1 February 2018

Sudan: A New Front

The resignation by Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn last week that took almost everyone by surprise is opening a new front for Sudan, which is not short of domestic, regional and international hot spots.

Sudan remains the country most affected if things go rough for the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) that has been ruling the country since it succeeded in toppling later dictator Mengistu Hailemariam back in 1991 with direct help from Khartoum.

In addition to some 700 km of joint borders, Ethiopia has been a key player in various issues related to Sudan through its strong presence in the two organizations the African Union it hosts and the IGAD. It is a key player in mediating with various rebel groups and Khartoum, on the bilateral relations between Sudan and South Sudan, it provides 4,000 troops under the UN flag in the contested Abyei area. Of late President Omar Al-Bashir was speaking of a strategic alliance with Ethiopia in various fronts. High on the list is the Renaissance Dam that Sudan sees as a source of benefits for it more than even Ethiopia. After all it allows the country to utilize its full 18.5 billion cubic meters of water share and enable it expand its agricultural output.

Though there was some discontent that has been brewing for some time on the way things were administered, but it was two years ago that it burst in form of demonstrations that brought for the first time ever both the two biggest ethnic groups in the country: the Oromo and the Amhara despite a long history of skirmishes and bad blood between the two.

The complaints sounds like being borrowed from a Sudan text book: a great sense of marginalization and the need for power and wealth sharing. In theory the country is ruled by an alliance of the EPRDF that groups the Oromo, the Amhara, the Tigrinya and other smaller southern groups, but eyes are on the Tigrinya, who though constitute less than 10 percent of the population, but they are the dominant force in the EPRDF and at the expense of the Oromo with their 40 percent share of the country's population or the Amhara with 26 percent.

Desalegn resignation came on the heel of releasing political prisoners following the demonstrations, which enhances the appetite of the opposition groups for more. Whether the EPRDF will opt for allocating the vacant post of the prime minister to an Oromo figure or go for more radical approach to address the root causes of the problem remains to be seen.

In the end that is an Ethiopian issue that will be handled with its political forces, but the main issue of concern is Sudan and how unfolding developments will have its impact on it. Sudan is already suffering from political and security turmoil from two close neighbors: South Sudan and Libya. Opening a new front will be hard to stand and will have far more repercussions.

Rightly or wrongly Sudan was seen of late as tilting towards Ethiopia more than its traditional ally, Egypt. The gist of this impression centers around the Renaissance Dam that Sudan sees as serving its interest, a position that led for the first time to a divergent approach to the water issues between Khartoum and Cairo.

It is unfair for Sudan to be seen as siding with this or that country for whatever reason. Its bottom line should be to look and work for its own national interest, but to be able to serve that interest well it needs to put its priorities right and work towards having a unified, peaceful domestic front that will provide the needed base to look and operate outside its borders.

The growing regional role of Ethiopia over the past two decades was in a way a response to a vacuum created by the diminishing regional role of Sudan, which has been bogged down by raging civil wars and deteriorating economic conditions.

An absent or even minimized Ethiopian regional role will not go on unnoticed. And by the nature of things any vacuum has to be filled somehow. There are some speculations that some western powers may intervene to maintain the image of Ethiopia's stability. Yet the precious lesion to be learnt by Sudan is to take its destiny into its own hands to be able to stand blowing winds from different directions.


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