Ethiopia’s announcement on 21 July that it had already filled its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) to its first year’s target has temporarily quelled tensions between it, Egypt and Sudan. The GERD, which will be the largest dam in Africa when completed, has been a source of great tension between these three states since it was initially announced in April 2011. Sudan and Egypt, downstream from Ethiopia on the Nile River, regard the dam as a threat to their water security and dominance over the Nile. But the current easing of tensions is temporary. The three countries will return to talks, under the auspices of the African Union (AU), to negotiate future filling of the GERD and the conclusion of a comprehensive agreement. This will be no easy task, especially since Cairo stubbornly insists that it is entitled to the bulk of the Nile water, and should have a veto over upstream dam construction or other developments. This attitude, which originates in the British colonial era, is, however, incompatible with the changing balance of power in the Nile Basin and with international norms regarding water-sharing.

Historic overview

The two tributaries of the Nile flow through eleven countries, and are relied upon by over forty per cent of the African continent’s population. Its small capacity (eighty-four billion cubic metres relative to other large rivers, such as the Amazon River (5 500 billion cubic meters), Congo River (1 250 billion cubic meters), and even the Niger River (180 billion cubic meters), and large number of dependent people and countries means that it has often been seen as having the potential to create conflict. This is especially since two downstream states, Egypt and Sudan, individually receive less than twenty-five millimetres of rain annually, thus contributing little to nothing to the river, but consuming more of its water than any of the other Nile riparian states. Egypt, particularly, is dependent on the Nile for over ninety-five per cent of its fresh water and irrigation needs. 

The Nile River originates through two main sources, Lake Victoria (bordered by Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya) giving rise to the White Nile, and Lake Tana in Ethiopia, the source of the Blue Nile, with feeder tributaries from Rwanda and Burundi. The White Nile comprises around fifteen per cent of the river, and the other eighty-five per cent is the Blue Nile. Both tributaries meet in Khartoum, Sudan, and then flow into Egypt. Egypt, South Sudan, Sudan and Ethiopia are very highly dependent on the Nile; Uganda is highly dependent; Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya and Burundi are moderately dependent on it; and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has a low dependence on it. 

Although the Nile has, for thousands of years, played a critical role in the lives of communities through which it flows, two more recent factors have influenced its current water usage: British colonisation of most of the area comprising the basin, and, thereafter, Egyptian attempts to ‘secure’ the river for itself. In relation to British colonialism, two main treaties regarding the Nile were agreed upon, one between Egypt and Britain, which, at the time, ruled many of the upstream states such as Tanzania and Uganda, and the other between Egypt and the Sudan. Egypt continues to cite these colonial-era treaties as its justification to deflect attempts to make Nile usage more equitable. The 1929 treaty recognised Egypt’s ‘natural’ and ‘historic’ rights to the river, and affording it the major share of the water. The treaty also tasked Egypt with monitoring the river, and gave it a veto vote over any Nile projects in upstream states. 

The second treaty, signed in 1959 by Egypt and the Sudan, renewed the 1929 treaty, granting Sudan the use of four billion cubic metres of water, and Egypt 48 billion. This second treaty hinted at the possibility of other states sharing the water, but Sudan and Egypt would first have to agree to such usage. The water allocation to Sudan and Egypt has since been revised upwards as a result of the construction of the High Aswan Dam in Egypt, and the Roseires Dam in Sudan. Sudan is now allotted 18.5 billion cubic meters, and Egypt 55 billion. The two countries have historically negotiated between themselves regarding the building of dams in either of their territories, and regarding water allocations, and they have generally adopted a common stance in negotiations with upstream states. In light of the clean slate and Nyerere Doctrines on treaty succession, both of which assert that newly-independent states can choose which colonial era treaties to remain bound by, the legitimacy of the 1929 and 1959 treaties is questionable.

Egypt is almost totally dependent on the Nile, especially since ninety-seven per cent of its population resides in the Nile valley; it is reliant on the river for over ninety-five per cent of its fresh water needs. The Egyptian state therefore threatened to use force to secure the river’s flow through its territory. In order to do so, both Egypt and Sudan even supported Ethiopian rebel groups, including the Eritrean and Tikrayan liberation movements, to weaken the country. This ultimately led to the 1993 secession of Eritrea. Egypt also pressured financial institutions to refrain from funding dam construction projects in upper riparian states. Thus, even if they had wanted to, it was no financially not possible for most Nile basin states to carry out construction on the river.

Political and power balance alterations

Since the mid-1990s, the power balance in the region has been shifting. Ethiopia has strengthened politically, economically and militarily, while Egypt and Sudan have weakened. Sudan split into two entities in 2011, with the Republic of Sudan losing much of its oil and agricultural resources to the new South Sudan state. Funding difficulties were alleviated for some states with the entry of China into the continent; it funded a number of dam projects, including the Tana Belez and Tekez dams in Ethiopia and the Marowe Dam in Sudan. Furthermore, the global discourse around water usage has changed. Whereas treaties and hard power had previously been the norm, human security and equity are now increasingly being promoted. The Helsinki and Berlin rules on water usage developed by the international law association, and the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, emphasise equity in water usage allowances. 

