This week, Sudan scaled up its criticism of Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). In unprecedentedly tough language, Hussein Al-Zobeir, a leading Sudanese GERD negotiator, said Ethiopia would be putting Sudan at great risk if it opted to execute a second filling of the GERD reservoir, as expected this summer, without a legally binding agreement with both Sudan and Egypt in place.
An unregulated second filling, said Al-Zobeir, would place the Sudanese people at risk of a severe shortage of drinking and irrigation water. Sudan, he continued, insists on a legally binding deal that regulates the filling and establishes a mechanism to monitor the impact of the filling and operation of GERD on Sudan, and a dispute settling mechanism.
Al-Zobeir demanded international mediation that, in addition to the African Union, includes the UN, the EU and the US, to help Ethiopia overcome its lack of political will to reach a balanced and legally binding deal.
The shift in Sudanese rhetoric came days after the inauguration of a new transitional government. Unlike the first caretaker government, that was also headed by Abdalla Hamdok, the second government sworn in earlier this month includes the leaders of militant rebel groups that have agreed to join the political process.
Sudanese sources say the shift in tone should be read within the wider context of recent changes that include a tougher political and military stance towards Ethiopia which has made incursions across Sudan’s eastern borders, and this week’s decision to float the Sudanese currency.
“There is a new political set up in Sudan, not just because the new government is more representative and has a broader public base, but also with the launch of the consultative council that represents the military and civil segments of the transitional council and the militant groups,” argued Ali Al-Sherif, an economist and retired diplomat. He argued that the more consensual decision-making process allowed for bolder decision-making, including Sunday’s devaluation of the Sudanese pound.
The devaluation was, contends Al-Sherif, inevitable. “Sudan had to devalue its currency to secure the support, including possible debt relief or loans, of international monetary bodies.
“The severe socio-economic problems faced by the vast majority of Sudanese were the original reason for the demonstrations against” Omar Al-Bashir and his regime. “The secession of South Sudan [in January 2011] denied Sudan a large portion of oil revenues and the many conflicts that Sudan has gone through hit the Sudanese economy very hard.
“There were two prerequisites for the beginning of a process to end the economic problems Sudan has been suffering from. The first was to remove Sudan from the list of states supporting terrorism, which happened following the normalisation of ties between Sudan and Israel.”
The second, added Al-Sherif, was the devaluation of the currency.
Al-Sherif believes wider representation in the second transitional government will help sell austerity measures to a public already unhappy about living conditions but warns that, without efficient social support measures, Sudan could move towards a worrying phase of discontent.
It is “absolutely necessary to keep the current political coalition intact” to help Sudan navigate economic reform measures and other socio-economic, political, and military challenges, including the armed dispute with Ethiopia over borders and the GERD negotiations.
Consensual management of existing files is no easy task in a country burdened with the legacy of decades of civil war, corruption, and economic fatigue. Some within the first transitional regime, for instance, opposed any military response to Ethiopian incursions into Sudanese territory. They argued that under Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed Ethiopia has been a solid partner of “the new Sudan” and that border differences should be settled through negotiations.
The same faction also opposed the tougher language that Sudan has adopted on GERD negotiations, advocating instead a bilateral deal between Sudan and Ethiopia, with or without Egypt on board. The sharpest disagreements, however, may well have been over this week’s currency float.
Tarek Seddik, a member of the Freedom and Change Forces (FCF) that took the lead in the political protests that ended Al-Bashir’s rule, argues that despite the differences over the currency and other issues, it is not in the interest of any party within the transitional set-up to take radical positions.
“For the most part FCF, as an alliance, is not comfortable with the devaluation. We in the Arab Socialist Baath Party oppose the agenda of the International Monetary Fund and proposed alternative economic measures to the liberalisation scheme but were over-ruled.” Seddik added, however, that neither his party nor other objecting FCF factions are going to lobby public opinion against the decision but will instead insist on adequate social support measures to make sure that the poorest don’t end up paying a heavy price for the reforms.
Hani Raslan, senior Sudan analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, says that in the 18 months since Hamdok first took office there have been many changes of position among the political partners that managed the first transition phase.
“In the beginning, for example, there was an affinity between the prime ministers [of Sudan and Ethiopia], not unexpected given the history of relations and the role that the Ethiopia played in settling differences between civilian forces and the military in the first months of transition.” But, Raslan added, as Hamdok tested Addis Ababa’s real intentions, he realised that his expectations of his Sudanese counterpart “were too high and too kind.”
The border war between Sudan and Ethiopia has also led many Sudanese to view Ethiopia as an invader and resulted in the Sudanese military gaining support, and with it perhaps a stronger position within today’s political equation in Sudan.
Al-Sherif agrees the public perception of Ethiopia has changed because of the border dispute.
“It is also fair to say,” he argues, “that everyone who placed faith in Abiy Ahmed now realises the prime minister of Ethiopia outsmarted them and this has brought about a change of positions on all issues related to Ethiopia.”
According to Raslan, it is the economy rather than relations with Ethiopia that now constitute Sudan’s toughest challenge, though the two are linked. With tensions looming over the Horn of Africa and “in Ethiopia itself with the unending conflict in the Tigray region and in Somalia” there will be inevitable spillover effects on Sudan, including more refugees, more instability, and more economic hiccups.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly