Home | Comment & Analysis    Thursday 18 June 2020

Sudan and Ethiopia: Border dispute will be resolved by law


by Yaseen Mohmad Abdalla

Armed clashes, the kidnapping of Sudanese citizens and requests for ransom for their release, the looting of livestock, the grabbing of land and the forcible of farming it have been repeated in the Al-Fashaga region for decades. Since the first decade of the 2000s, claims of historical rights in part of this territory have been ongoing among Ethiopians.These claims have been adopted and promoted by political and civil forces in Ethiopia.

There are many reasons behind the emergence and escalation of these claims, such as the length of time over which some Ethiopians have settled or cultivated these lands, the refusal of some political parties and elites to recognize the boundary between the two countries – Sudan and Ethiopia - or the colonial agreements as a whole. In addition, the issue of the border has been linked to the ethnic and political conflicts between parties in Ethiopia, for whom land is one of the most important causes.

An imperial legacy

Ethiopia (Abyssinia at the time) competed at the end of the nineteenth century with European colonial powers wishing to expand into the Horn of Africa territories. It succeeded in annexing, by force, lands equal to twice its original size. Some Sudanese territories were among the regions that Ethiopia expanded into. Emperor Menelik II took advantage of the weakness of the Mahdist state and its involvement in confronting the Egyptian-English forces that were advancing to re-occupy Sudan from the north, and he occupied areas such as the region of Bani Shanqul, where the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has been built, and Al Galabat, which is located in Gadarif State. Both areas were part of Sudan during the era of the Egyptian-Turkish rule, and after it during the era of the Mahdists.

Britain, which completed the occupation of Sudan in 1899, recognized the subordination of some Sudanese territories to Ethiopia in May 15, 1902, border agreement because it wanted to neutralize Menelik in it conflict with France. Although Britain completed the demarcation of the borders between the two countries on paper, by agreement with Menelik, and delivered to him a copy of the map designating the boundary line between the two countries, known as the Gwynn line (the person who accomplished the mission), the two countries never drew the borders between them on the ground. In the 1960s, Ethiopia claimed, according to a historical narrative written in Arabic by Dr Faisal Abdel-Rahman Ali Taha and published on the Sudan Tribune website, two-thirds of Al-Fashaga and Umm Baraiqa, both areas located inside Sudan. At the same time, the Ethiopian foreign minister announced that his country did not recognize theGwynnborderline.

After successful mediation by Emperor Haile Selassie between the government of Sudan and the rebel Anania movement in February 1972, a joint committee was formed to demarcate the border between the two countries and they exchanged memoranda on parts of their border in the same year.

From a dispute between farmers to a military occupation

After the assassination attempt on the late Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia in June 1995, the relationship between Khartoum and Addis Ababa became strained. In what appeared to be a retaliatory response, Ethiopian army forces occupied Sudanese territory, including part of the Al-Fashaga area. In 1996, Sudan filed a complaint with the UN Security Council on this matter.

The relationship between the two regimes in Sudan and Ethiopia improved following the outbreak of the border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998. In 2007, an Ethiopian opposition party, the Ethiopian Social Democratic Party, which was a participant in the armed struggle against the Mengistu Haile Mariam regime in the 1970s under the name of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party ( EPRP), accused the government, in a statement, of ceding Ethiopian lands to Sudan. In its statement, the party said that Sudanese farmers had been violating Ethiopian fertile lands in the area from time to time (Sudan Tribune website, December 23, 2007).

Activists from the Amhara ethnic group in diaspora accused the government of Zenawi of concluding a secret agreement with the Sudanese government, in which they ceded Ethiopian lands to them. Some of these activists formed a pressure group, in the United States of America, called Ethiopia and Sudan Border Issue Committee. (Voice of America website, English, November 1). 2008).

