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Sudan, Ethiopia blame each other for border violations amid Nile Dam dispute

The border dispute between Sudan and Ethiopia may affect the crisis over Ethiopia’s controversial Nile Dam, amid fears of the situation turning into an armed conflict.
A boat sails along the Setit river bordering Ethiopia.

The decades-old border dispute between Sudan and Ethiopia was recently renewed after the two countries exchanged accusations of violating the other's territorial sovereignty, amid fears that the situation could turn into an armed conflict.

Speaking at the Ethiopian parliament on May 17, Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Demeke Mekonnen said that the Sudanese forces forcibly occupied Ethiopian lands in al-Fashqa area in late 2020, taking advantage of Ethiopia's preoccupation with its war with the rebels in Tigray.

“It is very unfortunate that Sudan violated the demarcation of the border when we were busy with law enforcement in the northern part of the country,” Mekonnen said, blaming the Sudanese forces for “the displacement of civilians and the destruction of property in the areas they occupied.”

He also criticized Sudan's continuous attempts to change the demography of the invaded area by building infrastructure projects, stressing that this is “totally unacceptable.”

Mekonnen pledged to “restore the occupied territories by all possible means.” He warned that the Sudanese actions harm the relations between the two countries — which he described as fragile at the moment — and could lead to unprecedented problems. 

However, Mekonnen noted that his country is doing everything in its power to resolve the conflict with Sudan peacefully and through diplomatic dialogue.

Ethiopia and Sudan have been locked in a decades-old dispute over the 260-square-kilometer border area of al-Fashqa, a patch of fertile agricultural borderland from which Khartoum expelled thousands of Ethiopian farmers in mid-December 2020, in an escalation that has since led to renewed clashes between the two countries.

In November 2021, clashes resumed between Sudanese and Ethiopian forces in the Barakat Noreen area in al-Fashqa. At least six Sudanese soldiers were killed back then, according to the Sudanese army.

The head of the Sudanese military and chair of the Sudanese Sovereign Council, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, visited the area following the attack in November 2021 and pledged “not to give up any inch of the lands of al-Fashqa.”

According to the Sudanese army, at least 84 Sudanese soldiers were killed in border clashes with Ethiopian forces and militias from November 2020 until August 2021. Both countries rarely release death tolls.

Large numbers of Sudanese forces are stationed in the area to control it or confront any escalation, especially now that the situation could implode at any moment, which could further destabilize the already volatile Horn of Africa.

Mekonnen's accusations against Sudan were not limited to the border dispute, as he also accused Khartoum of harboring terrorists, in reference to the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) fighters. In his parliament speech, he said that Sudan had opened its lands to the rebels to launch attacks on the Ethiopian federal forces, considering this a declaration of war.

Sudan strongly denounced Mekonnen's statements, calling on Addis Ababa to avoid spreading hate speech.

A Sudanese Foreign Ministry statement released on May 19 said Mekonnen's claims were “false and misleading” and in violation of relevant treaties signed between the two countries. The ministry added that the deployment of Sudanese security forces inside al-Fashqa is an integral part of Sudan’s sovereignty over its territory.

Khartoum further called on resuming the work of the joint border committees “as soon as possible” and to engage seriously in completing the demarcation process.

Mohamed Kheir Omer, an Eritrean-Norwegian political analyst focusing on the Horn of Africa, told Al-Monitor that Mekonnen's statement is for domestic political consumption. “Ethiopia isn't in a position to get into a military confrontation with Sudan,” he added.

Omer attributed this to the Tigray crisis that could escalate at any time. Also, the government is at war with the Oromo Liberation Army in Oromia, and there is a confrontation with the Amhara paramilitary group, known as Fano, in the Amhara region. In addition, there may be a military confrontation between Tigray and Eritrea that is still backing Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's federal troops against the TPLF rebels.

Ethiopia has been mired in its own civil war since Ahmed sent his federal government forces to Tigray in November 2020 to control the area and hunt down rebels, in response to what he said were attacks on army camps in the region.

The conflict has since divided the multiethnic country and led to a humanitarian catastrophe.

The United Nations has reported that about 5 million people in Tigray depend on emergency aid, while 400,000 people suffer from starvation. Thousands of Ethiopians died, as the fighting continues amid reports of massacres, crimes against humanity and mass rapes.

Sudan has received tens of thousands of Ethiopian refugees who fled the war, mostly from Tigray.

Meanwhile, Sudan is also suffering amid a severe political crisis that has been exacerbated since the army seized power in October 2021, ending a power-sharing arrangement with civilian partners, which was aimed at paving the way for democratic elections.

Goitom Gebreluel, an Ethiopian political analyst, said that Mekonnen's statement is just posturing for the domestic nationalist audience.

Gebreluel told Al-Monitor that the Ethiopian army is battered and incapable of defeating most of its own insurgent groups. “Ethiopia simply does not have the power to challenge Sudan in al-Fashqa at this point,” he added.

Al-Fashqa area is located on the border between the two countries, where the northwest of the Ethiopian Amhara region in the Gedaref State meets the eastern border of Sudan. Sudan says that this area falls within its borders that were demarcated at the beginning of the 20th century, which Ethiopia rejects.

All international attempts to mediate between Sudan and Ethiopia, including by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, failed to give precedence to diplomacy over military escalation. Sudan refuses to engage in negotiations before a re-demarcation of the border is carried out and Ethiopia recognizes al-Fashqa area as Sudanese land.

There were positive signs in early 2022 indicating the possibility of resolving the border dispute between the two countries, but it seems that efforts were once again in vain.

Ethiopia’s Ambassador to Khartoum Yibeltal Aemero Alemu said on Feb. 9 that Sudan and Ethiopia reached an agreement to peacefully resolve the border dispute.

This came after a short visit by Sudan’s deputy chairman of the Sovereign Council, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, to Addis Ababa on Jan. 22-23 where he met with Ahmed.

Kjetil Tronvoll, a professor of peace and conflict studies at Oslo New University College, told Al-Monitor that there are mixed signals emanating from Ethiopia. “These signals may originate from the contested domestic political context in Ethiopia,” he added.

The border dispute between Sudan and Ethiopia is fueling wider tensions in the region, even affecting the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) that Addis Ababa is building on the Blue Nile.

The downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan, fear that the dam will limit their supplies of the Nile River, on which they depend for most of their water needs.

Gebreluel sees that Addis Ababa is looking for a way to mend relations with Khartoum, but the GERD issue, as well as al-Fashqa dispute, will be difficult to overcome.

“Given Ethiopia's current weakness and aggressive posture over the past couple of years, I don't think either Cairo or Khartoum will be inclined to compromise or trust Addis Ababa in the near future,” he pointed out.

Egypt stands with its neighbor Sudan in its border dispute with Ethiopia, as they have a common interest and goal in settling the GERD crisis amid fears that this crisis may lead to another military conflict in the region.

Military cooperation between Egypt and Sudan has reached an unprecedented level since the overthrow of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in 2019, and the two countries signed military cooperation agreements in the fields of military training and border security. However, this rapprochement has angered Addis Ababa.

Talks held under the auspices of the African Union (AU) since June 2020, the latest of which was a meeting held in April 2021 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have failed to reach an agreement between the three parties over the GERD.

The dispute over the dam is likely to escalate in the coming days, with Ethiopia intending to fill its reservoir for the third time in the rainy season that begins in June despite the opposition of Egypt and Sudan to its unilateral decisions.

Tronvoll said that a possible military response from Sudan and Egypt is plausible but not likely as the situation stands today. “However, the region is very volatile, so an unforeseen event may turn this scenario around again,” he concluded.

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