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Sudan crisis: Ethiopia seeks peace talks

Martina Schwikowski
April 26, 2023

Sudan's neighbors are working to prevent an escalation of fighting in the region. Ethiopia is mediating through the African bloc, but experts say the neighbor in the Horn of Africa should take a stronger leadership role.

A group of men sitting around a tree
Can Ethiopia help to mediate in the Sudan crisis?Image: Quara Prosperity Party Office Head

The African Union (AU) is doing its utmost to prevent violence in Sudan's conflict escalating to neighboring countries and into the Horn of Africa, as regional organizations continue to hold crisis meetings.

Both parties to the Sudan conflict agreed on Monday evening to a 72-hour cease-fire — but the window of opportunity for evacuations from the war zone and the establishment of humanitarian corridors is narrow and uncertain. Meanwhile, there have been reports of renewed fighting despite the truce.

Meanwhile, peace efforts by littoral states — including neighboring Ethiopia — are in full swing.

Ethiopia's neutrality in question

The Intergovernmental Grouping of the Horn of Africa (IGAD) had already scheduled an extraordinary summit a few days ago.

On Tuesday, IGAD's executive secretary, Workneh Gebeyehu — an Ethiopian — received Sudanese Ambassador to Djibouti Rahma Saleh.

"We discussed the situation and plight of the people of Sudan and reiterated the IGAD summit call for an immediate ceasefire, a permanent ceasefire and dialogue," the ambassador said after the meeting.

Ethiopia has largely made its mediation efforts through regional forums such as the regional economic communities and the African Union, said Maram Mahdi, a fellow at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Addis Ababa. This includes efforts within the IGAD.

Sudan currently holds the IGAD's rotating chairmanship, however it is not present due to the military conflict.

The grouping has held a series of extraordinary meetings to work out a mediation plan, Mahdi told DW, adding that it takes into account neighboring and regional actors who can influence both the Sudanese military and the RSF militia confronting it.

"Ethiopia has long had relations with both the military and the RSF. Because of proximity, history and other factors, Ethiopia is in a strategic position to assert the interests of the two camps," Mahdi said.

Saudi Navy Forces assisting evacuees arriving at King Faisal navy base in Jeddah
Rescue operations evacuating foreigners out of the conflict zone have been continuingImage: Amer Hilabi/AFP/Getty Images

Will Ethiopia enter into negotiations?

However Mahdi pointed out that conflicting perceptions play an important role.

"Questions of neutrality are coming up, and some of the Sudanese actors may reject Ethiopia's upcoming attempt at mediation," the expert said, adding that this highlights the importance that Ethiopia's attempts to bring about a peace process be anchored in IGAD and the AU.

According to Mahdi, it remains to be seen whether Ethiopia will also enter into bilateral negotiations with the parties to the conflict.

On the other hand, Ethiopia will have to step up its engagement at the regional level in the future, she estimated.

"I think Ethiopia needs to take the lead, especially within IGAD, to determine whether the current approach has been effective in de-escalating the situation and whether it's working that way," she said.

The success of Ethiopia's mediation attempts would depend on whether it could convince the two parties to the conflict, Ethiopia would take on a neutral negotiating role, Mahdi said.

Or, an alternative would be if neighboring Ethiopia succeeded in persuading one of the fighting parties to agree to a cease-fire and negotiations.

RSF Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo greets his supporters
RSF leader General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo climbed to power under Sudan's former autocratic leader Omar al-BashirImage: Umit Bektas/REUTERS

Igniting old tempers

But relations between the two neighboring countries have been marked by tensions in recent years, including over a border dispute and conflict over refugees fleeing to Sudan in the wake of the war in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region.

In the past, the mega-dam on the Nile, GERD, built in Ethiopia, has repeatedly led to disputes with neighboring Sudan.

Sudan and Egypt, for whom the Nile is an important lifeline, fear water shortages if the dam impounds water for power generation. 
Brokering a cease-fire in Sudan is considered extremely difficult.

After decades under long-term autorcatic leader Omar al-Bashir, an initial attempt to transition to civilian rule failed as early as October 2021 with a coup led by General Abdel Fattah Burhan.

Since then, Burhan has rivaled General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo's paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia. Plans were made for it to be incorporated into the army, with a democratic process to follow. But the outlook is bleak.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed celebrates peace after two years of civil war in his country
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed celebrates peace after two years of civil war in his countryImage: Office of Prime Minister of Ethiopia

Conflicting expectations 

According to Mukeram Miftah, a professor at Ethiopia's Civil Service College, Sudan has been in a downward political and economic spiral for some time.

"Politics in Sudan has deteriorated to the worst level," Miftah said in a DW interview. "One of the main reasons is the different views that many political actors have."

The very contradictory expectations for Sudan result from the multitude of actors, Miftah said.

For example, there is the major political party — the Umma Party — in addition to Marxists, Islamists, liberals, moreover elites produced by the University of Khartoum, and besides that, various civil organizations also play a role, Miftah said, adding that these differences have contributed to the current conflict.

"When two forces in one country are involved in a civil war, they will not engage in discussion or will not want to negotiate unless there is some pressure on them to talk," Mifthah said.

To enter into talks and find a lasting solution, it would be helpful if one of the two forces emerged as the dominant force, he said.

At least 70,000 people have already been displaced in the region, according to the United Nations.

Negash Mohammed contributed to this article.

This article was originally published in German.

Sudan fighting flares amid proposed truce extension

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