Egypt Enters Sudan-South Sudan Conflict

Reuters, yesterday:

Egypt is mounting a diplomatic offensive to defuse tensions between Sudan and South Sudan that have raised fears the two former civil war foes could return to a full-blown conflict.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr arrived at Khartoum airport on Sunday for talks after the two countries clashed during the past week for control of an oil field.

“Egypt will make every possible effort to try to bridge the gap in viewpoints between Sudan and South Sudan and contain the existing border tensions between them after the occupation of Heglig,” Egypt’s state news agency MENA reported.

Tensions have run high between Khartoum and Juba since South Sudan seized control of the disputed Heglig oilfield on Tuesday. Sudan has vowed to recapture the region, which produced about half of the country’s 115,000-barrel-a-day oil output.

The fighting, which has halted production at the field, has been the worst since South Sudan declared independence in July.

As Reuters writes, the seizure of Heglig (more on Heglig here) marks a tense moment in the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan. The larger conflict stems from the history of violence between the two areas and from the issues left unresolved after South Sudan’s secession, namely oil revenue sharing, border demarcation, and the fate of various communities on the Sudanese side of the new border.

Egypt’s role in Sudan is complex. Egypt has been preoccupied with its own transitions during the last fifteen months, but historically Egypt has exercised tremendous influence in Sudan. Even if we just take the period post Napoleon, Egypt occupied Sudan from 1820 until the rise of the Mahdi in 1884/5, and acted as the UK’s partner in the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium from 1899 to 1955 (Sudan gained independence in 1956, having chosen not to remain part of Egypt). Since independence, strong cultural and political links have remained between the two countries – for example, Egypt and Sudan have presented a united front against the upstream Nile countries in arguing that the status quo for water-sharing (which the upstream countries say favors Egypt) should remain in place.

I bring up the Nile issue deliberately, because that conflict has often pitted Egypt against Ethiopia, the most outspoken of the upstream countries. Ethiopia has also been the site of African Union-mediated talks between Sudan and South Sudan in recent weeks. In light of that, will Egypt’s new diplomatic push be seen to imply Egypt’s lack of confidence in the diplomatic effectiveness of Ethiopia and the AU? Will Egypt be seen as pro-(north) Sudan? This is yet another illustration of how the break-up of Sudan is affecting relationships in the region: Egypt’s relationship with South Sudan remains to be fleshed out.

In any case, I think Egypt’s new level of involvement demonstrates how worrying the situation in the Sudans has become to their neighbors (and other countries with an interest in the Sudans, particularly China). It is not like Egypt has resolved all of its own internal uncertainties, so the fact that Egypt is making the Sudans such a high priority right now says that Egypt is quite concerned. We will see if Egypt can make headway where others, thus far, have failed.

Maps of the Military Situation in Southern Somalia

Since October, Kenya has been waging war against al Shabab, the Muslim rebels of southern Somalia. Kenya’s incursion into Somalia has also prompted Ethiopia to send (not for the first time) some of its own soldiers into the southwestern part of Somalia. The capital Mogadishu, since al Shabab withdrew in August, has been controlled by Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The TFG is supported by the forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

With conditions changing by the day, determining who holds what is difficult. It is clear that al Shabab is losing territory by the month, and that Kenyan forces are advancing on some of the movement’s key strongholds, particularly the port city of Kismayo. Beyond that details are somewhat hard to pin down – I have probably gotten some things wrong in what follows. On a technical note, things are made even more confusing by the fact that transliterations of Somali town names vary widely in English.

Here is one list of the towns Kenya controls: Bilis Qooqani, Ras Kamboni, Bibi, Jilib, Tabda, Gherile and Bardere. Other sources say Kenya controls Burgabo (“a key trade route” for al Shabab), Hosingo and Badade. Top towns that Kenya is targeting appear to include Baidoa, Afmadow, Afgoye, and Kismayo.

VOA describes the areas where Ethiopia has a presence:

Soldiers…reached the town of Luq in the southwest Gedo region.

