Ethiopia and Sudan Hold Talks Amid Border Clash

In December, border negotiations between Ethiopia and Sudan ended without concrete results. The frontier between the two countries has been unclear since 1902, as Sudan has claimed 250 square kilometres of land that has been occupied by Ethiopian farmers. While it has hardly triggered any serious conflict over the last two decades, things are changing rapidly. Since early November, a civil war between the federal government and Tigray’s regional forces, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), has developed in Ethiopia. This conflict has now impacted neighbouring countries. According to UNHCR, Sudan has hosted more than 52,000 Ethiopian refugees. Both TPLF and the government’s allied forces have expanded military activities to areas claimed by Sudan. The Sudanese army stated that the Ethiopian militias’ attacks caused the death of four Sundanese soldiers and left a dozen others wounded. Sudanese forces have also taken this opportunity to recapture an Ethiopian-controlled region, and Ethiopia has accused Sudan of attacking Ethiopian territory using heavy machine guns. Thus, the events of the war in Tigray have created urgent calls for border talks.

Fortunately, both countries prefer solving border clashes through peaceful negotiations. Sundanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok visited Addis Ababa on December 13th. He called for “productive discussions on political, humanitarian and security matters of common concern that serve the future of peace, stability and prosperity for our two sisterly nations.” A few days later, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed tweeted that “such incidents [four Sudanese soldiers’ deaths] will not break the bond between our two countries as we always use dialogue to resolve issues.” Sporadic clashes may continue, but they are unlikely to emerge into large-scale military conflicts given the positive rhetoric of Ethiopia and Sudan’s leaders.

Nonetheless, the real solution remains elusive. Even if Sudan and Ethiopia can reach some agreements, the Ethiopian civil war is still ongoing. Ethiopia and Sudan’s rapprochement can neither regulate the TPLF nor restrain local forces, such as the Amhara people. As the war continues, civilians from all parties will suffer from a lack of food, water and other supplies, and remain vulnerable to lethal violence. Judging from the recent actions of the Ethiopian government and TPLF, neither side has the intention to seek peaceful negotiations to avoid further crisis. Although the government declared victory when it captured the Tigray’s capital Mekelle, it carried on with military operations and suspended dozens of humanitarian activities in its controlled areas. Oppositely, the TPLF sought out revenge with guerrilla warfare.

So far, the international community has been on the right track. Various organizations are providing aid to the region and promoting peaceful solutions. The African Union called for the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to support Ethiopia in the humanitarian dimension. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, appealed for almost $150 million be granted to Sudan to manage the border crisis. The EU intends to provide an extra €18.8 million to Ethiopia and €2 million to Sudan, which increases the EU’s aid to the two countries to €63.2 million and €67.5 million respectively. Meanwhile, these organizations are not biased to one side of the civil conflict. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has monitored all parties’ behaviour and urges Ethiopia to investigate human rights abuses. The EU has delayed nearly €90 million of aid to pressure Ethiopia into the cessation of hostilities and allow access for official investigations and journalism.

Despite its result, the intention for border demarcation talks is a step forward to allay regional tensions. It is possible to use the same approach for the underlying cause of the conflict, Ethiopian civil war, which threatens both countries. Diplomatic and financial pressures can effectively bring Ethiopian parties to the negotiating table and consequently address the border clashes. Since no side in Ethiopia has the initiative to compromise, Sudan and the broader international community should take a more active role to encourage peace in East Africa.

Jiannan Luo