Tensions, violence and militarization along the Ethiopian-Sudanese border

Between May 26 and May 28 Ethiopian militias backed by the Ethiopian army reportedly clashed with the Sudanese army along the border. One Sudanese child and one military commander were killed while three civilians and six soldiers were wounded. The violence has resulted in a diplomatic row between the two governments, who were preparing a second joint committee meeting to discuss the demarcation of their common border. Although both countries say they seek a diplomatic outcome to the incident, tensions are high. A Sudanese spokesman told Al-Arabiya news that “[a]ll options are open if the Ethiopian aggression persist… We have sent reinforcements to the border to prevent any violations. The involvement of the Ethiopian armed forces in the recent assaults was evident.”  An increased militarized border combined with an apparent willingness for violence could escalate border tensions even further.

Background of the incident 

The underlying reason for the dispute is the contested land claims in the border region that started in the late 1950s. Ethiopian groups of more than 1700 people have used fertile Sudanese farmlands for decades, backed up by Ethiopian militias.  This was long tolerated by Sudan’s former regime. Recently, the Khartoum transitional authorities tried to expel the groups from the territory. This triggered a backlash by the militias of those Ethiopian communities, aided by the Ethiopian army. This is the first time that Sudan officially accused the Ethiopian army for its involvement in cross-border attacks rather than only Ethiopian armed gangs or militias.

According to General Amer Mohamed al-Hassan, Sudan’s army spokesman, Ethiopian militiamen were denied access to water from the Atbara River by the Sudanese army. In the clash a militiaman was wounded and fire was exchanged. Later the militia came back with the support of the Ethiopian army, armed with RPGs, snipers and machine guns in a confrontation that killed and wounded multiple Sudanese soldiers and civilians. Ethiopian militias backed up by the army reportedly crossed the border to confiscate Sudanese resources and attacked agricultural projects.

Ethiopian and Sudanese response

In a statement, the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has expressed its sympathy to the victim’s families and has called for a joint investigation into the border clash. It aims for diplomatic discussion and cooperation to foster the “cordial and friendly relations and peaceful coexistence between the two countries.” In a statement, Sudan said it has summoned the embassy of Ethiopia to discuss the attack and the demarcation of the borders. General Mohamed al-Hassan said that “we decided to give chance for diplomacy in Khartoum and Addis Abbas to calm the situation on the border strip before it turns into an all-out war between the two countries.”

Militarization of the border

It is not the first time there are cross-border skirmishes and Sudan’s government has appealed to the Ethiopian government in the past to take measures that would stop the attacks. Now it appears Sudan is taking more serious steps. General Abdel-Fattah Burhan, head of Sudan’s ruling sovereign council, inspected the area of conflict in April; after which more troops were deployed to the region. Nick Lancaster from The Organization for World Peace worries about this policy. He sees the cooperation proposed by Ethiopia and Sudan as largely rhetorical, devoid of a policy to achieve a solution or address the core problems of disputed ownership and violent militias. A policy that militarizes the border without addressing the root causes of the problems could escalate tensions and violence even further while putting more diplomatic strains on the countries, states Lancaster.

Cannot afford conflict 

Conflict between the countries could destabilize the region and cause an increase in socio-economic problems, especially since both countries host a substantial amount of refugees and have many internally displaced people (IDPs). Sudan is the second largest host of refugees in Africa.  According to The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Sudan hosts 1.1 million refugees and has 1.87 million IDPs while under financial restraint due to COVID-19. Sudan seeks to scale up its health sector while providing cash transfers to 80% of its population, over 30 million people. Ethiopia on the other hand hosts over 760.000 refugees and has 1.4 million IDPs. According to the European Commission, Ethiopia requires urgent humanitarian assistance due to COVID-19, climate shocks and intercommunal and ethnic violence. 8.4 million people require humanitarian assistance, 4.4 million people require treatment for acute malnutrition. According to research from Amnesty International Ethiopian security forces violated human rights with impunity by facilitating and participating in ethnic conflict. Meanwhile the most popular party of its northern region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) calls for elections despite Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s decision to postpone in what is shaping up to be a political conflict.  Both countries have enough on their plate without conflict between them. Neither have the funds to accommodate more refugees or IDPs because they require millions of Euros more to deal with COVID-19, poverty, hunger, refugees and IDPs.

The recent border skirmish has displaced at least 5000 people.