Ethio-Sudan Border Dispute Must Not Be a “Time Bomb”

aklog birara 3Aklog Birara, PhD
July 2, 2022

The militarized Governments of Sudan and Egypt and their Ethiopia based treasonous and terrorist lackeys, most notably, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the North and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) in the South and West are operating in concert to dismantle Ethiopia and derail Ethiopia’s mammoth and transformative project, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (the GERD).

Tragically for Ethiopia and its 120 million people, Ethiopia’s internal ethnic polarization, civil war in the north, recurring ethnic genocide targeting Amhara in the South and West,  suffocation of fundamental human rights and freedoms, theft, bribery, corruption, maladministration of justice, skyrocketing prices, the inability of Ethiopia’s political elites to settle differences through negotiation and give and take, and more critical , their inability to address the root causes (institutional and structural) of Ethiopia’s instability and unpredictable future contribute to external threats.

Misplaced Ethiopian government priorities compound the country’s multifaceted problems.

Sudan and Egypt are taking advantage of Ethiopia’s internal political and governance turmoil. Their primary intent is to stop the third fill of the GERD this Ethiopian winter.

The purpose of this commentary is to alert the international community as well as Ethiopians in the Diaspora that behind Sudan’s unprovoked aggression and annexation of Ethiopian lands is the government of Egypt. It is no longer a secret the Sudanese military led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan is conducting aggression and proxy wars against Ethiopia on behest of Egypt’s militarized and war-mongering government led by General Al Sisi. Both leaders support the TPLF and the OLA. The concert wishes to destabilize and balkanize Ethiopia.

The Ethiopia-Sudan border conflict is a Trojan horse

Ethiopia and Sudan share a border line that spans 1,600 kilometers. Their long-standing border dispute has been a source of tensions for decades. But it is solvable. The two countries established a border demarcation commission that is still functioning. In principle and given political will on both sides, they have agreed to resolve the contentious conflict over a large fertile and lucrative farmland territory known as al-Fashaka. Experts estimate this swath of fertile farm, grazing and agro-industrial land mass at 260 sq kms. Sudan, Egypt, and the rest of the Arab world contend with passion that it belongs to Sudan. It is “Arab land.”

More important the peoples of Ethiopia and Sudan enjoy mutual benefits from trade, cultural exchange, regional security. The people of Sudan do not want their military government to go to war on behalf of Egypt. The people of Sudan appreciate the fact that the border conflict is resolvable through peaceful negotiation in accord with the 1902 Treaty. This is the reason more than “a million Sudanese protested against their government” on June 30, 2022. They continue to protest in favor of peace. One Sudanese protestor urged Ethiopians to do the same.

The genesis of unprovoked aggression camouflaged as a border conflict

Following the treasonous act by the TPLF in November 2020 on December 23, 2020, the Sudanese military government mobilized and positioned menacingly heavily armed Sudanese military units on the Ethiopia border. It is important to remember the opportunistic nature of this Sudanese move on behalf or on demand by Egypt. Ethiopia was preoccupied with an internal insurgency instigated by the TPLF.

In parallel, the tripartite negotiation—Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan– had stalled. This is because Egypt demanded conditions that undermine Ethiopia’s sovereignty. Egypt wishes to prevent Ethiopia from harnessing its Blue Nile waters for the benefit of its changing economy and population. For example, Egypt demanded that its “historical and natural rights” over Nile waters, 86 percent of which comes from Ethiopia remains sacrosanct. The European Union took sides and backed Egypt. The USA continues to support negotiation under the auspices of the African Union.

Egypt does not contribute an ounce of water to the Nile. However, it believes that its hegemony over the Nile that it formalized in the form of a treaty in 1929 and modified in 1959 after Sudan gained its independence from Great Britain is sacrosanct. Ethiopia has consistently rejected these colonial treaties. So have other Black African Nile River riparian nations.

Egypt arrogantly and boastfully dismisses the fact that neither Ethiopia nor the rest of Black African independent Nile River riparian states are bound by the above colonial treaty. The reasonable way out of the impasse is not to abort the GERD. Rather, it is for all upstream and downstream riparian nations to convene an all-Nile Basin conference and arrive at a water sharing agreement. The African Union can and should sponsor this option.

