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South Sudanese President Salva Kiir (L), South Sudan's opposition leader Riek Machar (R) and Mohamed Hamdan Daglo "Hemeti", Sudan's deputy head of the Transitional Military Council, speak to media after their peace talk at the State House in Juba, South Sudan, on December 17, 2019.
Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, deputy leader of the Sudan’s Transitional Military Council, is flanked by President Salva Kiir (left) and First Vice President Riek Machar of South Sudan after peace talks in Juba.

Juba, South Sudan— Developments in both Sudans suggest that peace prospects are starting to bear fruit in a region that has known decades of war. In February 2020, signatories to the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan formed a new government, called the Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity, thus breathing life into the implementation of the ailing agreement, signed in 2018.

The agreement had faced a number of uncertainties and weathered two extensions, the first by six months and the second by one hundred days. The fact that the situation has remained stable has raised hopes among South Sudanese that the dividends of peace can now be enjoyed.

Yet competition for economic resources and control at both local and national levels persists, an obstacle on the road to sustainable peace.

David Shearer, special representative of the United Nations secretary-general in South Sudan, briefed the UN Security Council on this and other issues on June 23. His presentation is part of concerted efforts by the international community and the wider region to ensure that this time the peace will last. The various entities involved are the UN, the African Union, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Norway (which were all instrumental in facilitating the formation of the transitional government); countries bordering on South Sudan, notably the Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia; and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a trade bloc of eight countries from the Horn of Africa, the Great Lakes region, and the Nile Valley.

The breakthrough political compromise that regional mediators put in motion has provided the opening for President Salva Kiir, former rebel leader turned First Vice President Riek Machar, and other key political leaders to join the three-year transitional government.

Although these positive developments were painstakingly slow, the chance that the peace agreement could hold only became firm when a parallel fast-paced process was taking shape: the Sudanese peace talks initiated by President Kiir.


Developments in the Sudan

Following the Sudanese Revolution of December 2018 that led to the ousting of long-serving president Omar al-Bashir in April 2019, there has been positive steps in Khartoum. It has provided a window of opportunity to address the root causes of the Sudanese crisis; to finally bring sustainable peace to the long-suffering people on the margins in Darfur, South Kordofan, Nuba Mountains, and Eastern Sudan; and to build a state based on freedom, justice, and shared prosperity.

The success of the popular uprising against the regime created a leadership vacuum and power wrangling between protest groups and the Transitional Military Council (TMC), which immediately took over from Bashir, albeit leading to a transitional power-sharing deal between civilians and the military brokered by the AU and Ethiopia. However, this agreement left out other key players, such as the armed rebel movements in Darfur and the Two Areas (South Kordofan and Southern Blue Nile).

South Sudanese president Salva Kiir exploited this opening during the swearing in of the transitional government in Khartoum to declare his willingness—with the support of Sudan’s neighbors and Gulf states—to mediate between the new rulers and the rebel groups, capitalizing on his in-depth knowledge of the Sudanese crisis and its actors. It should be recalled both governments in the past have often accused each other of hosting and supporting hostile forces that seek to overthrow their respective governments. At the closing session of the general conference of the ruling National Congress Party in Khartoum in 2017, Bashir openly called for the two states to be reunited.

For his part, President Kiir had long repeated that the armed conflict in the Sudan was directly affecting stability in his country, as the clashes were mainly located in the border region. Also, he said, the continuation of fighting in the Sudan provoked Khartoum to back South Sudanese armed groups after accusing Juba of supporting the Sudanese rebels.

With the rapprochement started by Khartoum leading to the signing of South Sudan’s own peace agreement in September 2018, the time was ripe for Juba to play a leading role. In the past, Bashir had always resisted Kiir’s advances to facilitate peace talks with the Sudanese armed groups. After Kiir’s involvement in the IGAD-mediated peace talks to end the three-year armed conflict in the South, however, Bashir accepted his involvement.


Sudanese Peace Talks

In early September 2019, Kiir hosted talks in Juba between rebel movements, military members of the Sovereign Council, and Sudanese prime minister Abdalla Hamdok. Rebel movements involved in the Juba meetings included four Darfuri armed groups, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army led by Minni Minawi (SLM-MM), the Sudan Liberation Movement–Transitional Council, and the Alliance of Sudan Liberation Forces; the Blue Nile/South Kordofan rebel group Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, led by Abdelaziz al-Hilu (SPLM-N al-Hilu); and the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), an alliance of Sudanese rebel groups created in 2011 in opposition to Bashir’s government.

