Political solution needed for the Ethiopia-Sudan border dispute

Since November 2020 tensions have escalated between Sudan and Ethiopia about a common border. The area in question is around Al-Fashaga, between Sudan’s eastern province of Al-Qadarif and Ethiopia’s Amhara regional state.

The Ethiopian government accuses Sudan of invading Ethiopian territory, and its military of taking advantage of the security vacuum in the border area. This vacuum has been created by the government’s armed confrontation with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the north of Ethiopia.

Ethiopia also claims third parties are fuelling the dispute. This is a clear allusion to Egypt, with which Sudan has signed a military cooperation agreement that is said to include a common defence pact.

Sudanese military representatives, on the other hand, claim Ethiopian farmers have been expanding their farmland into Sudan with the support of local militia, whom they accuse of killing civilians. Sudan also claims that Al-Fashaga has historically been Sudanese territory. 

Danger of escalating tensions

A potential border war could destabilise not only the two countries but also the entire region. In addition, how the issue is handled and its outcome will have serious consequences for political transitions in both countries.

So far, diplomatic attempts to defuse tensions have failed, and a strained status quo has been established around the border, with sporadic skirmishes. While both countries claim they want to resolve the issue peacefully, neither has shown signs of compromise in its conditions for starting negotiations.

Ethiopia insists on the status quo ante, which will require Sudan to withdraw from the area before it engages in negotiations. The Sudanese army, in turn, refuses to withdraw, on the grounds that Al-Fashaga is historically Sudanese territory. Sudanese politicians want negotiations to start as per the new status quo, and are apparently willing to accept third-party mediators.

Sudan claims the border has been demarcated and only technical negotiations are needed to fix boundary markers. It holds that successive Ethiopian governments have recognised Al-Fashaga as Sudanese territory. According to Sudan, it only allowed Ethiopian farmers to cultivate the land to maintain good relations with the previous Ethiopian government.

According to Ethiopian officials, however, the border is yet to be demarcated.

It has become clear that a political accord is needed to de-escalate the dispute

It has become clear that a political accord is needed to de-escalate the dispute. Beyond bilateral negotiations, both governments also have to engage their own constituencies, as de-escalation will not be possible without local buy-in.

Longstanding dispute

Most of the border area between Sudan and Ethiopia has been delimitated through various treaties between Ethiopian emperors and Britain, the colonial power in Sudan. However, there has been a lack of clarity in some parts, including the Al-Fashaga area.

As a result, the Al-Fashaga area has been a bone of contention between the two countries for about a century. Recurring escalation and de-escalation of the border dispute have in the past been determined by the state of relations between the two countries.

Each country has also exploited the shifting geo-political context, its own internal strength and the stability of the other to extract concessions regarding the area. The border dispute therefore has become an indicator of the relative strength of one compared to the other, and the nature of their relationship.

In this instance, soured relations between the two countries over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) have reinforced their hard-line positions regarding the border.

High stakes on both sides of the border

Both Sudan and Ethiopia are trying to assert their sovereignty over Al-Fashaga. In Sudan, the issue has become a rallying cry for national unity. It has united different political actors and created a rare instance of agreement between political parties and the military.

For Ethiopia, Al-Fashaga has political and economic significance. Al-Fashaga is fertile, with major rivers bordering the area. Politically, the border dispute has had (and may continue to have) a destabilising effect in the country. People living in the region have accused successive governments of failing to safeguard their livelihoods and historical land rights during negotiations over Al-Fashaga with Sudan.

The Amhara regional state government is therefore under immense pressure from locals to retain sovereignty over the area. It, in turn, is putting political pressure on the federal government, with the possibility of creating a serious fissure in the ruling party.

With only months left until planned national elections in June 2021, the Ethiopian government has refrained from becoming involved in a military confrontation with Sudan. Experts differ over whether the two countries might engage in a direct military action in the foreseeable future. However, Ethiopia and Sudan have a long history of engaging in proxy wars and supporting each other’s armed opposition groups. If relations continue to deteriorate, there is no shortage of armed groups to support in both sides of the border.

Internal problems in both countries

Sudan is facing almost daily protests against the rising cost and shortage of bread and fuel. The alliance that allowed Sudanese to overcome their differences and form the transitional government is getting weaker each day. Similarly, Ethiopia is experiencing a level of internal instability it has not seen for decades.

Continued escalation of the tension and worsening internal challenges on both sides will have direct consequences for both countries’ stability.

Resolving the dispute

Resolving the complex dispute will not be easy. However, it is crucial to de-escalate the situation before beginning negotiations, and this should be a priority for both countries.

There are various mechanisms Ethiopia and Sudan can use to resolve the border dispute without resorting to conflict or proxy war. They can continue with bilateral negotiations, involve third-party facilitators or mediators, or make use of international arbitration if all other avenues fail.

The African Union (AU), through the AU Commission Chairperson’s Special Envoy to Sudan Mohamed Hassan Lebatt, who visited Khartoum in February 2021, has called on the two countries to defuse tensions and find a political solution. However, the special envoy currently does not have a mandate to engage in mediation between the two countries.

The High Level Implementation Panel for Sudan (AUHIP), led by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, does have the mandate to intervene in such a dispute. However, the AUHIP has lost support among political actors in Sudan, as demonstrated by its exclusion from the political transition process.

Without the express consent of the two countries the continental body will not be able to do much to resolve the dispute

Either way, without the express consent of the two countries the continental body will not be able to do much to resolve the dispute.

Offer of mediation by other countries, including South Sudan, Turkey and the UAE has so far not garnered enough support in the two countries.

Ultimately, it is up to Ethiopia and Sudan to reach a political accord that can pave the way for mediation at either the political or technical level. This will require gaining internal political support for the negotiations in both Ethiopia and Sudan, which may not be possible before elections take place, ushering in governments that have consolidated their power.

In the short term, it might be enough to de-escalate the situation and prevent it from becoming another destabilising factor in either country.

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