By A.T. Abera
Ethiopia and Egypt share the Nile with 9 other riparian states. While the Nile and its tributaries naturally have their source upstream, Egypt, at the mouth of the river, has a near-total monopoly of use. Egypt’s desire to control this vital resource led it to adopt an outwardly aggressive strategy of control and manipulation. While in the 19th century this was expressed in expeditions to colonize upstream states, the 20th century took more diplomatic, political, and economic manoeuvres mixed with the threat of the use of force as well as establishing a fait accompli by constructing megaprojects. This strategy helped Egypt to remain at the helm of the monopoly of the use of the river while countries upstream, for lack of capacity, scant policy focus, or for fear of Egypt’s coercive force remained docile or limited their protest to only diplomatic appeal. This violent hegemonic control had particularly affected Ethiopia. The attempts by Egypt to undermine Ethiopia’s possible desire and capacity to utilize the waters had made the relationship between the two countries tense and rife with mistrust. As a result, a dam being built by Ethiopia to generate electricity, the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), couldn’t be seen simply as a project for development by either side. For Egypt, GERD is a threat to its monopoly on the use of the Nile. For Ethiopia, apart from its economic importance, the GERD is seen as liberation from Egyptian sponsored subversion and sabotage. The underlying conflict is between change to Egyptian violent hydro hegemony and a fair water-sharing deal. This has made negotiations on the GERD unnecessarily more political than technical. Thus, reaching a comprehensive agreement will require the political will to accept that the Nile is shared water resource and not an exclusive property of lower riparian states. Without such political will, technical negotiations will bear no fruit. Will Egypt accept the change or continue to attempt to perpetuate injustice by “all means possible”?
Two dams for opposing dreams
Two major processes marking the decision to build two colossal dams on the Nile define contemporary relations between Ethiopia and Egypt. On July 26, 1956, President Gamal Abdel Nasser declared, “we don’t have to seek American and British aid for building our dam, we will build it ourselves and with our own money.” He also declared the nationalization of the Suez Canal to help pay for the construction of the dam.
Fully aware of what was about to unfold, Emperor Haile-Selassie paid a state visit to Egypt in the last week of June 1959. On his reflection of the discussions on the Nile, the Emperor recounted, “it was clearly understood by all that the resources of the Nile are adequate for the needs of all the riparian states, provided of course that there are consultation and agreement between them. We informed President Nasser that we have our plans for the utilization of the Blue Nile River. It is our impression that President Nasser fully understands our position on this question.”
On 8 November 1959, just a few months after the visit of the Emperor, Egypt signed a water-sharing agreement with Sudan. The agreement excluded Ethiopia, an independent state at the time with the malicious aim of establishing a fait accompli on the future of the Nile. Ethiopia’s belief on common understanding in favour of consultations and agreement didn’t measure up to Egypt’s savvy. On 9 January 1960, President Gamal Abdel Nasser laid the foundation stone for the construction of the Aswan High Dam. The Dam was perhaps the boldest decision that transformed the economic prosperity, water security and political confidence and pride of Egypt but at the cost of upper riparian states.
After 51 years, on 2 April 2011, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Melese Zenawi laid the foundation stone for the construction of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). In the absence of any financial or diplomatic support, Ethiopia resolved to fund and diplomatically defend its decision. The Dam has the largest hydroelectric generating capacity in Africa and is by far the most outstanding project in the history of Ethiopia. Egypt continues to criticize the project with the sole aim of undermining Ethiopia’s right to the share of the Nile waters.
Egyptians don’t recall any moment in their history when they were at par with any African country in the hegemonic control of the Nile. They also do not see a change requiring them to negotiate and compromise on their long-held position. They choose sole ownership even over practical advantages. When two competing plans were presented for the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1950s, one by a British hydrologist another one by a Greek-Egyptian engineer, the British plan was rejected because it proposed to store water in Ethiopia and Sudan for the practical reason that evaporation was lower upstream. The thorough study and deliberation of the two proposals by the Free Officers of Egypt reflected on the importance of asserting Egypt’s total control of the Nile. This decision overruled conservation and adequacy in favour of domination.
Ethiopia dreams of a Nile family that develops and protects the Nile waters for the benefit of all, but reasonable and equitable sharing is not in Egypt’s wish list. GERD stands as a symbol of communal ownership, development and communal benefit; while the Aswan High Dam soar as a symbol of total possession.
Egypt’s violent hegemony and guarded relations with Ethiopia
Egypt’s vision of an African Empire that encompasses the source of the Nile and securing the flow of the waters had left its scar on the psyche of peoples of the Nile Basin. The unsuccessful expeditions that led to the wars at Gura and Gundet brought death to the doorsteps of many Ethiopians. While the imperial expansion subsided and eventually abandoned for several reasons related to the diminishing capability of Egypt; by the beginning of the twentieth century, Egypt shifted its strategy to making the Nile the conceptual framework for Egyptian nationalism and foreign policy.
