Securitizing the Ethiopia–Sudan border: How cross-border conflict is shaping trade and the control of land

Long-running border disputes between Ethiopia and Sudan are intersecting with other internal conflicts, bringing greater militarization and economic instability.

Published 4 April 2024 8 minute READ

Violent conflict along the Ethiopia–Sudan border is profoundly destabilizing communities on both sides, disrupting trade in key resources and displacing thousands of people from productive farmlands. Trade routes are becoming militarized and commodities are being used to fuel other conflicts – notably the war that is devastating other parts of Sudan.

Borderland disputes and conflict are not new to the two Horn of Africa countries. Ethiopia and Sudan have long competed for the control of land and agricultural production in these fertile areas. Cycles of cross-border violence have been shaped by each country’s internal political dynamics and the prevailing bilateral relations – as have intermittent periods of cooperation.

Background to border conflict: historical roots and recent strife

The border between Ethiopia and Sudan has been contested for more than a century. The roots of the dispute lie in the two countries’ disagreement over the border delineation process – particularly regarding the fertile Al Fashaga territory – that was part of the 1902 Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty. Known as the Gwynn Line (named after the British officer who had led the attempt to demarcate it), this border delineation continues to be rejected by Ethiopia, despite subsequent efforts to resolve it.

The dispute has shaped relations between both countries ever since and now intersects with other sources of strife in the area. Since late 2020, the 740-kilometre border has been marked by a series of overlapping internal and cross-border conflicts, bringing economic and social instability to both Ethiopian and Sudanese communities.  

A major contributor was the destructive two-year civil war beginning in November 2020 in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.

This led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the displacement of more than 2 million others. The war spread to the neighbouring Ethiopian regions of Afar and Amhara – the latter shares a border with Sudan, as did the Tigray region before the conflict.

In November 2022, the two main belligerents – Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – formally ended the war by signing the Pretoria Agreement in South Africa. Yet that agreement has so far failed to resolve the status of contested areas, notably the Western Tigray/Welkait zone, which lies on the border with Sudan. This area was under the authority of the Tigray region before the war but was taken over by Amhara forces early on in the conflict.

Shortly after the outbreak of war in Tigray, hostilities began in the historically disputed border territory of Al Fashaga, which is claimed by both Ethiopia and Sudan. A predominantly agricultural heartland, Al Fashaga is wedged between Sudan’s Gedaref state and the Ethiopian regions of Tigray and Amhara.

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With the Ethiopian forces preoccupied with their internal conflict in Tigray, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) began an incursion into Al Fashaga in late 2020. Thousands of Ethiopian farmers who had settled there (predominantly from Amhara) were forcibly displaced. Relations between the two national governments deteriorated rapidly as a result, and the border between the countries was closed.  

High-value white sesame is produced largely in the borderland area between Sudan and Ethiopia.

The SAF have since sought to consolidate control over Al Fashaga’s fertile lands and to reroute the valuable trade of sesame and other crops away from Ethiopian markets.

Some local Sudanese investors have had lands removed due to the invasion, which has also disrupted broader working relations between Ethiopian and Sudanese investors in Al Fashaga and across the borders.

In such a competitive context, important economic resources like land and cash crops have become contested. High-value white sesame is produced largely in the borderland area between Sudan and Ethiopia, and is economically important to both countries. These resources are part of economic processes that connect Ethiopia and Sudan to the broader region, including the Arabian Gulf and beyond.

They are also embedded in local and transnational conflict dynamics, as different groups – national armed forces, rebel groups, political and economic elites – seek to use strategic commodities to fuel different causes. 

Economic resources in Al Fashaga have become vital to sustaining the war economy in Sudan’s own devastating civil conflict, which began in April 2023 and has prompted the SAF to reinforce their presence in the east of the country. Crops such as sesame are part of supply chains that are providing the SAF with crucial financial flows to sustain their war efforts.  

More checkpoints, less economic activity 

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Trade along the Ethiopia–Sudan border has suffered due to the war in northern Ethiopia and the concurrent takeover of Al Fashaga by the SAF. These events caused the sporadic closure of the main overland transport and trade route between the two countries – the Metema–Gallabat border crossing – for nearly two years between late 2020 and 2022.

In Ethiopia, transport routes have become increasingly militarized, as insecurity has grown since the start of the Tigray war.

The border closure significantly affected communities on both sides, reducing social interactions and economic opportunities. 

It was near impossible to transport consumer goods to Ethiopian communities formally, which meant that commodities had to be either smuggled across the border or obtained from central cities such as Bahir Dir and Addis Ababa, rather than via the more direct route into Western Tigray/Welkait and Gondar from Sudan. 

Goods coming across Ethiopia incurred higher transportation costs, while smuggling also made goods more expensive, with residents facing price rises for basic commodities such as cooking oil and fuel.  

In Ethiopia, transport routes have become increasingly militarized, as insecurity has grown since the start of the Tigray war. In the north of the Amhara region, multiple checkpoints have been established and reinforced on the road between the city of Gondar and the Metema–Gallabat border crossing, a distance of nearly 200 kilometres.

