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Renewed Crisis: Why did border tensions between Sudan and Ethiopia flare recently?

For weeks, the Sudanese-Ethiopian relations have been tense amidst armed attacks on both countries’ borders, where the area of Al-Fashaqa is filled with large military crowds amidst the Amhara authorities’ push with troops and military enforcement, and the Ethiopian army’s large-scale deployment in the Ethiopian town of Metema, in the Amhara province near Al-Fashaqa.

Added to this are the clashes between the Sudanese army and the Ethiopian militia, “Al-Shifta”, supported by the government of “Addis Ababa”, where these militias work on hijacking Sudanese pastoralists and farmers, then demand financial ransom for their release, especially as the autumn harvest season approaches, thus making the region a scene of armed clashes, smuggling and trafficking. The border tension coincides with both countries facing internal challenges. 

Motives for the recent escalation 

Despite the extensive talks between Ethiopia and Sudan in the Sudanese city of Gallabat to agree on calming the security situation on the border strip between both countries, this agreement quickly collapsed after repeated attacks by the Ethiopian militias, incursions into Sudanese territory, penetration of the Sudanese border and the abduction of children. Additionally, in recent times, the “Al-Shifta” militia worked on distressing the Sudanese farmers and citizens, and succeeded at that all through the past years by taking over their land and exploiting hundreds of hectares of land, the recent escalation in the relations between both countries is the result of a series of factors, the most notable of which can be illustrated: 

  • Mutual accusations: Ethiopia accuses Sudan of invading its territory and exploiting the security vacuum created by the crisis in Tigray. While Sudanese army representatives say that the Ethiopians are expanding their agricultural land into Sudan, with support of local militias, who commit war crimes against civilians, and Ethiopia insists that the Sudanese army should withdraw from the area before entering into any negotiations, yet Sudan refuses to do so, as Al-Fashaqa historically falls within its territory. The border has been established in the past with accordance to international border agreements, and it sees that technical consultations are needed only to determine the border markers, since successive Ethiopian governments have recognized Al-Fashaqa as a Sudanese land, and Sudan has allowed Ethiopian farmers to cultivate the land, to maintain the good relations between the two countries. 
  • The Sudanese army recovered most of the lands of Al-Fashaqa: the Sudanese government announced the start of operations to cultivate the land that was retrieved from the Ethiopian militias in Al-Fashaqa in the Eastern state of Al-Qadarif on 3 July, 2021, and through his conversation with a delegation from the Party of the Federal Assembly, which visited the state of Al-Qadarif, he said that two crossings have been set up and 90% completed in the 160km of Wud Around and Wud Koli areas, that is in addition to the construction of 4 bridges in the Safawa area of grand Al-Fashaqa, and in Birket Noreen in Quraysha and Sundus district on the Rahad river, and the establishment of the Jabal Halawah crossing in the Basnada border district.
  • Abducting of children: On 24 July 2021, Sudan declared the closure of the border crossing between Ethiopia and Sudan in the Sudanese city of Gallabat, in the Basnad area in the Al-Qadarif state, following the disappearance of Captain “Bahaa Al-Deen Youssef”, the commander of the area, whilst chasing the Ethiopian militias in the Sudanese territory, following the abduction of three children by the Sudanese Falata tribes across the border, close to the Amhara state, after that, the Ethiopian militias demanded a huge financial ransom to set these children free. 

