Interview: South Sudan’s Ongoing Civil War Tests Ethiopia’s Foreign Policy

Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017

For years, Ethiopia has been actively engaged in the civil war in neighboring South Sudan, providing troops and diplomatic support to help stabilize the ravaged country. But Ethiopia’s relations with Sudan, which South Sudan broke away from in 2011, go far deeper and have not always been amicable. In an email interview, Terrance Lyons, associate professor of international relations at George Mason University and research associate at the Brookings Institution, discusses the roots of the relationship, how South Sudan’s independence and subsequent civil war have complicated Ethiopia’s foreign policy, and what other regional issues Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan must all navigate.

WPR: Describe the historical relationship between Ethiopia and Sudan. How did it fair when South Sudan formally split from Sudan in 2011?

Terrance Lyons: Ethiopia and Sudan have had long and often contentious relations with one another. Both went through their own processes of state-making, with the period of the Mahdi state in Sudan and the expansion of the Ethiopian state under Emperor Menelik II both taking place in the 19th century. In the late 20th century, Ethiopia and Sudan often supported each other’s rebel movements. Khartoum backed the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and Addis Ababa assisted the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. Ethiopia formed part of a loose alliance of neighboring states that worked to contain the National Islamic Front regime in Sudan in the 1990s, but relations improved after the border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea from 1998 to 2000, as Ethiopia reached out to manage regional threats.

Ethiopia supported Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, which ended the country’s second civil war, and the referendum in 2011 that resulted in South Sudan’s independence in July of that year. Tensions between South Sudan and Sudan persisted, resulting in the possibility of renewed conflict. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi chaired peace talks and sent troops to Abyei—a special administrative zone on the border between Sudan and South Sudan—as the core of the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei, or UNISFA. As neighboring states, Ethiopia, Sudan and now South Sudan are linked together with regard to security, natural resources and the potential for trade.

WPR: How has the ongoing civil war in South Sudan affected Ethiopia, and how has Addis Ababa responded?

Lyons: The outbreak of wide-scale conflict in South Sudan in December 2013 has challenged Ethiopia’s role of peacemaker and created spillover effects that threaten stability in Ethiopia’s western Gambella region. Ethiopia joined with others in the African Union and the United Nations to broker a series of agreements that were often quickly broken. Addis Ababa led mediation efforts through the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and served as a guarantor to the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan, signed in August 2015. The agreement, however, did not stop the fighting. In addition to its contributions to U.N. operations in Abyei, Ethiopian troops participate in the U.N. Mission in South Sudan, and Ethiopia has committed troops to the planned U.N. Regional Protection Force in Juba.

For Ethiopia, regional conflicts often have local implications. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, Ethiopia hosts 400,000 South Sudanese refugees. Most are hosted in a series of camps in Gambella, where an influx of ethnic Nuer refugees has altered local population balances in ways that the ethnic Anuak perceive as threatening. In April 2016, a group of ethnic Murle from South Sudan raided villages in Gambella, killing an estimated 200 people. Ethiopian troops pursued the raiders back into South Sudan in an attempt to free 100 kidnapped children. Ethiopia’s leadership in the peace process in South Sudan has important implications for Ethiopia’s domestic security, as well as providing the potential to build stability along its western frontier.

WPR: How has the development of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam had an impact on relations, and what outcome do you foresee for water sharing among the Nile River basin countries?

Lyons: The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD, is expected to be the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa when completed. The dam is under construction along the Abay River, otherwise known as the Blue Nile. It has been controversial regionally but is highly symbolic within Ethiopia, where it is seen as indicative of an “Ethiopia rising” narrative and the exemplar of modernization.

Egypt has objected to the dam, pointing to its need for the Nile’s waters to survive and referencing earlier treaties that divided up the river between Egypt and Sudan. Rainfall in the Ethiopian highlands represents an estimated 85 percent of the flow into the Nile. The Ethiopian government has stated that the dam will be used exclusively for producing electric power, not for irrigation, and that the water flow will not be affected, although Cairo has not indicated it accepts these assurances. Ethiopia sees the GERD, and other dams on other rivers, such as the South Omo, as key components of its successive five-year Growth and Transformation Plans.

The leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan met in Khartoum in May 2015 and signed a declaration of principles regarding the dam and committed to regional cooperation. This declaration formalized Egypt’s recognition of the dam and Ethiopia’s promise to avoid “significant harm” to downstream consumers. Sudan initially sided with Egypt but is now less opposed to the project moving forward. Khartoum is slated to be a major purchaser of Ethiopian electricity. One key issue is how quickly Ethiopia will fill its new reservoir and whether a slow process might limit disruptions to downstream states. Addis Ababa’s proclivity to secrecy and nontransparent decision-making makes neighboring countries concerned. Ethiopia is highly suspicious of Egypt’s plans to disrupt the dam. Reports that Egypt had sent troops to South Sudan, for example, caused great concern in Addis Ababa this year.