The negotiations were divided along five tracks, in which each track addresses the grievances of a region, namely, Central Sudan, Eastern Sudan, the Two Areas, the North, and Darfur.

A first round of negotiations took place in Juba in mid-September. In the second round in October 2019, agreements were signed on the Two Areas track between the government and the SPLM-N al-Hilu, and on the Darfur track between the government and the SRF. The third round started in mid-December on the Eastern Sudan track, the Two Areas track with the SPLM-N Agar (the faction led by Malik Agar), and the Darfur track.

“The president of South Sudan has an experience similar to the Sudanese situation, and he is one of the first fighters who resisted injustice,” a leader of the SRF said in an interview with this analyst. He declined to be named, as he was not the spokesperson for the delegation in Juba.

The delegate also stressed that Kiir is well placed to mediate the Sudanese process. The authorities in Khartoum are also keen to reach a peaceful settlement of conflicts as per their country’s constitutional declaration, which sought to achieve peace in all of the Sudan within six months of its signing.

The vice president of the Sovereign Council of the Sudan, Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti), has helped to facilitate the formation of the new government of South Sudan, accompanying South Sudanese opposition leader Machar and guaranteeing his security on multiple visits to Juba in preparation for the government formation.

In parallel, Hemedti has continued Juba-based peace talks with Sudanese armed groups, including the Sudanese Revolutionary Front and SPLM-N al-Hilu, as cited in a UN panel of experts report on South Sudan released on April 28, 2020.

According to multiple sources involved in both mediations, the connection between the implementation of the revitalized peace agreement in South Sudan and peace talks in relation to the Sudan has become inextricable. For instance, Hemedti has tried to capitalize on his patronage relationship with Machar to ask for Juba’s support in softening the position of Abdelaziz al-Hilu, leader of the armed group SPLM-N al-Hilu, who is hosted in South Sudan. Machar’s party told the panel that Machar’s last-minute entry into the government had been “forced upon him” by the Sudan, Uganda, and the international community, and that Machar was “now a prisoner in Juba.” This intertwined relationship has carried the risk that the implementation of the agreement hinges on the Sudan making progress in its peace talks.

Progress has been made, including the signing of the declaration of principles (a political agreement that includes a renewed ceasefire) and the delivery of humanitarian assistance by government agencies to areas under conflict. A framework agreement has also been drawn up for the smoldering Darfur conflict, covering issues such as power sharing, wealth sharing, transitional justice, and a commitment to continue the negotiations.

The SRF and Sovereign Council representatives agreed on the creation of a special court for Darfur to conduct investigations and trials for war crimes and crimes against humanity carried out during the war by the Bashir presidency and by rebel warlords. They did not discuss the issue of whether or not to transfer Omar al-Bashir to the International Criminal Court.

Furthermore, Hemedti signed political and security agreements, constituting a framework agreement, on behalf of the Sovereign Council and Ahmed El Omda Badi on behalf of SPLM-N Agar. The agreements give legislative autonomy to South Kordofan and Blue Nile, propose solutions for the sharing of land and other resources, and aim to unify all militias and government soldiers into a single unified Sudanese military.

A “final” peace agreement for the North track—including issues of studies for new dams, compensation for people displaced by existing dams, road construction, and burial of electronic and nuclear waste—was signed by Shamseldin Kabashi of the Sovereign Council and Dahab Ibrahim of the Kush Movement.

Also, on March 25, the death of Sudanese defense minister Gamal al-Din Omar of a heart attack in Juba further delayed the process to allow for mourning. In a press statement, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who heads the Sovereign Council, said he mourned the death of Omar, “who died while struggling for the stability of the Sudan,” a reference to peace talks with rebels.


Delays, But Also Progress

Following this development, Tut Gatluak, chair of the mediation, stated that the Sudan, South Sudan, and other African countries are committed “to end all forms of war” in Africa by the end of 2020, referencing the African Union’s theme of Silencing the Guns.

Notwithstanding, delays have also plunged the ten-month process into uncertainty, with extension of negotiations month after month with no time limit. Some observers say the process has lost momentum.

The spread of COVID-19 to the two countries has also slowed the peace process, as social distancing measures have meant that delegates could not easily meet. Thanks to the European Union missions in both Juba and Khartoum, talks resumed via video teleconferencing.

The Sudan Liberation Movement of Minni Minnawi, however, has refused to take part in video conference meetings, saying the security arrangements require the involvement of military experts and physical negotiations.

