By Morris Kiruga
Sudan has sworn in a new defence minister, just days after clashes erupted between the country’s forces and a militia group from neighboring Ethiopia.
Khartoum’s transitional government appointed a retired military head, Major General Yassin Ibrahim Yassin, to replace General Gamal al-Din Omar, who died more than two months ago in South Sudan. The 62-year-old Yassin took over just days after a diplomatic row erupted between Sudan and Ethiopia over border incursions by Ethiopians.
On Thursday, 28 May, Sudan said an Ethiopian militia group “supported by the Ethiopian army” had attacked its military in the border region of Al-Fashqa.
The region, nestled within the Sudanese state of Al-Qadarif, has been part of a long-running border dispute between the two countries since the late 1950s.
- Although Sudan has raised concern over the presence of Ethiopian settlers within its borders, former strongman Omar al-Bashir essentially turned a blind eye to the incursions, choosing instead to engage in lengthy border demarcation negotiations with Ethiopia.
- In 2014, Khartoum and Addis Ababa restarted border demarcation negotiations which had been halted after the death of Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi. The new negotiations were also interrupted by the exit of Zenawi’s successor, Hailemariam Desalgn, and political upheaval in Khartoum.
- The most recent attacks left several Sudanese casualties, including a child. Khartoum said the Ethiopian military’s involvement was evident, a claim Addis Ababa has not directly challenged.
Ethiopians on Sudanese farmland
There are more than 1,700 Ethiopians on Sudanese farmland, Sudan’s foreign affairs minister said in mid-May. The two countries, which share a 1,600 km border, now plan to finish the border demarcation process by March 2021.
In a statement released on its Facebook page on 31 May, Ethiopia expressed sympathy for the “victims of both countries” and suggested the two countries undertake joint investigations.
“In the spirit of containing the situation on the ground and avoiding any further tension, the Ministry urges that the two countries should work together through existing military mechanisms to address and jointly investigate circumstances surrounding the incident,” the statement read.
The border dispute has resurfaced while the two countries are engaged in on-off negotiations with Egypt over Ethiopia’s GERD dam, which was set to begin operations next month. Negotiations between the three countries have collapsed several times, but are set to begin again after Sudanese Prime Minister Hamdok talked directly to his counterparts.
Both Sudan and Ethiopia have a lot to agree on regarding the dam negotiations and border demarcation process but the recent accusations of military involvement might complicate their relationship.
“Sudan suffers a 40% deficit in electricity production and is looking forward to meeting its needs from GERD,” noted an analysis by the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram. “Khartoum is also keen to sustain good relations with Addis Ababa to ensure that the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) does not receive assistance that will strengthen its power in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, both of which are adjacent to Ethiopia,” said Al-Ahram.
Ethiopia, on the other hand, needs Sudan’s support in the GERD negotiations, as well as continued access to the latter’s ports and support in curbing irredentism in shared border regions.
Bottom Line: It is unlikely that Yassin’s appointment will escalate border tensions between Khartoum and Addis Ababa, both of which are going through different stages of political transition and need to work together on internal and regional issues.