The relationship between the two neighbors, Ethiopia and Sudan, is an ancient one. The two neighbors share a long border and history in which some of it was spent with glorious achievements while most of it was spent with mutual suspicion and sabotage. The relationship at present has come a long way from that to and is astonishing in retrospect. In light of the 5th anniversary of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and its reaching of an irreversible stage, I found it the right time to take account of the dynamics of Ethio-Sudan relations and how the GERD impacted it.

The thousands of years long historical relationship begins from the civilizations of Axum and Merowe in which the two people lived under the one or the other civilizations. This long relationship has resulted in innumerable shared cultural, linguistic and ethnic values. However, since the independence of Sudan and especially after the end of WWII the relationship has exhibited an on and off pattern with the negative outweighing the positive. As in most other cases both bear the blame for the deterioration.

Ethiopia’s previous foreign policies were founded on a “siege mentality” in which the narrative was of a country surrounded by enemies. That narrative was seared into the Ethiopian psyche in turn to have an adverse effect on the relationship and dampen positive developments. The effect of that attitude still persists even though it faded after the establishment of a Federal Republic in Ethiopia and the near excellent relationship they had for a quarter of a century.

The relationship between the two has particularly gotten worse especially in the period of the fascist military junta that ruled Ethiopia from 1974-91. However, the junta was not the only one to blame as The Sudan was in internal turmoil with the sporadic manifestations of religious extremism. There were several attempts aided by The Sudan that were configured to make Ethiopia a victim of terrorism and also to spread religious extremism. These in turn fed into the siege mentality of its neighbor and created a contagion vulnerability for the old Ethiopia in which religious inequality was a feature. This was one of the reasons that harmed the relationships between the two countries.

The other, and maybe the biggest, reason was the strategic issues concerning the utilization of the Nile River. The 1959 agreement between the two lower riparian countries, Sudan and Egypt, excluding Ethiopia, which was the main source of the river, was damaging to the relationship between the two East African neighbors.

Even though Ethiopia’s potential to use the Nile for irrigation is limited due to its topography, The Sudan have a vast and fertile irrigable land and situated better than all the riparian states to greater utilization of the Nile waters. However, the 1959 agreement, has dubiously appropriated the right to the largest share of the Nile’s waters to Egypt which neither adds any volume nor have enough land for irrigation. This agreement was in addition of being an insult to Ethiopia, was also contrary to the national interest of Sudan. Many analysts attribute this outcome to the undue influence of Egypt on the internal politics of the Sudan.

The establishment of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia 25 years ago was a distinct turning point in the relationship between the two neighbors. One of the two main factors was the fact that the new republic was mainly spearheaded by the then rebel group with long and strong working relationships to the ruling party of Sudan. The EPRDF coalition, which overthrew the military junta, had used Sudan as a supply corridor (especially for food aid to the population in the area it controlled. The porous border with Sudan and the cold-war like relationship between the two countries has also created conducive environment for movements of rebel leaders. The working relationship built in the decades has its share in the unprecedented mutual trust that happened 25 years ago.

The other main factor was Ethiopia’s new foreign policy that took a U-turn in that it declared Ethiopia is neither surrounded by nor have permanent enemies. The policy was centered on the top strategic goal of the country which was set to be achieving an economic miracle and emphasized the need for regional interdependence to create a conducive condition to sustainable peace and development. The new policy direction and measures for security and economic cooperation that followed has definitely built on the initial mutual trust. That is the only explanation for why a number of hiccups in their relationship (such as the assassination attempt on Egyptian president in Addis Ababa by terrorists the Sudan sheltered) haven’t resulted in a major fallout.

Photo - Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, April 2016

Ethiopia’s Rise

The last decade was a unique chapter in the modern history of Ethiopia and the sub-region as the country registered an unprecedented double digit growth for consecutive years. That coupled with its nuanced regional diplomacy (with the personal qualities of its late statesman at the forefront) has earned her the respect of its neighbors, including those that only had a hostile historical relationship. Ethiopia rose to be a trusted regional broker as was seen by the preference of the warring Sudan and South Sudan for Ethiopian mediation and the only mutually acceptable military force for an African peacekeeping mission to be settled at their contested border. The Sudan, in contrary to those historical suspicions, has even insisted on the deployment of Ethiopian troops as peacekeepers in Darfur, its restive region. That was an unparalleled demonstration of the diplomatic feat Ethiopia has achieved in a troubled sub-region.

