In an earlier article on the armed conflict in Ethiopia « Storm Clouds Over Ethiopia » I agreed with other observers of the situation that one knows when an armed conflict starts but not when it ends. There is always a real danger that violence spreads to other parts of the country and that neighboring States get involved. Now both dangers have taken form in Ethiopia ;
Ethiopia is a federal republic structured on the basis of 10 states or provinces. The provinces have the name of the major ethnic group within that province. However, no province is populated exclusively by one ethnic group. Through history and economic development people have moved to areas beyond their original « homeland ». Hoverer, people from a « foreign » ethnic group can be made to feel as « second class citizens », and there may be violence used against them in times of tensions.
Thus in the far west of Ethiopia, there is a small province called Benishangul-Gumuz, named after two ethnic groups, the Berta and the Gamuz. However, there are three other ethnic groups which also consider the area as their « homeland ». The area has good farmland and is a major producer of vegetables. Thus, Amhara farmers from the larger neighboring Amhara province have progressively settled in Benishangul-Gumuz. Tensions over land use has grown between the Amhara farmers and the dominant Gumuz. At the same time that the federal government forces were moving into the Tigray province, Gumuz militias attacked the Amhara settlers. The federal government sent in troops to restore order, but troops cannot deal with the basic issues of ethnic-based tensions and disputes over land ownership which is often collective rather than individual. Thus the tensions and violence in Tigray and Benishangul-Gumuz provinces may spread to other provinces as well.
In addition to the dangers of violence spreading to other provinces, there is a real danger that neighbouring Sudan will get involved. The Ethiopian federal government’s military action within Tigray province has caused an exodus of some 50,000 persons across the frontier into Sudan. A smaller number have crossed the frontier into South Sudan.
The Sudanese government in far away Khartoum has been preoccupied with restructuring itself after the 30 years of governance by Omar al-Bashir came to an end in April 2019. However, the entry of a large number of refugees from Tigray must have pushed some in the Sudanese government to look at maps to see where all this trouble was going on. They saw that part of the trouble was near the Al-Fashaga triangle, a small area but of rich farmland largely farmed by Ethiopian farmers. However Al-Fashaga is within the territory of Sudan, set by the British-Egyptian condominium in 1902 and 1907.
The Ethiopian settlers in Al-Fashaga had created self-protection militias without a relation to the Ethiopian central army. However, with the the current Ethiopian army near Al-Fashaga, the Sudanese government is rushing tanks and troops to the area. The acting Prime Minister of Sudan, Abdallah Hamdoh has publicly reaffirmed Sudanese ownership of the area. While it is difficult to have accurate reporting from Al-Fashaga, some NGO working with refugees in Sudan near the frontier have warned of possible fighting and increased tensions. There are real possibilities of the storm clouds getting darker.