On June 26, Sudanese-Ethiopian tensions escalated in the border dispute over the Al-Fashaga area after the Sudanese army announced the killing of one Sudanese civilian and seven Sudanese soldiers by Ethiopian forces that had captured them on June 22, following clashes at the border between the two countries. Currently, the Ethiopian government is denying the execution of the Sudanese soldiers and has accused local Ethiopian militias of killing them. This situation portends further escalation between the two countries, and matters may spiral out of control to threaten the security and stability of the Horn of Africa.
The current military situation on the border between Sudan and Ethiopia reflects several important factors, the most significant of which include the following:
1. Sudan’s adoption of political escalation measures: After the killing of the Sudanese civilian and soldiers, Khartoum summoned the Ethiopian ambassador to Sudan to protest the Ethiopian aggression against its soldiers and recalled its ambassador from Addis Ababa for consultation. The Sudanese foreign ministry announced that it was preparing to file a complaint against Ethiopia to the UN Security Council and international and regional organizations, and it asserted that it reserves all its rights to defend its territory and national sovereignty in Al-Fashaga, in accordance with the UN Charter.
2. Escalation of armed clashes in Al-Fashaga: Lieutenant-General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the chairman of the ruling Transitional Sovereignty Council of Sudan, visited Al-Fashaga on June 27 and pledged that the response to the incident would be felt on the ground. This visit coincided with the outbreak of violent clashes between the two opposing forces, with Sudanese forces launching an attack on an Ethiopian army settlement east of Barakat Noreen village. The Sudanese army closed the Gallabat border crossing between Sudan and Ethiopia and declared control of Jabal Tesfaye Adawi and the Qala’ al-Labban camp in al-Qureisha in Al-Fashaga minor, after which Sudanese forces sent military reinforcements from the Eastern Division to the area.
The Sudanese army also liberated the Brecht settlement, which represents the last stronghold of Ethiopian forces within the eastern borders, to gain full control over the greater Al-Fashaga area. This situation threatens to develop on the ground into violent armed clashes between the two countries’ forces, given Sudan’s insistence on responding to the killing of its soldiers.
3. Ethiopian denial fuels conflict with Sudan: Among the reasons leading to these armed confrontations following the killing of the Sudanese soldiers was Ethiopia’s refusal to admit the mistake made by its forces stationed on the eastern borders with Sudan. To the contrary, the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry issued a statement accusing Sudan of provoking problems with Ethiopia and replied that the killing of the Sudanese soldiers occurred when they clashed with a local militia, after Sudanese forces had entered Ethiopian territory. Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry also accused Sudan’s foreign minister, Ali Al-Sadiq, of lacking accurate information about the incident. Thus, the Ethiopian reaction, based on denial and failure to offer concessions or acknowledge mistakes, gave Khartoum legitimacy to respond militarily to Ethiopian violations.
4. Ethiopia’s advance military preparations: The Sudan Tribune reported that, a few days ago, Ethiopia deployed military reinforcements consisting of regular forces and militias from Amhara province in Al-Fashaga, with the goal of providing protection for Amhara farmers there. Ethiopian authorities also established two Ethiopian settlements, one of which belongs to the army and the other to militias east of Al-Fashaga. This highlights the Ethiopian government’s attempt to move stagnant waters in Al-Fashaga via local militias, perhaps to pressure Khartoum by exploiting its turbulent domestic situation and its preoccupation with the call for popular protests in Khartoum on June 30, in order to impose a new fait accompli in the region.
5. Ethiopian accusations of Sudanese violation of sovereignty: Ethiopia’s narrative of the latest incident is connected to accusations of Sudan infiltrating Ethiopian sovereignty by inserting a unit of the Sudanese army into Ethiopian territory, where it confronted one of the local militias. Addis Ababa also promoted the existence of a pretext aimed at undermining relations with Khartoum, and the timing of this incident is linked to an attempt to obstruct Ethiopia’s pursuit of peace and development in the country.
6. Ethiopia’s promotion of cooperation between Sudan and the Tigray Front: It is noteworthy that Addis Ababa indicated that the Sudanese military unit that entered Ethiopian territory obtained support from elements of the Tigray Liberation Front, which strengthens Ethiopia’s repeated accusations of Sudanese cooperation with the Tigray. This situation clearly raises concerns in the Ethiopian government, which is trying to prevent the Tigray Liberation Front from obtaining any logistical or humanitarian assistance that could strengthen its position vis-à-vis the central government should the Ethiopian conflict resume.
7. The Sudanese regime’s attempt to win the support of domestic popular opinion: Most Sudanese political, professional, and armed forces and movements have condemned Ethiopia’s attack on the Sudanese soldiers and declared their support for the Sudanese army in carrying out its responsibility to protect the country’s borders and citizens. This may reduce political polarization—albeit relatively—in the current Sudanese scene.
In this framework, Sudan’s rapid military response to the killing of seven of its soldiers by Ethiopian forces is clearly aimed, in part, at pacifying Sudan’s angry public opinion of this incident, expressed by several political parties and forces, such as the National Umma Party. Sudanese public opinion on social media was also divided between criticism of the army and holding it responsible for this incident because of its preoccupation with the power struggle, and support for the army and defense of its ability to protect the country’s national security. Consequently, the Sudanese army realized the importance of a quick response to try to quell the angry domestic reaction to what happened and refute domestic accusations that political conflicts distracted it from protecting the country’s borders.
8. Heightened calls to arm farmers in Al-Fashaga: Sudanese farmers in the Al-Fashaga region have called on their country’s government to supply them with weapons to protect themselves and their land against armed Ethiopian militias backed by the Ethiopian government. They have also called for the deployment of more Sudanese troops in the region to counter Ethiopian aggressions there.