The location includes a major road leading to the Bay and Bakool regions, which are under al-Shabab’s control. The official says the Ethiopian convoy entered Somalia through the border town of Dolow.

And here are two maps: one, by the BBC, is a political/military map of all of Somalia.

The second is my own creation. The red shows towns that seem to still be in al Shabab hands, the blue shows towns in Kenyan hands, and the green town is Luq, held by Ethiopia. No pin marks Mogadishu, but it should be visible.

Finally, here is an in-depth Al Jazeera report on the recent al Shabab-al Qaeda merger.

Ethiopia, Anti-Terrorism, and Human Rights

Recent and upcoming trials of journalists and dissidents in Ethiopia have focused attention  – and criticism – on the country’s anti-terrorism law. Critics, including Human Rights Watch and the United Nations, have raised concerns that the Ethiopian government uses the law to crack down not on terrorism, but on dissent.

Ethiopia is a country that plays a large role in the Horn of Africa; some in Washington consider Ethiopia an important ally in American efforts to stabilize the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia is also one of the largest aid recipients in the world (more here). The contrast between Ethiopia’s favored status in strategic and aid circles on the one hand, and the sharp criticisms its government draws from human rights groups on the other, raises important questions about how the rhetoric of “fighting terrorism” plays out at the local level.

Following bombings in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in 2008, the Ethiopian parliament passed the anti-terrorism law with a strong majority in July 2009. Domestic and international criticism began to focus on provisions of the law that regulate speech. I have not been able to find the text of the law, but Human Rights Watch published an analysis of the draft law in March 2009, and AFP quotes the relevant section of the law as passed:

“Whosoever writes, edits, prints, publishes, publicises, disseminates, shows, makes to be heard any promotional statements encouraging… terrorist acts is punishable with rigorous imprisonment from 10 to 20 years,” it says.

Criticism surfaced again in 2011. In November, the government charged twenty-four people under the law. In response, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International issued a joint statement which began, “The Ethiopian government should cease using its overly broad anti-terrorism law against journalists and peaceful political activists.” In December, the Ethiopian government invoked the anti-terrorism law when it gave 11-year prison sentences to two Swedish journalists who had been arrested last summer in the company of rebels from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).

Criticism of the law has continued in 2012, following the sentencing of three journalists in January (one in absentia); see the Committee to Protect Journalists’ statement on the cases here. More defendants (the same group of twenty-four arrested in November, I believe) are set to stand trial soon, and the UN has spoken out “against the ongoing use of anti-terrorism laws to curb freedom of expression in Ethiopia.”

The Ethiopian government, for its part, has responded to such criticisms by saying that the law’s scope is properly defined:

Ethiopia holds journalists accountable when they commit crimes, Communications Minister Bereket Simon said.

“Ethiopia clearly differentiates between freedom of expression and terrorism,” he said in a phone interview from the capital, Addis Ababa, today. “This is simply a very wrong defense of foreign journalists who have been caught red-handed when assisting terrorists.”

The Ethiopian government also sees a significant threat to its stability from rebel groups like the ONLF and al Shabab, the Muslim rebels who operate in neighboring Somalia. Addis Ababa believes it needs a tough law in order to deal with such threats.

These defenses have not stopped critics from questioning not only Ethiopia’s human rights record, but also the place Ethiopia holds in its allies’ and donors’ hearts. The Guardian writes, “Ethiopia doesn’t appear to be ticking the good governance boxes required of donors,” and suggests that Ethiopia could see its aid from some donors suspended, as recently happened with British aid to Malawi.

One question – which becomes more acute given the ongoing civil war in Somalia, where Ethiopia has repeatedly intervened – is whether the criticism Ethiopia catches for its domestic record will also target Ethiopia’s allies, including the United States. The US provides massive military and humanitarian aid to Ethiopia, and supported Ethiopia’s occupation of Somalia from 2006 to 2009. Given the importance of Ethiopia to US efforts to fight terrorism in the Horn, will Ethiopia’s own “anti-terrorism” measures have reputational consequences for the US?

