But Ethiopia’s sudden descent into civil war in its Tigray region has upended a delicate web of regional political equations, sending ripple effects across this corner of Africa, and bringing Ethiopia and Sudan to the brink of a territorial war over this disputed area, known as al-Fashaga. Military and government officials on both sides, as well as independent analysts, said they worry such a war would quickly escalate into a much broader regional conflict.
Sudanese officials also accused Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of attempting to force Sudan’s hand over al-Fashaga by holding up negotiations over the filling of a mega-dam Ethiopia is building near the two countries’ border. Filling the dam without an agreement, they claimed, could imperil drinking and irrigation water for half of Sudan’s population.
On a recent trip with Sudanese forces to the front line, a major deployment of military and paramilitary troops was visibly underway. Through binoculars, Sudanese officers eyed Ethiopian settlements and fortifications in parts of al-Fashaga they had not yet retaken.
Despite blisteringly hot weather, the Sudanese side buzzed with activity. In just a couple months, Sudan has built an extensive road network in areas it now controls. Locals had been pulled into the effort, working on construction, cooking for soldiers and even patching up their uniforms. But nervousness lay beneath the industriousness.
An internal United Nations map published last week and reviewed by The Washington Post shows multiple deployments of Ethiopian National Defense Forces in al-Fashaga, and at least 16 sites of clashes, including an attack on civilians. The Sudanese military says more than a dozen of its soldiers have been killed, and Sudanese residents said armed Ethiopian farmers had slaughtered at least a dozen unarmed civilians.
According to a 1902 agreement between Menelik II, then Ethiopia’s emperor, and Sudan’s British colonial overlords, al-Fashaga is Sudanese land. In the mid-1990s, however, while Sudan’s military was fighting numerous domestic wars, Ethiopian soldiers and farmers moved into the area and established settlements behind military lines.
“Before, it was an irregular occupation, but since Abiy came to power, they have begun to claim, ‘This is our land,’ ” said Col. Abadi el-Tahir, a field commander in the Sudanese military. “They even dug up cemeteries and brought dead bodies to rebury them in Sudan in an attempt to claim that this land is theirs, as if they have been there for generations.”
Sudan retook most of al-Fashaga after Ethiopian soldiers and Amhara militias were deployed to fight in Tigray.
“Up until the war in Tigray began, the situation was essentially an Amhara occupation of al-Fashaga,” said Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Gabir, one of 11 members of Sudan’s so-called sovereign council that presides over government decisions.
“As they became occupied with the war in November, we were able to retake the area with fewer casualties. But recently the Amhara militias came back and killed so many of our people, robbed so many,” he said. “Ethiopia is not controlling these militias, so of course we see it as supporting them. We do not want to be drawn into a reckless war.”
Amhara militias as well as troops from neighboring Eritrea have become essential to Abiy’s efforts to subdue rebels in Tigray — a war that has already cost thousands of lives and left millions in dire need of humanitarian aid.
In return for sending reinforcements to Tigray, Amhara leaders including Abiy’s intelligence chief and foreign minister have pressed Abiy to give major concessions to the region, including retaliation at Sudan’s border deployment, according to Nizar Manek, an independent analyst who is writing a book about the region. On Tuesday, Muluneh, the Amhara regional spokesman, said the federal government was preparing to transfer a huge swathe of Tigray’s land into Amhara administration, a form of retribution that Amhara hard-liners have long demanded.
That sudden gaining of leverage among Amhara hard-liners has made Abiy less able to compromise on either al-Fashaga or the dam, said Abbas, the water minister.
“Ethiopia is linking the dam issue with the border issue even though it has no right to do so. But Dr. Abiy is in a corner and must have Amhara support for his war in Tigray,” Abbas said. “The rise of the Amhara in Ethiopia’s politics is threatening the future of relations between our nations — not countries, but nations, peoples with literally thousands of years of shared history.”
High-ranking Sudanese officials painted the dam and border disputes as easy to iron out, if not for Ethiopia’s increasingly uncompromising internal politics. On the border, joint demarcation was still on the table, Gabir said. Ethiopian farmers could be leased land in al-Fashaga, for instance.
“We have been asking for Ethiopia to cooperate in demarcating the border for decades,” he said. “We have said please, please, please and please again. They are not interested. Why? Because al-Fashaga is very good land. The Amhara will not give it up just like that.”
With their recent advances, Sudanese locals are rekindling hopes that they will be able to reclaim farms in the region that belonged to their parents and grandparents.
“God willing, for the first time in 25 years we will cultivate that land between the two rivers,” said Abbas el-Tayyib, the mayor of the town of Qurayshah, where many farmers from al-Fashaga relocated after the Ethiopian occupation.
He, like many, remembers a time when Ethiopian farmers peacefully came to work as laborers on Sudanese farms. While their bitterness toward the Ethiopian government was sharp, locals commonly referred to Ethiopian farmers as their brothers and said the land was fertile enough to share.
With Ethiopia’s next dam filling just months away and the massing of troops in al-Fashaga, however, the chances that any new clashes could quickly escalate into open war are high. Sudanese officials said all options to regain total control of al-Fashaga remain on the table.
“We both have serious, sensitive, internal issues to deal with, and we will respect Ethiopia’s right to deal with their own,” Gabir said. “But if they come into al-Fashaga, we will kill them, yes.”