The crisis in Sudan falls into a difficult regional context whose prospects are at the center of the attention of various actors, always looking to strengthen their positions and/or interests.
All the nations that surround Sudan, or that are close to it, are interested in what is happening in Khartoum even if they have their own problems…
A river of problems
Among these is Ethiopia. Addis Ababa has just emerged from a short (2020-2022, sic) civil war with the Tigray region, but is on the verge of one (or more) new insurrections, such as that of the Oromo and even Amhara itself, the ethnic and historical heart of Ethiopia itself.
The Oromo, who had fought alongside the Tigrai during the civil war and accepted the peace accords between Addis Ababa and Mekelle remained dissatisfied with relations with the federal government. Tensions grow dangerously again (Oromo, Tigrai and the then not yet independent Eritrea had been the heart of the resistance against the pro-Soviet communist military dictatorship of the 'DERG' between 1974 and 1991) representing the fragility of Ethiopia's institutional architecture federal, where the states are substantially semi-independent realities, equipped with their own armed forces, some very strong, as demonstrated by those of Tigrai which had come to threaten the federal capital itself in November 2021.
But Ethiopia also has external tensions, starting with the non-optimal relations with Djibouti, Somalia and the internationally unrecognized Somaliland. These however may seem small compared to the tensions with Egypt over the GERD (Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam) on the Blue Nile: huge dam, whose works started in 2011, on the border between Ethiopia and Sudan.
The main purpose of the dam is to produce electricity to alleviate Ethiopia's acute energy shortage and for the export of electricity to neighboring countries. With a planned installed capacity of 5,15 gigawatts, the dam will be the largest hydroelectric plant in Africa when completed, as well as among the 20 largest in the world.
The project, which began in the 60s, has become another turning point in a region where tensions add up dangerously and risk becoming welded together. With its fourth annual filling expected in June and construction approximately 90% complete, the GERD and the hydroelectric plant on the Blue Nile they seem to have become a fait accompli. The construction of the GERD and the problems associated with it have been overshadowed by important events, such as COVID-19, the recurring waves of drought, the civil war between Ethiopia and Tigrai and the turbulent transition in Sudan, the constant difficulties of South Sudan and now the war between General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan (head of the Sudanese armed forces) and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo "Hemetti" (head of the rapid support forces) who were the head and deputy of the sovereignty council who rules(goes) Sudan.
The already difficult climate is made even more complex by declarations aimed at the respective public opinions to tickle their strong nationalist sentiments and negotiations - despite some agreements for dialogue that ended in nothing, such as the unrealistic (and forgotten) "tripartite agreement" of 2015 ( 'Declaration of Principles on GERD' co-signed by Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on March 23, 2015 in Khartoum) - at least publicly they are suspended.
Sudan, initially on Ethiopia's side in the dispute, before passing to Egypt, now seems to have returned much closer to Ethiopia (but this was valid until the war broke out between the Sudanese generals, which reshuffled all the cards). This is apparently partly due to the progress of Ethiopia and Sudan in settling their rival claims to the fertile border region of Al Fushqa. Sudan has reportedly begun to appreciate the value the GERD could have in mitigating annual flooding along its section of the Nile and would hope to import electricity produced by the dam.
It is not entirely clear, however, how the outcome of the current fighting in Sudan might affect its GERD position and it is unknown which of the two victors (assuming there is one capable of doing it) could reignite claims to the Al Fushqa region, thus derailing any agreement with Ethiopia over the GERD.
Khartoum's change of position regarding the GERD had isolated Egypt which instead counted on it very much, but for Cairo the dam with the upstream control it would exercise on the flow of Nile waters is an unacceptable situation and is perceived as a threat existential due to its almost total dependence on the waters of the Nile.
About 97% of Egypt's population of more than 100 million people live along the Nile and depend on it as a source of fresh water. Cairo has come to threaten direct military action on the dam (and for this a friendly Sudan would be essential, as would a South Sudan).
Despite the serious internal problems, Ethiopia has gone ahead with the works for the completion of the dam, showing that also for Addis Ababa the GERD is an existential issue and for the current Ethiopian government, tried by the civil war, it is necessary both as driver of development and as a sign of the rediscovered normality. Thus narrowing the margins for a compromise.