Talks between the government and SPLM-N al-Hilu were suspended for several months, as the armed group wanted to put the right to self-determination and the relationship between state and religion on the agenda, a request the government wouldn’t consider. Sudanese government spokesman Mohamed Hassan Eltaishi announced an invitation by the mediators to resume dialogue via video conferencing with the SPLM-N delegation on June 22.

For now, negotiations to achieve a comprehensive peace continues in Juba with a pattern of extensions of deadlines for the signing of a final agreement. It is undeniable, however, that the fate of the two countries is intertwined.

Lasting peace in South Sudan is most likely to reflect positively in the Sudan, especially in the Two Areas, traditional strongholds of the SPLM-N, a movement with very close connections to SPLM, the ruling party in South Sudan. Once comrades in the armed struggle against the oppressive Islamist government in Khartoum, they were separated on July 9, 2011, when the south seceded to become an independent state.

Failure to achieve peace in the Sudan, on the other hand, is likely to be detrimental to South Sudan’s long-term stability, as the Sudan is a known haven for South Sudanese dissidents. But the Sudan has also been pushing for compromises thus far made by South Sudanese parties, which has spurred progress in the peace process. Any disinterest by Khartoum could lead to loss of momentum in Juba’s own implementation of agreements, possibly sparking a new wave of violence.


Patrick Anyama Godi is the editor of True African Magazine, a South Sudanese lifestyle, fashion, and business magazine


A view of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam under construction, in a photograph taken near Guba, Ethiopia, on December 26, 2019. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP)

Ethiopia wants to start filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in the Blue Nile in July, when the rainy season starts, but it has not yet reached a final agreement with Egypt and Sudan downriver. Egypt fears it would reduce its water supply, and Sudan warned on Wednesday that the filling of the GERD without an agreement between the three countries would pose a risk to its own dams. Sudan is especially concerned about Roseires Dam near the Ethiopian border, which plays an important role in supplying the country with water and hydroelectric power.


The latest round of negotiations also failed to produce a compromise


Consultations have been ongoing between the three countries, with input from the World Bank and the United States. Most issues have been resolved, but the remaining bones of contention are the fill rate of the 74 billion cubic meter reservoir and the long-term operation of the dam.

The latest round of negotiations, by videoconference, also failed to produce a compromise. On June 19, Egypt requested the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to intervene to resolve the dispute with Ethiopia, after which Sudan sent a letter to the UNSC expressing its concern over the filling of the dam without a signed agreement. The UNSC will discuss the issue on Monday, June 29.

And the African Union’s Executive Council will hold an emergency video meeting on Friday, June 26, to discuss the dispute in response to a call from South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, the current chairman of the African Union.


Abiy - Alburhan
Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed (left) and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, then chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Military Council and now chairman of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan, photographed in Khartoum on June 7, 2019. (AFP)

Sudan and Ethiopia have both condemned cross-border incursions by Ethiopian militiamen and soldiers last week, and have called for a truce and an amicable solution to the border tensions.

On May 27 and 28, Ethiopian bandits launched cross-border raids on the Sudanese villages of Mashre El Fursan and Barakat Nourein, witnesses told Radio Dabanga. A Sudanese army captain was killed in the skirmishes, and several soldiers and civilians were wounded.

Such raids and occupation of farmland are not uncommon in the border region of El Gedaref state, especially during the harvest season, but this time the gunmen were supported by hundreds of Ethiopian soldiers, according to Brigadier General Amer El Hasan, a spokesperson for the Sudanese Armed Forces.

Sudan summoned the Ethiopian embassy’s chargé d’affaires over the attacks, and in response the Ethiopian ministry of foreign affairs said there was “no honorable reason for the two countries to descend into hostility”.


Ethiopia has said it will begin to fill the dam with or without the consent of the other parties


It is imperative for Khartoum and Addis Abbas to reach a peaceful resolution to the issue amid the ongoing fraught negotiations over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. If Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt fail to reach an agreement before July—when Ethiopia has said it will begin to fill the dam with or without the consent of the other parties—it might lead to a dangerous instability in the region.


Rwandan peacekeepers, part of the United Nations–African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), stand guard in the war-torn town of Golo in Jebel Marra, Central Darfur, on June 19, 2017.


The Sudanese presidency issued a statement on Tuesday, March 26, saying the mandate of the United Nations–African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), which ends in October 2020, would not be renewed. This was agreed in a phone call between the chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereign Council and two senior US diplomats in which the withdrawal of the peacekeeping troops was discussed.

The chairman, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, spoke with assistant secretary for the US State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs Tibor Nagy and US special envoy for Sudan Donald Booth, pushing for the United Nations and African Union to move away from peacekeeping efforts and towards state building. Nagy and Booth have not commented on the discussion.

