Another Tigray? The Horn of Africa nears the brink again

A few months past, the Horn of Africa experienced an immensely costly conflict, the calamitous consequences of which are only gradually coming to light. Initially, Ethiopian prime minster and Nobel laureate Abiy Ahmed intended for a simple “law-enforcement operation” against the seditious Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), who had fortified their native Tigray region in the northeast of Ethiopia. Soon after, as observers and press were allowed back into Tigray, reports of mass atrocities clearly refuted his narrative. At the same time, the aftermath of this war already threatens to affect different fronts. 

The Tigray war has had major spillover effects for Ahmed, enflaming both a long-frozen border dispute with Sudan as well as aggravating Egypt’s opposition to an Ethiopian Nile dam. It is crucial for policymakers and observers not to avert their attention and let these disputes engulf the Horn of Africa in yet another humanitarian disaster. To that end, a clear-eyed look at the current disputes is sorely needed, especially in a media landscape highly polarised by contradicting narratives. It is crucial to dispel bellicose narratives and policies, adopt countervailing actions, and mediate the ongoing disputes in whichever way possible.


The disruptive effect of the Tigray intervention was felt beyond Ethiopian borders. In large part due to Ahmed having dispatched his Eritrean allies and militias from the Amhara region into Tigray. It is a shared animosity that united these actors, despising the TPLF due to the atrocities it perpetrated during a 30-year rule over Ethiopia (1991-2018).[1] Thus, the conflict devolved into genocidal warfare against the whole of Tigray, including forced starvation and mass killings[2]. Tens of thousands of Tigrayans had to flee this carnage,[3] finding shelter in neighbouring Sudan. Amhara militias advancing towards its borders caused alarm in Sudan. Specifically, Khartoum was concerned about the status of a long-disputed border area called al-Fashaqa. By virtue of a 2008 agreement, ethnic Amharans from Ethiopia were allowed to farm in this region, while Khartoum retained formal sovereignty. This compromise was necessary as two contradictory colonial-era treaties gave both sides a claim to this triangle-shaped area of around 12 km2

In response to the threat emerging from events in Tigray, Khartoum decided to strengthen its defensive posture. It did so by reasserting full sovereignty over al-Fashaqa, expelling resident Amhara farmers in late 2020. In Addis, however, Khartoum was perceived as opportunistically breaking the status quo of 2008, while its forces were distracted in Tigray. Tensions increased further as Khartoum received an influx of fleeing Tigrayans. Addis subsequently accused Khartoum of also giving asylum to suspected TPLF leaders, seeing this as a prelude to a Sudanese intervention in Tigray. Khartoum fired back, accusing Addis of supporting rebellious militias operating on Sudanese territory to regain al-Fashaqa. 


With tensions already being thoroughly enflamed between Addis and Khartoum, their acrimony further spilled over into a regional dispute that has plagued the Horn of Africa since late 2010. It is at that time that a still TPLF-ruled Addis Ababa decided to start construction on the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). It would staunch a Blue Nile stretch flowing through its western Benishangul-Gumuz region, just before entering Sudan. Despite offering huge hydroelectric potential for Ethiopia, it is downstream countries like Sudan and Egypt that would have their water security jeopardised by the dam.[4]

Although initially rejecting Addis’ right to exploit its natural features entirely, an Egypt swept up by the Arab Spring was unable to enforce its stance when Addis unilaterally started construction on the GERD. The current generation of leaders, Abiy Ahmed and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, have so far held on to intransigent positions, preferring boisterous and threatening speeches to compromise. 

The GERD dispute saw al-Sisi renew Egyptian engagement in Eastern and Central Africa in search of allies, especially along the White Nile. This Nile-tributary originates in the Great Lakes region and gives its name to the so-called “White Nile Alignment” that has been assembled by Cairo.[5] On top of its African allies, multiple Arab states have also assured Cairo of their “absolute support” in the GERD dispute.[6]

This extensive international backing together with his quest for domestic approval and the saliency of water security, has driven al-Sisi to take a hard-line stance vis-à-vis Addis. Although having had to accept the completion of GERD as a fait accompli, he set a clear red line with the unilateral filling of its reservoir. Instead of choosing a cooperative tone, al-Sisi has chosen a domineering one to get his wish, declaring “no one can take a single drop of Egypt’s water”. 

Ahmed, although having lost many international backers due to his Tigray campaign,[7] is nevertheless forced by domestic considerations to take a tough stance in the GERD dispute. Foremost among them is the centrality of the dam for Ethiopians’ national pride. Seeing as the dam would guarantee energy self-reliance, it has come to symbolise the country’s independence in general. The issue of warding off foreign domination is crucial to the Ethiopian psyche, it being the only African country to successfully repel attempts of colonialism. Ahmed’s stance is further cemented by the ethnic turmoil plaguing Ethiopia. As the Oromo people, who constitute Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, increasingly feel alienated by his consolidation of power within his Prosperity Party, Ahmed is ever more reliant on Amharan support. This alliance has forced him to take a resolute stance in al-Fashaqa and in turn also in the GERD dispute. 

Where to go from here?

History has taught us that issues as sensitive as water security have to be dealt with extreme prudence, as no leader would allow another country to deny it access to such a vital resource. An example where such an issue was solved through an equitable and mutually beneficial agreement is the Diama Dam over the Senegal river in West Africa. However, due to multiple disputes and mutual distrust simmering in the Horn, achieving such a solution will take a concerted effort by both regional and international actors. Leaders must eschew inflammatory rhetoric and zero-sum stances in negotiations. Although the most recent effort by African Union Chair and CAR President Félix Tshisekedi broke down due to Ethiopia rejecting a bigger role by international actors (EU and USA), pressure has to be kept up. Third-party negotiators (EU, USA, and the AU) have to recommit themselves even during this time of Covid-induced overstretch. The livelihoods of the affected people must be put first, before any self-serving geopolitical interests. 


[1] The Eritrean-TPLF rivalry has its roots in the brutal war the TPLF waged against Eritrean during 1998-2000, when it still ruled in Addis.

[2] Especially in the south-eastern sector of Tigray, around the capital Mekele, where local Tigrayans were expelled or slaughtered to make room for settlers from the neighbouring Amhara region.

[3] The number of Tigrayan refugees fleeing into Sudan is estimated to be as high as 60’000, according to the UNHCR (18.01.2021).

[4] Egypt’s dependency on the Niles water is at a whopping 90%, since it is its only fresh-water source. This overwhelming reliance informs Cairo’s result stance when it comes to any attempts at regulating the natural water flow of the Nile.

[5] The White Nile Alignment includes Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, and the DRC. See Michaël Tanchum: “Europe-Mediterranean-Africa Commerical Connectivity: Geopolitical Opportunities and Challenges”, Med Dialogue Series (31), Nov. 2020.

[6] Arab allies supporting Egypt and Sudan in the GERD dispute KSA, Bahrain, Yemen (Hadi-government), and Oman.

[7] Former international backers that cut aid to Addis: US, EU, multiple UN bodies. This leaves China as Ethiopia’s only strong international ally.


“Border tensions mount between Sudan, Ethiopia”, Ayin Network, 26.01.2021

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