Humanitarian agencies and the international community have rightly rejected the growing conflict in Ethiopia as a humanitarian disaster. Last November, there was a conflict between the federal government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party of the northern Tigray region that dominated Ethiopian politics until it was overthrown by Abiy. Almost 10 months later, the conflict grew to a de facto civil war. As the fighting spreads across the country, it brings with it famine, massive refugee flows, widespread civilian deaths and sexual assault and fear of ethnic cleansing.
With so much death and destruction as a result of the Tigray crisis, there is a danger that too little attention will be paid to the potential for a second deadly conflict to engulf Ethiopia, stemming from increasing voltage with his neighbor Sudan. Although the details are sometimes complex and technical, the conflict between Sudan and Ethiopia at its core are the most important elements: control over land and water.
The land dispute between the two countries dates back more than a century to colonial agreements that demarcate the border between the two countries. The biggest dispute is over a portion of land known as al-Fashqa, which both countries claimed as their own. The most recent settlement of the territorial dispute came in 2008 when Ethiopia, led by TPLF, agreed to recognize formal Sudanese sovereignty over the territory in exchange for Sudan, led by longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir, who led Ethiopian settlers in the area could remain. Since then, however, both governments have fallen, and with it the agreement. When Ethiopian forces withdrew from al-Fashqa’s defense to fight in Tigray, the Sudanese army move back into the area.
The risk of war over al-Fashqa is serious. Twenty years ago, a similar dispute over a less commercially valuable border area between Ethiopia and Eritrea led to the bloody war between the two countries. The resolution of the conflict was that Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize, which many now regret awarding him. Even though Abiy tended to negotiate al-Fashqa in a similar way — and so far he has shown no indication that he would do so — he may not have said much about the calming tension. The Ethiopian settlers in al-Fashqa belong mainly to the ethnic group Amhara, whose militias were one of the fiercest pro-Abiy forces against the TPLF in the current Ethiopian crisis. The Amhara, who have long complained that their lands have been taken by other groups, are trying to use the Tigray War to reclaim territories, both within Ethiopia and along the border with Sudan, and they are outraged at previous agreements made with the country is without their permission.
The Sudanese army has been determined to defend its control over the territory, and the interim prime minister of Sudan, Abdalla Hamdok, was recently quoted as saying during a visit to al-Fashqa that ‘we want our relations with Ethiopia to be good. should be, but we will not give an inch of Sudan’s land price. “The tension is exacerbated by the flow of tens of thousands of refugees from Tigray to Sudan, many of whom arrive at al-Fashqa. The border dispute remains unstable, with deadly clashes between Sudanese troops and Ethiopian militia erupting earlier this year.
Meanwhile, a hitherto non-violent but potentially larger clash has arisen over the control of the Nile River. After 10 years of construction, Ethiopia began filling the reservoir of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Ethiopia claims that the GERD project, one of the largest hydroelectric facilities in the world, is needed to meet the country’s growing energy needs. The run-off river lands of Sudan and Egypt, on the other hand, warned that disruption of the flow of the Nile would be devastating. Khartoum and Cairo demanded that Ethiopia share information with them and coordinate control of the dam’s operations with them, a request that Ethiopia dismissed as a violation of its own sovereignty.
Abiy remained untouchable, and the Tigray crisis seems to have only hardened his decision to reject negotiations or compromise on the GERD. Formally, Sudan and Egypt have taken political and legal action to resolve the dispute, and have called on, among others, the UN Security Council and the African Union to intervene. But more sinister are both countries family play that military action may be on the table if a peaceful solution is not reached. Earlier this year, Sudan and Egypt held joint military exercises, giving the exercises the subtle name, “Guardians of the Nile”. Although Egypt may lose more due to the disruptive access to the Nile, which supplies almost all of the country’s water, the possibility that Sudan near Ethiopia is likely to play a battle over the GERD largely between Sudanese and Ethiopian forces, especially given the other sources of tension that exist along the border.
So far, signs are pointing to deteriorating relations between Khartoum and Addis Ababa. Van Hamdok offer to mediate between the TPLF and the government of Abiy was rejected by Ethiopian officials as ‘credible’, which led to Sudan recalling its ambassador to Ethiopia for the second time this year. Although neither party tends to compromise on the GERD or al-Fashqa, war is far from inevitable if the two countries are at odds. Sudan recently reported that the Ethiopian dam did not adversely affect the annual flooding of the Nile in Sudan. This is good news for the Sudanese and for those invested in maintaining peace between the two countries, as it offers more time to negotiate a permanent settlement. And in theory, at least an agreement can be reached for al-Fashqa that restores the 2008 status quo of a ‘soft’ border so that both Sudanese and Ethiopians can use the land.
More generally, each country sits in a precarious position, creating mixed motives for conflict. Abiy deals with the Tigray crises getting out of hand while Hamdok’s transitional government tries Rebuilding Sudan’s political institutions before the election scheduled for 2024. While the leadership of each country may be tempted to see the weakness of its adversary as an opportunity, the leaders in Khartoum and Addis Ababa probably see their own precarious positions as reasons to avoid a new large-scale conflict, If possible . Turkey, which has strengthened relations with Sudan and Ethiopia, has become the youngest country to offer itself as a mediator between the two countries over the al-Fashqa dispute. And Ethiopia has invited Algeria to play a role in GERD negotiations.
Both sides are far apart, and neither Ethiopia nor Sudan have made many compromises so far, but both countries can soon realize that neither party can afford to take the risks that are in a major conflict between them. . Although it is unclear whether or not the governments of Ethiopia and Sudan realize this, a face-saving, negotiated settlement — whether made possible by Turkey, Algeria, the African Union, or another entity — is the best and by far the safest, option for both countries.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Al Jazeera.