The outstanding issues and accumulated crises between the two parties have played a major role in fueling the military clashes between them. The most important of these crises are as follows:
1. Failure to settle shared border disputes: To date, Ethiopia has refused to draw the shared borders with Sudan in accordance with the 1902 agreement signed by Ethiopia and Britain (on behalf of Sudan) for the purpose of establishing the international boundaries between the two nations. Successive Ethiopian governments and the current government led by Abiy Ahmed have refused to do so in order to support the ambitions of their ally, the nationalist Amhara, whose farmers occupy farmland in the Sudanese Al-Fashaga area.
2. Repercussions of the conflict in Tigray: The conflict between the Ethiopian federal government and the Tigray Popular Liberation Front, which broke out in November of 2020, was a factor in the escalation of political and military differences and tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan. Addis Ababa has accused Khartoum of exploiting Ethiopia’s preoccupation with the conflict in the Tigray region by infiltrating and deploying in Al-Fashaga border areas and controlling nearly 95% of the land located there. Meanwhile, Khartoum has denied these accusations and asserted that it controls territory subject to Sudanese sovereignty. Ethiopia’s charges against Sudan include accusing Khartoum of supporting the Tigray Popular Liberation Front by making Khartoum available as a launching point for military operations against Ethiopian forces in Ethiopian territory. Despite Khartoum’s denial of these charges, Addis Ababa insists on them and describes Sudan’s actions as tantamount to a declaration of war on Ethiopia.
3. Stalled Renaissance Dam negotiations: Faltering negotiations over the Renaissance Dam are a factor in the escalation of differences and tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan. This can be seen most recently in a statement issued by the Sudanese Foreign Ministry, expressing that Khartoum rejects statements from the director of the Renaissance Dam that highlight his country’s insistence on completing the third filling of the dam’s reservoir. This angered Sudan, which, along with Egypt, insists on reaching a binding agreement with Ethiopia regarding the operation and management of the dam. Ethiopia rejects this step and insists on adopting a policy to impose a fait accompli and take unilateral steps regardless of Egyptian and Sudanese positions on the issue.
4. Use of the refugee card: Ethiopia is also using the refugee issue to pressure Sudan to change its position, both on the Renaissance Dam crisis and with regard to the border disputes between Khartoum and Addis Ababa. The conflict in Tigray resulted in millions of refugees fleeing from conflict zones, who were received by Sudan, which lacks the financial resources and infrastructure to accommodate the staggering number of refugees.
The military escalation at the Sudanese-Ethiopian border may have the following potential repercussions:
1. Potential expanded scope of military confrontation between the two nations: The ongoing tension may threaten to push the conflict out of control into a situation on the ground, with expanding cycles of armed clashes between the Ethiopian and Sudanese armies in Al-Fashaga that may turn into a war between the two countries. Such a war could threaten the region’s security—despite some restrictions that would prevent this—in the framework of the two parties’ attempts to control the border areas in order to impose a fait accompli, unless they are forced to stop the confrontations due to international pressure and conduct negotiations to resolve the crisis.
2. Growing political tension between the two governments: This may lead to diverging views between the two with regard to certain regional issues, such as regional integration and counter-terrorism in East Africa. Furthermore, both parties insist on their position vis-à-vis the Al-Fashaga crisis, especially since Lieutenant-General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, in November of 2021, stressed that Sudan will not relinquish full control over the Al-Fashaga region, along with the possibility of reprisal operations against Ethiopian refugees in Sudan, whose numbers have reached two million as a result of the Ethiopian conflict ongoing since November of 2021.
The growing tension between the two countries may also disrupt their bilateral talks aimed at resuming negotiations on the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. This may give Addis Ababa more time to complete the construction of the dam without reaching any binding agreement on the water rights of Sudan and Egypt. This, in turn, would deepen the crisis between Ethiopia and Sudan.
3. Increasing domestic pressure in the two countries: Both countries seek to hold a national dialogue to resolve domestic crises; thus, escalating military tensions between them may distract them from domestic measures that may help minimize the severity of political polarization, especially since Ethiopia is facing political and security challenges in the northern part of the country and other areas, while political polarization in Sudan is increasing after political activists and forces called for participation in popular demonstrations against the ruling Transitional Sovereignty Council on June 30.
4. International moves to calm the situation: The tension at the Sudanese-Ethiopian border may prompt the international community to pressure the two countries’ governments to stop the military clashes and tensions there and move to the negotiating table in order to find solutions and a settlement of this crisis in a way that does not threaten regional security and peace in the Horn of Africa. Indicators of these international moves appeared in the June 28 meeting between the chairman of the Sovereignty Council, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the EU’s envoy to the Horn of Africa, Annette Weber. During the meeting, al-Burhan affirmed that Sudan is eager for normal and balanced relations with Ethiopia. On June 28, UN Secretary-General António Guterres also called on the two countries to exercise restraint and take concrete steps to reduce the tension.
In sum, for many reasons, it can be said that this conflict is unlikely to develop into a war between Sudan and Ethiopia – most notably, the growing political and security turmoil in both countries. The two countries are also facing economic crises due to the exacerbation of international crises that affected the rise in prices of basic commodities, as well as the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, Ethiopia fears the possibility of Khartoum providing logistical support and harboring members of the Tigray Liberation Front, which could lead to renewed domestic conflict in the north of the country. In addition, the international community rejects any wars in the Horn of Africa for fear of exacerbating regional conflicts that further destabilize security and stability in the region, posing a direct threat to strategic international interests there.