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In-depth analysis: Ethio-Sudan border dispute: Manageable or time bomb?

On 23 December 2020 Sudanese official New Agency SUNA aired a clip showing heavily armed Sudanese military units being mobilized to the border with Ethiopia. Picture: Screengrab

Getahun Tsegaye @GetahunTsegay12

Addis Abeba – On 22 December 2020, about six weeks after the start of the civil war in Tigray regional state, Ambassador Dina Mufti, Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, gave a statement assuring Ethiopians and the international community that Ethiopia and Sudan have agreed to solve the tension surrounding the long standing dispute over the al-Fashaga territory.

The Ambassador’s statement was issued in the backdrop of renewed tension between the two countries after the start of the war in Tigray, following quickly by Sudan’s decision to deploy its forces in and around the al-Fashaga borderland, a territory abutting the common border between Sudan and Ethiopia linking the eastern bank of the Atbara River and south bank of the Tekeze River. It is a swathe of lush and fertile land of about 260 sq km. Ethiopians call the area Mazega, which was under the administration of Amhara regional state until the war in Tigray broke out.

“when we changed our face to the northern part [of Ethiopia] in relation to the war, Sudan, violating the status quo we respected and agreed to abide by until a sustainable solution is set, invaded Ethiopia.”

FM Demeke Mekonnen

In his statement in , the Ambassador blamed “enemies of Ethiopia for trying to escalate” the issue; but these enemies failed and the two countries “have vowed to resolve the issues peacefully once and for all.” But a year after this assurance, on 19 February 2021 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a strongly worded statement in which Ethiopia condemned “in the strongest possible terms the escalation and provocative behavior of the Government of the Sudan regarding the boundary issue between Ethiopia and the Sudan.”

Now, far from peaceful resolution, Ethiopia has renewed its accusation and spoke of Sudan invading Ethiopia. In his parliamentary appearance to give performance report of the Ministry, Demeke Mekonnen, Minister of Foreign and Deputy Prime Minister, on Wednesday told lawmakers that “When we changed our face to the northern part [of Ethiopia] in relation to the war, Sudan, violating the status quo we respected and agreed to abide by until a sustainable solution is set, invaded Ethiopia.”

“This has largely enraged the people of Ethiopia, damaged the local residents, displaced many, damaged wealth and properties and is an invasion that resulted in a lot of pressures. Not only invading that particular area, various infrastructures have been ongoing to change the geography and demography. This is not acceptable and we have notified them of the matter,” Demeke said.

Between December 2020 and February 2021, multiple efforts by Ethiopia requesting Sundanese authorities to withdraw from the area produced no result. Regional authorities in Amhara state repeatedly complained that “Sudanese Army demolished Ethiopian administrative institutions, overtaken military camps, killed and displaced residents, and destroyed their crops and property. Sudan acted in flagrant violation of international law against the use of force and the boundary re-demarcation treaties.”

Historical Disputes

The al-Fashaga dispute between Ethiopia and Sudan dates back to the contentious 1902 agreement between Emperor Menelik II and the British colonial authorities in Sudan. The pact was defined in broad terms and was demarcated by the British in haphazard manner, which sparked intense argument. While Ethiopia says al-Fashaga stretches 40-50km west of a line delineating the border between Sudan and Ethiopia, and belongs to it, Sudan brings its version of the treaty’s map arguing al-Fashaga is part of its Gedaref State.

In 1972, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie visited Sudan with the goal of resolving the country’s north-south conflict. Following his visit, Sudan and Ethiopia exchanged notes concerning their boundary problems. The viability of such efforts was disrupted following the eruption of Ethiopia’s 1974 revolution.

Since then, the two countries were in a very hostile relationship for 33 consecutive years, when Ethiopia was under the military government of the Derg until they arrived at a mutually acceptable arrangement over the area in 2005.

