Ethiopia: Can Sudan use Tigray refugees as a bargaining chip?

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Ethiopia’s Tigray: New frontier for regional interests

By Anne-Marie Bissada
Posted on Monday, 22 November 2021 16:07, updated on Thursday, 25 November 2021 18:12

Ethiopian refugees wait in lines for a meal at the Um Rakuba refugee camp, on the Sudan-Ethiopia border
Ethiopian refugees wait in lines for a meal at the Um Rakuba refugee camp which houses Ethiopian refugees fleeing the fighting in the Tigray region, on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, Sudan, November 28, 2020. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

A year after the Tigray war erupted in northern Ethiopia, there’s growing fear that not only will the union of rebel forces enter the capital Addis Ababa, but the spillover effect risks weakening an already fragile region. But could the chaos within Ethiopia’s borders play into the advantage of Sudan, especially since its coup d’état has once again further destablised the country?

This is part 4 of a 5-part series

Prior to Khartoum’s military takeover by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the country was still on shaky territory as the transitional government – headed by Abdalla Hamdok – tried to consolidate a mixed government between civilian and military. At the time of writing this, Burhan had announced that Hamdok will be allowed to return to his former position as prime minister.

Opportunity knocks

After 25 years under the government of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), and 21 years under Sudan’s main party, the National Congress Party – headed by Omar al-Bashir – the two neighbours entered a new phase, almost simultaneously.

In 2018, Abiy Ahmed shone as Ethiopia’s new and modern head of state, ushering in a fresh future for the country. The Sudanese revolution in 2019 completed what was never thought possible: an end to Bashir’s grip on power and that of his Islamist affiliates.

“There was hope that the emergence of these two transitions could lead to a strong foundation in terms of the relationship between Sudan and Ethiopia and also boost broader regional stability,” says Ahmed Soliman, a Horn of Africa researcher at Chatham House. Instead, what happened was a negative shift in the bilateral relationship between the two.

Instead, what happened was a shift in the bilateral relationship between the two.

Previously, Bashir’s Sudan had aligned itself with the TPLF, but when Abiy took over as prime minister, he dissolved the EPRDF – thereby breaking up the four main parties: Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM) – and created his new Prosperity Party that merged three of the four main parties, excluding the TPLF. Bashir was already weary of this new government.

However, Hamdok had lived in Addis Ababa for many years and knew the country well, so upon assuming his role as prime minister, he was “welcoming of this transition and change in Ethiopia” says Soliman. When Sudan was surprisingly elected to chair the regional bloc IGAD – a role that Ethiopia had clung to since 2008 through blocking the yearly Ordinary Summit – there was no pushback from Abiy.

In November 2020, at the start of the first offensive into Tigray, it was assumed that Khartoum would be well placed to mediate the tensions, as Addis Ababa had done in Sudan between the civilians and the military. This, however, never materialised. “Hamdok’s efforts to reach out to the Ethiopian government were pushed aside…that was detrimental for the bilateral relations of the two,” says Soliman.

Planting a flag

This is when Sudan started to take some action.

Trying to assert its power, Khartoum’s military – “with a long record of failure” outside of its citizens – seized the opportunity to mark the disputed border with Ethiopia at al-Fashqa, says Magdi al-Gizouli of the Rift Valley Institute.

According to the colonial-era treaties of 1902 and 1907, the international boundary runs to the east, but there is nothing to clearly mark the border. Instead, while there are cultural differences on either side of the border i.e. Christian Amhara and Sunni Muslim Sudanese. The area has always been a source of illicit trade and is where seasonal workers from Ethiopia would cross over to Sudan to work. Products from Sudan would also be sent over to Ethiopia for a better market price.

The Sudanese side seems to be pushing in so as to inflame the situation on the ground.

In June 2020, there was an attack – reportedly led by an Ethiopian militia group “supported by the Ethiopian army” – against the Sudanese military barracks in the border region of al-Fashqa.

By November, with the Tigray war in full force, it was time for Sudan to use the distraction to its benefit.

As Ghouzli says, nobody was interested in a cross-border war at the time, “neither side [was]”, but it was a means of Khartoum to assert its control over the area following the earlier attack. Given that the Sudanese army is not powerful, in comparison to Ethiopia’s, Khartoum could at least flex its muscle to the Amhara militia that had initiated the earlier attack.

