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Report 76 / Africa

Darfur Rising: Sudan’s New Crisis

Sudan, where prospects for peace had looked so promising for much of 2003, has become a potential horror story in 2004. The rapid onset of war in its western region of Darfur has created one of the world's worst humanitarian crises - thousands dead and some 830,000 uprooted from homes.

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Executive Summary

The international community can no longer ignore the escalating war in Sudan's western region of Darfur, which threatens international peace and security because of its cross-border nature, including refugee spill-over. It is described by UN officials as the worst humanitarian crisis in Africa.[fn]"U.N. Slams Sudan War, Says Killings Recall Rwanda", Reuters, 19 March 2004.Hide Footnote Diplomatic attention has been understandably centred on the IGAD peace process between the government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLA), but the scope and intensity of the Darfur conflict also demands immediate, focused action.

The UN estimates that in the past year the conflict has led to the killing of thousands of civilians, the forcible internal displacement of 700,000 and the flight to neighbouring Chad of another 130,000, figures the government does not dispute.[fn]Figures as of 26 February 2004 according to UN sources. ICG interview, 26 February 2004. More recent assessments by the UN of up to one million displaced are contested by Khartoum. See "U.N. Slams Sudan War, Says Killings Recall Rwanda", Reuters, 19 March 2004.Hide Footnote  Testimony of displaced people and refugees depict a consistent pattern of attacks by a government-aligned militia, the Janjaweed, whose horse- and camel-mounted fighters use scorched-earth tactics, backed by government air and land strikes.

Survivors tell of Janjaweed assaults in which villagers are indiscriminately killed, whipped, and raped. Hundreds of villages have been burned to the ground after looting. Grain in storage or about to be harvested is destroyed. These tactics have led to the depopulation of entire areas inhabited by the Fur, Zaghawa, Massaleit, and other smaller groups of black African origin and are grave violations of the laws of war that govern internal armed conflicts, namely Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.[fn]Sudan acceded to the four Geneva Conventions on 23 September 1957. Fighting between army and security forces and SLA and JEM rebels, as well as between the rebel groups and the Janjaweed militia, qualifies as internal armed conflict. However, much violence involves militia attacks on civilians suspected of supporting the rebels. Parties to internal armed conflicts are obliged to uphold Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which prohibits attacks on civilians, including violence to life and person, cruel treatment and torture, taking of hostages, outrages upon personal dignity, sentencing and the carrying out of executions without judgment by a regular court. The government of Sudan is responsible for prosecuting under national law abuses committed by all parties to the conflict.Hide Footnote

The situation in Darfur poses a direct threat to the IGAD peace talks aimed at ending two decades of civil war between the SPLA and the government. As ICG has argued, it is in part because that peace process was structured around the north/south axis -- rather than recognising the fact that the war is a national one, with grievances not limited to the South -- that other marginalised peoples of Sudan felt compelled to fight to make their grievances heard.[fn]See ICG Africa Report N°39, God, Oil and Country: Changing the Logic of War in Sudan, 10 January 2002, and subsequent ICG reporting.Hide Footnote Darfur is a stark reminder that Sudan's crisis has more to do with the structural imbalances of governance and economic development that characterise the relations of the centre with peripheral regions than with the north/south divide. Fighting in Darfur is not the only sign that Sudan's conflicts cannot be dealt with definitively within such a restricted geographic framework. For example, in mid-January the SLA, the larger of the two rebel groups in Darfur, reached an alliance with the Beja Congress, an ethnically-based armed group operating in Sudan's underdeveloped eastern states, and on 13 February 2004, it joined the umbrella opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA).[fn]The SLA decision to join the NDA was also a sign of internal divisions with the insurgency. There is unease inside the SLA about the true ambitions of the JEM leadership. "One reason why we joined the NDA was to differentiate ourselves from the JEM", an SLA activist told ICG in March 2004. For more on these internal divisions, see below.Hide Footnote

The fate of the IGAD peace process remains linked to Darfur developments. Until recently, the government has essentially had a free hand in Darfur, able to support attacks against civilians suspected of backing the rebellion while calculating correctly that the international focus would remain on the incomplete IGAD process. The international community is only slowly realising that the crisis in Darfur can no longer be ignored.

