Home | Comment & Analysis    Thursday 10 April 2014

South Sudan conflict and Egypt’s hydro politics

By Biruk Mekonnen

April 9, 2014- The recent media hype regarding military cooperation between South Sudan and Egypt grab the attention of those who closely follow developments in the region.

This is mainly because of the central role South Sudan is playing in the region’s peace and security and Egypt’s vested interest in relation to Nile water vis-a-vis the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

South Sudan’s relative peace and stability only lasts for three years after it gained its independence in July 2011. The newest nation’s peace thrown in to abyss in December 2013, after the country’s president first sacked his entire cabinet and second tried to imprison his political rivals alleging them of conspiring for Coup d’├ętat. He also relieved around 170 army generals from active duty. Some of the officials were jailed while the main opponent, former vice president Dr. Reik Machar, escaped and waged a rebellion. The war continued along with mediation effort sponsored by the Inter Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD) and other partners like Norway, the UK, US, China, the AU, EU and the UN. The mediation effort leaves much to be desired as far as bringing peace and order in South Sudan is concerned.

South Sudan is a country endowed with resources such as oil, water, fertile land, livestock, wetland and wildlife. Among these resources, rarely discussed, however, is that right to water and sharing the resource to the benefit of the society. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between Sudan and South Sudan did not include an agreement on South Sudan’s rights to the Nile water after independence even though both parties rely on the Nile as their principal water source. South Sudan’s independence from Sudan in July 2011, however, directly impacts the water scarce Nile basin’s legal framework.

Initially, South Sudan’s independence, for Egypt, presented great opportunity; namely the prospect of resuming the longstanding plan to increase the Nile flows by means of river engineering in South Sudanese wetland, as envisaged by the 1959 agreement, which Egypt hopes South Sudan would accept.

On the contrary, until the aftermath of the December 15, 2013 conflict, it was very much likely for South Sudan to align itself with the upstream Nile riparian states that have always contested the 1929 and 1959 colonial agreements as valid and acceptable. Even, the country declared its intension to sign the new Comprehensive Framework Agreement. This position made Egypt nervous.

Geo-political developments following the crisis in South Sudan gives an opportunity for Egypt as the countries in the IGAD Sub region witness presumable different positions as to how the crisis should be approached and solved.

Some regional and international players also involved overtly or covertly in the conflict to exploit the opportunity for their own political and economic advantages. Uganda said based on the bilateral military pact it has and with the invitation of the government of South Sudan it intervened militarily and backs president Kirr while other IGAD members prefer to advance only with the mediation effort. As the issue of South Sudan goes complicated, time will tell which approach prevails. Be this as it may, nevertheless, the government of President Kiir is trying every avenue to galvanize any political, diplomatic as well as military support to defeat its arch-enemy and its main ethnic rival, a rebellion led by former vice president Dr. Reik Machar. The president was not as pleased as expected by the second group of country’s approach to the conflict. He expressed his discontent through various means. He is also trying to play different cards to arm twist countries that are not directly support his "coup" version of the crisis, condemn the "unconstitutional change of government" and throw their support even by putting their arm-boots into the country, like Uganda did.

One such country is Ethiopia and the card against it is rapprochement with Egypt. This approach for Egypt, otherwise, gives an opportunity to influence the government of Khartoum on various issues.

For Egypt, South Sudan’s conflict represents a greater opportunity. On the one hand, Egypt is more interested in preserving the waters of the Suud, the immense wetland that dominates South Sudanese territories crossed by the Nile.

As the White Nile makes its journey from its source in the equatorial Africa, it forms the Suud Wetlands in Southern Sudan, which stretches for 450 Kms. Historically the Suud has been vital to the pastoral economy and livelihoods of South Sudanese. Historical accounts documented that Britain, which was the colonial power ruling Sudan jointly with Egypt, proposed building the Jonglei canal in the 1930s that would deliver around 7bn m3 of water annually, seeking to provide the Egyptian people with increased water for agricultural use. According to these accounts, a second phase for the project was also planned, which would completely dry up the wetlands.

The canal project never materialized under the British rule, but was resurrected in the 1970s by the Nimeri Military regime of Khartoum. The Nimeri government sought to share the increased Nile flow with Egypt and claimed that the canal would facilitate national development in the South. Work proceeded until the civil war resumed in South Sudan in 1983 and SPLA missiles destroy the canal project.

After South Sudan’s independence, by agreeing to share the water that the Jonglie canal would transport equally with South Sudan, Egypt was hopeful that this hydro-diplomacy would cement its ability to exert influence in the new nation. However, this strategy seemed failed as South Sudan was attracted towards the upstream countries that have always contested the colonial water agreement.

