The war in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region has reshaped agriculture across the borderlands of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Eritrea, and redrawn the relationship between farming, politics, and conflict. Sesame is a case in point. This is a crop that thrives in two regions affected by the Tigray conflict – Western Tigray and Al Fashaga in eastern Sudan. These areas have been contested for decades, and the continuing conflict in Tigray is simply the latest chapter in a long history of territorial transfer.

Figure 1: Sesame growing along the Sudan-Ethiopia border

Until November 2020, Tigray was a major player in global sesame production. This fertile region grew almost a third of Ethiopian sesame exports (a share worth around $350 million annually) – no mean feat, given Ethiopia is the world’s third-largest oilseed producer after India and Sudan, with sesame accounting for 30% of its oilseed production. Sesame is the second foreign currency earning crop after coffee in Ethiopia: most sesame grown here is intended for export.

Just across the border, in the contested region of Al Fashaga in eastern Sudan, Ethiopian farmers have grown sesame and other crops for decades. Until the onset of the Tigray conflict, farmers would send sesame back into Ethiopia for sale, swelling the agricultural products passing through Ethiopian markets. Their farms in eastern Sudan were protected by Ethiopian militia, effectively limiting the space for Sudanese farmers and, at times, intimidating local communities through frequent incidents of kidnapping and robbery. 

The outbreak of war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region in November 2020 changed everything. The expulsion of Tigrayans from Western Tigray by Amhara forces, and Sudan’s expulsion of Ethiopian farmers from Al Fashaga have reshaped sesame production and trade across the agricultural value chain – the range of processes involved in moving a crop from farm to consumer. Power and profits now lie in the hands of new players, and cash from this lucrative crop is likely being used to back factions in the conflict.

Farming on the frontline

Following the assault on the Tigray region by the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) and soldiers from the neighbouring Amhara region, thousands of Tigrayan sesame farmers were killed, displaced, or fled; others joined the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF). Farms were looted or destroyed at the height of the harvest season, further exacerbating food insecurity for Tigrayans.

Western Tigray – an area under the administration of the Tigray regional government until the start of the war in 2020 – was de facto annexed by the Amhara regional government. Control over sesame production and trade passed from Tigrayan smallholders and cooperatives to Amhara owners. Some Amhara investors have been granted two-year leases for prime agricultural land by the new administration. Amhara smallholder farmers, large investors and cooperatives in this enlarged Amhara region now account for 70% of Ethiopian sesame production.

In Al Fashaga, meanwhile, Sudan capitalised on the bloody conflict across its border to retake control of this highly fertile agricultural triangle on its eastern border. With Ethiopia distracted by the conflict in Tigray, Sudan moved its troops into Al Fashaga and expelled thousands of mainly Amhara farmers between November and December 2020.

The Sudanese Armed Forces themselves managed the harvest of crops planted in 2020 by Ethiopians in Al Fashaga, including sesame. These were then sold on the market in Gedaref in eastern Sudan. Profits flowed to Sudan’s military and, by extension, to the military leadership participating in Sudan’s power-sharing arrangement after the overthrow of President Omar al Bashir in 2019. Since 2020, Sudanese landholders have been encouraged to return to some areas of Al Fashaga under military protection.   

Follow the money

On the Ethiopian side of the border, Amhara capture of fertile land in contested Western Tigray is likely linked to funding for factions in the Tigray conflict, with profits propping up Ethiopia’s war machine and recalibrating the relationship between farming, politics, and conflict. The significance of sesame profits in funding conflict is hard to assess precisely – more research is vital here – but close links between agriculture and political and military interests demonstrate that these profits matter.

A handful of Amhara businesspeople who actively and openly support the Ethiopian government in its war with Tigray have been among new beneficiaries of the sesame market in Humera, an important sesame hub in the region. They are affiliated with the ruling Prosperity Party – some have even earned honorific military titles in recognition of their support in the war. Amhara politicians in senior government positions are also widely believed to be engaged in the sesame industry, linking party politics to agricultural profits gained through conflict.

This merging of political interests and agricultural profits reflects a well-established pattern in Ethiopia. During their decades in power, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)[1] dominated virtually all sectors of the Ethiopian economy through the companies under its massive conglomerate, the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT) – by far the largest conglomerate in the country. Hiwot Agricultural Development, the buyer which dominated the pre-war sesame market around Humera, was part of EFFORT. 

Since the conflict began, EFFORT’s control of the market has been steadily dismantled, with the Amhara-owned Nigat Agro-processing taking its place as the new market hegemon. Like EFFORT, it is politically connected, but to the Amhara branch of the Prosperity Party.

The rise of illegal sesame trading

Another seismic shift in the sesame sector is a switch from licit to illicit trading. Prior to the conflict, most Tigrayan sesame was exported legally, which meant the federal government benefitted via customs and duties on exports.

Today, illegal sesame trading is surging, with sesame from Tigray winding its way to the markets of neighbouring Eritrea without passing through customs authorities. Illegal activity has corrupted the sesame value chain. Sesame profits from illegal trading grease the hands of those who provide security, finance, or permissions along the chain from production to market.

Those involved in illegal sesame production include members of the security services, top administrators, and businesspeople – mainly Amhara, as well as their political sympathisers. Security actors (including Amhara regional forces and the Fano youth movement and militia), political leaders, and smugglers all gain, and are unlikely to re-invest productively in the sesame sector.

The smuggling of cash crops in the region often goes hand in hand with arms smuggling, using the same routes and even the same trucks, with arms hidden underneath crops. There are multiple reports that arms have proliferated over the course of the Tigray conflict, largely smuggled through the forests between the Ethiopia-Sudan border. According to some reports, you can find two or three guns per household – sometimes formally registered in the name of children.

A volatile future

The future of sesame farming in Tigray and Al Fashaga looks increasingly uncertain. In Amhara-controlled Western Tigray, Amhara dominance over sesame production is linked to the rise of Amhara nationalism and could still become a flashpoint for conflict with the federal government. Members of the National Movement of Amhara, an Amhara political party with a nationalist agenda, have vested interests in the sesame sector and a political agenda to weaken federal institutions and replace them with Amhara-controlled institutions – such as the commodity exchange – bringing the region into direct conflict with the federal government.

Sesame outputs have fallen, and Tigrayan farming communities that have lost their land and livelihoods face a future of aid dependence and hunger: more than five million people are in need of assistance in Tigray. Western Tigray and Amhara security forces have continued to deny Tigrayans access to food aid and blocked access to international aid convoys through Amhara. The Amhara look set to continue to consolidate their hold on contested Western Tigray, having laid an administrative structure for the allocation of land to ethnic Amhara through leases which are likely to be coming up for renewal soon.

In Al Fashaga, it is unlikely that the Amhara will accept the loss of this fertile territory, which has been an important source of sesame for Ethiopian farmers operating across the border and employment for otherwise landless Amhara. Once time and resources allow, Amhara attention will likely turn to reclaiming land they consider rightly theirs. 

Sesame is not the only crop likely being used to sustain the war effort; other cash crops such as sorghum and cereals are likely playing a part. Writ large, the flow of income from agriculture into the war economy is draining much-needed resources from Ethiopia’s regional and federal governments. The government needs to raise foreign exchange – including through cash crops – to counter the downward spiral of the blighted Ethiopian economy. Further research into the illicit flows of money between cash crops and conflict would shed light on the intersection of agriculture and insecurity in conflict-affected borderlands, providing vital information for efforts to build peace and stability in the Horn of Africa.

Contact the XCEPT team at [email protected] for further information on the topics covered in this article.

[1] The TPLF came to power in 1991, as the leader of the political coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). It lost to President Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party in 2018.