This has been a consistent position held by the new Sudanese government that formed in the wake of the removal of dictator Omar al-Bashir. Sudanese prime minister Abdalla Hamdok sent letters to the United Nations Security Council in January and February requesting a special political mission under Chapter VI of the UN Charter that would cover the whole of the country, with an emphasis on continuing peace-building exercises in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile, along with financial assistance, repatriation of displaced Sudanese, and integration of former rebel combatants into the Sudanese military.


Human Rights Watch has repeatedly warned of the dangers of a full UN withdrawal from Darfur


Hamdok’s decision has ignited heated discussion not only within Sudan but also among the international community. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly warned of the dangers of a full UN withdrawal from Darfur, saying that marginalized communities there cannot rely on Sudanese security alone for their protection. Earlier in May, a cohort of ninety-eight civil society groups, including activist organizations from Darfur, strongly urged the prime minister to maintain peacekeeping forces and extend the UNAMID mandate past October 2020.



Abiy With Sudanese Delegation
Ethiopan prime minister Abiy Ahmed welcomes the Sudanese delegation to Addis Ababa.


A Sudanese ministerial delegation sat down with Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa over the weekend to discuss the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and border security concerns. The delegation follows a phone conversation between Abiy and Sudanese prime minister Abdallah Hamdok on May 12, when the latter urged his Ethiopian counterpart to agree to a tripartite deal between Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt before beginning the filling process.

The GERD fulfills a decades-long Ethiopian dream to harness the power of the Nile River to meet the country’s ballooning energy needs for its 109 million-strong population. Egypt, however, is concerned that a hasty filling of the dam could lower the Nile’s water level and jeopardize its agricultural industry, with Sudan fearing the dam will exacerbate issues of water shortages.


Filling of the dam is set to begin on July 17.


A day after Hamdok’s call to Abyi, Sudan announced it would not sign a partial deal due to a lack of technical and legal articles in the agreement, which Ethiopia has criticized as an undue burden. Filling of the dam is set to begin on July 17.


Other Matters on the Agenda

Outside of discussions on the GERD, the Sudanese delegation and Ethiopia discussed issues of trade, mitigating the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, and ongoing attacks between Sudanese farmers and Ethiopian militias in Sudan’s eastern Gedaref Governorate. Ethiopian forces recently occupied parts of this governorate, threatening to reignite a border dispute that was resolved in 2003 after Ethiopia formally returned the territory to Sudan.



Undersea Cable


A multinational consortium of telecommunications companies—including Facebook, China Mobile International, MTN Global Connect, Telecom Egypt, and Vodafone—announced the construction of a new undersea fiber-optic cable that will connect sixteen African countries, Europe, and the Middle East. Named 2Africa, the 37,000 kilometer-long communications cable is scheduled to go live in 2023 or 2024.


Africans pay some of the highest data rates in the world.


In March, two undersea cables serving Africa experienced breakages that drastically reduced Internet connectivity for days as repairs were made. The addition of 2Africa will help improve Internet access for millions of Africans, and mitigate disruptions should other cables experience failures in the future. Such disruptions are not only frustrating for Africans, who pay some of the highest data rates in the world, but also have a negative impact on the African economy.

A 2017 report by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) concluded that intentional Internet shutdowns in twelve countries between 2015 and 2017 cost sub-Saharan Africa more than US$237 million. Unforeseen connectivity disruptions naturally can have far greater negative impact on national and regional economies.


Sudan’s transitional government has amended the country’s penal code to outlaw the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), which now carries a three-year prison sentence and a fine. Although hailed as a major step forward by Sudanese and international women’s rights campaigners, a simple change of the law will not be enough to completely end the practice.


Part of the challenge of ending female genital mutilation is that it is intertwined with rites of passage.


Vview of the United Nations headquarters
The flag of the United Nations, with its white emblem on a light-blue field, flies in front of the UN headquarters in New York.


The United Nations defines FGM as the deliberate removal or alteration of a woman’s genitals for non-medical purposes, and regards it as a human rights violation. Besides Sudan, FGM is practiced in at least twenty-seven other African countries, mostly in the Horn of Africa but also in Nigeria and Senegal. Part of the challenge of ending FGM is that it is intertwined with rites of passage.

In Egypt, despite a 2008 amendment outlawing the practice, a 2013 UNICEF report estimated that at least 27.2 million women and girls had undergone FGM, the highest on the African continent.


Women were at the forefront of street protests and civil disobedience.


