Signal Risk on troubled lands, troubled waters

PUBLISHED: Mon, 11 Oct 2021 15:18:41 GMT

*This analysis was produced by the team at Signal Risk

Sudanese military chief, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, claimed on 26 September that soldiers under his charge repelled on 25 September an attempted incursion by Ethiopian forces.

Seizing a crisis

According to the general, Ethiopian personnel attempted to seize territory in the Umm Barakit area of the disputed al-Fashqa border region, taking advantage of the instability in Sudan caused by the recent coup attempt. However, Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) acted swiftly, prompting the Ethiopian troops to retreat. Al-Burhan concluded his statement by noting that “[we] will not allow the Ethiopian forces to enter al-Fashqa after reclaiming the territory”.

Al-Burhan’s claims of an Ethiopian incursion have yet to be verified by sources outside of Sudan. His counterparts in the Ethiopian military also failed to respond to requests for commentary; however, Ethiopian government sources quoted by the al-Jazeera news outlet categorically denied Burhan’s claims, stating that “we deny the movement of our forces on the Sudanese border or their incursion into any area”.

Taking the gap

The purported Ethiopian incursion into Sudanese-held territory in al-Fashqa is by no means unprecedented. Armed forces belonging to both countries have made a habit of taking advantage of “strategic openings” in order to annex more territory in the prized food-growing region. Previously, Ethiopian authorities – and in particular, those from the Amhara region, which have the most intense interest in al-Fashqa – have accused the SAF of leveraging vacuums left by their redeployment to Ethiopia’s Tigray region as a means to seize more territory. Specifically, in December 2020 when Amharan forces were redeployed from al-Fashqa to counteract the dissident Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the SAF quickly claimed all areas that were vacated by the Amharans.

Like their Ethiopian counterparts, the Sudanese have denied any wrongdoing on their part in the broader tussle over al-Fashqa. Commenting on the December territorial annexation, Sudanese prime minister Abdalla Hamdok stated that “we want our relationship to be good with Ethiopia, but we will not give up an inch of Sudan’s land”. Hamdok’s bullishness is understood to be rooted in the notion that Khartoum has a superior claim to al-Fashqa than Addis Ababa. In the most recent settlement on the area, concluded in 2008, Ethiopia formally recognised Sudan’s sovereignty over al-Fashqa, in return for then-leader Omar al-Bashir allowing Amharan settlers to remain in the area. However, changes in government in Ethiopia and Sudan have seen the settlement collapse.

An impending war

The sabre-rattling and military manoeuvring have given rise to concerns over full-blown conflict between the two countries, in a horn-of-Africa region where territorial disputes have a tendency of sparking wars; the 1998 Ethiopian-Eritrean border war over a less lucrative Badme region is a case in point. Fearing a similar outcome, countries with elevated interests in the region have attempted to negotiate peace. In August, Turkey – which is becoming a dominant player in the region – offered to mediate the dispute over al-Fashqa during a meeting between General al-Burhan and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. While Sudan agreed to Turkish mediation, Ethiopia ignored the offer.

Mutual destabilisation

The dispute over al-Fashqa is not the only development that is tarnishing relations between Ethiopia and Sudan. Just as concerning are claims by Ethiopian officials that Sudan is actively arming and shielding Tigray and Oromo forces that are attempting to overthrow the government of Abiy Ahmed.

Support subversion

Specifically, Ethiopian officials claimed in September that Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) and Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) militiamen were utilising refugee camps in Sudan as training and recruitment facilities. They were then crossing into Ethiopia using identity cards issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This, according to the Ethiopian authorities, was part of a

strategy by the TDF and OLA to expand the Tigray conflict into the Amhara and Benishangul-Gumuz regions.

Interestingly, the allegations by Ethiopian authorities were somewhat corroborated by the United Nations (UN). An UNHCR official quoted on 07 September by the France24 publication stated that “the agency was aware of reports alleging Ethiopian refugees registered in Sudan were now involved in the conflict”. However, the official noted that he and the UN agency were “not in a position to verify” these claims.

Prior to that, in May, Ethiopian general Tesfaye Ayalew made similar accusations. Speaking at the time to the Ethiopian Fana Broadcasting Corporation, Ayalew claimed that as many as 320 TDF fighters attempted to cross from Sudan into Ethiopia near the Tigray region town of Humera. They were either killed, captured, or died of thirst in the arid area.

