Panellists in AJCS webinar: The border conflict between Sudan and Ethiopia is not likely to become a total war

From top left clockwise: Noureddine Abda, Taj el-Sir Abdullah Mohamed Omar, Al Jazeera Mubasher presenter Mohammed Dahou, Libaan Ahmed Shari and Ahmed Farid Mawlana. [Al Jazeera]

Al Jazeera Centre for Studies and Al Jazeera Mubasher organised a webinar entitled, “Border Conflict between Sudan and Ethiopia: Where to?”, on Tuesday, 16 February 2021. Its panellists were Sudanese researcher Taj el-Sir Abdullah Mohamed Omar, Ethiopian researcher Noureddine Abda, Somali researcher Libaan Ahmed Shari and Egyptian researcher Ahmed Farid Mawlana.

The webinar presented the background of the political and military tension between Sudan and Ethiopia and its relationship with the Renaissance Dam and disputes between the downstream countries over the re-allocation of the Nile waters. It also discussed the effects of this tension on the security and stability of the Horn of Africa; and the panellists touched on the possibilities of escalation or de-escalation in the foreseeable future.

Moreover, the panellists presented readings of the crisis between Sudan and Ethiopia from the perspectives of their respective countries and commented on them from their own angles.

The Sudanese vision

On the Sudanese position towards the crisis over the border area of al-Fashqa, Taj el-Sir Abdullah Mohamed Omar stated that Khartoum does not seek to escalate the military situation and that the Sudanese military is in its territory. He also maintained that Sudan wants peace and stability in this transitional period until the next regime can settle the matter.

Omar also added that he does not foresee Ethiopia pursuing military escalation either as it needs to preserve its efforts for development, and that that is indicated by its desire to resolve the issue of the Renaissance Dam and the dispute it has with Eritrea peacefully. He concluded that the conflict regarding al-Fashqa will not go beyond this framework or escalate given Ethiopia’s strategy of pacification.

“Sudan is relying on the new US administration led by President Joe Biden to reach a solution to the conflict pertaining to the Renaissance Dam. Khartoum expects a more effective role from the European Union, which coordinates with the United States, in this issue, especially as Washington wants to push Chinese influence out of the region,” he said.

The Ethiopian vision

On his part, Noureddine Abda asserted that the Renaissance Dam is the strategic factor affecting the region, not the conflict over al-Fashqa.

He added that the previous US administration, under Donald Trump, made negotiations – whether bilateral between Egypt and Ethiopia or trilateral between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan – solely between the United States itself and Ethiopia to pressure Addis Ababa. However, its pursuit failed as Ethiopia did not yield.

Abda indicated that Ethiopia has numerous cards it can use to deal with American and European pressures regarding the Renaissance Dam, including the Chinese card. This is because China and Ethiopia’s relationship, according to him, is a strong one; and Chinese investments in Africa, particularly in the Horn of Africa, are immense and reflect the extent of China’s interest, which the United States is aware of. The latter is also aware that keeping Chinese influence away from Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa is in its best interest. Therefore, Abda expects the Biden administration to deal with the Renaissance Dam crisis in a balanced manner.

Abda also argued that while Ethiopia does not view Sudan as diplomatically escalating the issue of al-Fashqa, on the ground, it did conduct an integrated military operation. Nonetheless, he said that Ethiopia is on the verge of the second phase of filling and is keen to pacify the internal and external situation. Thus, it is not likely to escalate the border conflict or the Renaissance Dam crisis.

The Somali vision

Libaan Ahmed Shari presented the Somali vision on the basis of two scenarios. The first scenario is that there is a diplomatic solution, negotiation, and a search for peaceful solutions with the help of third-party mediation, and that this is in the interest of all parties whether those in the conflict themselves or the regional and international actors who are keen to avoid the escalation of disputes in the Horn of Africa.

The second scenario is escalation. However, according to him, neither Sudan nor Ethiopia wants matters to reach the point of total war for any reason; and thus, this scenario is unlikely.

Regarding the African Union, Shari does not expect it to have a decisive role because it does not have mechanisms and tools that enable it to play an effective and binding part. In fact, he believes that it is only capable of playing an advisory role, working towards facilitating an environment for dialogue and negotiation, bridging the gap between perspectives, and forming committees dedicated to arbitration and conflict resolution. It will not make mandatory decisions, but rather recommendations and suggestions.

The Egyptian vision

Egyptian researcher Ahmed Farid Mawlana presented his reading of Cairo’s position towards the crisis of al-Fashqa, affirming that “the relative escalation we have seen in the crisis was in pursuit of negotiations, not a total war...”

On Egypt’s vision of the Renaissance Dam crisis and the means of resolving it, Mawlana revealed, “Cairo is eager to reach a peaceful solution through negotiation to the dispute with Ethiopia but the latter is stalling until the date of the second filling.” He added that Cairo believes that Ethiopia is also delaying the resolution of the issue of al-Fashqa, which Addis Ababa recognises as Sudanese territory, and that when Sudanese forces moved to restore it, the recent tension occurred.

Regarding Cairo’s vision of the potential role of the European Union in resolving the Renaissance Dam crisis, he stated that Egypt believes that the former, especially Germany, could play an important role in the dispute, and attributes the importance of the EU’s role to the cards the EU has to pressure Ethiopia.

In addition, Mawlana warned against letting the Renaissance Dam crisis exacerbate further without a solution. He said, “matters are subject to escalation and may reach the point of war if influential international parties do not intervene.” He cited a proverb that says, “most of the fire is from the smallest of sparks,” recalling major wars that erupted due to small events such as the first World War that started in the wake of the assassination of the Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Thus, he reasoned, the conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia should not be underestimated as Egypt views the Renaissance Dam crisis as an existential crisis that threatens its share of the water, which will then affect its agriculture, industry and life overall. This may prompt Egypt to take on a vast range of options.

On resolving the Renaissance Dam crisis, Mawlana maintained that Cairo finds the presence of international mediation alongside African mediation necessary to defuse it. Otherwise, the crisis may get out of hand. He added that Cairo does not believe the African Union has tools of coercion; therefore, the existence of international mediation, European and American in particular, is necessary to prevent the eruption of a war and ensuing chaos in the Horn of Africa.

On Egypt’s reliance on the US position under the Biden administration, Mawlana contended that when Cairo escalated its position towards the Libyan crisis, declared the Sirte-Jufra frontline a red line, and mobilised its forces, it pushed the major countries concerned with stability in that region to search for peaceful solutions, resulting in important breakthroughs. Hence, he concludes, Cairo seeks to do the same in the Renaissance Dam crisis by exerting a kind of escalation to prompt major countries to intervene. But this will only be achieved by pushing it to the edge.