Ethiopia-Egypt-Sudan relationship

Ethiopia-Egypt-Sudan relationship is an extremely complicated one by any standards. For ages, they have engaged in different wars, conflicts, and political quarrels against each other, and at times two of them allying against the other. The alliance has continuously shifted in different contexts. However, the Egypt-Sudan alliance, especially in Nile context, has stayed for considerably longer period of time. Notwithstanding this basic reality, for some, recent developments have suggested that this may change soon as Sudan is drifting away from Egypt and moving towards Ethiopia, Write Solomon Goshu

For political analysts interested on the Nile issues, this has forced Egypt to resort to a different tactic in its bid to win diplomatic war against Ethiopia. Egypt is now desperate in finding new alliances from the Basin countries. Thus, it is no more a phenomenon to see Egyptian President paying visit to one of these countries.

In line with this trend, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi recently visited Rwanda and Tanzania. The visits do not seem to be a business as usual affair in terms of timing and specific locations. Rwanda and Tanzania are the only two countries that have ratified the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) alongside Ethiopia. Interestingly, Al-Sisi’s visit happened two months after the Nile Basin heads of states summit in Kampala, Uganda, was concluded where Egypt’s proposal to rejoin the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) with a precondition was presented. Her precondition mainly relates to renegotiating the CFA particularly Article 14 (b) that deals with the issue of water security. In fact, at the June summit, Egypt pushed for the regional countries to replace the Entebbe Agreement with a new CFA. Egypt’s proposal includes maintaining a colonial agreement that gives it a lion’s share of the Nile. The majority of the Nile Basin countries were reluctant to entertain the precondition while welcoming her decision to rejoin the NBI.

Among the riparian countries, Ethiopia particularly objected Egypt’s precondition to renegotiate the CFA by arguing that the CFA has passed the negotiation stage and is open for ratification where three countries already endorsed the agreement by their legislative bodies. However, the riparian countries have given Egypt a second chance to consider joining the NBI with no baggage attached. A Council of Water Ministers’ meeting, where the Egyptian proposals will be discussed in detail, is planned for later this month. No doubt, Al-Sisi’s visit happened right before this discussion to do some explanation to the participants beforehand.

According to the latest reports, Egypt is trying to convince countries to adopt its renegotiated position on the NBI ahead of this month’s Council of Waters Ministers’ meeting of the riparian states. The President’s visit of Tanzania and Rwanda two weeks ago, as part of a four-state-tour that also took him to Chad and Gabon, is presented as a diplomatic move to convince them to adopt its position and proposed agreement.

Reports show that the main purpose of President Al-Sisi is ensuring the security of Egypt’s share of the Nile River water. As per the 1959 Egypt-Sudan agreement, Egypt is entitled to annual share of 55.5 billion cubic meters of the Nile River water.

While in Tanzania the controversial President John Magufuli expressed his country’s understanding of the importance of the River Nile to Egypt as its main source of fresh water, but failed to make a commitment in support of Egypt’s position.

“I believe that the Nile Basin countries will reach an agreement that all parties would accept. We have agreed to continue negotiations over this issue,” President Magufuli said during a joint press conference with President Al-Sisi.

“We will offer our support to the Nile Basin countries so that all parties achieve the maximum benefit from the Nile without harming Egypt’s water interests, and taking into consideration Egyptian concerns in this regard as a matter of life or death,” President Al-Sisi said in a statement.

Similarly, in Rwanda, where President Al-Sisi held talks with President Paul Kagame, the Egyptian leader’s visit was aimed at cementing Egypt’s position on the sharing of Nile resources.

President Kagame as well refrained from giving a unilateral endorsement to the Egyptian agenda.

