A violent dispute over land rights at the Black Nile in Sudan risks escalating nationalism and warmongering over a hydropower dam at the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. The dam is also at the centre of a renewed ethnic conflict that threatens to spill over from the 2020 Tigray War. A new US administration and potential mediation by the UAE will play a critical role in coming months to avoid another war in the Horn of Africa, even while the Tigray conflict still simmers and risks destabilising the whole region.
On 13 January, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) offered to facilitate the stalled talks over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Dam (GERD). The UAE’s offer of mediation comes at a time of tense relations between the three main parties in the Blue Nile dispute, while the UAE has strong relations with Ethiopia, as well as Sudan and Egypt. According to some of our sources involved in previous rounds of GERD talks, the UAE’s offer to mediate may be the only viable solution to avoid a drastic escalation toward military conflict in the Horn of Africa.
The renewal of talks is becoming more urgent as Ethiopia and Sudan are already involved in a low-level conflict on its disputed border at al-Fashqa. As we previously forecast, the 2020 Tigray War has destabilised the entire Horn of Africa region and a weakened Ethiopia now faces numerous new challenges, including obstinate resistance by Egypt and Sudan to Ethiopia’s proposed GERD filling schedule and territorial disputes such as those at al-Fashqa, which borders Tigray region.
An increasingly isolated Ethiopia now faces the prospect of territorial challenges that threaten to further inflame ongoing ethnic and sectarian violence within its own borders, while losing support from key partners over its GERD filling schedule. Without the resumption of mediated talks, an increasingly nationalist stance over these disputes will risk triggering another war in the Horn of Africa that would also draw in Egypt in support of Sudan, and Eritrea as an unlikely ally of Ethiopia. The role of Middle Eastern partners in these disputes will also be a key indicator in coming months.
In this special report, PANGEA-RISK investigates the latest border tensions at al-Fashqa based on local source reporting, as well as outlining the remaining objections to the GERD project that if left unresolved risk triggering a full-scale military conflict in one of Africa’s most fragile regions.
The Black Nile border dispute
Sudan and Ethiopia share a common boundary that stretches over 1,600 kilometres. However, to date, this boundary lacks clear demarcation lines. The main flashpoint has been Sudan’s al-Fashqa region, which covers approximately 600 km, and is a rich fertile land conducive for agriculture. For decades, Ethiopia has allowed its farmers to plant crops there. Since 2019, Sudan’s transitional government has initiated talks with Ethiopia in a bid to have to Ethiopian farmers withdraw. Both sides generally agree that Sudan should have claim to the land, although ethnic Amhara and Tigrayan militias from Ethiopia have rejected this and staged incursions, raids, and attacks on Sudanese farmers and security forces. Fighting has focussed on the land surrounding the meandering Atbarah River, also known as the Black Nile, which flows from the Ethiopian Highlands in the northwest, through the al-Fashqa region, to the Nile in north-central Sudan, joining it at the city of Atbarah.
In response to the increasing frequency and intensity of Ethiopian attacks, in March 2020, for the first time in nearly 25 years, Sudan deployed its troops along the al-Fashqa border strip. Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, Chairman of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council, has made the issue a top priority and he and Sudanese Defence Minister, Major General Yassin Ibrahim Yassin, have visited al-Fasqa several times in 2020 and in early January this year. However, the situation has escalated over 2020, and the land dispute has been worsened by the November 2020 Tigray War. In response to the Tigray War, Sudan deployed additional troops to the border region in al-Qadarif province to stem the flow of refugees coming from neighbouring Tigray and Amhara regions in Ethiopia. Meanwhile, Sudanese farmers and herders saw the Tigray War as an opportunity to remove Ethiopians from land in al-Fashqa. They were supported by Sudanese troops during and after the Tigray War (see ETHIOPIA: AS ONCE-DOMINANT TIGRAY FADES, A WEAKENED ETHIOPIA FACES NEW CHALLENGES).
