The World This Year

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The World This Year
Ethiopia and Sudan in 2023: Governance in deadlock

  Anu Maria Joseph
Anu Maria Joseph is a Research Assistant at NIAS.

Ethiopia and Sudan have been in the spotlight this year. In November 2022, Ethiopia signed a peace deal with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), giving hope that the ethnic conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region would end. However, the peace agreement had several loopholes that led to ethnic conflicts across the neighbouring regions of Afar, Amhara and Oromia. The skirmishes began after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed demanded that all ethnic militias, including Amhara’s Fano militia, Tigray’s TPLF and Oromo’s Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) be integrated into the Ethiopian federal force. 

In Sudan, the transitional military government was supposed to lead to civilian rule in 2024. However, Sudan is in a bigger crisis with an ongoing civil war between two military heads- Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Hamdan Dagalo of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The conflict, which started as a power struggle, has evolved into a larger conflict spreading across the capital, Khartoum, and the cities of Omdurman, Bahri, Wad Madani and Port Sudan. The conflict has also evolved into ethnic conflict across West Darfur, South Darfur, Central Darfur, Nile and Kordofan. Besides, the paramilitary group has begun targeting the states of North Darfur and Al Jazira. In between, the Arab and non-Arab clashes are escalating, reminding of the Darfur conflict in 2003. Several ceasefires failed due to a lack of commitment and compliance. The RSF has gained significant ground in the capital, Khartoum, as well as other regions. While the conflict is intensifying and spreading, SAF and RSF aim to gain legitimacy by establishing parallel governments in Port Sudan and Khartoum, respectively.  

Sudan and Ethiopia, two major actors in the Horn of Africa, have become the conflict hotspots of the African continent in 2023. The Sudanese Revolution 2019, which ended 30 years of Omar al Bashir’s rule, was a bigger achievement for Sudan in reaching a civilian government. Abiy Ahmed’s Nobel Peace Prize for resolving the conflict with Eritrea was a focal point for the international community, analysing how Ethiopia would evolve as a better democracy. However, in 2023, both countries have taken a steep downturn.

Major Issues in 2023
First, the ethnic differences. In Ethiopia, deep ethno-nationalist sentiments are the drivers behind the inter-ethnic clashes. From 1991 to 2018, the minority TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics, fueling ethnic animosity from the Afar, Somali, Oromia and Amhara communities. When Abiy Ahmed came to power, ending the decades-long Tigray dominance, other ethnic groups believed the new government was an opportunity to address years-long ethnic marginalisation. Instead, Abiy’s policies escalated the ethnic tensions. Abiy’s aggressive measures to unify Ethiopia were not welcome by any of the ethnic groups. Deep-printed ethno-nationalist sentiments and socio-economic insecurities of each ethnic community forced them to defend each other using their regional ethnic militias.

In Sudan, for the past twenty years, ethnic conflict has been prevalent in the Darfur region. Besides Darfur, the Nile and Kordofan regions are also affected by conflict between Arab and non-Arab ethnic groups. The tensions are over land, water and resources. The civil war has put the governance in these ethnically fragile regions in jeopardy. Besides, RSF and SAF taking sides with Arab and non-Arab militias would lead the civil war to a larger ethnic tragedy.

Second, a fragile state. State fragility, state failure and state collapse are common in African countries that have followed an alien model of governance and nation-building introduced by their colonial masters. Consequently, these countries have faced several governance challenges including interethnic conflicts, massive displacement, multiple massacres, humanitarian crises and proliferation of militant groups.

In Ethiopia, TPLF’s rule for decades was majoritarian, where the Tigray ethnic group handled the power hierarchy for years. Although Ethiopia enjoyed relative peace during the TPLF regime, decades-long ethnic grievances were suppressed under their control. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed initially had a better vision of inclusive centralised Ethiopia. However, the aggressive policies that he opted for subsequently backfired. A sudden change to a federal society divided under ethnic identity was rejected. Abiy’s aggressive policies on a progressive vision failed with the outbreak of several ethnic conflicts. The inability of the state to address the underlying issues has increased the tendency of ethnic groups to rely on their means of security. Ethiopia has become fragile and is slowly descending into a state of failure.

Since its independence in 1956, Sudan has been on a rollercoaster in its search for inclusive and sustainable governance. However, governments and institutions have failed so far. Political elites and military leaders who came to power in Sudan adopted political violence, ethnic upper hand and inequitable means of wealth distribution to serve their interests. The country had to go through two civil wars and the separation of South Sudan. The military elites ignore challenges posed by unresolved ethnic and regional grievances and identity politics. Thus, the lack of political will for conflict resolution and a civilian transition has delayed all aspects of inclusive governance in Sudan. Sudan as a state has failed and is collapsing.

Third, escalation in conflicts. The conflict in Ethiopia has increased in number this year with a spread to Amhara, Oromia, Afar and Somali regions. Additionally, the conflict is intensifying with limited efforts addressing the root causes. Abiy’s government has failed to gain public legitimacy. Regional efforts, including the African Union’s, are minimal due to Abiy’s influence in the organisation and international support to Aby’s government. 

In Sudan, the conflict is escalating in terms of geography and intensity. What started in Khartoum has spread to Omdurman, Bahri, Port Sudan and the peripheral states of Darfur, Kordofan, Al Jazira and Nile. Regional efforts to end the conflict in Sudan are being ignored. Although the external actors can bring the warring parties to the negotiating table, implementing those efforts remains challenging. They have failed to propose a ceasefire that matches the conflict context.

2024: Looking Ahead
Ethiopia and Sudan will be in the spotlight in 2024 as well. Unless Abiy’s approach to the ethnic tensions is pragmatic, addressing the underlying issues, a peaceful Ethiopia is Utopian. An escalation of conflict can be witnessed in 2024. The fragile state will likely evolve into a failed state.

In Sudan, resolving the conflict and the power struggle remains elusive, with both sides trying to legitimise their leadership. Similar is the trajectory of a civilian transition. The revolution is dead, and the state has failed. The humanitarian crisis would likely increase in both countries with high casualties, ethnic violence, human rights atrocities, war crimes, poverty and displacement.

About the author
Anu Maria Joseph is a Research Assistant at NIAS. 

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