By Daniel Berhane,
Sudanese Ambassador to Ethiopia Osman Nafi accused the Amhara regional government in neighboring Ethiopia for recent border skirmish that claims the lives of 25 Sudanese nationals.
Khartoum’s papers have been reporting for more than a month about a series of raids and kidnapping for ransom in the border region of Gedaref by Ethiopian gunmen. Though Ethiopian officials have been quite on the matter, their Sudanese counterparts have started making public comments.
In an interview with the Arabic newspaper, Assayha, Ambassador Osman Nafi claimed the Amhara regional government in Ethiopia supports the gunmen that currntly occupies nearly half-a-million hectare fertile highly productive Sudanese land of the Elfashagha, Basundah, Gurrisha and eastern Gallabat localities of the region.
The following is excerpts from the interview:
Question: How do you see the current relation between Ethiopia and Sudan?
Amb. Osman Nafie: Ethiopia and Sudan are enjoying stable political and diplomatic relations. In short, it is excellent.
Question: Regarding the recent clashes in the border where 25 Sudanese were martyred, some say that Ethiopians farmers are cultivating about a million acres [420,000 Hectares] land in Gedaref region. What do you say about that?
Amb. Osman Nafie: This is an old problem, not born yesterday. It was a matter of discussion between the two countries since the 1960s, since the government of President Sadiq al-Mahdi. The incursion of the Ethiopians in Sudanese territory did not start now.
Let me tell you something, I know our farmers on the border very well. In the days of Emperor Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian government pursued a unique approach, a superb service policy for its people. Haile Selassie used to give any army retired officer free facilities from the state. On that basis, a retired officer gets land and continues the rest of his life as a farmer. However, these farmers are lying on Sudanese territories.
Now, Ethiopia, as everyone knows, suffers from the problem of population explosion. They are now more than one hundred million people. Thus, they are trying to expand because their land is not enough.
Question: So where is the fault?
Amb. Osman Nafie: The imbalance is that we do not have much population in those territories because we do not suffer from population explosion. Sudanese farmers go to those areas only in the planting and harvesting seasons, but then they return to where they came from and those areas become vacant.
Question: In conclusion, is it Sudanese territory?
Amb. Osman Nafie: These places are Sudanese territory; they are adjacent to Amhara region. We let them expand on it. I will be very clear with you in order to understand the full dimension of the issue. The group in power now is from Tigray, while those in the border (where the clashes occur) are from Amhara region and they used to be in power. As a result of this, maybe they have an attitude now.
Question: How is that related with Sudan?
Amb. Osman Nafie: The problem is that the Ethiopians do not recognize of the boundary drawn by the British in the early 19th century.
Question: Ethiopia does not recognize the border! What does it means? Ethiopia and Sudan are one country (borderless)?
Amb. Osman Nafie: No, not like that. The demarcation of Sudan-Ethiopia border was drawn by Charles Gwynn, the then British government agent. The border line is very clear and well known and not complicated. Nevertheless, as I said earlier, in the issues of demarcation, Ethiopia does not recognize the border because they think it is done during the colonial period.
Question: Who are those who do not recognize the border line, the Ethiopian government, or the Amhara region?
Amb. Osman Nafie: Amhara region do not accept the border line. The central government of Ethiopia recognized it since Emperor Haileselasie era. After the July 1971 [attempted coup d’état in Khartoum], relations improved between President Nimeiry and Ethiopia’s Haileselasie who sponsored the first agreement with the south rebels. Then, in 1972, the Ethiopian government and Sudan reached an agreement, in the framework established by Charles Gwynn. The famous memorandum was recognized and they formed a special commission for the demarcation of the border. They agreed to seek the assistance of foreign expertise for funding and others. Finland was selected to provide experts on the basis of their experience.
Question: What happened after that?
Amb. Osman Nafie: Our farmers let the Ethiopian farmers to engage in agriculture, but that the land remained under the sovereignty of Sudan. They paid periodically for their use of Sudan land, including rent. The Sudanese government had positive attitude about it.
Question: Sudanese farmers?
Amb. Osman Nafie: They are the first government at that time was to recognize Sudan’s territories.
Question: There are armed militias supporting Ethiopian farmers?
Amb. Osman Nafie: These militias are supported by the Amhara region government. I also explained to you that they used to be rulers. Ethiopia is now under the control of a tribe different from the tribe at the border. So the central government turn a blind eye to it.
Question: There are no longer Sudanese oppositions in Ethiopian land. How do you explain it?
Amb. Osman Nafie: No Sudanese opposition has presence in Ethiopia. In the past, there were two problems; one problem between Asmara and Addis Ababa, and another problem between southern Sudan and Sudan. Ethiopia used to accuse Sudan funding Eritreans and Sudan used to accuse Ethiopia supporting the then rebel movements of SPLM. It was a mutual harm policy. This was the spirit that prevailed at the time. We were bleeding and they were bleeding. Now, that is not the case.