From a neo-realist perspective, Egypt’s behaviour is a natural projection of state power. The relationship among states is always attached to a certain level of mistrust that remains constant even among the closest of allies. This mistrust is stronger as the stakes are strategic or existential. Therefore, for Egypt to mistrust, the other riparian countries over a resource considered existential is only a reflection of the very nature of states. This inherent nature of the Egyptian state remains unchanged across successive governments. The state maintained violent hegemony. This defined the almost always turbulent relations that have particularly existed between Ethiopia and Egypt.
For Ethiopia, until much recently, the Nile was used more as a coercive foreign policy tool to ensure that the Egyptian Coptic Church sends the Patriarch (Abune) to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The appointment of the Abune is often fraught with high politics. Egypt used this tradition as leverage against Ethiopia while Ethiopia threatened to halt or divert the flow of the Nile if Egypt stalled or stopped sending the Abune or mistreated Christians in Egypt. For a country considered one of the first countries to embrace Christianity, the appointment was very important. This single Egyptian leverage, however, was detached in 1959 when the first Ethiopian Patriarch was annotated in a ceremony held in Cairo. Egypt, thus, had to continue to solely rely on the threat of the use of force or interfering in the internal affairs of Ethiopia.
Since the 1950s Egypt was busy establishing a fait accompli on the Nile to reinforce the unfettered and unrestrained hegemony over the Nile. After completing the Aswan High Dam, it proceeded to construct two megaprojects that take the waters of the Nile out of its course to develop barren and an inhabited desert to beef up its uncontested claim over the Nile. The Al-Salam and Toshka projects have pumped billions of cubic meters of water into Egypt’s desert and developed farmlands and brand new cities.
A generation of Ethiopian leaders would attest to the Egyptian generosity in assisting rebellion, the threat of the use of force, and subversive activities in Ethiopia. Egypt supported the Eritrean rebellion as well as Somali irredentism. As recently as 2016, Ethiopia had presented evidence supporting its claim that Egypt was supporting terrorist organizations weighing armed struggle against the government. Egyptian leaders also never failed to unequivocally threaten with the use of force whenever there is talk of development projects in Ethiopia. In 2013, politicians stated on the record that Egypt should send Special Forces and or fighter jets to destroy the Ethiopian dam or assist rebel groups to fight against the government. The relations between Ethiopia and Egypt naturally were consistently bitter. Consecutive Ethiopian governments saw Egypt as a threat to Ethiopia’s stability and prosperity.
The relations worsened when Ethiopia incorporated the might of the Blue Nile to win its struggle against poverty and decided to build the GERD. The collusion of suspicion between Egypt and Ethiopia revived and in some instances worsened as the GERD approaches its completion.
The era of the GERD
It is with this backdrop that Ethiopia took up the challenge to build the GERD in 2011. This Ethiopian determination and visible capacity to harness the waters of the Nile without the “permission” of Egypt rattled the Egyptian State to the core. Ethiopia, after having built several smaller hydroelectric dams, braved to build this colossal dam on the Blue Nile itself. This has naturally ensued questions on how Egypt will opt to react to the change in the status quo.
Despite the pending challenge to Egypt’s hegemony, the first response oscillated between disbelief and outright hostility. A combination of national and international events coaxed Egypt to the roundtable with Ethiopia and Sudan. The negotiations, however, are failing to present any result due to the historical backdrop overshadowing progress on the fundamental issues related to ownership of the Nile waters. The non-negotiable objective of asserting “historic right” or hydro hegemony directly conflicts with Ethiopia’s vision and non-negotiable objective of changing the status quo in favour of a fair deal.
The most insurmountable predicament to the decade-old negotiations on the GERD is Egypt’s denial of Ethiopia’s right to the Nile waters. The most telling of this Egyptian desire to insure the status quo in technical negotiations is the concept of “thresh hold”, a point of departure from which the impacts of the GERD to downstream states is measured. This concept is critically important as it will impact on all basic principles of equitable and reasonable utilization and the obligation not to cause significant harm. Egypt sees an important part of this thresh hold being current downstream shares and uses. By implication, Egypt wishes to negotiate a settlement that recognizes 100% use by the lower riparian countries and a 0% use for the upper riparian countries. Therefore, the GERD or any other future upstream projects should not consume or even temporarily detain water unless with a clear understanding that it is released on demand.
Egypt’s baseline scenario is a nonstarter for Ethiopia. First, the existing status quo and historic rights are built upon a historic injustice perpetuated by force. Second, to accept an indecent proposition that requests to rob Ethiopia’s right to use the waters of the Nile is not only morally poignant but also has a far-reaching political and economic impact on the Ethiopian state for it forecloses Ethiopia’s natural right. Third, the Nile is a shared water resource among 11 riparian countries. The very idea of entering into a negotiation is based on this fact. In the absence of this root idea of “sharing”, there would be no necessity for an upper riparian state that produces 86% of the Nile to enter into an arduous negotiation with a state that doesn’t contribute a drop of water.
