The border skirmish between the Sudanese army and the Ethiopian military is diverting the attention of both countries from their respective internal crises, raising concern in the international community that another war front could be opening in the Horn.
This past week, both countries issued warnings to each other before promising to calm tensions. The pledges followed calls from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) to which both countries belong, which raised “concerns” after seven Sudanese soldiers and a civilian were killed near the shared border. Khartoum accused the Addis military of “executing” the troops, but Ethiopia claimed a “local militia” had massacred the soldiers.
Igad executive secretary Workneh Gebeyehu said he was calling “on the two sisterly countries to actively seek diplomatic means to find a lasting and sustainable solution”.
In the wake of the killings, Sudan had vowed to “respond” and Lt-Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who leads the junta’s Sovereignty Council said the troops had been martyred.
However, following discussions with the European Union, both countries later announced plans to de-escalate. In a meeting with the EU envoy for the Horn of Africa, Annette Weber, Lt-Gen Al-Burhan affirmed his country’s keenness on “normal and balanced relations with neighbouring Ethiopia”.
The Sudanese military later rejected reports it had fired rockets in retaliation.
“Incorrect and misleading breaking news has been reported on some satellite channels and websites, attributed to the Sudanese army and military sources about troop movements and the capturing of Ethiopian soldiers in Al-Fashqa area,” the office of the spokesman for the Sudanese Armed Forces said in a press release.
Tweeting in Arabic, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said the people of both countries are “brothers”.
“Ethiopia is not and will not be a security threat to Sudan,” he wrote.
The incident came as both countries struggle to return to normalcy following months of conflict and chaos.
In Sudan, a transition has almost stalled after the October 25 coup that deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. Civilian protests have been a daily affair in Sudan with activists refusing to even engage in discussions with the junta.
In Ethiopia, ethnic violence between Oromos and Amharas is now threatening peacemaking steps between the government in Addis Ababa and the Tigray Liberation Front, the rebels who have been fighting in the north since November 2020.
“Restoring peace and security in affected communities remains our key priority,” PM Abiy Ahmed said last week. A special committee headed by his deputy Demeke Mekonnen, will spearhead talks with the TPLF.
“Attacks on innocent civilians and destruction of livelihoods by illegal and irregular forces is unacceptable.
“There is zero tolerance for horrific acts claiming lives recently in both Beninshangul and Oromia regions by elements whose main objective is to terrorise communities,” the Prime Minister said referring to the militia attacks.
The area where the skirmishes took place has been a hotspot, with sporadic fire exchanges for the past five decades — the result of unfinished border demarcations between Sudan and Ethiopia in al-Fashqa and Amhara regions.
More than a border dispute
Sudanese political analyst Abd Almueam Abu-Idris told The EastAfrican that although the dispute between Sudan and Ethiopia is about the border, the violence has taken a different route when formal militaries take part.
“This has a link to the economic interests of businessmen from the Amhara,” he said.
“The complexities of the issue and the difficulty of addressing it is caused by this link between the interests of the economically powerful Amhara, who have been cultivating this land from 1995 to 2020, and their political influence, which makes the Ethiopian side intransigent in re-demarcation of the borders as stipulated in all the agreements signed between the two countries.”
Khartoum has accused Ethiopian militias of repeated attacks on the Sudanese area of Al-Fashqa, located on the border with Ethiopia, with the aim of evicting farmers. Ethiopia denies the allegations, but the attacks may mean Addis cannot guarantee security especially since it cannot control the actions of the militias.
The history of the border conflict with Ethiopia dates back more than 120 years, when Britain ended its occupation of Sudan and the latter began demarcating borders with its neighbours.
Al-Fashqa is isolated from the rest of Sudan, as the area is a peninsula interspersed with Baslam, Atbara and Setit rivers, and is inhabited by hundreds of Ethiopian farmers, even though it is geographically located within the territory of Sudan.
The Ethiopian Amharic people say that the lands of these border areas belong to them. The attacks are almost always in the months of June and July, and then during harvesting seasons.
Various Ethiopian armed forces are active in the Sudanese territory: One is the Ethiopian opposition affiliated with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. On the Ethiopian side is the army itself, as well as unorganised groups affiliated but not controlled by it.
In recent years, these militias have been kidnapping citizens inside the Sudanese borders for ransom, and killing some.
Sudan demands the establishment of border beacons with Ethiopia in the region based on the May 15, 1902 agreement signed in Addis Ababa between Ethiopia and Britain on behalf of Sudan.