Analysis: South Sudan conflict destabilizes Ethiopia’s regional strategy

(Harry Verhoeven)

If the past century’s dominant image of Ethiopia was that of an impoverished, war-torn state, epitomized by the horrendous 1984-1985 famine in Tigray and Wollo provinces, the early 21st-century picture of the country is surely exemplified by the construction of the biggest infrastructure project anywhere in Africa: Mere miles from Ethiopia’s border with Sudan, nearly 8,000 workers and engineers are laboring seven days a week, 24 hours a day as part of a round-the-clock construction schedule to erect the nearly 560-foot-tall Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam(GERD).

Africa’s second-most populous nation is betting that the multibillion-dollar GERD will dramatically modernize Ethiopia’s domestic political economy through mass electrification and have a positive influence on regional relations through the export of surplus power to North and East Africa and its hinterland. Late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s dream was for Ethiopia to emerge as a regional hegemon through energy diplomacy. His successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, has judiciously stuck to this mission and has given his dam builders all the resources and political backing required to complete the biggest hydro-infrastructure project on the Nile since the Aswan High Dam.

For Ethiopia to fund its domestic transformation through an integrated regional energy market, however, a stable Horn of Africa and Nile Basin are absolutely essential. For centuries, the region has been characterized by proxy wars and the export of internal instability by countries like Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia itself; reversing this historical pattern requires not just high-modernist infrastructure and economic partnerships, but also a new international politics. Meles understood this, and following the 1998-2000 bloody conflict with his former comrades in arms in Eritrea, he led the Ethiopian government’s attempts to play a more positive role of peacemaker in the region.

Addis Ababa normalized relations with Khartoum after decades of direct and indirect conflict, and encouraged the implementation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which was meant to tackle the root causes of catastrophic violence in Sudan and ultimately allowed South Sudan to peacefully secede on July 9, 2011. From late 2010 onward, Meles and his diplomats worked closely with the African Union and the U.S. on the “post-referendum arrangements,” hosting a series of quasi-permanent negotiations between the two governments in Khartoum and Juba to settle outstanding issues like border disputes, sharing oil wealth and Sudan’s mountain of debt. Ethiopia’s service as vital broker and trusted interlocutor has received near-universal praise in the international community and among Sudanese and South Sudanese politicians.

For a long time, then, Ethiopian diplomacy seemed to go from strength to strength, improving Addis Ababa’s position in the geopolitical long game with the Nile Basin’s historical hegemon, Egypt, which has consistently warned that Ethiopian dam-building on the Blue Nile threatens catastrophic consequences for downstream states. The post-2011 turbulence in Cairo, and Ethiopia’s close partnership with the U.S. in the context of the global war on terror, seemed to pave the way for a redrawing of the regional balance of forces, with Sudan, South Sudan, Yemen and Kenya queuing up to sign energy deals with Ethiopia under Meles and, later, Hailemariam. Egypt found itself impotent and consumed with domestic issues, and Eritrea, Ethiopia’s old arch foe, remained isolated and increasingly ineffective at destabilizing Ethiopia from within or without.

However, the December 2013 outbreak of South Sudan’s civil war between President Salva Kiir and a camp of disgruntled politicians and generals of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M), led by Kiir’s former deputy Riek Machar, has gravely disturbed Ethiopia’s regional master plan. The challenge for Ethiopia is twofold. On the one hand, the conflict gravely tests Ethiopia’s self-styled role as neutral mediator. Outrage has grown among Ethiopia’s own Nuer population following waves of ethnic cleansing that have killed thousands of Dinka and Nuer civilians across the border in South Sudan. The flood of refugees into Ethiopia’s Gambella state, many of them carrying stories of killings perpetrated by Kiir’s largely Dinka army, destabilizes Addis Ababa’s vulnerable western frontier and local power-sharing arrangements.

On the other hand, Ethiopia has been forced to respond to the conflict’s regional dimensions. Uganda’s military intervention, ordered by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni after consultation with U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, saved Juba from being captured by Riek’s rebels but dramatically upped the regional ante. While Addis Ababa tried to reach a peaceful settlement through its role as chair of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an East African regional body, unilateral intervention by member state Uganda greatly irked Kenya and Ethiopia. The intervention also led Sudanese generals to warn that a Ugandan military presence near the Sudan-South Sudan border would not be tolerated, given Museveni’s extensive support for rebels fighting the Khartoum regime.

The menace of renewed proxy war between Sudan and Uganda inside South Sudan not only risks further exacerbating the humanitarian crisis, it also puts tremendous pressure on the carefully assembled coalition of Nile Basin countries who have endorsed Ethiopia’s GERD and its vision of energy diplomacy. Such tensions could easily be exploited by Egypt, which has been reaching out to Kiir through military cooperation agreements and additional development projects, and by Eritrea. Asmara has already been accused of arming South Sudanese rebels, and a series of meetings between Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Eritrean strongman Issaias Afewerki are causing Ethiopian officials considerable anxiety. In other words, from Ethiopia’s perspective, the sooner the Ugandan intervention is scaled down or embedded in a multilateral framework and regional force, the better. But it remains to be seen who else is willing to wade into the chaos of civil war and ethnic cleansing in South Sudan, despite the unanimous vote of the U.N. Security Council to improve protection of civilians.

Ethiopian foreign policy has for years now been a remarkably successful example of realpolitik, carefully aligning the government’s internal interests with those of regional players and global forces. Whether that image endures, and a more prosperous and peaceful Horn of Africa emerges, is highly contingent on whether Ethiopia manages to help pull the region out of acute crisis mode and back onto the long-term trajectory of a new hydropolitics around the Nile. As seen from Addis Ababa, the stakes could hardly be higher.


*Originally published on  World Politics Review, on Ma 30, 2014, titled “Analysis: South Sudan conflict destabilizes Ethiopia’s regional strategy”.

Content gathered and compiled from online and offline media by Hornaffairs staff based on relevance and interest to the Horn of Africa.

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