Still, attitudes are changing in Sudan and turning against FGM. Much of this stems from the revolution that led to the removal of longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir in April 2019, a revolution where women were at the forefront of street protests and civil disobedience.

Women currently head five ministries in Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s cabinet, which indicates that the new government is serious about supporting gender parity and advancing feminist causes.


Regional governmental organizations in Africa have a mixed history. Some like ECOWAS in West Africa have been able to facilitate collective action and drive change in the region, while others like the Maghreb Union in North Africa lay dormant. Somewhere in between is the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, better known as IGAD. It was established in 1996 as a successor to the Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Development, created in 1986. IGAD includes eight countries from the Horn of Africa, the Nile Valley, and the Great Lakes Region—Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Uganda—and has its headquarters in Djibouti City. Its mandate includes development with a focus on peace and security. 

In the long-term IGAD and the EAC may merge but, the two blocks have very different origins. The East African Community (EAC) started as a trade bloc, there was a custom union between Uganda and Kenya even before independence, then Tanganyika (comprising the mainland of present-day Tanzania) joined in 1927, the union of East Africa collapsed in 1977 and then was revived in 2000, while IGAD did not start as a trading bloc and is still behind EAC in economic integration. 


Don't Wait for Peace to Pursue Development

Some civil society leaders have wondered aloud if IGAD is putting the cart before the horse, and whether there shouldn’t be greater emphasis on solving the region's many conflicts before working on regional integration, let alone establishing economic corridors, which may run through conflict zones.

In 2019, I wrote an article criticizing IGAD and suggesting that its endless search for peace was a trap, because “sustainable peace objectives with high standards of security and stability” were the bait that entices stakeholders to ignore the need for private sector development and regional economic integration. My article “IGAD and Peace Trap” focused on the IGAD peace-for-development approach. 

To be clear, IGAD's peace building efforts in South Sudan and Somalia have been successes. IGAD led the negotiations that achieved independence of South Sudan. After a new wave of the civil war in South Sudan beginning in 2013, IGAD launched a mediation effort which helped the two parties of the conflict reach several peace agreements. Of theses the 2018 Khartoum agreement was the final and most decisive one.  

In Somalia, IGAD led efforts led to the IGAD Peace Support Mission in Somalia (IGASOM) in March 2005, approved by the AU in September 2006, then approved by the United Nations Security Council in December 2006. The current African Union Mission in Somalia AMISOM replaced IGASOM.

Still, we should build on available conditions, and let people and local communities push the process of accomplishing peace forward through economic development. Hopefully, this third foundation of IGAD will witness the balance between peace and development.


Cattle Uganda
Cattle share the road with traffic in Uganda. Underdeveloped roads are a major impediment to development on the continent. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP)


IGAD Regional Infrastructure Master Plan

The development of the IGAD Regional Infrastructure Master Plan (IRIMP) is ongoing and offers a new foundation for IGAD. It focuses on the development of major economic development corridors (EDCs) that cross borders, and the integrated policies and laws to support them. If implemented by 2040, as envisioned, it will offer a clear move away from the protectionism that has characterized the region for far too long.

In March 2020, the first forum for IRIMP consultative dialogue was held in Entebbe, Uganda. I was the chair of that forum. This consultative meeting was meant to engage with civil society leaders interested in the development of IGAD generally and the IRIMP specifically.

Elsadig Abdalla, IGAD director for economic & regional integration, said the Entebbe dialogue provided valuable inputs that would enhance the IRIMP for more effective implementation. He emphasized that all IGAD members were actively involved in infrastructure: “Ahead of the implementation of IRIMP, to date, member states have invested nearly US$20 billion in infrastructure development alone.” The Entebbe dialogue witnessed broad participation from NGOs and the private sector drawn from seven IGAD states with the notable exception of Eritrea. 


From a Master Plan to an Action Plan

In April 2018, IGAD signed a contract for the development of the IRIMP with consulting firms IPE Global Limited and Africon Universal Consulting in Nairobi, Kenya. The development of this master plan—with the support of the African Development Bank—is a vital step toward achieving economic integration in the IGAD region and to contribute to the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) goals of streamlined trade in goods and services.


“The economic corridor approach transforms transport corridors into engines of socio-economic development.”


“Corridor approaches to economic development have increasingly informed strategy and plans in Africa over the past ten to fifteen years; the latest AU thinking continues to refine and further develop this approach,” said Jamie Simpson, executive director at IPE Global, in a conversation with the author at the IGAD event in Entebbe.

