Ethiopians call it Mazega. Their Sudanese counterpart call it al-Fashaga, a 260 km2 fertile land, almost half the size of Addis Ababa, a name that is also used by external actors and media outlets whenever they discuss about confrontations between Ethiopia and Sudan over the borderland area.
Sudan considers the area as a part of its territory based on a pre-colonial era map that was drawn by the British, which used to administer Sudan as part of its colony. While its officials believe it is part of Sudan’s Gedaref region, their Ethiopian counterparts sometimes go as far as claiming the area is part of the country’s second most populous federal state, Amhara Region, bringing their own justifications.
Though Sudanese officials have some legal grounds to justify their claims, their counterparts in Bahir Dar and Addis Ababa think Ethiopia should have a say on the land, which hosts many Ethiopians who have lived in the area for generations. The issue, however, is more than what people perceive and requires understanding its historical context.
The dispute over the territory started during the reign of Menelik II and when the Sudanese were under the control of the British government. A negotiation between the two by the beginning of 20th century gave birth to the 1902 Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty, which both countries interpreted differently for decades that followed.
Disagreement over demarcation has complicated the border dispute, though there were several attempts made by successive leaders of Ethiopia to resolve the issue peacefully. Emperor Haileselassie I, when serving as a mediator of the south and northern part of Sudan, exchanged notes with the then leader of the country.
That was hoped to guide the demarcation in the following years but bore no fruit. The military government, Derg, contributed little to end the dispute, first, due to the war with Somalia and then the war with rebel groups in Eritrea, Tigray and other parts of the country.
It also took over 15 years for the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF-led government) to bring the issue to the table after it ousted the military junta.
Meles Zenawi, who led the country for over two decades as the Prime Minister until his death a decade ago, signed a cooperation agreement with his Sudanese counterpart, Omar al-Bashir, relatively taking concrete steps since the emperors note exchange with the then officials of Sudan.
In the agreement, Ethiopia agreed for the demarcation of the border, and Sudan in exchange, agreed to allow Ethiopian farmers continue to harvest crops in the border area and trade without restrictions.
Calling the deal instrumental in bringing peace between citizens of the two countries in the area, Crisis Group, in its analysis published almost a year ago, linked the action of Meles with Eritrea and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
“First, Meles sought to isolate Eritrea after Ethiopia’s relations with that country deteriorated, culminating in a two-year border war (1998-2000) that claimed tens of thousands of lives,” said the Group.
“Secondly, he wanted Sudan’s support for the construction of the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam – the largest hydropower plant in Africa and the centerpiece of his economic and foreign policy strategy – which lies about 20km from the Sudanese border,” it added.
Opposition groups that were based in the US back then called the action “treason,” while some political groups operating in Amhara region considered the deal null and void, claiming the territory belongs to Gondar, Ethiopia.
Despite facing pressure from authorities in Sudan, Hailemariam Desalegn, the successor of Meles, almost turned a blind eye to the issue.
Abiy Ahmed, who took the helm as the premier of the second most populous African nation after Hailemariam’s resignation, was hoped to end the deadlock, as it did not take him long to normalize the relation between the two countries, even going as far as signing a deal with al-Bashir, who was jailed later on counts of corruption and genocide, to build four ports in Sudan. But that later on failed.
The deterioration of the political situation in Sudan, which enabled the country’s military ranks assume power, strained the relationship between the two. Ethiopia helped negotiate the civilian and military governments of Sudan, which was taken as a gesture by the Sudanese people.
As Ethiopia’s federal government launched what it called “a law enforcement operation” in Tigray Region, in its fight against the forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the Sudanese government took advantage of the situation and controlled the area, leading to a series of confrontation between the army of the two countries and militias.
Ethiopia repeatedly denounced the action and said it would defend its territory from any aggression. Sudan, on its part, told Ethiopia to respect the colonial demarcation signed between the two countries and accused Ethiopian forces of trying to regain control over the area.
It went as far as warning Ethiopia it would take Benishangul Region by force, if Ethiopia is not going to abide by the colonial agreement. International organizations warned there is a potential of a full scale war between the two if the dispute remained unresolved.
Last week, Demeke Mekonnen, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, said “his country is pursuing peaceful means to reclaim territories forcefully occupied by Sudan.”
He accused Sudanese military forces of changing the demographics of the borderland and displacing Ethiopians living there. His remark was followed by a statement from the Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Khartoum called the remark made by the Deputy PM as “false and misleading,” calling on the Ethiopian government to avoid spreading hate speech and escalating tensions, adding it goes against “Ethiopia’s recognition of what was stated in the “colonial agreements.