Diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and Sudan have become further inflamed after a deadly clash between armed forces along their common border last Thursday. Sudan responded by summoning the Ethiopian embassy’s charge d’affaires, as their army spokesperson General Amer Mohamed al-Hassan announced that “we decided to give a chance for diplomacy in Khartoum and Addis Abbas to calm the situation on the border strip before it turns into an all-out war between the two countries”.
The firefight took place in the eastern province of al-Qadarif and was caused by a dispute over rights to farming land in Sudan’s al-Fashwa border area. For years the former President Omar al-Bashir’s government permitted Ethiopian farmers planted to plant their crops there, but the current transitional authorities have adopted a less lenient view. In recent months they have started discussions with Ethiopia about the withdrawal of these farmers out of Sudanese land.
On Thursday a militia allegedly backed by the Ethiopian army attempted to take water for the Atbara River which prompted a sustained period of gunfire with the Sudanese forces patrolling the area. After retreating, the militia are believed to have then returned with soldiers from the Ethiopian military who are believed to have attacked the Sudanese forces with a destructive arsenal of machine guns, explosives, and sniper rifles. Reports suggest at least one soldier was killed with an additional seven injured, whilst a Sudanese spokesperson has declared the death of a child: “The matter led to the killing of number of Sudanese military personnel and citizens, including a child”.
Sudan’s foreign ministry has urged the Ethiopian government to respond, and to prevent more of these kind of attacks. They have claimed this latest clash came just as both countries were set for a second round of peace talks in Khartoum. They further added that this attack constituted a violation of previous diplomatic agreements forged between the two countries. On Sunday, the Ethiopian foreign ministry released an ambiguous statement, describing its shock at the border conflict and placing the emphasis on Sudan to pursue diplomacy: “In the spirit of containing the situation on the ground and avoiding any further tension, the Ministry urges that the two countries should work together through existing military mechanisms to address and jointly investigate circumstances surrounding the incident.”
Unfortunately, this feeds into a broader history of border conflict between these two countries. It is perhaps unsurprising that the responses from both sides have been largely rhetorical, and devoid of substantive policy responses or indeed real diplomatic solutions. Just last month, after a similar clash, the head of Sudan’s ruling sovereign council travelled to inspect the border area. Since then, the Sudanese government chose to deploy more troops on the border.
In order to prevent further conflict and loss of life, both countries must de-militarize not re-militarize this border. But perhaps more crucially, the Sudanese and Ethiopian governments must start to demonstrate accountability. Whilst they continue to feign innocence and assume naivety over the root cause of the conflicts, they are enabling their military forces to make unchecked and potentially deadly decisions. This accountability must come from scrutiny of their own practices, as well the external scrutiny of regional and international bodies such as the AU and the UN. It is vital that this conflict is doused before it sparks into something more destructive.
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