Bahiru Zewede in his book titled, A History of Modern Ethiopia 1855–1991, traces back the historical background of the dispute over Ethiopia and Sudan back to the colonial era. In his seminal book Bahiru wrote that, the delimitation of the boundaries between Ethiopia and the surrounding colonies was dictated mainly by the colonial powers’ apprehension of the expansive potentialities of post-Adwa Ethiopia.
Wondwossen Teshome (PhD) in his study on the merits and the demerits of colonial boundaries in Africa by using the Ethiopia-Sudan boundary as a case study found that the existing boundary between the two countries came into being in the early 20th century. The present-day boundary between Ethiopia and Sudan is principally the result of the 1902 and 1907 Anglo-Ethiopian delimitation treaties which were demarcated in 1903 and 1909 respectively .
The Ethiopian and Sudan case does not differ from this. On 15 May 1902 Ethiopia signed a treaty with the British over its border with Sudan. During the reign of Haile Selassie I (1930-1974) Ethiopia as a dominant regional power in East Africa faced no serious challenges from the neighboring countries though Somalia and Sudan were occasionally involved in border disputes.
Recently, When the war broke out between the federal government and the TPLF, in Tigray, thousands fled to Sudan fleeing the fighting, even though Sudan is a country that is going through chronic inflation, fuel shortages and other severe economic problems.
The Armed conflict in Ethiopia brought to the longstanding border conflict in Al- Fashaga Farmland, a disputed land between Sudan and Ethiopia. Al-Fashga, the disputed territory between Sudan and Ethiopia is the triangle where most of the refugees are staying. It is an area covering 250 Square kilometers, and it has about 600,000 acres of fertile land. Sudan claims it as an integral part of its territory, claiming that it lies west of the line drawn by its former colonizer, Britain. However, Ethiopia maintains an army presence in the disputed land and Ethiopian farmers have been cultivating in the huge parts of the farmland. No information has been disclosed from Ethiopia’s side as to the area occupied by the Sudanese forces, some sources show that about 50 Kilometers land of Ethiopia’s territory is controlled by the Sudanese forces.
In recent two decades, the Joint committee from both States’ has been trying to settle the dispute and border demarcation, albeit with limited success. The Ethiopian delegation to the talks that led to the 2008 compromise was headed by a senior official of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), Abay Tsehaye. Following that, attempts to settle the demarcation of the border conflict between both parties have not been successful yet. Both parties are allegiging each other for the conflict that arises in the border area.
Recent Developments in the Region
At the helm of the armed conflict in Tigray, ethiopian army unit’s abandoned their military base in Fashaga creating a vacuum which was quickly filled by the Sudanese army. Scenes of celebrations by the Sudanese military and citizens followed shortly after. On 16 December 2020, the Sudanease forces launched a military offensive to take control of a disputed area along the Ethio-Sudan border, according to statements from the Sudanese authorities
On the 26 December 2020, Sudan Tribune, which is a Sudanese news outlet reported that, “The Sudanese army took control of 11 settlements of Ethiopian forces and militias inside Sudanese territory and the Sudanese army began to retake control of border areas that Ethiopian forces and militias had captured.”
One day following the news by Sudan Tribune, the Head of the administration of the Western Gondar Zone of The Amhara Regional State said in a statement on the 27 December 2020 that Sudanese officials and members of the military were crossing the protected camps and areas as well as being involved in the destruction of about 180 to 200 households farmlands. As a result, property worth of 1 billion Ethiopian birr (more than about $25 million) were looted and destroyed by the Sudanese and led to the displacement of 400 to 500 households in the area, according to the statement by the Head of Administration of the Western Gondar Zone.
The report further alleges the deployment of a huge number of mechanized forces, motors and heavy artillery to disrupt the area between 6 November 2020 and 27 December 2020. The statement further accused some of the sudanease military and security officials assisting the TPLF while the Federal Government and the Amahara militia have been fighting with TPLF in
Talks between Abiy and Hamdok
On 13 December 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed welcomed his counterpart prime minister Abdalla Hamdok of Sudan in Addis Ababa for a two day working visit amid the growing humanitarian crises in Tigray. Although the visit was scheduled for two days their meeting lasted only for half a day with Hamdok returning to Khartoum on the afternoon of the same day. Before his return however, Hamdok and Abiy agreed to call a meeting of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an East African regional bloc that Hamdok currently chairs. During their brief meeting in Addis, reports come that the Sudanease PM also held talks on reviving the committee on delimiting the Sudanese shared border with Ethiopia. No press comments have been given from Ethiopia.
After the meeting in Djibouti Prime Minister Abiy said his meeting with Prime Minister Abdella Hamdok on the margins of the 38th IGAD Extraordinary summit held on 20 December 2020 in Djibouti were fruitful. In his tweet, he said the two heads of state had a discussion on the bilateral issues as a followup to their last meeting in Addis Ababa, conducted on 13 December 2020.