Analysis of checkpoint activity on this road using satellite images over a 10-year period (2014–23) revealed a total of seven checkpoints in operation. However, field data collection between 2021 and 2023 suggested there were 12 checkpoints, which could not be verified by satellite imagery. 

The checkpoints were controlled by a mixture of armed actors, including official forces such as the Ethiopian Federal Police, the Ethiopian National Defense Force and the Amhara Region Special Forces. Irregular forces, such as the Amhara Fano militia and Kimant rebel forces, were also present.

Militia groups have set up informal checkpoints in more remote areas…which provide cover for smuggling and criminal activities.   

Trade along this road has been hindered by the number of checkpoints – which equate to one checkpoint every 15 to 20 kilometres. The roadblocks function to underline the threat of the use of force, which is deployed to regulate and tax the circulation of people, goods and capital. 

The costs and risks of transporting goods have increased as a result. The main road has remained largely under government control, which means that most roadblocks have been operated by state-affiliated or -endorsed actors. But militia groups have set up informal checkpoints in more remote areas, such as feeder roads, informal pathways, or places with difficult geographic terrain, which provide cover for smuggling and criminal activities.   

The closure of the Ethiopia–Sudan border for much of 2021 and recurrently during 2022 was the biggest obstacle to formal trade, although informal trade and smuggling occurred across other parts of the border. Satellite imagery of the Metema–Gallabat border crossing provides snapshots of road and foot traffic at three checkpoint locations on both sides of the border. 

The images were taken at random intervals between October 2016 and October 2022. They reveal a decline in civilian traffic from early December 2020 and into 2022, consistent with the start of the Tigray conflict and the seizure of Al Fashaga. 

There was a striking fall in the number of vehicles and foot traffic observed from several snapshot images assessed between 2019 and 2022 – with a total of 164 ‘civilian objects’ observed during 2019, 153 in 2020, but only 15 observed in 2022. 

Al Fashaga: sensitive flashpoint and source of valuable resources 

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Since beginning their incursion in November 2020, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) have gradually gained control of up to 95 per cent of the disputed border territory of Al Fashaga. 

They reinforced their presence with significant infrastructural developments in the area, including building four bridges across the Atbarah river, and also set up military outposts between 2020 and 2022. 

The building of bridges to overcome the otherwise natural barrier between Al Fashaga and Gedaref state is politically significant, because Sudan claims that their border with Ethiopia lies further east of the Atbarah River, while Ethiopia claims the land up to the river.

According to satellite imagery of the Berkhat Noreen area of the Sudanese state of Gedaref, seven sites of military outposts were identified during 2020 and 2021. The satellite images were selected because of the outposts’ temporal and spatial correlation to the Sudanese invasion of Al Fashaga.

Satellite images demonstrate how the SAF advance was calculated to intersect with and disrupt trade and smuggling routes.

Alongside the establishment and development of military outposts, new developments were identified from the images. 

Most significant was the construction of bridges across the Atbarah River, including at Wad Arud, connecting Al Fashaga and the wider Gedaref state.

These images demonstrate how the SAF transformed agricultural and unpurposed areas of land into military outposts to consolidate their presence as they crossed the Atbarah River and edged into Al Fashaga.

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The SAF expansion was intended to curtail Ethiopian settlement and agricultural activity in Al Fashaga. The satellite images demonstrate how the SAF advance was calculated to intersect with and disrupt trade and smuggling routes used to transport goods and people across the border into and from Ethiopia.

These routes had gradually grown since the mid 2000s, during a period of more positive relations between the two countries’ governments. Local land-sharing arrangements also existed at that time between Sudanese and Ethiopian people living around and on either side of the national border.

By disrupting these routes, the SAF were able to take control of the agricultural sector in Al Fashaga and isolate Ethiopian settlements, such as those identified in Lesser Fashaga including Shmalagara, Khor Humar and Abrahajira. 

These moves have destroyed patterns of land ownership, displaced thousands of Ethiopian farmers, landowners and investors, and reshaped the dynamics of trade.  

Another significant dimension of disruption to Al Fashaga is likely to be the war in Sudan between the SAF and the powerful paramilitary, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), that erupted in April 2023 in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital. Driven in part by competition for power and resources, the conflict is fast evolving into an ethnicized civil war and is fragmenting Sudan.

With violent clashes spreading across the country, the SAF have sought to consolidate their presence and influence in eastern and northern parts of Sudan. 

The states of Gedaref and Al Fashaga have yet to be directly affected by major conflict, but this region is vulnerable to shifts in the trajectory of the conflict, particularly as the SAF intensify efforts to mobilize forces and channel finances from strategic commodities to sustain the war.

This article was produced by Chatham House for the Cross-Border Conflict Evidence, Policy and Trends (XCEPT) research programme, funded by UK International Development. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies. The satellite images were commissioned by Chatham House through XCEPT and Satellite Applications Catapult.