It seems that the crisis of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam between Sudan and Egypt on the one hand and Ethiopia on the other hand will take a dangerous turn with the approaching date of the second filling of the dam next July, without reaching a binding agreement regarding the filling and operation.
In light of the complexity of the solution paths, the situation tends to escalate on more than one side, and the remarkable development is that Khartoum officially talks for the first time about sovereignty over Benishangul, the region in which Ethiopia is building the Renaissance Dam, one of its largest strategic projects on the Blue Nile, near the border with Sudan.
According to a former official in the joint border commissions between the two countries, the Sudanese government, due to the frequent conflicts between it and Addis Ababa over the water and border files, has long distanced itself from raising Sudan’s sovereignty over the Benishangul region, but it seems to have found itself obliged, apparently, to use this paper.
Sudanese statement and Ethiopian denial
Last Saturday, the Sudanese Foreign Ministry issued a statement criticizing what it described as Ethiopia’s hardening of the Renaissance Dam negotiations, in which it officially spoke for the first time about sovereignty over Benishangul.
“We do not need to remind Ethiopia that the irrational complacency in using such misleading claims, as well as disavowal of previous agreements, means compromising the Ethiopian sovereignty over the Benishangul region, over which sovereignty was transferred from Sudan under some of these particular agreements,” the statement said.
In Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Dina Mufti, rejected what he said was Sudan’s claim of subordination to Benishangul, and the continuation of the hostile Sudanese statements, according to his description.
He said in a press conference that he regrets this Sudanese position, which is not related to the border crisis and the Renaissance Dam crisis, adding that Ethiopia rejects Khartoum’s moves to link the border issue with the Renaissance Dam file, and the Ethiopian official reiterated Addis Ababa’s adherence to the leadership of the African Union for the Renaissance Dam negotiations, and described what Sudan is doing. As illogical and unacceptable behavior.
After the Sudanese Foreign Ministry raised the issue of sovereignty over the Benishangul region, it seems that the crisis between the two countries over the border and water issues will take a dangerous turn, according to Siddiq Ferini, a former member of the joint border committees between the two countries.
Phryne describes – to Al-Jazeera Net – the Sudanese Foreign Ministry’s statement as a dangerous development “because it includes strategic revisions that may nullify the official and popular sense of the Sudanese’s sense of unity of conscience and interests between the two countries.”
Perhaps the Foreign Ministry’s hint of raising the Benishangul file encouraged the lower levels to talk about Sudanese sovereignty taken from the territory bordering the Sudanese Blue Nile State, which was not available in the past, according to Frini’s friend.
In an interview with Al-Jazeera Net, the head of the National Border Commission, Moaz Tango, considers the Benishangul region as a Sudanese land that Britain carved out from Sudan for the benefit of Ethiopia, in exchange for the Ethiopians not to build any dam on the Nile.
And about whether Sudan can regain these lands, he says, “There is no right behind the demands, there are conditions that Ethiopia did not comply with, the first of which was one condition, the last of which was Nour.”
Al-Jazeera Net spoke earlier to two experts in borders and international law regarding the relationship of the Benishangul-Qumz region with Sudan, but they refused to raise the matter in the first place.
The opinion of the two experts was that raising this file gives Ethiopia an authority that it lacks in the evasiveness that it has been practicing for decades to refrain from recognizing the 1902 Agreement, which makes it delay in demarcating borders on the ground to resolve the issue of abusive lands.
Since last November, Sudan has regained about 90% of the fertile lands of Fashaqa in Gedaref State, after Ethiopian militias have been cultivating it since 1995.
And after a war launched by the federal army in the Tigray region, all eyes began to turn to Benishangul Province, following the escalation of ethnic violence that ended last month with the control of an armed group in Sidal district in Benishangul-Qums province.
The province of Benishangul is inhabited by 5 nationalities: “Alberta, Gome, Kuma, Mao, and Shanasha”. The Shananas, which reside in the north, are closely related to the Amhara, which together with the Oromo are the two largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia.
Beginning of the story
International law expert, Faisal Abdel-Rahman Ali Taha, provides explanations, which he says are supported by historical documents, on the circumstances surrounding Britain’s granting of the Benishangul region to Ethiopia in exchange for water.
According to Taha, negotiations to define the borders between Sudan and Abyssinia began on April 15, 1899, between Emperor Menelik II and John Harrington, the British representative in Abyssinia, and Egypt was informed that obtaining guarantees on water required reasonable concessions in the territories.
Taha says that it was agreed that Benishangul would be left to Abyssinia in exchange for granting British companies to gold exploration concessions in the area.
He asserts that the required guarantees regarding the waters of the Blue Nile and Lake Tana were obtained by separate agreement in the memorandums exchanged in March 1902, in which Menelik pledged that there would be no interference in the waters except after consultation with the British and Sudanese governments.
The agreement granted Menlik the right to use the power of the water, provided that this use does not result in a significant decrease in the amount of water flowing from the Blue Nile to the White Nile.
Since independence, the central state in Sudan has avoided the Benishangul conflict with the federal government in Addis Ababa in terms of the issue that opens the thorny border file, as Sudan adheres to the 1902 agreement between Ethiopia and Britain, which was colonizing Sudan.
The Benishangul People’s Liberation Movement, which was established in 1974 and fought the war in 1989 in alliance with Tigray to overthrow the Mengistu Haile Mariam regime, seems aware of the extent of the embarrassment facing Khartoum.
The Secretary-General of the Movement, Ahmed Al-Tom Broza, told Al-Jazeera Net, “Talking about an independent state in the Benishangul-Qamz region or returning to the mother country (Sudan) is ahead of its time, and it is only the people of Benishangul who will decide that.”
The first rebellion of Beni Shangol against Addis Ababa began in 1931, and their demands at that time were for the return of the region to Sudan or self-rule within the framework of the Ethiopian state, but the federal capital rejected the two demands violently.
And it is recognized that the movement has forces that bear arms, but they are not fighting a war, and that those currently fighting the war in the region are the “persecuted” Qamz nationalism in the Mutakil Governorate in the north of the region.
The annexation of Benishangul to Ethiopia led to the division of Sudanese tribes and families on both sides of the border, and Sudanese journalist Al-Nazir Ibrahim – to Al-Jazeera Net – says that most of his maternal uncles live on the other side of the border in Ossa, the capital of Benishangul-Qamz region.
The inhabitants of the region belonged socially and emotionally to Sudan, where it is inhabited by a majority of Arab-speaking Muslims, who remained affiliated with the blue sultanate “Funj” in the Sudanese Sennar (1821-1504) and to Sudan throughout the Turkish era and the era of the Mahdist revolution, according to Sudanese observers.
Frini’s friend, who participated in the commissions for demarcating the borders between the two countries, believes that the Benishangul region is a trump card that Sudan can employ if he wants, and then Ethiopia will lose, as he says.
He points out that a Sudanese diplomat revealed to him that the decision-makers in Sudan have fully proven that there is a new approach adopted by the Ethiopian state based on the denial of all memoranda and historical agreements, and the country is considered a living being nourished from the borders and resources of other countries.
Last February, Mansour Al-Tom, Director of Coordination and Follow-up at the Government of Blue Nile State, told Al-Jazeera Net that the number of Ethiopian refugees from the Qumz tribes has reached 3052, and since then the flow of refugees from Benishangul has increased.