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The State of frenemy

Maintaining the status quo, playing the victim card: How border dispute defining Ethiopia, Sudan


In a move that is upping the ante in the Ethio-Sudan border dispute, Khartoum has continued to illegally encroaching on the two countries’ borders, said Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicating that Ethiopia has been working round the clock to deescalate the escalating tension and settle the issue peacefully.

Tension along Ethiopia and Sudan borders is ratcheting up with Sudan’s military buildup

that started on November 9, 2020 and continues to this very day. On the contrary, Ethiopia has largely remained in the wait-and-see approach.

Parade and military exercises have become the daily routines of Sudan along the disputed border while Ethiopia appears mostly silent and reserved to ease the war of word. As Sudan continues expanding its control over the disputed border areas, Ethiopia repeatedly announced that it is digging its heels on finding peaceful resolution to the problems.

The recent border skirmishes between the two countries are the continuations of the long lingering border issues. But unlike the past, when disputes were resolved peacefully and wisely, the current tensions are accompanied with violence and large-scale aggression that would destabilize the entire region.

Despite this, unless Sudan’s aggressions go unchecked, there is fear that a full-blown war could emerge in one of the most volatile regions in the world. This according to experts would push the two countries, which are going through make-or-break transitions, into unchartered territories.

While engaging in a blame-shifting game, Khartoum has publically announced that it is in a mission to regain its ‘lost lands’. Also adding fuel into the fire is the stalemate in the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD) talks. Though, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt have been in talks over the dam being built in Ethiopia, no deal has been produced yet with the latter flipping consistently. The latest talks have come into halts as Sudan refused to hold consultations with AU-assigned experts.

The deadlock in the tripartite talks is playing into the ongoing border dispute between Ethiopia and Sudan. Not few do implicate Egypt in the tension arguing that Cairo is driving Sudan from behind and emboldening the country to get into conflicts with Ethiopia and destabilize the region.

With GERD and other factors playing into the matter and the risk of war hanging over between the two countries, experts argue that using existing treaties is the best alternative to resolve the disputes. And, as Sudan pledges to continue its expansion, experts are warning that any of unilateral moves will cause escalation of the issue and advising the neighboring countries to resolve the disputes using existing treaties and international laws while keeping agreements to maintain status quo until reaching lasting solution is vital in going forward.

Playing the victim card

In an apparent move to shift the blame on Ethiopia about its previous attack against farmers Sudan’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday said Ethiopia has carried out airstrike against its citizens killing five of its people.

Ethiopian Border Affairs Committee Chairperson Alemu Yayne said that Ethiopia should give the international community to give the right picture that Sudan has been causing tremendous damage on ordinary farmers and communities living along the two countries’ border. Sudan has attacked farmers with mechanized and heavy artillery. They are deceitfully setting the tone and misleading the international community by playing the victim card.

Sudan uncommonly is accusing Ethiopia of invading its land and launching incursion against its civilians. This is a deliberate move by Khartoum to justify the strike against Ethiopia. Getting into war is not a simple decision and finding a peacefully resolution is the best alternative to avoid mayhem and ramifications.

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Ethiopia has never hesitated to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity. The country for long has been an independent nation that was never colonized and the responsibility to protect this golden history rests on the current generation.

Alemu also warned that Sudan’s aggression is a dangerous move and could backfire badly into the country. They are boasting about the land they have taken control publicly, this is a very dangerous situation and push tensions in to edges. I doubt if the Sudanese acts emanate from own interests. “My suspicion is that some other parties primarily Egypt is emboldening Khartoum to make large-scale invasion against Ethiopia.”

“Starting from November 9, 2020, we are observing organized attacks by the Sudanese Military Forces using heavy machine guns and armored convoy,” said recently Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Demeke Mekonnen during his visit to Sudan lately.

Agricultural products of Ethiopian farmers are looted, their camps are vandalized, and they are also hampered from harvesting their own farms. A number of civilians have been murdered and wounded. As a result, the government of Ethiopia is very much concerned about this recent development in the border areas. “Furthermore, it is endangering the agreements we have reached to maintain the status quo.”

Third party’s interests

Despite the tension between Ethiopia and Sudan, experts attribute the current issue to a third party that is Egypt.

Since recently, things have gone awry with Sudan. Though Sudan is a close neighbor to Ethiopia, its recent actions that would fracture its relation with Ethiopia are emboldened by Egypt. Lecturer of Hydro Engineering at Addis Ababa University Yilema Sileshi (Ph.D.) said even if GERD brings lots of benefits to the country, Sudan is now engaged in hostile activities as a result of the consequential and unholy alliance it has entered with Cairo. Sudan and Egypt’s recent inconsistencies on the GERD talks are not of coincidences rather a well-calculated joint move to deter the construction of Ethiopia’s flagship project.

The two countries’ alliance has become a setback to the tripartite talks over the GERD, a project that would supply Sudan with cheap electricity and curtail flooding risks

GERD as the other frontier

Ethiopia and Sudan are also caught beyond border disputes. The GERD has been also a contentious issue between the two countries. These days, Sudan is turning down AU proposals pushing the talks into the corner.

Sudan is breaking away from its years of approach in the talks under the new leadership. Perhaps its internal matters are playing to the GERD talks which are resulting in consistent flipping on its stand. The country is maybe working to ensure the interest of Egypt in exchange for the lifting of sanction imposed by the U.S., says an expert under the condition of anonymity.

