While most attention is on the rebel violence in Sudan and South Sudan there is an even larger threat developing in the background. This is about who (Egypt, Ethiopia or Sudan) owns how much of the Nile River water. The Nile has its origins in Ethiopia and then gathers more water as it flows through Sudan and then to Egypt which has long been the major user (for agriculture). But now that water is valuable to all three countries for hydroelectric power as well. The trigger for the current dispute is several Ethiopian dam projects opposed by Egypt because of fears the dams will reduce the Nile's flow and deprive Egypt of its usual share of Nile water. Egypt claims it has rights to around 85 percent of the Nile’s annual flow and cites two treaties, one from 1929 and one from 1959, as the basis for its claim. In 2013 the three countries agreed to form a joint special committee of international experts to discus and analyze the dam project and its potential effects on Nile River water flow. That effort did not settle anything because Ethiopia makes a good case that times and technology have changed and now it is possible for Ethiopia and Sudan to get more use from the Nile water that otherwise flows down through Egypt on its way to the Mediterranean.
Until recently Sudan appeared to continue its historical support for Egypt. But in the last few months Sudan became more willing to side with Ethiopia when it comes to the long-standing dispute over GERD (Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam) which is under construction (since 2011) and nearing completion. Major parts of GERD are already completed and operational. Recently Sudan turned to Ethiopia seeking support for its 1958 claim to the Halayeb Triangle area. This is a border territory that Egypt and Sudan both claim. Egypt has refused to submit the dispute to international arbitration. Sudan apparently deduced that the best approach to this was to involve Egyptian resistance to GERD. The three nations are still unable to agree on a water and electrical power sharing agreement with Ethiopia over Nile River water distribution rights and Sudan wants Egypt to give up this 20,000 square kilometer area on the Red Sea border between the two. Most of the 27,000 people in the triangle are ethnic Sudanese, despite decades of Egyptian efforts to encourage ethnic Egyptians to move to the desolate area. Egypt is not keen on surrendering the triangle but is now forced to consider it. Some Egyptian politicians have threatened to attack the GERD, which it could do thanks to its large force of American F-16 fighter-bombers. Ethiopia has already spent over half the nearly $7 billion GERD will cost and Egypt could ruin much of that via smart bomb attacks.
September 4, 2017: How times have changed in Sudan. Back in 2014 it was government policy to discourage, with physical force is need be. That meant opposition media would have their offices visited by gunmen who beat editors and reporters and warned them that discussion (in print or on TV) of “normalizing” relations with Israel was forbidden because that would mean recognizing Israel’s existence. Back then Sudan backed the Palestinians. Now government ministers are appearing on TV blaming the Palestinians for the continued bad relations with Israel and that it was time to normalize relations with Israel. This is part of the Sudan move away from Iran (made official in January 2017) and back to alliances with Sunni Arab oil states. The Sunni Arabs, with the notable exception of the self-destructive Palestinians, are treating Israel as a valuable ally in the current struggle against an aggressive Shia Iran. These pro-Israel sentiments became public in August and created some blowback from traditionalists who continue to back the Palestinians no matter what. Meanwhile the Israelis are airlifting food aid to refugees in South Sudan.
September 3, 2017: South Sudan's civil war has now lasted three years and nine months. There is no end in sight. The country is devastated. The national army, often still called the SPLA (Sudan Peoples Liberation Army) has relied on Dinka tribe militias to help fight rebels in several areas. Many of the militias have their own local agendas and are unreliable allies. One Dinka militia, the Mathiang Anyoor, has fought for the government since the civil war began in December 2013. But it too has reliability issues. In late June government forces fought with a group of Mathiang Anyoor militia deserters. The main advantage the government has is that their armed forces are more united than the rebels. Nevertheless the main rebel force, the SPLM-IO (Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement-In Opposition) is fragmented but hasn't disappeared. Its core cadre consists of former SPLA units whose soldiers came from the Nuer tribe. The civil war's tribal dimension is confirmed in the leadership. South Sudan president Salvaa Kiir is Dinka. The senior SPLM-IO leader, Riek Machar, is Nuer. Machar has opponents within the SPLM-IO and that is one reason why he remains in exile in South Africa.
September 1, 2017: In northeastern Sudan (Red Sea state) a gang specializing in people smuggling recently released 22 Eritreans who were kidnapped in mid-August. The gang reportedly received ransoms for the victims and the Sudan government is denouncing such activity. Egypt is pressuring Sudan to crack down on these smugglers because a lot of the illegals brought into Egypt get stuck in Egypt because Israel has successfully sealed its Egyptian border against the people smugglers.