The late Zenawi denied the accusations of his opponents and said in a speech to the House of Peoples’ Representatives in November 2008 that the land from which the Ethiopian army had withdrawn was Sudanese territory which had been occupied in 1996 (pambazuka.org website, September 14, 2011). He also said that his government recognized the Gwynn borderlines and had formed a joint committee with Sudan to demarcate the border (Sudan Tribune, May 21, 2008).

It seems that Zenawi, by withdrawing his forces from the occupied lands in 1996, wanted to gain Sudan’s support for the project of building the Renaissance Dam near the Sudanese border, which he had begun secretly planning a year earlier. He also wanted to cooperate with the Bashir regime against the Eritrean regime, including preventing the Ethiopian opposition armed forces which based in Eritrea, from crossing to Ethiopia through the Sudanese border.
The two countries were unable to demarcate the borders until the death of Meles Zenawi in 2012. In 2013, another committee was formed to demarcate the borders, but this time there was a different Ethiopian position on the dispute.

A political internal issue

Hailemariam Desalegn, who was elected prime minister to succeed the late Meles Zenawi, told his country’s parliament in December 2015 that his government would not take any decision on the borders with Sudan without consulting the Ethiopian people. This speech came after 59 Ethiopian opposition political parties and civil society organizations sent a memorandum to the late Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, on December 14, 2015, regarding the demarcation of their country’s borders with Sudan. The memorandum stated that ‘ Great Britain unilaterally and arbitrarily demarcated the boundary without the knowledge and the participation of Ethiopian boundary commissioners by deflecting the line towards Ethiopia, ranging from 20 – 60 km, that it took a great deal of land from Ethiopia’.

After the change in Ethiopia in April 2018, a clearer Ethiopian stance on the issue of borders with Sudan crystallized. The new Prime Minister, Abi Ahmed, announced before the Ethiopian Parliament that any agreement other than the memos exchanged between the governments of Haile Selassie and Jaafar Nimeiri in 1972, was unacceptable. This is an implicit admission that there was some agreement regarding the borders with Sudan from one perspective, and from another perspective, it clearly showed Ethiopia’s rejection of the alleged secret agreement, which may have included the withdrawal from the lands occupied by the Ethiopian army in 1996 and Ethiopia’s recognition of the Gwynn borderline. The pressures exerted by the Ethiopian political and civil forces, especially the Amhara organizations and activists of this ethnic group, whose region borders the Al-Fashaga region, played a great role in complicating the problem, with the issuing of allegations that had no legal basis.

The way forward

Official diplomacy and popular diplomacy are the best ways to tackle the border issue between Sudan and Ethiopia. In present-day Ethiopia, regions play a major role in defining state policies when it comes to issues which fall within the interests of their residents, and the border dispute with Sudan has become part of the country’s internal politics.

It is important that the two governments resolve their border dispute as quickly as possible to avoid the dispute becoming part of wider regional conflicts. If this happens, the border dispute would become more complicated, and it would complicate other disputes. The threatening tone of the former spokesperson of the Sudanese army when announcing the border incident of 28 May was not acceptable. It has also not been acceptable to use the border dispute with Sudan to gain political advantages by Ethiopian politicians.

The changing the Sudanese army of its spokesperson eight days after his controversial announcement regarding the latest clash on the border may be a message of goodwill to the Ethiopians. The Ethiopian side should also express the same goodwill by ceasing to use the dispute in their internal political rivalry. The petition of the 59 Ethiopian organizations to the UN, the promise of former Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, to consult the people of Ethiopia before reaching a border agreement with Sudan and the announcement by Abi Ahmed that his government does not recognize any agreement between the two countries except the memos exchanged between Haile Selassie and Jaafar Nimeiri governments in 1972. It’snot enough to repeat saying that the Ethiopians and the Sudanese are brothers and sisters and accusing third parties of creating problems between them. There is a real border dispute between the two countries and Sudan is losing tens of millions of dollars annually as a result of it being prevented from using its resources in Al- Fashaga. The correct way to resolve the border dispute is by implementing the May 1902 agreement and accepting the Gwynn line.

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