Unsurprisingly, Sudan has repeatedly denied claims that it is supporting destabilising forces in Ethiopia. In fact, Sudan has gone as far as insinuating that Ethiopia has shunned its efforts to broker peace between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). On 08 August, Sudanese prime minister Hamdok rebuked Ethiopia and recalled the country’s ambassador to Addis Ababa after his counterpart, Abiy Ahmed, suggested that Sudan was not a credible party to facilitate negotiations between the government and Tigray leaders.

Fraught frenemies

Like the tensions over al-Fashqa, the claims of subversion are not without precedent; especially in the post-colonial era, during which both countries have supported subversive elements. Most notably, Ethiopia’s government under the Marxist dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, provided military support to the South Sudanese SPLM/A movement, which at the time was fighting to secede from Sudan. This continued until the late 1990s and South Sudan’s eventual secession in 2011; although in the latter stages of the SPLM/A’s struggle, Ethiopia’s backing was more technical than operational in nature.

In turn, Sudan supported the TPLF, which eventually overthrew Mengistu’s so-called Derg regime in 1991. More recently, Sudan was one of the few countries that openly engaged with the Eritrean regime of Isaias Afwerki to the ire of Ethiopia. However, relations thawed somewhat from 2011 onwards.

The dam squabble

The security-related concerns occur against the backdrop of a geo-economic dispute over Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Efforts by Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, and the wider international community to establish a treaty on the reservoir prior to the second-stage filling were fruitless, with Ethiopia completing the process in early July without a legally binding agreement. Expectedly, the move was rejected by Sudan and Egypt, with Khartoum accusing Ethiopia of “attempting to impose fait accompli policies and ignore both downstream countries legitimate interests and serious concerns”.

Historically, it has been presumed that tensions over the GERD centred on issues pertaining to the operation and filling of the dam, the potential for water-sharing talks, the establishment of a conflict resolution mechanism, and technical issues related to drought periods and data exchange. While somewhat true, there appears to be a more significant issue under contention – the share of Nile waters that countries are entitled to. This was brought to the fore by Abiy Ahmed in his visit to Uganda in August, during which he called on upstream countries that have not signed or ratified the Nile River Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), also known as the Entebbe Agreement, to do so quickly.

Drafted in 2010 – and signed by Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi (six out of the ten Nile Basin countries) – the Entebbe Agreement was intended by upstream countries to replace the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement. This was on the basis that the colonial framework afforded downstream countries like Egypt and Sudan a disproportionate share of the Nile’s waters; Egypt was allotted 55.5 billion cubic metres of water per year, and Sudan 18.5 billion cubic metres per year. Unsurprisingly, Egypt and Sudan have fiercely rejected the Entebbe Agreement and lobbied against the assent of other Nile basin countries, leading to its side-lining. However, with the advent of the GERD and growing concerns over water security in the Nile Basin, talk of finalising the Entebbe Agreement and ensuring more equitable water quotas has gained momentum. Expediently, Ethiopia has seemingly

leveraged such contentions and their resonance among Nile Basin countries as reason to flout a concrete agreement with Sudan and Egypt.

Fearing further deterioration, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) called on 15 September for a resumption of negotiations led by the African Union (AU), with a goal of reaching a binding agreement within a reasonable time frame. All three stakeholders have yet to respond to the UNSC directive; however, historically, Ethiopia has previously endorsed an AU-led initiative, while Sudan and Egypt have opposed it.


Recent developments underscore the complexity and fragility of relations between Ethiopia and Sudan. While this can be traced to a complicated history and deep-seated mistrust, such fault lines have been compounded recently by a zero-sum position on key issues, as a result of the political interests of Abiy Ahmed and Abdalla Hamdok. In an Ethiopian landscape where his governance faces myriad existential threats, Ahmed has a strong incentive to be bellicose towards any external party that threatens Ethiopian interests (mainly as a deterrent to both internal and external dissidents). In assuming such a posture, he also sends a strong signal to his base and Ethiopians at large regarding the ends to which he is willing to go in order to protect their interests, thereby guaranteeing domestic support for his administration. In this narrow context, it is rational for Ahmed to remain uncooperative in the al-Fashqa dispute given its importance to the Amharans (who are among his foremost backers) and the tussle over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which is central to the country’s growth and development prospects. Hamdok faces similar pressure to exude strength, not only as a deterrent to elements aligned with former president Omar al-Bashir, but also to demonstrate to the Transitional Military Council (TMC) and the broad Sudanese population that he is a sturdy leader who is willing to safeguard their interests. Like his Ethiopian counterpart, this narrow context makes it somewhat rational for Hamdok to maintain Sudan’s current position.

