After the TPLF retreated, pursued by Amhara regional militia, they hoisted their flags and put up road signs that said “welcome to Amhara”. This was in lands claimed by Amhara state but allocated to Tigray in the 1990s when the TPLF was in power in Ethiopia.
The Fashaga conflict follows the same pattern of claiming sovereignty – except that it is not about Ethiopia’s internal boundaries, but the border with a neighbouring state.
The failure to resolve it peacefully is the indirect result of another of Mr Abiy’s policy reversals: Ethiopia’s foreign relations. For 60 years, Ethiopia’s strategic aim was to contain Egypt, but a year ago Mr Abiy reached out a hand of friendship.
The two countries each regard the River Nile as an existential question.
Egypt sees upstream dams as a threat to its share of the Nile waters, established in colonial era treaties. Ethiopia sees the river as an essential source of hydroelectric power, needed for its economic development.
The dispute came to a head over the construction of the huge Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd).
Pattern of mutual destabilisation’
The Nobel laureate can ill-afford further disputes with Egypt, amidst the conflict in Tigray and the clashes in Fashaga. The latter raise the ghosts of a long history of rivalry between Ethiopia and Sudan.
In the 1980s, Communist Ethiopia armed Sudanese rebels while Sudan aided ethno-nationalist armed groups, including the TPLF. In the 1990s, Sudan supported militant Islamist groups while Ethiopia backed the Sudanese opposition.
With armed clashes and unrest in many parts of Ethiopia, and Sudan’s recent peace deal with rebels in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains still incomplete, each country could readily return to this age-old pattern of mutual destabilisation.
Relations between Sudan and Ethiopia reached their warmest when Mr Abiy flew to Khartoum in June 2019 to encourage pro-democracy protesters and the Sudanese generals to come to agreement on a civilian government following the overthrow of long-term ruler Omar al-Bashir.
It was a characteristic Abiy initiative – high profile and wholly individual – and it needed formalization through the regional body Igad and the diplomatic heavy lifting of others, including the African Union, Arab countries, the US and UK to achieve results.
Sudan Prime Minister Hamdok has tried to return the favour by offering assistance in resolving Ethiopia’s conflict in Tigray. He was rebuffed, most recently at the 20 December summit, at which Mr Abiy insisted that the Ethiopian government would deal with its internal affairs on its own.
As refugees from Tigray continue to flood into Sudan, bringing with them stories of atrocities and hunger, the Ethiopian prime minister may find it more difficult to reject mediation.
He also risks igniting a new round of cross-border antagonism between Ethiopia and Sudan, deepening the crisis in the region.