Update on US Drone Base in Ethiopia

Last month, reports came out that the United States was building a new drone base in Ethiopia as part of a broader effort to strike targets in Somalia and Yemen. The base is already operational, and the BBC, the Washington Post, and other outlets are covering the story. As the BBC story points out, “the remotely-piloted drones [are] being used only for surveillance, and not for air strikes,” though the vehicles can be equipped with missiles and bombs if commanders choose.

Here’s an excerpt from the Post’s piece:

The Air Force has invested millions of dollars to upgrade an airfield in Arba Minch, Ethi­o­pia, where it has built a small annex to house a fleet of drones that can be equipped with Hellfire missiles and satellite-guided bombs. The Reapers began flying missions earlier this year over neighboring Somalia, where the United States and its allies in the region have been targeting al-Shabab, a militant Islamist group connected to al-Qaeda.

[...]

The Arba Minch airport expansion is still in progress but the Air Force deployed the Reapers there earlier this year, [Air Force spokesman Master Sgt. James] Fisher said. He said the drone flights “will continue as long as the government of Ethi­o­pia welcomes our cooperation on these varied security programs.”

Last month, the Ethio­pian Foreign Ministry denied the presence of U.S. drones in the country. On Thursday, a spokesman for the Ethio­pian embassy in Washington repeated that assertion.

The disconnect in rhetoric between the US military and the Ethiopian government points to the major tensions in this relationship. As I noted in my last piece, US officials said that it took years of effort to persuade Ethiopia to host the base. The lack of enthusiasm from Ethiopia’s side has persisted to the present. Ethiopia’s willingness to permit drone operations to continue may be contingent on what reactions occur in Somalia and inside Ethiopia, which is host to many ethnic Somalis and refugees from Somalia.

Nile Politics: South Sudan Plans Dam on Nile Tributary

Even before South Sudan’s independence, countries like Egypt became nervous about how the creation of the tenth Nile Basin state would affect the region’s delicate water politics. Would South Sudan side, as Sudan had (and still does), with Egypt and promote the status quo (which gives a large share of the Nile to Egypt)? Or would the new country join the upstream countries, led by Ethiopia, that are demanding a larger share of the Nile for themselves?

After independence, South Sudan struck a conciliatory tone toward both Egypt and Ethiopia, but two developments will definitely attract Egypt’s attention. First, South Sudan wants to formally join the Nile Basin Initiative, the organization that is attempting to resolve the disputes over the region’s water. This request will surprise no one and indeed it makes eminent sense, but it is a reminder to Egypt that South Sudan will soon have to develop a more detailed Nile policy, one that will inevitably tilt in one direction or another.

Second, South Sudan has announced plans to build a hydropower dam near the city of Wau. Wau sits on the Jur River, a tributary of the Bahr el Ghazal River which is itself a tributary of the White Nile. South Sudan’s dam is not intended, it seems to me, as an act of aggression, but the move will remind neighbors that this new country has pressing energy, infrastructure, and resource needs.

Egypt’s new government, judging by its outreach to Ethiopia, wants a solution to the Nile dispute. As the case of South Sudan shows, there are many moving parts in the equation, but it does seem that the status quo will have to change, and in fact may be changing already.

US Drone Base in Ethiopia

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that “the Obama administration is assembling a constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly aggressive campaign to attack al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen.” There are to be four bases, one each in Ethiopia, Yemen, Djibouti, and the Seychelles (we could add to this list a fifth, namely the CIA presence in Somalia, as reported by Jeremy Scahill of The Nation). Of these bases, as some readers know, two are not new at all: the base in Djibouti has been used by French and American forces for years, while drones have been operating from the Seychelles since at least 2009. The really new news for the greater Horn of Africa, then, is the base in Ethiopia.

