Ethiopian farmers and Sudanese land: a historic dispute

The latest accusations between Khartoum and Addis Ababa bring to the surface a long-standing land dispute that has yet to be resolved
Ethiopian women, who fled ongoing fighting in the Tigray region, in Al-Fashqa refugee camp in the Sudanese-Ethiopian border town of eastern Kassala State, Sudan.

REUTERS/EL TAYEB SIDDIGARAB  -   Ethiopian women, who fled ongoing fighting in the Tigray region, in Al-Fashqa refugee camp in the Sudanese-Ethiopian border town of eastern Kassala State, Sudan.

On 13 January Sudan woke up to the news that six people had been killed by Ethiopian militia five kilometres from the border with Ethiopia, in the town of Al-Fashqa, according to the Sudanese Foreign Ministry. A day later, the Ethiopian ambassador to Sudan, Yibtalal Amero, accused his neighbour of having seized nine camps in Ethiopian territory since November. Thus, with mutual accusations, statements by representatives of both countries have been made over the past two months.

Headlines about civilian and military deaths have been present since then and even earlier, when in March or June 2020 there were already moments of tension and clashing accusations. 

The origin of the dispute lies in fertile land belonging to Sudan and worked by Ethiopian farmers. Within the state or wilaya of Gedaref, in eastern Sudan, is the town of Al-Fashqa, which is about 250 square kilometres in size and borders the Ethiopian states of Amhara and Tigray in northern Ethiopia. This is the point where the interests of Khartoum and Addis Ababa collide. 

Since 2008, as BBC analyst Alex de Waal recalls, there has been an agreement between the two countries on a 'soft border', in which Ethiopia recognises Al-Fashaqa as Sudanese territory, but maintains Ethiopian farmers in the area, from which it collects taxes for the Ethiopian public coffers. 

This agreement took place at a very different political moment than today. Sudan was under the presidency of Omar al-Bashir, who held power for almost 30 years until he was overthrown in 2019 in a military coup that has resulted in an interim government until 2022. Al-Bashir faces charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Sudan's Darfur region pending before the International Criminal Court.

Niños etíopes, que huyeron de los combates en curso en la región de Tigray, son vistos en el campo de refugiados de Al-Fashqa en la ciudad fronteriza entre Sudán y Etiopía de Al-Fashqa
REUTERS/EL TAYEB SIDDIGARAB - Ethiopian children, who fled ongoing fighting in the Tigray region, are seen at the Al-Fashqa refugee camp in the Sudan-Ethiopia border town of Al-Fashqa.

Ethiopia, meanwhile, was under the presidency of the ethnic-based Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), in power since 1991. The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) had a very important weight in the coalition until 2018, when Abiy Ahmed, from the Oromo ethnic group, won the elections. 

Thus, once the representatives of the two countries were renewed, the 2008 agreement did not seem to meet the concerns of the different actors involved. Sudan is no longer reassured by Ethiopian farmers cultivating its land, as al-Bashir did. The Amhara ethnic group, from the Ethiopian region of the same name, also claims rights over the land it farms in Sudan and rejects the 2008 agreement on the grounds that they were not consulted. As a result, a point has been reached where the different interests cannot reach a common ground. 

Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesperson Dina Mufti has exposed Sudan's occupation of Ethiopian land, farms and property. Sudan, on the other hand, blames Ethiopian militias and forces for incursions into its territory.

Colonial agreements

This whole border issue between the two countries is not new. It goes back not only to 2008, but to the late 19th century when Sudan was a British colony and Ethiopia was ruled by Menelik II. 

According to historian K.V. Ram, the main concern in the creation of the border between Sudan and Ethiopia stems from the British concern to secure the water supply in Egypt, a former British colony that depends entirely on the Nile. Thus, the British focused their efforts on stabilising the nations upstream, and their interest in the invasion of Sudan increased. 

Menelik II, for his part, Emperor of Ethiopia, formerly known as Abyssinia, ruled a territory unbeaten by colonial pretensions. The victory over the Italians at the Battle of Adwa in 1896 is a case in point. As Ram explains, the Ethiopian king maintained a strong expansionist character that reached as far as the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. British concern became paramount and in 1899 an agreement was reached between the parties. However, Menelik II did not sign it until 1902.

El primer ministro de Etiopía, Abiy Ahmed
PHOTO/REUTERS - Ethiopia's prime minister Abiy Ahmed

In the historian's words, "Menelik succeeded in getting Britain to abandon its claims to Dar Gubba, Dar-es-Somali and Dar Gumuz and forced it to recognise its occupation of Beni Shungul. It also succeeded in incorporating Shangalla land in Ethiopia while abandoning its claims to Gedaref and other Sudanese territories. He also succeeded in acquiring Matemma, a trading town of some importance in eastern Sudan, in the final settlement.

And so, internationally recognised borders were maintained. And they have continued to do so. However, claims to the present-day Sudanese state of Gedaref were not satisfied by the Ethiopians. And it is this territory that is in dispute after Ethiopian farmers began settling in the area in 1995. According to TeleSur, there are about 10,000 of them. 

For a peaceful solution

Despite differing accusations from ambassadors, ministers and presidents of both countries, the parties appear to be willing to work towards a mutual understanding. Sudan maintains its claims to what is considered its territory. Ethiopia is open to a change in borders. 

Already in May 2020 there was a contact between the two countries to try to demarcate the border in a clear way. It took place in Addis Ababa. With no conclusive result, negotiations resumed in Khartoum on 23 December. After two days, they ended without any result, but with the intention of holding a new meeting in Ethiopia and a commitment to draw up a series of reports. 

El presidente del Consejo de Transición de Sudán, el general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan
AFP/ASHRAF SHAZLY - Sudan's Transitional Council President, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan

In any case, on Thursday 21 January, the president of the Sudanese Sovereign Transitional Council, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, cleared up any doubts about intentions of war with Ethiopia. No armed confrontation is intended, although he stressed that the country "will not give up an inch of its territory", according to Europa Press.

Statements along the same lines were made by the Ethiopian army chief of staff, Birhanu Jula, citing the long-standing friendship between the nations and supporting the development of talks between them.