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Capital: What is your take on the current state of relations between Sudan and Ethiopia?
Abdelrahman Sirelkhatim: I believe that relations between Sudan and Ethiopia are flourishing under the leadership of President Omar Al-Bashir and under the auspices of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi followed by his successor PM Hailemariam Desalegn. Sudan and Ethiopia, needless to say, are sister countries. They have deep relations rooted in history and have a lot in common, sharing a lot at all levels; and we’re very proud of this relationship. Currently, good relations have reached a peak in most aspects: politically, socially and culturally, and we’re doing our very best to develop it on the economic side. If the relationship has a firm footing, and it does, it will keep relations steady and will give both countries a chance to interact, especially people to people. This is our ultimate goal; with individuals in both countries feeling the benefits and contributing to its development. Capital: What can be said about current economic relations, specifically in terms of cross-border trade and trade balance, between the two countries?
Amb. Sirelkhatim: The economic relationship between the two has existed for centuries and we’re happy with that fact but it’s definitely not at the level or consistency that we expect or the effort we have expended. We would like to see it progress and advance to a high degree, which is why we have formed a joint political committee at the highest level. This committee was set up in 2009 and is headed by the leaders of both countries with three branches. It has different sub-committees dealing with economic, social and political issues and are in turn headed by ministers from both countries; for instance, the ministers of Foreign Affairs heads the political sub-committees, so on and so forth. Hopefully, the joint committee will convene in Khartoum by the Middle of December 2012. The focus of the fourth session will be on economics and we will be holding discussions even before the economic committee assembles in Khartoum. We’re trying to arrange the platform for a workshop, here in Addis, where the relevant authorities can sit together and brainstorm, bringing new ideas to the table and to identify problem areas. I don’t have the figures at hand, but generally, I and others like me are not happy with the numbers and we believe that things on the economic side could be vastly improved, therefore, we’re targeting the factor of complementarities, especially in areas concerning trade.
Capital: Recently, there were reports that the Ethio-Sudanese electric power transmission line has been completed. Can you provide us updates on the project?
Amb. Sirelkhatim: This is one of the projects between Sudan and Ethiopia, concerning the development and provision of electricity, and is a joint project. I think I can say it’s almost finished, and hopefully, we’re going to celebrate its inauguration soon, but the inauguration date depends upon the workings and level of coordination of the relevant ministries involved in the project. To my knowledge, they haven’t decided yet on the exact date of the commissioning of the project, but the project is in its final stages and we believe that the linkup will be concluded before the end of the year 2012.
Capital: October, when the Foreign Minister of Sudan, Ali Ahmed Karti, was in Ethiopia, one of the issues both countries discussed was the demarcation of the border between the two countries. How far along this line have they gone on resolving this issue?
Amb. Sirelkhatim: I believe the issue of border demarcation, which we have jointly been discussing for decades, has reached its final phase. I can tell you frankly that, since last year, we have reached an agreement through our political joint committee. This issue will also be addressed at the next session which we hope will be held soon. The assigned technical teams have concluded their work on the proposal for demarcation, which was endorsed by the ministers of both countries last year. The leaders of both countries then ratified the proposal that same year, therefore, what remains is the implementation phase. This is what’s going to be discussed next month; on how and when to begin demarcating the border between Sudan and Ethiopia. To me, this is great news for both the people of Sudan and Ethiopia, because this will bring an end to any border issues or conflicts which have existed in the past. After the implementation phase is over and done with, our main focus will be in joint efforts to develop our borders together. The aim or target of both countries is along this line. To fulfill this aim, the demarcation process must be completed and hopefully, by January 2013, we’ll be able to do just that, in a joint concerted effort.
Capital: Many Ethiopians currently reside in Sudan. Do you know how many they are and in what sectors of the economy they’re involved?
Amb. Sirelkhatim: To tell you frankly, no one knows the exact numbers at the moment. But the Sudanese government’s estimate is that about three million Ethiopians reside in the Sudan. You might be aware of the fact that we’re embarking on the process of registering all our citizens, and this process will include foreigners who reside in Sudan. After the registration is completed, we will know exactly how many Ethiopians and other foreign nationals are in our country. Ethiopians are allowed to work in different areas and sectors, because we treat them like Sudanese. Therefore, they are not denied access to any job if they are qualified for it. Many of them came to Sudan after the 1974 revolution, and even now, you can observe the number of Ethiopians applying for visas to migrate to Sudan. For various reasons, Ethiopians travel back and forth through our common border at Humera or Metema to eastern Sudan and elsewhere in our country, without any hassle and problems.
Capital: In September, Sudan and South Sudan signed a comprehensive peace agreement here in Addis Ababa. Would you say whether the peace agreement is sustainable in the long run, and if so, what has the Ethiopian government’s role been in the peace agreement?
