Tension between Sudan and Ethiopia did not prevent the two countries’ leaders from holding bilateral talks on the sidelines of the 10th Tana High-Level Forum on Security in Africa, the second this year following the forum’s 5 July summit.
Those meetings at the forum was regarded by some observers as proof of approaching calm between the two countries, while others suggested they would yield no results.
The forum is regularly held in the ancient Ethiopian capital Bahir Dar, overlooking Tana Lake, where the Blue Nile originates. The historic city’s name literally means the House of Sea. Residents around the Nile in this area used to call the lakes “seas”, and cities and provinces “houses”.
After meeting with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s Sovereign Council said that reaching an agreement on “technical issues” for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is “possible”.
Ethiopia’s Ahmed stressed that the dam his country is building, which has sparked a heated, complicated dispute between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt, “will bring great benefits to Sudan and will not become its foe,” according to the statement released after the Sudan-Ethiopia meeting.
The statement added that Khartoum and Addis Ababa agreed on the need to resolve their border conflict, which saw rounds of armed clashes, in which Sudan regained most of the disputed area in the Fashqa region.
Since the fall of the 30-year rule of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, during which time the Muslim Brotherhood were in power, differences between the two countries have surfaced.
Disputes over GERD and its technical issues erupted, and tensions over reaching a binding legal agreement on procedures for filling the dam’s reservoir according to a schedule agreed on by the three Blue Nile countries.
Sudan fears the GERD may be damaged or may even collapse, especially since the safety of its construction has been widely questioned.
Abbas Sharaki, a professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University, said, “if the dam collapses for any reason, it will cause extensive destruction in central Sudan.”
Central Sudan, the most productive region in the country, is already struggling economically.
Opinions similar to Sharaki’s are widely circulated in the Sudanese press by a number of experts. However, others such as Mohamed Abdallah, a professor of political science in Khartoum, rule out the damage or collapse of the dam. He focuses on the benefits of the dam for Sudan, especially in facing floods.
Floods in Sudan are caused by heavy rains and the overflow of small rivers, not by the flooding of the Blue Nile as a result of heavy rains in Ethiopia.
Sudan needs a large number of dams on the tributaries of the Nile and other rivers since a number of its regions that the Nile does not cross were affected by this year’s heavy rains, such as West Kordofan in the centre, South Darfur in the west, and Kassala in the east.
As for the conflict over Fashqa, the region is Sudanese land according to an agreement signed between Ethiopia and Sudan in 1902. However, a large number of Ethiopian Amhara residents had taken up arms and used militias to expel the residents of Fashqa and take control of the fertile land.
Following the fall of Al-Bashir, Khartoum and Addis Ababa engaged in armed conflict in which Sudan retrieved a large portion of Fashqa, raising the army’s credit among the people.
Making matters worse between the two countries, clashes that erupted in the Ethiopian north between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and Ahmed’s government led tens of thousands of Tigrayans to flee to neighbouring Sudan, which is already suffering from a fragile economy, increasing tensions between the two states.
Sudan wants the fighting in Ethiopia to stop to stay the influx of displaced Ethiopians into its territory. But Addis Ababa does not accuse Khartoum of supporting Tigray, nor does Sudan accuse Ethiopia of standing against its own interests.
However, in the first four months of the fighting, 45,000 displaced people crossed the Tekezé River, according to a February 2021 UNHCR report. In November, fighting between Tigray and the government will enter its second year. The majority of the Tigrayan population suffer from poor food security, while UN agencies estimate that millions of people in northern Ethiopia may be exposed to famine within months if the world -- preoccupied with Ukraine, which directly affects the largest group of industrialised countries in the world -- does not help them.
Both Sudan and Ethiopia are reeling with political and economic troubles, and according to Sudanese journalist Fayez Al-Salik, the talks at the forum were meant to install calm so that both countries can look to other, more pressing problems.
But Khaled Mahmoud, an Egyptian journalist specialising in African affairs, begs to differ. Mahmoud believes that even if the two regimes were facing challenges, they are standing on solid ground, with no threats in sights, though “Ethiopia’s position is more complicated.”
Both countries suffer from political crises, but Sudan’s affairs are much simpler, though its problems are political, “not a civil war that may have grave repercussions as is the case in Ethiopia,” he says.
Moreover, “Al-Burhan’s pledge before the UN General Assembly to withdraw from political life will greatly ease tensions in Khartoum. This is not happening in Ethiopia despite preparations for peace talks,” Mahmoud added.
“Comparing the two leaders is in Al-Burhan’s favour. Ahmed, who won a Nobel Peace Prize, is being frowned on in the Western media because so much is expected of him. He has turned into a hero of Civil War. Whereas Al-Burhan was given direct Western clearance to attend the funeral of Queen Elisabeth II and allowed to address the UN General Assembly,” he noted.
“In my opinion, Sudan is opening a door for calm and peace with Ethiopia to focus on taking economic decisions and holding talks, that are going to be arduous, with international financial institutions,” Mahmoud stated.
In the end can Ethiopia keep up with Al-Burhan’s moves? It is unlikely, but not impossible.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.