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  • A ‘sesame war’ brewing on Ethiopia-Sudan border?

    Apr 25th, 2024

    The conflict in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region has had a lasting effect on agriculture in the borderlands of Ethiopia, Sudan and Eritrea, as sesame farming revenues have become a money-making venture for armed groups. Sesame thrives in the dry, sandy soil of Western Tigray (also referred to as Welkait), Ethiopia, and the Gedaref and Kassala states of eastern Sudan. But sesame cultivation has come with longstanding territorial disputes in these contested conflict zones.Before November 2020, Tigray was a powerhouse in global sesame production, contributing almost a third of Ethiopia’s sesame exports, amounting to $350m annually. This positioned sesame as a vital economic asset for Ethiopia, ranking second only to coffee in foreign currency earnings. “To put it in perspective, for Ethiopia, sesame and oil seeds have been the second or third most valuable export product after coffee and cut flowers,” Ahmed Soliman, a Horn of Africa researcher at Chatham House, tells The Africa Report.“For Sudan, it is the same, with sesame second to gold, and as valuable as the livestock sector,” he adds.However, the onset of the Tigray war and Sudan civil war in 2020 and 2023 marked a significant downturn in sesame production. Amidst clashes along the border and trade disruptions, sesame’s once-thriving status has waned, paving the way for illicit activities, and attracting various informal and, at times, criminal syndicates amidst the weakened state control in sesame-producing regions. “Despite the negative impact of the war on the cultivation process of the different crops in the 2023 planting season, as the farmers faced financial obstacles to purchase agricultural inputs and meet operations costs, Sudan cultivated sesame in other places, especially in White Nile state and obtained good yield per unit area,” Adam Yao, deputy FAO representative, tells The Africa Report. “Sesame has remained on the top of Sudan’s main agriculture crops for export in 2023, despite the war,” Yao says, adding: “If warring parties decide to invest in agriculture production to support their war efforts, they may provide safety to farmers under their control areas to continue the production.” ‘Protecting’ farmers Sesame is an oilseed crop cultivated for its edible seeds rich in oil and protein. Thriving in warm climates, sesame is grown primarily for its oil content, making it a vital component of the region’s agricultural landscape and economy. The conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region led to the displacement of around 600,000 people, some of whom sought refuge in Sudan. However, tensions arose between Sudan and Ethiopia as the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) deployed heavily in disputed border areas, ostensibly to protect farmers. READ MORE Sudan: Stalemate as Burhan-Hemeti power struggle continues Despite territorial disputes and historical conflicts over the border, cooperation between farmers has traditionally prevailed in areas like the Al-Fashaga district, which serves as a significant sesame hub in Sudan. However, conflict intensification on both sides of the border has reshaped cycles of cooperation and conflict in these regions.“The revenue generated from sesame is now being exploited for purposes of violence, extortion, contraband, and criminal endeavours,” Abel Abate Demissie, a conflict researcher, tells The Africa Report. This poses a substantial security threat to the two countries involved and the broader region. “It exacerbates the impoverishment of local communities, complicating efforts to resolve the political and security crises in both countries, especially concerning border disputes,” says Abel.The importance of sesame extends beyond local markets, with significant trade links stretching to international markets, particularly in the Middle East. The involvement of external actors such as the United Arab Emirates, in supplying weapons and influencing political shifts in the region further complicates the situation. Politics and sesame Competition to control sesame revenues has reshaped local agricultural markets. Amhara’s dominance in Western Tigray and the potential for reclaiming Al-Fashaga pose ongoing challenges. Amid civil war and territorial rivalry on both sides of the border, the sesame trade now plays a central role in a conflict economy that perpetuates violence and political instability. “The SAF’s incursion into Al-Fashaga from late 2020 and subsequent securitisation of the area have affected many of the actors involved in the local sesame sector – from businesspeople to farmers and labourers,” says Soliman. He adds that companies and investors aligned with SAF have entered the sesame industry, redirecting control away from Ethiopian markets. Some of these entities have ties to Sudan’s Defense Industries System (DIS), a significant conglomerate owned by SAF, which finances the army through various commercial ventures.Soliman suggests several steps to safeguard the sesame industry and ensure its sustainability, calling for cooperative cross-border measures that build trust and provide support for external and multilateral dialogue and mediation.“There is also a need for internal dialogue to be strengthened, such as between members of the Amhara and Tigrayan elites,” he adds.