The IGAD peace talks moved closer to success when the parties signed a framework agreement on wealth sharing in January 2004. They continued for another two weeks -- without result despite heavy outside encouragement -- on the three contested areas of Abyei, the Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile until the key figure on the government side, Vice President Taha, abruptly left Naivasha for a pilgrimage to Mecca.

The government used the three-week break until talks resumed on 17 February to launch a massive military offensive in Darfur it hoped would remove any reason to negotiate further with the SLA/JEM rebels. It has consistently denied that substantial political issues are at the core of the rebellion, which it dismisses as "tribal warfare" or "banditry". It periodically also tries to tie the insurgency to the agenda of domestic or foreign foes, including the SPLA, Eritrea, Chad, Israel, and Hassan el-Turabi's Popular Congress (PC) party.

In fact, the alleged link between JEM (Justice and Equality Movement) and the PC is the most worrisome for it, since it fears Turabi is using Darfur as a tool for returning to power in Khartoum at the expense of his former partners in the ruling National Congress Party (NCP). This concern, and exaggeration of the potential repercussions, lies behind its hesitancy to talk to the rebels, particularly JEM.[fn]ICG interview, 2 March 2004.Hide Footnote

The Darfur conflict has potential to destabilise the regimes in both Sudan and Chad. The situation in the region, including ethnic overlaps, has helped determine power struggles in Ndjamena for decades. The linkages -- and the Chad government's aid to both sides in the present struggle -- have made Chad's mediation efforts (the Abéché process) ineffective. A ceasefire signed by Khartoum and the SLA in September 2003 was rendered irrelevant by Khartoum's escalated support for the Janjaweed. In December, Chad's president called rebel terms for substantive negotiations "unacceptable" and unilaterally broke off the process. The government never kept the ceasefire, increasingly targeted civilians through the Janjaweed and escalated fighting with its own offensive in late December.

On 9 February 2004, President al-Bashir announced an end to military operations in Darfur, claiming that the government had recaptured all rebel territory and had full control over the region. His statement also included for the first time a formal conflict resolution package. In an apparent bid to pre-empt any push for a wider mediation process, the government said it would guarantee unimpeded humanitarian access and safe return of the internally displaced (IDPs) and refugees, a pledge it has not fulfilled. It called for a conference within Sudan -- to which the "citizens" who rebelled would be invited -- in order to "comprehensively redress all grievances in the region", and pledged to implement its decisions. It also offered a one-month amnesty for rebel fighters to hand over weapons, and established a National Committee to focus on reconciliation, peaceful coexistence and the restoration of the "social fabric" in Darfur.[fn]"Statement by His Excellency Omer Hassan Ahmed Al-Bashir, President of the Republic of Sudan, on the situation in Darfur States", Sudan News Service, Sudan Embassy, Nairobi, 9 February 2004.Hide Footnote

Immediately following this declaration, the government announced that it would not attend a humanitarian dialogue with the SLA, JEM and the Sudan Federal Democratic Alliance (SFDA), on the pretexts that it had not been invited and that the talks, organised by the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, had become too politicised.[fn]"Sudan: Government will not attend Darfur Humanitarian Access talks", IRIN, 9 February 2004. The talks, planning for which had taken months, had appeared certain just a few days earlier.Hide Footnote  It also launched a diplomatic offensive to persuade interested international parties that while a limited outside role might be acceptable, Darfur issues could be best handled through a domestic political process.[fn]ICG interview, Brussels, 11 February 2004. The government also re-affirmed its commitment to the Abéché process. See: "Press Release", Press Office, Sudan Embassy, Nairobi, 11 February 2004.
 Hide Footnote

