The GERD, Sudan’s transition, and the tripartite dialogue with Egypt

Shifting westward, Abiy has grasped two interlinked strands of Ethiopia’s regional foreign policy, somewhat shifting the country’s position in the process of responding to events. The first relates to the development of the GERD on the Blue Nile River, over which tensions have been sustained for several years between Ethiopia and Egypt—with Sudan’s position shifting between the two.72 The second relates to Ethiopia’s relations with the government in Sudan, which has been undergoing a political transition of its own since 2019. The geography of the Nile Basin, particularly the course of the Blue Nile, means that Abiy’s approach to both issues is unavoidably interlinked. His administration faces similar considerations to previous Ethiopian governments, but Abiy has approached both issues in slightly different ways.

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Ethiopia launched construction of the $5 billion GERD in 2011, when Egypt was in the throes of the Arab Spring. Since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power in a 2013 coup, Egypt has pushed for more influence over the dam-building process. Egypt’s concerns center on any impact of water flow to Egypt, which claims the lion’s share of water rights under colonial era treaties established between 1929 and 1959; the Arab League, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, has been consistent in supporting Egypt’s position on its rights to Nile waters. However, Ethiopia, from which more than 80 percent of Nile waters flow, rejects these colonial era treaties to which it was not party, and for years pursued the development of an alternative framework for regional cooperation under the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) launched in 1999.

The political salience of the GERD in Ethiopia should not be underestimated. It is a potent national symbol and linked strongly to the government’s economic agenda

In 2010, five riparian states within the NBI (Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda) signed a cooperative framework agreement that sought to shift how decisions over utilization of Nile waters were made; the agreement decentered Egypt (which was not a signatory).73 With the start of the GERD’s construction, Ethiopia in effect moved past discussion by creating facts on the ground. In 2015 Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan established a tripartite forum for technical discussions mainly related to the process of filling the dam and to reach agreement on managing water flow in times of drought. However, the forum had largely stalled by the time Abiy took office in 2018, with the al-Sisi administration increasingly critical of what it describes as Ethiopia’s unilateral development of the dam. Abiy sought to restart dialogue and improve relations with Egypt with a visit to Cairo in June 2018.74

The political salience of the GERD in Ethiopia should not be underestimated. It is a potent national symbol and linked strongly to the government’s economic agenda. Public sector employees contribute to the construction costs through salary sacrifice (one month per year) used to purchase bonds in the project, which have also been sold more widely to Ethiopians, including in the diaspora. Delays in the GERD’s construction were a supporting factor in Abiy’s anti-corruption crackdown on METEC, which had a significant role in the project. Domestic political tensions over the project were intensified by the apparent assassination of the GERD’s chief engineer, Simegnew Bekele, who was found shot dead in his car in Addis Ababa in July 2018.75

Ethiopia has consistently rejected significant Egyptian involvement in the construction, maintenance or operation of the dam or its security. Indeed, Abiy signaled in October 2019 Ethiopia’s readiness to defend the dam militarily if necessary.76 However, shortly afterwards, Abiy appeared to shift back to a more conciliatory stance, accepting a US offer in early November to host further tripartite discussions at the ministerial level with the World Bank and US Treasury as observers. US President Donald J. Trump appears to have initiated the discussion at the request of al-Sisi.77 The US Treasury’s involvement may suggest that Abiy was motivated, at least in part, by efforts to secure US support for a new IMF package for Ethiopia (which was agreed in December).78 In January 2020, Abiy informally invited South African president Cyril Ramaphosa to help ‘solve the issue peacefully’ in light of South Africa’s approaching chairmanship of the AU.79 The US–World Bank supported discussions stalled in February 2020, and may break down, after Ethiopia rejected a US-drafted technical proposal for filling of the dam reservoir and operation.80 As such, Abiy’s position has been fairly consistent with past Ethiopian policy on its sovereign right to develop the Blue Nile, while showing more flexibility on entering into negotiations—albeit so far unsuccessfully.

Abiy’s mid-2019 diplomatic intervention in the Sudanese political transition, which contributed to the brokering of a transitional administration, is linked at least in part to Ethiopia’s Nile interests. Ethiopia has a long history of engagement in Sudan and South Sudan, and its military currently provides the bulk of peacekeepers for the UN monitoring mission along the disputed Abyei region of their post-2011 international boundary.81 The security of the Sudans has important implications for Ethiopia’s national security, given their long-shared boundary and the history of displacement (particularly from South Sudan). Abiy’s inclinations and the context created by the protest movement in Khartoum—which between late 2018 and April 2019 had created the conditions in which the security services pushed Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir from power—also offered an opportunity for Abiy to cultivate the emergence of more civilian participation in the transition (after decades of de facto military rule).82 Abiy appears to have been motivated in part by the brutal crackdown on protestors from 3 June 2019 by the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces (RSF) under General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (also known as Hemedti) in which hundreds were killed.83

However, Abiy’s mid-2019 intervention put him at cross purposes with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both of which were prioritizing the emergence of a reliable security partner in Sudan over an outcome which addressed the concerns of the civil society actors at the core of the protest movement.84 Abiy’s initiative also unsettled African multilateral efforts by the African Union (AU) and IGAD to resolve the tensions in the transition.85 Following his personal diplomacy, Abiy delegated to Ambassador Mahmoud Dirir as his envoy in the subsequent mediation process. Later recognizing that a multilateral framing might have benefits, Abiy then called an extraordinary meeting of IGAD, in part to have Mohamoud retasked as an IGAD envoy. However, IGAD members refused to rubber stamp this initiative, with Kenya in particular reportedly rankled.86 For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Abiy’s intervention complicated their efforts to produce a stable outcome with Hemedti as leader. Hemedti had developed a relationship with the Saudi and Emirati leaders through the deployment of the RSF in Yemen. He may have interpreted their backing as a signal to consolidate his position, leading to the June crackdown. Subsequent international and multilateral engagement brought Saudi Arabia and the UAE to support the negotiated outcome and the transitional Sudanese Government led by civil society figure Abdalla Hamdok.87

These contradictory goals illustrate a conundrum for the Saudis and Emiratis in their Horn of Africa strategies. Saudi Arabia and the UAE support al-Sisi in Egypt.88 However, they are also keen to cultivate relations with Ethiopia, which is essential to wider Horn of Africa stability. With Egypt and Ethiopia at loggerheads over the development of the GERD, the Saudis and Emiratis are unable to keep both allies happy. For the moment, this appears to be preventing engagement with Ethiopia on a multilateral initiative for security in the wider Red Sea region. In December 2018 Saudi Arabia launched discussions on the formation of a Council of Arab and African Coastal States of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden (also Red Sea Council) and a charter was signed by the foreign ministers of Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen in January 2020.89 For now, the initiative is framed narrowly on maritime security issues and coastal states; by definition the charter excludes Ethiopia and the UAE—although the UAE welcomed its signing.90

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