African Union leads diplomatic shuttle mission over Ethiopia dam

Democratic Republic of Congo President Felix Tshisekedi visited both capitals

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The leaders of Egypt and the Democratic Republic of Congo met in Cairo on Saturday, the latest round of intensifying diplomatic activity to resolve a deepening dispute over a Nile dam being built by Addis Ababa that both downstream Egypt and Sudan see as a threat to their national interests.

Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi, also current chairman of the African Union (AU), met his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fatah El Sisi soon after landing in the Egyptian capital from Khartoum where he held talks with Sudan’s transitional leaders on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD.

There were no details immediately available on the substance of the talks between the two leaders, but unconfirmed media reports said the Congolese president was sounding out the leaders of Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia on a proposal to resolve the GERD dispute.

Egypt and Sudan have accused Ethiopia of intransigence in a decade of negotiations that failed to produce a legally-binding agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD and mechanisms to resolve persistent drought and future disputes. They have both said that AU sponsorship of the negotiations when South Africa held the organisation’s one-year chair failed to make any progress.

In the last round of talks, held in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa, Egypt and Sudan proposed that the United States, European Union and United Nations be invited to mediate in the conflict under AU stewardship. Ethiopia rejected the proposal, saying the issue was an African one that should be resolved by Africans. The DRC took over the AU chairmanship from South Arica in February this year.

Egypt is deeply alarmed that the GERD will reduce its share of the Nile’s water, on which it depends for almost all its fresh water needs. It has said it would not stand idly by if it’s denied one drop of water and warned that military action could not be ruled out. Sudan, for its part, is similarly worried about its share of the water and says an agreement was needed to guard against destructive flooding.

Ethiopia, which has mostly dealt with the dispute as a matter of national sovereignty, insists that guidelines should suffice and said a second and a much larger filling of the GERD will go ahead in July over the strong opposition of Cairo and Khartoum that an agreement must first be reached.

The Congolese president’s visit to Cairo coincided with a regional tour by Jeffry Feltman, the US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, who was in Khartoum on Saturday for talks with the Sudanese leaders on the GERD and Sudan’s border dispute with Ethiopia.

Mr Feltman flew to Khartoum from Cairo, where he had talks with Mr El Sisi.

The stepped-up diplomatic activity is taking place as tension grows between Sudan and Ethiopia over their border dispute, which has led to deadly clashes between their security forces since late last year when Sudan moved to retake a border strip long settled by Ethiopian farmers protected by allied militias and federal forces. Their settlement in the Grand Al Fashaqah had long enjoyed Khartoum’s implicit approval.

Ethiopia has repeatedly called on Sudan to pull its troops out of areas in Al Fashaqah that it retook before any negotiations to settle the border dispute could begin. Sudan rejected this, arguing it was acting to restore its control over Sudanese territory. On Thursday, its troops wrested back control of another part of Al Shafaqah, chasing Ethiopian farmers out of a district called Chaybeit, according to the Sudanese military.

Ethiopia has accused Sudan of stoking the border dispute for the benefit of a “third party,” a thinly veiled reference to Egypt, whose military has traditionally enjoyed close ties to the Sudanese armed forces and which has vowed in recent months to rush to Sudan’s help if needed.