It does not seem to be coincidence that the arrival of the Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in an official three-day visit to Sudan happened in the same week where Al-Sisi was doing a similar expedition in the two Nile Basin countries. The Ethiopian government holds that unlike Egypt’s visit to Rwanda and Tanzania, the Sudan visit has no political motive, and it is not specifically linked to the Nile issue. In fact, the two countries have signed a number of bilateral agreements in various fields during the visit. However, many political commentators believe otherwise.

It is interesting to note that, in the visit, among other things, Ethiopia and Sudan expressed their commitment to take the leading role in the effective implementation of the objectives of the NBI. Leaders of the two countries also expressed their readiness to strengthen the initiative established to ensure equitable utilization of the waters of the Nile.

Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn mentioned peace and stability, the development of infrastructure networks, defense, national security and border security issues as part of agendas for discussion. The Premier pledged that his country will continue to strive for the establishment of economic integration with Sudan. Similarly, President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan underlined that strong ties between the two countries contribute for the stability and economic development of the region.

The intention of Egypt in light of the recent visits is crystal clear: it is all about the Nile negotiation. However, Ethiopia’s emphasis goes way beyond water issues, or so it is communicated that way. Now, the question is what would be the fate of the CFA amidst such diplomatic tensions.

Is the CFA in danger?

The CFA is hailed as a great diplomatic success for Ethiopia as it intends to change the status quo in favor of fair and equitable utilization of the Nile water. It is a proposed legal document primarily aimed at changing the legal regime governing the Nile Basin. It was adopted in 2010 and has been signed by six upstream countries – Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, and Burundi. In 2010, it was Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda that signed the CFA and a year later were joined by Kenya and Burundi. The CFA is yet to be binding, as not all signatory countries have ratified it. It requires a total of six instruments of ratification to enter into force. Then it is only binding on states that have ratified it.

Obviously, Egypt and Sudan have objected to the CFA as they try to maintain the 1959 agreement which apportion the Nile water only to Egypt and Sudan intact. On the other hand, Ethiopia is trying to convince all the riparian countries, particularly the remaining three signatory countries – Uganda, Kenya, and Burundi – to ratify the CFA.

Despite this problem, Egypt’s ties with Ethiopia worsened since Ethiopia started the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project in April 2011. After the announcement of the GERD, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan have been at loggerheads with regards to the project. Addis Ababa is confident that the construction of the dam would not harm Egypt and Sudan but Cairo has been skeptical and wants the whole project revisited. Now six years have passed ever since the announcement and countless negotiations have taken place to smoothen the tensions.

At various stages, Egypt has demanded that Ethiopia cease construction, threatened action at the United Nations Security Council, and claimed that it is protected by a 1959 treaty, even though Ethiopia didn’t sign the treaty. The treaty essentially divides the river between Sudan and Egypt, leaving nothing for Ethiopia, where more than 80% of the Nile’s water originates. In his 2013 speech, former president Mohamed Morsi’s declared that if the Nile “loses one drop, our blood is the alternative”.

Confident with her assessment that the dam will not result in significant harm, Ethiopia agreed to study its possible impact together with Egypt and Sudan. As a result, on September 2011, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia agreed to establish international panel of experts (IPoE) to study the possible impacts of the GERD.

On May 2013, the report of IPoE was issued. It mainly called for additional studies. By the time the report was released, Sudan was already working with Ethiopia. The countries are still working on to conduct these studies.

When Sisi took office in 2014, he showed understanding of Ethiopia’s aspiration for development through the GERD. However, the President soon started to express the concerns on GERD. At the 2015 meeting, officials from the three countries agreed to proceed with an impact assessment that was to be completed within 15 months. The report has yet to be finalized.

This question is one of the questions that Seifeldin Abdalla (Prof.), chairman of the Water Resources Technical Organ (WRTO) and the former minister of Water Resources of Sudan, frequently faces from the media.

“There is a misperception and misunderstanding on this issue in the media. There is a difference between the structure and what we are negotiating now. We have already discussed the design of the structure and proposed our recommendations. Ethiopia in good faith implemented all recommendations on the ground. The current negotiation is on the first filling and the operation,” he explained.

Even though Egypt’s government is insistent on the timely completion of the impact assessment study, it is well aware of the fact that the findings of the study would be approved by the consensus of either the members of the technical committee or the ministers or the heads of state of the three countries as the case may be. In the absence of that, whatever the result may be, it would change nothing. Considering Ethiopia’s position and Sudan’s strong support of the GERD, it is not hard to predict its fate. That is why Ethiopia argues that the process is only one of ‘confidence building’ measure.

Some Sudanese officials believe that the GERD would provide an amazing opportunity to increase almost two-fold the land under irrigation in Sudan. For them, an upstream dam could contribute to increased storage and capacity to regulate the flow, thereby making more water available for irrigation schemes in Sudan. The construction of the Dam will reduce amount of evaporation and soil erosion on the banks.

Then the Declaration of Principles comes into existence. Declaration of Principles between the Arab Republic of Egypt, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, and the Republic of the Sudan on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project (GERDP) was agreed at the 7th ministerial meeting on March 2015. International law experts hold that the general principles contained in the DoP are similar to that of the CFA. Particularly, it is interesting to note that the 3 countries agreed to take all appropriate measures to prevent the causing of significant harm in utilizing the Blue/Main Nile and to cooperate based on common understanding, mutual benefit, good faith, win-win and principles of international law.

The DoP also has principles specific to the GERD. The three states agree to cooperate in implementation of outcomes of joint studies on the GERD. After the DoP is communicated to the public, it has stirred controversy in the three countries. While some hailed it as a great progress, others criticized it as a hindrance for the ongoing negotiations.

“Egypt and Sudan for the first time in history recognized the rights of the other riparian countries to use the Nile River. This is a major step in the right direction. In my view, it annulled the 1902, 1929 and 1959 agreements,” Salman said.

However, some experts are reluctant to consider the document even as a binding one. For Salman, any attempt that describes the DoP as not a binding treaty or piece of international law is incorrect. “It is an agreement signed by heads of state. It lays down basic principles of international law.  So, even if it is not binding, it is customary international law,” he contended.

Dereje Zeleke (PhD), a well-published international law expert teaching at the Addis Ababa University, argued that the DoP has weakened Ethiopia’s position on the negotiation. For him, Ethiopia is backtracking on her long-held policy on the Nile after the Dop. Dereje point out that what Egypt is trying to do now prove his long-held fears. “It is not surprising for me that Al-Sisi is lobbying upstream countries. This is a well synchronized Egyptian move,” he said.

“The DoP has a significant political cost to Ethiopia. It would make other riparian countries not to trust Ethiopia. If the main owner of the agenda concludes side agreement on specific project, it would make the other countries to reconsider their next measure. Under the CFA, Ethiopia has lobbied for a new institutional arrangement of water governance based on law and principles. In that context, signing the DoP is an irresponsible move. I wouldn’t be surprised if these countries back down and seek benefits from Egypt instead,” he explained.

On Ethiopian behalf, the fact that the two friendly neighbors of Ethiopia, namely Kenya and Uganda, have not ratified the CFA, has created uncertainties. Some even raise questions on the diplomatic approaches towards these countries.

“For the White Nile riparian countries, the Nile issue is secondary to their national agenda. So, they don’t want diplomatic conflict with Egypt. In the first place, they were pushed into the CFA process by Ethiopia’s continuous efforts to galvanize the upstream position into one. For them, it is not a burning issue as it is for us. Their contribution to the water and hydrological development potential is not big. They can be coopted as well, as their political survival is not based on solid legitimacy,” he observed.

If things continue as they currently stand, Dereje is suspicious that the CFA would be frozen and overtaken by new developments which are similar to the DoP. “The basic idea behind the 13 years negotiation of the CFA was, just like other major river basins, to govern the all-inclusive Nile water utilization within legal and institutional framework rather than through use of force, politics and threat. Now, it looks like the CFA is forgotten as all the talks are about DoP. Tomorrow, if you sign a similar agreement with Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and the like, the CFA would be obliterated,” he expounded on his suspicion.

