War always triggers a series of intended and unintended consequences. In the case of the current guerrilla war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the conflict has seemingly sparked tensions between Ethiopia and its formerly convivial neighbour, Sudan.
In November, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched an offensive against the former ruling party-turned insurgents, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in northern Ethiopia. The conflict emboldened Sudan and other actors to take a tougher stance on several long-term outstanding contentions –not least a disputed borderland territory called Al-Fashqa. The Head of Sudan’s Sovereign Council, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah el Burhan, said in a recent fiery speech that Sudan had been patient about this borderland for a long period, enduring “25 years of offenses and threats and accusations, but everything has a limit.” Both sides claim ownership of the fertile Al-Fashqa region. “Sudan did not start the conflict, Ethiopia did, and now it’s eye for an eye,” Burhan told the Sudanese public.
In many ways, the Sudanese have a right to be angry. Last Sunday, the Ethiopian army fired mortar shells at Sudan’s forces in the border region along the Abdel-Rafi area, according to sources within Sudan’s army. In less than a week, armed Ethiopian gangs (known as the Shifta) killed at least eight civilians in Wad A’arood and al-Liya villages along the border earlier this month. Authorities in the border area of El-Gedaref State, Sudan, claim residents of 34 villages near the border have been displaced. According to Sudanese political analyst Mohammed Abdelaziz, the attacks are being carried out by militias from the Amhara tribe, Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group, in a bid to “carry out terrorist attacks against civilians to intimidate them and push them to evacuate the area.”
On 13 January, Sudan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Ethiopian warplanes had crossed over into Sudanese airspace – a move the foreign ministry termed “dangerous and unjustified”.
Dam talks denied
Tension is not only focused on this border area but also further south along the border of Sudan’s Blue Nile State and Ethiopia’s most ambitious hydro-electric project in sub-Saharan Africa, the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Since November, Sudan toughened its stance over tri-partite negotiations between Ethiopia and Egypt over the dam and its influence over the Nile waters. Talks on GERD were suspended after Sudan demanded a change in the negotiation methodology, calling for a greater role to the African Union (AU) in reaching a binding agreement. Sudan’s minister of water and irrigation, Dr Yasser Abbas, said the “talks were going in circles”. One of Sudan’s key demands is a binding agreement to avoid what Ethiopia did last year: filling the GERD in July 2020 without consultation. “Proceeding to fill without an agreement is a huge risk for Sudan, we need to work on not making this the most probable scenario,” the minister said. “Sudan isn’t a weak country to always be begging for its rights.”
A militarily occupied Ethiopia, an emboldened Sudan?
The fact that Sudan became vocal over the border area and GERD around the time Ethiopia’s attention was focused on the Tigray conflict may not be a coincidence. In early December, Sudan’s army took control of the border area of Khor Yabis in Al-Fashqa. By end year, Sudan’s acting Foreign Minister Omar Gamer El Din told reporters the army had “recovered” all agricultural areas occupied by Ethiopian farmers and militiamen in the disputed border area. El Din claims Sudan has documents confirming ownership of the border areas where the Sudanese army is deployed. Markers, the minister said, are being placed every two kilometres to identify the territory.
Meanwhile, the Ethiopia’s ambassador in Sudan, Yibeltal Aemero, has accused the Sudanese military of taking advantage of the war in the Tigray region to seize disputed land. “When the Ethiopian National Defence forces moved to the Tigray region on 4 November, the Sudanese army took advantage and entered deep inside Ethiopian territory, looted properties, burned camps, detained, attacked and killed Ethiopians while displacing thousands,” claimed Aemero. “Sudan wouldn’t have moved an inch had it not been for the Tigray war,” says Chalachew Tadesse, a journalist and former intelligence analyst for Ethiopia’s foreign ministry. “I think they move in by putting aside the border negotiations believing that the Ethiopian army wouldn’t risk fighting on two fronts.” But some say the same could be true on the opposite side. When Amhara nationalists took over territories in Tigray, they claimed the area was historically theirs, says William Davison from the international think-tank, International Crisis Group. This, Davison says, may have led to some fears in Sudan that the Amhara farmers and militias would also claim the land in Al-Fashqa as theirs.
