In the Sudan–Ethiopia borderland—Blue Nile state and Benishangul-Gumuz region— gold mining has shifted from being part of a long-term, family- and community-based livelihood strategy to a short-term entrepreneurial pursuit. Mining is increasingly dominated by the private sector, with the military now a leading player in Sudan.

Attempts by the governments of Sudan and Ethiopia to increase control over the circulation of artisanal gold in their borderland regions have largely failed. Instead, cross-border trade has increased, away from official pathways. The reasons for this are many, including price differentials, short-staffed and underfunded regional governments, and a lack of commitment to national laws vis-à-vis individual reve­nues.

Centralized decision-making under authoritarian regimes in both capitals has generally prioritized controlling the flow of resources, rather than respecting local distributive logic and supply needs. This has resulted in the circumvention of poli­cies formulated by central governments on cross-border trade on both sides of the border.

Border demarcation has been the primary tool promoted to tackle problems, but it has generally been ineffective and ultimately aborted. Insecurity along the border has been addressed via militarization. These strategies have done little to address the fundamental issue that the border is the result of a colonial geopolitical deal between Britain and the Abyssinian Empire that ignored existing social relations and land property.

However, while the Blue Nile–Benishangul-Gumuz borderland is not free from conflict, it provides an example of relatively stable cross-border relations that have been limited by regime-instigated civil wars and border restrictions imposed by central governments. Instead of addressing border permeability as a failure of control or security threat, such exchange relations may be considered as being in the spirt of the principles of the African Union Border Program that established in 2007 the basis ‘that a boundary can be viewed as a “bridge” to facilitate interregional integration rather than as a “barrier” to block interaction’.

Sudanese refugees from Blue Nile state—escaping the conflict between the SPLM-N and Sudanese government—became significantly involved in gold mining in Benis­hangul-Gumuz. This emerged particularly when the aid supplies to refugee camps in Ethiopia were reduced, forcing Sudanese to seek alternative livelihood strategies. Previous experience in the mining sector was initially seen as an advantage, but subsequently territorial sensitivity amongst Ethiopian mining communities made the Sudanese presence more problematic.

The prospect of peace in Blue Nile following the government’s deal with Agar faction of the SPLM-N means that Sudanese refugees may seek to return home. However, the mobility patterns and exchange relations developed over decades of war have become the norm for these communities. In this tri-border region—Sudan, South Sudan and Ethiopia—lives are often lived frequently crossing these official borders and this must be taken into account by humanitarian and development interven­tions.