The latest round of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) talks wrapped up on the evening of 10 January after reaching another stalemate. But one thing that did become apparent was the changing dynamics between Sudan and Ethiopia.
Both Egypt and Ethiopia announced that the GERD talks held with Sudan, which began on Sunday 3 January, reached an impasse.
In this round, Sudan – often seen as more receptive to Ethiopia’s demands – was squarely blamed for this latest blockage, in a statement made by the Egyptian foreign ministry.
Despite Khartoum’s previous insistence that meetings take place with African Union (AU) experts, this time around it objected to the terms of reference and refused to include the experts in the meetings.
With 85% of the Nile originating from Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt have continuously stated their worries about future flows and access to its waters. Once completed, the dam will hold about 74bn cubic metres of water.
Given that 90% of Egypt’s water comes from the Nile, it is particularly worried about access to the river. Although Sudan stands to benefit from access to cheap electricity, it is worried about the impact of GERD on its own dams, specifically its Roseires dam.
Sudan voiced its objection to a recent letter sent to the AU on 8 January from Ethiopia announcing its intentions to continue filling the GERD reservoir when the rainy season begins in July this year, whether an agreement is reached or not.
In this latest round of online talks among the foreign and irrigation ministries of all three states, Egypt added that Ethiopia did not reach an agreement or even a partial one, as reported in the Egyptian paper Mada Masr.
Or as the Egyptian foreign affairs ministry put it, the talks did not take place “because of differences over how to resume the talks and procedural aspects related to the negotiating process”.
Sudan’s changing role
One notable element that has changed since the last round of talks in December has been Sudan’s insistence on assigning AU experts to present solutions.
Back in November 2020, Khartoum had boycotted talks organised by South Africa – currently chairing the AU – arguing that direct negotiations among the three was proving futile.
But what has really changed the balance between Ethiopia and Sudan has been Addis Ababa’s foray into Tigray in November and the ensuing conflict that saw a border dispute with Khartoum come back to life after several Sudanese soldiers were allegedly “ambushed” by Ethiopian forces.
In late December, Khartoum claimed it had taken control of its territory in the al-Fashqa area settled by Ethiopian farmers. But on 12 January, Addis Ababa warned its neighbour that it was running out of patience.
“The Sudanese side seems to be pushing in so as to inflame the situation on the ground,” said Dina Mufti, an Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesperson.
The dispute could very well offer Sudan “potential leverage in the GERD negotiations,” says Jason Mosley, an associate senior researcher with SIPRI’s Conflict, Peace and Security programme, who specialises on the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea region.
But, it could also inflame “tensions within the [Sudanese] transitional government,” he tells The Africa Report.
New US administration
Under US President Donald Trump, the GERD talks did not evolve much but rather showed Egypt that it has a strong supporter.
The last remark from Trump on the dam was a warning that: “They [Egypt] will end up blowing up the dam.”
Such inflammatory remarks did not help the situation, but they likely kept Egypt content knowing someone else was fighting its battle against Ethiopia.
Given that Cairo is a key US ally, it’s unlikely the administration under Joe Biden will offer less support; but it will maintain a more diplomatic approach to the others.
With Sudan also forging ahead into normalising its relations with Israel to keep itself off the US black list of state-sponsored terrorism, Washington will be more keen to continue to support Khartoum and Cairo over Addis Ababa.
“US leverage with Ethiopia is limited, and Trump has burned much US credibility as an honest facilitator/broker with Ethiopia,” says Mosley. “So, on GERD at least, the US position will probably have to be softly, softly.”
Abiy can’t risk dropping the ball on GERD
Although the worst of the fighting in Tigray appears to be over, the lasting impact of the country at war will hurt Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s once conciliatory image.
General elections were meant to be held in 2020 but were postponed until June of this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. That in turn set off a chain reaction of events culminating in the Tigray war.
Even before the Tigray conflict, the mayhem that erupted across Oromia – once the reliable base for Abiy – in the aftermath of the killing of the Oromo musician Hachalu Hundessa, meant he lost support from his home region.
Therefore, the polls will be a major test for Abiy. Gaining ground on GERD is one way he may be able to keep supporters. “The Amhara region borders the [disputed] area of Sudan, and managing Amhara nationalist sentiment is an important political variable for Abiy and the Prosperity Party going into the elections,” says Mosley.
But noting that Ethiopia has become highly unstable in the aftermath of the Tigray fighting, both Sudan and Egypt know Addis Ababa is not in as strong of a negotiating position as before, notes Rashid Abdi, a Horn of Africa analyst.
“The road ahead is going to be even more fraught,” he adds.
GERD has been touted from the very beginning as a way for Ethiopia to pick up the pace of its development. The dam would be the largest hydroelectric plant in Africa, guaranteeing a steady supply of electricity for Ethiopia and for export.
Although talks have once again reached an impasse, fears of an Egyptian military incursion into Ethiopia to halt the planned reservoir filling in July is unlikely. And while Sudan has become more hostile to its neighbour, it can’t afford to take too many risks itself for fear of disrupting its fragile transitional government.
So unless the US finds a way to exert more pressure on Ethiopia, Abiy is unlikely to make any concessions, especially when it comes to demands for a binding agreement.