Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is visiting the South Sudanese capital Juba today. Here’s a brief primer on why South Sudan matters to Ethiopia:
Guarantor and mediator – Ethiopia ‘s Hailemariam signed South Sudan’s August 2015 peace deal as one of several regional guarantors. He was personally involved in the peace talks from 2014 to 2015 and had the doubly important role of playing host and chairing the East African bloc IGAD that brokered the deal.
His former foreign minister Seyoum Mesfin was the chief mediator as one of three IGAD special envoys tasked to negotiate a peace agreement. For Hailemariam, the potential collapse of the peace deal would be a potential blow to his prestige both abroad and at home during a time of significant domestic unrest.
Nile basin politics – Ethiopia has a long-term strategic interest in maintaining good relations with any government in Juba because of the latter’s involvement in Nile basin politics, which historically have involved tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt over upriver activities on the Blue Nile that could reduce the river’s flow to Egypt. Although South Sudan has never been a major player in this dynamic, the country could play a role as either rival or ally in Ethiopia’s relationship with Egypt.
Investments and trade – There are many Ethiopian businessmen with investments in Juba and elsewhere in South Sudan, including in real estate, construction and other fields. Although these investments are marginal to the Ethiopian economy, the Addis government nonetheless would like to protect these interests by seeing a stabilization of the situation in Juba.
Border security and Ethiopia’s Nuer population – Ethiopia has a considerable minority Nuer population, which is the same tribe that is living in the protection of civilian sites in several of South Sudan’s cities. The relationship between Ethiopia and the predominantly Nuer SPLM-IO is ambiguous, with Ethiopia neither overtly supportive nor hostile. Much of Ethiopia’s long border with South Sudan is controlled by SPLM-IO.
The Gambella region hosts approximately 288,000 South Sudanese refugees, the vast majority of them Nuers. Ethiopia has an interest in keeping this western region secure and stable. Some Ethiopian officials suspected the hand of Juba in a Murle radio on Ethiopian Nuers earlier this year, which resulted in the killing of about 200 people and the abduction of scores of children. Ethiopian military officials visited Juba and Pibor and the country’s army even briefly occupied parts of the South Sudanese border county of Pochalla in an effort to secure the release of the children.
Peacekeeping – Ethiopia plays an important and sometimes profitable role in United Nations and African Union peacekeeping operations in South Sudan, the disputed Abyei region and Somalia. Ethiopian force commanders have led the Abyei mission (UNISFA) and South Sudan mission (UNMISS). The Ethiopian military needs to maintain a good relationship and reputation with the UN headquarters in New York in order to preserve its status as a provider of peacekeepers, but recent attacks by SPLA on peacekeeping bases in Juba and Malakal have made it more difficult to do that and put Ethiopian lives at risk.
An attack by South Sudanese soldiers on the UN base in Malakal, for example, resulted in criticism of the Ethiopian contingent there for their response. Some sources in the UN Mission told the research group CIVIC recently that they “believed that the entire Ethiopian contingent in Malakal was to be repatriated, based on their particularly poor performance—including by having abandoned the perimeter posts where the SPLA entered.” Yet the UN headquarters blocked that move and opted to keep the Ethiopians in place.
Similarly, Ethiopian peacekeepers in Juba have come under scrutiny for failure to respond to the infamous Terrain compound attack that took place about a kilometer from the UN House base in Juba last July. CIVIC says that “the Ethiopian Battalion Commander disobeyed an order to stand up and send the contingent’s Quick Reaction Force (QRF).”
CIVIC says that “UNMISS even secured assistance from South Sudanese authorities to help the QRF navigate SPLA positions on the road, but the [Chinese and Ethiopian] contingents still were unwilling to try to intervene.” Elsewhere, such as at the POC3 and Tongping bases, the Ethiopian peacekeepers were praised for the protection and assistance that they offered to civilians and even reportedly returned fire at SPLA troops attacking civilians inside the base.
Ethiopia consequently has an interest in seeing that military to military relations with South Sudan do not sour more than they have already, otherwise their contingents in South Sudan will be doubly at risk – physically at risk because of the possibility of clashes with the host country forces and reputationally at risk should they not perform well in the course of their duties.
For now, it is unclear exactly what Ethiopia’s prime minister plans to discuss with South Sudanese authorities, but some of these issues are likely to be on the table.
This report is part of a series called ‘Insider’, which offers breaking reports, factboxes and tip sheets on the political situation in South Sudan. For full access to the content in this series subscribe here.