In 2008, Ethiopia and Sudan, under the leadership of President Omar al-Bashir and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, reached at a relatively cordial land use agreement by which citizens of the two countries could both cultivate the land until final demarcation was finalized. But the agreement was never ratified formally. The political commotion and instabilities in both countries has since resulted in leadership changes and the al-Fashaga dispute made a U-turn to its usual situation, recurrent conflicts. Throughout, farmers have been particularly prone to this protracted disagreement and fights between the two countries due largely to lack of clear demarcation and the nature of border mobility.

The latest such instability occurred shortly after the war broke out in Tigray, and it is the longest period when Ethiopia has lost control of the area. The Ethiopian government admitted that it has requested Sudanese authorities to close the borders to prevent infiltration to and from Sudan by Tigrayan fighters. Instead, according to several reports “Lt. General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council, dispatched over 6,000 soldiers to the Ethiopian border at the start of the war in Tigray, as part of an agreement reached on 1 November 2020.”

On 27 December 2020, Dessalegn Tassew, the the administrator of West Gonder, who is now the Amhara regional state peace and security bureau chief, accused Sudanese forces of occupying large swaths of land, plundering, and killing of residents during their occupation of the area. He stated that property worth more than US$25.5 million was plundered and destroyed, and that 400 to 500 households were displaced, while 1,750 people from Selam Ber Kebele were displaced and their villages were burned to the ground.

Escalating military stand-off

While the two countries have different view points on the recent flare-ups in the area, Addis Standard learned that in the first two months of this year, both have amassed military forces along the border. A credible source from the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) confirmed that there were still military stand-offs on the Ethio-Sudan borders where the conflicts had happened. Until now, Sudan’s military is in control of the area that had once been Ethiopia’s for which negotiations were ongoing.

Ethiopia accused Sudanese forces of advancing towards the contentious border territory where deadly skirmishes have occurred on 11 January 2021. Since November 2020, Ethiopia accused accused Sudan on multiple occasion of not only invading “the land that is part of Ethiopia’s territory,” and demolishing Ethiopian administrative institutions, overtaking military camps, killing and displacing residents, and destroyed their crops and property in its indefensible conduct. Sudan acted in flagrant breach of international law against the use of force and the boundary re-demarcation treaties. Sudanese Foreign Ministry on its part responded by condemning what it called Ethiopian aggression.

On 30 June 2021, Sudan Tribune published a statement quoting that U.S. senior diplomat, Robert Godec, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Bureau of African Affairs, that “The Al-Fashaga border dispute poses a risk of conflict in the area. It is a deep dispute, and it is a considerable concern for the U.S.” He further said his administration discussed the issue with both Sudanese and Ethiopian officials and urged them to find a negotiated solution.

Little Diplomatic Efforts

There are concerns that the Ethio-Sudan hostile border dispute could result in destabilization of the Horn of Africa unless the two countries resolve their differences.

Ethiopia is apprehensive of the international community for its failure to condemn Sudan. A lot of diplomatic work was done to “let the UN, AU, and different foreign countries know the matter, including documentation showing what we started in earlier times to solve the matter and what we resolved as well,” according to the Foreign Minister. However, “although they have been encouraging Ethiopia’s stance to not engage in conflict, there hasn’t been a clear stance to condemn Sudan saying it had invaded inappropriately and extreme negligence has been noted.”

Demeke Mekonnen, Deputy Prime Minister, Foreign Minister addressing the parliament on May 18,2022
Photo: House of People’s Representatives

In June 2021, the International Crisis Group (ICG) has expressed its concern that the tension over al-Fashaga poses a threat to the Horn of Africa. Despite the fact that many international actors have offered to intervene between the two countries, diplomatic efforts have thus far failed.

There have been some diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute.

In September last year, Turkey said it offered its support to mediate, which was accepted by Sudan. “During Sudan’s head of Sovereign Council Abdel Fattah al-Burhan’s visit to Turkey last month, he accepted an initiative from the Turkish leadership to solve the border disputes with Ethiopia,” Hurriyet Daily News quoted Sudanese Foreign Minister Mariam Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi as she told a news conference in Khartoum.

