Sudan’s earlier position on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the same as Egypt’s in asking for a legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam, saw a sudden change last week when the country said it now agrees with Ethiopia on issues related to the GERD.
The reversal raises numerous questions about the consequences of the decision and the difficulties it may lead to for Egypt.
However, the change did not come as a surprise to Ashok Swain, professor and head of the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University in Sweden, who said that Sudan’s position on the GERD and the sharing of water from the Blue Nile had been confusing for at least a decade.
“Sudan understands it will benefit from the dam, as it will help to control flooding in the rainy season and reduce the silting problem of its own dams. At the same time, Sudan also sees that in the absence of a legally binding agreement, it may be subjected to the whims and blackmail of Addis Ababa,” Swain told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Last week, Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan, chair of the Sudanese Transitional Sovereignty Council, announced that “Sudan and Ethiopia are aligned and in agreement on all issues regarding the GERD” in a statement issued by the Sovereignty Council.
Al-Burhan’s announcement was made during Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s first visit to Khartoum since 2021.
The move came as a surprise, said one diplomat who talked on condition of anonymity. During Al-Burhan’s last meeting with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in December, he said, both leaders had reiterated the need to reach a legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD and that any agreement should achieve the joint interests of all parties.
Their meeting was on the sidelines of the China-Arab Summit held in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
The diplomat questioned whether Al-Burhan was hoping to settle differences with Addis Ababa in order to ensure its support at a time when his own government is under internal and international pressure to form a civilian administration.
Alternatively, Addis Ababa may be preparing to mediate between the Sudanese military and the country’s civilian political parties to end the country’s political crisis, he said.
Although Ahmed stated during his visit to Khartoum that the negotiating process among the Sudanese parties must be “completely Sudanese”, his visit raised speculation as to Ethiopia playing a possible mediating role between the different parties in Sudan in order to ensure the transition to a civilian government and elections.
Sudan’s present government under Al-Burhan is facing popular demands that the military should stay out of politics and that Al-Burhan should hand over power to civilian rule. However, the military has been delaying deadlines and postponing steps that could lead to the reinstatement of a civilian government.
On the regional level, the African Union (AU) has decided to suspend the participation of Sudan in all AU activities with immediate effect until the effective establishment of a civilian-led transitional authority in Sudan.
US President Joe Biden excluded Sudan from attending the US-Africa Summit meeting held in the US capital Washington last December for similar reasons.
Some commentators also ascribed Al-Burhan’s statement to Sudan’s attempts to appease Addis Ababa in order to resolve border disputes between the two countries.
As a result of its internal challenges, Sudan is having difficulty maintaining its control of the disputed Al-Fashqa territory. Addis Ababa, by contrast, has largely resolved its own internal problems, such commentators say, with the result that it can now focus on the border disputes with Sudan.
Ahmed’s one-day visit to Khartoum was meant to “demonstrate support for the Sudanese administration and people” in their efforts to construct a peaceful transitional period, a statement said. “Ethiopia continues to stand in solidarity with Sudan in the current self-led political process.”
The visit was an opportunity for Ahmed to reiterate his view that the GERD would not harm Sudan. According to the statement, it will help Sudan in terms of generating electricity.
That is not the first time that Ahmed has stated that the GERD will not harm downstream countries. However, his claims have not been backed by any commitment that the amount of water reaching Egypt will not be affected.
Sudan and Egypt fear that the massive dam, Africa’s largest, could diminish their share of the Nile’s water. The two downstream countries have repeatedly called on Addis Ababa to sign a binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam that secures their water rights and protects their peoples’ interests.
Multiple rounds of talks between the three governments have failed to produce an agreement over the filling and operation of the dam.
Now that relations between Sudan and Ethiopia have taken a new turn with Ahmed’s desire to mediate between the different parties in Sudan and Al-Burhan’s statement that the two countries agree on all issues regarding the GERD, the issue is likely to face further challenges.
While there are signs that Ethiopia is getting ready for the fourth filling of the dam reservoir prior to reaching an agreement, the diplomat said, Egypt will need to stick to its approach of raising the issue and highlighting the dangers in all international forums.
Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri raised the issue with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his visit to Cairo this week, the diplomat said.
Swain also pinned hopes on diplomacy, but said that considering the present regional and global power dynamics, there was little hope of the deadlock over the GERD ending soon.
Ethiopia has already stored enough water in the dam reservoir to feel comfortable about the security of the dam, he said. By signing a peace agreement in the Tigray region ending the civil conflict in the country, it also hopes the West will need its cooperation for peacebuilding.
“The better option for Egypt and the West is to use intense soft diplomacy to persuade Ahmed to agree to a legally binding agreement” on the dam, he concluded.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly