Ethiopia does not only share a long border with the Sudan (1600 kms in length) but also the Blue Nile, the lifeline of both Sudan and Egypt. And despite the Sudan’s historical and strategic links with Ethiopia the two countries have since time immemorial walked the tight rope between security and strategic alliances in a Horn of Africa region bereft of cohesion. The fifth in our series of articles about South Sudan and Abyei’s independence referenda studies Ethiopia’s position vis-à-vis the North and the South.
Sudan has been warming up to the Arab League to the detriment of its position as an African nation within the African Union, and over the years has served as Egypt’s main conduit of destabilization efforts directed against Ethiopia, according to many analysts.
Egypt had for years backed Somali irredentism, the Eritrean Liberation Front and other secessionist groups that were fighting their central governments, including the TPLF, which is now in power in Addis Ababa. TPLF was one of the recipients of Egypt’s military and financial aid through the Sudan. As a result, Ethiopian regimes have had well articulated strategies as concerns South Sudan and its struggle against the Arab North.
The Haile Sellasie government fully backed, with Israel, the Anya Nya rebellion of the “Christian South” against the Muslim Arab North. It countered the Sudanese support to the Eritrean rebels. By 1971, Sudan and Ethiopia agreed on the settlement of the Southern problem through dialog, after which a peace accord was signed in Addis Abeba between the Ana Nya and the Nimeri government.
Nimeri went through the motion of closing the ELF offices in Khartoum and Kassala but the move was not serious. When Haile Sellasie was overthrown in 1974, cold war alliances changed with Nimeri becoming close to Washington and the Addis Abeba military regime allying with the Soviet Camp.
Now, a plan hatched by Sudan’s Western alliance to sabotage the Mengistu regime in Addis Ababa made Khartoum its pivotal base and thus anti-Mengistu movements of all categories — secessionists, leftists, Ethiopian-contras backed by the USA — were all using the Sudan as their political and military base. And to counter this, the military regime in Addis Abeba committed itself to fully support the SPLM/SPLA to the extent that Ethiopian military C130 planes and soldiers began fighting alongside Southern Sudan rebels. Mengistu Haile Mariam lobbied Mugabe, Castro and the Vietnamese to help Garang and his cause.
During the 1984 famine in Ethiopia, George Bush (sr), who was at the time President Ronald Reagan’s Vice President, flew over to the Sudan, met with Nimeri and finalized the Western plan to destabilize Mengistu by using the famine aid to strengthen the Tigrean and Eritrean rebels. More than 95% of the famine aid money was diverted by the Tigreran front of Meles Zenawi (TPLF), Ethiopia’s current Prime Minister, with the full knowledge and collaboration of most of the relief and aid agencies.
By 1991, the Mengistu regime fell and the pro-Sudan TPLF that took power chased off the SPLM/A from Ethiopian soil. Omar Beshir and his aides like Fath el Erwa who had closely worked with Washington and the Tigrean rebels were elated and in recognition they also rounded up dozens of Ethiopian opposition (EPRP) members and handed them over to the TPLF. The OLF was denied access to Ethiopia through the Sudan.
This is when the SPLM main base shifted to Kenya and Uganda. However, the honeymoon did not last. Omar Beshir’s regime fell out with Washington, and consequently with Asmara and Addis Abeba. But Meles Zenawi, fearing Sudan would open its borders to Ethiopian opposition forces, mended fence with Khartoum. Eritrea, on the other hand, continued to back the SPLM and the Northern political opposition and also helped launch the Eastern armed front of the Bejas against Khartoum.
The American sponsored drive to destabilize and overthrow the Beshir regime was by now using Asmara as its center. Beshir and Meles eventually morphed into a pair of Siamese twins; One needing the other’s support or neutrality at best. Meles ceded Ethiopian territory (in the historic Quara region) to Khartoum to further placate Beshir. In return the Khartoum regime has continued to suppress Ethiopian opposition while harassing the thousands of refugees on its soil.
What happens in South Sudan is of great strategic importance to Ethiopia, even if the regime in Addis Ababa does not represent Ethiopian national interest.
In a related strategic consideration, the military regime of colonel Mengistu had concluded that the breakup of Somalia was of paramount importance to Ethiopia and then went on to arm all and sundry Somali groups to attack the Barre regime and to subsequently create havoc in that country. The plan has worked as the present day stateless, war torn and divided Somalia attests.
Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi is walking on both lanes—on the one hand working with Beshir and on the other working with the West to assure the secession of South Sudan to whose government (GOSS) it is, along with Kenya, already serving as an arms conduit.
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