The Washington Post gives a few more details:

One U.S. official said that there had been discussions about putting a drone base in Ethiopia for as long as four years, but that plan was delayed because “the Ethiopians were not all that jazzed.” Other officials said Ethiopia has become a valued counterterrorism partner because of threats posed by al-Shabab.

[...]

[A] former official said the United States relies on Ethiopian linguists to translate signals intercepts gathered by U.S. agencies monitoring calls and e-mails of al-Shabab members. The CIA and other agencies also employ Ethiopian informants who gather information from across the border.

The BBC adds that the base will be located in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, which borders Somalia and has a large Somali population.

The BBC emphasizes the backlash that drone strikes have caused in Yemen, but basing drones on the continent of Africa entails political risks there as well. As Wired‘s Danger Room notes, building bases in Africa undermines earlier US government assurances to African leaders that the US would not seek a larger military foothold on the continent. Other African countries looking at Ethiopia could begin to feel more uneasy about long-term US intentions in Africa. Within Somalia, drone strikes could kill major terrorists – but they could also hit civilians, inflaming anger against the US, weakening support for the US-backed Transitional Federal Government, and even driving recruits toward the Shabab rebel movement.

The new base could also negatively affect Washington’s relationship with Ethiopia. If the Ethiopians “were not all that jazzed” about drones for the past four years, they may become quite angry if drone strikes kill civilians or stir up anti-Ethiopian resentment in Somalia and in the Ogaden region. Ethiopia’s government is of course happy to receive US military assistance and to strengthen its relationship with Washington, but the negative aspects of a widening drone war may loom larger than the benefits after a while. The idea of Ethiopia playing Pakistan to Somalia’s Afghanistan, with all the tensions that relationship entails for the two countries and for the US, is a troubling scenario.

Basing drones in Ethiopia is a logical extension of current US policy in the region (and part of a larger projection of US power throughout the western Indian Ocean, as Danger Room writes). This policy continues to carry significant risks, however, not only of causing a backlash inside Somalia but also of straining relations between the US and various African governments, starting with Ethiopia.

Nile Politics: A Thaw in Egypt-Ethiopia Relations

On Saturday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf met in Cairo to discuss Ethiopia’s proposed “Grand Renaissance Dam,” which would use some water from the Blue Nile for hydroelectric power. When it was announced in March, the dam project seemed to exacerbate long-standing tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia concerning usage of the Nile. Egypt, whose future water security outlook is somewhat grim, has long taken a significant portion of the Nile – a portion that upstream countries like Ethiopia feel is too large. In 2010, Ethiopia led a number of upstream countries in signing a treaty that would reduce Egypt’s share of the Nile. Egypt and Sudan opposed the treaty, arguing for the maintenance of the status quo. As of this spring, the conflict looked like a tough nut to crack.

Yet Saturday’s meeting in Cairo appears to be hastening a thaw that began with talks late this spring. Egypt and Ethiopia are moving to work out a new arrangement:

“We have agreed to quickly establish a tripartite team of technical experts to review the impact of the dam that is being built in Ethiopia,” Zenawi told a news conference with Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. Experts from Sudan will also be part of the team.

“We have agreed to continue to work on the basis of a win-win solution for all countries in the Nile basin,” he added.

[...]

Sharaf said Cairo and Addis Ababa were discussing a “comprehensive development plan” for the two countries.

“We can make the issue of the Grand Renaissance Dam something useful,” he said. “This dam, in conjunction with the other dams, can be a path for development and construction between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.”

The change in Egypt’s stance likely owes much to the change of regime there. Former President Hosni Mubarak was fairly hawkish on Nile issues, but I imagine that the new government has neither the bandwidth nor the appetite to posture aggressively on the issue. At a time when Egypt’s domestic politics as well as regional politics are shifting (South Sudan’s independence makes the Egypt-Sudan pro-Nile status quo alliance somewhat shakier), Egypt’s new leaders are likely keen to have a workable resolution to the issue.

Ironing out details could prove tricky, and meaningful agreements on core issues hard to reach, but I see these talks and their outcome as a positive step for the region.

Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya have more.