove to be a way to go, as the UAE has close ties to both Ethiopia and Sudan. Whether the UAE actually manages to use its political capital in both countries to resolve the border dispute, including addressing the internal conflicting interests, remains to be seen.

Lovise Aalen is Research Director at the Chr. Michelsen Institute.

This is a translation of a piece originally published in Norwegian. To see the original, click here.

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