2008 Genet Mersha’s retrospect:       Is The Ethio-Sudan border a ‘repulsive rumour’, as alleged officially, or …?

4 Jul

By Keffyalew Gebremedhin, The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)

by Genet Mersha, 21 May 2008

At a time when the scourge of drought and famine is casting its ugly shadow over residents of six out of the nine regions of our country,[i] the attention of Ethiopians is distracted by allegations of yet another injury to our territorial integrity. The recent story from Ethio-Sudanese border alleges that: (a) Ethiopia has handed over part of its territory to the Sudan, (b) Sudanese forces have taken some 33 Ethiopians prisoners, and, (c) the Agazi force is assisting Sudanese forces against the Ethiopians. If true, not only that this represents the height of insanity, but also it is extremely disturbing and unconscionable.

Admittedly, the information we have had so far may only be adequate for concern and worries, but not to pass informed judgement. Unlike the past, however, the current allegation has persisted, partly owing to unintended transparency on the Sudanese side and corroboration of the same on DW radio and the VOA that attributed their information this time to Ethiopian sources familiar with the situation. In the light of this, it is the duty of citizens to express their strongest concerns and exert pressure on government to restrain itself from exploiting the evolving Ethio-Sudanese relations for its narrower and short-term security and political interests. If the story is truly unfounded, as alleged in the 12 May statement, government should come out clean and provide citizens with sufficient clarifications, instead of its dismissiveness. That would give us all the much-needed opportunity for undivided attention to seek ways to help our people who are now suspended between life and death because of the drought and famine that has been creeping for some time now.

Understandably, many Ethiopian citizens are frustrated by the long and deliberate information blackout on an issue of such significance and national importance. For many, this current allegation revives memory of the toxic 1993 decision that rendered our country landlocked and has poisoned its politics ever since. The fact that the regime has made the question of access to the sea an important leg of its foreign and security policy since 1998 is only a reflection of its belated realization of Ethiopia’s dependence on a narrow corridor between Addis and Djibouti for its survival. Recently, in the context of the current Djibouti-Eritrea tensions, Prime Minister Meles indicated, “…Ethiopia will make sure the corridor is safe and sound.”[ii] Perhaps that message was intended for Eritrea. Nonetheless, as far as Ethiopians are concerned, neither has it provided them with a sense of security nor trust in government policies. On the contrary, as seen from the responses of citizens on the matter on the various WebPages, they have limited their comments to a strong attribution of charges of original sinfulness against the regime even 15 years after Eritrea was awarded its independence, without any say from Ethiopians. If the regime had grown wiser in 17 years, it should have now refrained from taking its citizens for granted, for it would only deepen their distrust of its motives and political judgements.

It is granted that Ethio-Sudanese relations are complicated, full of mischief and age-old claims and counterclaims of land that each side has seized or lost during decades of proxy wars. The fact is that Ethiopian citizens will never come to know, not even laser-eyed experts, about the true nature and quality of the agreements the two sides have concluded in recent years behind closed doors and at the highest levels possible. However, land transfers that involve displacement of high number of farmers, looting and destruction of investor properties cannot be hidden forever. In view of the seriousness of the issue, truth would always find its way giving citizens yet another opportunity to judge whether the policy of expediency has once again put Ethiopian territorial integrity to danger. Until the truth comes out, the current allegations of government dealings in land will linger on.

In response to the current gush of concerns and anger that hit the airwaves repeatedly a few weeks back, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 12 May issued a statement of denial[iii] that was only very late by a few years. As usual, its statement put the blame on concerned citizens, rather than its deliberate suppression of information. We are used to it that it is an indication the government is still unwilling to listen and respond in a timely fashion to its citizens concerns. On this serious issue, it should expect that the public would be of the mind that there would be no smoke without fire.

Consequently, government now finds itself in a tight corner of its own making. Even then, the most honourable course should have been to invite credible and independent media personalities, prominent citizens or academics to investigate the alleged story on the ground and the border incidents, immediately after the Deutche Welle and VOA reports. I do not think it is too late for that even now. Absent that, the stale statement by the Ministry remains mere denial by a ‘suspect’ against the words of an ‘accomplice,’ who of its own volition has revealed the appointed time for the handover of the disputed lands.


