Sudan-Ethiopia Dispute Over al-Fashqa Area and its Potential Outcome

Samir Ramzi | 03 Jan 2021

The dispute between Sudan and Ethiopia over the Fashaqa border area has recently escalated. This is a long-standing dispute that began in the 20th century. This paper attempts to analyse and explore the consequences of escalation in the border dispute between the two neighbouring African countries in the light of the mechanisms adopted by the two sides to manage the dispute between them during 2020.

The evolution of the Sudanese-Ethiopian dispute over the Fashaqa region

Military unrest between Sudan and Ethiopia has been recurrent in the Fashaqa border areas in the light of the failure to fully demarcate the borders between the two countries. For years, Ethiopian citizens benefited from this uncertain situation by cultivating large swaths of Fashaqa lands without the consent of the Sudanese side.[1] The unrest did not stop despite the recognition by the current Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of the outcomes of the 1972 agreement between the governments of the two countries, which stipulates that the region belongs to Sudan.[2] Sudan accuses the Ethiopian army of supporting Ethiopian armed groups called Shifta in carrying out acts of kidnapping and looting of Sudanese farmers, with the aim of removing them from the area in favour of members of the Ethiopian Amhara tribes. In December 2020, a dangerous escalation took place in the military unrest between the two countries, after the Sudanese army enhanced its military presence in parts of the Lesser Fashaqa region, on the pretext of securing the borders from the consequences of the military operation launched by the Ethiopian government against the forces of the Tigray region. This led to repeated military frictions between the Sudanese army and the Shifta groups. The former accused its Ethiopian counterpart of supporting the Shifta in launching a military operation against it that led to the killing of four Sudanese army personnel. This was followed by an incursion by the Sudanese forces into the lands of the Lesser Fashaqa, and "recovering" 70 percent of the territories in dispute, according to the statements by the Sudanese Information Minister Faisal Saleh.

Mechanisms adopted by Sudan in managing the dispute

The Sudanese side has recently resorted to the use of several mechanisms in managing its border dispute with Ethiopia, with the aim of pushing Addis Ababa towards activating the demarcation of the border and removing the Shifta militias from the Fashaqa area. The most important of those mechanisms are the following:

  • Enhancing the military presence in Fashaqa: following the fall of the Bashir regime, Sudanese demands escalated, officially and popularly, to “recover” the areas of Fashaqa. The army gave up its silence regarding this dispute, announcing, in March 2020, the enhancement of its military presence in the area east of the Atbara River with a “limited-number” force with the aim of securing the borders, after the killing of two of its soldiers during an "attempt to confront the Shifta gangs".[3] The Ethiopian forces responded to this step by strengthening their presence in the region and harassing the Sudanese army. The two sides resorted to negotiating withdrawal from the contact points in order to contain the situation.[4] The largest Sudanese military expansion occurred during December 2020, as previously mentioned,[5] in an operation that was preceded by the activation by the Sudanese army of the activities of the "Eastern Military Region" in the state of Gedaref, near the territories of Fashaqa. This step coincided with the assertion by the Sovereignty Council of Sudan that "dialogue" is the only way to resolve the dispute.
  • The use of political tools: the Sudanese cabinet tried, to no avail, to activate the political mechanisms to resolve the border problem. Addis Ababa hosted the meetings of the High-Level Political Committee for Border Demarcation on 18 May 2020, chaired by Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister Demiki Mekonnen and Sudanese Minister of Cabinet Affairs Omar Manis. The two sides agreed to hold another meeting in Khartoum in June 2020, and to start the process of marking the borders in October 2020 until March 2021. However, both steps have not been implemented. The Committee convened again in December 2020 in Khartoum, after the Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok's visit to Ethiopia with the aim of preventing the escalation of the dispute. The Committee’s meetings led to an agreement to set a later date for the resumption of talks in Addis Ababa, after the Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister condemned “Sudan's plundering of Ethiopian farmers and killing of a number of them", calling for finding a "amicable solution" to the Ethiopian settlements and farms.[6]
  • Threatening with support for the Tigrayan tribes: in contrast to the state of Eritrea, which sided with the Ethiopian government, the Sudanese army declared its "neutrality" towards the military clashes between the leaders of the Tigray region and the Ethiopian government in November 2020.[7] The Sudanese government refused to hand over to its Ethiopian counterpart some of the armed Ethiopian elements who are active in Greater Fashaqa and wanted by the two governments,[8] even as the Ethiopian government failed to arrest the leaders of the Tigray region despite imposing its military control over the region, including the leader of the Tigrayan forces Debretsion Gebremichael.[9] Sudan received more than 50,000 refugees from the Tigray region during the crisis.
  • Rapprochement with Egypt: Sudan has sought to deepen its military cooperation with Egypt. The two countries carried out joint military exercises weeks before the Sudanese incursion into Fashaqa. This cooperation culminated in the announcement by the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs of its solidarity with “Sudan's right to exercise its sovereignty over its territories”, which coincided with the escalation of the dispute in Fashaqa in December 2020.[10]

Mechanisms adopted by Ethiopia in managing the dispute

On the other hand, the Ethiopian government has adopted the following mechanisms:

  • Turning a blind eye to the Shifta activity: in the light of its endeavour to maintain the support of the Amhara tribes in the context of its dispute with the Tigray rebels, the Ethiopian government did not take any action against the Shifta groups, despite the latter's clash with the Sudanese army on more than one occasion. The latter accused the Ethiopian army of supporting "Ethiopian militias" for the first time on 28 May 2020 and killing one of its members in an area near Fashaqa, after the Sudanese army rejected the Shifta's demands to draw water from the Atbara River.[11] It is generally noticed that military clashes occurred between the two sides following the meetings of the Border Demarcation Committee in May and December 2020.
  • Employing economic tools: the Ethiopian government tried to win over Sudan by proposing a package of economic projects, including projects that pass through dispute areas, such as the project to link the two countries by railway. Indeed, the Ethiopian Minister of Transport tried to activate the first steps of this project during her visit to Khartoum in conjunction with the meeting of the Border Demarcation Committee in December 2020. Ethiopia also announced an increase in the electrical connection with Sudan, which coincided with the border disturbances that occurred in May 2020.
  • Maintaining good relations with the Sudanese Council of Ministers: the Ethiopian government maintains good relations with the Sudanese Council of Ministers after Ethiopia joined the African Union (AU) in the mediation efforts that led to the formation of the current cabinet. It also hosted, in September 2020, talks between Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Abdelaziz al-Hilu, chairman of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which resulted in an agreement on the principle of separating religion from the state. This agreement was rejected by some Sudanese military leaders.
  • Promoting the involvement of external parties in the dispute: in parallel with its affirmation of its desire for a peaceful solution to the dispute, the media rhetoric of the Ethiopian Prime Minister is based on underlining the involvement of external parties in straining his country's relationship with Sudan. The Ethiopian Consul in Gedaref hinted that Cairo is playing a role in this context.[12] On the other hand, Sudanese media reports referred in December 2020 to the Eritrean army’s tendency to support Ethiopia in the event of an escalation of military clashes.[13] Sudan fears Eritrea's interference because of its common borders with the Sudanese state of Kassala, which in turn is witnessing a power struggle, with one of the parties involved being the Hadendoa tribes which are close to Eritrea.

Possible consequences of the dispute

In the light of the foregoing, the border dispute between Sudan and Ethiopia is expected to develop in the future in the direction of one of the following possible paths:

1. Reaching a final solution to the dispute: the Ethiopian side may accept a final demarcation of the borders in the event that it guarantees the preservation of the interests of the Amhara tribes. This depends on its agreement with Sudan on legalising the conditions of the tribe’s farmers, in parallel with strengthening economic and security cooperation between the two countries in order to facilitate and secure the movement of individuals across the border.

2. Temporary de-escalation: the two countries are likely to pursue freezing the dispute in the status quo, agree to launch a long-term process of border demarcation, and agree to form joint security forces to control border security. Thus, the Sudanese army would maintain its recent field gains in a way that would support its popularity at home, and the Ethiopian government would avoid the possibility of undermining the interests of the Amharans. However, this path may lead to a renewed escalation of the dispute in the event of renewed military friction.

3. Military confrontation: the armies of the two countries may slide into an open military confrontation as a result of the recurrence of military clashes. The two sides do not favour this path because of its dangerous repercussions on local and regional stability.

Upon balancing the proposed paths, the temporary de-escalation path is the most likely in view of the low risks it entails for both sides compared to the other paths, followed by the path of reaching a final solution to the dispute, while the path of military confrontation is relatively unlikely in the near future.

Conclusion

In the light of the Ethiopian government's focus on its military operation against the Ethiopian Tigray tribes, Sudan sought to improve its negotiating position on the border dispute with Ethiopia and enhanced its military presence in the Fashaqa disputed territories between the two countries. The Ethiopian side tried to undermine the chances of success of the Sudanese moves out of its keenness to preserve the interests of the Amhara tribes. These developments led to shedding light once again on the issue of demarcating the border between the two countries in a way that may lead to a final solution to the dispute, or at least enhancing the Sudanese military presence in the region.

References

[1] The area of Fashaqa is 251 km2. It is divided into the Greater Fashaqa and the Lesser Fashaqa. These areas are arable because they are located near the Atbara River. The Lesser Fashaqa borders the Ethiopian Amhara region.

[2] “The border dispute between Sudan and Ethiopia”, 11 June 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3mT3cMb

[3] “Two martyrs from the army in clashes on the border with Ethiopia”, 8 March 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2WR8gX1  

[4] “An Ethiopian army force penetrates into Sudanese territory east of the Atbara River”, 2 April 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3ryYZRo

[5] It included controlling points such as Jabal Abu Tayyur, which is of strategic importance because it is located in the middle of the Lesser Fashaqa territories. The Sudanese forces also reached points close to population communities belonging the Amhara farmers after controlling the areas of Qala Luban and Khorshin.

[6] “Discussions to demarcate the tense border between Sudan and Ethiopia”, 22 December 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/34LC3ES

[7] “Chief of Staff: We shall not close our borders to anyone who is hungry or affected by the war”, 22 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2WOghfr

[8] “The arrest of ‘Halka Asar’ raises signs of tension between Sudan and Ethiopia”, 1 December 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/34PMlUi

[9] “The Conflict in Tigray: Ethiopian authorities offer a financial reward for the capture of the region's leaders in hiding”, 18 December 2020. Available at: https://bbc.in/3pveo3A

[10] “Al-Burhan inspects the borders after an ‘Ethiopian ambush’, Egypt condemns, and Abiy Ahmed criticises ‘seditionists’”, 17 December 2020. Available at: https://cnn.it/3rzzVd0

[11] “Sudan accuses the Ethiopian army of repeated assaults on its territory”, 28 May 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/36KEB5K

[12] “The Ethiopian Consul in Gedaref: The situation in the border between the two states is not good”, 10 August 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3rBmtFG

[13] “The army controls 11 Ethiopian settlements inside Sudan, and Eritrean forces move near the border”, 26 December 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/38CJTlk

 

Latest Scenarios