Humanitarian agencies and the international community have rightly decided the growing conflict within Ethiopia as a humanitarian disaster. Last November, conflict broke out between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party of the northern Tigray region that dominated Ethiopian politics until Abiy flagged it. Almost ten months later, the conflict has turned into a de facto civil war. As the fighting spreads across the country, it brings with it famine, massive refugee flows, widespread deaths and sexual assaults of civilians, and fears of ethnic cleansing.
With so much death and destruction resulting from the Tigray crisis, there is a danger that too little attention will be paid to the possibility of a second deadly conflict ravaging Ethiopia, stemming from mounting tensions with neighboring Sudan. While the details are sometimes complex and technical, in essence, the brewing conflict between Sudan and Ethiopia has the most basic motivation: control over land and water.
The land dispute between the two countries dates back more than a century with the colonial-era agreements that delimited the border between the two countries. The biggest dispute is over a piece of land known as al-Fashqa, which both countries have claimed as their own. The most recent settlement of the territorial dispute came in 2008, when Ethiopia, led by the TPLF, agreed to recognize formal Sudanese sovereignty over the area in exchange for Sudan, led by dictator Omar al-Bashir, which allowed Ethiopian settlers stay in the area. Since then, however, both governments have fallen, and with them the agreement. When the Ethiopian forces deviated from the defense of al-Fashqa to go to fight in Tigray, the Sudanese army returned to the area.
The risk of war over al-Fashqa is grave. Twenty years ago, a similar dispute over a border area of less commercial value between Ethiopia and Eritrea led to the bloody war between those two countries. Resolving that conflict was what earned Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize that many now regret awarding him. Even if Abiy was inclined to negotiate similarly on al-Fashqa, and has so far shown no indication that he will, he may not have much to say to defuse tensions. Ethiopian settlers in al-Fashqa belong primarily to the Amhara ethnic group, whose militias are among the fiercest pro-Abiy forces against the TPLF in the current Ethiopian crisis. The Amhara, who have long complained that their lands have been seized by other groups, are attempting to use the Tigray war to reclaim territory, both within Ethiopia and along the border with Sudan, and are resentful of agreements passed on the land without your consent. .
The Sudanese military has been adamant in defending its control of the territory, and Sudan’s Acting Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was recently quoted during a visit to al-Fashqa stating that “we want our relationship to be good with Ethiopia, but we will not do it ”. give up an inch of Sudan’s land. “Tensions have been exacerbated by the flow of tens of thousands of refugees from Tigray to Sudan, many of whom arrive in al-Fashqa. The border dispute remains volatile, with deadly clashes between the Sudanese troops and the Ethiopian militia earlier this year.
Meanwhile, a so far non-violent but potentially larger standoff has been brewing over control of the Nile River. After 10 years of construction, Ethiopia has begun to fill up the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) reservoir. Ethiopia claims that the GERD project, one of the largest hydroelectric facilities in the world, is necessary to meet the country’s growing energy needs. Downstream countries Sudan and Egypt, on the other hand, have warned that disruptions to the flow of the Nile River would be devastating. Khartoum and Cairo have demanded that Ethiopia share information and coordinate control of the dam’s operations with them, a request that Ethiopia has rejected as a violation of its own sovereignty.
Abiy has remained intractable, and the Tigray crisis appears to have hardened his resolve to reject negotiations or compromise on GERD. Formally, Sudan and Egypt have sought political and legal avenues to resolve the dispute, appealing to the UN Security Council and the African Union, among others, to intervene. What is more disturbing, however, is that both countries have hinted that military action could be on the table if a peaceful solution is not achieved. Earlier this year, Sudan and Egypt conducted joint military drills, giving the exercises the unsubtle name “Guardians of the Nile.” Although Egypt potentially has the most to lose from disrupted access to the Nile, which supplies nearly all of the country’s water, Sudan’s proximity to Ethiopia makes any GERD fight likely to unfold largely between Sudanese and Ethiopian forces. especially considering the other. sources of tension that exist along the border.
So far, the signs point to a deterioration in relations between Khartoum and Addis Ababa. Hamdok’s offer to mediate between the TPLF and the Abiy government was rejected by Ethiopian officials as not “credible”, prompting Sudan to withdraw its ambassador to Ethiopia for the second time this year. While neither side seems inclined to compromise with either the GERD or al-Fashqa, war is far from inevitable as the two countries clash. Recently, Sudan reported that the Ethiopian dam did not have a negative impact on the annual Nile flood in Sudan. This is good news for the Sudanese and for those who invest in keeping the peace between the two countries, as it gives them more time to negotiate a permanent settlement. And, in theory at least, a deal could be reached for al-Fashqa that would restore the 2008 status quo of a “soft” border to allow Sudanese and Ethiopian residents to use the land.
More generally, each country is in a precarious position, creating mixed motives for conflict. Abiy is grappling with the spiraling Tigray crisis, while Hamdok’s transitional government is trying to rebuild Sudan’s political institutions ahead of elections scheduled for 2024. While individual country leaders may be tempted To see the weakness of their adversary as an opportunity to attack, the leaders of Khartoum and Addis Ababa are likely to see their own precarious positions as reasons to avoid a new full-scale conflict, if possible. Turkey, which has been strengthening relations with Sudan and Ethiopia, has become the latest country to offer itself as a mediator between the two countries over the al-Fashqa dispute. And Ethiopia has invited Algeria to participate in the GERD negotiations.
The two sides are far apart, and neither Ethiopia nor Sudan have offered much in the way of compromise so far, but both countries will soon realize that neither side can afford to take the risks that a major conflict between them entails. Although it is not clear if the governments of Ethiopia and Sudan are realizing it yet, a negotiated face-saving deal, whether facilitated by Turkey, Algeria, the African Union or some other entity, is the best and by far the most. safe. option for both countries.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.