Why renewed interest on cooperation with South Sudan?

Egypt renewed its interest to forge cooperation with South Sudan at a time of shifting alliances and changing geo-political balance in the region.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project became inescapably a reality for Egypt to contest. Khartoum, the other signatory of the 1959 agreement, gives its diplomatic backing to the construction of the GERD after the study of the International Panel of Experts (IPOEs) report concluded the Dam would not cause significant harm to the downstream countries (Egypt, South Sudan and Sudan).

Since December 15, 2013, South Sudan has lost its peace and different actors in the country compete for power. It also lost its strength to endorse the Comprehensive Framework Agreement. By backing whom who has the means of coercion, through its special need of military cooperation, Egypt gambits on the one hand to proceed with harnessing what it sees as alternative source of water, the Suud Wetland and on the other hand, exert its influence on Addis Ababa as well as Khartoum. President Kirr might also seal a deal with Egypt to save his government from collapsing.

Until recently, Khartoum and Juba were at loggerheads over alleging one another of supporting groups who oppose central governments in their respected territories. The Nuba Mountains and South Kordofan conflicts are serious threats for Khartoum along with the contested area of Abiye and the disruption of the oil revenue that flows from Juba through its port. The resurrection of the recently resolved conflict in eastern Sudan via Eritrea’s manipulation might also be another fear for Sudan. These are the weakest links of Khartoum to think of whatever decision it takes in relation to South Sudan. South Sudan knows this very well and so does Egypt. Hence, Egypt sees an opportunity in South Sudan conflict to arm twist the decision of Khartoum while cooperating militarily with Juba, and this includes Khartoum’s GERD position.

The recently publicized military agreement between South Sudan and Egypt also presents a real danger to Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam. To think of the worst and as it is repeatedly pronounced by Egyptian scholars and politicians, South Sudan and Sudan are the best launching pads for Egypt to disrupt the stability of Ethiopia and sabotage its peace and development. Sudan, as it has shifted its alliance vividly, became a disappointment to Egypt to use it as a play ground, while South Sudan seems offers the best opportunity for this destabilizing act.

The way forward?

As a sovereign nation, South Sudan has every right, offered to it by international law, to be party to any cooperation agreements with another country. Hence, the military cooperation agreement between South Sudan and Egypt can be seen in light of this international norm.

However, for Ethiopia, such an agreement should be a red light to be crossed as it would present a real and present danger. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a national project, one of Ethiopia’s greatest achievements, but seen by Egypt as a cause for its embarrassment. The Project as well as the national development endeavors should be protected at any cost and South Sudan should clearly be told not to play dangerous games against the survival of Ethiopia.

Ethiopia, time and again, accuses Egypt as it works tirelessly to destabilize its peace and security through various means, one of which is through proxy conflicts. There are also reports that implicate Egypt supporting extremist groups like Al-Shabab in Somalia and spreading terrorism in the Horn of Africa region to weaken Addis Ababa and halt construction of the Dam. Eritrea is another front for Egypt for its ploy against Ethiopia. According to media reports, Egypt also offered its interest to mediate the conflict in South Sudan, the old tactic it has used for Somalia since 1991 in organizing proliferation of initiatives to counter Ethiopia’s effort. Egypt’s intention to involve in South Sudan will give the conflict a regional nature that will have a dangerous spillover effect on the preservation of international peace, as Ethiopia will not see it as an easy matter. This is what Egypt really wants; hence it seeks the intervention of the collective body of the international community, aka, the United Nations in regard to the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam vis-a vis South Sudan conflict.

Everything, in this regard, needs great caution from Ethiopia and the IGAD countries. IGAD decided to deploy Monitoring and Stabilization Force in South Sudan and facilitate "progressive withdrawal of allied forces from the theater of the war." Simultaneously, the organization intensifies its effort to find political solution for the conflict. South Sudan along with Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Sudan should see the Nile water as a bond for stability and development in the region and work together for mutual benefit. The government of President Kirr should not be a victim for short sighted political benefits vis-a-vis Egypt’s hegemonic policy against the Nile water, and should refrain from opening a space for destabilizing forces that would have a spillover effect to regional peace, stability and development. Weather Egypt’s intention is to harness the Suud Wetlands or deter Ethiopia; South Sudan would not be beneficial either way.

The writer is a political and security analyst trained in political science and with over 10 years of experience in analyzing African affairs. He can be reached at birlogood1@gmail.com.