Home | Comment & Analysis    Thursday 3 April 2014

Binding Ethio-Sudanese relations


By Nurye Yassin

April 2, 2014 - The changing world of the 21st century requires nation-states to transform the systems under which they have traditionally conducted their diplomatic activities. The contemporary media-saturated system of international politics needs wider public involvement in regional and global affairs to advance the desired goals of shared interests. Superseding traditional diplomacy, with ambassadors and politicians negotiating in dark corners, a new public approach to diplomacy has come to the fore, placing transparency at the center of affairs in attempts to communicate foreign policy goals and objectives, cultures, histories, traditions and values. The objective is to win the hearts and minds of both publics through discussions of ideas, the results will provide for a continuous development of friendly partnerships. It is in this sense that Ethiopia and Sudan have recently embarked on the process of sharing and communicating all-round ideas and publicizing their ties, in effect positioning two friendly peoples at the epicenter of their diplomacy.

One excellent example of this was the recent tour of an Ethiopian cultural troupe in the Sudan. The group toured a number of places in the Sudan during the second week of March (March 7 to 12) giving musical and cultural performances along with Sudanese counterparts in Medani, capital of Al Gezira State, El Damazine and Roseires as well as Omdurman, before ending their musical and cultural displays in Khartoum. Their much appreciated performances underlined the value and importance of deepening and enhancing already existing people-to-people relations.

The two countries have also been forging further partnerships in new areas including linking their universities, scholars and think tanks to promote scientific cooperation for the sustainable development, peace and stability of the Eastern Nile Basin communities. Addis Ababa University and University of Khartoum held a symposium under the theme “The Eastern Nile Cooperation: Opportunities for Regional Development” earlier last month (March 10 to 12). The symposium addressed five major themes: Water Resources of the Nile; Eastern Nile Geology; Trans-boundary Water Resources Management, Challenges and Opportunities for Cooperation in the Eastern Nile; Gaps in the Scientific Research and Capacity and the Role of Universities in filling these gaps; Bridging the Gaps between Policy and Research for Sustainable Management of Water Resources.

These developments arise from Ethiopia’s change from the myopic foreign policy directions based upon suspicion and misperception that used to prevail under previous regimes into a farsighted approach devoted to seeking long-term mutually beneficial partnership with the Government and People of Sudan focusing on promoting mutual progress, peace and prosperity. It is an approach that stresses, as Kinfe Abraham put it, that “mutual trust is the basis; mutual benefit is the objective; equality is the guarantee; and coordination is the means”. It is a policy that demonstrates that the future of the Sudan and Ethiopia, and other countries in the Horn, are intertwined. It also emphasizes that all should direct their efforts for the improvement of peoples’ lives through the spirit of peaceful interdependence, greater economic integration, joint-partnerships, and indeed a win-win approach to utilize trans-boundary resources.

This public diplomacy, which is characterized by cultural performances, academic and professional conferences, cultural events and other exchange programs, is in effect an extension of the current foreign policy of Ethiopia. In respect to the Sudan, its fundamental aim is to ensure that the challenges and opportunities of the bilateral, regional and global issues of the two countries remain in the public eye. It has the effect of cultivating long-term relationships, and increasing mutual understanding through dialogue as well as encouraging professional networking mechanisms, and promoting the shared interests of the respective populations. The recent cultural performances, which involved both Ethiopian and Sudanese performers, certainly helped communication of the cultures, values, traditions, histories and aspirations of both countries. They will motivate both peoples and encourage a common vision and their common interest in rooting out poverty, hunger, instability, drought, land degradation and other threats.

Similarly, the recent scientific symposium held in Khartoum from the two Universities of Khartoum and Addis Ababa will unquestionably provide the basis for scientific studies and enhance the capacity for policymakers on both countries to push forward efforts for sustainable and inclusive development of the Eastern Nile. The scientific cooperation the symposium will generate will also help the two countries work towards equitable and reasonable use of the waters of the Nile and move towards a win-win approach for sustainable management of trans-boundary water resources maximizing benefits for all. It is a very timely scientific partnership to encourage the region to remove their differences and look at ways to resolve the new security threats facing the region, including climate change, drought, inadequate rainfall, and food insecurity in the Eastern Nile region.