Following the IGAD Extraordinary summit held in Djibouti, Sudan and Ethiopia started negotiations in the Sudanese capital Khartoum to demarcate their border, as Ethiopia said incidents in a disputed area jeopardised otherwise friendly ties between the neighbours. During the meeting, Ethiopia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Demeke Mekonnen, called both parties for “reactivating the existing mechanisms and finding an amicable solution” while warning against “unnecessary escalation”. Aljazeera reported that, The two day talks were held a week after Ethiopian forces reportedly ambushed Sudanese troops along the border, leaving four dead and more than 20 wounded.
The Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia, Dina Mufti, in his biweekly press briefing held on 5 January 2020, confirmed that Sudanese Military Forces have launched organized attacks by using heavy machine guns and armored convoys on the border areas as of 9 November 2020. According to Dina, agricultural products of Ethiopian farmers were looted, camps vandalized, and farmers were being hampered from harvesting their farms which consequently affects the livelihood of the communities in the area. The ambassador also stated that civilians had been killed and wounded during the attacks carried out by the Sudanese troops following the departure of Ethiopian troops from the region to aid the “law enforcement operation” in the country.
Ambassador Dina Mufti of Ethiopia while delivering the press briefing regarding the ongoing border conflict in the region between Ethiopia and neighbouring Sudan.
In his comment about the ongoing efforts to resolve the border issue, Ambassador Dina noted the beginning of talks between The Ethiopia-Sudan High-Level Political Committee and its recent discussion on the issue in Khartoum. The Deputy Prime Minister also said that the meeting is the second of its kind and is expected to resume in Addis Ababa in a short period of time. It was also stated during the press conference that despite ongoing tensions between the two countries, this will not commensurate with the long standing relationship between the two countries based on the principle of solidarity and fraternity for numerous periods of time.
On the 12th of January, the spokesperson of the Ministry of foriegn affairs of Ethiopia, Ambassador Dina Mufti, told the press that the Sudanese forces have pushed further into a contested border region that has been the site of deadly clashes in recent weeks. And for the question raised as to how long Ethiopia will continue to resolve the issue using diplomacy, and will Ethiopia take a military action against Sudan? He responded that Ethiopia is not interested to rush for war, “sometime you might not react to a punch on the nose with a similar punch but in the other circumstances you could even decapitate its head” said Ambassador Dina.
Ambassador Ibrahim Idris, and other representatives of the members of the Ethio- Sudan Border Commission expressed that it is important for further negotiation and mitigation that Sudnese troops who have crossed the Ethiopian border in clear violation of International Law principles be immediately withdrawn from the Ethiopian territories. This was identified as a determinant for fruitful discussions, as the tension between the two nations continues to mount.
The United Arab Emirates has also expressed its hope for the de-escalation of the conflict between Sudan and Ethiopia, noting its concern for the situation in the Al Fasha border area.
In the statement, the UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation commended the solid ties between the UAE and the two countries, stressing the importance of their cooperation and dialogue,to refrain from any actions that may lead to additional tension in the region.
Members of the Ethio-Sudan Border Commission, Image from Waltainfo.com
What to be done
Alex De Waal, in a recent opinion piece he wrote to BBC, said the Historical Contention of the border area dates back the Colonial era treaties and disclosed that, both parties have agreed to negotiate, but each has different preconditions. Ethiopia wants the Sudanese to compensate the burned-out communities; Sudan wants a return to the status quo ante. and each side has a different analysis of history, law, and how to interpret century-old treaties.
Scholars who have studied on these subject matter, like Martin Pratt recommended, clearly defined and well-managed boundaries are very important for good international relations, national and local security, efficient local administration and for using natural resources efficiently. “The failure to resolve border issues prevents neighbors from normalizing relations and dealing with pressing social and economic issues. Thus it is important that any territorial differences be resolved on a mutually acceptable basis in accordance with the standards of international law and practice.” says Pratt regarding the matter.
An Anonymous commentator who specializes on the affairs of the horn of Africa told Addis Zeybe that the recent border clash emanates from the internal instability of both states as well as the shifting external power dynamics from the near and far. He further explained that Sudan and Ethiopia had an unwritten agreement to cultivate the farmland for the last two decades. Recently the internal instability of the countries led both states to the conflict existent at the moment.
According to the commentator, Sudan is seeking to legitimize its internal political crisis by involving in such confrontation with neighbouring states in an attempt to gain internal acceptance and a diversion from domestic concerns. He also added that Ethiopia’s internal problem specifically the beginning of armed conflict between the Federal Government and TPLF in Tigray has left Ethiopia vulnerabile to external forces, including its neighbours.
On the way Forward, he further recommends that Ethiopia should settle its internal matters and decrease its vulnerability to avoid similar crises. And the nation has to revisit its forign policy in the horn of Africa considering the dynamic socio-political changes in the horn to secure the national interest of the country. Regional integration and economic cooperation between both parties and smooth political and democratic transitions in the long run can open the door for peaceful settlement of the similar cries in the region.