Ethiopia's Abiy and Sudan's Al Burhan talk about border and Gerd Dam in Khartoum

Meeting of leaders held amid speculation Addis Ababa may mediate in political crisis

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is greeted by Sudan's military leader Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan in Sudan. Photo: Suna Agency / Twitter
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The leaders of neighbouring Sudan and Ethiopia on Thursday discussed their long-running border dispute and their differences over a large hydroelectric dam Addis Ababa is almost finished building on the Blue Nile, a short distance from the Sudanese border.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was in Khartoum for a one-day visit during which he also met representatives of the Forces of Freedom and Change, a major pro-democracy coalition that signed a preliminary deal with Sudan's ruling generals last month to end its political crisis.

The Ethiopian leader also met representatives from the UN, the African Union and the regional IFAD group which have been mediating between Sudan's stakeholders. He held other meetings with former rebel leaders, who became part of the political landscape when they signed a peace deal with the military in October 2020 and from the Resistance Committees, a hard-line pro-democracy group.

Mr Abiy's visit fuelled speculation that Addis Ababa may be preparing to mediate between Sudanese military rulers and civilian politicians to end the country's long-running political crisis.

But the Ethiopian leader emphasised that Sudanese groups were capable of negotiating a way out of the stalemate without outside help.

In a statement, the FFC said its delegates had briefed Mr Abiy on the talks with the military to reach a political settlement. It said Mr Abiy stated his readiness to support the outcome of the talks and it echoed Mr Abiy in saying the negotiating process must be "completely Sudanese".

The ruling military-led Sovereign Council said Mr Abiy discussed with Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan, Sudan's military ruler, the two nations' border dispute and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or Gerd. Mr Abiy also met Gen Al Burhan's deputy, Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commander of the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.

"Sudan and Ethiopia are in agreement over all issues pertaining to the Renaissance Dam," a statement by the council quoted Gen Al Burhan as saying after his meeting with the Ethiopian Prime Minister. It did not elaborate.

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

The Gerd has for years caused alarm in Sudan and its northern neighbour Egypt, which says a reduction in its share of the Nile water would be catastrophic, wiping out millions of agriculture jobs and consequently disrupting its delicate food balance.

Sudan has a less serious grievance about the dam. It wants Ethiopia to keep it informed on the operation of the dam so it can avoid destructive and deadly flooding and to ensure that work at its own power-generating dams on the Blue Nile is not affected.

Both Egypt and Sudan have insisted that Ethiopia must enter a legally binding deal on the operation of the Gerd. They also want an agreed mechanism for dealing with any future drought but Addis Ababa says recommendations, not a legally binding deal, should suffice.

"The Renaissance Dam will not harm Sudan, but will in fact be beneficiary to it in the field of electricity," the Sovereign Council statement quoted Mr Abiy as saying. He has in the past offered similar assurances.

Relations between Sudan and Ethiopia have been fraught with tension over the long-simmering border dispute that escalated into violent clashes more than a year ago. That conflict is over control of Al Fashaqa, a fertile border strip long farmed by Ethiopian farmers but claimed by Sudan.

Relations further deteriorated following the outbreak in November 2020 of war between Ethiopia's government and separatist rebels in the northern province of Tigray. The fighting drove tens of thousands of people to seek refuge in Sudan, which was accused by Addis Ababa of aiding the Tigray rebels.

"Relations with Ethiopia have always been something of a roller coaster," said Sudanese political analyst Mohammed Hassan Kabushyah of Khartoum's Arabic-language Al Sudani daily. "It has always depended on who is in power in Khartoum and in Addis Ababa."

Sudan's fragile democratic transition following the ousting in 2019 of dictator Omar Al Bashir was derailed when Gen Al Burhan seized power in a coup he led in October 2021, plunging the country into an economic and political crisis.

The generals and the FFC reached a preliminary deal on resolving Sudan's political crisis last month, but they left several key issues unresolved pending further talks, which began this month.

Abiy Ahmed, right, alongside Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan at Khartoum Airport during a welcome ceremony. AFP

The December deal provided for the military to quit politics and for a civilian prime minister to lead the country for 24 months until elections are held.

It was Mr Abiy who led an African Union mediation that produced a military-civilian administration in August 2019, four months after Al Bashir was overthrown. That transitional administration was toppled by Gen Al Burhan in his 2021 coup.

A new mediation bid by Mr Abiy would follow the rejection of an initiative by Egypt last week to bring together all stakeholders to a meeting in Cairo to iron out a settlement of the political crisis.

Egypt, which has traditionally wielded influence in Sudan, has always been uneasy when its neighbour and its regional rival Ethiopia draw closer. This has particularly been the case when the Gerd dispute surfaced a decade ago, with much of Cairo's hopes for a favourable solution hinging on Khartoum's support.

"Abiy's visit and his readiness to mediate seems very much in the vein of the Egyptian-Ethiopian rivalry," said another Sudanese analyst, former head of the Journalists' Union Abdel Monaem Abu Idris.

Updated: January 26, 2023, 2:58 PM