In his opening statement at the Seventh Session of Ethio-Sudanese Ministerial Commission at Addis Ababa, Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin on 26 June 2007 confirmed completion of the work of the Boundary Committee. At the time, the Foreign Minister declared:

…the significant achievements registered in a short period of time were sources of inspiration to redouble joint efforts…The completion of the Metema-Galabat-Gadarif road and the micro-wave link project as well as Ethiopia’s access to Port Sudan have paved the ground for enhanced cooperation between the two sisterly countries… The efforts made by the two sides to fully implement the agreements concluded during the Sixth Joint Ministerial Commission meeting regarding air transport, civil aviation and port utilization were encouraging. The joint Technical Boundary Committee has finalized the project proposal for the redemarcation of the long common boundary, [which is] extremely critical for putting Ethio-Sudanese relations on a firm and dependable basis[i] (Emphasis added).

That was 11 months ago. The key phrase in that latest revelation is “…has finalized the project proposal for the redemarcation…” which in practice involves territorial adjustments. Since this issue involves two sides, it is possible, so long as Ethiopia’s historical claims and the longstanding connection of the people to the land are respected and preserved. However, some chronological anomaly raises the question of timing. Almost a year before the above-mentioned jubilant declaration by the Ethiopian Foreign Minister, the Sudanese envoy Ambassador Abu Zeid, in an exclusive interview with Walta Information Centre (WIC), told the international community that agreement on the border was already the on the table in 2006. To that effect, he noted:

Ethiopia and Sudan have made boundary an issue of development and cooperation rather than of conflict. Sudan has about 10 [sic] neighbouring countries, but the way it manages its boundary issues with Ethiopia is exemplary to other African countries. The boundary of Ethiopia and Sudan is actually demarcated, yet the actual work on the ground remains a homework to both countries only because it is beyond their financial capacity.[ii] (Emphasis added).

Therefore, in reading the two positions side by side, one is left with more questions than answers. With respect to the Technical Boundary Committee, one also gets the impression that its individual members were assembled merely to carry out land surveys and to put marks on the ground, upon receipt of political decisions, despite the claim by the Minister that they “finalized project proposals.” The question here is did they have the requisite expertise in various disciplines and the independence, as in the past, to stand even on the way of political decisions when their findings warranted that? Commonsense dictates that government would do better, if it clarified to its citizens the process, if possible, and especially how the decision to hand over land is arrived at, if at all, that is true.

In addition, the Sudanese claim of 3 July 2007, which came one week after the opening of the Seventh Session of the Ministerial Commission, is an official position by the Sudanese government, as a party to the agreement. Their claim is unequivocal in its assertion that the actual handover of land “would start today”; that was eleven months ago, according to Governor Abdelrahman al-Khidir of Al-Gadarif State. At the time, the Governor said, “The joint Sudanese-Ethiopian committee would start today to hand over agricultural lands to residents of more than 17 Sudanese villages located in eastern Atbara River… Technical arrangements have been finished and a committee of seven experts from each side would give the Sudanese farmers their lands.”[iii](Emphasis added). If this is false, why were Ethiopian officials tongue-in-cheek this long, only to come one year later to tell the world that it was not true? The Ethiopian statement says, “What is going on at present is preparation to set the marks in the future.”(Emphasis added). On top of that, the strongly worded Amharic version of the statement rejects the allegation of land transfer as a “repulsive rumour.”

One thing is certain; both the Sudanese claim and the Ethiopian denial cannot stand the same test of authenticity. At the same time, given that two parties are involved in this matter, citizens understand that there is another side to this equation—the interests of the Sudanese side. Thus, could the Sudanese claim be a sleight of hand intended to prod Ethiopia into faster implementation of the agreement? Obviously, we do not know the answer to that question either. In the light of these, I have warmed up to Fekade Shewakena’s suggestion, where he says, “… we all need to take a step back and deliberate on the issue as one people with calm and reason and well founded evidence.”[iv]

Might I add at this point that, had government been forthcoming and provided its citizens with the appropriate information in a timely manner, it would not have found itself in the unfortunate position of contradicting its partner’s claims! 


As mentioned above, Ethio-Sudanese relations have always been sensitive, complicated and tricky. Until recently, the work of the joint Ethio-Sudanese Boundary Committee under successive regimes in Ethiopia and the Sudan had been decidedly nebulous and purposely ambivalent. Whereas the Boundary Committee got into the news on rare occasions, the post 1972 diplomacy seemed to give the air that the two countries were better off with the border issue left to slumber in the manner of the imaginary Rip van Winkle. The reason for that embrace of inaction was the fear of unsatisfactory solution being more ominous than the problem itself. In the meantime, the two countries continued to exploit every opportunity and for a better part of their relations and intensified their mutual bleeding quietly, including stepping into each other’s borders.

In terms of scores, therefore, against the best hopes or perhaps miscalculation of Ethiopian foreign policy of those days, long years of patient Sudanese efforts indisputably succeeded in 1991 in unseating the military government, thereby facilitating the reconfiguration of our territory with the secession of Eritrea in 1993. However, the two former beneficiaries of Sudanese assistance (TPLF & EPLF), continued proxy wars against the Sudan, instead of turning out to be grateful friends, as the Sudan had hoped or wanted to dictate the course of events.

In the case of Ethiopia, its proxy war this time aimed partly to counter Sudan’s aggressive efforts of the late 1980s that continued into the 1990s to Islamaize Ethiopia by showering poor rural citizens with Saudi, Iranian and Libyan monies. Therefore, Ethiopia supported the SPLA and had a brief courtship with the NDA too. This continued as an official TPLF/EPRDF policy until 2002, when the latter uncovered SPLM hosting 2,400 OLF fighters within the territory it had liberated.[v] They were directly flown by Eritrea for operation against Ethiopia. At the time, the commander of Ethiopian forces in the west told the BBC that captured OLF fighters had confessed that the leadership of both the OLF and Eritrea had deceived the fighters in telling them that they were being flown to the United States.[vi]

In its brief existence, hence, Eritrea’s major contribution has been to force closeness among the countries of the region. Its bellicose policies sent shock waves into the establishments in Addis Ababa, Djibouti, Khartoum and Sana’a. These countries took good note of Eritrea’s enormous capacity and expertise in what I call ‘insurrectionary diplomacy’, which proved effective in training, arming and dispatching insurgents faster than goods on sophisticated Chinese assembly lines. For these countries, therefore, the evidence of Eritrea’s mischief and trouble making had found ample expressions early on in its: (a) contention with the Sudan over their undemarcated border and its support for anti-Khartoum fronts in eastern, southern and western Sudan, (b) 1996 skirmishes with Yemen over the Hanish Islands, (c) repeated incursions into Djibouti, and, (d) 1998-2000 bloody war with Ethiopia.

History has hardly recorded times and places where mere sovereign earnestness has brought closeness and amity between nations, or sustained good neighbourliness in a vacuum. There is always, I repeat advisedly, always, a driving force that brings nations closer, much as there are always reasons for hostilities and termination of relations. Here also, there is ample evidence to suggest that since the late 1990s both Ethiopia and the Sudan have needed each other for similar and different reasons. The Sudan, which was beset by internal conflicts badly needed allies, especially a strong one, completely isolated as it was because of international disapproval of its behaviour. Ethiopia also needed security and an alternative access to the sea for its trade with the outside world, after Assab became off limits for it in 1998.

Therefore, the Ethio-Eritrean war of 1998-2000 provided conclusive evidence to both Ethiopia and the Sudan that they were better off coming closer together more than ever before. Consequently, in the years from 2000-2005, Ethiopia and the Sudan signed the largest ever number of bilateral agreements, compared to those from 1956-2000. At the same time, in the eyes of both countries, proxy war as an instrument of foreign policy now proved less valuable. They realized in time that it would undermine their fundamental interests and needs, because of the following reasons:

  • First, the immense pressure Eritrea’s aggressive posture exerted on both Ethiopia and the Sudan accentuated the vulnerability and security needs of the two countries that have a large number of opposition groups within their territories. For the Sudan, its internal conflicts were also widening.
  • Second, there is shared perception among analysts that the emergence of Ethiopia victorious from the war against Eritrea impressed upon the Sudan the need to improve relations with Ethiopia, now as the dominant power in the sub-region. Sudan recognizes that of the nine countries it is bordering with, Ethiopia is the only neighbour in the east that it faces on its northern front and the troubled south along their 1,606 km border. Therefore, the Sudan needed no proof that a stable Ethiopia is key to the solution, if possible, if not, to the containment of its internal problems, especially in the south and the east and diplomatically also in the West in respect of Darfur through its influence within the region.
  • Third, landlocked Ethiopia needed the Sudan to agree to its use of its Port Sudan on the Red Sea. Following a negotiation that took place longer than two years, Ethiopia got the right of use of the port in 2002.
  • Fourth, Since the mid-1990s the Sudan has become the third largest oil exporting country in Africa, with production capacity of 500,000 barrels per day (2005). According to some energy experts, Khartoum has proven reserves of 563 million barrels of light sweet crude oil that is easily refined and most desirable.[vii] A huge potential also exists in the regions that still need to be pacified—in the south and west.[viii] Therefore, Sudan realizes that it could pave its road to oil wealth only when it is at peace with its neighbours, and when there is security within the country.
  • Fifth, the common friendship Ethiopia and the Sudan have in China has helped the two countries in coordinating their regional and international policies on issues of common interest to both, thereby contributing to improved understanding and trust between the two neighbours. An evidence of that is the shift in Ethiopian foreign policy since 2003 in respect of Darfur. In 2004, Ethiopia’s position was less committal and only exhibited keen interest “to see the Darfur crisis resolved and the humanitarian tragedy dealt with as speedily as possible.”[ix]In January 2006, the Ethiopian Foreign Minister criticized “internationalization of the Darfur crisis,” noting “the issue is a local one.”[x] Furthermore, according to Chinese news sources, Prime Minister Meles has assured the Chinese of his opposition to any form of pressure or sanctions against the Sudan.[xi]
  • Sixth, isolation resulting from Sudan’s fundamentalist policies and the threat from the international community had helped in accelerating the break in the alliance between the al-Bashir government and the Turabi-led fundamentalists in 1999, thereby minimizing to itself the danger from outside while at the same time giving some degree of confidence to Ethiopia. Greater US military focus and involvement in Africa with the establishment of the Africa Command (Africom) in February 2007 also reinforced the change in Sudanese behaviour. Africom is established to respond to the dangers posed by China to Western interests in Africa on one hand and Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism in the Horn of Africa with the Sudan and Somalia as it targets on the other.


There is always the potential for Ethiopia and the Sudan to benefit hugely from closer cooperation. To date, the most important dividend, among others, has been Egypt’s acceptance after 102 years of shenanigan Ethiopia’s unchallenged right to use the Nile water for its national development. For a long time, Egypt has anchored its Ethio-Sudanese policy on the 1902 British colonial treaty and its bilateral 1959 agreement with the Sudan, thereby extorting veto power over the water and special privileges for itself. For several decades, Egypt succeeded in blocking Ethiopia from raising international project finance for irrigation and building dams for electricity, immensely contributing to the perpetuation of cycles of drought and famine and, hence, abject poverty in Ethiopia. Moreover, since the days of President Sadat, Egypt had declared intention to go to war if Ethiopia built dams on the Nile River. Times changed and the rapprochement with Sudan compelled Egypt in 2004 at a trilateral meeting of Egypt, Ethiopia and the Sudan to recognize for the first time Ethiopia’s right of use of the water. The Egyptian declaration came through Mr. Mahmud Abu Zeid, the Egyptian Minister of Water Resources, who uttered that famous sentence, “Ethiopia has the right to build dams.”[xii]

On the economic front, Ethiopia and the Sudan have fostered growing trade relations, although data is hard to come by. In terms of volume, not only that it is insignificant, especially considering that Ethiopia’s exports to nay market are supply constrained, but also that Ethiopia is hardly Sudan’s important trading partner. However, after Djibouti and Somalia, Sudan is one of the three important Ethiopian export destinations in Africa for live animals, coffee and pulses. Recently, the Ethiopian National Bank reported that of the 16.6 percent of Ethiopia’s export that went to Africa in 2007/08, 90 percent headed to those three African countries, of which the share of live animals for the three countries was 11.4 percent and pulse 10 percent.[xiii] In the course of these budding relations, however, while trade especially from the Ethiopian side has hardly shown meaningful increases, obviously the balance continues to be in favour of the Sudan. Presently, negotiations are also underway for the interconnection of electric grids between the two countries, possibly enabling Ethiopia at future date to sale electricity to the Sudan and cover the costs of its oil imports from that country.

One advantage so far for Ethiopia of their energy agreement is that, at a time when the skyrocketing price of oil is taxing heavily the economies of developed countries and bankrupting developing nations, the Sudan has been providing Ethiopia 80 percent of its gasoline imports at a fixed and, thus, relatively, cheaper price. As a result, since 2003 it is estimated that Ethiopia might have gained from seven to ten million dollars annually.[xiv]Moreover, in view of sanctions imposed on the Sudan by the United States in 2007 and the prohibition of transfer of currency to Sudanese banks, Ethiopian import prices are paid either through a Letter of Credit (LC)[xv] or in barter trade, with Ethiopia paying in agricultural products.[xvi]Finally, infrastructure development like highway (156 km Metema-Gadariff) and telecommunications are completed further facilitating trade and commerce between the two countries.