According to several water experts, great benefits could be gained if the Aswan High Dam in Egypt and the GERD in Ethiopia were operated together. For example, given that the Aswan Dam reservoir, Lake Nasser, is at a much lower elevation than the GERD, which is four times its size, and evaporation from Lake Nasser is much higher. So it would make sense to store more water in the GERD than in Lake Nasser, making more water available to both countries (and Sudan).
An agreement on data sharing involving Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia would allow Cairo and Khartoum to have greater certainty about their water supplies (it would also be better to associate South Sudan with the mechanism, where the least important White Nile, which could contribute to wider regional collaboration, but Juba also has its problems).
Ethiopia, however, has consistently refused to be committed to water management in any way. Clearly the Blue NileWhile it is a vital resource that could potentially supply electricity to the 60% of Ethiopians who now lack electricity, it is also a common and vital resource for all three countries. Instead of avoking the exclusive management of the dam, or threatening its destruction, a consensual management would be wiser (and obvious), but the political cultures prevailing in the ruling classes of the area leave little room for the option of dialogue.
Too big to fail?
With the fierce fighting going on for three weeks in Sudan, frantic consultations are underway in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) with joint US and Saudi action.
One of the countries most at risk, as mentioned, is Egypt: one of the areas of the toughest clashes between the regular army and RSF is precisely Darfur, which although a Sudanese region, has always been an area of particular attention for Cairo. The continuation of the clashes and the divergence that is emerging between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as supporters of the two opposing Sudanese leaders, is the worst case scenario for Egypt, in persistent economic difficulties, which have worsened since almost a decade ago, when Cairo embarked on a pace of spending that was difficult to sustain, based on enormous loans with equally enormous outlays in armaments, mega-projects (the doubling of the Suez Canal and the new capital). During this period the role of the military in the economy has greatly increased, especially through the AOI (Arab Industrial Organization, the largest Egyptian industrial conglomerate) but also through a myriad of other companies reaching 40% of the national economy, discouraging the private sector and foreign direct investment. The COVID crisis has dealt a further blow to the country's tourist economy (12% of GDP) and it is understandable that Cairo looks anxiously at the exploitation of the hydrocarbon fields in the eastern Mediterranean (all of which has forced it to an impressive strengthening of its naval forces, to protect these areas from external threats).
Since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected in 2014, the state's external debt has more than tripled to nearly $160 billion. This year, 45% of Egypt's budget will be devoted to servicing the national debt. Meanwhile, inflation hovers around 30% and food prices have increased by more than 60% in the last year.
Last year, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates transferred $22 billion to Egypt. As with previous Gulf bailouts, however, the support has failed to stem the crisis. Therefore, if the previous political crisis that pitted Saudi Arabia and the Emirates on one side and Qatar on the other was already a disaster, a new division within its lenders is seen as a disaster by Egypt, in the face of of an aggravated economic situation and the prolongation of the Sudanese crisis could put Cairo in the difficult situation of having to choose between one of the contenders (backed by Riyadh or Dubai) and, as a consequence, seeing a flow of indispensable aid cut off.
Egypt and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) signed a conditional agreement in December 2022 for an initial $3 billion cash loan and the prospect of an additional $14 billion in regional and international investment and financing, in exchange for the free floating Egyptian pound (which is written down by 50%, which adds up to the previous one, reaching 80%) and the reduction of the weight of the military in the economy. Furthermore, as seen in the Credit Suisse affair, Saudi Arabia is beginning to be less generous and non-repayable loans must be considered a thing of the past.
Il president marshal (continues to retain military rank) however appears reluctant to dismantle the military preponderance over the economy, given that the armed forces are his basis of consensus.