A combination of these factors resulted in the 1999 creation of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), between the ten countries through which the Nile traversed. The NBI’s aim was to achieve sustainable socioeconomic development through the equitable utilisation of the Nile. A new water-sharing framework, the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA or Entebbe agreement) was conceptualised to replace the outdated 1959 treaty. Although Egyptian and Sudanese opposition stalled the process, it was adopted since upstream states had a majority of members The CFA provided for Nile water to be shared equitably among all Nile Basin countries while causing as little harm to downstream counties as possible. It also stipulated that upstream countries would no longer require Egypt’s consent for water projects. Water security rather than ‘historical rights’ would be the criterion for water usage, according to Article 14B of the CFA, resulting in it being vehemently opposed by Egypt and Sudan. They claimed this had crossed a ‘red line’, and Egypt predicted that it lead to the NBI’s collapse. Six states – Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia – have signed the agreement, making it legally enforceable.

GERD and its consequences

Following the overthrow of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Ethiopia saw an opportunity to assert itself in the matter of the Nile. In April 2011, it announced the creation of the Millennium Dam, now known as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The idea had previously been touted by the US National Bureau of Reclamation in 1966, in response to Soviet funding of Egypt’s Aswan High Dam, as part of the US-Soviet proxy war in Africa. The proposed dam was conceived as a strong source of hydroelectrical power for the country, which could supply over 6 000 megawatts annually. Sixty-five million of Ethiopia’s 110-million population could receive energy from it. Former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi also asserted that it would be used to irrigate 500 000 hectares of land. However, Addis Ababa subsequently asserted that it would used solely for electricity generation.

Funding for the dam was generated through a variety of measures, including the issuance of bonds to Ethiopian citizens and businesses, and public servants being docked a month’s salary. Wealthy Ethiopian businesspeople such as Mohammed Al-Amoudi also invested in the project, but this was minimal compared to the amount raised through public funding. Ethiopia thus did not require foreign funding, a factor Egypt had initially hoped would prevent the project going ahead. Costing around five billion dollars, the dam is being built in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of Ethiopia, about twenty kilometres away from the Sudanese border. It will be the largest dam on the continent, the tenth largest in the world, and its reservoir will hold around seventy-four-billion cubic metres of water once completed. Originally planned to be completed in 2017, delays and the suicide of its chief engineer meant that it is currently only seventy per cent complete. The current level of completion did, however, allow filling to begin in 2020. 

Egypt and Sudan have opposed the dam from the planning stages, arguing for their ‘historical right’ to determine the Nile’s usage. Egypt insisted it would impair the Nile’s flow, and the electricity generation capacity of Egypt’s Aswan High Dam. Some studies, which were confirmed by Ethiopian officials during negotiations, put the losses at between eight and twenty billion cubic metres annually, accounting for between twenty and forty per cent of the Blue Nile’s flow to Sudan and then Egypt, which could drastically impact fresh water access for Egypt’s ninety million people. Further, the Aswan High Dam’s electricity generation capacity will drop by between twenty-five and forty per cent. However, this risk will be realised only if Ethiopia fills the dam in four years. Although this was the original intention, Ethiopia subsequently agreed to fill it in seven to nine years. Tensions came to a head in May 2013, when Ethiopia diverted the river’s course to facilitate the dam construction. Egyptian politicians in a parliamentary meeting, accidentally livestreamed by Egyptian television, called for the bombing of the dam and Egyptian support to rebel groups to destabilise Ethiopia. Both Ethiopia and Sudan condemned the calls.

Sudan subsequently dropped its opposition to the GERD in December 2013, mainly because it would also benefit with increased electricity supply through its connection to Ethiopia’s electricity grid. The dam would also regulate the flow of the river to South Sudan and Sudan, thus reducing floods during the rainy seasons and enabling Sudan to increase crop rotations to three times annually from the current once a year. It would also reduce sediment flow; currently, Sudan is able to use only half the water capacity of the Saddar and Roseires dams because of sediment. Sudan uses only around twelve billion of its eighteen billion cubic metre water allocation from the Nile, even though it is a water scarce country; the Sudanese are less dependent on Nile waters than Egypt. Sudan is also less dependent on the Blue Nile, whose flow Ethiopia will impede, because the White Nile, unaffected by the GERD also flows through it.

Sudan’s changed position, together with Ethiopia’s obduracy, forced Egypt to also alter its position. I August 2014, Cairo acquiesced to the GERD’s construction, insisting on an expert panel’s technical analysis of the dam’s impact, but dropping its demand that construction be halted until the completion of the analysis. This paved the way for a March 2015 agreement, the ‘Agreement on Declaration of Principles between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on the GERDP’ The agreement recognised that Sudan and Egypt would be impacted by the dam’s construction, but stipulated water sharing among the three states. Principle four of the ten-principle declaration also acknowledged usage rights based on river drainage; Ethiopia has the third largest land drainage of the whole river, including its Blue and White branches, after Sudan and South Sudan. The agreement further clarified that the dam would only be used for electricity generation and not irrigation, which was a victory for Egypt. However, it implicitly excluded the International Court of Justice from adjudicating on the dam’s legality, instead proposing for mediation and negotiations in the case of differences. Egyptian politicians had touted the ICJ as a means of delaying and halting the GERD’s construction. By endorsing the agreement, Cairo acquiesced to the validity of the GERD’s construction, and, since then, has sought only to ensure that the filling period is extended as much as possible.

Following the election of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister of Ethiopia in April 2018, relations further warmed between Cairo and Addis Ababa, especially since Abiy has been, in general, critical of dam projects. He argued that such projects were used for ‘political expediency’. At a 2018 summit between him and Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, Abiy told Sisi that he would never harm Egyptians, a comment seen by Egyptians as an acknowledgement of his opposition to the GERD.

Current situation

Despite Ethiopia’s assertion that it has already filled the dam to its first year carrying capacity, agreement on its ongoing filling has not yet been concluded. Taking advantage of the heavy rains, Addis Ababa rapidly filled the dam unilaterally in about two weeks, causing much consternation in Sudan, which saw its dam levels drop, and Egypt.

In November 2019, Egypt had roped in Washington and the World Bank to mediate. The US Trump administration continues to see Cairo as an important ally, and thus supported its position during negotiations. A draft ‘agreement’ on the filling process, signed only by Egypt in February 2020, was criticised by Addis Ababa. Abiy’s mind seems to have changed on both his previous willingness to negotiate, and his previous opposition to dams, especially after Cairo’s attempts to involve the USA in negotiations, and because of his loss of domestic support.

There remain a number of contentious issues regarding the dam. One of them is about the period of the filling of the dam. Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia agree that it should be phased, with the first phase spread over two years and the dam being filled to a depth of 595 metres, thus allowing for small-scale electricity generation and testing. Egypt, however, insists that Ethiopia releases over forty billion cubic metres of water each year, while Ethiopia wants to release thirty-billion cubic metres. Egypt currently receives forty-seven to forty-nine billion cubic metres of water from the Blue Nile annually. Ethiopia has conceded to providing a maximum of thirty-seven billion cubic metres annually, an amount Egypt will probably have to reluctantly accept. Addis Ababa is concerned that Cairo also wants it to empty the GERD’s reservoir to supplement the river’s flow in times of drought.

The parties have also not yet agreed on a monitoring and dispute resolution mechanism to ensure compliance. The UN asserts that the legality and binding nature of a possible agreement has not yet been agreed upon by all parties. Egypt and Sudan want the agreement to be legally binding and enforceable, while Ethiopia is wary that this may constrain it in the future, especially since it has a growing economy and because the GERD provides only one-fifth of the possible energy it could generate from the Nile.

Negotiations are being made more difficult by Egypt and Ethiopia both viewing the dam as an existential matter for their regimes. Article Forty-Four of Egypt’s constitution tasks the state with protecting the country’s ‘historic right’ to the Nile. Sisi already received much backlash for handing over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia in June 2017, including from Egyptian nationalists and military officials who saw his act as a betrayal of Egypt’s territorial claims. He would be careful about creating another such scandal. With Egypt’s population predicted to rise to 150 million by 2050, the country will become even more dependent on the Nile for its survival. Egypt’s annual water capacity per capita is already predicted to be forced to diminish from 570 cubic metres per person annually to 500 cubic metres in the coming years as a result of climate change. 

Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, the fact that many Ethiopians purchased GERD bonds to fund the building of the dam means that the regime has minimal wiggle room. Popular songs have been written in support of the dam, with some likening its construction to the 1896 battle of Adwa, when Ethiopians united to defeat Italian colonisers. The current domestic political context worsens the situation. Abiy’s popularity is waning, and the decision to postpone elections to 2021 has been criticised. Further, in recent weeks, the assassination of popular Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa sparked riots in Oromia, with the Oromo people, who comprise a third of the country’s population, arguing that the prime minister was not benefiting them. Abiy thus sanctioned the filling of the dam unilaterally, without obtaining consent from Sudan and Egypt as the two countries had expected, partly in an attempt to deflect from his domestic travails. His unstable position will likely influence any negotiations regarding the second year’s filling process, and will likely be deployed in electoral campaigns, making compromise less likely.

Sudan, on the other hand, has adopted a more balanced approach, siding with Ethiopia and refusing to agree to a March 2020 Arab League resolution condemning the GERD. Although largely agreeing with Egypt regarding the GERD’s filling and the need for a binding agreement, Khartoum has recently indicated a further willingness to compromise. It has conceded that Ethiopia will have to have flexibility regarding releasing water from the reservoir during drought, and also accepted that Addis Ababa might want to build more dams on the Nile in the future. However, it wants an agreement between the three states to be binding and enforceable. Moreover, consistent with the emphasis on ‘historic rights’, Sudan wants Ethiopia to notify it and Egypt before any dam construction.

Ethiopia and Sudan requested the AU, in June, to mediate between the three states. This was after the failures of trilateral negotiations between the states themselves, and after Ethiopia accused the USA of being biased towards Egypt. Before this, the AU had been relatively uninvolved in the GERD issue, calling on the states to negotiate among themselves. Some commentators argue that the continental body did not want to be involved in mediating a conflict between two powerful member states, especially since this would inevitably be perceived as it siding with one side if an agreement was not concluded. Following a failed first round of AU mediation at the end of June, which was to result in an agreement within two weeks thereafter, the three countries again announced, on 22 July, their willingness to accept AU mediation. The issues under mediation are especially contentious since they may be precedent-setting, and upsetting either Egypt or Ethiopia is not what the AU would want. However, successfully dealing with the Nile matter can position the AU as a serious continental structure that can resolve conflicts even between its strongest members, especially after external structures and foreign states were unable to bring the matter to conclusion.

 

Conclusion

The AU’s involvement in the Nile dispute has the potential to both resolve the matter, and enhance the reputation of the body. However, while on many substantive issues the parties have come closer, there remains much ground still to be covered and many disputes still requiring compromises. Ethiopia’s unilateral filling of the dam and its announcement that the first year filling process has completed has deescalated the situation temporarily, giving the AU some breathing space to address the more with cooler heads. However, a few of the serious issues will continue to make negotiations difficult. Whether the agreement should be legally enforceable, and whether Ethiopia should accept Cairo’s demand to release large water reserves during droughts are among those thorny issues.

It is highly unlikely that differences over the GERD issue could result in military conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia, despite the rhetoric from both sides. Cairo is involved in a seemingly-unwinnable conflict against the Islamic State group’s ‘Sinai province’, and is getting itself mired in Libya. It is unlikely that it will want to open up a third front. Moreover, the balance of power in the Nile is shifting, with Ethiopia gaining influence regionally and continentally. Addis Ababa’s confidentially filling up the dam unilaterally in the past few months, without any consequences, clearly indicates this shift.

A comprehensive solution will need to be based on the Entebbe agreement if it is to have a chance of long-term success. Egypt will need to give up on its insistence that it has a ‘historic right’ to the Nile waters, and on its demand that upstream states obtain its approval before undertaking construction projects on the river. Climate change, coupled with the increasing growth of countries such as Tanzania and Ethiopia, will result in these states seek to use the river’s water much more than previously to sustain their growing populations.

Sudan lies in the hotbed of the Horn of Africa, a region that has been plagued by decades of instability and ruin as a result of intense conflicts perpetuated by post-colonial vestiges, ethnic rivalries and competition for key resources. The region is centred along three geostrategic crossroads, flanked by the Bab el-Mandab strait in the Red Sea, positioned in close proximity to the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf of Aden; at the meeting point of the White and Blue Nile; and a transit point between Africa and the Mediterranean. Neighbouring countries beleaguered by failing states, civil wars and counter-revolutionary dictatorships render the regional stability fragile. 

While Sudan is not new to conflict and transformation, the recent revolutionary movement has shaken the foundations of power and forced Sudanese to revaluate and question the legitimacy of the power structures. The civil uprising and the demand for changing the course of history is indicative of a new, youthful yearning for a future devoid of the authoritarian system designed to quell the voices of the people. 

As Sudanese come to terms with the brutal crackdown on protestors on 3 June 2019 and  revel in the euphoric hopes for a peaceful transition, on a macro level, these developments have ushered in a significant shift in the balance of powers in the region and has resulted in the adoption by global actors of aggressive tactics to secure their interests. At the core of the competing agendas lies hegemonic ambitions of the USA, China and Russia; while Middle Eastern players appear to have found a new front to stage their rivalries. 

Until recently, the USA was unrivalled in its exertion of influence over the region in the name of the War on Terror, under the authority of AFRICOM, through which it sought to “neutralize transnational threats” advance American interests and build defence outposts, namely Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. Pariah status was conferred on Sudan, designated as a State sponsor of Terror, with comprehensive sanctions imposed until 2017. Soon after the removal of former President Omar Al Bashir from power, a senior American delegation was deployed to Khartoum for engagement with the Transitional Military Council. Last month, the State Department confirmed that Donald Booth has been named as Special Envoy for Sudan, tasking him with leading US efforts to support a political solution to the current crisis.

With the proliferation of Chinese military and naval facilities in the Horn of Africa initially on the pretext of anti-piracy, and now in line with the Belt and Road Initiative, American influence seems to be waning. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) deployed to the Gulf of Aden receives strategic support from their base in Djibouti. The base is seen as a vital part of the String of Pearls network of military and commercial bases throughout the Indian Ocean Rim. Chinese economic interests in Sudan are deeply entrenched, with Chinese investments in infrastructure projects, as well as trade. In 2018, China was the only country to transfer arms to Sudan. At the start of the uprisings in Sudan, China maintained a cautious silence on the developments until former President Omar Al Bashir was officially removed from power. The Chinese are now carefully monitoring developments to ensure that their economic interests are secured.

Countries in the European Union traditionally portrayed themselves as the peace-makers in the region, offering capacity and institution-building in post-conflict reconstruction and development, often with condescension of “we know and you know not”. As increasing numbers of Africans began to traverse great distances to escape their war-torn homes or to seek refuge and economic prosperity in Europe, the EU’s focus on Eritrea and Sudan altered significantly. Sudan stood as a buffer zone between refugees/migrants and the crossing points along the Mediterranean. Sudanese troops were deployed to the border regions with Eritrea and Libya to prevent the movement of people. With the advent of the revolution, the EU is watchful of developments and how this may impact on their quest to curb migration from Africa.  

Russia is a relative newcomer to Africa but seems to be developing a firm foreign policy to counter-balance American and European/French neo-colonial ambitions. Russia and Sudan cultivated an alliance between 2017 and 2018, as the two countries cooperated in brokering a peace deal in Central African Republic. Indications are that Russia seeks to advance its presence in Africa by building relations with several countries, including Sudan. The Russian military presence in CAR not only provides access to the region, but also presents Russia with an opportunity to enhance its economic footprint through acquiring lucrative mining deals. During a visit to Russia in 2017, former President Al Bashir intimated that Sudan could be the key for Russia to enter Africa. During that visit, a concession agreement for gold mining was signed. Reports have emerged that Russian forces were deployed to Sudan to train Sudanese security officials shortly thereafter.

Recent leaked documents allege that in 2018 Russia drew up a programme for economic reform in Sudan, designed to keep Omar Al Bashir in power. Upon recognising the inevitable ousting of Al Bashir, the document was altered and Russian advisors urged the TMC to suppress activists by toughening penalties for participating in unauthorised meetings and gathering, freezing independent media, improving the quality of pro-government media and limiting the influence of opposition press, increasing the costs of newsprint to control print media, detaining coordinators and leaders of protests, define the concept of a “foreign agent”,  and monitoring social media.

By Peter de Clercq

In addition to the standard measures to overcome the crisis, the leaked document suggests the discrediting of protestors by disseminating information on the arson of a mosque, hospital, kindergarten, and the theft of grain from the state repository or to cast the protesters as “enemies of Islam and traditional values” by spreading fake news about meetings with LGBTQ flags. This tactic would be designed to provoke conflict between protest groups and disorganise the protests. Finally, the leaked dossier alleges that plans were designed to punish those responsible for the protests, seen to be traitors to the Motherland; and suppression of activists through “minimal but acceptable loss of life”.

Perhaps the most interesting interventions in respect of the Sudanese uprisings have come from the Middle East. Concerns arose shortly after the massacre in June that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were responsible for the adoption of violent tactics by the TMC, as just days before, leaders of the TMC met with the Saudi and UAE leadership, securing an aid package of $3 billion, 66% of which would be allocated to military and security expenditure. The Saudi-UAE alliance has relied heavily on Sudanese troop deployment as part of the Saudi-led coalition in the war in Yemen. Apart from the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran playing out in Yemen, Sudan has also been central to rivalry, as Saudi Arabia urged Sudan and Eritrea to sever ties with Iran. 

The clout of the Gulf States lies in their oil-rich economies, enabling them to buy influence beyond their borders and assert themselves as players in the international arena. As the war in Yemen enters its fourth year, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have recognised the strategic value of military outposts across the Red Sea. The UAE is the most aggressive in securing contracts for the establishment of bases in the Horn of Africa. It is projecting itself to dominate the maritime domain, having begun with training and development of anti-piracy forces in Puntland and later with securing contracts for the establishment of bases in Somaliland and Eritrea, from which it has launched attacks on Yemen.  The UAE aims to develop and control ports along the Arabian peninsula and the Red Sea, thereby projecting its influence throughout the region. 

The projections by the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the Horn of Africa are also influenced by the rift within the GCC, as the blockade countries (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain) seek to limit Qatar’s reach. Qatar had strong relations with Sudan in the past, as it acted as mediator and host of negotiations between the Sudanese government and representatives of the Darfur region. Qatar had enjoyed cordial relations with Eritrea and other regional partners. Investments from the GCC were initially focussed on food security, with the purchase of large tracts of agricultural land. As the rift within the GCC intensified, Saudi Arabia and the UAE exerted greater political influence in the Horn, through the brokering of the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea and with outreach to Sudan. These moves also coincided with the strategic need for partners in the region close to Yemen. 

Qatar’s influence in the region has decreased since the blockade against it led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Last month, reports emerged that the TMC snubbed the Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs who requested a meeting with the Sudanese interim leadership. Qatar, together with Turkey have a contract to rebuild Suakin Island port on the Red Sea coast that was aimed at boosting tourism but would have a dual purpose of acting as a military base for Turkey. 

Egypt, allied closely with Saudi Arabia and the UAE is Sudan’s immediate neighbour. The Egyptians will be watching closely the developments in Sudan, for fear of another uprising the likes of the Arab Spring. Egypt would also be concerned as to how the situation in Sudan would impact on the water security as it pertains to the Nile and the debates by the Nile riparian states for increased shares to the nile waters. 

The Egyptian example must remain prominent in the minds of the interim Sudanese leadership. Transitions from revolutionary movements to civilian governments are not palatable to those who seek control and power. Most of the global players may find comfort with dictators and could potentially implant the ideas that Africans and Arabs cannot self-govern and therefore should be led by the military. Whilst the negotiations on the constitutional declaration appear to be gaining momentum and there are calls for peaceful democratic transfer of power to a civilian-led government, the Sudanese people must be cautious and wary of saboteurs. Deals are already being struck away from the negotiating table and lobbyists are positioning themselves to secure contracts that could be detrimental to Sudan, whilst lining the pockets of corrupt officials.

Lucrative offers will certainly continue to present themselves as Sudan enters the transitional period. Investments of the nature outlined above may appear very attractive for those seeking to address the economic challenges facing Sudan, however most of the deals come with hefty prices that may threaten the sovereignty and security of Sudan. Advantages and disadvantage would have to be weighed, bearing in mind the disproportionate relationships. The revolution must not be sold to the highest bidder and the integrity of the struggle for freedom must be paramount.