Sudanese confrontation mechanisms

Years of anticipation and caution have passed amidst the Ethiopians exploiting the Sudanese lands in Al-Fashaqa border zone between both countries, where the northwest part of Al-Fashaqa is on the verge of the Amhara province in the Al-Qadarif state, and Sudan attempted to retrieve its lands from the Ethiopian militias by:

  • Sudan’s military movements: the Sudanese Armed Forces and Reserve Forces of the second division responded to an attack by the Ethiopian militias on 16 July 2021, on the Jabal Taiara area northeast of camp Anfal, in the Eastern Gallabat district, in Al-Qadarif state, east of Sudan, where the Sudanese army’s operations were focused on the “Umm Diblo” area, Haskanet, Khor Sant in Bassindah, where the road was cut off, resulting in the martyrdom of Corporal “Adam Ibrahim”, 121st battalion, 2nd infantry division. 
  • The leadership of the Sudanese army to retrieve the land operations: after the Sudanese army regained about 95% of the land of Al-Fashaqa in November 2020, it cleared strategic mountains and stationed in them such as Jabal Abu Toyour. Furthermore, Sudan worked on intensifying its military and economic presence in the Al-Fashaqa area, after Ethiopia announced that it would cultivate the land previously controlled by the Ethiopian militias, Sudan worked to strengthen its military and economic presence in the Al-Fashaqa area, as evidenced by the establishment of priority development projects, the construction of numerous bridges, installations, roads, and the drilling of wells to facilitate the development and growth of the region.
  • Intensified visits: high-level Sudanese army commands arrived in the Al-Fashaqa area, at the time of Eid Al-Adha, with the purpose of performing the Eid prayers, addressing Sudanese class officers, soldiers, and Sudanese citizens in the area, and overseeing sacrifice distribution, which was completed by the Sudanese government in Al-Qadarif state. In this context, the delegation accompanying Mohamed Osman Al Hussien, Chief of Staff of the Sudanese Armed Forces, Chief of the Sudanese Army Military Intelligence Service, Major General Ahmedan Mohamed Kheir, Commander of the Eastern Military Region, and Major General Haider Al-Tarifi, Commander of the 2nd Al Qadarif Infantry Division. 

Sudanese messages and connotations 

The Sudanese-Ethiopian borders have always been ruled by a group of limitations, whether related to the Al-Fashaqa file, or ethnic influence, or developments in the interior of Sudan, Ethiopia, and the East African region, given the importance of the Al-Fashaqa socio-economic zone, and the policy of imposing reality from the Ethiopian side, and the recent change in Sudan’s attitude towards Al-Fashaqa file, which can be clarified as follows: 

  • Preparedness and readiness: Mohamed Osman Al-Hussien’s visit to Al-Fashaqa came to confirm the preparedness and readiness of the Sudanese army to deal with any attack from the Ethiopian militias, and the availability of political and popular support for this by being around the Sudanese army, where the Sudanese army pledged, on 20 July, 2020, to keep its forces on the territory of Al-Fashaqa, until security and stability are restored, and also pointed out that it would open roads and construct bridges, to connect with the rest of the world.
  •  Clarify the borderline path between the two countries: Sudan emphasizes the clarification of border markers between the two countries, according to international agreements, where Ethiopia continues to pay the 12-million dollar mark-up cost of demarcation, 50/50 with Sudan, by claiming inability and at other times rejecting Sudan’s proposal on the grounds that the issue is one of sovereignty. 
  • Reducing the renewed ambitions of the Ethiopian militias: Al Qadarif’s magistrate pledged to continue developing and providing services to stabilize the region, and fine necessary financing to all productive projects through cultivating lands and the return of hundreds of families and local people for the first time in 25 years, to cultivate the land, and the government providing farming mechanisms and ensuring benefitting from its revenue, and developing close to a million acres in the area amidst the security vacuum in Ethiopia caused by the conditions in Tigray in the country’s North, to allow citizens and locals to control their lands, and tighten their grip around the Ethiopian Federal powers after their defeat in Tigray and their inability to engage and intervene in more than one battlefront. 

The recent escalation demonstrates Ethiopian militias’ repeated attacks and violations inside Sudanese territory in Al-Fashaqa, the failure of Ethiopia to abide by the agreement to calm the security situation and decrease the intensity of border tensions, in light of the numerous Sudanese confrontation mechanisms, whether to move the military to protect the border, secure the area, restore stolen territory, prepare for such militia attacks or limit their renewed ambitions. 

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