4 February 2018

Sudan: A New Opening?


For those interested in protocol it was a significant gesture. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi took the initiative and visited his counterpart President Omar Al-Bashir in his residence in Addis Ababa, where both were attending an African Union (AU) meeting. It was the first face-to-face meeting between the two presidents in a full year.

The meeting was followed by a tripartite one where Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn joined his counterparts and the three leaders agreed to set up a new committee that comprises those of foreign affairs, irrigation and intelligence chiefs, who should meet within one month and look into how to overcome the Renaissance Dam (RD) obstacles. More important the leaders agreed to work together and see how their countries could integrate and for that an idea related to an infrastructure fund has been floated.

This is a new approach that could usher a new era for the eastern Nile basin countries with their 250 million population. For quite long time the understanding and the practice has been that serving the interest of any of the three countries should come at the expense of the one or other two. The famous 1959 water agreement between Sudan and Egypt stands as a salient example for that and has provided the fertile land for suspicions.

That agreement was signed without even notifying Ethiopia from whose lands the Blue Nile waters flow. Moreover, and as part of its national security tenets Egypt continued to insist that its historical water rights guaranteed by that agreement are not negotiable.

Then came the issue of the RD in 2011. The timing could not have been worse for Egypt, who that year went through its Arab Spring version that brought down its long serving President Hosni Mubarak, followed by the military council that prepared the country for its first ever free election that brought to power Mohamed Morsi, who was toppled by Al-Sisi a year later by making use of the popular discontent against Morsi and his Muslim Brothers group. In the meantime, Ethiopia went ahead with its RD projects creating facts on ground that blocked any possible future meaningful Egyptian objections.

However, Addis Ababa was supported by Sudan, who found that it can made more gains from the RD to the extent that some said it represents a High Dam for Sudan by allowing it have access to more cheap electricity and can enable it increase its utilization of water usage by planting more land. Currently Sudan is believed to be utilizing only 12.5 billion cubic meters of its allotted share of 18 billion. RD is built 20 km from Sudanese borders and provides an ideal location to store waters upstream.

However, despite the tension Sudan was able to stage a big diplomatic coup in March 2015, when it managed to get both Egypt and Ethiopia to join it in signing a joint declaration of principles to govern the work in the RD. It was the first time ever water agreement to be signed by both Cairo and Addis Ababa. One of the basic cornerstones of that declaration was it recognizes the 1959 agreement, long shunned by Ethiopia and thus secures to Egypt its historical water share in the agreement. Equally it recognizes the right of Ethiopia to utilize water flowing from its land and generate electricity for development purposes.

But instead of building on this achievement, things went back to suspicions and acrimony making use of a controversial report by the consultant that both Khartoum and Addis Ababa objected to and even accusing the consultant company of exceeding its mandate.

The directives of the three presidents to have a fresh approach based on cooperation, rather than competition looks like an attempt to make an opportunity out of the current debacle. The reality is that RD construction is going forward and is believed to be 70 percent complete and there is nothing to stop it. Remains the question of the volume and timing of filling the reservoir behind the dam. And that is where the discussion is centered.

Moreover, it remains to be seen whether the new reality about RD is filtering slowly into Egypt's mind and that it is better to go for cooperation to create new opportunities. The way RD will be settled will show clearly whether there is a new political will that is providing a new opening based on cooperation.

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