WE LEFT SUDAN

In droves
In the late 80’s and 90’s
Indeed, my generation of educated Sudanese professionals are scattered around the globe
(Out of 200 medical graduates from Khartoum University in 1992, 20 remain in the Sudan)
We never lost contact with the country and our friends and families
We followed the news closely
And reacted in exaggerated ways to every small change – as compensation perhaps to make up for being physically distant
But to a great extent, we “disconnected”
We appeared to have abandoned the ideals we embraced in our university years
We had different reasons for leaving
Extreme economic hardships
Overt persecution and other forms of disadvantage
For myself personally, I found the social restrictions as a women suffocating – when I was denied a promotion at work because I needed to sign a document stating that I would abide by “proper” dress forms, that became the final push I needed to leave

WE BUILT LIVES FOR OURSELVES ELSEWHERE

We spent many years trying to advance professionally
For many of us, these were journeys of tears and sweat and incredible struggle
We also committed time to building up our communities in the diaspora
And tried to integrate with our host communities
We debated what kind of a relationship we should [or shouldn’t] have with our embassies
We sometimes organised protests in front of the Sudanese Embassies
And amused our foreign friends when we had meals with the ambassador and his family a few weeks later
In many countries, our communities became polarised into “the opposition” and the “kiyzaan” (pro-government, pro-Islamist)
It must be added, that after the December revolution erupted, and specifically after the June 3rd massacre, there was no more doubt in our minds where we stand with regards to anyone or anything that represents the previous regime and its current extension as represented in the Transitional Military Council (TMC) 

LINKS WITH THE HOME COUNTRY

Some of us bought land in the home country
We bought properties, furnished them and spoke about returning
Indeed, many properties, in prime locations remain empty awaiting the return of those abroad
We struggled with elderly parents being alone back home
Many of us brought our parents to live with us – despite their resistance

AND THE YEARS PASSED

Before long, years had passed
10 years, twenty years, and more
We initially used to discuss our return
We debated how a new generation of Sudanese should bring up children and how we could help in the creation of a new Sudanese identity while not being physically in the Sudan
We debated whether a Sudanese identity relied on a geographical location or whether it could be nurtured elsewhere
We debated what was good in our culture and compared ourselves to other cultures and debated what we should rather adopt
When of some our children started escaping to join ISIS (in the period 2015-2016), we were temporarily shaken out of our complacency… what is our generation in the diaspora getting wrong?
We reached the age where we started debating whether we would retire in our host countries or perhaps go back home
And life went on in a tedious and predictable routine
We thought this was how our lives would continue, and end… 

THEN THE REVOLUTION ERUPTED

Our lives completely changed with the start of the protests in December 2018
For months, we have been glued to our phones – at critical times, we could not sleep
It was a responsibility, we declared, for us to become the voice of those leading and maintaining the struggles internally
We were fascinated by the youngsters who adopted the slogan peaceful (silmiya) and just fall (tasgot bas), and were absolute resolute and articulate in their vision for a non-racist, non-sexist future Sudan – referring to the revolution as a “revolution of awareness” (thawrat waay)
We were inspired by the youth-led revolution and the slogan “the whole country is Darfur” (kul al balad Darfur) and when the revolutionary spirit erupted in a beautiful avalanche of music, art, poetry – and “re-branded” as a cultural and social revolution 

We took pride in the fact that the protestors were disciplined and non-violent at every stage of the revolution
We were concerned when the time extended to months, and we were then reassured as we felt that the long stretch of time had allowed for better organisation and conceptualisation of a way forward
We re-grouped and devised ways in which we could support and actively participate
Through the guidance of the Sudan Professionals Association (SPA), we re-connected as engineers, architects, medical doctors, lawyers, and other professions
We started working on bringing back to life the dismantled professional unions and associations
We devised methods of lobbying support, recording information, designed logos, assisted with communications and raised funding
Though few of us were professional journalists, many of us became involved in trying to develop media and communication strategies
We issued media statements and bugged journalists and human rights activists when no one wanted to cover the Sudan, and we then struggled to respond to media requests when everyone wanted to report on the Sudan 

“Sudan is subjected to multiple marginalisation – too African for the Arabs and too Arab for the Africans.” 

When the protestors occupied the space around the Military Complex for two months, we followed everything and everyone closely; we memorised the protests songs, we knew the people who protected the barricades in name, the artwork was imprinted in our minds and hearts
We wrote articles documenting the site and its activities believing that the site was a microcosm of the envisioned future Sudan of “freedom, peace and justice” (huriya, salaam, aadala)
We sent money to clean the space, to erect the tents, provide the mattresses, to furnish the classrooms and clothe the homeless children who found refuge at the site; we sent money to provide water, food and to erect shade structures
Indeed, I have also labelled this as a revolution of legendary Sudanese generosity 
We broke down when the sit-in was violently dispersed and had to explain to journalists to please forgive us as we are not really politicians or reporters
We used the hashtag #mediacoveragesaveslives when the killings intensified and we wrote academic articles which aimed to assess exactly how many people had died throughout the protests
Having focused on our personal lives, professions and livelihoods for so many years, we were thrown into a new role that we were little prepared for, but wholeheartedly embraced
We were devastated when we saw the janjaweed militia (Rapid Support Forces RSF) take power and optimistic when we felt that agreements might be reached
We started to again believe that maybe we will return… 

THE MAIN ISSUES FOR ME AS AN ARCHITECT

The new global realities – beyond geographic borders: the “city” and the “nation” as concepts have been “unsettled and reorganised in global time and space: the nation has also become increasingly detached from the formal territory of the nation-state through “long-distance nationalism” and the spaces of “diasporic citizenship”” (Crysler, 2003); the relationship between those in the country and those outside of it has come to the fore. Technology has allowed for this new reality. 

The Generational Gaps; the movement has exposed tensions between the different generations; this has been incredibly evident in my own work with the engineering and architectural professional communities; the engineering groupings are split into two, one of the groups very evidently representing “young blood” and the other claiming to be representative of the “authentic” unions before they were dismantled by ElBashir; while they are now working together and have established a combined steering committee to take the profession forward in unity, neither group wants to abandon its name and identity and it is obvious that their modes of operation, communication methods and vision differ. 

Gender representation has also come to the fore: while the movement seems to have been influenced and led by many young women, their exclusion

By Zeenat Adam

17 July 2019

Sudan lies in the hotbed of the Horn of Africa, a region that has been plagued by decades of instability and ruin as a result of intense conflicts perpetuated by post-colonial vestiges, ethnic rivalries and competition for key resources. The region is centred along three geostrategic crossroads, flanked by the Bab el-Mandab strait in the Red Sea, positioned in close proximity to the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf of Aden; at the meeting point of the White and Blue Nile; and a transit point between Africa and the Mediterranean. Neighbouring countries beleaguered by failing states, civil wars and counter-revolutionary dictatorships render the regional stability fragile. 

While Sudan is not new to conflict and transformation, the recent revolutionary movement has shaken the foundations of power and forced Sudanese to revaluate and question the legitimacy of the power structures. The civil uprising and the demand for changing the course of history is indicative of a new, youthful yearning for a future devoid of the authoritarian system designed to quell the voices of the people. 

As Sudanese come to terms with the brutal crackdown on protestors on 3 June 2019 and  revel in the euphoric hopes for a peaceful transition, on a macro level, these developments have ushered in a significant shift in the balance of powers in the region and has resulted in the adoption by global actors of aggressive tactics to secure their interests. At the core of the competing agendas lies hegemonic ambitions of the USA, China and Russia; while Middle Eastern players appear to have found a new front to stage their rivalries. 

Until recently, the USA was unrivalled in its exertion of influence over the region in the name of the War on Terror, under the authority of AFRICOM, through which it sought to “neutralize transnational threats” advance American interests and build defence outposts, namely Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. Pariah status was conferred on Sudan, designated as a State sponsor of Terror, with comprehensive sanctions imposed until 2017. Soon after the removal of former President Omar Al Bashir from power, a senior American delegation was deployed to Khartoum for engagement with the Transitional Military Council. Last month, the State Department confirmed that Donald Booth has been named as Special Envoy for Sudan, tasking him with leading US efforts to support a political solution to the current crisis.

With the proliferation of Chinese military and naval facilities in the Horn of Africa initially on the pretext of anti-piracy, and now in line with the Belt and Road Initiative, American influence seems to be waning. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) deployed to the Gulf of Aden receives strategic support from their base in Djibouti. The base is seen as a vital part of the String of Pearls network of military and commercial bases throughout the Indian Ocean Rim. Chinese economic interests in Sudan are deeply entrenched, with Chinese investments in infrastructure projects, as well as trade. In 2018, China was the only country to transfer arms to Sudan. At the start of the uprisings in Sudan, China maintained a cautious silence on the developments until former President Omar Al Bashir was officially removed from power. The Chinese are now carefully monitoring developments to ensure that their economic interests are secured.

Countries in the European Union traditionally portrayed themselves as the peace-makers in the region, offering capacity and institution-building in post-conflict reconstruction and development, often with condescension of “we know and you know not”. As increasing numbers of Africans began to traverse great distances to escape their war-torn homes or to seek refuge and economic prosperity in Europe, the EU’s focus on Eritrea and Sudan altered significantly. Sudan stood as a buffer zone between refugees/migrants and the crossing points along the Mediterranean. Sudanese troops were deployed to the border regions with Eritrea and Libya to prevent the movement of people. With the advent of the revolution, the EU is watchful of developments and how this may impact on their quest to curb migration from Africa.  

Russia is a relative newcomer to Africa but seems to be developing a firm foreign policy to counter-balance American and European/French neo-colonial ambitions. Russia and Sudan cultivated an alliance between 2017 and 2018, as the two countries cooperated in brokering a peace deal in Central African Republic. Indications are that Russia seeks to advance its presence in Africa by building relations with several countries, including Sudan. The Russian military presence in CAR not only provides access to the region, but also presents Russia with an opportunity to enhance its economic footprint through acquiring lucrative mining deals. During a visit to Russia in 2017, former President Al Bashir intimated that Sudan could be the key for Russia to enter Africa. During that visit, a concession agreement for gold mining was signed. Reports have emerged that Russian forces were deployed to Sudan to train Sudanese security officials shortly thereafter.

Recent leaked documents allege that in 2018 Russia drew up a programme for economic reform in Sudan, designed to keep Omar Al Bashir in power. Upon recognising the inevitable ousting of Al Bashir, the document was altered and Russian advisors urged the TMC to suppress activists by toughening penalties for participating in unauthorised meetings and gathering, freezing independent media, improving the quality of pro-government media and limiting the influence of opposition press, increasing the costs of newsprint to control print media, detaining coordinators and leaders of protests, define the concept of a “foreign agent”,  and monitoring social media.