Meanwhile, after the defeat of Tigrayan regional forces by Ethiopian federal forces and local Amhara militia, the Amhara occupied the Welkait, Humera, Tsegede, and Tselemti districts that they claim Tigray had previously illegally annexed. Amhara forces, which are nationalist and often very belligerent, then also began to deploy into al-Fashqa to reclaim land from which its farmers had been expelled during the Tigray War. This prompted further military escalation from Sudan’s military, which has since staged operations to reclaim land invaded by Amhara militia. On 31 December 2020, the Sudanese military said it had taken control of all Sudanese territory in the area, with local sources claiming that Sudanese troops have begun to expel Ethiopian refugees in the area. The Ethiopian government in response claims Sudan took advantage of its forces being distracted by the Tigray conflict to occupy Ethiopian land and to loot properties. The situation has been exacerbated by the presence of almost 60,000 Ethiopian refugees who fled Tigray and Amhara during the past few months. The United Nations reports that between 200 and 500 refugees continue to arrive every day at border crossings in the region. Major flashpoints for violence focus on refugee camps next to border crossings at Um Rakuba and the remote Tunaybdah area.
Local sources have also confirmed that Ethiopian military aircraft have made incursions into Sudanese airspace in January to conduct flyovers across al-Fashqa, which Sudan has perceived as a provocation. The military flyovers by Ethiopia would indeed be a drastic escalation of the dispute and risk dragging other states into the conflict. On 14 January, Sudanese authorities banned flights over its Al-Qadarif province and the greater and lower areas of al-Fashqa. Ethiopian Army Chief of Staff has denied that Ethiopian flyovers took place and has instead hinted that Tigrayan businesspeople, a Sudanese government faction, or a third country are trying to push the two countries to war by making false accusations. There has been speculation that Eritrea has been involved in the latest flyovers, with some source accusing Eritrea of either making these false accusations or carrying out the flyovers itself, rather than Ethiopia.
Eritrea’s border at Humera is not far from the al-Fashqa region, and Eritrean forces remain stationed in Tigray in support of the Ethiopian federal offensive in the regional state (for the state of Eritrean forces in Tigray see ERITREA: SEEKING NEW PARTNERSHIPS AFTER THE TIGRAY WAR). Sudan has also briefed its westerly neighbour Chad on the al-Fashqa situation which could indicate potential Chadian support for the Sudanese military offensive, although this seems unlikely given Chad’s own preoccupations, lack of funding, and military fatigue. In any case, both sides are expressing more nationalist and warmongering rhetoric that risks escalating the dispute and allowing the al-Fashqa land issue to spill over into more significant arguments such as the Blue Nile dispute.
Background to the Blue Nile dam dispute
The GERD is a USD 4 billion hydroelectric dam that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile. At 6.45 gigawatts, the dam will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa when completed, as well as the seventh largest in the world. The development of the GERD is paramount to Ethiopia’s development plans as it is expected to double the country’s electricity generation capacity and earn as much as a billion dollars annually from energy exports to Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya, and potentially Egypt. Millions of Ethiopians have also contributed funds to the construction of the dam and see it as a source of national pride.
However, Sudan and Egypt both fear the GERD dam could lead to water shortages in their own nations, and both countries have used the Tigray Way in November 2020 to advance their stance in negotiations and international diplomacy. This sentiment has raised the prospect of nationalist and populist rhetoric in Ethiopia, as well as the other countries involved in the dispute. In response to joint military exercises by Sudan and Egypt at the same time as the Tigray War, Ethiopia deployed to the dam its newly created Northwest Command that was initially intended to spearhead the offensive into Tigray. Ethiopia has also increased anti-aircraft defences at the dam, including the Russian Pantsir-S1 air defence system, alongside an S-125 (SA-3) launcher. Local source reports state that the military has positioned a fleet of Su-27 Flankers armed with R-27 air to air missiles, and a further set of MiG-23 swept wing fighters with the same armament, close to the GERD to intercept Egyptian incursions.
The Blue Nile dam dispute
Whereas the so-called Black Nile dispute over al-Fashqa land rights has no direct tie to the Blue Nile dispute over the GERD dam project, the nationalist and bellicose rhetoric by all parties risk affecting the outcome of any future mediations. The latest round of talks over the GERD were held between 3 and 10 January but reached another impasse after Sudan objected to the terms of reference and refused to have African Union officials attend the negotiations. Several sources close to the GERD talks state that Sudan is trying to stall and sabotage the talks over procedural issues in a bid to drag these out. The strategy is being mooted by Egypt, as both Egypt and Sudan stand to benefit while Ethiopia’s international reputation continues to fade. In particular, Egypt and Sudan seek support from the US, which has become increasingly critical of Ethiopia in recent months. This stance is unlikely to change under the incoming Democratic administration in the US.
