On Monday Sudan skipped the second day of tripartite talks intended to reactivate stalled negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). A day earlier, the six-party meeting, held after a nearly six-week impasse in the AU-brokered tripartite talks, had been attended by the irrigation and foreign ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan and observed by representatives from the EU, the US, the AU, and legal and technical experts.
Although Khartoum attended on Sunday, it skipped the following day’s meeting after the other parties failed to respond to its request to grant AU experts participating in the negotiations a greater role.
“This week’s round of talks was meant to be merely procedural. It was a last-minute attempt to set the arena for reaching a deal before the conclusion of South Africa’s chairmanship of the African Union [AU] Council at the end of this month. Thus, Sudan’s withdrawal was not unexpected,” said a diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Sudan’s position has sent a clear message that it rejects Ethiopia’s intransigence, and “gives South Africa and other observers the incentive to come up with more ideas or visions to reactivate the negotiations,” said Mahmoud Hegazi, a former deputy to Egypt’s foreign minister.
At the end of the six-party meeting on Sunday, following Khartoum’s request, South African Minster of International Cooperation Naledi Pandor said the next few days would be devoted to bilateral meetings between each of the three countries and AU experts in order to pinpoint points of difference ahead of another six-party meeting scheduled for 10 January.
After invitations were sent to the three countries to attend trilateral negotiations on Monday, Sudan expressed its reservation over holding a trilateral meeting without first holding a bilateral meeting with AU experts and observers on the same day, as a statement issued by the Sudanese Irrigation Ministry said.
“Based on the outcomes of the trilateral ministerial meeting held on Sunday, Sudan asked for a bilateral meeting with the AU experts as well as observers the evening of the same day. We did not receive a response to the request,” the statement added.
Sudan has repeatedly argued for a bigger role to be given to AU experts to facilitate negotiations.
“Negotiating is a long and arduous process that needs patience and perseverance. I expect that top-level communications will be conducted to return Sudan to the negotiating table before 10 January,” Hegazi said.
This is the second time Sudan has skipped an AU-mediated meeting. In November, Khartoum declared it would not take part in a scheduled tripartite meeting, saying that the way previous talks were held proved “unproductive”. It requested a change in the methodology of negotiations and for AU experts to be given a greater role.
In a phone call with his South African counterpart Cyril Ramaphosa, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi reaffirmed Egypt’s stance on the urgent need to reach a binding agreement with Sudan and Ethiopia that secures Egypt’s water rights during the filling of the dam.
The scheduled talks came days after Egypt summoned Ethiopia’s chargé d'affaires in Cairo following statements made by Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Dina Mufti which Cairo described as “interference in Egypt’s internal affairs”.
Mufti, a former ambassador to Cairo, claimed that Egypt “has turned Ethiopia into a threat” to deflect attention from the “depth of the internal crisis in Egypt”.
AU-sponsored talks were launched in July last year after negotiations between the three countries reached deadlock in November 2019. The talks ground to a halt in August — a month after they had started — after Ethiopia proposed non-binding guidelines for the filling and operation of the dam when both Egypt and Sudan want a legally binding agreement.
The dam, which is 15km from the Ethiopian border with Sudan, has been a source of contention between the three countries since its construction began in 2011. The first filling of the controversial dam took place last summer despite the absence of a binding agreement, a move that angered Cairo and Khartoum, both of whom saw it as a violation of the Declaration of Principles (DoP) signed in Sudan in March 2015. The DoP states that the three countries must first agree guidelines and rules for the operating processes of the dam before filling the reservoir can commence.
Cairo reaffirmed this week the need to reach an agreement on the dam before the second filling of the reservoir this summer.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.