Despite the many visits President Omar Al-Bashir paid to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa over the years, but the one conducted last week was uncharacteristic by many accounts. Simply put both Khartoum and Addis Ababa are seen as closing their ranks against what observers see as a clear message addressed up north, to Egypt.
The two leaders Al-Bashir and his host the Ethiopian Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalegn did not mince their words. “We stress that Ethiopia’s security is an integral part of Sudanese national security and therefore we will work to develop this relationship and take it to the level desired by every Sudanese and Ethiopian,” Al-Bashir said.
For his part, his Ethiopian counterpart announced the beginning of a new phase of integration between the two countries, saying “we agree in all fields, and we will work to achieve stability and resolve conflicts in the region”.
More important, he added “we work together through a shared vision especially in security, military and economic cooperation," pointing that “any threat to Sudan is a threat to Ethiopia’s national security”.
The two have something in common to worry about: the controversial issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) being built on the Blue Nile, in which Sudan sees more benefits from it in terms of getting some cheap electricity that surpass its drawbacks, while Egypt, which is more dependent on Nile waters looks at the grand project with a suspicious eye as it touches on the nerve of the delicate water issue, termed a national security worry since Egypt does not have other water sources in terms of rain or ground water aside from the Nile.
Sudan has other bilateral issues of concern with Egypt. On the top of the list is its disputed Halaeb and Shalatin that includes other minor issues like the refusal of Cairo to implement the four freedoms agreement signed between the two countries and allows for freedom of movement of people, capital, ownership and work. Cairo has been sounding some security concerns that prevents it from going ahead with applying what has been agreed upon.
However, Halaeb and Shalatin remain the most contentious issue since Egypt adopted the approach of creating facts on grounds to seal the Egyptianization of the Halaeb and Shalatin, refusing at the same time bilateral negotiations or international arbitration to settle the issue in an amicable way.
Will the recent Sudanese-Ethiopian announcement pose a strategic shift that may lead to realignment of alliances in the region? Taking the reaction from Egyptian media and analysts who are following Sudanese affairs the verdict seems to be out there already. And it concluded that Sudan is behaving deliberately to hurt Egypt interest in the sensitive water issue.
However, the two countries need to recognize that there is a problem that needs to be addressed and the way to do that is not through creating facts on ground.
But even of the Halaeb-Shalatin dispute is to be resolved somehow, the issue of GERD and the Nile waters will continue to cloud the relationship between Egypt and Ethiopia and Sudan to some extent.
That dates back to the famous 1959 Nile Waters agreement signed between Egypt and Sudan where both countries established their right to certain volume without consulting Ethiopia, where the water originates in the first place.
After more than half a century of that Nile water agreement things have really changed as more water flows through the Nile. Ethiopia is no longer the poor country that could easily be taken for a ride. With population equal, if not more than those inhabiting Egypt it is becoming a regional power hosting the African Union and the UN Economic Commission for Africa, in addition to undeniable military and diplomatic weight in both regional and international arenas.
More important and given the funding availability, Ethiopia does not need to go world institutions to look for finance and as such does not have to get the no-objection from Egypt or any other country. In fact the $6.4 billion GERD project is being treated as a national project, fully financed by government bonds, where ordinary citizens are vigorously participating.
That leaves all parties with one realistic option: to go to the negotiation table, work through cooperation, not confrontation. Already a World Bank Nile Basin Initiative is there. What is needed to revitalize it and work within it for the benefit of all.
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