Sudan and Ethiopia may be inching towards an all-out conflict sparked by their border dispute. If that happens, that war will have just as much to do with domestic politics as their territorial tussle.
In recent weeks, deadly clashes, a war of words and the amassing of troops near the border fuelled tension between the two African neighbours, whose relations have over the years been defined by a mix of close social and economic ties as well as lengthy bouts of enmity.
Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan, Sudan’s de facto head of state, has taken the lead in escalating tension on the border, employing fiery, anti-Ethiopian rhetoric laced with patriotism as he repeatedly spoke about the need to liberate every inch of Sudanese territory.
He further stoked tensions with a widely-publicised visit last week to the border region following a cross-border raid blamed on an Ethiopian government-backed militia that killed at least five women and a child.
At the root of the border crisis are pockets of fertile farmland just inside the Sudanese border which have long been settled by members of Ethiopia’s ethnic Amhara group.
Sudanese troops in late December wrested back control of several of these areas, a move that Addis Ababa labelled as unwarranted aggression.
“Sudan does not want to go to war with Ethiopia or any other neighbouring country, but will not surrender a single inch of its territory,” Gen Al Burhan, addressing senior army officers, was quoted as saying by state media on Wednesday.
Analysts described the latest verbal escalation by Sudan’s leader as part of a drive to boost the military’s image as the sole protector of the nation and its people.
“It is very clear that the military is more enthusiastic about a confrontation with Ethiopia than anyone else in Sudan,” said Rasha Awad, a Sudanese political analyst.
“The military is milking the public’s sympathy as the defender of Sudan’s territory,” she added.
Gen Al Burhan heads the 11-member Sovereignty Council that has acted as the country’s collective presidency under a power-sharing agreement between the generals who removed dictator Omar Al Bashir in April 2019 and the pro-democracy movement that orchestrated months of street protests against the former president’s rule.
But the civilian government, led by career UN economist Abdallah Hamdok, appears to be not in favour of a conflict with any of Sudan’s neighbours at a time when the country’s transition to democratic rule is fraught with uncertainty. The government’s popularity also is believed to be eroding by persisting poor economic conditions.
“The government is facing an impasse as it cannot order a halt to military operations when a foreign country is occupying Sudanese land. This decision is tantamount to political suicide,” said Mrs Awad.
In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is facing pressure from the Amhara to confront Sudan’s efforts to wrest back control of border areas lying within the Sudanese border and settled for decades by farmers from the powerful ethnic group.
The Amhara also have historical claims on Sudan’s eastern breadbasket region, which will make any concessions by the prime minister to avoid war politically costly.
This comes as Mr Ahmad is in the middle of a major military campaign to crush a separatist rebellion in the northern Tigray region.
“He is heavily relying on militias from Amhara in the fighting to remove Tigray’s rebel government,” explained William Davison, the International Crisis Group’s Ethiopia expert. “Success there is key to his political survival.”
But fighting two simultaneous wars will not be a wise decision to take by the Ethiopian leader, he said.
“Mr Abiy is not in a good position to open another front with Sudan that in turn will have a bearing on the Tigray conflict,” Mr Davison said.
The Amhara’s political elite were already in an “assertive” mood, he added, seeking redress for what they see as years of discrimination against them under Ethiopia’s ethnic federal system that Tigray’s ruling party was instrumental in designing.
In November, for example, factions from the powerful Amhara ethnic group took advantage of the fighting in Tigray to pour into western areas on the Sudanese border that they have long claimed, creating a de facto situation on the ground there.
“The Amhara elite and nationalists are at the ascendancy, claiming lands in both Tigray and Benishangul-Gumuz regions,” said the ICG’s expert reached in Nairobi, Kenya. “That would make it politically tricky for Abiy’s government to prioritise accommodation with Sudan on this issue, even if it was minded to.”
The Ethiopian leader is also under further pressure at home not to offer concessions in negotiations with Egypt and Sudan on the running of a massive Nile dam Addis Ababa is building.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD, is fuelling tension with the two downstream nations and is undermining stability in the entire region.
Last year, Sudan abandoned its perceived pro-Ethiopian stand in the negotiations over the GERD and has in recent weeks repeatedly expressed its anger over its neighbour’s reluctance to enter a legally-binding deal on the operation of the hydroelectric dam.