Ethiopia’s foreign minister arrived in Sudan on Tuesday as the two countries scramble to defuse mounting border tensions in the latest episode to rock uneasy relations between the East Africa neighbours.
Tension between Addis Ababa and Khartoum flared on the porous border last week after militiamen backed by Ethiopian forces ambushed Sudanese troops, killing at least four soldiers and wounding a dozen in the Abu Tyour area in Sudan's Qadarif province.
On Saturday, Sudan’s state-run Suna news agency said the military had sent “large reinforcements” to Qadarif to reclaim lands held by Ethiopian farmers and militias in the Al Fashqa border area, 600 square kilometres of some of Sudan’s most fertile land.
Ethiopia’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister Ato Demeke Mekonnen was in Khartoum on Tuesday to demarcate the 1,600 kilometre border, a step meant to settle the issue that underpins years of dispute between the two countries.
The area borders Ethiopia's troubled Tigray region, where fighting broke out last month, causing tens of thousands of Ethiopians to flee and cross into Sudan.
Tension between Sudan and Ethiopia can be traced back to the ruinous, decades-long civil wars that left millions dead from the 1970s through to the 2000s, in which each backed rebels fighting the other’s government.
Fast forward to 2020 and relations are still tense. A contributing factor, according to analysts in Sudan, are the competing interests of their country’s powerful military and civilian elements, who make uneasy partners in the transitional government that took office after last year’s removal of dictator Omar Al Bashir.
Despite the tensions, the prime ministers of both countries have held two meetings since December 13 in a climate seemingly shielded from the drums of war.
After his second meeting with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok on Sunday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed praised the bonds between the two countries and hinted that third parties were to blame for the recent tension.
“Such incidents will not break the bond” between Sudan and Ethiopia he said. “We always use dialogue to resolve issues. Those fanning discord clearly do not understand the strength of our historical ties,” he said on Twitter.
Some Sudanese analysts suspect the country’s military might be using the latest border flare-up to raise its profile as the nation’s primary protector at a time when media outlets loyal to the generals are accusing the civilian-led Cabinet of inefficiency and a lack of patriotism.
“The military is manufacturing the notion of a country at war and that no voice should be louder than that of battle,” said Sudanese analyst Rasha Awad.
“Every Sudanese is opposed to any encroachment on our land. So, what the military is doing is what is to be expected from the armed forces anywhere. The military is using this to rally popular support in its tussle with the civilian-led government. It wants to stay above accountability when it comes to questions like its vast economic interests.”
Adding to the complex relations with Addis Ababa is Sudan’s growing frustration over Ethiopia’s refusal to commit to a legally binding deal on the operation of the giant hydroelectric Nile dam it is building.
Khartoum maintains that data it should receive under such a deal would be crucial to the operation of its own power-generating Nile dams and reduce the destructive effects of annual flooding.
“If Ethiopia wants good relations with Sudan, then it must relent on the issue of the dam. Failing to reach agreement poses an existential threat to Sudan,” said Ms Awad, echoing statements made by Sudanese officials in recent weeks.
But other Sudanese analysts contend that Sudan’s relative tolerance of border breaches is rooted in Khartoum’s appreciation of the complicated ethnic makeup of Ethiopia and the federal government’s lack of complete control over its security forces.
"The militias that breach the border are [probably] outside the control of the [Ethiopian] federal government and that may be the reason why Sudan is showing an unusual level of tolerance," said Mohammed Shamseldeen, a Sudanese analyst.
"They are outlaw militias that impose a de facto situation on the Ethiopian government, but things can potentially spiral out of control and we end up with an all-out confrontation between the two countries," he said. The militias, he said, bring farmers to grow crops on Sudanese territory and are engaged in large-scale smuggling.
Ethiopia’s latest internal conflict in the northern region of Tigray – where federal forces have been fighting separatist rebels since last month – has also affected Sudan, causing more than 50,000 people to flee their homes and find refuge across the border. The numbers are likely to increase, placing a nearly unbearable burden on Sudan’s stretched resources to feed, shelter and provide medical care to the refugees.
At the start of the Tigray conflict, Sudan sent more than 6,000 troops to its border with Ethiopia, a move designed to prevent rebels from infiltrating Sudan and dragging it into the fighting.
“The preoccupation of the Ethiopian government with the conflict in Tigray offers Sudan a historical opportunity to wrest back control of all the border areas held by its neighbour,” said Hago Ahmed Mohammed, a Sudanese expert on the Horn of Africa.
“Some of the ethnic groups in Ethiopia have long claimed Sudanese territories as their own and there are elements in the political establishment in Addis Ababa that may want Sudan provoked into entering a conflict.”