Political transitions in Ethiopia and Sudan offered the promise of more democratic, civilian-led government and increased regional stability in the Horn of Africa. But contestation between old and new political forces has disrupted both transitions since 2020. Meanwhile, relations between the two countries have been characterized by growing discord over cross-border issues, including the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the disputed territory of Al Fashaga and the war in northern Ethiopia. These bilateral tensions and domestic crises threaten to undermine security and development across the region.
This paper assesses the domestic contexts in Ethiopia and Sudan and the contentious cross-border issues that are damaging relations. It also details the range of regional and international interventions to date. The paper concludes with recommendations on how international stakeholders can coordinate responses to support political transition, and achieve stability for both countries and the region.
- Cross-border tensions and interlinked crises in Ethiopia and Sudan jeopardize security and development in those countries and across the Horn of Africa. International efforts to support regional stability should work towards coordinated responses, addressing the intersection of crises and causes of instability within and between both countries.
- Political agreements – aimed at ending hostilities in northern Ethiopia and seeking to secure a more robust civilian government in Sudan – provide an opportunity to renew both transitions if the necessary diplomatic backing is forthcoming.
- Transitions in both countries from 2018 offered the promise of more democratic, civilian government and increased regional stability. But contestation between old and new political forces has seen those transitions veer off course since 2020, amid a brutal war in Tigray and other parts of northern Ethiopia and a catastrophic military coup in Sudan.
- Since 2018, relations between Ethiopia and Sudan have been characterized by growing discord over a range of cross-border issues, including the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Al Fashaga and the war in northern Ethiopia. While tensions have deepened, open conflict seems unlikely following a detente between the leaders of both countries. Yet the situation is fragile and efforts to restore relations must be reinforced. If cross-border issues are left to fester, tensions could again escalate, with grave implications for regional stability and affecting humanitarian, development and economic outcomes.
- Until the signing of the Pretoria Agreement by Ethiopian parties in November 2022, the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development struggled to intervene effectively in either context. The range of domestic, regional and international interventions reflect a divergence among stakeholders as to what stability entails for both countries and the Horn – and how it can be achieved.
- Other regional and geopolitical stakeholders – including Egypt, Eritrea and the Gulf Arab states – are pursuing their own, often competing, interests in Ethiopia and Sudan, complicating prospects for de-escalation and resolution. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has largely pursued securitized and transactional approaches. Strategies prioritizing cooperative stability, with reference to popular civilian demands, would boost both transitions and ease cross-border tensions, improving outcomes for the UAE’s economic and food security interests.
- A reinvigorated US role and greater cooperation with partners – including the EU, the UK, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – could encourage partners to move beyond securitized approaches; instead crafting policies that show greater sensitivity to national and subnational contexts in the Horn.
- More cohesive international engagement is needed to support stability within Ethiopia and Sudan, building confidence and platforms to calm relations and resolve damaging cross-border disputes. Enhanced alignment between regional envoys is necessary and, if effectively connected with continental and regional diplomatic mechanisms, could provide the foundations for longer-term stability and integration.