A briefing paper of the Small Arms Survey conducted by the seasoned scholar of the Horn, John Young, entitled “Conflict and Cooperation: Transitions in Modern Ethiopian–Sudanese Relations,” published in May 2020, projected that the multifaceted and established relations between Ethiopia and Sudan that have registered tremendous development in the past couple of decades, are about to cease and the relation between the two is entering into uncharted territory. Such twist according to him, will affect the entire region.
The projections read: “The roughly 20 years of cooperative and stable relations between Ethiopia and Sudan have come to an end, and both countries are entering unpredictable territory that will also have a marked impact on the wider region.”
Throughout much of the cold war period, the relations between Khartoum and Addis Ababa were marred by the support they provided to each other’s armed opposition groups. Reflecting both foreign and local interests, Khartoum and Addis Ababa supported each other’s dissidents, which proved to be instrumental later on in the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia and South Sudan from Sudan.
The Ethiopian led regional assault on Sudan in the wake of the 1995 attempted assassination of Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, in Addis Ababa also marked a U-turn in the relation between the two. This led the Al-Bashir regime to conclude that Ethiopia, and not Egypt, was the primary threat to its existence, and this necessitated reconciliation. Following the NIF’s role in an attempt to assassinate Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in June 1995, an alliance was formed between neighboring states and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) against the NIF.
A briefing paper by Harry Verhoeven entitled “Black Gold for Blue Gold? Sudan Oil, Ethiopia’s Water and Regional Integration” indicates the diplomatic relation between the two particularly, and the countries in the region generally, was characterized by animosities and entrapment of one another. However, this feature of the relation somewhat changed after the end of the cold war. Specifically, the coming to power of the National Islamic Front (NIF) in Sudan and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in Ethiopia played a significant role in redefining the diplomatic relation between the two countries into cooperation, which has previously lacked political commitment and was full of doubts and uncertainties.
The roles of the toppled President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and his Ethiopian counterpart, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, during a notable period included, good relations between the two countries of very different ideological orientations in a region characterized by considerable instability. Positive relations continued after Meles’ death in 2012, but with the 2018 rise of PM Abiy Ahmed (PhD) to power in Ethiopia and the coming to power of a joint military civilian government in Sudan in August 2019, the ties between these countries have gone sour.
Recently, the tension between Ethiopia and Sudan escalated particularly when the Sudanese government recalled its ambassador in Addis Ababa, following the Ethiopian government’s rejection of Sudan’s request to mediate the ongoing war between the Ethiopian federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
In a press briefing held on Thursday, August 5, 2021, the Office of the Prime Minister (PMO) dismissed the talks that Sudan could be a negotiating partner to end the war in the northern part of the country. Responding to a question from The Reporter, the head of foreign languages and digital media at the PMO, Billene Seyoum said that the relationship between Ethiopia and Sudan is “tricky” to trust the later for such negotiations.
“I think the relationship with Sudan at this point is a little bit tricky because the level of trust with some leaders has already been eroded particularly with the Sudanese army’s incursion into Ethiopian territory. And trust is the basis of any negotiation and mediation as well. So, that element needs to be thoroughly addressed before Sudan could be entertained as a credible party to facilitating such kinds of negotiations,” Billene said.
It was recently reported that the Sudanese Prime Minister, Abdullah Hamdock (PhD), is launching an initiative to facilitate peace talks among the warring parties in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray province. In its ninth month, the war in Tigray is spreading to neighboring Amhara and Afar provinces displacing hundreds of thousands of residents.
In a move that seems to be a tit-for-tat, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sudan over the last weekend issued a statement and said it had “followed statements made by senior Ethiopian officials refusing Sudan’s help to end the bloody conflict in Tigray, citing a lack of neutrality and (Sudan’s) occupation of Ethiopian territories,” the statement reads. Furthermore, the statement also dismissed the allegations as made “with no basis,” adding “Sudan has recalled its ambassador to Ethiopia for consultations.”
Hamdock, chair of the regional body IGAD, wanted “to encourage all Ethiopian sides to reach a ceasefire agreement, and engage in comprehensive political talks”, the ministry said in a statement.
Apart from the current border confrontation, the staggered relation of the two suffered from the squabble over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the center of a regional dispute ever since the project was launched in 2011.
Literature that discussed the history of the diplomatic relation between the two indicate that despite its peculiar dynamism, since ancient times, the relations have been shaped by the two countries’ location on the Nile and their respective relations with Egypt. Ethiopia contributes the lion’s share of the Nile water, while Egypt is the region’s largest consumer of that water although it does not contribute to it.
The two countries have long struggled for dominance over the Nile’s water, although mostly these have often been symbolic struggles. Until recently, Ethiopia did not have the capacity to restrict Egypt’s access to the Nile water. Historically, Sudan’s closest relationship has been with Egypt. Egypt ruled Sudan and they share the Arabic language in common.
Sudan also shares the Blue Nile with Ethiopia but the trade, linguistic and religious linkages are not as strong. Moreover, unlike the similar geography and climate of Sudan and Egypt, the marked differences between the hot lowland plains of Sudan and the rugged highlands of Ethiopia have led to the development of dissimilar cultures and economies in these countries.
Endale Nigussie, a lecturer at the Civil Service University, School of Diplomacy and International Relations told to the Ethiopian Press Agency (EPA) that in the first place, Ethiopia is not seeking a third party mediation for the Tigray war. “It is able to resolve its internal issue on its own. Sudan is not fit enough to mediate Ethiopia and its government is fragile,” Endale highlighted.
Since the relation between the two is already damaged and there is a military confrontation between them over the disputed border, the country lacks the integrity to be considered a genuine mediator. To escape such counter arguments, the Sudanese foreign minister stated that Hamdock is trying to mediate in his IGAD chairmanship role.
As it was projected, the coming to power of Abiy in 2018 and Bashir’s overthrow in April 2019, have made relations increasingly unpredictable with external actors, including the Gulf States, Egypt, China, and the United States continuing to influence relations between the two countries.
Under the Transitional Government in Sudan, there has been an effort to redefine national interests in the Nile and Red Sea, where the elites have historically seen themselves as caught between the competing interests of Egypt and Ethiopia, and more recently the Gulf States, which is another defining factor in the relation between the two.