The government promised to open humanitarian corridors by 16 February. Initial reports from the UN and humanitarian agencies on the ground indicate that humanitarian access has improved slightly in certain areas but the majority of the population remains out of reach of relief. The UN estimates that it now has access to 25 to 30 per cent of persons in need, as opposed to roughly 15 per cent prior to the government declaration.[fn]ICG interview with a UN official, Nairobi, 25 February 2004.Hide Footnote However, relief recipients are increasingly targeted by the Janjaweed. Some IDPs, fearing such attacks, have requested humanitarian agencies not to distribute aid under current conditions.[fn]ICG correspondences, 29 February 2004, and 2 March 2004. See also "Darfur Crisis, Sudan. U.N. Weekly Humanitarian Roundup, 22-29 February 2004", Available at www.unsudanig.org.Hide Footnote

The al-Bashir announcement of victory motivated the rebels to disprove Khartoum's claims. An SLA activist said, "The government has forced us to resume activities by their rejection of the Geneva talks. They don't want to negotiate because they think they have crushed the rebellion. But we are still intact..."[fn]ICG interview, 10 February 2004.Hide Footnote

The rebels announced they had attacked the road network in Darfur on 11 February.[fn]ICG interview, 11 February 2004. See also "SLA and JEM impose total curfew on Darfur region", JEM press release, 12 February 2004, posted at: http://www.sudaneseonline.com/ anews/feb12-55747.html.Hide Footnote Although reports indicate that they did sustain heavy losses in the government offensive, they retain enough strength to launch counter-attacks, and fighting has been consistent since al-Bashir's announcement.[fn]ICG correspondence and interviews, February and March 2004.Hide Footnote

The international community has responded to the Darfur crisis largely with quiet diplomacy, fearing too much pressure on Khartoum would endanger the IGAD peace talks. It is clearer by the day, however, that the conflict there must be resolved if there is to be overall peace in Sudan. The issues behind it need to be recognised as inherently political. The international community should push for a separate, internationally facilitated, political process for Darfur. There are indications that a process focused on humanitarian access will soon begin in Ndjamena, with U.S. and EU (led by the UK and France) observation. Without the commitment to political talks, any ceasefire or humanitarian access agreements will be jeopardised, as will ongoing IGAD efforts. Reliance on Chad to lead such a process without the active involvement of the EU, U.S. and UN would doom it to failure, given the record of its past efforts and its deeply compromised role in officially or unofficially providing support to both sides.

International partners will need to remain involved in ensuring that a neutral process emerges for inter-tribal reconciliation. Initially, this will require making certain that refugees and IDPs can return to their home towns and villages. The government should be required to compel the Janjaweed to withdraw from areas it seized by evicting the original inhabitants. Once these conditions have been met, donors and the government will need to support development programs that counteract the deteriorating ecological situation, such as by increasing water sources for agriculture and human and livestock consumption.

Complicating the picture, fighting between the government and the SPLA has resumed in several areas since the end of January 2004 despite the cessation of hostilities agreement. In the Western Upper Nile oilfields, the trigger was defection to the SPLA of two commanders of the pro-government South Sudan Defence Forces (SSDF), Tito Biel and James Lieh Diu.[fn]ICG interviews, February 2004. The SSDF is the umbrella organisation for government-aligned southern armed groups.Hide Footnote  Reports from the area are somewhat contradictory but this is indicative of trends that could threaten any peace agreement. SPLA Chairman John Garang's insistence on negotiating one-on-one with individual SSDF commanders means the government can promote new commanders from within the same movement, while feeding internal divisions with money and arms.[fn]Khartoum apparently named Peter Dor to command Diu and Biel's SSIM (South Sudan Independence Movement – a faction of the SSDF) forces who stayed loyal. ICG interview, 23 February 2004.Hide Footnote  Combat likewise flared between government-aligned militias and the SPLA in Shilluk Kingdom in the south east where Dr Lam Akol's former government-aligned SPLM/United had merged with the SPLA in November 2003.[fn]For more on the fighting in Shilluk Kingdom, see the press statement of the Fashoda Relief and Rehabilitation Association, 18 March 2004 and "Sudan: Fighting escalating in Shilluk Kingdom", IRIN, 19 March 2004.Hide Footnote Khartoum has also begun a concerted effort to reassert control over its southern allies, including by promoting 58 southern militia leaders to high ranking positions in the national army (six as major-generals) in 2004 and imposing travel restrictions over those suspected of talking with the SPLA.[fn]ICG interviews, February 2004. The government's strategy also includes continuing support to the Lord's Resistance Army from Uganda. These issues will be further addressed in forthcoming ICG reports on northern Uganda and Sudan.Hide Footnote