Egypt already owes $23bn to the IMF and it is unclear whether it will be able to adhere to the Fund's (obviously) harsh terms and so far there is little indication in any case that Cairo is changing its spending approach. In fact, in February, Egypt issued $1,5 billion in bonds paying 11% interest, with the aim of repaying its debt in Eurobonds, whose interest rate was only 5,57%. So, even though Egypt is borrowing from the IMF, but it is piling up more debt, entering more and more into a tunnel with no end in sight, and population hardships are reflected in the increasing number of Egyptian illegal migrants coming registered by the receiving EU countries.
Egyptian options are small and difficult to both choose and implement. First of all, working hard for one peaceful solution of the Sudanese crisis that prevents him from choosing between the godfathers of Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo "Hemetti", and keep the flow of financial aid from the Gulf, even if it will decrease anyway; or take the example of Gaddafi with Italy and use the threat of a serious economic and social crisis resulting in the flow of migrants to Europe and have an economic and political pardon (on the issue of internal civil liberties), but relations with Brussels would still become more fragile; try to at all costs to prevent Addis Ababa from setting up the solitary management of the GERD and escape a possible drought and a worsening internal social crisis that could become uncontrollable; the option ofuse of force, if it would consolidate popular support for theestablishment in the short term, in the medium and long term it would become unmanageable; or again, use this one threat to his own and Addis Ababa's political godfathers and avoid a crisis scenario, always waving the threat of epochal population movements towards Europe (the Egyptian population is over 100 million) due to the drought that the dam would bring on the lower Nile.
The other horn of the crisis
As for Egypt, the country that has the most to lose from a prolongation and twisting of the Sudanese crisis is South Sudan: according to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) estimates, in the next three months reach between 125.000 and 180.000 South Sudanese and 45.000 Sudanese, in a country still recovering from a deadly civil war.
Since 1956 Sudan and South Sudan have been the same nation and - despite secession in 2011 - many South Sudanese still live on the other side of the border, having remained even after South Sudan's independence or fled the civil war that broke out in 2013.
According to the UNHCR, Sudan is home to more than 800.000 South Sudanese. More than a quarter of them live in refugee camps, particularly in the federal state of Sudan White Nile. The rest is concentrated in Khartoum and major cities, where it is often used as cheap labour.
Between April 15 and 27, some 15.000 people crossed the border from Sudan into the South Sudanese state (which is a federal republic) of Upper Nile. UNHCR wants to avoid at all costs the establishment of refugee camps (whether of South Sudanese or Sudanese) in the state of White Nile as inhospitable and lacking in infrastructure and is trying to start a river transport plan on the Nile, given the imminence of the rainy season and the impassable state of the roads in the border area. The interruption of humanitarian services by the United Nations system in Sudan (UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF in particular), risks accelerating their departure and South Sudan which is already unable to absorb these massive flows with 75% of the its population still depends on international humanitarian aid.
But the problems for Juba (the capital of South Sudan) are not limited to these, albeit very difficult ones. The situation is all the more critical because the peace agreement signed in 2018 between the South Sudanese factions remains fragile and the civil war between the two largest ethnic groups in the country, the Dinka and the Nuer* which began as soon as independence was obtained, in fact it's never over.
South Sudan is expected to hold its first elections in its history in late 2024, but the Khartoum crisis could allow rival factions to ignore deadlines and promises made both to the international community and at home. The Sudanese collapse threatens to cause the South Sudanese peace process to lose its most influential regional guarantor. No other neighboring country may be able to exert pressure on South Sudanese leaders such as Al Burhan and Hemeti (the latter in particular has spent a lot of time mediating between tribal factions).
It is also possible that the power struggle involving Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, Riek Machar, the first vice president (and his main opponent both politically and ethnically, as Kiir is a Dinka and Machar is a nuer), may erupt again into heavy armed conflicts (because skirmishes between the forces of the two, as already mentioned, are constant).
The war in Sudan, if it were to last, would also have serious economic consequences for its neighbor, as the two Sudans split the revenues from the oil, which is produced in southern Sudan and exported through a pipeline across the border to Port Sudan on the Red Sea (not counting the future of the award of the Abiey area, rich in hydrocarbons). An interruption of crude oil transport for safety reasons (or maintenance problems) would deprive Juba of almost all its income and this explains Salva Kiir's activism for a negotiated solution (or at least guarantees on the flow of hydrocarbons, as this blockade of energy flows, and the obvious crisis that would follow, would be a weapon in the hands of Machar to try to counter the hegemony of the Dinka).