“Khartoum has been caught between the U.S.’s pressure for making peace with Israel and the quest for lifting of sanctions. The quickly changing Sudan’s varying positions are the result these factors. Under the principle of scratch my and I will scratch yours, Sudan is trying to side with Egypt in return for the lifted sanctions.”

Egypt does not have trust in African institutions and it rather sees benefits by aligning with the Middle East countries. Egypt had no option but to join the AU brokered talks, however, it is dragging its feet to disrupt any possible win-win agreement. It wants the AU to play a passive role or become a weak party in the negotiation, he added.

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“Unlike, Egypt, Sudan has more respect to the African institutions, but the country has come under the influence of other countries.”

Sudan’s latest behaviors are a stark departures from its previous approaches which the country has been sticking to for years, according to experts as they put forth strong argument that third parties are pushing the country into having ill-disposed positions over the talks.

Talks over the GERD have been broken several times mainly due to the actions of Egypt and Sudan, protracting the chance of producing any meaningful agreement among the three countries. Particularly, the latest talks have been stalled as Sudan falter on the AU-led negotiation presenting various concerns and demands. But many label Sudan’s acts as unjust and invalid spearheaded by third party’s interests in an effort to push back any possible deal.

Existing treaties, laws

As the border dispute showing no sign of slowing down, experts in the areas are urging both countries to use existing treaties to ease tensions until permanent resolution is devised. One is the Exchanges of Notes. In 1972, Ethiopia and Sudan agreed to resolve the border issues through mutual cooperation. Addis Ababa and Khartoum also signed Exchange of Notes during that year in a move to resolve border disputes.

The Notes was signed by the two countries to set mechanisms of border resolutions declaring that issues must be resolved through technical studies conducted by experts from both countries. On the basis of the agreement, Ethiopia and Sudan Joint Border Commission was established in 2002 to discuss border issues by gathering inputs from experts.

Ethiopian members of the Joint Border Commission members have lately announced that Sudan has violently breached borders; it is thus a complete violation of historical Exchange of Notes, they said. The members of the Commission have said that the two countries have had a clear agreement to resolve any border disputes through mutual understanding but the recent Sudanese’s acts are a total violation of the agreement and run-in contradiction to peaceful resolution.

The Notes which compiled with the UN charter article 102, clearly indicates that the current borders must be obeyed until technical experts come up with comprehensive results to draw the border.

Amb. Ibrahim Edris, member of Joint Border commission also said that borderlands starting from Mount. Daglish are problematic that clear demarcation must be lined with cooperative work of experts.

“North to Daglish Mountain has to be studied and we (Ethiopia and Sudan) have a clear agreement on approaches to resolve the issue. And there is still active special joint border committee researching on the resolutions,” he said.

The Sudan’s illegal move to take Ethiopia’s land is violation of rule of law and the Sudanese force has to return. Adding, mutual understanding and resolution must be reached through comprehensive agreement, he noted adding that, the feedbacks of experts from both sides have been taken as a major input for planned demarcation and mutual understanding has been reached to mediate border dispute, he added.

Another member of the Joint Border Commission Wuhib Muluneh also indicated that any issues relatingto borderland should be resolved in accordance with inputs raised in joint discussions. In this regard, Ethiopia and Sudan have been holding a number of discussions to settle the differences without causing any harm. The opposite will be disastrous for both sides. The two countries have held dialogues as a means to end border dispute since the signing of the Exchange of Notes. However, things have gone awry lately with Sudan following aggressive and undiplomatic approaches.

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There is active joint force (Joint Technical Boundary Committee) which works survey, reconnaissance and cartography. Besides, the Special Committee overseen by the Commission is also tasked with monitoring cultivation and settlements along the border. All these structures are in place, and used as input for discussion and negotiations, he noted.

“We believe that all these approaches must be revitalized as the issue needs comprehensive agreement;” adding, mechanisms of resolution are clearly written on the historical 1972’s Exchange of Notes in this regard,” he noted. “Until then, the ground reality must be in place as the exchange of notes stated,” he remarked.

Ethiopia pins hope on diplomatic solution

The border dispute is risking an all-out war unless both Ethiopia and Sudan find diplomatic solution. In this regard, Ethiopia since the outbreak of the tension has been persistent in its stand pushing for diplomatic solution. Spokesperson of Ministry of Foreign Affairs Amb. Dina Mufti said this week that Ethiopia has been following diplomatic approach to settle the issues that continue to this very day. Also, on Wednesday, Ethiopia announced it is pinning on diplomatic approach to resolve the issue and bring the tension into calmness. Amb. Dina told local media that Ethiopia urges the Sudanese forces to go back to their previous positions and pull out from land which they have taken forcefully. “We are clear in our positions that no war can resolve border disputes. War is all about a bloodshed in vein.”

“Our calls is that let’s sit and talk and address the issues. We don’t want to escalate tensions and Ethiopia is magnanimous and big country and doesn’t engage in something harmful and zero-sum game.”

Amb. Ibrahim on his part also noted: “I believe there will be no other means to end the dispute. In my view, peaceful dialogue is the only approach to resolve disputes, sustain bilateral relationship and strengthen bonds between the two countries and promote joint development along the borders.” The issue is not complicated much since the structure to resolve the issue has been outlined before and favorable conditions to set resolution are alive despite of Sudan’s move, he added.

The Ethiopian Herald 17 January 2021

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