Sudan vs Ethiopia: The luxury of war
Neither Sudan nor Ethiopia can afford to go to war over the border city of Fashqa, yet there has been no breakthrough in
Khartoum and Addis Ababa traded placatory remarks in the last few days, following escalating tension over the border city of Fashqa. Backed by a mobilised public, each side maintained its version of a historical narrative including their interpretations of previous agreements on the border area. Sudan rejected negotiations over the land it had retrieved from its neighbour, while Ethiopia is continuously talking about compensation for Ethiopian farmers who were forced out of Fashqa.
South Sudan mediated talks between the two sides. Observers don’t believe there will be a breakthrough in negotiations, however.
At press conference earlier this week in Khartoum, Mohamed Al-Feki, member of the ruling Sovereign Council, said a peaceful resolution is the only way forward. The Sudanese army now “controls 90 per cent of Sudanese territories previously occupied by Ethiopian militias and forces”, he asserted, but retrieving the land was “a political, not a military”decision.
Criticising the Ethiopian ambassador to Sudan, Al-Feki said, “the only way to a resolution is the continuation of joint committees and for Ethiopians to stop making fiery statements,” which he said were unsound and, considering the Sudanese public’s discontent with officials remaining silent, “will force us to retaliate”. According to Fayez Al-Salik, a Sudanese journalist, there is much public discontent with Ethiopian mobilisation and hostility against Sudan.
The Ethiopian ambassador to Khartoun had accused Sudan of taking over nine Ethiopian sites. The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry this week said Sudanese forces are still advancing on the border area, describing the move as “an unacceptable” violation of international law leading “to negative results”. It added that the Sudanese army “organised attacks using heavy armoury” and that “many civilians were killed or wounded.”
On the other hand, Khartoum said an Ethiopian military jet violated Sudanese air space. But the general commander of the Ethiopian army has denied the accusation, stressing that his country has no interest in going to war with Sudan, and accusing other parties he refused to name of sowing tension between Ethiopia and Sudan. Al-Feki’s statements were released after Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan, the head of the Sudanese Sovereign Council and leader of the Armed Forces, visited troops stationed on the border.
Al-Burhan said Sudan has no desire to fight against Ethiopia but will “defend its lands”. Soon after, the Sudanese Foreign Ministry released a statement saying five women and children were killed in an attack perpetrated by Ethiopian gunmen in Fashqa. It added that the operation was executed by the Amhara militias known in the Sudanese media as Al-Shafta, who were probably fighting alongside the Ethiopian army in the northern Tigray region.
The Amhara political circle are backing Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who lost much of the support of the Oromo, from which he hails. The Amhara, who had ruled Ethiopia for centuries, agree with Ahmed on the necessity of abandoning the federal system that gives Ethiopia’s multiple ethnicities more space for self-rule. Ethiopia and Sudan are both on the edge.
Their domestic affairs may push them to war, but the same reasons may push Khartoum and Addis Ababa towards peace and calm. In Ethiopia, the war Ahmed waged on Tigray in the north led Eritrea and Sudan to reclaim the lands they were fighting over with Addis Ababa, driving many to say that Ahmed’s government is “not careful about national sovereignty”, which the Tigray maintained throughout the 27 years in which they ruled.
On the other hand, Ahmed has the support of the Amhara, from which the Fashqa farmers hail. If Ahmed is to lose the backing of the Amhara, he will have lost the support of all the main Ethiopian ethnicities, which will speed up his descent from the helm or drag Ethiopia down into internal conflicts that may eventually lead to the disintegration of the second largest populated country in Africa.
Moreover, Ethiopia is suffering from acute economic challenges and fragile food security due to the locust attacks on the Horn of Africa, which threaten severe malnutrition and famine in the country’s poorest areas. Addis Ababa doesn’t have the luxury to lose Khartoum now, especially as it is in the middle of a war in Tigray and suffering from tensions with other ethnicities in various regions.
In Sudan, the military is suffering from a weak political position amid popular calls for their withdrawal from Sudan’s political life. However, the military’s political position has drastically improved following the retrieval of Fashqa and the return of Sudanese farmers evicted by Ethiopia two decades ago to their lands.
Moreover, Ethiopia’s insistence on filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will directly damage Sudan’s ability to generate electricity from water and negatively affect its agricultural sector. Khartoum wants to receive foreign investments in the agricultural sector after it was lifted off the US list of states harbouring terrorism. Much like Ethiopia, Sudan’s economy is plummeting, and its security conditions may hinder its ability to go to war.
And yet no breakthrough is expected between Ethiopia and Sudan over Fashqa. Sudan will not be able to return the lands it recently regained or else the military institution’s image will be severely damaged. On the other hand, Ahmed’s popularity and the Amhara’s support of him will be terribly shaken if the Ethiopian farmers did not return to Fashqa or were not generously compensated.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.