On Monday 11 January, a week after the second invasion attempt rejected by the Sudanese armed forces, an Ethiopian military planes violated the airspace of Sudan. The incident was classified by the Sudanese Foreign Minister as a provocation intended to aggravate a dangerous and unjustified military escalation between the two countries. On the same day, Ethiopian militias killed six Sudanese peasants.
The violation of Sudanese airspace and the killing of innocents are the latest provocative acts of Ethiopian Prime Minister AbiyAhmed Ali, who decided to occupy the disputed border territories of Al-Fashqa, an area of fertile agricultural land within Sudanese territory. Addis Ababa claims Al-Fashqa as Ethiopian territory as hundreds of miles of Ethiopians live there.
Ethiopian immigration began in the late 1980s and Omar El Bashir (the former Sudanese dictator) allowed them to settle permanently in the region. Over the years an inevitable war broke out between the poor for the control of resources, fully involving the indigenous and Ethiopian communities. Arising from both sides of the militias supported by their respective armies, Al-Fashqa has been living in total insecurity and cyclical ethnic violence for the past 6 years. A mixed committee (Sudanese Ethiopian) charged with controlling the populations has failed miserably.
In reality, all the attention paid by the Ethiopian Premier to the territories of Al-Fashqa and hidden by the nationalist rhetoric is an act obliged by a pact made in August – September 2020 between Premier Abiy and the Amhara leadership to defeat the TPLF leadership. The pact provides for military aid in Tigray in exchange for an increase in the territories of the Amhara region in southern Tigray, in Benishangui-Gumuz and in the Sudanese territories of Al-Fashqa. The pact was sought by Abiy, aware that the federal forces alone at his disposal would not be sufficient to militarily defeat the TPLF in his own territories.
The Al-Fashqa dispute is dangerous as it is closely linked to the controversy over the pace at which Ethiopia fills a gigantic hydroelectric dam on a tributary of the Nile River that is causing a significant decrease in the waters of the sacred river in Sudan and Egypt. The continuous Ethiopian tricks to buy time and “gently” scuttle the possibility of reaching a compromise, led Sudan to desert the last, unsuccessful, meeting on the great DERG dam scheduled for 10 January. The crisis facing the Abiy government makes any compromise capable of protecting the populations, the interests of the states and avoiding regional war even more difficult.
Imagining a war between the two states means assuming a continental disaster, as armies are almost equivalent. The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) in addition to the army and the air force have numerous elite units including the Rapid Support Forces (RFS) and the Reserve Department paramilitary militias. The RSF is an autonomous paramilitary force established in 2013 to fight armed rebel groups in Sudan, with Mohammed HamdanDAGALLO (aka Hemeti) as its commander (he is also Vice President of the Sovereignty Council).
RSF was accused of committing rights violations against civilians. It is also reportedly involved in commercial ventures, such as gold mining and human trafficking to Libya and Europe. At the end of 2019, the chairman of the Sovereignty Council and the commander-in-chief of the SAF, General Abd-al-Fatah al-BURHAN, said that the RSF would be fully integrated into the SAF, without providing a timeline. To this day, the RSF remain a powerful and autonomous department in defence of the military junta that participates in the transitional government.
In total, the Sudanese army has 109,300 personnel (of which 40,000 soldiers engaged in the civil war of Yemen as mercenaries of Saudi Arabia) in addition to about 17,500 paramilitary militias. The armament is mainly Russian and Chinese. Sudan also has a factory for the production of small arms.
The Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) has 160,000 troops, at least half of which are engaged in the conflict in Tigray which is becoming Ethiopian Vietnam. They are joined by about 70,000 local militias. The armament is mainly purchased from Russia, the United States and Eastern European countries (former Soviet bloc). Military service is voluntary but in the event of war the draft becomes mandatory. This makes the Ethiopian army weak. Even if they manage to field 500,000 men, the majority of them run the risk of receiving summary training before being sent to the front to be slaughtered, as happened with the war. a of trench Eritrea – Ethiopia.
The armored units and the aviation of the two countries are equivalent. In January 2020, the Ethiopian government announced that it had restored the navy, which was dissolved in 1996 after Eritrea’s independence. In March 2019, Ethiopia signed a defensecooperation agreement with Paris which provided that France would support the establishment of an Ethiopian navy. In fact, a bribe given that Ethiopia has no outlet to the sea.
Defence expenditure represents 3% of Sudan’s Gross Domestic Product. The Ethiopian ones 0.7%. Various regional observers think that the real percentages of the respective countries are higher but kept hidden for reasons of secrecy. A second weakness of Ethiopia is the federal composition of the armed forces. Each of the nine states that make up the Ethiopian Federation has ownpolice force, special units and local militias that report to the regional civil authorities. These forces are coordinated by the Ethiopian Federal Police (EFP) and the federal army: the EFP. Ironically, the two federal units report to the… Ministry of Peace.
Following the (disheartening) news of the various failures of the DERG dam summits and the Sudan Ethiopia border dispute, one gets the distinct impression that Ethiopian Prime Minister AbiyAhmed Ali is in desperate need for a regional war. A war with a country that has equivalent armed forces at the same time as the unresolved conflict in Tigray is equivalent to suicide, according to our logic, but not for the Ethiopian one.
Abiy is aware that he is bogged down in a war with uncertain outcomes in Tigray which, at the moment, is unable to win despite the help of the Eritrean army. The war and anti-humanity crimes committed reach such dimensions that they oblige the Addis government to continue denying access to international humanitarian organizations and the United Nations, failing to hide the evidence and silence the testimonies. This necessity has a price: international discredit.
The risk of a protracted war in Tigray (as looming on the horizon) makes Abiy weak and could encourage other ethnic groups (first the Oromo) to rebel in their turn. An external war able to compact the nation and postpone any further rebellion is more convenient for the Nobel Peace Prize. It is always better to face two fronts (one in Tigray and the other at Sudan border) than the balkanization of the country. Abiy is well aware that the attempt by the Serbs to preserve the unity of Yugoslavia failed in a bloodbath and the rise of a myriad of stately statues on a national-religious basis.
For the Ethiopian Prime Minister it is practically impossible to give up the territories of Al-Fashqa. The majority of the Ethiopians settled there are Amhara and the regional authorities have demanded the expansion of the Amhara territories as a reward for participating in the Tigrinya conflict. The expansion is aimed at territories of Tigray but also of Sudan: Al-Fashqa, juxtaposed. Abiy cannot betray expectations especially when promises have been made. It would be his immediate end.
Overcoming any political calculations of domestic politics, the war with Sudan would directly involve Egypt and Eritrea. The monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula would split in supporting Egypt or Ethiopia. Turkey would take advantage of it to enter the tragedy as Syria and Libya demonstrate, while the Islamic terrorist group Al-Shabaab (youth), affiliated with DAESH (the real name of ISIS), would take advantage of it to sow chaos in the Ethiopian Somali Region.
Menwhile, as tensions mount with Sudan, the conflict in Tigray continues despite the confirmation of the extrajudicial executions of three members of the TPLF including former foreign minister Seyoum Mesfin and the capture of Sebhat Nega, a founding member of the TPLF. On 28 November last year, the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory in the conflict with the TPLF, after nearly a month of fighting. The fugitive leaders of the TPLF had promised to continue fighting from the mountains of the region in northern Ethiopia.
Killed or captured leaders may not have held leadership roles in the Tigrinya resistance. This would explain the continuation of the conflict. The United Nations believes that airstrikes and battles since early November in Tigray have killed thousands. The fighting continues in some parts and more than 2 million people are in need of help, denied to them by the federal government.
The international community and the media are stressing the urgency of humanitarian aid in the hope of convincing the Ethiopian government to allow unconditional access. Thousands of people die from lack of food, medicine and arbitrary killings by Eritrean soldiers, and Amhara forces. According to the testimonies received throughout Tigray, particularly in the cities, “there are gang rapes and gender-based violence against Tigrinya women. Some are kidnapped and no one knows where they are, some hospitalized, others are going crazy, they live in shock from the violence they have suffered ”.
In addition, the federal government has been engaged for months in an intensifying military campaign against independence rebels in the regional state of Oromia who are not currently followed by the Oromo population but may be in the near future. While each of these conflicts involves historical and complex claims on territory, resources, identity and political representation, the pursuit of these claims by force of arms has led the country on the path of balkanization. There is an imperative need for international pressure in order to stop this predatory policy of Prime Minister Abiy and to bring ethnic tensions back to dialogue through an inclusive policy. The problem is a big one. How can the European Union and the United States have a heavy hand against a leader who for 2 consecutive years has been presented by them to international public opinion as the “Good Guy”, reformer and guarantor of the democratic process in Ethiopia?
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