And then the GERD came to town…

The surprise announcement of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam by the late statesman Meles Zenawi has once again brought back the old media talk of “water wars”. Not a few expected some sort of conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia and assumed the regional alliance of the Sudan with Egypt to continue. The assessment was fair when one takes into account the internal vulnerability of the Sudan and the historical meddling of Egypt into its internal politics which will not let Sudan afford to break from past Nile agreements in favor of its national interest.

However, geopolitics is a scene of surprises and that was what happened in this case. Egypt has learned it has lost Africa and especially the Nile basin region to Ethiopia in the intense shuttle diplomacy it conducted after the announcement of the GERD. Ethiopia has controlled the narrative with its leadership of African agenda in the international arena as well as with unrelenting decades long engagement in the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), an organ formed by all Nile riparian countries as a framework for fair allocation of Nile waters which resulted into the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) signed by all except the two lower riparian countries. Egypt on the other hand not only chose to pivot towards the Middle East for decades but also showed reluctance, if not hostility, towards the NBI and the countries in it. That turned out to be a strategic blunder.

As if the diplomatic debacle wasn’t enough, Egypt got itself mired in an turmoil for years as a result of the Arab Spring and that cost her a great deal of respect in the region. The perceived power of Egypt rested in its assumed national cohesion and its ability to create instability in the nations that dare to challenge her. That has evaporated in the last two decades as Ethiopia spearheaded and succeeded in elevating the state of cooperation in the sub-region. The troubled region has managed to form a regional organization for security and economic cooperation, established sub-regional standby peacekeeping force, instituted an arms trafficking control regime…which resulted in talks of economic integration instead of wars and sabotages of neighbors. Hence, the old tactic was no more potent in getting others in line. That changed state was added to the turmoil of Egypt has let Nile riparian countries to peruse their national interest. At that point the only option left for Egypt was to return to the negotiation table it once rejected, and that’s what she did.

The GERD, probably by design than coincidence, benefits the Sudan as much as, if not more, it benefits Ethiopia. The dam is being built a mere 40 Kms from the border with Sudan and it gives Sudan a number of benefits at zero cost. The Ethiopian leadership must have communicated the benefits early on as the Sudanese leadership was seen reluctant to jump into the Egyptian bandwagon of denunciations and even war threats in the early days of GERD.

After all the Sudan has agreements for hydropower energy purchase from Ethiopia, supplies oil to Ethiopia, is undertaking activities for Ethiopia’s use of its ports, enjoys strong border security and repatriation agreements and even hosts thousands of Ethiopian troops in its territory. Hence, she was with no inclination to spoil it all for Egypt, with no credible plan for triumph, and especially over a dam that is actually in her national interest. That’s probably why Sudan moved even closer to Ethiopia as time goes by and its statements on GERD has become softer and softer and even positive up to a point in which Sudanese citizens residing in Ethiopia started to invest in the GERD bonds. The attitude of Sudan, I believe, has a big role in forcing the Egyptians come to the negotiating table.

The geopolitical dynamics witnessed in the last five years after the annunciation of the GERD showcases a scenario in which a rising Ethiopia has freed the Sudan from the yoke of Egyptian dominance in which it pursues its national interest boldly. It won’t be long before Sudan moves the other leg forward to break with the past and join the future with its African neighbors by signing the CFA. Egypt will then follow the inevitable path.   

To sum it all up, the silent diplomacy followed by the governments of Ethiopia and Sudan and the refrain from inflammatory public rhetoric against each other when disagreements arise has definitely contributed to most smooth relationship they achieved than ever in their history. Ethiopia has reaped the benefits of its bold foreign policy initiative by managing to surround itself with allies instead of enemies. That is a policy to keep, except maybe with its northern neighbor run by suicidal sociopath. But that is a topic for another day.

The economic and security interdependence Ethiopia and Sudan built in the past two decades has so far shown to be a far sighted investment for both and The GERD has a potential to take this mutual interdependence to a higher level and come to be an irreversible point for a lasting partnership between these two neighbors.


Fetsum Berhane is an Ethiopian resident, economist researcher and a blogger on HornAffairs.

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