Amb. Sirelkhatim: Let me start by answering your last question first; we are very grateful to Ethiopia and its leaders, especially the late PM Meles Zenawi and his successor PM Hailemariam Desalegn, who played a major part in formulating a mechanism for a peace deal between Sudan and South Sudan. We would like to express our gratitude and friendship to the Ethiopian people and to the Ethiopian armed forces, which are now in Sudan on a peace keeping mission in the western region of Darfur and in the Abyei region. We can’t quantify the contributions of Ethiopia towards peace in our country. So, through you, on behalf of the Sudanese people and government I reiterate our appreciation, and thanks to the people of Ethiopia, and to its leadership. We also would like to extend our appreciation to the international community for their efforts and commitment in aiding us to reach an agreement last September 20th and sincerely hope that it will bring us all sustained peace. On the part of Sudan, we have started its implementation from the very beginning in all the areas that are covered by this agreement. We still have two main unresolved issues, which are the status of Abyei and the border demarcation issues. We hope to resolve these in an amicable fashion, which will be the way forward for all concerned, otherwise peace and security will be threatened. I personally would like to see Ethiopia and the international community stay the course with us through this process, until we reach full agreement for peace between Sudan and South Sudan, and this hopefully should be accomplished within a period of two months and in accordance to the resolution of the peace and security council of the African Union.
Capital: What is Sudan’s position on the usage of the Nile River and also on the mega dam project Ethiopia is building on the Nile River close to our common border?
Amb. Sirelkhatim: Of course we have now become part of this process and this great dam project, the Grand Renaissance Dam (GRD). I am saying this because, as you know, there is a tripartite committee which is composed of Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. On this joint committee, our people are playing a major role in bringing together Ethiopia and Egypt. It is evident that, in the past, there were some difficulties and disputes between Ethiopia and Egypt, therefore, we did our best to bring all sides together and our side has succeeded in doing this. Now all parties are working together, hand in hand, to bring this dream into reality and a meeting was held in Addis Ababa which was a success. During this meeting, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt signed a document relating to the Nile River. I believe, very soon, the joint committee of the Renaissance Dam will also convene its fifth meeting here in Addis Ababa. That means Sudan is playing an advanced role in the efforts of building this project; we believe it is not only an Ethiopian project, but one we also are going to benefit from, meaning all three countries. Now in Sudan, the Ethiopian embassy, together with the government of Sudan, are encouraging Sudanese people to finance this project by buying bonds. This tells you how much the Sudanese are supporting the GRD project, so that’s why I started by saying to you that we are part of this process and we are supporting it.
Capital: A Permanent Cooperative Mechanism (PCM) was recently signed by the relevant ministries of the three countries. What does the PCM consist of, in terms of the use of the Nile River?
Amb. Sirelkhatim: I’m sure you were following up on the fact that Sudan and Egypt had some reservations about the basic Nile mechanism in the past. This was signed by six countries, without the inclusion of Sudan. To explain briefly, the mechanism you refer to, the PCM, which has been signed by Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, will pave the way for Sudan and Egypt to join the rest in the near future. So, I think it’s a good step forward; to bring together all Nile basin countries to work in harmony for the benefit of our people.
Capital: There were reports in local newspapers quoting “intelligence sources” and “websites” alleging that Sudan has leased land to Egypt to station their Air force there with a possible aim of striking the GRD. Reports were also citing the same sources as saying that the Yarmouk military factory in Khartoum, which Sudan claims was bombed by the Israeli Airforce was, in some way, a threat to Ethiopia’s national security. What would your response be to these reports?
Amb. Sirelkhatim: I have read what had been written in one of the newspapers here and I believe it is a very adverse report. I’m very sorry to say this but I think it is sad and shameful. What they reported was utterly false and I don’t know who is behind this or the reasons behind disseminating such false information to the Ethiopian public, especially about the small arms factory, which was bombed by the Israelis, being a threat to Ethiopia and the other reports. I am sure you have read it too, but personally, I feel very sad that a newspaper in Ethiopia feels compelled to provide false information to spoil the deep and amicable relationship between Sudan and Ethiopia at such a time. We certainly know, and believe the whole World knows, that this factory is a small arms factory for manufacturing ammunition for small arms, such as Kalashnikovs, and it has been there since 1960, built by the Germans in Sudan. Iran has nothing to do with it; Egypt has nothing to do with it; it’s purely a government-owned factory for more than five decades.
Actually, I don’t know why we would support upheaval in Ethiopia by using this small arms factory one day, as I cannot comprehend how and why we would threaten the GRD when we are trying to contribute financially to build the dam, and our engineers are involved in providing technical assistance, having been there four times already. I have been to the construction site twice myself and recently our Minister of water resources also visited the site; it’s there in the news. Our technical teams were there together with Alemayehu Tegenu, Minister of Water and Energy of Ethiopia, and we are working together in harmony to facilitate and pave the way to build the GRD. We are convinced and believe this project will benefit our people, therefore, it defies logic that we would be involved in striking such a project. As the saying goes, it’s like taking your eyes out with your own fingers.
I think those that are inventing these rumors are the true enemies of this dam project, working from within the country and also from abroad to destroy the good and burgeoning relations between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. Therefore, I would like to reiterate how saddened I am that such rumours are being reported by some of our brothers in Ethiopia. I’m telling you frankly that Sudan has joined forces with Ethiopia, not only to build the dam, but also build strategic relations for the coming generations, and not only for the present generation. We will support Ethiopia, we still support the project of the Renaissance Dam, and we’re still going to join up with our brothers in Ethiopia and in Egypt for the benefit of the people of the three countries for the future of the coming generation and their wellbeing.