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Sudan calls for expansive mediation for Nile dam talks

Sudan’s call for diplomatic intervention is likely to be rejected by Ethiopia.
Sudan's Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Yasser Abbas (C) participates in a videoconference with his Egyptian and Ethiopian counterparts (unseen) in the Sudanese capital Khartoum on November 1, 2020. - Khartoum said it is to organise a week of negotiations on Ethiopia's controversial dam on the Nile that has riled downstream neighbours Egypt and Sudan, following a three-way videoconference. (Photo by Ebrahim HAMID / AFP) (Photo by EBRAHIM HAMID/AFP via Getty Images)

CAIRO — Sudan has recently called for broadening the negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) to include the United States, the European Union and the United Nations, alongside the African Union (AU) that is currently sponsoring the negotiations process.

In an interview with Reuters Feb. 6, Sudanese Irrigation and Water Resources Minister Yasser Abbas called on these actors to take up the role of mediators, instead of observers.

Yet Egyptian and international observers and analysts who spoke to Al-Monitor believe that this call may not stir up stagnant waters, amid Ethiopia’s rejection to engage international mediators from outside the AU in the negotiation process.

The tripartite negotiations on the GERD continue to be stalled, with the last round held Jan. 10 failing to achieve any progress.  

Hani Raslan, head of the Sudan and Nile Basin Countries Unit at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor, “The Sudanese suggestion regarding a new international mediation aims to overcome the hurdles that have been dragging on for months in the AU-brokered negotiations. Ethiopia, however, opposes all these proposals, which maintains the current stumbling block and prevents any progress.”

According to Raslan, Ethiopia invokes Article 10 of the 2015 Declaration of Principles on the GERD signed by Addis Ababa, Cairo and Khartoum, to justify its rejection of any mediation.

Article 10, titled “The principle of the peaceful settlement of disputes,” states, “The three countries commit to settle any dispute resulting from the interpretation or application of the declaration of principles through talks or negotiations based on the goodwill principle. If the parties involved do not succeed in solving the dispute through talks or negotiations, they can ask for mediation or refer the matter to their heads of states or prime ministers.”

On Feb. 2, Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Dina Mufti expressed his country’s commitment to resume the AU-brokered tripartite negotiations.

Meanwhile, during a Feb. 7 meeting with Pekka Haavisto, special European envoy and Finnish foreign minister, in Khartoum, Abbas raised the idea of involving the UN as a mediator in the tripartite negotiations. He explained the risks of a unilateral Ethiopian decision to initiate the second filling of the dam's reservoir in July 2021.

Haavisto said at the meeting that he will meet the Ethiopian leadership in Addis Ababa for this purpose, as part of his efforts to defuse the Sudanese-Ethiopian border tension

Tarek Fahmy, a professor of political sciences at the American University of Cairo, told Al-Monitor over the phone, “The Sudanese call for a new mediation came at a critical timing. Yet we fear a vicious circle this time as well, particularly since the US mediation failed last year and the AU role continues to be impeded.”

The US mediation failed last year after Ethiopia accused the United States of favoring Egypt.

Fahmy said, “The new Sudanese suggestion is linked to the change in the leadership of the AU, as the Democratic Republic of Congo replaces South Africa. In general, we are not that reliant on any AU role. Today, the AU is required to release an official statement declaring failure of negotiations and hold the party behind such failure fully responsible.”  

He noted, “Egypt will resort to the UN Security Council as soon as the AU announces that the three parties failed to reach a deal. This cannot be done unless the regional organization that we are a member of — namely the AU — ends its brokerage.”

Fahmy added, “Egypt and Sudan have demanded that Ethiopia does not initiate the second filling of the GERD reservoir [in July] and to wait for a binding agreement for all parties.”

Riccardo Fabiani, project director on North Africa at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor, “Sudan hopes that the international actors’ mediation will help the parties reach a middle solution. None of these foreign mediators, however, has managed so far to offer a suitable technical solution to the ongoing political dispute between Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa.”

He noted, “This approach is a reflection of the difficult position Sudan is placed in as a country that has always used a share that is smaller than its theoretical share of the Nile water. In addition, Sudan is going through a complex political transition.”

Commenting on Ethiopia's refusal of any international mediation, he added, “Ethiopia’s consent is possible, but that is not the problem. What would this mediator do that has not been done already? What would distinguish this mediation? The problem does not reside in identifying a mediator, but rather in forcing the three parties to make the necessary concessions in order for them to reach a middle solution.”

Rakha Hassan, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, concurred. He told Al-Monitor, “The United States had previously served as mediator in the negotiations, and several meetings were held in Washington. Yet they did not achieve any progress. Also, we resorted to the UN Security Council, which supported the AU role. There was nothing new during this entire year that has passed since South Africa presided over the AU. Resolving this crisis requires a political decision that is in Ethiopia’s hands in the first place.”

He said, “Ethiopia’s internal crises are the reason why it is refusing to make any concessions in the GERD negotiations. We are waiting to see what would be the Joe Biden administration’s position regarding the crisis.”  

In a Feb. 9 intervention over the phone with Sada El-Balad, the spokesman for the US State Department, Christiaan James, said that the United States will renew diplomatic efforts to resolve the GERD crisis. “We are totally aware that the thorny GERD issue is important to all of the Nile Basin countries … and is taking this dossier seriously,” he said.  

Hassan concluded, “Egypt will continue to hold on to the principle of negotiations and its right to the Nile waters, which is a life or death matter that cannot be overlooked.

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