Ethiopia and Sudan are at loggerheads over a disputed border and a vital dam on the River Nile. Al-Fashaqa is fertile farmland while Africa’s longest waterway is a rich source of life. Officials in Addis Ababa are hoping both prized natural resources do not usher in a wider conflict.
According to government officials, the dispute over Al-Fashaqa came when attention was diverted to contain hostilities in the province of Tigray, which itself has received global attention.
At midnight on Nov. 4 last year, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed issued a grim statement: “The National Defense Force, which has been defending the country and paying heavy sacrifices with blood and flesh for the last 20-plus years, has been attacked.
“This evening in Mekelle [the capital of Tigray] and in many other places, we have been attacked by traitors.”
Following his declaration, the National Defense Forces were swiftly mobilised from different parts of the country to Tigray. This included moving troops from the Ethio-Sudan boundary, leaving the disputed territory unmanned.
According to Ethiopian officials, Sudanese military forces seized the opportunity to cross over the borderline and occupy part of Al-Fashaqa.
Meanwhile, a separate dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has continued to bubble away. The grand dam has been a bone of contention between the downstream states of Egypt and Sudan on one side, and the upstream riparians such as Ethiopia on the other.
At stake is access to the Nile’s flowing waters which stand to relieve Ethiopia of its acute electricity shortage.
When construction began exactly a decade ago, it came weeks after long-standing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had been toppled in a popular coup.
In this instance, Egypt then had its own significant internal issues to contend with. Relations with Ethiopia deteriorated significantly.
In October 2019, Prime Minister Abiy attended the Russia-Africa summit at Sochi on the Black Sea and spoke with the incumbent Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
At their meeting, they agreed to resume talks aimed at brokering an agreement with the involvement of the US. Following this, a US request to mediate on GERD was accepted. But no agreement was forthcoming and the relationship between the countries has since significantly worsened.
In the meantime, Sudan has grown ever-more closer to Egypt. As ever in geopolitics, there are no permanent enemies or permanent friends, only permanent interests.
One outcome from the cementing of ties between the two upstream nations was a military exercise conducted in early April.
The drill, dubbed "Nile Eagles Two," was conducted at Sudan’s Meroe Air Base. Its outward aim was to improve the skills of forces in carrying out joint air operations. However, the military exercise took place at the same time as foreign and irrigation ministers from the three nations met in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, to hammer out a deal.
The round talks sought to find an agreed-on approach to resume negotiations on the filling and operation of GERD. They ended without progress.
Meanwhile, Sudan has asked the UN to replace Ethiopian peacekeepers in Abyei – a disputed area between Sudan and South Sudan – with another force from a different country. According to the United Nations, there are 3,306 Ethiopian peacekeepers deployed in Abyei.
Seleshi Bekele, the Minister of Water, Irrigation, and Energy of Ethiopia, attempted to break the logjam by asking Sudan and Egypt to nominate their own dam operators before the second filling of GERD commences in the upcoming rainy season between June and the middle of September.
The two countries declined that offer because they claimed there were no legally binding terms which would have consequences if Ethiopia breached a deal. The Sudanese Foreign Minister, Mariam al-Mahdi, said that "any sharing of information without a legally binding agreement comes as a gift from Ethiopia that can be held back at any moment”.
Is war inevitable over the Nile waters and border dispute?
The Ethiopian government has reiterated its commitment to commence the second phase filling of the GERD whether an agreement is concluded or not with Sudan and Egypt.
The upstream countries are insisting that a legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam should be reached before Ethiopia implements the second phase of dam filling. Such a standoff could escalate quickly
According to some, a war has already begun via cyberspace. Recently, Facebook removed 17 Facebook accounts, six Facebook Pages, and three Instagram accounts from Egypt which targeted Ethiopia, Sudan, and Turkey.
Modern era warfare is not just soldiers or jets, but is fought across the borderless expanse of the Web to spread propaganda or target fragile IT systems.
“It’s my dam,” Ethiopians across social media declared, urging the government to move forward with the project. Egyptians responded online in kind, using the hashtag #Nile4All and issuing warnings such as: “I proudly volunteer to join my Egyptian army to demolish Ethiopia and its dam.”
Recently Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi warned that “nobody will be permitted to take a single drop of Egypt’s water. Otherwise, the region will fall into unimaginable instability.”
He continued with a veiled warning. “I am telling our brothers in Ethiopia, let’s not reach the point where you touch a drop of Egypt’s water because all options are open.”
Abiy told the House of People’s Representatives that “Ethiopia does not have any intention to hurt Egypt and Sudan, but the second phase filling will be commenced as per the scheduled period during the rainy seasons.
“If not our brothers in Sudan and Egypt should understand that we will lose $1 billion [per year if the dam is not completed per schedule].”
According to government officials that Addis Zeybe spoke to, a joint military attack by Sudan and Egypt is highly unlikely to happen but such undertakings can never be ruled out. They said joint military exercises would not deter Ethiopia from seeking its equitable share of the Nile’s resources.
“We might not need to have 1.3 billion dollar annual military assistance or intercontinental ballistic missiles, excavator machines, shovels or hands are enough to fight a devastating war with the two countries,”
Solomon Haile, a university teacher for public policy analysis based in Addis Ababa, said: “If we had any intention to economically hurt them, we would have done it a long time ago, but we didn’t.”
Addis Zeybe asked his view on the seriousness of the al-Sisi warning. He replied that it was saber-rattling. “The former [Egyptian] presidents have taken the same tone before.”
He continued: “They use the Nile narrative if they face a challenge at home to sometimes change the subject. If they really intend to attack Ethiopia, the result would be simply catastrophic for all.
“If war broke out the only beneficiary will be those who supply the death machines,” he said.
Of more significance is that water is “the new oil” in the Horn of Africa, representing a new frontline for countries.
The dam, located near the border with Sudan, will be the largest in Africa. Ethiopia views the $4.6bn project as pivotal to solving its chronic energy needs. So far it is 80 percent complete with officials planning to carry out a preliminary energy generation trial this year. At full capacity, it is expected to generate 15,695 gigawatt-hours (GWh) annually.
Ethiopia, which has an electricity access rate of 45 percent, wants the dam to be filled in seven years while Egypt thinks it should happen over 12 to 21 years to mitigate the impact on its water supplies.
The Ethio-Sudan boundary dispute could also become a flashpoint between the countries which share a near 1,000-mile stretch of border.
Ethiopia, aware of its own internal problems in Tigray, is pushing a negotiated settlement though it is calling on Sudanese military forces to go back to the point they were at last year.
Abiy told the Ethiopian parliament in March: "Sudan and Ethiopia have many problems, but we are not ready to go to battle. We don't need war. It is better to settle it peacefully."
Is conflict inevitable over the Nile and the border issue? Most likely not but time will ultimately tell.