Simply put, the core issue behind Sudan’s latest unprovoked aggression against Ethiopia has nothing to do with the border conflict. Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonen is right. On June 22, 2022, he told members of Ethiopia’s parliament “When we changed our face to the northern part [of Ethiopia] in relation to the war, Sudan” invaded Ethiopia and annexed Ethiopian territories. In doing so, it “violated the status quo” and undermined the negotiation process for a “sustainable solution.” He added “This has enraged the people of Ethiopia, damaged the residents, displaced many, damaged wealth and properties and is an invasion that resulted in a lot of pressures. Not only invading that area, but various infrastructures have also been ongoing to change the geography and demography. This is not acceptable, and we have notified them of the matter.”

Sudan has been terribly busy building permanent infrastructure—roads, telecommunication, electricity—as well as re- populating annexed lands with Sudanese nationals. In the process of or to facilitate permanent occupation of annexed lands, the Sudanese Army demolished Ethiopia’s administrative infrastructure; expropriated Ethiopia military camps; “killed and displaced residents; and destroyed their crops and property.” In doing this criminal act, Sudan violated the UN Charter, abrogated its commitment to the African Union, breached international law that bars the use of force to settle disputes and violated boundary re-demarcation treaties.”

African governments must express outrage and condemn Sudan’s aggression. This is because Sudan failed to abide by the principles embedded in “The Constitutive Act of the African Union.” The essence of the principle is that all members are obliged to respect each member state’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. The Act underscores the guiding principle that “Conscious of the fact that the scourge of conflicts in Africa constitutes a major impediment to the socio-economic development of the continent and of the need to promote peace, security and stability as a prerequisite for the implementation of our development and integration agenda,” this Act is binding on both Sudan and Ethiopia. Ethiopia adheres to the Act while Sudan violates it repeatedly. The AU must therefore speak out and defend its own charter.

What is Sudan’s intent?

Sudan’s intent is to make annexation legitimate and permanent. This reminds me of the Wolkait saga. The TPLF annexed lands; expelled or killed Amhara and replaced them with Tigrean nationals. It then built permanent infrastructure and declared that annexed Amhara lands are part of “Western Tigray.” Sudan is doing the same thing. The government of Ethiopia cannot afford to apply two standards: one to reclaim Sudanese annexed Ethiopian lands and the other for TPLF annexed Amhara lands of Wolkait.

To repeat, Sudanese unprovoked aggression took place in December 2020, barely one month after the TPLF launched its war of insurgency. This outrageous act demonstrates the incontestable fact that the TPLF, Egypt and Sudan operate in concert. Anyone who believes that the TPLF is not treasonous must check this anti-Ethiopia plot concocted by Egypt and conducted by the Sudanese military and the TPLF (the Trojan horse).

I served as secretary general of the Ethiopian Borders Affairs Committee (EBAC) for years. I am therefore familiar with the Ethiopia-Sudan conflict.

  1. The al-Fashaka dispute between Ethiopia and Sudan emanates from the 1902 Anglo-Ethiopians Treaty between Emperor Menelik II and British colonial authorities on behalf of Sudan (a British colony).

As is customary in international practice in delimiting national boundaries, the treaty provided for the setting up of a Joint Boundary Commission appointed by both sides to conduct the actual demarcation of the boundary on the ground. Upon completion of the demarcation process both parties were required to notify their citizens of the boundary as demarcated. This has not materialized yet.

  1. Despite the clear mandate embedded in the treaty, the border demarcation process has remained a dead letter for over a century.

 

  1. In 1972, Emperor Haile Selassie visited Sudan with the objective of arriving at an amicable solution. Sudan and Ethiopia exchanged notes. Sadly, Ethiopia’s 1974 revolution derailed formal demarcation. The proposed Joint border demarcation Commission existed on paper but did not deliver.

 

  1. Contrary to the spirit and letter embedded in the 1902 Treaty, Great Britain went ahead and appointed its own military officer, Major Charles W. Gwynn and empowered him to demarcate the border without the knowledge or participation of Ethiopian representatives or Commissioners.

