Why solving Sudan war may require calming sesame tensions

Wednesday April 17 2024
The conflict within Sudan may require calming the ongoing sesame "wars" with Ethiopia

The conflict within Sudan may require calming the ongoing sesame "wars" with Ethiopia before more foreign entities are attracted to what has indirectly fuelled the fighting inside Sudan. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK


Sudan, at war since April 2023, has not considered Ethiopia an enemy.

However, the conflict within Sudan may require calming the ongoing sesame "wars" with Ethiopia before more foreign entities are attracted to what has indirectly fuelled the fighting inside Sudan.

Two development experts at Chatham House say sesame, a grain often eaten as a snack or used to make pastries throughout the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, is not solely to blame for the violence. But its value and profits may be fuelling the conflict in Sudan and tensions on the border between Sudan and Ethiopia.

“The sesame trade is no longer just a mainstay of local livelihoods in Ethiopia and Sudan.

“Amid civil war and territorial rivalry on both sides of the border, it now plays a central role in a conflict economy that perpetuates violence and political instability,” they observe in their new paper: The Conflict Economy of Sesame in Ethiopia and Sudan, which analyses how farming along the Ethiopia-Sudan border has become entangled in transnational conflict.

Read: Sudan conflict threatens supply of gum arabic


The authors Ahmed Soliman, a senior Research Fellow and Dr Abel Abate Demissie, an Associate Fellow, both on the Africa Programme at Chatham House, argue that Sesame seed, by its very nature, sustained the economies of both countries even before they plunged into conflict: Ethiopia’s Tigray war, from November 2020 to November 2022, and now the Sudan war since April last year.

In good times, for instance, Ethiopia earned some $282 million in 2018, and even though the war in Tigray saw a drop in earnings, it was still a considerable sale with an average of $250 million a year in the last decade.

Sudan earned $576 million in 2018, and it rose highest to $789 million in 2020 before starting to fall, coinciding with political skirmishes in the country’s transitional government that led to a coup. 

“Despite this, sesame remains one of Sudan’s most valuable export commodities after gold, roughly on a par with livestock,” they argue in the paper.

The coincidence is that Ethiopia and Sudan’s sesame-growing regions have also faced the consequences of strife.

The seed is majorly grown in the eastern Sudanese states of Gedaref and Kassala and Amhara and Tigray regional states in the northwestern part of Ethiopia.

When the war started in the Tigray region, between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the national army, some 600,000 people were displaced, and some fled into Sudan in peace then.

But it fueled some tensions with Sudan after the Sudan Armed Forces (Saf) deployed heavily in the eastern states ostensibly to protect farmers but in an area whose borderline is in dispute.

Read: Sudan war deals a blow to shrinking economy

Tigray and Amhara

Ethiopia’s war-affected regions of Tigray and Amhara produce over 70 per cent of the national yield, and neighbouring Al-Fashaga is the basket of sesame in Sudan.

Traditionally, one of the areas in the Horn of Africa where territorial wars have been fought over the disputed border had seen some form of informal cooperation, with both countries choosing to allow farmers to “share” the land rather than quarrel over the boundary.

It didn’t stop actual conflict between farmers, but authorities in their stable times had managed to live side by side over the last century of disagreement.

The authors argue that these “cycles of cooperation and conflict” have often been shaped by internal political dynamics and prevailing bilateral relations.

With both sides turning attention to their internal political issues, the appetite for sesame hasn’t stopped.

Traditional markets stretch as far as China, but majorly in the Middle East in UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, Jordan and between themselves, where farmers exchange the commodity informally.

These dynamics, the paper argues, suggest “a correlation between transnational relations and trade.”

“Some of the largest importers of Ethiopian and Sudanese sesame are also among the countries that have played an outsized role in shaping the region’s tumultuous political shifts in recent years.”

The paper doesn’t mention it, but the UAE played a vital role in aiding Ethiopia’s turnaround war on TPLF, forcing the rebels into a needed negotiation to end the war.

Read: Ethiopia recovery dragged on by renewed conflict

Abu Dhabi supplied drones to Addis Ababa, which it used to target the massive armoury of the TPLF. The UAE, though, has been accused by rights groups of supplying weapons to Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which is fighting the Saf in Sudan.

In Sudan, Saf-owned firms have close links with the Egyptian army, especially in trading agricultural commodities such as sesame. The Egyptian Army has traditionally trained Sudanese troops in SAF. SAF still controls Port Sudan, where agricultural products exports and revenues are determined, and exports to unfriendly countries are controlled.

Along the sesame farming region in Sudan, an area of about 250 square km, the border with Ethiopia remains undetermined.

Yet the produce and its revenues mean someone has to control the flow.

 In turn, this provides “a strategic motivation for conflict participants and members of political and economic elites.”

“If left unaddressed, these shifts threaten to prolong and intensify conflict and worsen the inequalities faced by people living in the border regions.”

While the dynamics are beyond local, the paper suggests both countries must use available tools to avoid sesame-fueling long-term war. They suggest; “a degree of flexibility in tolerating informal trade” and that… “they should support the regularisation of trade in licit commodities because of the necessity of such trade for everyday existence.”

Simply put, happy farmers and locally fed communities are unlikely to pick up arms and hence see each other as pawns, winners or losers.

It also means conflicts on either side cannot be considered purely a domestic issue but address interests beyond the borders, including the economic factors fueling them.

As the sesame trade had not been considered "conflict goods" such as oil, narcotics or smuggled minerals, Sudan’s war means policymakers must understand the local factors in every conflict to seek peace and help reconstruct war-torn countries.