The silent observer (for now)
China's low profile so far regarding the Sudanese crisis, despite long-standing Chinese ties with the North African nation, strengthened during the long dictatorship of dictator Omar El Bashir, and huge investments, should give cause for reflection.
Two senior Chinese diplomats, the then Special Representative for African Affairs Zhong Jianhua and the permanent representative at the UN Wang Guangya, convinced El Bashir to agree to the deployment of UN and African Union peacekeepers in 2006, the controversial UNAMID (United Nations – African Union Mission in Darfur. Subsequently Beijing facilitated a complicated process which led to talks between opposing factions in the war in South Sudan in 2013.
Some observers believe that China may try to repeat its role in efforts to end the civil war in Ethiopia, between the federal government and that of Tigray, organizing a peace conference in the Horn of Africa in the Ethiopian capital, convened by its envoy special in the region, supporting the African Union's mediation efforts, but without playing a direct role in the negotiations between the parties.
Similar to the current crisis, Beijing has been on the sidelines of repeated Sudanese crises, such as the protracted North-South civil war and Darfur crisis. This ambiguous position, which appears to contrast with China's intrusive policy on the African continent, actually suggests that Beijing considers Sudan (and South Sudan**) due to their geographical position and potential to be very important for the African chapter of the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), a prudent attitude so as not to ignite further fears and suspicions of Europe and the USA (and also Russia, by now the junior partners, but which must not carry out initiatives unless strictly coordinated with the major partner of the alliance).
Companies such as China National Petroleum Corporation, China Three Gorges Corporation e China International Water & Electric Corporation, have large investments in oil, energy and construction; however, Sudan's status as an oil exporter has declined compared to alternatives such as Saudi Arabia as most of the oil fields are now located in South Sudan with pipelines passing through Sudanese territory, but overall production is only a fraction of China's global imports.
If the fighting targets Sudan's oil infrastructure, which is still needed to move South Sudan's oil to international markets, then China may be forced to become more involved as its economic interests will be threatened. It is a possibility, given that the envoys of the two contenders in Jeddah have said that the truce is in progress (there really isn't) has only humanitarian ends and not of dialogue and both aim at the annihilation of the adversary.
The very close ties with the deposed dictator El Bashir could make it difficult for Beijing to position itself as a "neutral arbiter" in any peace process (not counting the hostility of Westerners) and will probably wait until a clear power configuration emerges in Khartoum, thus attempting to work with a new government to preserve the previous position and contracts.
When it became clear that El Bashir's rule was over, China quickly established contacts with the two generals at the center of the current fighting - Al-Burhan and Hemeti - and also reached out to civilian leaders in a transitional democratic government that military and RSF , then allies, they overthrew in a 2021 coup.
China has kept an open line in an effort not to be caught off guard should events suddenly change as happened in Zimbabwe, as was the case with the ousting of late leader Robert Mugabe in 2017.
Crisis in Sudan exposed limits of China's 'Prospects for Peace and Development in the Horn of Africa' - a project that President Xi and foreign policy chief Wang Yi have said could help mediate and resolve cross-border and internal conflicts when it launched early last year.
The continuation of the clashes, the frenetic influence activity around Sudan and the potential impact of this crisis (even beyond the region) make it clear that many more balances and interests are at stake than those that appear superficially.
* The Dinka are the largest ethnic group in South Sudan, forming about 36% of the population. The Nuer are the second ethnic group (16% of the population), both black, divided by a fierce tribal rivalry and have remained united only in the common hostility towards the Arabs of Sudan, who have dominated those regions since 1956, after the British colonization.
** Beijing, as mentioned above, is also present in South Sudan where the only deputy representative (with political functions, given that the mission has many functions as well as the control of military stability and the protection of civilian populations) of the UN Secretary General is Chinese on a mission of peacekeeping, just the UNMISS in South Sudan, Guang Cong, interrupting a tradition that limited these functions to Western diplomats and experts.
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