Simpson confirmed that projects in the areas of energy and transport have been identified as priorities in the master plan. These projects are estimated to cost between US$6 billion and US$10 billion, which will be invested in a phased manner. 

IGAD’s interest in the development of EDCs builds on well-established research in Africa over the past decade. An Africa Development Bank report on developing economic corridors, makes a compelling case for the role of EDCs. “The economic corridor approach transforms transport corridors into engines of socio-economic development”, the report reads. It suggests that local plans for linking the geographical surroundings of each member country should be made in line with the corresponding EDC plan.

A crucial point made in the report is about the role of the private sector in the development of these corridors: This partnership should start in the planning phase and continue through construction. A list of existing African transport corridors prepared by EENI Global Business School contains nineteen corridors. The map shows how corridors became new rivers of development on the continent.

As far as regional blocs in Africa are concerned, IGAD began as development regional institutional and eventually assumed security roles. With the IRIMP the organization can fulfill one the most pressing needs of East Africa and be a model for others to follow. 


Mekki Elmograbi chaired the first ever IRIMP consultative dialogue for IGAD in Entebbe, Uganda in March 2020. Elmograbi is a former Sudanese diplomat and is currently the head of the independent think tank Mekki Center.

Another round of talks is taking place in Washington, D.C. about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in the Blue Nile, this time to reach agreement on the rules for filling rates and operating procedures for the dam. Tripartite talks being brokered by the US and the World Bank between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia have been ongoing, but Ethiopia will not be attending the latest meeting, announced Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s special envoy, Hailemariam Desalegn, on February 25; instead, Abiy wishes to sign the deal only after Ethiopian general elections on August 29.


Why It Matters

In Ethiopia’s absence in Washington, D.C., it’s doubtful the deal will get signed. The construction of the dam is a long-held dream of Ethiopian authorities, as Africa’s second-most populous country is also one of the least electrified. Before talks began, threats of military action were issued between Egypt and Ethiopia, raising fears of a regional conflict breaking out that would dramatically destabilize the Horn of Africa.

A successful diplomatic resolution of this dispute will serve as a critical model to emulate for future disputes between nations over water rights. Climate change has already jeopardized steady access to water across the continent and is expected to get worse as dry seasons grow longer and droughts become more frequent, raising the specter of future resource conflicts over dwindling water supplies.


A Week Is a Long Time in Politics

Desalegn’s announcement that Ethiopia will skip the talks in Washington, D.C., came after he met with the head of Sudan’s transitional Sovereignty Council, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, on February 25, two days before the scheduled Washington meeting. 

Desalegn had met with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo on February 22, but a source within the Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation told The East African that they had no prior warning of Ethiopia’s decision to miss the next round of discussions. 

Yasser Abbas, Sudan’s minister of irrigation and water resources, has said that the draft deal submitted by the US and the World Bank resolves the vast majority of the issues between Ethiopia and Egypt. Egypt was worried the dam could threaten water access if Ethiopia filled the GERD reservoir too quickly, whereas Ethiopia wants a shorter timeframe to fill so it can deliver on its energy promises to its people.

Construction workers work at night at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia, on December 26, 2019. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a 145-metre-high, 1.8-kilometre-long concrete colossus is set to become the largest hydropower plant in Africa. Across Ethiopia, poor farmers and rich businessmen alike eagerly await the more than 6,000 megawatts of electricity officials say it will ultimately provide. Yet, as thousands of workers toil day and night to finish the project, Ethiopian negotiators remain locked in talks over how the dam will affect downstream neighbours, principally Egypt. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP)


The so-called Arab Spring that took place throughout 2011 created unforeseen ripple effects well beyond the post-colonial Arab-majority nation-states where the uprisings took place. While Cairo was busy recovering from large-scale protests that deposed the late Hosni Mubarak and still drenched in the spirit of revolution, the Ethiopian government, led by its then prime minister, the late Meles Zenawi, quietly took advantage of the Cairene chaos.  A few short months after the tumult in Egypt, the Meles government began work on a grandiose, long-desired hydroelectric infrastructure project. It would be known as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD, as it is often referred to in the technocratic speak of negotiators and would become the largest hydroelectric dam on the continent.

Egypt’s ability to project power within the region was greatly weakened after the end of the Mubarak era. Less than six months after Mubarak's fall, Sudan, wedged between Egypt’s south and Ethiopia's west, was cleaved in two after the establishment of South Sudan as a sovereign republic in July 2011. These status quo disrupting shifts combined with the calcified policies of the continuous isolation of Eritrea and the deep reluctance of the international community to formally recognize Somaliland as an independent state all meant that Ethiopia’s position within the region was steadily strengthening. In light of these developments, its comparative stability in the East African context was being perceived as a valuable asset by extra-regional actors including China, Saudi Arabia and the United States. 