Nairobi/Brussels, 25 March 2004

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Sudan’s President Omar Al Bashir take part in a tripartite summit regarding a dam on the Nile River, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 10 February 2019. AFP/ANADOLU AGENCY/Handout /Presidency of Egypt
Commentary / Africa

Calming the Choppy Nile Dam Talks

Egypt and Ethiopia are exchanging harsh words over the dam the latter is building on the Blue Nile. At issue is how fast the Horn nation will fill its reservoir once construction is complete. The two countries’ leaders should cool the rhetoric and seek compromise.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed are set to meet on the margins of an ongoing two-day Russia-Africa summit in Sochi in an effort to ease tensions over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Ethiopia is building the dam on the main tributary of the Nile, and Egypt fears that the project will imperil its water supply.

Experts from those two nations and Sudan, the third country directly involved, had neared a technical consensus last year on how fast Ethiopia would fill the dam’s reservoir. But the past few months have seen Addis Ababa and Cairo move further apart amid feisty exchanges of rhetoric. Experts made little progress at their latest meeting this month in Khartoum.

There are still reasons to think a deal can be struck. First, however, the two leaders need to reiterate at Sochi their intention to cooperate over the GERD, so as to create an atmosphere conducive to agreement on filling and operating what will be the continent’s largest hydropower plant.

The background

Ethiopia began building the GERD on the Blue Nile River in 2010. Meles Zenawi, then Ethiopia’s leader, argued that the dam was critical to the country’s development efforts and would benefit the whole region. He said nearby states, including Egypt, would gain from purchasing the cheap electricity Ethiopia intends the dam to produce.

The scheme alarmed Cairo. Egypt claims “historical rights” over the Nile, stemming from treaties to which upstream countries, with the exception of Sudan, were not party. Most of those treaties date to the colonial era; the latest, a 1959 Egypt-Sudan pact, apportioned all 84 billion cubic meters of the Nile’s waters between Egypt (then the United Arab Republic), Sudan and evaporation. Egypt still bases its supply on the 55.5 billion cubic meters agreed upon in 1959 but it is estimated to use more than that as Sudan does not use its full allocation.

Egypt is especially vulnerable to reductions in Nile flows.

Egypt is especially vulnerable to reductions in Nile flows. It relies on the river for about 90 per cent of its water needs. Abdullatif Khalid, head of the irrigation sector, said recently that “drinking water is consuming 11 billion cubic meters. … Industrial usage consumes 8 billion cubic meters, and the rest is distributed to agriculture”. Egypt also relies on the Nile to generate about a tenth of its power, particularly from its High Dam at Aswan. Egypt characterises the status of the Nile as a life-and-death matter. It fears the loss of Egyptian influence and control over upper Nile states that Ethiopia’s unilateral project represents. It also worries that acceding to Ethiopia over the GERD could pave the way for other major hydropower and irrigation projects by upstream Nile nations.

Ethiopian officials portray such concerns as quasi-imperialist. “The struggle is between a country which wants to ensure equitable and reasonable utilisation and another which wants to maintain a colonial-era treaty of injustice and unfairness”, said one Ethiopian diplomat. A statement from the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry blamed Egypt for acting as a spoiler at this month’s Khartoum talks. Ethiopian officials argue that Egypt built the Aswan dam in a bid to drive its own economic growth but that Cairo has since used its international influence to prevent upstream Nile development. They portray Ethiopia’s eventual decision to construct the GERD as an effort to redress a historic imbalance and as a last resort after Egypt refusal to cooperate over the basin.

Forging an initial filling deal could increase trust among the parties, which is all the more important given the threat posed by rising temperatures in the Nile basin.

