Sudan voiced reservations on the resolution of the Arab League foreign ministers’ meeting held in Cairo last week. The Arab League resolution of 4 March called for supporting Egypt, that adheres to international law in the tripartite negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) supported by the US. The meeting urged against unilateral measures that could infringe on Egypt’s rights and water interests.
Generally, relations between Cairo and Khartoum had maintained a stable, good shape despite temporary squabbles between the two countries. But Sudan’s stance on GERD illustrates its continuous “support of Ethiopia against Egypt”, a position Khartoum has maintained in the past nine years since Addis Ababa started building the GERD, and in the prior two decades before that.
Sudan position caused no surprise among observers of the regional situation.
In the last two decades of the 20th century, the politics of the Horn of Africa regions was extremely complicated. With the fall of former Ethiopian president Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991, Eritrea won in the war for independence and snatched the entire coast, rendering Ethiopia locked down without a marine gateway amid its plummeting economy.
In the same year, the regime of Somalia president Siad Berre fell, taking down the entire country which until now is divided and ruled by extremist groups that directed much of their terrorist activities towards Ethiopia.
At that time, then Sudan president Omar Al-Bashir was in his second year in rule. He had lost much of his polished image when he supported late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in his war on Kuwait. Al-Bashir’s political cover was exposed for what it was: he was part of the Sudan Muslim Brotherhood led by Hassan Al-Turabi.
Sudan opposition members fled the country, escaping the repression, and took refuge in Eritrea and established a support base against the rule of the Islamists in Khartoum. Immediately, the Sudanese regime established close relations with Addis Ababa, the historical archenemy of Asmara.
Al-Bashir and the Islamists concluded that they should look south amid their animosity with Egypt, Arabs and the Gulf.
Egypt accused Sudan of harbouring the terrorists who conducted the assassination attempt on the life of late Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia in the mid-1990s.
Sudan wanted to establish good relations with the West and the US after its policy supporting Islamist extremism resulted in its international isolation.
Through improving its relations with Addis Ababa, Khartoum managed to decrease the number of allies of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement that was entrenched in war in South Sudan since 1983.
Addis Ababa accepted friendship with the Muslim Brotherhood regime led by Al-Bashir, and faced off with Eritrea and the rise of political Islam in Somalia led by the Islamic Courts Union.
Consequently, war ensued on the borders between Ethiopia and Eritrea, rendering hundreds of thousands dead and injured, establishing political rivalry between the two regimes that lasted for two decades.
Ethiopian forces entered Somalia to fight the Islamic Courts Union, which a few years later produced the Shabab Al-Mujahideen terrorist group.
Addis Ababa’s with relationship Asmara and Mogadishu remained tense. Ethiopia engaged in bitter wars with the two countries: one to liberate Eritrea from the rule of emperor Haile Selassie, and the other called the Ogaden War with Somalia.
Ethiopia wanted to use Port Sudan alongside Djibouti as seaports to boost its trade with the world. Sudan linked its port with the Ethiopian capital, by land, which brought Sudan a somewhat lucrative economic return.
Despite gains between the two countries, the popular view between them remained complicated, carrying the hostile legacy dating back to the 19th century, during the struggle of Sudan’s Mahdi state, with a strict Islamic ideology, and the Christian rule of emperor Menelik.
The question now concerns the benefits Sudan will reap as a result of its stance from the GERD negotiations.
A number of Sudan experts believe the GERD will help their country decrease the dangers of the destructive floods Sudan witnessed in the 20th century. Among those holding this opinion is Ahmed Abdel-Maged, a professor at the Asia-Africa Studies Institute at Khartoum University.
“The GERD can help Khartoum benefit from its entire share of Nile water” set at 18.5 billion cubic metres annually, and of which Sudan benefits only 15 billion cubic metres, according to the 1959 agreement between Cairo and Khartoum, said Abdel-Maged.
Abdel-Maged casts doubts on concerns over threats that may result from GERD’s collapse and the subsequent “drowning of Sudan by the Nile”, dismissing this scenario as “mere opinion”.
However, not all of Sudan’s scientific circles are lined up in support of their regime’s position on GERD.
Ahmed Al-Mufti, a Sudanese expert on international law and a former member of the Nile Basin Initiative negotiations held between 1994 and 2012, pointed to the dangers of a possible GERD collapse. He said these threats were raised by the international technical committee on GERD.
“Sudan will be in real danger if the GERD collapsed. Many Sudanese villages and provinces will be completely flooded by the Nile waters which will reach 10 metres at least in height in Khartoum. It will be a tsunami and a ticking nuclear bomb,” Al-Mufti said.
Underlining this danger, Sudanese activists that reject Khartoum’s support for Ethiopia on GERD point to a study prepared by the Water and Food Systems Lab at MIT, created to coordinate and promote water and food research. The study referred to the type of soil in the area where GERD is being built, in addition to its construction on the edge of the Great Rift Valley
But relations between Khartoum and Addis Ababa remain strong. This was evident in the mediation of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize of 2019, between Sudanese opponents following the fall of Omar Al-Bashir’s regime last year.
There is no imminent change in sight regarding the relationship between Ethiopia and Sudan in the future. Trade between the two countries is vast and can possibly expand, particularly in the absence of an Arab player that can fulfil Sudan’s economic needs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly