Ethiopia: what are the Sudanese troops doing in Berkat Norain and Al-Fushaqa? The government of Khartoum intends to take advantage of the Ethiopian civil war and the weakness of Addis Ababa to regain control of the Al-Fushaqa region, and annex the disputed Ethiopian territories

On Sunday 6 December at 11.00 pm local units of the Sudanese army occupied the Berkat Norain area which, in theory, would be Ethiopian territory. Other troops have been deployed on Friday 4 December in the Al-Fushaqa region (Gedaref State – Sudan), adjacent to the Ethiopian region of Amhara. The Ethiopian army, engaged in the Tigray conflict, limited itself to monitoring the encroachment without engaging in battle. Military clash eventuality could only occur if the Sudanese units will move beyond these territories.

The prudence shown by the federal government is dictated by the fact that Ethiopia right now has bigger problems to deal with than border territories with Sudan that have been subject of a dispute that has lasted for 25 years and certainly does not want a conflict with Sudan that it could open the doors to regional conflict. The first media to report the presence of Sudanese troops was Voice Of America. This news was later confirmed by the Sudan Tribune newspaper and by Dubai’s Al-Arabiya TV.

After the first warnings about a possible extension of the conflict in Tigray, military observers in the region are now more inclined to think that the government of Khartoum simply intends to take advantage of the Ethiopian civil war to regain control of the Al-Fushaqa Berkat Norain region and annex the Ethiopian disputed territories taking advantage of the momentary weakness of Addis Ababa.

Beginning in the 1950s, Ethiopian peasants infiltrated the Al-Fushaqa region and the disputed territories of Berkat Norain in search of fertile land to cultivate, taking advantage of a blurred demarcation of borders. The region has always been a source of military tensions between Sudan and Ethiopia. In 1995 the two countries decided that the disputed areas of Berkat Norain became demilitarized areas in order not to inflict harm on the Sudanese and Ethiopian populations present. Unfortunately, the respective governments found ways to circumvent the agreements. Sudan created a local militia under the command of the Sudan Popular Defence Brigades while Ethiopia enlisted the settlers in Al-Fushaqa and Berkat Norain, forming a militia called Shifta.

The territorial dispute dates back to 1957 when Ethiopia imposed control of the areas where its peasants have settled. In 2017, an agreement was announced to demarcate the borders except the Berkat Norain and Al-Fushaqa area, which remained a free area pending further negotiations. In August 2018, the two countries agreed to jointly guard the area in order to prevent ethnic tensions and clashes between the Sudanese and Ethiopian inhabitants. Unfortunately, neither of the two regular armies replaced and disarmed their respective militias which continued to clash sporadically until May of this year when the Shifta militia attacked the villages surrounding the eastern Qadarif city, killing five civilians.

The intervention of the Sudanese army would have provoked the reaction of the Ethiopian defence forces and a battle would have occurred between the two armies. The conflict, which ended almost immediately, was confirmed by Sudan while Ethiopia has always denied any direct or indirect involvement. The Ethiopian Shefta militias remained active stealing crops and livestock in the claimed locations. To achieve a quick victory on TPLF, the federal government would move the troops garrisoning the area and the Sudanese army would immediately take advantage of it.

The operation allegedly began last November when the Sudanese army arrested Halka Asar, a senior military leader in the Shefta militia, while he was traveling to secure a significant shipment of contraband gold. Diplomatic sources contacted do not believe that the military occupation of Sudan in the contested border areas is the preamble for a direct war between Sudan and Ethiopia.

The transitional government of Khartoum, controlled by the military junta, is still weak and does not aspire to embark on a dangerous adventure by entering the conflict already in place in Tigray. It is one thing to steal territories with uncertain borders, another is to start a direct confrontation with Ethiopia. Khartoum is aware that the occupation of Berkat Norain and Al-Fushaqa will not trigger a reaction from Addis Ababa. To keep Sudan away from the conflict in Tigray, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali could decide to give up these territories.

However, Sudan’s medium-term intentions are not entirely clear. It is a fact that Sudan is opposed to the rapid filling of the basin of the Ethiopian Great Rebirth Dam (GERD) which is endangering the water level of the Nile and the lives of millions of farmers. The presence of the Egyptian army in Sudan, with the excuse of joint military exercises and the mysterious meeting in Juba, the capital of South Sudan with TPLF leaders, Egyptian President Al Sisi, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and members of the military junta from Khartoum are signs that something is smouldering under the ashes.

Everything revolves around the Great Rebirth Dam and Prime Minister Abiy’s malignant cunning of taking time with endless and fruitless talks with Egyptian and Sudanese counterparts in order to fill the dam basin by starting to produce electricity to sell it abroad in exchange for currency. valuable. It is foreseeable that the West and the Arab monarchies of the Gulf will try to put pressure to avoid the spread of the conflict to Egypt and Sudan but the dam compromises agriculture and the survival of millions of Egyptian and Sudanese farmers.

If Ethiopia is unwilling to start a war with Sudan, so is Khartoum. Much more effective and less dangerous to support the TPLF by keeping the Sudanese corridor open for supplies of food, medicines, weapons and ammunition in order to allow the TPLF to continue the guerrilla warfare. The border with Sudan is controlled by federal troops but its extension and porosity allow it to circumvent federal surveillance even if with some difficulties.

Diplomatic sources report that the Sudanese army will focus on securing full control of the Berkat Norain and Al-Fushaqa area, launching an offensive against the Shefta militia without massacring the Ethiopian settlers already present in the area. Once the militia is defeated, the settlers can be placed under Sudanese jurisdiction without many troubles. On the other hand, Sudan already hosts 50,000 Tigrinya refugees who represent an excellent political weapon to reinforce international rehabilitation and an excellent economic deal. If for the moment a direct confrontation in Sudan Ethiopia seems averted, the prolongation of the conflict in Tigray could progressively lead Ethiopia into a situation similar to that in Syria. If this happens all games will be reopened. There are many accounts to settle, including the Pharaonic Great Rebirth Dam.