Dereje is of the view that Egypt is conducting her affairs in line with the hegemonic theory. Basically, the theory aims at divorcing the resource issue from legal framework and issue of fairness and equity while securitizing it. “Part of the tactic used includes dealing with each members of the collective on their sensitive issues and prevent strategic and common policy and utilization pattern from becoming a reality. In other words, you block the institutional framework from becoming part of the international legal framework. I believe the Egyptians are ensuring that the status quo is not changed in any meaningful way and perpetuate this situation, and are succeeding in doing that,” he holds.

Many ask what possible new agenda items Egypt would bring if countries agree to renegotiate the CFA other than the water security issue based on ‘her historic right’. “No doubt, Egypt would bring the same issue in a different way. The Egyptians believe that the Nile water belongs to them, and wants to maintain the status quo,” Dereje says.

Would Sudan close the deal?

Ethiopia’s foreign relations and diplomacy have since 2002 been guided by the Foreign Policy and National Security Strategy. Goitom Gebreluel, a PhD candidate in Political Science at Cambridge University, in his article entitled ‘Revamping Ethiopia’s Foreign Policy Strategy’ published recently in Discourse magazine, argued that the document has played a key role in improving Ethiopia’s relations with almost all its neighbors. He contended that Ethiopia’s relationship with Sudan is arguably one of the best examples of this success.

Goitom observed that this success should be highly appreciated taking the burden of a great deal of negative historical baggage into account. The modern Sudanese state is a successor of an Islamic Empire, the Mehadists.

“Despite the ‘pull of the past’, Ethiopia and Sudan had by the turn of the Millennium managed to start a new chapter in their relationship. The first formal manifestation of the new cooperative spirit came in 2000, where both states, together with Yemen, formed the military alliance, the Sana’a Forum. Over the next decade cooperation in trade, education and diplomacy significantly increased, culminating in the symbolically very important support for the GERD by Sudan in 2013,” stated Goitom.

The strategy reads: “In light of our fundamental national interest framed by development and security, utmost priority should be given to the relations between Ethiopia and Sudan. However, it should be recognized that those factors that have been obstacles for the creation of a strong relationship between the two countries, although substantially reduced, will remain and could continue to aggravate our ties to some degree or another.”

The strategy seems to capture the reality well. However, after Sudan extended her support on GERD, the change of heart is presented as a great diplomatic success. Yet, to the dismay of Ethiopia, Sudan is still opposed to the CFA. What is written on the strategy some 15 years ago is still very much true today:  “Sudan has not totally divorced itself from its past stance, and it cannot be said today that it is actively promoting the equitable use of Nile waters.”

“It cannot be said that the subject of the Nile’s waters poses an unsurpassable obstacle for establishing strong ties between the two countries. So, while we exert our efforts to secure Sudanese support for the fair and equitable utilization of Nile waters, we should follow a policy that supports the establishment of strong ties between the two countries without waiting for a change in Sudan’s position on the matter,” the strategy further states. One wonders for how long this should continue.

Indeed, despite their crucial difference, the relationship between the two countries is improving in all fronts in the last 15 years. The two governments have been frequently consulting and coordinating their positions on matters of regional and international importance. Ethio-Sudan trade and investment co-operation is also growing.

Some are still optimistic that the political, economic, and diplomatic help and assistance that the two countries have offered for each other would result in Sudan’s total commitment to the CFA soon. To the contrary, some are doubtful if Sudan can afford to change her position and bear the political and economic costs attached to this fundamental departure. Obviously, the same question is appropriate to Ethiopia as well. No doubt, Ethiopia’s alliance with Sudan would disappoint some countries like Djibouti, Uganda, and South Sudan, to certain extent.

