Ethiopia is agonising over the political chaos in neighbouring Sudan, even as it faces the crisis in its backyard of Tigray, which will be marking a year this coming week.
As the military in Sudan took over power in a coup on Monday, Ethiopia was among the first responders in the region, expressing concerns and calling on all political parties to “calm and de-escalate and “to exert every effort towards a peaceful end to this crisis.”
A statement from Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry said that Addis Ababa “fully supports the completion of Sudan’s transition to democracy and the respect for the Constitutional Document of the Transitional Period.”
Sources in Addis Ababa told The EastAfrican of two worries for Ethiopia about Sudan’s coup.
First, it will mean the collapse of a transition project mediated by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. In 2019, the PM toured Khartoum and helped midwife the transitional power-sharing arrangement between the military and a civilian group. It brought Dr Abdalla Hamdok to power as prime minister.
The military coup and the dissolving of Hamdok’s Cabinet could then mean starting the process from zero. When the transitional government was first established, PM Abiy was Chairman of the regional bloc, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad).
Igad had been chaired by Sudan since late 2019. The chaos there means the bloc may find itself with one more problem to deal with: Having struggled to pacify South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and address the persistent drought ravaging the bloc.
The statement by the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry however did not express worries of the collapse of Abiy’s Khartoum transitional project, when it said: “It will be recalled that the Ethiopian government has played a significant role in successfully mediating the establishment of a coalition government, consisting of its civilian and military components, and to adopt the constitutional document of the transitional period.”
A source told The EastAfrican of another worry though: There is no certainty on whether Sudan’s military junta will turn up for subsequent meetings over the Nile.
Egypt and Sudan had been at loggerheads with Ethiopia over Addis’ dam project on the Blue Nile. The $5 billion-worth Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD) is said to be Africa’s largest hydropower project with a capacity of 6,000MW of power production. But downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan, are seeking clearer operation and safety features, claiming the dam could cause irregular flooding (in Sudan) and lower water levels for Egypt, affecting both domestic, agricultural and economic use.
The three countries have been meeting under AU mediation but have failed to agree on filling time and dispute resolution. Talks collapsed in May, although all the three countries had indicated they were willing to negotiate.
The new military leadership in Khartoum, officials argue, could be more sympathetic to Egypt, making it difficult for Ethiopian negotiators. Egypt had demanded that external entities like the UN be roped into the talks, which Ethiopia refused.
Another issue that both sides are downplaying for now is the decades-old border tiff near Amhara region of Ethiopia. Which boiled over in the recent months, leading to Sudan deploying troops there. Although South Sudan had offered to mediate, the Addis and Khartoum have not settled on a solution to decide the flow of the boundary.
Ethiopia though stuck with the usual African Union mantra, that of promising “respect of the sovereign aspirations of the people of the Sudan and the non-interference of external actors in the internal affairs of the Sudan.”
Meanwhile, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, now considered a terrorist group in Ethiopia by the ruling party in Addis, was this week warning troops of the Ethiopian National Defence forces to ‘’surrender.’’
The call was made by TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda on Wednesday, as the group pushed into neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions, and signaling that the law enforcement operation in Tigray started by Addis last November 4 will not end soon.
The TPLF claimed several victories on the ground including Kuta-Ber, which is few kilometres away from Dessie, the second largest city in Amhara. They were, however, being bombarded by the Ethiopian Airforce, which also claimed shelling crucial hideouts.
Tigray fighters also declared Kombolcha Airport off limits to civilian traffic and the decision they said will be strictly enforced. The Ethiopian government subsequently has suspended civilian flights to the industrial city.
The region, in conflict since last year, has also faced mounting humanitarian crisis as aid delivery continues to be hampered by fighting.