The latest skirmishes between Ethiopia and Sudan over the disputed Al-Fashaqa enclave highlights the fragile nature of security in the greater Horn of Africa and the many unresolved territorial claims in Africa. Khartoum launched volleys of artillery fire into Ethiopia, after it claimed Addis troops had killed seven of its soldiers and a civilian.
Al-Fashaqa, the bone of contention, is a fertile area in the floodplains of several rivers and is considered Sudan's breadbasket. But, as is common with Africa’s arbitrary borders, it has been settled by Ethiopian farmers.
Not completely new in view of previous clashes between the two neighbours, the latest flareup is worrisome because of its potential to feed into subterranean tensions in both countries. Sudan is still resisting popular pressure for democratic reforms while Ethiopia is dealing with deep internal fissures and a bloody conflict with two of its constituent states. Addis is also at odds with both Khartoum and Cairo over its massive Grand Renaissance Dam that is nearing completion.
Under normal circumstances, such a configuration of factors should be enough to blunt any appetite for war. That could explain the rapid de-escalation by Khartoum and Addis’ reticence in face of shelling by Khartoum. But that does not take away the problem and both parties to the dispute need to commit to a method of resolving it.
And it is not going to be easy to resolve. Ethiopia’s claim to the area is based on the existence of a dominant group of Amharic speakers on the ground.
Khartoum, which treats them as aliens and claims historical rights to the land, says it allowed the Ethiopian settlers on its land based on mutual understanding with previous Ethiopian governments.
Sudan complains that the Ethiopian settlers have exploited this to expand their farmland deeper into its territory.
With Ethiopian militias guarding land they regard as their own, the issue is a source of internal pressure on governments across the divide.
Khartoum is under pressure to provide protection for the Sudanese minority in the area while Ethiopia faces similar pressures from the settlers.
The African Union, which has so far been unsuccessful in defusing this conflict, should be concerned for obvious reasons. The real danger in any escalation is that a border war has the potential to destabilise the region beyond the immediate protagonists. Also, proxy wars could result in unconventional transitions in both countries.
As a first step, both countries should be pushed to accept re-demarcation of common border under international supervision and commit to respect the outcome. That should be followed by negotiations over the status of the settlers.
It would be setting a dangerous precedent if territorial boundaries can be redrawn by simply getting people to settle and occupy a territory of their choice.
It would equally be a dangerous precedent if one country decides that a certain acreage forms part of its territory just because of its attractive natural attributes.
Africa has enough conflicts. Flareups between neighbours undermine the broader goal of regional and continental integration and should be discouraged.