In January, three leading Democratic US Senators, namely Chris Murphy, Patrick Leahy, and Ben Cardin, criticised the Ethiopian government over human rights abuses and intimidation of journalists. Media watchdog groups have reported the arrests of at least 13 journalists in Ethiopia in 2020, seven of them during the Tigray War in November. There have also been concerns over internet shutdowns, media blackouts, and the use of anti-terror laws to silence journalists. The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has also claimed that major violations of international law have taken place at the Ethiopian Shimelba and Hitsats camps in Tigray for refugees from neighbouring Eritrea. Aid agencies have been unable to reach the camps since the start of the Tigray War, although there have been numerous reports of abuses taking place in Tigray. These allegations risk further eroding relations between the US and Ethiopia (for more on Ethiopia’s reputational damage see ETHIOPIA: PERCEIVED AUTHORITARIANISM UPSETS DONOR RELATIONS AND PRIVATISATIONS and SPECIAL REPORT: THE COMMERCIAL IMPLICATIONS OF THE TIGRAY WAR IN ETHIOPIA).
Meanwhile, Egypt remains a key US ally and Sudan’s normalisation of relations with Israel has ensured it now enjoys strong US economic and diplomatic support (see SUDAN: MAKING A RE-ENTRY INTO THE INTERNATIONAL FINANCIAL SYSTEM). The two countries have become more aligned in recent years and in November 2020, the Egyptian and Sudanese military launched a two-week joint exercise called ‘Nile’s Eagles-1’, marking the first joint combat training held since the ouster of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir in 2019. Mounting pressure on Ethiopia from international partners, especially a new US administration in 2021, may force it to slow filling scheduled for the dam from July this year and thus delay the power production timeline. Egypt is demanding to receive at least 40 BCM out of the total 49 bcm flow of the Blue Nile.
The outgoing US administration, which has brokered some of the previous rounds of talks, was seen as too supportive of Egypt’s position and lost its credibility as a mediator. Both Egypt and Sudan will be keen to secure US support under the new administration, while seeking the mediation of a more neutral partner that retains sound relations with all three parties in the GERD dispute. An ideal mediator would be the UAE – in the meantime, Sudan may continue to stall the Blue Nile talks.
Enter the UAE
The UAE is currently the most important economic partner from the Middle East into Africa and is now the continent’s fourth largest source of foreign direct investment. The country is politically, militarily, and diplomatically aligned with Egypt and Sudan, while its government has provided both countries with important credit lines following military coups in 2013 and 2019, respectively. The UAE is also a key trade and investment partner in Ethiopia, while recent military cooperation has been stepped up. Local sources have reported that UAE-supplied and operated unmanned aerial vehicles were used in the Tigray War in support of Ethiopian federal forces. Emirati companies also have important interests throughout the Horn of Africa, including in port logistics, aviation, and agriculture (see PANGEA-RISK LAUNCH REPORT: AFRICA AS THE MIDDLE EAST’S NEXT FRONTIER).
It is therefore little surprise that the UAE has taken an active interest in the conflicts in Tigray, the al-Fashqa violence, and the GERD dispute. On 12 January, the foreign ministry in Abu Dhabi released a statement expressing concern about the border tensions between Sudan and Ethiopia. Based on its neutral stance in these disputes, strong relations with all three GERD parties, and important commercial interests in the wider region, the UAE will be a more acceptable mediator for continued talks than the US, whose outgoing president most recently said that the Blue Nile dispute would inevitably end in Egypt bombing the dam. Both Egypt and Sudan are likely to be playing delaying tactics in the current rounds of talks to let Ethiopian international support fade and move toward a UAE-brokered mediation in which their position will have gained new strength.
Benishangul-Gumuz ethnic violence
The security outlook for the GERD dam and the stability of Ethiopia as a whole toward the 2021 elections is further complicated by ongoing ethnic violence in the far western regional state of Benishangul-Gumuz, where the GERD is located. Mass killings are becoming more frequent in raids by rival armed militias. In December 2020, more than 200 ethnic Amharas, Oromos, and Shinasha people were killed in the village of Bekoji by militia from the local Gumuz ethnic group. The federal government’s security response to the ethnic violence has been based on deploying federal troops alongside Amhara regional forces, like it did in Tigray in November 2020. This strategy has further enflamed tensions in Benishangul-Gumuz, as well as other parts of the country. Amhara are now the second most populous group in Benishangul-Gumuz and they dominate the cities and towns, although they enjoy no indigenous rights. The group has borne the brunt of the violence in the state in recent years, and the Amhara regional state has justified the deployment of Amhara regional forces in Benishangul-Gumuz to protect Amhara residents.