"The GERD is being heralded in Addis Ababa as a technological marvel that will saturate a power-deprived state with clean energy and make Ethiopia a profitable net power exporter"


The time had come for Ethiopia to make a massive leap in its modernization while its distracted neighbors were unable to forcefully act to stop it, if only by default. A great deal of Egypt’s negotiating leverage had relied upon dusty agreements from 1929 and 1959 that failed to include an independent, then dynastic Ethiopia. For this simple reason, the modern Ethiopian state claims it needn’t abide by either the 1929 or 1959 agreements. These antiquated pacts favored Egypt in terms of the Nile’s allocation, with Sudan as a junior partner, but as Egyptian negotiators have been citing them, Ethiopia has been busy creating unstoppable facts on the ground. In 1999 Ethiopia would finally be included in a much broader post-colonial pact called the Nile Basin Initiative, which was meant to be a cooperative framework for the 21st century that would benefit all of the signatory states. But in 2010 the Mubarak regime stalled its participation in the initiative over wording that it feared empowered upstream states and could reduce its own allocation which Cairo perceives as nothing short of a fundamental, national right. 

The GERD is being heralded in Addis Ababa as a technological marvel that will saturate a power-deprived state with clean energy and make Ethiopia a profitable net power exporter in the process. Ethiopia’s aspiration to become a renewable resource hydropower giant is a quite vulnerable prospect, however, as it must factor in consistent climatic variables in a wider region prone to drought and with massive variations in annual rainfall. The further it flows downstream from its source the more polluted the river becomes with ever-increasing wastewater generated by a booming Nile Basin population and rubbish often choking it in urban centers.


Opposing Interests


"Egyptian authorities have described the GERD project as a direct threat to the crucial water security of the Nile River Valley, the country’s agricultural heartland"


At the crux of the disagreement is how rapidly a massive reservoir will be filled, and the ways in which the speed of the filling will affect Egypt’s already strained agricultural sector and polluted drinking water source. In recent months, the White House has been attempting to mediate the deep riparian rift over the rate at which the GERD reservoir will be filled with little demonstrable success. While the US administration has inserted itself into the Blue Nile dispute partly because it has hard power security interests in both Egypt and Ethiopia, it also wants to undermine Chinese ambitions in Africa writ large when possible. 

Since 2011, a rotating cast of Egyptian authorities have described the GERD project as a direct threat to the crucial water security of the Nile River Valley, the country’s agricultural heartland. For years, Egyptian and Ethiopian leaders have been at loggerheads as the former’s need for water security has been portrayed as irreconcilable with the latter’s desire for energy security. Both nations are African population behemoths, with Egypt’s having reached 100 million earlier this month, and Ethiopia’s estimated at being between 109 million and 112 million. When the 1929 and 1959 agreements were signed, the Nile Basin was a far less populated region with relatively stable climactic conditions. Neither is true today.

The political leadership of both states must contend with a massive youth bulge in their surging demographics. Neither government wants a return to the mass protest movements that have shaken Cairo and the Oromia Region to their respective cores in recent years. Until now, Egypt’s protestors have been mostly a mix of urbane millennials and savvy Islamists confined largely to Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez. A major disruption in the irrigation of the Nile Valley risks further disenfranchising the fellaheen, the agrarian peasantry that power the country’s breadbasket economy. As the dire case with the Islamic State insurgency in the Sinai demonstrates, containing antigovernment activity in rural Egypt is a far more difficult task than quashing demonstrations in the center of a major city with heavy-handed security forces. This is not a scenario the government of Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi will risk or tolerate, as the Egyptian strongman brooks no dissent among his countrymen. Therefore the Sisi government views the GERD as an existential threat not just to Egypt’s agricultural economy, but also to its security from the very population it is meant to serve. 


A Different Approach



Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed


Meanwhile, Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed took a polar approach to his Egyptian counterpart by containing activism in Ethiopia more broadly by instituting democratic reforms with correlating promises of demonstrable progress, which rolled the country back from the brink of internal conflict. Therefore, Ethiopia is determined to complete the GERD as central tenet of its long-sought path to progress whose narrative is to gradually emancipate its people from severe poverty. 

Both leaders are cognizant of the fact that the protest movements brought about the regime changes in their societies, and can quickly be reconstituted should they fail to deliver on issues of national stability in the case of Egypt and a more open society in the case of Ethiopia. 

