Trouble on the Nile: What Sudan’s Coup Means for the Horn Region

By Brad Settelmeyer

A protest against military rule in Khartoum, Sudan on October 21, 2021.
Image Credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

Sudan is in crisis.  

Military officials deposed the interim government on October 25th and detained civilian leaders, including Prime Minister Abdallla Hamdok. The interim government had been established in 2019 after protests led to the military overthrowing longtime leader Omar al Bashir. A subsequent power sharing agreement was formed between military leaders and Sudan’s civil society.

The most recent coup’s leader, Lt. General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, justified the military’s actions as helping to fast track the country’s current yet tumultuous transition towards democracy.  A technocratic government has been set up to take the place of the overthrown civilian-led government and will govern until the 2023 elections.  

It is unclear whether the general’s words are to be trusted.  That is beside the point, however, as it looks as if the military will be in power for the foreseeable future.

Domestic ramifications are clear and present within Sudan. Many protests have emerged, which have been met with a significant degree of oppression from the military government.  

What is not clear, however, is the regional impact of a change in Khartoum. Whether it be relations with neighboring countries Egypt and Ethiopia, or a growing list of other issues Sudan is currently facing, the coup will most likely influence how Sudan behaves in both northern Africa and the Horn of Africa. 

A significant issue which has already been a sore spot between Sudan and Ethiopia is the damming of the Nile River.  More specifically, the planned Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), and the impact it would have on the countries who are downstream from it, are of great concern to both Sudan and Egypt. 

Negotiations were ongoing before the coup in Sudan. Regional actors like Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia are still looking to find a peaceful solution to the controversy caused by the GERD. Negotiations have been going on for quite some time, though these talks have recently come to a standstill. Ethiopia seems poised to continue its years-long plan for the GERD.  

Continued negotiations between the three major parties (Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt) have and will likely continue to be stymied by the lack of willpower to concede by any side.  Add in the coup, however, and the issue altogether might be further pushed down the river as political actors deal with how it affects their other dealings with Sudan.

Experts in the region speculate that Ethiopia will take advantage of the chaos to further its dam building process. Haidar Youseff of Sudan argues that the political crisis will further exacerbate the water crisis which the GERD would impose on downstream countries like Egypt and Sudan. 

Ethiopia will mostly feign ignorance, not address the lack of progress on negotiations and continue to build the controversial GERD.

Other issues are also of concern, though most likely not as politically triggering as Ethiopia’s building of the GERD.  The increasing violence in Ethiopia’s Tigray region has raised concerns over the stability of the Horn region in general.  

Some experts argue that Addis Ababa is worried the recently empowered military government nearby might try to give support to Tigrayan rebels across the Sudan-Ethiopia border. It is unclear if the Sudan military government would risk raising tension even further with Ethiopia, though previous disputes between the nations predict a friction when dealing with issues like the border and Tigrayan conflict.

Beyond the region, international condemnation has been unified and criticism has been directed largely at the military government. The US, UK, Saudi Arabia and UAE issued a joint statement condemning the coup and urging a return to civilian rule as soon as possible. 

The condemnation will surely have a serious impact on Sudan’s credibility and avenues of action it could take to address many of the regional issues.

Condemnation from some important global actors aside, crucial regional actors have called to respect the sovereignty of the Sudanese state. Egypt’s foreign ministry released a statement arguing that the security of Egypt is tied to the political stability of its southern neighbor, a supportive nod to the Sudan military government in power.  

Ethiopia has also called for the respect of Sudan’s sovereignty and urged de-escalation. Given the fraught nature of the Sudan-Ethiopia relationship over the past decade or so, Ethiopia arguably prefers a return to democratic rule to reign in instability but must balance that with a desire to cool tensions between the two nations.

Sudan’s recent coup will not help in the resolution of the many current crises the region faces.  It is also quite early to tell whether the military government in Sudan will continue its rule indefinitely, or if it will give power to a civilian led government in 2023 or before.  

What is clear is that Sudan’s coup comes at a dramatic time in the region, and may further complicate everything from pacifying the region’s conflicts to building consensus on hot-button issues like the GERD. The worst may yet be to come.  

Brad Settelmeyer is a regular contributor and assistant editor for the Realist Review. A recent master’s student at Northeastern University, his interests include conflict resolution and humanitarian crises.

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