Age-old land claims threaten to drag Ethiopia and Sudan into armed conflict, as feuds over contested swathes of farmland in recent weeks have turned into the most serious escalation in border tensions in years.
The upsurge in skirmishes initially involving militias from both countries saw national armies from neighbors intervene – and by mid-December the two countries had massed troops along the border in the al-Fashaga region.
Sudan last month closed its airspace over the region, alleging that an Ethiopian fighter jet had infiltrated Sudanese airspace.
Al-Fashaga, where the disputed farmland at the heart of the dispute lies, stretches for around 100 square miles (259 square kilometers) along the common border of the northwestern border of Ethiopia and the east. from Sudan.
For decades, farmers in both countries harvested crops regardless of border marks in the region amid sporadic outbreaks.
Attempts to properly demarcate the border date back to a treaty signed in 1902 between Sudan and Ethiopia, then under British rule. But ambiguity along some border points has not resolved the issue, and the demarcation has remained a point of friction between the two countries, especially since Sudan gained independence in 1955.
The flashpoint of the recent feuds was an ambush on December 15, which was reportedly carried out in the region by an Ethiopian militia backed by Ethiopian soldiers.
The attack reportedly killed several Sudanese military officers and drew rare condemnation from Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who said on Twitter that Sudanese forces would be ready to “push back” the military aggression.
While his country was already plunged into a brutal war in his region of northern Tigray, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed responded with a call for reconciliation for calm. “Such incidents will not break the bond between our two countries because we always use dialogue to solve problems,” he said in a tweet.
But Sudan retaliated, mobilizing soldiers to disputed areas and announcing it had recaptured them on New Year’s Day.
“Our soldiers are engaged elsewhere, they took advantage of it”, declared the Ethiopian military leader, General Birhanu Jula, of recent military maneuvers by Sudan.
“This should have been resolved amicably. Sudan must choose dialogue, because there are third actors who want to see our countries divided, ”he added, strongly alluding to Egypt, with which Ethiopia is engaged in a diplomatic dispute over the construction of a huge hydroelectric dam on the Blue Le Nil.
Egypt says the Ethiopian Renaissance Great Dam (GERD) project threatens the water supply and livelihoods of its downstream farmers. The thinly veiled accusations that Egypt forced Sudan to adopt a brutal military approach were largely fueled by Egypt’s release of a statement last month supporting Sudan in the matter.
Although Sudan finds itself at odds with Ethiopia over GERD amid seemingly stalled tripartite efforts to reach an agreement on the construction of the dam, Khartoum and Addis Ababa have generally enjoyed a warm relationship. In 2019, Abiy acted as a mediator between Sudan’s military and pro-democratic rulers in a bid to ease the political crisis that plagued the country following the removal of longtime leader Omar al-Bashir.
Since the beginning of November, Sudan has allowed more than 50,000 Ethiopians fleeing the country’s war in Tigray to take shelter in refugee camps on its territory.
But the two countries have made notable changes in their policy regarding the border dispute.
Previous Ethiopian administrations were much more accommodating to Sudan’s land claims. In 2009, former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi relinquished control of swathes of land on the border with Sudan, in deals that sparked an uproar in Ethiopia when they were made public.
Despite Ethiopia’s concessions, the Sudanese al-Bashir has made no concrete effort to militarize his border and prevent the strange raid on his territory by the Ethiopian militia.
But under Abiy, Ethiopia appears to have backed down on past deals and may still claim some of the coveted farmland. Sudan’s tolerance, meanwhile, has weakened considerably amid mounting tensions, which have sparked calls for de-escalation.
Saudi Arabia has reportedly offered to help reconcile the warring parties, while British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab recently met with officials from both sides and urged them to settle their differences.
“The UK is a friend of both countries,” Raab’s office said in a statement sent to Al Jazeera. “We want to see tensions subside not only for Ethiopia and Sudan, but also for the region as a whole.”
While the efforts of the diplomatic community are not yet exhausted, Raab’s call for round tables has received a lukewarm response.
“We are grateful for the offers of mediation, but the Sudanese forces must leave our lands and return to their territory,” Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Dina Mufti told reporters last week. Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. “When that happens, we will be delighted to attend panel discussions.”
Sudan denies occupying Ethiopian territory.
Engaged on the network, the two states remain dangerously close to a new explosion of hostilities. Experts believe that internal political feuds in the two countries could be at the root of their somewhat intransigent positions. Meanwhile, the possibility that national political enemies will interpret any concession on al-Fashaga as a weakness and the chances of angering the nationalist camp in each country could further fuel the stalemate.
“Ethiopia is reluctant to face the al-Fashaga crisis because it affects Prime Minister Abiy’s hold on power and the interests of Amhara , its only base of ethnic support, ”said Rashid Abdi, researcher and analyst in the Horn of Africa.
“While in Sudan, a new conflict could complicate the political transition and sow divisions. The military can use war as an excuse to restore power and eliminate civilians, ”he added.