Secondly, the regime currently governing Ethiopia came out of the womb of Khartoum, Sudan. In addition to that, Sudan is a major export destination of their products. Therefore, it is certain Ethiopia will never embrace the opposition, because they have no interest in it.
Question: Going back to the border issue, will it be resolved, when?
Amb. Osman Nafie: This issue does not occupy much of our thinking, our strategic thinking, now. We do not want to lose Ethiopia because of the border issue, and believe me, this border is not a priority now, not a problem.
Question: That means like Halayib, the strategic area we lost to Egypt?
Amb. Osman Nafie: No, you are not understanding well. We do not want to spoil the relationship between Ethiopia and us. We do not want to get into confrontations with them in now. The relationship we have with Ethiopia is greater than to lose. In my opinion, that if you want to solve the problem between the two countries, there should be favorable conditions for the matter. Any achievement that could happen for the two countries, for a breakthrough to the crisis of the border, there should be favorable circumstances.
Question: Oh, God. Is that the only solution?
Amb. Osman Nafie: I did not say that, but I say that this problem is old and will continue to exist, but should be agreed in a favorable atmosphere, such as those that were between Haile Selassie and Nimeiry when he signed on demarcation. If benefited from the right climate and clear atmosphere between the two countries, they are going to reach an agreement. This is a strategic view between the two countries.
How Serious is the Ethio-Sudan Border Tension?
Tension in the Ethio-Sudanese border escalated further this week as five Sudanese farmers were abducted from border areas. According to Hooray newspaper, Ethiopian armed men abducted the farmers from Atarab and Tekulain areas of Gadarif into Ethiopian territory, Amhara region, and demanded a ransom.
Last week, Sudanese media reported that Ethiopian militiamen abducted two Sudanese people in Basundah, in southern Gedaref state, in Abu Taher area. They were released after US $24,460 ransom was paid to them via credit transfer.
Another media report on Khartoum road claimed, citing an official of Gedaref State, that Ethiopian armed men kidnapped 20 Sudanese nationals in that area last week and released them after receiving about US $59,000 ransom.
In the first week of this month, three sesame farmers were abducted by Ethiopian gunmen in the locality and were freed after US $19,700 ransom was paid, Sudanese media reported.
While the matter didn’t receive attention in the Ethiopian media, it has been a major talking point in Khartoum.
Ethiopian and Sudanese army generals reportedly held meetings in Gedaref City in mid-October, following an incident that left one Sudanese soldier dead.
The clash between Ethiopian armed men and Sudanese soldiers took place on October 11 in Gedaref region, in an area called Shangal, on the edge of Kinena locality, northwest of El Gallabat town. Though there has not been official statement about it, Dabanga Sudan media claimed Sudanese army reinforcements forces to the area. At least one Sudanese soldier was killed.
Despite the generals’ meeting, later that week, Ethiopian armed men allegedly killed two Sudanese farmers and injured another in a place called Khour Saad about 30 kilometer inside Sudan, according to Adam Babeker.
In a closed parliamentary session, at the end of October, Sudanese Minister of Interior Affairs lamented: “28 people were killed and injured during recent attacks in El Fashaga, El Qureisha, and El Galabat localities. Seven farmers were abducted, and 295 head of cattle were stolen”. He also demanded “a speedy dispatch of army troops to El Gedaref to secure the area.”
Prior to that, in the last week of August, eight Ethiopian truck drivers were killed about 10km away from the Sudanese town of Galabat “after being invited into Sudan for work.” The Metema border crossing was briefly closed to prevent retaliations. Nonetheless, it appears the Ethiopians retaliated later on.
There has not been any statement from Addis Ababa so far. Sudanese officials, on the other hand, have been increasing vocal on the matter in the past weeks. Though, they tended to downplay it.
Officials of Gadarif region claimed in a press conference last week that Ethiopian militants occupied one million fedan (about half-a-million hectare) fertile highly productive land in the Elfashagha, Basundah, Gurrisha and eastern Gallabat localities of the region. They also claimed that nine villages near the border have left their homes owing to the repeated attacks by Ethiopian gunmen. “The villages are now inhabited by thousands Ethiopians related to those gunmen.”
Director of the Department of International Relations Sudanese Foreign Ministry Ambassador Sirajuddin Hamid described the alleged attacks by Ethiopian armed groups as highly worrying,” adding “it is not backed by the Ethiopian government but individual actions.”
Hamid explained that the problems at the border would not be solved until the demarcation is completed. “Although we have made unremitting efforts for several years, we could not finish the demarcation process due to “historical reasons” Hamid told local media.