Is the Horn of Africa being pushed to take sides by rivalries in Gulf states?

Saturday January 20 2018

Ethiopia’s controversial Grand Renaissance dam on the Blue Nile. The hydroelectric dam is at the centre of differences between nations that share the River Nile’s water. PHOTO | FILE


All is not well in the Horn. Tension is mounting, with the rekindling of old hostilities between Sudan and Egypt, Egypt and Ethiopia, and Ethiopia versus Eritrea over the Nile and other geopolitical issues.

All the four countries maintain that they would not go to war over the Ethiopian Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), that has seen Sudan side with Ethiopia, while Egypt is luring Eritrea and other countries in the region to help it stop the construction of the $4.8 billion dam.

Sudan, despite amassing forces on its border with Eritrea in response to alleged threat by Egypt, still maintains that it is only trying to crack down on rebel groups on the east of the country and has no plans to go to war with any country in the region.

Sudan and Egypt have four outstanding issues; Sudan’s support of the Ethiopian dam, the dispute over Halayeb Triangle, Turkey’s plans to build a naval dock at the Red Sea coast of Suakin and Sudan’s ban on the importation of Egyptian agricultural products. Khartoum also accuses Egypt of backing rebels in Sudan.

Related stories


Cairo is also not happy that Sudan has revived the issue of the disputed Halayeb Triangle, which Egypt has been occupying since 1995 when militants allied to Khartoum tried to assassinate former president Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa. 

Cairo also accuses Khartoum of hosting members of the Muslim Brotherhood following their expulsion from Egypt in 2013.

Nimat Gad Allah, the Press Attaché at the Sudan Embassy in Nairobi, told The EastAfrican that the relations between Sudan and Egypt are historically deeply rooted, although there is a dispute about the continued occupation of the Halayeb Triangle by Egypt and issue of the Ethiopian dam.

“There will be no war between these two Arab, Muslim sisterly countries and the leadership in the two countries are seeking peaceful solution to their disputes,” said Ms Gad Allah.

She insisted that the issues will be solved amicably and that Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has instructed the media not to be critical of Sudan as the two countries try to solve the issue bilaterally.

READ: Egypt wants outside experts to help settle Nile dispute with Ethiopia, Sudan

The latest tension between the two was sparked during Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Sudan in December that saw Khartoum lease out the Red Sea city of Suakin to Ankara.

Egypt, which has had sour relations with Turkey, criticised Sudan and claimed the move was a threat to its national security and that of the Red Sea region. Turkey plans to build a naval dock in Suakin and rebuild the ruined Ottoman port city on Sudan’s Red Sea coast.

Gulf states’ rivalries

The International Crisis Group (ICG) sees the tension in the light of the emergence of a number of Middle Eastern states that now have significant interests in both the Horn of Africa and increasingly the Sahel.

According to the ICG, the Gulf states’ rivalries, which at present place Saudi Arabia and the UAE on one side, and Qatar and indirectly Turkey on the other, have begun to spill over into those regions and are complicating regional relations and conflict management.

“The Saudi-led war in Yemen has provided particular incentive for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi — which have signed military co-operation agreements with Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Somaliland and Sudan — to strengthen their relations on the Red Sea,” it states.

Sudan has closed its border with Eritrea and deployed more forces on the eastern part of the country, after reports that Egypt had deployed forces in Eritrea’s Sawa base, an area bordering the province of Kassala, Sudan. Khartoum recalled its ambassador to Cairo following the reports.

READ: Sudan deploys troops to Eritrea border

Ms Gad Allah insists that when Foreign minister Ibrahim Ghandour spoke about the deployment of the troops on the border, it was about the general threats from rebels in the area but did not mention any country.

“Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki is a good neighbour having lived and studied in Sudan,” said Ms Gad Allah.

Presidents Afewerki and Sisi have both clarified that they are not preparing for war with Sudan and Ethiopia — that still holds the Eritrean border town of Badme against the ruling by an international tribunal.

On the other hand, Ethiopia that is still technically at war with Eritrea, is concerned that Egypt is planning to attack it through the northern neighbour and that Cairo has been financing land protests in the Oromo region since 2015 and funding opposition in Amhara regions.

READ: Egypt, Ethiopia ease tensions over Nile dam

— Additional Reporting by Mohammed Amin