 

  1. The colonial officer Major Gwynn took it upon himself to decide for Ethiopia. He chose to favor Sudan (a British colony) and demarcated the border haphazardly, arbitrarily, unilaterally, and unfairly. In the process, Ethiopia incurred significant territorial losses. Ethiopia rejected this unilateral demarcation that gave the lion’s share of disputed lands to Sudan. This is the core reason for Sudan’s unprovoked and opportunistic invasion and annexation of Ethiopian lands.

 

  1. Successive Ethiopian governments have rejected the Gwynn demarcation; rejected Sudan’s claims; and demanded that the Joint Commission undertake the survey considering the original treaty, historical and administrative facts; and demarcate the border in a manner consistent with international covenants and law.

 

  1. Ethiopia’s demand is consistent with the international political, UN and African system each of which grants a considerable degree of importance to rights in respect of territory.

The function of a boundary between states is the attribution of territory and, thus, the extent of a state’s territorial sovereignty. When the extent and limits of a state’s territorial sovereignty are determined solely and arbitrarily by one state with the collusion of a nonrepresentative and illegitimate state to the detriment of Ethiopia, the boundary so determined becomes an enduring source of friction and tension between the adjoining states that neither the Sudan nor Ethiopia can afford.

  1. Continued and recurring aggression by Sudan as well as redrawing the border arbitrarily and at enormous costs to the Ethiopian people will inevitably cause permanent discord among the brotherly Ethiopian and Sudanese people. It will also lead to more unnecessary bloodshed, insecurity, and instability in the entire Horn of Africa.

 

  1. Sudanese unprovoked aggression, Ethiopian land annexation, unilateral “redrawing” of the border by Sudan, and construction of permanent infrastructure in the annexed lands is illegal and dangerous. It undermines Ethiopia’s territorial integrity and national security. It harms the socio-economic interests of the resident population. It deprives Ethiopia’s 120 million peoples’ sources of food, edible oils, and employment.

 

  1. It is regrettable that the United Nations, the African Union, the EU, the government of the United States and others have failed to Condemn Sudan’s latest unprovoked aggression against Ethiopia, while condemning Russia’s attack of Ukraine. Is this fair or just?

This is the reason the government of Ethiopia and Ethiopians and other Africans in the Diaspora and in Ethiopia are “apprehensive” and distrustful of the international system that is dominated by the USA. The system is manipulated to reward “friends and to punish enemies or undesirables.”

The UN, US and EU were quick to accuse Ethiopia of genocide, famine, encirclement of and in Tigray. Genocide never happened in Tigray. The West was unanimous and quick quick to sanction Russia and to supply Ukraine with tens of billions of dollars as well as tons of weapons. The US alone has provided more than six billion dollars to Ukraine.

The weaponization of the global economy (punitive sanctions, direct or indirect encouragement of war as an instrument of policy exposes the entire world to vulnerability. Among these are hyperinflation, scarcity of essential supplies such as foods, cooking oil, gasoline.

I find it galling that when it comes to Ethiopia the West did not even demand that the Sudanese military stop harboring, training, financing and arming TPLF terrorists, thereby empowering them for another catastrophic war. In the process, innocent civilians die; economies shattered; insecurity pronounced.

What do I propose?

War between Ethiopia and Sudan will be disastrous for both countries. I commend the people of Sudan for challenging their regime and for demanding change.

The way out of the crisis is simple. Ethiopia and Sudan must re-energize the Joint Demarcation Commission and demarcate the border at the earliest opportunity.

This can happen if and only of Sudan withdraws its military from Ethiopia and reverts annexed lands to the Ethiopian people. The US and EU can help by demanding that Sudan withdraws its military from Ethiopia and stops serving as Egypt’s Trojan horse.

The African Union cannot afford not to condemn Sudan for its unprovoked aggression against a member of the AU. Further, to be credible, the AU must demand that Ethiopia and Sudan settle their border conflict through their Joint Commission.

Finally, Ethiopians and the rest of Africa must demand that Egypt ceases promoting, financing, and enabling proxy wars against Ethiopia. The most plausible and healthy way out of the GERD impasse is for all Nile River riparian nations to convene a Nile River conference and arrive at a water sharing agreement.

 

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