A war nobody wants
Both sides would agree tensions have risen between them, but both sides would also likely agree that neither side would benefit from war. While Sudan contends with hyper-inflation, long bread lines and peace agreements with former rebel groups within Sudan, Ethiopia’s army is stretched dealing with multiple internal conflicts. Currently, Prime Minister Abiy is contending with conflict from Tigray in the north, bitter opponents via the Oromo in southern and central Ethiopia - not to mention calls for autonomy by the Sidema ethnic group in southwest Ethiopia. The country had around 1.8 million internally displaced persons even before the conflict in Tigray started.
Multiple conflicts and economic headaches may not be the key reason neither leader wants to go to war - both Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed are reportedly friends. Hamdok has spent considerable time living and working in Addis Ababa and, according to some source, remains very close to his Ethiopian counterpart.
Calling the shots
But how much control either leader has over the restive situation is debateable. Prime Minister Hamdok’s power has been repeatedly compromised by the military that seemingly make key foreign policy decisions without even consulting the civilian government. Further, Sudan’s military may likely benefit politically from such a conflict with Ethiopia. “Sudanese generals within the Transitional Sovereign Council clearly want an open war with Ethiopia to solidify their power against the civilian part of the transitional government and to gain more legitimacy by invoking patriotism in the name of territorial integrity,” Tadesse said. “That is what their recent statements and utterances point to.”
Similarly, it is unclear how much power Prime Minister Abiy has over the Amharic militias who, according to residents in the eastern border city of El-Gedaref, are purposely displacing Sudanese residents to recapture the border lands. The premier is relying on these same tribal militias to counter the TPLF since he has lost confidence and support from his own ethnic community, the Oromo, who constitute the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia.
There is, however, one key reason Ethiopia may not want to escalate tensions with Sudan vis-à-vis the Tigray conflict: Sudan holds the key in determining whether this conflict will be brief or long-term. As long as Sudan continues to block the border, preventing TPLF access to an external base, the TPLF remain landlocked with few outlets to access and re-stock supplies. Currently isolated, the TPLF are forced to scatter and continue as a limited, protracted guerrilla war. The last thing Ethiopia needs right now is Sudan siding with their rebels – allowing the TPLF opportunities to re-group and pursue further major military action.
If the military are calling the shots in Sudan, siding with the TPLF could turn into a reality. Sudan’s military have close ties with the TPLF, including Burhan, stemming from their past experiences during the former dictator Omar al Bashir’s regime. Bashir had maintained a ‘soft border’ for the 600 square kilometres of fertile borderland since the 1990s, allowing Ethiopian farmers to settle in Al-Fashqa in return for political support. Many Sudanese generals, Tadesse said, developed close ties with the TPLF during this period.
An influx of the displaced
All of this border uncertainty takes place while over 60,000 Ethiopian refugees have fled into Sudanese refugee camps. Sudanese authorities opened a new camp for Ethiopian refugees last in Al Tanideba, El Gedaref State, once another refugee camp, Um Rakuba, became full. Now authorities are transferring around 500 refugees per day from the Hashaba reception centre to the new camp, the UN reported. The sudden influx of refugees has put a strain on existing infrastructure and the health service in Sudan, says the former medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Sudan, Kiera Sargeant. “This came on top of existing fuel shortages and steep inflation in Sudan, which have caused logistical and financial difficulties for everyone involved,” Sargeant said.
As tensions mount, both sides are cognizant to the fact that neither side can truly afford launching another conflict in the region – least all thousands of displaced Ethiopians who were forced to flee their homes, often only carrying the shirts on their backs. Regional actors – not least the African Union – must make this argument vehemently clear, for the sake of both countries.