The Brewing Proxy War In Northeastern Africa


In rapid-fire succession, a series of events appears to be pushing much of Northeastern Africa inexorably closer to a region-wide conflict. Within hours of each other, Sudan closed their border with neighbouring Eritrea and declared a popular mobilization, seemingly foretelling a war between the two nations. Ultimately, the roots of this potential conflict run much deeper, and the ramifications could be far more significant, than just a small skirmish.

On 8 January 2018, Sudanese state media announced that the government had shut its eastern border with Eritrea three days earlier. No official reason was given for the closure, but the announcement came on the heels of President Omar al-Bashir’s declaration on 30 December 2017 of a state of emergency in the central province of North Kordofan and the eastern province of Kassala, which borders Eritrea. Significant movements of Sudanese soldiers and military equipment have also been reported near the border.

Just hours following the border closure, the regional government in Kassala created a higher committee for popular mobilization. The Popular Defense Forces (PDF), a paramilitary group which fought alongside the official Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) during the decades-long civil war, cited illegal arms and drug trafficking as the reason for the upsurge in military activity. This fiction evaporated just three days later on 11 January, when Khartoum officially announced that the state considered both Eritrea and its ally, Egypt, as security threats. In a public statement, the National Congress Party’s Deputy Chairman Ibrahim Mahmoud Hamid declared “the meeting of the Leadership Office of the National Congress Party has directed for continuation of security arrangements on Sudan’s eastern borders after receiving information on potential security threats from Egypt and Eritrea at Sawa area.” This statement preceded another increase of troops sent to the Eritrean border. In effect, it appears as if Sudan is on the brink of war with at least one, and potentially more, of its neighbours.

The rising tensions in Northeastern Africa are neither new nor insignificant. In fact, the rivalry between Sudan and Eritrea is only one facet of an emerging regional competition, which is pitting multiple nations, as well as outside players, against one another. The current standoff between the two countries represents a proxy war of Sudan and Ethiopia against Eritrea and Ethiopia, in competition for security, resources, and influence. However, this conflict, as many have speculated, may be in and of itself a proxy war between the so-called Turkey-Iran-Qatar axis, and the Saudis and their allies.

Perhaps at the most basic level, recent events have centred around the escalating tensions between Eritrea and Sudan. Eritrea is one of the poorest countries in Africa and the world. The country’s problems are numerous—authoritarianism, corruption, slavery-like forced labour, an all-encompassing military draft, and continuously simmering conflict. As a result, more than half a million of the country’s six million people have fled, mostly taking refuge in neighbouring Ethiopia or Sudan. However, Eritrea does maintain an army that is larger than either Sudan or Ethiopia, despite the country’s much smaller population. Sudan, for its part, is similarly poor, but fields a far more experienced military force, one that was forged in the long civil war that split the nation asunder. Unlike Eritrea, Sudan also possesses a modest air force. In a hypothetical military conflict between the two countries, it is more than likely that the larger, more populated, and better-equipped Sudan would come out ahead of the Eritrean forces. However, in the event of any such war, the balance sheet would likely also include support or even full intervention from other countries.

For some time, Eritrea has been gaining valuable military assistance from Sudan’s other major regional rival: Egypt. In a recent meeting between the Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt reaffirmed its support for its ally. Although both countries deny it, international observers believe there is a significant Egyptian military presence in the Eritrean capital of Asmara. It is uncertain whether Egypt would embroil itself in a Sudanese-Eritrean conflict, but the alleged troop presence might make avoiding such an intervention impossible. If that were the case, Egypt would almost certainly outclass Sudan.

However, for its part, Sudan also has an important ally in Ethiopia, who, while not nearly as militarily powerful as Egypt, would effectively help even the scales in the event of a regional conflict. Ethiopia has had an antagonistic relationship with Eritrea since the latter’s independence from the Ethiopia. From the early 1960s to the early 1990s, Eritrean separatists waged a low-level guerilla war against the various governments in Addis Ababa for independence of the Eritrean territories. Conflict broke out again in the late 1990s, when Ethiopia defeated Eritrea, asserting control over disputed border zones. Since then, there has been bubbling tension between the two countries, with a minor border skirmish breaking out recently in 2016. Clearly, there is ample historical reason for Ethiopia to join Sudan in a fight with Eritrea. To add another layer of complexity to the web of alliances, Egypt is also very antagonistic towards Ethiopia. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, also known as the Hidase Dam, currently under construction near the mouth of the Nile River, presents a massive threat to Egypt, and, to a lesser extent, Sudan. The dam would give Ethiopia the ability to partially block the flow of the Nile towards Egypt, where its irrigation effects are vital for the country’s agriculture. In addition to aiding Eritrea, a potential conflict may also provide Egypt with the excuse it needs to strike at the offending dam.

The brewing conflict in Northeast Africa is not insulated from outside pressures. In many ways, a war between Eritrea and Sudan (and any other regional actors) would not only be waged along the border between the two countries, but also in the halls of government in Riyadh and Ankara. This conflict, in short, would be yet another proxy war in the growing war for influence in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, most notably from Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

The regional rivalries have taken on international significance in a number of ways. Egypt and Sudan have long laid mutually exclusive claim to the Hala’ib Triangle, a piece of land on the border between the two countries on the Red Sea. However in 2016, Egypt redrew maritime borders when it handed two Red Sea islands over to Saudi Arabia, unilaterally claiming the Hala’ib Triangle in the process. In response, Sudan opened a dispute in the United Nations. More significantly, perhaps, Sudan also reached out to Turkey, a regional rival of both Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The government in Ankara agreed to restore the old Ottoman Red Sea port of Suakin, deepening economic and military ties with Sudan as part of its broader strategy to court potential allies in East Africa. Eritrea has also sought to bolster its regional alliances. In particular, the Eritrean government supported the Saudi embargo against Qatar in the summer of 2017. In this way, both Sudan and Eritrea have enmeshed themselves within a tangled web of alliances, which they believe can compensate for their singular weaknesses and deter one another.

This alliance network poses an acute danger to peace in Northeastern Africa. As events in recent days have shown, tensions can rise very quickly and a military response can rapidly become perceived as the only solution to a threat. With Sudan’s connections to Ethiopia and Turkey, and Eritrea’s relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, an otherwise localized conflict could swiftly spiral into a more general war, particularly considering the Egyptian and Turkish tripwire forces which currently reside in Asmara and Suakin, respectively. As it currently stands, however, such a prospect remains unlikely; more likely is a scenario where both sides back down after some political theater or a minor military skirmish. Nevertheless, the danger remains that Sudan and Eritrea could be plunged into a proxy war that would be to no one’s benefit.

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Geordie Jeakins

Master of Global Affairs candidate at the Munk School of Global Affairs (Toronto, Canada)
Geordie Jeakins
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