In light of the prevailing dynamics and historical precedent, allegations that Sudan is aiding the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) cannot be dismissed. In addition to the insinuations made by Ethiopian officials, a key concern among observers of the conflict in Tigray is how the TPLF has been able to maintain its campaign for such a protracted period in the absence of formal channels for funding and weapons procurement. Naturally, this supports the assumption that the TPLF must be receiving some support from external parties. While yet to be fully confirmed, it is not entirely implausible that Sudan – and possibly Egypt – is backing the TPLF. Sudan arguably has some interest in seeing the conflict in the Tigray region metastise and the Abiy Ahmed administration weakened. If the conflict extends to Ethiopia’s Benishangul-Gumuz region and the GERD is disrupted, it will ease Sudan’s worries over water security. Furthermore, a weaker Abiy Ahmed administration – perhaps through some settlement that dilutes the influence of the Amharan contingent in the federal government – could see Ethiopia take a softer position on the al-Fashqa dispute. At present, there is no evidence to suggest that Ethiopia is supporting any anti-government elements in Sudan. However, should there be more credible proof that Sudan is backing dissident elements in Ethiopia, Addis Ababa may respond in kind by supporting Bashir-linked elements, including within the Sudanese military, who have demonstrated their intent to subvert Sudan’s Sovereign Council-led transitional government.

In the near term, bilateral relations between Sudan and Ethiopia will remain fractured, with the possibility of further deterioration. This will be primarily driven by Hamdok’s political calculus amid emerging challenges to his leadership. Unlike Ahmed, who was recently re-elected on the back of a landslide victory, Hamdok’s position is far less secure. As noted, the Sudanese prime minister faces a trifecta of pressures from the TMC, Bashir-aligned elements, and a political opposition that is growing exasperated with the country’s quasi-militaristic rule. To withstand such pressures and avoid any negative shifts in public opinion, Hamdok may be forced to maintain a hard-line stance, especially towards external rivals. As such, Sudan may be reluctant to engage in any negotiations over GERD and al-Fashqa. At worst, this will stall the establishment of any treaty on the reservoir and incentivise further tit-for-tat skirmishes in al-Fashqa. However, full-blown conflict between the two countries is still unlikely.

In the longer term, there is the possibility of a general improvement in relations based on the fact that the benefits of cooperation far outweigh those of conflict. A belligerent stance may satisfy short-term political agendas; however, a long-term adversarial stance is counterproductive. In general, constant tensions (and full-blown conflict) are highly undesirable for two countries that are facing myriad social, political, and economic challenges. Given these fault lines, more significant conflict between Ethiopia and Sudan could be multi-layered and subject both governments to internal and external threats. Such an outcome is also undesirable for the region at large – and the international community – given the risk of wider fragmentation in a highly strategic region. Any war between the two countries would necessarily drag in other actors such as Egypt and possibly Kenya. In contrast, there is more to gain for all parties from rapprochement. The GERD is a case in point. Sudan could benefit by way of cheap and reliable energy exports from the reservoir, while Ethiopia would have a consistent client and source of revenue in Sudan. There is also room to resolve the al-Fashqa dispute in an amicable manner by reinstating the former Bashir-era agreement, which held firmly for more than a decade. Such considerations – of the benefits of peace and the cost of war – are one of several reasons why the two countries have exercised restraint to date.

Steady long-term relations between Ethiopia and Sudan will necessarily require external intervention and trade-offs by both governments on key diplomatic issues. Positively, after securing re-election, the Abiy Ahmed administration may be slightly more amenable to the required trade-offs. Ahmed could demand Sudanese endorsement for the Entebbe Agreement and African Union-led negotiations on the GERD, in exchange for Ethiopia’s recognition of Sudanese sovereignty over the al-Fashqa region. What is equally positive is a more active foreign policy by the United States (US) under President Joe Biden, especially in the Horn of Africa region. The US, which has strong influence over Sudan and Ethiopia, can leverage its institutional power to steer both countries away from further escalation and ensure that agreements are upheld. It will also be necessary to ward off any spoilers (like Egypt) which have an interest in maintaining frosty relations between Ethiopia and Sudan.

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