In March, Crisis Group encouraged Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to persevere in trying to agree a detailed policy for filling the GERD’s reservoir. The three countries had taken some steps in that direction. In 2015, they signed a Declaration of Principles pledging to equitably share water resources and cooperate over the GERD, and since then have met regularly at both technical and political levels to try to reach agreement.

Forging an initial filling deal could increase trust among the parties, which is all the more important given the threat posed by rising temperatures in the Nile basin. In the longer term, Crisis Group supports the idea that the three countries, together with the other eight who share the Nile’s waters, establish a broader resource-sharing arrangement via the Nile Basin Commission that is to form once six of the eleven riparian nations ratify the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA).

Egypt signed on to the 2015 Declaration, but, along with Sudan, it rejects key parts of the CFA. Cairo stresses in its Nile policy the “inviolability of our water share”. Addis Ababa, meanwhile, is explicit that water allocation treaties to which it was not party have “no applicability whatsoever on Ethiopia”.

After some heated words of its own, Cairo put its well-oiled diplomatic machine into action at late September’s UN General Assembly meeting in New York. Egyptian diplomats met with counterparts from Burundi and South Sudan, two riparian countries that are cash-strapped and experiencing major internal crises. Burundi, along with Kenya and Uganda, has signed but not ratified the CFA, while South Sudan has not yet made its position clear. An experienced observer of Nile politics says it is “common knowledge that Cairo increases its activism with upper riparians, especially South Sudan, whenever rhetoric with Addis increases”. Egypt’s intention appears to be to forestall explicit statements of support for Ethiopia’s position from other upper Nile nations and to drag out the CFA’s ratification.

The sticking point

The initial challenge lies in the sides’ competing positions on filling the GERD reservoir.

The initial challenge lies in the sides’ competing positions on filling the GERD reservoir. Ethiopia wants to move quickly to expedite maximum power generation. Egypt is concerned about how the dam will be managed during drought years and wants the GERD filled slowly enough that a sufficient volume of water can flow downstream each year during filling. Egypt also says it wants an office at the GERD site staffed with its own technicians. Ethiopia counters that this proposal breaches its sovereignty. It also has repeatedly rejected as unnecessary Egyptian calls for third-party meditation in the dispute.

The GERD’s 74-billion cubic meter reservoir is to be filled in three stages. The first consists of tests of the initial two turbines, which require some 3 billion cubic meters (bcm) of water and would take one year. Second, all 13 turbines would be tested, requiring at least another 12 bcm and one more year. Last, Ethiopia would fill the rest of the reservoir – although its volume would fluctuate by around 50 bcm each year as Ethiopia would have to allow much of the water out ahead of seasonal rainfall to prevent overflowing. The first two years’ filling would use too little water to significantly affect downstream supplies. It is the final stage that worries Egypt and prompts its disagreement with Ethiopia.

Last year, the National Independent Scientific Research Study Group, comprising Egyptian, Ethiopian and Sudanese experts, made progress toward a filling agreement that all parties could get behind. This deal would entail Ethiopia annually releasing about 35 bcm (around 70 per cent of the Blue Nile’s average annual flow) of water downstream as it fills the dam.

Egypt subsequently slowed down the pace of talks. At the February meeting of the African Union, President Sisi told Prime Minister Abiy that he wanted to discuss the minutes from the study group meetings. These conversations led to a new Egyptian proposal, which called for a minimum annual release of 40 bcm of water from the GERD during the period of filling. Egypt had also requested that the entire average annual Blue Nile flow of 49 bcm be released once the GERD is operational and the dam filled. If the flow decreases, Cairo says Addis Ababa should make up for the deficit the next year. Ethiopia has rejected both suggestions.

Space for compromise

Despite the recent disagreements, the 2018 progress and expert studies suggest that a compromise solution exists. In a period of average or above-average rainfall, releases of around 35 bcm would allow Ethiopia to fill the dam at a slightly faster rate than if the annual release was at 40 bcm, while also avoiding acute water shortages in Egypt.

