Contextualizing the Ethio-Sudan border squabble
The Sudanese transition was one of the silver linings in the country’s politics following waves of public uprising that deposed one of the longest-serving leaders on the African continent. Hassan Al-Bashir was forced to leave office by civilian unrest as well as the military’s push forcing the President to heed the demands of the public.
The negotiation for the establishment of a transitional government jointly led by the military and technocratic civilians was somewhat a successful endeavor. And the key player in this process was Ethiopia which assisted in the negotiations by appointing a special envoy. Mohammed Dirir (Amb.) helped the two sides detail frameworks for the rules of engagement leading to an election within two years.
But the transition in Sudan is on a bumpy road. And for the first time in the current century, the Sudanese and Ethiopian governments have entered a tense situation regarding the border lines that remained undefined for more than a century.
The first attempt to draw the lines between the two countries was made by the British colonial powers that ruled Sudan and Egypt at the time. Although negotiations were made between the years 1896 and 1902 between Ethiopia and the British, the intention of the British colonial powers was to maintain “the entire Nile Basin as well as Egypt.” But the independent “Ethiopia became a source of anxiety to British policy-makers,” noted Harold Marcus in a 1963 study paper.
Following prolonged negotiations between John Harrington, representing British colonies of Egypt and Sudan, and King Menellik II of Ethiopia, supported by Alfred Ilg, Major Gwynn drew the line between Sudan and Ethiopia. With this demarcation in place, the border remained undelimitated for a century because of various factors. And this, although an issue of discussion for long, has never pitted the two countries residing on the opposite side of the Blue Nile.
But late in December 2020, the Sudanese military accused some “gangs from the Ethiopian side” of attacking and taking farmlands in the Al-Fashga area. This led to the deployment of heavy military personnel as well as equipment from the Sudanese side to the border area. Currently, the Sudanese forces have entered and occupied from 20 to 40 kilometers of land in Ethiopian territory and are still pushing inwards.
The Sudanese military deputy chief of staff Khaled Abdin al-Shami (Lieut. Gen.) was quoted by Anadolu Agency in late December as saying: “We can take back what is left of our land. We reached the borders [with Ethiopia]. The land that we lost 20 years ago is under complete control, and we can take the others in other ways.”
But more claims are flooding from the Sudanese side. A high-level military official from Sudan even declared that the site of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) belonged to them.
While diplomatic shuttles have been made from the Ethiopian side to restore peace in the border area, a visit by Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen to Khartoum bore no fruit. His requests were to return to the previous status (status quo ante) and launch negotiations.
In a press briefing on January 5, 2021, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) spokesperson Dina Mufti (Amb.) said that while the border between the two countries remained undelimitated for over a century, there have not been incidents or war between the two countries.
“The new development now is the Sudanese side taking advantage of the law enforcement efforts in the Northern part of the country to take control of the Ethiopian territory. They are under the assumption that this campaign consumed much of Ethiopia’s military power and energy,” he stated.
He further added that the Sudanese forces embezzled and looted properties before claiming “the land they occupied is theirs. This violates the 1972 exchange of notes both countries deposited to the AU and the UN to resolve outstanding border issues.”
The notes of 1972 commit parties to resolve the long overdue boundary dispute between the two countries. The parties agreed to proceed with the re-demarcation process from Mount Dagleish southwards and to study the problem caused by settlements and cultivation by nationals of either nation in the territory of the other with a view to finding an amicable solution. It was then highlighted that finding an amicable solution to the problem resulting from cultivation and settlement is a prerequisite for the re-demarcation of the Gwynn Line North of Mount Daeglish.
Despite the military encroachments of Sudan that stand in stark contrast to the exchange of notes, the Ethiopian government repeatedly reiterated that it does not want to resort to military action to resolve the border issues with Sudan.
For Kassahun Berhanu (Prof.), a political science professor at Addis Ababa University, there are various factors that contributed to the recent actions from the Sudanese side. The first of these factors is the unclear nature of the Sudanese transition where the military sovereign council has the upper hand in the political decision making in the country.
“I don’t think the aggression is backed by the civilian administration; it seems an action by the military members of the administration pushed by external forces,” Kassahun observes.
Dina also recalled that when Ethiopian delegation led by the then Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew took aid to flood affected Sudanese people in show of solidarity, civilian members of the administration urged for a quick filling of the Dam to avoid future floods. But the military members of the administration did not value the aid, rather focusing on unresolved issues concerning the border and the dam.
“This might be because of the presence of incongruent forces in power,” he stated. “This problem is structural.”
