Can Khartoum-Juba negotiations survive the demise of their most important African backer?
The shockwaves unleashed by the death of long-serving Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia last week have still not subsided. Tens of thousands of Ethiopians have been queuing to salute their leader for the final time in Addis Ababa. The huge international legacy the controversial guerrilla leader turned African statesman has left behind is being discussed ad infinitum in diplomatic circles.
Perhaps nowhere is the demise of Meles triggering greater uncertainty than in Khartoum and Juba, the archenemies still trying to resolve the complex details of South Sudan's secession. The Ethiopian PM was, both on and off the stage, a key backer of two years of negotiations directly supervised by African Union envoy Thabo Mbeki. No African leader was respected and listened to more by military-Islamist Khartoum and the South Sudan's ruling Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) than Meles Zenawi.
From friends to foes
Outsiders often fail to grasp the depth of the relationship Meles had with Sudan's top leaders and the ways in which this shaped his foreign policy and, in recent years, his role as a regional peacemaker.
Meles' ties to Sudan's Al-Harakat Al-Islamiyyah (Islamic Movement) and its security apparatus date back to the late-1980s when Khartoum and Ethiopia under President Mengistu Haile Mariam were fighting a proxy war. Meles' Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) received military support from Sudan, using eastern Sudanese bases as launching pads to attack the Derg regime, which in turn was providing weapons to the SPLA/M of John Garang in central, eastern and southern Sudan.
This conflict was further scaled up after the June 1989 coup that brought Hassan al-Turabi and Omar al-Bashir to power. The fight between Islamist Khartoum and Marxist-Leninist Addis Ababa was won by the former, when the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition headed by Meles Zenawi ousted Mengistu in May 1991.
For years, relations between Sudan and Ethiopia were cordial, not least because the TPLF ended Ethiopian support for the SPLA/M and expelled the rebels from their Ethiopian bases in Gambella State. Meles was a regular visitor to Khartoum, indulging in late night conversation with al-Turabi about religion, regional politics and Western philosophy. Despite being ideologically miles apart, the personal relationship between the Sudanese sheikh and his Ethiopian comrade underpinned a degree of stability not seen for decades between the two countries.
All of this changed in 1995 when Sudanese intelligence operatives backed a plot by Egyptian rebels to assassinate their president, Hosni Mubarak, at the June 1995 Organisation of African Unity summit in Addis Ababa. When the involvement of Sudan's spooks was uncovered, an outraged Meles (whose TPLF had received Egyptian aid) closed Sudan's embassy, severed ties and gave orders to resume support to Garang's SPLA/M.
The TPLF's switch from being a close partner of Sudan to working for regime change in Khartoum was loudly applauded in Washington. It marked the official start of another alliance which would place Meles at the centre of regional politics - Ethiopia's role as America's junior sheriff in the Horn of Africa.
The commitment of Ethiopian and Eritrean firepower was a game-changer in the Sudanese conflict and threatened to overwhelm al-Turabi's revolution. However, just when Khartoum seemed to buckle under the external pressure and was facing an internal power struggle between al-Turabi and his former lieutenants, the Ethiopian-Eritrean border war between Addis Ababa and Asmara from 1998 to 2000 once again redrew the landscape of regional alliances.
Meles, ever the pragmatist in international relations, reconciled with al-Bashir, a move the latter has always been grateful for, not least because it helped solidify his position vis-à-vis al-Turabi. United Nations sanctions against Sudan imposed after the Mubarak assassination attempt were dropped, and Ethiopia urged Khartoum and the SPLA/M to reach a negotiated settlement.
Aware of the destabilising effects the Sudanese civil war had on Ethiopia's internal affairs, Meles backed the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement and urged a fair settlement of the southern question in a united Sudan. Throughout the 2005-2011 interim, Ethiopia's' role in its neighbour's politics continued to grow. With the January 2011 referendum on south Sudanese independence in sight, Meles Zenawi had become Sudan's prime partner in staying at peace.
Negotiator in the know
In the last years of his life, the Ethiopian prime minister, who had both fought with and against Khartoum's leaders at several points during the previous two decades, understood Sudanese politics and the psychology of its dominant figures like no other international player.
The choice for Ethiopia to host the African Union's High Level Implementation Panel for Sudan from the first half of 2010 onwards and the talks on 'post-referendum arrangements' was therefore a logical one. While Uganda, Kenya, Egypt and Libya were seen as too biased and lacking in deep knowledge of the salient issues, Meles enjoyed widespread appreciation as a regional statesman within the African Union and within the Sudans as a leader in whom sometimes impossible levels of personal trust were placed.
Surrounded by a team of experienced and sophisticated political advisors and diplomats - including Seyoum Mesfin, Meles' protégé and foreign minister with impressive credentials of his own, and Hailemariam Desalegn, the PM's successor - Meles helped maintain a tenuous peace between Khartoum and Juba. More than once, the negotiation process was salvaged through Ethiopian intervention, not least when the restive border region of Abyei threatened to blow up and hardened Ethiopian peacekeepers were deployed to save the peace.
What now for the Sudans?
The two Sudans insist their negotiations will not be delayed, and Meles' death does not in any way change the TPLF's fundamental calculus. Even now that this vision's main ideologue and political powerhouse is no longer, the fact that these ideas are widely shared among the TPLF elite and Ethiopian diplomatic establishment will continue to guarantee a high-profile role for Ethiopia in Sudanese politics, including leading the mediation efforts alongside Thabo Mbeki and the US.
The most important impact on the Sudan-South Sudan stand-off may well be situated in the intangible dynamics of the negotiations themselves. Even if Khartoum and Juba continue to welcome Ethiopian support for the talks and recognise its past achievements, no other figure possesses the international political clout, the inside knowledge of Sudan or the diplomatic skill that Meles Zenawi undeniably used to great effect.
Presidents Salva Kiir Mayardit of South Sudan and Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan will still receive creative new ideas from mediators to break out of the impasse and to peacefully and permanently resolve all outstanding issues on oil, water, border disputes, and security arrangements. But they will no longer be able to be persuaded by the personal guarantees of a man who once fought both of them, and later became one of the biggest believers of peace in Sudan.
Harry Verhoeven recently finished a doctorate at the University of Oxford. He studies regional hydropolitics, violent conflict and internal regime dynamics in Sudan, Ethiopia and the Great Lakes Region. Experts Weekly Contributions Experts Weekly: Khartoum Without JubaExperts Weekly: Drought in the Horn of Africa 11/07/11