Strategic Musical Chairs
During the years of civil war in Sudan, both the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) considered the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), then closely allied to the communist Derg, to be an enemy.
After Mengistu’s regime had been overthrown, both the EPLF and the EPRDF guerrilla movements, which had ascended to power with Khartoum’s help, realized that their Sudanese ally was not so friendly. Yet there was a modicum of difference in their experience with Khartoum’s hostility: in the case of Eritrea it was plain and open, Khartoum supported the Eritrea Jihad armed movement and Eritrea’s President, Issayas Afeworki quickly invited the SPLA into Eritrea to retaliate against Sudan.
In the case of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, although duly suspicious of Khartoum’s policies, he nevertheless tried to keep a more or less neutral stance towards the Sudan’s Muslim Brothers’regime. Zenawi fought against Sudanese military encroachments when they took place – mostly through helping the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) rebels. He even launched Operation Black Fox deep into Sudan in 1994, but later expelled the SPLA from Ethiopia in 1999. Why? Because by then the relationship between Asmara, Eritrea and Khartoum had turned 180° due to the Ethio-Eritrean War of 1998-2000.
With the war, Issayas stopped supporting the SPLA and decided to woo Khartoum. As a result, Meles let the former guerrillas come back to Addis-Ababa after they “regularized” their diplomatic status by signing the so-called “Consolidated Peace Agreement” (CPA) with the northern government in January 2005. Yet Meles kept an even balance between politeness to the North and friendship with the South. Not so in the course followed by Asmara, which progressed deeper and deeper with Khartoum as its own quarrel with the US grew. Things became worse with the support given by the Eritreans to the radical Islamist Shebab then fighting the Ethiopian Army in Somalia.
This game of strategic musical chairs took on a new turn when President Omar el-Bashir recently visited Asmara. Bashir was, of course, invited in open defiance of the March 4th ICC indictment, both to score a point against the international community (read “the US”) and to cement Issayas’ ever growing involvement with the Muslim and Arab world. This confirmed and accelerated Addis-Ababa’s rapprochement with Southern Sudan. Already in February, Ethiopia announced that it had contracted a Chinese company to build a $25m highway between Gambela, Ethiopia and Akobo. What it had not announced was that it was also giving the Juba government discreet but growing military support. The relationship has now gone even deeper since the Ethiopian Prime Minister became an international advocate for the SPLA.
On March 31stthe Presidential Affairs Minister of the Southern Sudan government (GoSS), Luka Biong Deng, asked Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to raise the issue of South Sudan’s fiscal crisis at the G20 Summitin London the following Thursday. Due to a drop in world oil prices, the GoSS, which gets 99% of its income from the oil money payments transferred by Khartoum, has practically gone bankrupt. So now in a new twist of fate Meles finds himself being an advocate for the SPLA he had once banned from Ethiopian territory, while Issayas Afeworqi embraces President Bashir against whom he used to support that selfsame SPLA.
Of course, the first underlying layer of logic remains, as ever, the Ethio-Eritrean mutual hostility. Forty-eight years after the beginning of the Eritrean war of independence, the knives are still drawn. And Sudan remains the third angle of the triangle, now cozying up to one of the players and then trying to stab him.
Among students of the Horn’s regional history, the prize money goes to those who can explain the underlying logic of the continuities buttressing these apparent contradictions. Any takers?
Gérard Prunier is a widely acclaimed journalist as well as the Director of the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. He has published over 120 articles and five books, including The Rwanda Crisis and Darfur: A 21st Century Genocide. His most recent book, Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophefocuses on Congo, the Rwandan genocide, and events that led to the death of some four million people. Living in Ethiopia allows Prunier a unique view of the politics and current events of Central and Eastern Africa. Be sure to check back on Tuesdays to read more Notes From Africa.