The Silent Tension

Radio Erena: 22 December 2020

Barely can the Horn of Africa escape from a tension to plunge, head-on, into another. Last week, Sudan armed forces issued a statement blaming Ethiopian militiamen for ambushing a military unit inside Sudanese territory killing some soldiers and wounding others. Further, the statement vowed to defend the fatherland against any invasion. The tension came after an Ethiopian government declaration of cessation of its military operations in Tigray and amid, also, a rising tension between Somalia and Kenya which led Mogadishu to break its diplomatic relations with Nairobi.

The incident generated two opposite responses in Khartoum and Addis Ababa, spontaneously. Khartoum considered the incident as a continuation of the repeated militiamen encroachments of sovereign territories that called for a decisive reaction. This stand has been reiterated in the surprise visit of General Abdul Fatah Al-Burhan to Gedaref states, which is the homeland of the long-time disputed Fashaga region. The Head of State’s visit aim was to give a boost to the armed forces defending the border in the East as the local media said.

Correspondingly, the Ethiopian primer gave a low-profile official response tweeting that the incident “will not break the bond between our two counties as we always use dialogue to resolve the issue.” Further, the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesperson confirmed that the Ethiopian army countered a low-rank officers’ and farmers’ attack in the border areas. This last Ethiopian statement discloses the wide differences in the two countries’ versions of the same incident: Sudan reassures that the attack was carried out by Ethiopian militiamen inside “Sudanese territories” whereas; the Ethiopian side places the incident in the border areas.

According to the Sudan armed forces and premier Hamdok’s statements, the incident took place in Jabal Abutiour in the Fashaga disputed area in Gedaref state. This area which extends into 600 square kilometers is not ‘legally’ disputed between the two countries, despite the fact that it has been a source of endless tension between them for more than three decades. The source of the perennial dispute is the Ethiopian farmers and militiamen who claim ownership in the farming areas. The areas have been the home of bitter fighting and what worsened the tension are the frequent raids of Ethiopia militia bands known as “Shifta” into the area. Some historians additionally blame the Sudanese landowners for aggravating the controversial land claims by illegally “subletting” the fertile land blocks to Ethiopian farmers. In the overall political framework, the two countries don’t have “ownership disputes” as the border had actually been demarcated more than 100 years ago, but the dispute remains unsolved as two the parties hadn’t yet taken any “ practical steps” to solve the problems despite the existence of a joint higher ministerial committee, as a Sudanese diplomat had said.

The Ethiopian prime minister’s understatement is justified. Though it is not necessarily the responsibility of the man of peace as it appears to be; but it is rather the response of a prudent politician, in the present, at least. The incident came in an odd time for him: more than a month after the end of the military operations in the North, he is not yet in full control in Tigray with TPLF leaders still at large. An unexpected and highly undesired conflict with Sudan will be a major setback to his political and military efforts in the region which is promising to be a source of endless troubles.

For the Sudanese army, the best time to clear up the Al Fashaga area from “foreign presence” is now. Sudanese media confirmed that the army has gained full control of Fashaga. Besides, some Sudanese reporters have confirmed earlier, that the recent ambush of the military unit wasn’t caused by some ‘settling’ militiamen but it was a raid of a band that crossed from the Ethiopian side confirming that the Sudanese army units have already cleared up the areas from illegally settled farmers. Sudan tribune website has posted pictures of Sudanese soldiers along with news that they have recaptured areas which have been occupied by Ethiopian ‘troops’ and militias for more than 26 years as it said. It has also confirmed the news of confrontations between these forces and Ethiopian army ‘forces.’

The southernmost part of Fashaga has always been under dispute between Ethiopian farmers who belong to Amhara and their Sudanese counterparts. Notably, this is not an official dispute between the two countries. However, what complicates the political situation would be the response of the Amhara militias who are now the chief ally of the Ethiopian Prime Minister. On one hand, the militiamen wouldn’t be happy about the mass drive-out by the Sudanese army units of their fellow countrymen across the border, on the other hand, they would, deservedly, ask the Prime Minister to take a tougher stand against Khartoum. Whichever stance he chooses, he is in Unenviable checkmate and the region will hold its breath of fear of another under sired confrontation.

By Fathi Osman