Ethiopia seems ready to agree to a 35 bcm release. According to experts like Kevin Wheeler from the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, who has studied the GERD filling options with a team of experts, a 35 bcm release could fill the dam’s reservoir in five to six years, assuming average flows. Ethiopia said after the latest inconclusive talks that it proposed to fill the GERD in four to seven years.

There are also steps that Egypt could take to manage water more efficiently and mitigate the dam’s potential impact on agriculture and manufacturing.

Despite Cairo’s reservations, this fill rate does not appear likely to significantly damage Egypt’s water supply or power generation. “Under wet to average conditions with a 35 bcm release, Egypt does not need to suffer any shortages, or very minimal reductions if they use their drought management policy”, Wheeler told Crisis Group.

There are also steps that Egypt could take to manage water more efficiently and mitigate the dam’s potential impact on agriculture and manufacturing. Aid programs could improve irrigation efficiency, for example.

For its part, Ethiopia could also be more accommodating, especially given climate volatility and Egypt’s concerns about how the dam will be managed in drought conditions. One experienced observer questions why Ethiopia is apparently so fixated on filling the reservoir quickly to its maximum volume of 74 bcm. After all, the reservoir will need draining to around 20 bcm each year before the rainy season to guard against over-spilling.

Nor is it clear whether sufficient demand exists in either Ethiopia or export markets to justify maximising the GERD’s power generation in the first few years. For example, in 2017/18, all of Ethiopia consumed less electricity than the 15,760 gigawatt hours a year that the GERD is projected to generate. In that same year, Ethiopia sold 1,516 gigawatt hours to Sudan and Djibouti. It has ambitions to sell power to East Africa via an under-construction transmission line to Kenya, but there is work to do on building further inter-connections and negotiating export deals, including, potentially, with Egypt and Gulf states.

The likely gap between the dam’s maximum output and demand means that Ethiopia could take a concertedly flexible approach to the initial stages, including filling the dam only to the extent it needs at present. Such an approach may allow it to initially release more water each year, ensuring that the reservoir at Aswan retains a healthy volume and giving Egypt more time to adapt.

Returning to constructive talks

It is hard to say precisely when the GERD will start impounding water, but parties should have at least all next year to thrash out a deal on filling. There was a major hiccup in the dam’s construction last year, when Ethiopia’s political power struggle and the transition that saw Abiy come to power rocked the mega-project. But the Ethiopian state seems to have rallied behind the GERD again. Its completion is inevitable – as Prime Minister Abiy made clear in Parliament yesterday – even if there are further delays.

Given the renewed spat between their countries, Sisi and Abiy could help prepare the ground for constructive negotiations during their meeting in Sochi at what is the first Russia-Africa summit. Even if warm words are exchanged, a real breakthrough at the technical level is unlikely any time soon. But if Sisi and Abiy can achieve a reset it would increase the chances that the engineers, lawyers and diplomats can hammer out a deal.

A deal on filling and operating the GERD should create space for renewed diplomacy aimed at safeguarding the Nile basin’s long-term future.

More broadly, a deal on filling and operating the GERD should create space for renewed diplomacy aimed at safeguarding the Nile basin’s long-term future. Climate change means that not only Egypt but all Nile nations should be concerned about water shortages. A study published in August in the Earth’s Future journal found that despite models projecting increased rainfall, nations like Ethiopia, South Sudan and Uganda may have less water available to them due to hotter and drier years in the Nile basin. Such findings are of even more acute concern to rain-starved Sudan and Egypt, which rely on downstream flows.

Addressing the mistrust among riparian nations, which the GERD presently symbolises, is critical. Those countries need to institutionalise cooperation, including exchanging data on critical elements such as rainfall levels, river flows, dam volumes and power needs. If President Sisi and Prime Minister Abiy can set the right tone in Sochi, they could set a path for a GERD agreement that in turn could catalyse the eventual ratification of the Cooperative Framework Agreement and management of the world’s longest river via the Nile Basin Commission.

This commentary is co-published with The Africa Report.