Bargaining tool

After Ethiopia’s offensive in Tigray, tens of thousands of refugees streamed into Eastern Sudan. At the time, Khartoum was starting to break out from its isolation and was in talks with Washington to be taken off their state-sponsored terror list. This would allow Sudan to be open to debt relief and investors.

One way to secure its reentry into the international scene was to use the influx of Ethiopian refugees into its borders as a “chip in talks with the aid community about the need for funds to support the refugees”, says Ghouzli.

As the war intensifies in Ethiopia, the stream of refugees remains strong, with Khartoum promising to open two more refugee camps. This bodes well for Burhan’s charm offensive against the international community that has condemned his military coup.

If Sudan cannot control the refugee crisis within its own borders, then Europe risks being a new target, an outcome the EU is trying to avoid. It’s a way for Khartoum to ease its diplomatic pressure.

Dam of discord

Ahead of the start of the Tigray conflict, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) was mainly opposed by Egypt, with Sudan remaining rather quiet, if not indirectly supportive of Ethiopia.

However, as fighting intensified, so too did Egypt’s efforts to rally more attention to its cause and that of its southern neighbour, Sudan. By December 2020, Khartoum had shifted sides and spoken up against Addis Ababa for its intention to go ahead and fill the dam in 2021, despite no binding agreement.

Its change of tune also seemed to borrow from the Fashqa seizure in November 2020.

On 12 January 2021, Addis Ababa issued a warning to Khartoum that it was running out of patience. “The Sudanese side seems to be pushing in so as to inflame the situation on the ground,” Dina Mufti, an Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesperson, said at the time.

As Sudan and Egypt grew closer over the GERD, so did the influence of Cairo in Khartoum. Egypt has remained relatively neutral, with bouts of support of the recent military coup.

…playing into the fear of a new refugee crisis on European territory is the very thing that [has] given Burhan a sense of legitimacy following his October coup.

Going back to its former ties under Bashir with the TPLF, Khartoum could potentially use this as a means to improve its position at the negotiating table on GERD. As Ghouzli points out, if there is an administration change the TPLF could find itself in the central government again. As such, they may end up “softening its position regarding the GERD” thereby taking it away from Egypt.

However, for the time being, especially in the aftermath of the coup, Sudan can’t get away from Egypt. And it’s unlikely it will make any significant gains on GERD, irrespective of how the war in Ethiopia develops, says Soliman.

Bottom line

Among Ethiopia’s regional neighbours, Sudan stands to gain the least from the ongoing chaos next door. Nevertheless, while Addis Ababa has been busy with the fighting in the north, Khartoum has not remained completely idle.

What’s more, playing into the fear of a new refugee crisis on European territory is the very thing that has given Burhan a sense of legitimacy following his October coup. Allowing Hamdok to return to his role as prime minister could very well be another bargaining tool for Burhan to remain in power.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options
Also in this in Depth:

Former enemies, Ethiopia and Eritrea are fighting on the same side in Tigray war

The first reason that Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 was that he had initiated successful peace talks with the East African country’s existential rival, Eritrea. The benefits of the peace process had been immediately obvious to the region and the international community.

What Somalia stands to gain from Ethiopia’s ongoing Tigray war

After assuming office in early 2018, Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed embarked on radical reforms that have since led to political realignment in his country, spilling over into the horn region. The charismatic and energetic Abiy was only 42 when he took over in 2018 and immediately reached out to long-time rivals Somalia and Eritrea, thereby forging a tripartite alliance that seems to be shaping into a new regional order. But has the Tigray war helped or held-back Somalia’s ambitions with Ethiopia? We find out in this second part of our series.

Ethiopia – Tigray: What does Egypt stand to gain or lose from the one-year war?

As Ethiopian officials continue to claim that foreign forces have fought alongside Tigray fighters in recent battles in the Amhara region, questions arise about how Egypt could benefit from the ongoing conflict that has claimed thousands of lives. There is also the question of if the Egyptian state has been supporting dissenting forces.

Ethiopia – Turkey: Ankara’s ongoing economic and military support

For the last two decades, the relationship between Turkey and Ethiopia has been based on economic interest. With Ethiopia’s goal of attracting foreign investment far from its former reality of an economy based on foreign aid, Ankara’s investments to Ethiopia have increased to $2.5bn.