In addition to the standard measures to overcome the crisis, the leaked document suggests the discrediting of protestors by disseminating information on the arson of a mosque, hospital, kindergarten, and the theft of grain from the state repository or to cast the protesters as “enemies of Islam and traditional values” by spreading fake news about meetings with LGBTQ flags. This tactic would be designed to provoke conflict between protest groups and disorganise the protests. Finally, the leaked dossier alleges that plans were designed to punish those responsible for the protests, seen to be traitors to the Motherland; and suppression of activists through “minimal but acceptable loss of life”.

Perhaps the most interesting interventions in respect of the Sudanese uprisings have come from the Middle East. Concerns arose shortly after the massacre in June that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were responsible for the adoption of violent tactics by the TMC, as just days before, leaders of the TMC met with the Saudi and UAE leadership, securing an aid package of $3 billion, 66% of which would be allocated to military and security expenditure. The Saudi-UAE alliance has relied heavily on Sudanese troop deployment as part of the Saudi-led coalition in the war in Yemen. Apart from the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran playing out in Yemen, Sudan has also been central to rivalry, as Saudi Arabia urged Sudan and Eritrea to sever ties with Iran. 

The clout of the Gulf States lies in their oil-rich economies, enabling them to buy influence beyond their borders and assert themselves as players in the international arena. As the war in Yemen enters its fourth year, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have recognised the strategic value of military outposts across the Red Sea. The UAE is the most aggressive in securing contracts for the establishment of bases in the Horn of Africa. It is projecting itself to dominate the maritime domain, having begun with training and development of anti-piracy forces in Puntland and later with securing contracts for the establishment of bases in Somaliland and Eritrea, from which it has launched attacks on Yemen.  The UAE aims to develop and control ports along the Arabian peninsula and the Red Sea, thereby projecting its influence throughout the region. 

The projections by the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the Horn of Africa are also influenced by the rift within the GCC, as the blockade countries (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain) seek to limit Qatar’s reach. Qatar had strong relations with Sudan in the past, as it acted as mediator and host of negotiations between the Sudanese government and representatives of the Darfur region. Qatar had enjoyed cordial relations with Eritrea and other regional partners. Investments from the GCC were initially focussed on food security, with the purchase of large tracts of agricultural land. As the rift within the GCC intensified, Saudi Arabia and the UAE exerted greater political influence in the Horn, through the brokering of the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea and with outreach to Sudan. These moves also coincided with the strategic need for partners in the region close to Yemen. 

Qatar’s influence in the region has decreased since the blockade against it led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Last month, reports emerged that the TMC snubbed the Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs who requested a meeting with the Sudanese interim leadership. Qatar, together with Turkey have a contract to rebuild Suakin Island port on the Red Sea coast that was aimed at boosting tourism but would have a dual purpose of acting as a military base for Turkey. 

Egypt, allied closely with Saudi Arabia and the UAE is Sudan’s immediate neighbour. The Egyptians will be watching closely the developments in Sudan, for fear of another uprising the likes of the Arab Spring. Egypt would also be concerned as to how the situation in Sudan would impact on the water security as it pertains to the Nile and the debates by the Nile riparian states for increased shares to the nile waters. 

The Egyptian example must remain prominent in the minds of the interim Sudanese leadership. Transitions from revolutionary movements to civilian governments are not palatable to those who seek control and power. Most of the global players may find comfort with dictators and could potentially implant the ideas that Africans and Arabs cannot self-govern and therefore should be led by the military. Whilst the negotiations on the constitutional declaration appear to be gaining momentum and there are calls for peaceful democratic transfer of power to a civilian-led government, the Sudanese people must be cautious and wary of saboteurs. Deals are already being struck away from the negotiating table and lobbyists are positioning themselves to secure contracts that could be detrimental to Sudan, whilst lining the pockets of corrupt officials.

Lucrative offers will certainly continue to present themselves as Sudan enters the transitional period. Investments of the nature outlined above may appear very attractive for those seeking to address the economic challenges facing Sudan, however most of the deals come with hefty prices that may threaten the sovereignty and security of Sudan. Advantages and disadvantage would have to be weighed, bearing in mind the disproportionate relationships. The revolution must not be sold to the highest bidder and the integrity of the struggle for freedom must be paramount.

AMEC hosted a symposium entitled 'Sudan: Struggling for democracy, resisting military rule' at the Sheraton Pretoria hotel as part of its attempt to provide information and analysis on events in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Sudan: Struggling for democracy, resisting military rule

         17 July 2019, Sheraton Hotel, Pretoria

 

09:00 – 09:15                Welcome – Na’eem Jeenah

09:15 – 11:00   Sudan’s new balance of forces and the quest for transition

 

                            Chair – Matshidiso Motsoeneng

                            - Mohamed Elhassan Ibrahim Alawad Hassan,                                             Ambassador of Sudan to South Africa

 

                            - Abdul-Karim Elgoni, Sudanese-South African doctor and former                                   Sudanese politician

 

 

11:00 – 11:15                Break

11:15 – 12:45       Perspectives for the future of Sudan

                            Chair – Mahlatse Mpya

                   

                – Mahdi Osman, Sudan Solidarity Group in South Africa

 

    -Amira Osman, professor at Tshwane University of Technology and Sudanese national

                            

                            -Zeenat Adam,Independent specialist on Sudan and Horn of Africa

                            

12:45- 13:00     Summing up and closing

- Peter de Clercq, former Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Somalia

- Na’eem Jeenah, Executive Director, Afro-Middle East Centre

13:00                   Lunch         

 

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