All said and done, it must be stressed that at this stage the driving force behind Ethio-Sudanese relations and cooperation has primarily been the security needs of both sides. The difficulties that sometimes both sides experience in their negotiations in other sectors rather reflect that dependence and caution, instead of the potentials or the inherent difficulties in the other sectors. Ethiopia needs to be able to foresee the needs of the other side clearly and evaluate it on a longer time scale.


We now live in a fast changing world, in which the interests and considerations of nations are also undergoing significant changes. In all history, however, what has been constant is nations’ commitment and determination to ensure and maximize their interests and gains. The TPLF understands that better than anyone else does. In March 2007, Ato Sebhat Nega reportedly assured TPLF members in North America that the TPLF/EPRDF regime would remain stable and in power as long as the Sudan does not allow its territory to be a staging ground for attacks by armed groups. While on the surface the assumption is plausible for any Ethiopian government, past, present and future, Ato Sebhat went further in stressing explicitly that the TPLF would do everything to maintain good relations with the Sudan in order to prevent opposition forces from obtaining bases in that country.[xvii]

On purpose, this paper has dwelt at length on the delicate nature of the relations between Ethiopia and the Sudan and their mutually beneficial aspects. Its intention is to impress on anyone interested in that part of the world the importance of Ethio-Sudanese relations today and tomorrow. However, the fact that today security is ensured, highways are constructed, commerce is facilitated or oil is sold to Ethiopia at preferential prices or the nation has an alternative access to the sea is no adequate justification for any government to give away Ethiopian lands, if at all, that is being contemplated or if it has happened . In any language and culture, the surrender of national territory is a treasonous act.

As history has proved time again, any agreement that is driven by the survival interests of the governing party alone would be no different from an attempt at reinventing the imaginary Frankenstein that caused the demise of its own creator. In other words, it creates alienation between citizens and government. Also, it would leave behind problems for future generations, in view of the fact that recouping today’s losses at any time in the future would be next to impossible. This is because the claim of the other side would be strengthened by virtue of origin of concession. Above all, it would spoil the otherwise relatively healthy people-to-people relations between the two countries. Unlike others, it does not need immense  efforts at revitalization or restoration, as the others especially in the north and the south that have been spoiled by years of wars and the ensuing enmity reckless propaganda have fostered.

As we live in a volatile region that is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, decisions on agreements with long-term implications to our national interests should not be influenced by temporary security, political and economic considerations. Such an action would hardly spare any government of the wrath of present and future generations, not to speak of the judgement of history.

The changing needs of states and mutating cells are not necessarily the measures of essence or permanence. Similarly, Ethio-Sudanese relations need to be handled with foresight and fortitude borne of history, and bearing in mind our country’s place and destiny in the region and in the world.

[i] ENA, Ethio-Sudanese cooperation witnesses marked progress, 26 June 2007.

[ii] ENA, Ethio-Sudan border commission meet concludes, 26 May 2006.

[iii] Sudan Tribune, ‘Eastern Sudan farmers get back disputed lands from Ethiopia.’ 2 July 2007.

[iv] Abugidainfo.com, Some points on the Ethio-Sudanese border flap, 15 May 2008.

[v] J. Young, Sudan’s Changing Relations with its Neighbours and the Implications for War and Peace, 2002.

[vi] BBC, Fighting on Ethiopia-Sudan Border, 29 June 2002.

[vii] Council on Foreign Relations, China, Africa and Oil, 26 January 2007.

[viii] Michael T. Klare. Rising Powers Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy, 2008, p. 212

[ix] Seyoum Mesifn, Statement at UNGA 59, 28th September 2004, New York.

[x] Suna 20 January 2006.

[xi] People’s Daily Online, 19 June 2007,

[xii] ENA, Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt reach agreement on Nile River projects, 29 June 2004.

[xiii] National Bank of Ethiopa, 1st Quarter 2007/08, p. 49.

[xiv] Alexander’s Gas and Oil Connections, Ethiopia to import oil from Sudan, 24 January 2003.

[xv] ibid.

[xvi] Fortune, 11 May 2008; The Sudan Tribune, 17 January 2008.

[xvii] http://www.alenalki.com, “Sebhat Nega’s meets Tigrayans in the Diaspora” 8 March 2007.

[i] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Ethiopia,  Situation Report: Drought in Ethiopia, 16      May 2008.

[ii] Reuters, 15 May 2008.

[iii] Statement on border demarcation by Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 12 May 2008.

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