For instance, Uganda is not in good terms with Sudan on various issues. Sudan and South Sudan used to engage in incessant internal war for a long period of time. Ethiopia played a key role in the peaceful resolution of the separation between Sudan and South Sudan. Apart from other forms of support, Ethiopia has provided 4, 200 troops serving as the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei. Unlike Ethiopia, Uganda’s alliance is always with South Sudan. It is interesting to note that the idea of renegotiating the CFA first come from Uganda’s President Yuweri Museveni.

President Bashir wanted abroad for prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of war crime. Ethiopia has mobilized the continent and defended Sudan’s interest at the cost of disappointing some of her western donors.

Djibouti is another important strategic partner for Ethiopia. Mainly, Ethiopia uses Djibouti’s ports. However, in the recent visit, Ethiopia agrees to use the port of Sudan as alternative port. For Goitom, Ethiopia’s current landlocked condition is by default thought to make it interdependent with many of its neighbors thereby serving as a logical incentive for integration. However, considering the expensive expansion works on her port facilities to entertain Ethiopia’s growing demand, according to some reports, Djibouti is not happy with Ethiopia’s plan to handle half its foreign trade volume.

The Ethiopian government anticipates a boost to revenues through electricity exports from the GERD. Several power purchase agreements have already been signed with neighboring countries, including Djibouti, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan and Tanzania. Although Sudan was initially opposed to the dam’s construction, it has recently supported the project. Consequently, Sudan is one of the countries that have agreed to purchase electricity from the dam. Ethiopia already offered to Sudan purchasing power at 50 cent per a kilowatt, which is far less than production cost for a kilowatt in Sudan.

While Sudan and Egypt continue to reject the CFA, recently Sudan and Egypt are not in good terms over alleged political interference and territorial disputes dispute over the border region of Halayeb and Shalateen that is currently under Egyptian sovereignty. In May, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir accused Egypt of providing military support to armed rebels in his country.

However, Salman believes that now the two countries are not on the same page even about the 1959 agreement. “Now Sudan has broken ranks with Egypt, and has become more independent in making decisions. I think that is a healthy sign. It would not only help Sudan. It would also help Egypt. The two sitting together were not only making the wrong decisions, but were also insisting on them. Now that Sudan is making the right decisions, Egypt is questioning some of its decisions. Sudan has been the weak partner in the coalition. Egypt gave itself the upper hand. Sudan has given a lot of concessions. It is time that it has to stand and look after its own interest.”

According to Ana Elisa Cascão (PhD), this own interest is mainly related with the fact that Sudan has a huge potential to expand irrigation. Ana noted that in the 1990s agriculture/irrigation lost priority in the political agenda of Sudan. Instead, oil became the base of its political economy. However, the independence of South Sudan and the subsequent end of oil revenues to Sudan forced changes such as diversification of economy, export-based strategies and commercial agriculture. “And expansion of large-scale agriculture is now back,” said Cascão.

Ethiopia’s opportunities to use the Nile for irrigation are limited. On the contrary, since Sudan has expansive and fertile lands that can be irrigated, it is in a better position than Egypt and Ethiopia to gain maximum advantage.

Despite this good feeling on the recent relationship between the two countries, Dereje questions the mindset of Sudan on the Nile issue. “We have a false reading on the position of Sudan. It is deceiving to claim that Sudan ally with Ethiopia by leaving Egypt. It has a propaganda element to it. If Sudan supports Ethiopia’s position or the fair and equitable utilization of the Nile water, what is holding her from signing the CFA? I believe that strategically they are allying with Egypt. GERD has become a reality. So, by announcing its support, Sudan is reaping a political benefit. In addition, GERD has a lot of practical benefits to Sudan with no cost. Thus, considering Sudan’s support as a political score is a disservice to our national interest. I haven’t seen a change of Sudan’s position on the ground,” he concluded.

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