The relationship between the two neighbors, Ethiopia and Sudan, is an ancient one. The two neighbors share a long border and history in which some of it was spent with glorious achievements while most of it was spent with mutual suspicion and sabotage. The relationship at present has come a long way from that to and is astonishing in retrospect. In light of the 5 th anniversary of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and its reaching of an irreversible stage, I found it the right time to take account of the dynamics of Ethio-Sudan relations and how the GERD impacted it.
The thousands of years long historical relationship begins from the civilizations of Axum and Merowe in which the two people lived under the one or the other civilizations. This long relationship has resulted in innumerable shared cultural, linguistic and ethnic values. However, since the independence of Sudan and especially after the end of WWII the relationship has exhibited an on and off pattern with the negative outweighing the positive. As in most other cases both bear the blame for the deterioration.
Ethiopia's previous foreign policies were founded on a “siege mentality” in which the narrative was of a country surrounded by enemies. That narrative was seared into the Ethiopian psyche in turn to have an adverse effect on the relationship and dampen positive developments. The effect of that attitude still persists even though it faded after the establishment of a Federal Republic in Ethiopia and the near excellent relationship they had for a quarter of a century.
The relationship between the two has particularly gotten worse especially in the period of the fascist military junta that ruled Ethiopia from 1974-91. However, the junta was not the only one to blame as The Sudan was in internal turmoil with the sporadic manifestations of religious extremism. There were several attempts aided by The Sudan that were configured to make Ethiopia a victim of terrorism and also to spread religious extremism. These in turn fed into the siege mentality of its neighbor and created a contagion vulnerability for the old Ethiopia in which religious inequality was a feature. This was one of the reasons that harmed the relationships between the two countries.
The other, and maybe the biggest, reason was the strategic issues concerning the utilization of the Nile River. The 1959 agreement between the two lower riparian countries, Sudan and Egypt, excluding Ethiopia, which was the main source of the river, was damaging to the relationship between the two East African neighbors.
Even though Ethiopia’s potential to use the Nile for irrigation is limited due to its topography, The Sudan have a vast and fertile irrigable land and situated better than all the riparian states to greater utilization of the Nile waters. However, the 1959 agreement, has dubiously appropriated the right to the largest share of the Nile’s waters to Egypt which neither adds any volume nor have enough land for irrigation. This agreement was in addition of being an insult to Ethiopia, was also contrary to the national interest of Sudan. Many analysts attribute this outcome to the undue influence of Egypt on the internal politics of the Sudan.
establishment of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia 25 years ago was a distinct
turning point in the relationship between the two neighbors. One of the two
main factors was the fact that the new republic was mainly spearheaded by the
then rebel group with long and strong working relationships to the ruling party
of Sudan. The EPRDF coalition, which overthrew the military junta, had used
Sudan as a supply corridor (especially for food aid to the population in the
area it controlled. The porous border with Sudan and the cold-war like
relationship between the two countries has also created conducive environment
for movements of rebel leaders. The working relationship built in the decades
has its share in the unprecedented mutual trust that happened 25 years ago.
other main factor was Ethiopia's new foreign policy that took a U-turn in that
it declared Ethiopiais neither surrounded by nor have permanent enemies. The
policy was centered on the top strategic goal of the country which was set to
be achieving an economic miracle and emphasized the need for regional
interdependence to create a conducive condition to sustainable peace and
development. The new policy direction and measures for security and economic
cooperation that followed has definitely built on the initial mutual trust.
That is the only explanation for why a number of hiccups in their relationship
(such as the assassination attempt on Egyptian president in Addis Ababa by
terrorists the Sudan sheltered) haven't resulted in a major fallout.
last decade was a unique chapter in the modern history of Ethiopia and the
sub-region as the country registered an unprecedented double digit growth for
consecutive years. That coupled with its nuanced regional diplomacy (with the
personal qualities of its late statesman at the forefront) has earned her the
respect of its neighbors, including those that only had a hostile historical
relationship. Ethiopia rose to be a trusted regional broker as was seen by the
preference of the warring Sudan and South Sudan for Ethiopian mediation and the
only mutually acceptable military force for an African peacekeeping mission to
be settled at their contested border. The Sudan, in contrary to those
historical suspicions, has even insisted on the deployment of Ethiopian troops
as peacekeepers in Darfur, its restive region. That was an unparalleled demonstration
of the diplomatic feat Ethiopia has achieved in a troubled sub-region.
then the GERD came to town…
surprise announcement of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam by the late
statesman Meles Zenawi has once again brought back the old media talk of “water
wars”. Not a few expected some sort of conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia and
assumed the regional alliance of the Sudan with Egypt to continue. The
assessment was fair when one takes into account the internal vulnerability of
the Sudan and the historical meddling of Egypt into its internal politics which
will not let Sudan afford to break from past Nile agreements in favor of its
geopolitics is a scene of surprises and that was what happened in this case.
Egypt has learned it has lost Africa and especially the Nile basin region to
Ethiopia in the intense shuttle diplomacy it conducted after the announcement
of the GERD. Ethiopia has controlled the narrative with its leadership of
African agenda in the international arena as well as with unrelenting decades
long engagement in the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), an organ formed by all Nile
riparian countries as a framework for fair allocation of Nile waterswhich
resulted into the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) signed
by all except the two lower riparian countries. Egypt on the other hand not
only chose to pivot towards the Middle East for decades but also showed
reluctance, if not hostility, towards the NBI and the countries in it. That
turned out to be a strategic blunder.
if the diplomatic debacle wasn't enough, Egypt got itself mired in an turmoil
for years as a result of the Arab Spring and that cost her a great deal of
respect in the region. The perceived power of Egypt rested in its assumed national
cohesion and its ability to create instability in the nations that dare to
challenge her. That has evaporated in the last two decades as Ethiopia
spearheaded and succeeded in elevating the state of cooperation in the
sub-region. The troubled region has managed to form a regional organization for
security and economic cooperation, established sub-regional standby
peacekeeping force, instituted an arms trafficking control regime...which
resulted in talks of economic integration instead of wars and sabotages of
neighbors. Hence, the old tactic was no more potent in getting others in line.
That changed state was added to the turmoil of Egypt has let Nile riparian
countries to peruse their national interest. At that point the only option left
for Egypt was to return to the negotiation table it once rejected, and that's
what she did.
GERD, probably by design than coincidence, benefits the Sudan as much as, if
not more, it benefits Ethiopia. The dam is being built a mere 40 Kms from the
border with Sudan and it gives Sudan a number of benefits at zero cost. The
Ethiopian leadership must have communicated the benefits early on as the
Sudanese leadership was seen reluctant to jump into the Egyptian band wagon of
denunciations and even war threats in the early days of GERD.
all the Sudan has agreements for hydropower energy purchase from Ethiopia,
supplies oil to Ethiopia, is undertaking activities for Ethiopia's use of its
ports, enjoys strong border security and repatriation agreements and even hosts
thousands of Ethiopian troops in its territory. Hence, she was with no inclination
to spoil it all for Egypt, with no credible plan for triumph, and especially
over a dam that is actually in her national interest. That's probably why Sudan
moved even closer to Ethiopia as time goes by and its statements on GERD has
become softer and softer and even positive up to a point in which Sudanese
citizens residing in Ethiopia started to invest in the GERD bonds. The attitude
of Sudan, I believe, has a big role in forcing the Egyptians come to the