The construction of the GERD in Metekel, close to the border with Sudan, has created new economic opportunities and there has been a flood of new arrivals in the area. These include the state’s ‘indigenous’ ethnic groups like the Gumuz, Berta, and Shinasha, who enjoy so-called ‘ownership’ in the state, but also so-called ‘residents’ such as Amharas, Oromos, Tigrayans, and Agaws, who enjoy no rights. The federal government has blamed the ethnic violence in Benishangul-Gumuz on Tigrayans trying to destabilise the country and to interrupt the construction of the GERD. Tigrayans previously dominated commercial interest in the state, but since 2018 their licenses have been revoked and some have been arrested and deported. Instead, ethnic Amhara residents, as well as Gumuz owners, have filled the vacuum left by the departed Tigrayans.
The main fear is that the Amhara regional government will now launch a full-scale military offensive into Benishangul-Gumuz. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who is half ethnic Amhara and has relied on the Amhara during the Tigray War, may not have sufficient political capital to prevent such a raid. Amhara nationalists are already publicly calling for the annexation of parts of Metekel, where the GERD dam is located. The rival Oromo group, which resents the Amhara’s recent ascendancy, may be sponsoring armed groups to prevent such an Amhara take-over of the highly symbolic and economically important GERD dam, as well as much of Benishangul-Gumuz’s arable land. Another wave of interethnic warfare in the far west of Ethiopia may become a continuation of the 2020 Tigray War, while also accelerating the fragmentation of the Ethiopian federal state.
The al-Fashqa land dispute should have been settled amicably and bilateral talks should have recognised Sudan’s indisputable sovereignty over the grazing and farming lands around the Black Nile. However, the issue has been politicised by both sides as nationalist leverage in other disputes, while armed militias, often supported by the respective countries’ armed forces, have been allowed to roam freely across the border area, causing significant death and destruction. Further deployments of troops along the border, militia incursions across borders, and violations of national airspace risk escalating the conflict into an armed confrontation between Sudan and Ethiopia’s armed forces. Such an armed conflict would also risk drawing in neighbouring countries such as Eritrea, as well as Egypt covertly in support of Sudan.
Therefore, the offer by the UAE to mediate in the al-Fashqa dispute is significant as it ties the issue to the Blue Nile dispute, in which the UAE has also offered to broker talks. The two issues are becoming inter-relatable and intertwined, even though the respective disputes have no direct relevance to each other. The al-Fashqa issue can indeed inflame tensions and steer the countries to outright war, which would have a direct impact on the GERD talks. However, the border squabble will also offer leverage to Sudan in its GERD talks, while Ethiopia is losing international support over the issue. For Egypt, this is an important opportunity to secure more international support in the GERD talks and secure a favourable settlement over the dam’s filling schedule and operations. In this scenario, Egypt will depend on its close allies the US and UAE to pressure Ethiopia into making concession.
A binding agreement on the GERD still seems far off. Following the divisive Tigray War and Oromia uprising last year, and ahead of widely anticipated elections this year, Ethiopia is unlikely to offer any major concessions on the GERD, which remains a highly symbolic project for Ethiopian national pride and crucial for accelerating Ethiopia’s economic development. But still, following the Tigray War and amid the al-Fashqa unrest, Egypt is a step closer to securing a legally binding agreement on the use of the dam in times of drought, with support of Sudan, South Sudan, Somaliland, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has assumed the African Union presidency in 2021, taking over from Ethiopia-leaning South Africa.
Meanwhile, Egyptian media have also escalated a war of words, claiming that Turkish forces support the Ethiopian federal offensive in Tigray, which is incorrect. Nevertheless, Turkish support for Ethiopia has enraged Egypt and Sudan, who are aligned with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Regardless, the prospect of Egyptian air strikes on the GERD remains low, as Egypt is already benefiting from Ethiopia’s tarnished international reputation following claims of genocide in Tigray that will weaken its stance in Blue Nile negotiations, once these resume. Any Egyptian attempt to intervene at the GERD site would either require a lengthy military occupation of Ethiopian territory, or air strikes targeting the dam. It is therefore most likely that some level of a return to talks will continue with further delays on key matters, as each country looks to shore up external support, which Ethiopia now lacks (for more on Blue Nile war scenarios see SPECIAL REPORT: BLUE NILE DISPUTE BECOMES HIJACKED BY NATIONALIST SABRE RATTLING).