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Ethiopia-Sudan tension rises over Tigray conflict

Sudan recalled its ambassador to Ethiopia after Addis Ababa accused Khartoum of interfering in the Tigray crisis amid doubts about Sudan’s mediating ability to end the nine-month-old fighting.

Sudan recalled its ambassador to Ethiopia Aug. 8 for consultations after Ethiopian officials accused Khartoum of interfering in the Tigray crisis.

In a statement, the Sudanese Foreign Ministry rejected the Ethiopian accusations against Sudan of not staying neutral in mediating the conflict in Tigray. The statement said that a resolution of the Tigray conflict is part of Sudan’s commitment to peace and regional stability and the stabilization of Ethiopia.

Sudan pledged to continue to push for a solution to the conflict and said that it is seeking to mediate between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) with the aim of reaching a peaceful solution to the nine-month-old conflict.

Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been in contact with the Ethiopian central government and the TPLF leaders, working to bring the two parties to the negotiating table to discuss a peaceful solution and allow the entry of humanitarian aid for civilians.

However, Beilin Seyoum, a spokesperson for the Ethiopian prime minister, declared her country’s rejection of Sudan’s mediation. Seyoum said in a press conference on Aug. 5 that Sudan “is not a credible party.”

She added, “The relationship with Sudan at this stage is somewhat thorny because the level of trust with some leaders has widely declined.”

Ethiopia accuses its neighbor, Sudan, of exploiting its preoccupation with the Tigray conflict to seize Ethiopian lands. Khartoum denies such accusations, saying it has recovered 95% of its own occupied lands. The border dispute between the two countries falls in the area of Al-Fashqa, where the Ethiopian Amhara region meets the Gedaref state in Sudan.

The Sudanese Foreign Ministry said that Hamdok’s initiative, within the framework of his chairmanship of the IGAD (a group that includes Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Djibouti, Sudan, Uganda and Somalia), aims to encourage the Ethiopian parties to reach a comprehensive cease-fire in the Tigray region and enter into a dialogue to preserve the unity and stability of Ethiopia.

Fighting first erupted in Tigray in November 2020, when the Ethiopian government accused the TPLF of attacking an army base, an accusation the TPLF denied.

The Ethiopian government declared victory three weeks later when it captured the regional capital, Mekele, but the TPLF continued to fight and has since recaptured most of Tigray, including Mekele.

Ethiopian forces withdrew from most of Tigray in late June, as the government declared a unilateral cease-fire for what it said were humanitarian reasons.

Nonetheless, reports indicated that human rights violations have been ongoing in the area ever since, as thousands of civilians were killed. In July, the battles expanded to include the regions of Afar and Amhara, bordering Tigray.

Sudan, which has received more than 78,000 refugees who fled the conflict in Tigray, is increasingly concerned about the ongoing conflict, as war zones are located in the Tigray and Amhara regions on the border with Sudan and refugees continue to flow into Sudan to escape the ongoing conflict.

The Sudanese government says that the situation in the Tigray region threatens regional stability and has called “on all parties in Ethiopia to stop the fighting, sit down to the negotiating table and facilitate humanitarian aid access to all those in need.”

According to the United Nations, about 5 million people in Tigray depend on emergency aid, while 400,000 have entered a state of famine.

It will be difficult for Ethiopia to accept Sudanese mediation in Tigray if Addis Ababa and Khartoum do not first settle their disputes related to the border and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Corda Tiziana, a researcher for the Network for the Advancement of Social and Political Studies at the University of Milan, told Al-Monitor.

She said, “Little does it matter if Hamdok tries to mediate in his capacity of IGAD’s chair, rather than as Sudan’s prime minister, given that Ethiopia just sees him as a Sudanese stakeholder.”

On the other hand, Kjetil Tronvoll, a professor of peace and conflict studies at Oslo’s Bjorknes University College, told Al-Monitor, “I do not think Sudan alone will manage to act as a mediator, but possibly in partnership with another actor.”

On July 31, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke over the phone with Hamdok and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. He voiced concerns about the continued fighting in the country and called for a cessation of hostilities, the opening of a political dialogue between the two parties to the conflict and for humanitarian aid to be allowed into the territory.

On Aug. 4, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken agreed in a phone call with Hamdok to encourage all parties to enter into negotiations for a cease-fire, to engage in a comprehensive political dialogue to preserve the unity and integrity of the Ethiopian state and to allow full humanitarian aid access to those who need it.

Ann Fitz-Gerald, a professor of international security and the director of the Balsley School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada, told Al-Monitor that the relationship between Sudan and Ethiopia was negatively affected by Sudan’s decision to cooperate with Egypt and take a new bellicose stance toward its neighboring ally.

She said, “Those who lead mediation efforts need to be considered fairly neutral and impartial by all parties and Sudan’s recent aggression toward Ethiopia on multiple occasions means that it would not fit this profile.”

On whether Sudan can exploit the conflict in Ethiopia to its advantage in the GERD dispute, Tiziana said, “So far, it hasn’t. During the first nine months of the Tigray’s civil war, the GERD negotiations have indeed not progressed even one inch.”

She added, “The same could be expected in the coming months: The more the Tigray war deteriorates in the eyes of Addis Ababa, the more inflexible the federal government will be on issues such as the GERD, which are symbols of Ethiopian nationalism.”

Tronvoll blamed the Ethiopian prime minister for exacerbating the crisis, saying, “There are no signs whatsoever that Abiy will give in and accept humanitarian access at the level needed. Quite the opposite — Addis Ababa is deliberately blocking aid to Tigray to starve the people and thus [the TPLF] to death.”

Fitz-Gerald criticized the violence by the TPLF forces, saying, “The international community must play an important role in calling for the TPLF to cease fire and to condemn recent and ongoing crimes such as the use of child soldiers, atrocities against members of the Tigrayan population and Eritrean refugees.”

The Ethiopian authorities have rejected international demands to open humanitarian aid corridors from Sudan to the western region of Tigray.

Mitiku Kassa, Ethiopia’s national disaster risk management commissioner, told the Ethiopian News Agency on Aug. 3 that pressure from members of the international community, which he did not name, to open a humanitarian corridor from Sudan to western Tigray region is “unacceptable.” He pointed out that the TPLF is making efforts to stop the entry of humanitarian aid, preventing more than 170 aid trucks from entering the region.

“The international community has so far been fractured on the Tigray war, with some powers preventing the UN Security Council from debating anything related to Tigray in the past months,” Tiziana said.

She added, “Without a united front, these [low] levels of external pressure can hardly achieve any result because the issues at stake are extremely salient, I would say, for all the Ethiopian parties involved to make concessions now.”

Tiziana said that the external pressures have so far only stiffened Addis Ababa’s position. The situation may improve once Addis Ababa perceives more neutrality from the international community, she added.