Border skirmishes between Sudan and Ethiopia are nothing new; they date back decades and are frequent. The causes are both countries' failure to "demarcate" their borders, tribal and demographic interventions, and the seasonal displacement of residents in those areas due to alternate seasons of heavy rain and drought. Both sides have always tried to prevent these skirmishes or political crises from developing and threatening their bilateral relations, and they are always diverting their attention to a local problem here or a tribal clash there.
This time, though, the situation appears to be different; a border issue is developing rapidly into a diplomatic crisis between Khartoum and Addis Ababa, which has seen Ethiopia's Ambassador in Sudan being summoned in protest at the Ethiopian army's crossing of the Sudanese border and attacks on army bases west of the Atbara River in the border state of Al-Qadarif. This is not a clash between irregular groups such as the popular defence forces backed by the Sudanese government and the Shifta militia backed by the Ethiopian army; it is fighting between the regular armies of neighbouring states.
On this occasion, the timing of these clashes has special importance, as they are happening with the backdrop of the differences between Sudan and Ethiopia over the Renaissance Dam. These have been highlighted by Khartoum's recent shift of its position in favour of the Egyptians after appearing for many months to be closer to Addis Ababa than to Cairo. Sudanese sources have justified this move by accusing the Ethiopian government of failing Khartoum and abandoning previous obligations.
Tension on the Sudan-Ethiopia border prompted a visit by the Chairman of Sudan's Sovereignty Council, General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, who inspected government and military sites in the area. This was followed by a visit by the President of the Sudanese Transitional Government, Abdulla Hamdok, to the same area for the same purpose. Both visits were intended to send the message to the Ethiopians that Sudan knows what is happening in the area and will not allow breaches of its sovereignty and the violation of the interests and lives of its citizens.
The truth is that Ethiopia, which has shown studied indifference to the rights of the two other countries dependent on water from the River Nile, has gone ahead regardless to build the Renaissance Dam, with a unilaterally-decided timeframe for filling the reservoir. It shows little concern for Sudan's diplomatic efforts or moves on the ground. Moreover, it is likely that the Ethiopian army and the Shifta militia will continue to provide protection to the thousands of Ethiopian farmers and shepherds who are using Sudanese land. Diplomatic protests will continue to be ignored.
The government in Addis Ababa seems to have been empowered by the extremely weak political and military situation across the Arab world. It apparently believes that with its political and economic achievements at home and the expansion of its international relations abroad, it will be able to go ahead and become a major regional power, even if this comes at the expense of Arab water rights and the sovereignty of its neighbour Sudan.
Ethiopia has read the situation well; the Arabs have weak negotiating experience on a life or death issue for the Nile Basin countries. It is also likely that Addis Ababa has studied the Iranian, Turkish and Israeli penetrations of the Arab world's strategic, geographical, water and security depths, from the Levant and the Gulf; from the Eastern Mediterranean across North Africa. It is looking forward to having a share of the legacy of the sick Arab man, starting with his water, and it wouldn't hurt to surround itself with a new security zone by turning Sudan's Al-Qadarif state into another Shebaa farms occupation, or even another Jordan Valley.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Addustour on 1 June 2020
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.