Often-fraught negotiations over the GERD have limited the debate to one of national sovereignty when the inherently intertwined nature of transborder riparian issues likely requires a supranational solution. The enormous cost of the project, estimated at between US$4 billion and 5 billion depending on sources, is being shouldered by the Ethiopian public at large, so the GERD’s completion is perceived as both a matter of national prestige and a necessary return on the nation’s collective investment. Addis Ababa has thus far funded the construction through selling bonds to citizens as well as foreign entities, including the Djiboutian government. Abiy’s government is therefore under internal and external pressure to deliver results on the immense dam which is said to be 70% complete at the time of this writing to which his country has tied its future. 


The Third Party


"Sudanese people have become pragmatically aware they could stand to gain from increased partnership with a rising power-exporting Ethiopia"

Starting at Lake Tana in Ethiopia’s Amhara Region in the northwest of the country, the river rises at the Blue Nile Falls just downstream and winds south and then west to the Benishangul–Gumuz Region along Sudan’s eastern border. Sudan has been a de facto pivot state in the tense talks between its neighbors, as it initially sided with Egypt in the dispute but later made a calculated move in line with the Ethiopian vision for power and progress in the greater Nile Basin. As Cairo and Addis Ababa have acted solely in their own interests, decision makers in Khartoum have been caught in the middle in terms of both physical geography and diplomacy. 

Despite Sudan’s long-standing cultural, linguistic, and political ties to regional hegemon Egypt, as the GERD has come closer to a finished reality the Sudanese people have become pragmatically aware they could stand to gain from increased partnership with a rising power-exporting Ethiopia. Much of the media coverage of the GERD project has framed it as a primarily bilateral dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia, with Sudan featuring almost as a downstream bystander transit country for the Nile Valley and Nile Delta’s agricultural irrigation supply. The pessimism over the GERD controversy has been in an almost exclusively Egyptian context in terms of media coverage, but there are in fact many questions with regard to Sudan’s fate and its own highly fissiparous internecine dynamics. 

As the GERD’s construction steams ahead, Sudan is undergoing a delicate political transition after the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir last year after having ruled the country for some thirty years.  Blue Nile State in the southeast of the country had been the scene of fighting between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) and the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) of the al-Bashir regime. The SPLM-N in particular rejected the top-down implementation of sharia law upon the multi-confessional populace of Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, which were not included in the secession of South Sudan in 2011. After years of battling the SAF, the SPLM-N split into two factions in 2017 after an internal leadership fragmentation over the idea of a right to self-determination for the two war torn states. This fissure has greatly complicated the creation of a formal peace settlement with Sudan’s transitional government, known as the Sovereign Council. In the wake of al-Bashir’s ouster, the fighters along the Blue Nile have far less reason to continue their armed struggle. Thus the Sovereign Council is involved in separate negotiations with the two SPLM-N factions while dealing with the transnational issues of Nile Basin water rights. For Sudan, the Blue Nile is not only a hydrological artery but also an eponymous region that is synonymous with internal strife where the Sovereign Council is in no position to manage more needless violence between the SAF and either of the SPLM-N factions. 


Toward a Balancing of Interests

A common reality for all three countries is that the GERD is now a hard reality. In all the years of often tense talks, Ethiopia has continued to build while Egypt has gone from threatened anger to today’s more resigned reality. Whatever the outcome of a future tripartite agreement, it will ultimately be about how the Egyptians and Sudanese cope with Ethiopia in control of the flow of the fabled waters that have shaped the course of Nilotic history and culture for millennia. 

Once the GERD project began, authorities in Cairo and Addis Ababa too often struck an adversarial tone that characterized the Nile’s future as a zero-sum game rather than abide by a cooperative mechanism that would work to the benefit of both of their vastly underserved populations. Today, power, in every sense of the word, lay with the upstream countries. Uganda has been cutting deals with China for it to build hydroelectric dams along the White Nile and its tributaries without much concern for downstream sensitivities.

From national pride in Ethiopia to concern in Sudan to dread and sabre-rattling in Egypt, the hydrological mega project has increasingly been seen as an inevitability by the three parties. Contrary to the bellicose rhetoric by Sisi and Abiy alluding to the potential for armed conflict, these larger-than-life leaders are more likely to move forward in the far blander name of state stability after so much sustained volatility that has swept across the entire region for close to a decade. 


Derek Henry Flood is a security correspondent focusing on transnational terrorism and geopolitical fault lines. Twitter: @DerekHenryFlood

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Jul 11, 2020