In a drastic move to fight organised crime, Sudan closed its border with Eritrea last month, and deployed thousands of government forces along the border. According to the governor of Kassala state, the order was prompted by security reasons pertaining to the collection of illicit arms and efforts to contain criminal activities.
The order to close all crossing points with Eritrea came a few days after President Omar al-Bashir imposed a six-month state of emergency in North Kordofan and Kassala states.
Troops belonging to Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) arrived in tanks and vehicles with mounted weapons on 4 January. Additional troops were sent later in the month. The deployment elicited speculation that the forces were there to deter armed fighters who allegedly operate along the Eritrean border. Officials fuelled further speculation with conflicting explanations of the drastic security measures.
Kassala State Governor Adam Jama’a cited ‘a number of problems, including human trafficking and commodity and illicit arms smuggling.’ Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour said the move was a response to ‘possible aggression,’ without accusing any specific country or group.
This is not the first time RSF, a group implicated in gross human rights violations, has been deployed in this way. They were originally mobilised by the government in 2003 in response to the insurgency in Darfur. In January 2017, RSF Commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo announced his group had intercepted 1 500 illegal migrants along the Sudanese-Libyan border.
As the third largest refugee-hosting country in Africa, Sudan is a major origin, transit and destination hub for migrants from across the continent. Through illegal migration and human trafficking networks, thousands of people from Eritrea and Ethiopia enter Sudan on their way to Europe.
These security measures, together with what appears to be an internal crackdown on complicit officers, mean that Sudan could succeed in its goal of disrupting arms and drug trafficking into Sudan from Eritrea, as well as human trafficking through Sudan to destinations like Egypt and Libya.
Eritrea enjoys close ties with Egypt, however, and these developments will have far-reaching geopolitical implications for Sudan, which has also stoked border tensions with Egypt. Sudan has also strengthened ties with Turkey, Egypt’s regional foe over Middle-East politics.
These actions are reminiscent of the 1950s, when the Sudanese pressured Egypt to sign the current Nile Waters Agreement. The White Nile, which carries less than 20% of the water, enters Egypt through Sudan. Over 80% comes from the Blue Nile, which originates from Ethiopia.
Egypt is therefore inclined to pay closer attention to Ethiopia’s claims on the Nile water. It fears that Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam project on the Blue Nile could significantly disrupt its agricultural sector’s near-absolute dependence on the 6 650-kilometre long Nile River, which passes through 11 countries.
Eritrea is another Nile basin country, and Sudan’s involvement with this state underscores the complexity of the Nile water politics.
Deo Gumba, ENACT Regional organised crime observatory coordinator – East and Horn of Africa, ISS