Burhan seeks to nudge Ethiopia away from the brink

Sudanese political sources told The Arab Weekly that Burhan is trying to reformulate his country’s role in this crisis and launch a new phase in which Sudan becomes a party looking after its interests only.

Monday 02/11/2020
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) mees with President of the Sudanese Sovereign Council General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, October  27.  (AFP)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) mees with President of the Sudanese Sovereign Council General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, October 27. (AFP)

KHARTOUM – The head of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, travelled to Addis Ababa on Sunday, with the hope of finding a solution to the Renaissance Dam crisis. The Ethiopian government had chosen to escalate the crisis with Egypt and now finds itself on the brink of the abyss, after ignoring the statements of US President Donald Trump in which he sounded irked by Ethiopian actions and more inclined towards Egypt’s vision of the crisis.

Burhan discussed with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed the developments in the Renaissance Dam file, while negotiations at the ministerial level between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, and mediated by the African Union, resumed on Sunday in an attempt that may represent a last chance to reach a binding legal agreement for all parties regarding the filling, operation and risks of the dam.

Sudanese political sources told The Arab Weekly that Burhan is trying to reformulate his country’s role in this crisis and launch a new phase in which Sudan becomes a party looking after its interests only. This will urge Addis Ababa to make concessions in the ongoing talks, in response to US advice and hidden threats that it will have to understand Egypt’s use of its military machine in the crisis if the latter chose to do so.

Observers have made a link between Burhan’s current visit to Addis Ababa and his previous visit to Cairo, as the current visit came less than a week later, indicating the existence of Egyptian messages that the head of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council carried to the Ethiopian leadership, including a mixture of reassuring and warning signals regarding future dealing with the crisis.

Ethiopia scored a remarkable achievement with its success in completing the first phase of filling the dam last July, and thus reinforced its intention to act unilaterally. That step, however, had negative repercussions on the level of Egypt and Sudan, and the level of countries that supported the negotiations and advised a compromise settlement.

The Ethiopian government invested in the Renaissance Dam as a national project that would give it (the government) a measure of popularity and relieve some of the pressure of its internal crises, but the success it achieved so far by the first filling phase of the dam did not reduce the intensity of local tensions, and now, the government finds itself caught between the jaws of a double pressure, at home and from abroad.

Sudan’s Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Yasser Abbas (C) participates in a videoconference with his Egyptian and Ethiopian counterparts in Khartoum on November 1. (AFP)
Sudan’s Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Yasser Abbas (C) participates in a videoconference with his Egyptian and Ethiopian counterparts in Khartoum on November 1. (AFP)

This atmosphere provides an opportunity for Burhan to try and ease Abiy Ahmed down from the top of the tree where he perched himself, because the latter’s remaining caught there will have ambiguous consequences, in light of local, regional and international positions that have reservations about Addis Ababa’s vision of the crisis, especially now that Khartoum is no longer inclined to support it and has taken decisive stances that draw it closer to Cairo’s camp.

Sudan went through three stages in dealing with the Renaissance Dam project. At first it supported it as a useful economic and development project, but then, the transitional government in Khartoum pledged to play the role of mediator in the crisis between Ethiopia and Egypt, and now it has espoused both its first position and its mediation mission.

The military component of Sudan’s power structure, led by Burhan, intends to exercise its role in making decisions about the vital files facing the country. General Burhan has initially opposed normalising relations with Israel, played an important role in reaching a peace agreement in Juba and in containing the armed groups, and is now close to taking hold of the rudder in the Renaissance Dam file.

Burhan’s approach to the Renaissance Dam is in the interest of Egypt, as he and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seem to understand each other by virtue of the fact that they both belong to the military establishment, and Burhan’s role seem to be detached from the political manoeuvres that are hindering the work of the Sudanese government and made it bow at times to the calculations of forces that see the relationship with Ethiopia more useful than the one with Egypt.

Both Burhan and Sisi are seeking to employ the recognition by the United States and the African Union of the need to reach a clear legal agreement in the Renaissance Dam file that will ensure the preservation of each party’s water rights, in order to push Ethiopia towards complete the agreement.

Analysts say that the increased cooperation between Cairo and Khartoum puts Ethiopia in a narrow square and makes it look out of sync with the current week-long round of crucial talks. They point out that Burhan will make efficient use of this to soften Abiy Ahmed’s position.

The head of the Sudanese negotiating delegation in the file of the Renaissance Dam, Saleh Hamad, expressed his refusal, during the negotiations that were resumed last Tuesday, to continuing the talks with the same old approach, which had led to a dead end in the past rounds.

Sudan has made proposals to give a greater role to experts and observers in the negotiation process in order to try to bridge the gap between the three countries, and not to leave any margin for manoeuvres that would reproduce previous failures, and Addis Ababa needs to understand this.

Rashid Mohamed Ibrahim, a professor of political science at the Centre for International Studies in Khartoum, said that Burhan is benefiting from the external momentum generated by the removal of Sudan from the US list of countries sponsoring terrorism and its acceptance to normalise relations with Israel to present himself as an influential party in one of the biggest crises threatening security and peace in region.

Ibrahim added, in a statement to The Arab Weekly, that the method followed by the chairman of the sovereignty council enables him to expand Sudan’s actions in all directions on the basis of its national interests, away from the game of balances of power that had curbed its movements previously and made it captive of ideological assessments.

Sudan began to present practical visions in dealing with several issues that serve its strategic project to provide stability at home, and it needs to provide water security in the Nile Basin region in a way that enables it to properly manage its agricultural resources.

Burhan seems to have realised the dangers associated with taking neutral stances and their potential damage to country’s interests. This is why he is more inclined now to be more daring in breaking the traditional taboos, which will positively impact Sudan’s ability to have better control over its border disputes later on.

Khartoum is trying to stabilise the security situation on the border with Ethiopia, as Burhan’s visit touched upon the turbulent situation in the Al-Fashaqa area, and discussed the issue of delimiting the borders and the need to put an end to the incursion of Ethiopian militias into Sudanese territory.

Burhan is also seeking to emphasise that he is capable of dealing with volatile situations and deciding on vital issues, and that violations must be faced with political pressure, not with military operations.