August 31, 2017: In South Sudan the government announced that former army chief of staff General Paul Malong has been "confined to his home for security reasons." If it sounds like house arrest, it probably is, even though the government denies Malong is under arrest. Malong was fired as chief of staff in May after other generals accused the army of tribal bias. Malong is a Dinka.
August 30, 2017: In Sudan leaders of the two major factions of SPLM-N (Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement -North) are holding meetings to discuss reuniting the organization. The SPLM-N has been fighting the Sudan government in two states, Blue Nile and South Kordofan since 2011. Last year political disagreements led to an open split between leaders in Blue Nile state. Tribal disputes played a role. A Blue Nile faction now known as SPLM-N Agar (after its leader, Malik Agar) fought with a faction commanded by Josef Tika. Most of Agars fighters come from the Angsana tribe. Tika's fighters are Uduk (a predominantly Christian tribe.) An August 26 clash between the Agar and Tika factions spurred the new reconciliation talks. Another firefight may have occurred on August 14. Other clashes occurred in June. A faction in South Kordofan's Nuba Mountains, led by Agar's former deputy commander, Abdel Aziz al-Hilu, also opposes Agar. A former South Kordofan governor, Ismail Jalab, is in charge of the reconciliation talks. He has been critical of Agar and al-Hilu. Jalab says the SPLM-N must remain united if it wants to remain a national political force. It’s personal and tribal feuds like this that keep the war going and make a peace deal very complicated. Wars like this can go on for over a decade before exhaustion leads to a peace deal which is usually just a temporay ceasfire. The underlying disputes are still there because they are much more difficule to resolve.
August 29, 2017: In southern Sudan (South Kordofan state) there is severe famine developing. Foreign aid workers report that the army is exacerbating famine conditions in the Nuba Mountains area in order to weaken rebel resistance. This has been a government tactic for decades.
August 26, 2017: In southern South Sudan (Yei River state) an American journalist was one of 20 people killed in a firefight between the army and SPLM-IO rebels in the town of Kaya.
August 24, 2017: In South Sudan the government is under pressure to either provide more protection for key (medial and food) foreign aid organizations or see them shut down operations in all or parts of South Sudan. One major medical aid organization, which operates throughout the country, points out that in the last 18 months nearly 30 of their facilities in South Sudan have been attacked and looted. The facilities in Wau Shiluk, Leer, Pibor and Kodok experienced major damage. This echoes a recent UN report that detailed how attacks on aid workers serving in South Sudan have increased. Since 2013 82 aid workers have been killed in South Sudan. So far this year 15 have been slain.
August 23, 2017: In Sudan Russia's ambassador was found dead in the capital. In died in the swimming pool at his residence. Investigators said the cause of death was heart attack -- not assassination.
August 16, 2017: In Sudan foreign aid groups believe that because the violence in South Sudan is not decreasing, the South Sudanese refugees in Sudan may be staying there for years. Some 415,000 South Sudanese refugees are currently in Sudan and the camps are not popular with the locals as they often become sanctuaries for criminals and rebels who prey on the locals. A growing number of South Sudanese are fleeing the country, most often to Uganda where about a million South Sudanese refugees are concentrated in camps that suffer similar problems but to a lesser extent. That’s because Uganda is largely (85 percent) Christian and ethnically similar to many of the South Sudanese refugees.
August 15, 2017: In northeast South Sudan (Upper Nile state) rebels claim they have retaken the town of Pagak after five days of fighting and reports from locals seems to confirm that. The rebels drove away a government force that had arrived on the 7th and claimed it controlled the town. The fierce rebel counter-attack to retake the town is not a surprise. Since 2014 Pagak has served as a primary rebel military base and political headquarters and is about ten kilometers from the Ethiopian border.
August 11, 2017: The U.S. and Egypt have told the Sudanese government that Sudan may send a military delegation to observe the U.S.-Egyptian Bright Star military exercise scheduled for October. This is a diplomatic gesture intended to tell Sudan it is not completely isolated even though U.S.-Sudan relations remain cool and Egyptian-Sudan relations continue to be tense.
August 9, 2017: In South Sudan the UN has begun deploying a new peacekeeper force called RPF (Regional Protection Force). The 4,000 troops of the RPF is a special reinforcement for the existing UN peacekeeping force there. RPF provides extra protection for UN facilities in the capital and areas declared sanctuaries for civilians. RPF will also take on some of the transportation route protection duties. About 500 RPF troops have arrived so far (a Rwandan infantry company, a Nepalese security company and a Bangladeshi combat engineer detachment).
August 8, 2017: In central South Sudan (Gok state) fighting between factions of the Dinka Gok tribe left 44 dead and 62 wounded in a continuing feud over cattle and territory.