Similarly, the president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit arrived in Addis Abeba for an official visit on 26 August, 2021, when he met with PM Abiy Ahmed to discuss bilateral relations between the two countries. One of the top agenda was Kiir’s mediation offer to settle disputes. But it was unclear whether Ethiopian officials accepted Kiir’s offer.

The United Nations under Secretary-General for Political and Peace building, Rosemary DiCarlo, who visited Ethiopia, from 25 July to 27 last year, was also briefed by Ethiopian authorities; she stated that the was closely monitoring the situation.

Despite these efforts however, relations over al-Fashaga remained constrained in a manner that can best be described by what Billene Seyoum from the office of the Prime Minister said. Speaking to the media on 05 August 2021,in response to Sudan’s offer to mediate between the federal government and Tigray Billene said the relation between the two countries it was “a little bit tricky” but underscored the importance of building trust that was “eroded” especially following the “Sudanese army incursion into Ethiopian territory.”

we underline that our territory will be brought back”

FM Demeke Mekonnen

Ethiopia’s Stance

FM Demeke told lawmakers this week that Ethiopia would continue pursuing peaceful path “without inflicting any atrocities,” he said. “We are striving to resolve the matter in a peaceful way and Ethiopia will continue in that direction and we want to notify that we’re working on that level.”

However, Ethiopia’s accusation against Sudan is no longer limited to the al-Fashaga dispute; FM Demeke accused Sudan of harboring “terrorist groups and other forces in the name of refugees”, whom he accused of “launching attacks on Ethiopia from that direction at various times.”

“Their base is in Sudan. Giving such support and being a base for such groups is tantamount to waging war for which we have officially notified..and we’re following the matter.” But he also said that Ethiopia will continue all is efforts “to resolve it in a peaceful way. In any measurement, we underline that our territory will be brought back.”

“al-Fashaga is a Sudanese land”

Sudan’s acting FM Ali Al-Sadiq

Earlier, Ambassador Dina Mufti told Addis Standard that Ethiopia handles border issues with proper mechanisms. “There are three committees working on Ethio-Sudan border disputes, namely Technical Committee, Political Committee, and High-Level Committee.”

Furthermore, the Spokesperson underlined that Sudan’s forceful encroachment was unacceptable. Peaceful negotiation is the only solution to settle the issue on the ground, he said and called the Sudanese government to come to “their conscience” and return back to normalize the situation. He stated that there were previous agreements since Haile Selassie I that Ethiopian and Sudanese governments passed, which Ethiopia would like to use to handle the current border disputes.

What next?

While both countries agree that negotiations are the only way forward, both countries continued claiming al-Fashaga as their own. Since moving into the area, Sudanese army claims that it often repels attempted of “incursion” by Ethiopian federal forces and local militia from Amhara state into its territory.

Furthermore, observers fear that moves by Sudan to close and open the Metema border crossing whenever it deems it necessary, the unresolved civil war between federal government and Tigray as well as Eritrea’s not so clear involvement with forces operating in eastern Sudan provides a complicated scenario for the possibility of resolving the dispute peacefully. Added to the mix is Ethiopia’s claims that Sudan is harboring “terrorist groups”, as was asserted by FM Demeke, and the continued wrangling over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Sudan’s initial stance of its support to Ethiopia has recently shifted confrontations and suspicious towards Ethiopia.

With diplomatic efforts largely focused on resolving Ethiopia’s civil war, Sudan saw the opportunity to claim al-Fashaga as its own. “al-Fashaga is a Sudanese land,” Sudan’s acting Foreign Minister Ali Al-Sadiq told UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, Hanna Tetteh, as recently as last month.

Ambassador Dina expressed his optimism that ”The Ethiopian government has devised a plan to engage Sudan in peace talks. And the issue will be handled in accordance with peace negotiation and law.” But weather the UN or the rest of the international community has any plans is not clear, yet. AS

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