He is also of the view that the Sudanese forces intended to exploit the internal instability in the country, especially the Tigray situation.
Although Dina Mufti did not want to relate the recent developments with the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Kassahun rather believes that the forces with interests on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) could be behind the Sudanese aggression.
Reminding that Sudan has been inconsistent in the GERD negotiations even though it wanted to return to African led negotiations when Ethiopia declined to accept the US and World Bank sponsored documents of agreement, the current moves seem to be intended to get compromises on the GERD negotiations, he observes.
“They must have thought that this is the right time to strike,” he added.
The Sudanese forces have also been asking for the revision of the terms of reference for the mediating team assigned by the African Union to oversee the negotiations, seeking more power for the team. On January 10, 2021, Sudan terminated a virtual negotiation meeting on the GERD for this reason while Ethiopia and Egypt agreed to proceed. This came after a visit by the Egyptian security chief to Sudan reversing Sudan’s stance on the matter. Egypt was the one that declined to take part in the negotiations before Sudan did.
According to Dina, the Egyptian and Sudanese negotiators want to take the matter to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) or at least delay it until South Africa’s term of the AU Chairmanship ends.
But he maintained that there are forces behind Sudan that instigated the violence aiming to benefit out of the conflicts. These forces have already controlled a wider expanse of Sudanese lands and still have colonial mentality. This could relate to the GERD, he highlighted, although he did not mention by name who these forces are.
Kassahun also observes that there are various interests in the region that include Egypt and the US because of their interests on the GERD. The US has a clearly stated interest regarding the GERD and Sudan may want to quickly integrate itself into the international arena after the lifting of the 20 years long sanctions for sponsoring terrorism.
However, it was not an opportune time for Sudan to invade Ethiopia because the Ethiopian government that came to power during internal problems in Sudan was ready to negotiate and demarcate the borderlines between the two countries, Kassahun argues.
Historically, although there were discussions of the demarcation during Emperor Haile Selassie I, the Derg era was not conducive for such engagements. During the Derg regime, both countries hosted opposition forces of the other.
If things remain as they are and Sudan does not want to return to the status quo ante, war could be imminent despite Ethiopia repeatedly emphasizing that war is not the option, Kassahun foresees.
“Magnanimity pays off in a diplomatic endeavor. But patience has its limits. There is nothing that does not have a limit. However, we should not create conducive situation for forces that want us to enter into a conflict spiral and distract us from focusing on finishing the GERD and other development endeavors,” Dina stated.
Kassahun stresses that to embark on a negotiation, both sides have to believe in it and return to the situation before the escalation. This could be a challenge for negotiations. If not, he further indicated, the Ethiopian government won’t have any other alternative but use force to restore the country’s territorial integrity.
“One of the primary responsibilities of a government is maintaining the territorial integrity of the state,” Kassahun states.
For him, the fears that the Ethiopian government won’t have the capacity to engage in a new war immediately after the conclusion of the war in Tigray is baseless and Ethiopia will not fail to drive the forces that took its land.
“The question now should be demarcating the boundary. Major Gwynn’s line defines which places are Sudan’s and which ones are Ethiopia’s. But this was not ratified by the parliament. Therefore, the demarcation will depend on their negotiations,” Kassahun indicates.
Even if new forces could join in the war, he is not concerned about the capability of the country to fend off any aggression. He even expects a military action to drive the Sudanese forces from the border area.
On a January 12, 2021 press conference, Dina stated: “In the world of diplomacy, you don’t immediately hit back on someone that punches your nose. Another time, you could chop their heads off.”
But some observers also indicate that there is a geopolitical power struggle going on in the region. Ethiopia’s long-standing dominance in peace keeping in the region as well as its status as an island of stability in a chaotic region, has led some to anticipate that a regional power is in the making with potential global influence. But the current assertion by Sudan and other forces in the region could imply potential contestations of this dominance. However, Ethiopia’s dominance is criticized both locally and regionally. PM Abiy Ahmed even told the Parliament that previously Ethiopia was known for creating quarrels among countries in the region and was hated rather than being respected by its neighbors.
The visit by Steven Mnuchin to Sudan and Egypt on January 6, 2021 is also seen by many as an indication of the intention from the US administration to advance their interest by sidelining Ethiopia. Such visits to the region used to include Ethiopia in the past as repeated visits by secretary of states Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo portray. Mnuchin’s delegation signed an agreement of USD 1.2 billion loan to Sudan in addition to making sure that Sudan restores its relations with Israel, part of Trump administration’s grand new plan for peace in the Middle East.