In mid-February, Sudan summoned home its ambassador to Ethiopia amid an escalating dispute over a stretch of agricultural land along the two countries’ border. Both sides have accused each other of seizing territory by force, and Sudanese authorities have reported at least a dozen deaths, including some soldiers, due to incursions by Ethiopian militias. There is now an uncomfortably high possibility of an open military conflict between the two neighbors, both of which have grappled with domestic unrest in recent months and are going through their own delicate political transitions. Such a border war would be a serious threat to regional security.
Bilateral tensions have been rising since mid-December, when Sudan’s military announced that one of its border patrol units was ambushed by “Ethiopian forces and militias” in an area known as al-Fashqa, where Sudan’s al-Qadarif province meets the Ethiopian state of Amhara.
According to a 1902 treaty between Great Britain—which then ruled Sudan—and Ethiopia’s Emperor Menelik, al-Fashqa is part of Sudanese territory. However, the border is largely unmarked, and Ethiopian farmers have long settled the land and cultivated its fertile soil. In 2008, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi negotiated a deal with the government of Sudan: Addis Ababa would recognize al-Fashqa as part of Sudan, in exchange for Ethiopian farmers being allowed to stay on the land. However, many members of the Amhara ethnic group and others living near the Sudanese border were outraged by the deal. They accused Zenawi—who hailed from the northern Tigray region, a longtime rival of Amhara—of selling them out by conceding the land to Sudan.
The deal was followed by reports that thousands of Ethiopians had been forcibly displaced as Sudanese farmers, who were backed by the army, reclaimed disputed lands along parts of the border—though Zenawi denied any such displacements. Since then, a number of attempts to appoint bilateral commissions to demarcate the border have been unsuccessful.
The recent flare-up in al-Fashqa has as much to do with domestic politics in Ethiopia as with the historical rivalry between Addis Ababa and Khartoum. When Abiy Ahmed became prime minister of Ethiopia in 2018, he began sidelining Zenawi’s party, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, which had previously played a dominant role in the governing coalition. Abiy took aim at that coalition soon after winning election, pressing forward with his plans to replace it with a single, pan-Ethiopian ruling party. In the face of resistance to his agenda from the TPLF, Abiy cultivated an alliance with the Amhara Democratic Party. This led to the Ethiopian government shifting its rhetoric and taking a harder line with regard to the border dispute.
The recent clashes with Sudan come at an unstable time for Ethiopia. In November, Abiy’s government launched a military incursion into Tigray in response to alleged attacks on federal forces by the TPLF. The Tigrayan side recently claimed that 52,000 people have been killed in the fighting, with another 3 million displaced. Abiy, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to reconcile with neighboring Eritrea, is also dealing with sporadic unrest in his native Oromo region, where at least 239 people died last July in violent protests that followed the killing of a popular Ethiopian singer, Hachalu Hundessa. Deadly ethnic violence has also escalated in recent months in the western Benishangul-Gumuz region.
There is an uncomfortably high possibility of open military conflict between the two neighbors, both of which have grappled with domestic unrest in recent months.
Sudan, too, has its fair share of domestic conflicts. More than 25 people were killed last summer in tribal clashes in Port Sudan, on the Red Sea coast. More recently, violence has flared up again in the troubled Darfur region after a short period of peace. The United Nations reported last month that more than 250 people were killed in the latest episode of intercommunal violence there.
Sudan’s current government is a fractious interim administration that was formed in the wake of dictator Omar al-Bashir’s ouster amid mass protests in 2019. The transitional government involves a power-sharing deal between the military and civilian officials, but the two sides often disagree, with their bickering frequently spilling into public view. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the army chief who leads the transitional Sovereignty Council, recently blasted the transitional government, saying it had “failed to respond to the aspirations of the people and of the revolution.” Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok responded by accusing the military of overstepping, calling its involvement in the private sector “unacceptable.”
Even without such civil-military tensions, transitional periods are always vulnerable, with the unstable internal dynamics increasing the likelihood of interstate conflict. Both Ethiopia and Sudan are going through reform processes that bring new stakeholders with widely differing interests into the political system. However, their respective governments lack the institutional capacity to accommodate all of these conflicting interests; as such, authorities often fail to answer popular demands.
Both Sudan and Ethiopia are suffering from widespread discontent and dissatisfaction due to already poor economic and security conditions deteriorating further. Against that volatile backdrop, a border conflict might serve as a useful distraction from internal discontent, as it would likely produce a nationalistic “rally-around-the-flag” effect. The danger is that ruling elites in Addis Ababa and Khartoum might see a border war as a viable option to buttress their flagging governments.
Indeed, there is a long and bloody history of such conflicts in the region. Ethiopia fought a border war with newly independent Eritrea in the late 1990s, at a time when both countries were going through transitional phases after the fall of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s dictatorial Derg regime in Ethiopia. More than 800,000 people died over two years of fighting that began in 1998. Sudan, too, went to war over an oil field at the border with South Sudan in 2012, resulting in hundreds of deaths and the stoppage of oil production that cost the two countries millions of dollars.
A war now between Sudan and Ethiopia, when both countries face their own internal conflicts and divisions, would be catastrophic. The two countries must return to the negotiating table and cease their escalatory rhetoric. There is also a need for the international community to intervene and defuse the crisis before the dispute reaches a point of no return. U.S. President Joe Biden’s new administration, for example, is expected to play a more active role across Africa after four years of high-level indifference under Donald Trump. With the Biden administration reportedly mulling the creation of a new special envoy to the Horn of Africa, the Ethiopian-Sudanese border conflict should be a top priority for whoever assumes this role. Simply put, Sudan and Ethiopia are central to the stability of the region, and the stakes are too high to let them go to war.
*Yasir Zaidan is a lecturer of international affairs at the National University of Sudan and a doctoral student at the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. Follow him on Twitter @YasirZaidan91.