Besides, the two countries share a long border together with similar cultures, languages, history, values, religions, and traditions that have cemented the bilateral relations in various fields including trade, businesses, investment, agri-business, and power supply. In the area of investment, 800 Sudanese investors have gotten investment licenses to work in Ethiopia. The new public diplomacy accompanied by long historical ties and cultural affinities inspires the publics of the two countries to further join their efforts in the fight against poverty, famine and instability as they crushed the heels of colonial powers in Omdurman in 1898 and Adwa in 1896. It also helps them to revitalize and renew the civilizations of Nubia, Merowe and Aksum on the bosom of the Nile Valley. This will pave the way for the realization of African Renaissance or Rebirth.

This common understanding between the Governments of Ethiopia and the Sudan is making possible the creation of an enabling environment to cooperate on working for mutual benefits from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project. Ethiopia and Sudan are following up the implementation of the recommendations of the International Panel of Experts report on the Dam. These included further studies on a water resource system/hydropower model and a trans-boundary environment and socio-economic impact assessment impact study on the GERD in the context of the Eastern Nile System. In the three rounds of the tripartite Water Ministers meetings in Khartoum, the Ethiopian and Sudanese sides agreed on most the proposals raised despite the unnecessary and unreasonable suggestions raised by Egypt. Among these was the creation of yet another Panel of Experts, parallel to that already agreed upon, and some proposed “Principles of Confidence Building, “ neither of which related to the purposes or agenda of the meetings. Indeed these two proposals were unequivocally rejected by Ethiopia, and by the Sudan.

This sort of understanding and the firm stance of both countries would have been unthinkable earlier in the second half of the 20th century. Prior to the independence of the Sudan in the 1960s and indeed afterwards until 1991, the relations of Ethiopia and the Sudan were marked by regional and international rivalry that paved the way for the various regimes in both countries to play lethal ‘tit-for-tat’ games as client states for their regional and international patrons. The ill-suited policies of these previous regimes in both countries, according to Professor Peter Woodward, allowed at various times passage for the ideologies and interests of a radical Nasserite Pan-Arabism (with Sudan signing a unilateral Nile waters agreement with Egypt in defiance of its own national interests and providing a limited water share for its own growing population). At other times it was a Pax Americana which allowed the projection of influence and its interests into the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, or a Pax Sovietica, creating a constellation of socialist states in the Horn and southern edge of the Middle East). Even the ideas of radical Ba’athist countries of the Middle East including Syria and Iraq were able to infiltrate the Horn of Africa. All operated at the expense of the peoples of Sudan and Ethiopia, and indeed of the peoples of the region. .

Both sides firmly relied on increased militarism and violence to accomplish the tasks given to them by their patrons. The regimes in Sudan supported any insurgents who claimed they wanted to throw Ethiopia’s peace and stability into disarray. Following Ethiopia’s failure to provide religious equality for Ethiopian Muslims, Sudan’s rulers made efforts to encourage religious fundamentalism in Ethiopia. Leaders in Ethiopia failed to realize that religious inequality precipitated sympathy from Sudan’s radical Islamism.

This encouraged Ethiopia’s foreign policymakers to return to the old and deep-rooted anxieties of the ‘siege mentality’. Aklilu Habte-Wold, Prime Minister in the 1960s and early 1970s even repeated the old medieval mantra: “Ethiopia is a Christian island in a Muslim sea.’’ This sort of long outdated foreign policy direction prevented Ethiopia from rethinking its problems with Sudan, and led it into persisting in supporting the Anya Nya movements and SPLA insurgents in southern part of Sudan. Sudan reciprocated, extending its support to Ethiopian rebel groups. Unhappily, the destructive tit-for-tat game resulted in harrowing famines, droughts and deaths for the peoples of Ethiopia’s Wollo and Tigre provinces, and of Sudan’s Darfur and South Kordofan regions, and indeed more widely throughout the region in the 1970s and 1980s.

Today, all this is gone with the changes of regimes. Today is the time for both peoples of the two nations to fully own their own destinies and secure their own future in the spirit of shared visions for inclusive and sustainable development through the use of Nile waters. The peoples of the Sudan and Ethiopia can see the Nile today as a shared river through which all the peoples of the Nile Basin can ignite the fire of African Renaissance to build the modernization, development and transformation of the Nile Valley on the principles of comparative advantage.

This is not the time for any centralized, small or exclusive elites in our region to try to decide the fate of the people. Ethiopia’s policies of public diplomacy are beginning to build a new tomorrow, improving personal and institutional ties to harness opportunities for the shared prosperity, peace and tranquility of the peoples of Sudan and Ethiopia. They are also righting the wrongs of yesterday through the genuine discussion, dialogue and scientific partnerships being built between the peoples of Ethiopia and Sudan. The way forward is very clear.

The writer is an independent researcher on African and Middle Eastern Affairs.

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