While the technical issues can be agreed upon with much more ease, the long-held political positions are causing an obstacle. The stake is too high for Egypt. Compromising on the status quo that is intermeshed with the Egyptians psyche and nationalism could be tantamount to political suicide. For Egypt, the Nile is portrayed as the blood of Egyptians. The Egyptian constitution, article 44, underlines on this duty of the state to protect the “historical rights” of Egypt on the Nile.
All possibilities to perpetuate the status quo is being explored by Egypt. The Government has openly stated that it will assert its position by all means- political, legal, diplomatic, and military. Egypt is not attempting to accommodate the rights and needs of upper riparian states. There is no attempt to step back and rethink that a zero-sum game is not in the interest of any riparian state including Egypt. It has vigorously continued to put pressure on Ethiopia. It has employed its diplomatic capacity to condemn Ethiopia’s stance in international organizations. It has openly condemned Ethiopia’s claim to the waters of the Nile. It has lobbied states near and far to fall in line and support Egypt’s historical injustice. It has put all its weight to force Ethiopia to accept a draft agreement to which Ethiopia is not in favour.
Using the UN Security Council to perpetuate historical injustice
In its latest regrettable attempt to assert its hegemonic position by sabotaging the GERD, Egypt has taken the case to the UN Security Council, hoping to stop Ethiopia from filling its dam. The letter written by the Egyptian Foreign Minister dated 1st of May 2020, and the accompanying memoranda to the President of the Security Council, for distribution to the members, shows no fervour of good-will or good neighbourliness. Egypt has proved consistent in choosing the path of confrontation to cooperation.
In Egypt’s view, Ethiopia’s decision to start to pound the GERD, without an agreement with the lower riparian states, is in contravention to International law. If this is a sincere claim, will Egypt also terminate the Toshka and Salam-canal projects on the Nile? will Egypt stop refilling the Aswan High Dam until an agreement is reached with other riparian states? Has Egypt informed the other riparian states on these megaprojects in the spirit of cooperation among co-riparian states that share the same international watercourse? Doesn’t this constitute a material breach to Egypt’s international legal obligations? Doesn’t this qualify as a unilateral action? The answer to these questions is given. It is difficult for Egypt to think that any African state should be considered in such a plethora of respect when it comes to the Nile. Egypt’s letter also carries a thinly veiled warning of the use of force as Ethiopia’s decision “would be wholly intolerable to Egypt”. Although new in the height of the forum this threat is presented, it shall not come as a surprise to Ethiopia.
Egypt’s behaviour had effectively cultivated a sense of apprehension in Ethiopia. The view that Egypt will never allow Ethiopia, not only to use the waters of the Nile but even to grow and stabilize is picking momentum. The long-standing certainty that Egypt is a historical enemy whose compunction can only be remedied by unequivocally and irrevocably asserting Ethiopia’s right to the Nile waters is continuously fed by Egypt’s prevarication and contempt to the Ethiopian State.
The way forward
Considering these mutually reinforcing and hard built views, a negotiated settlement appears complex and will likely take several years of negotiations, but an agreement is possible with a reasonable compromise, in several stages. In such a process, time should not be the measure of success but the sustenance of the agreement.
Ethiopia, as the owner of the dam, shall communicate in good faith, the first stage-filling plan and dispel the historical mistake Egypt has flagrantly committed by ignoring the interests of upstream states while building megaprojects. This would eliminate any biased accusation on Ethiopia’s first-stage filling, that would begin in July 2020, and puts it on a pedestal of moral high ground. Rejection by Egypt of such goodwill from Ethiopia will potentially undermine the possibility of negotiating in good faith and flexibility. The negotiations on the first filling of the GERD will then continue among the three parties until an agreement is reached. Such negotiations should not mix water sharing with GERD filling and should be enforced for a limited period of no more than the completion of the first filling of the GERD.
The next stage of the negotiations should be basin-wide and focused on water sharing and joint projects. Even the outlandish 1959 agreement between Sudan and Egypt, hints on the undeniable necessity of sharing the waters of the Nile under general provisions – an “amount shall be deducted from the shares of the two Republics in equal parts, as calculated at Aswan.” It would be abysmal to ignore such a necessity when facts on the ground have considerably changed.
Out of the eleven Nile Riparian countries, an overwhelming majority have demonstrated a strong interest in shared responsibility in the communal conservation and development of the waters of the Nile by signing the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA). Egypt and Sudan should take the bold step to join the Nile family. Egypt and Sudan, given their experience in utilizing water resources, can be important players in implementing the Cooperative Frame Work Agreement and would lose if they decide to be onlookers. This can unlock boundless opportunities of cooperation among the Nile Riparian States and will promote prosperity and peace particularly between Ethiopia and Egypt.
In this regard, the international community, particularly the members of the UN Security Council and the African Union should encourage Egypt to reconsider its inflexible and aggressively offensive posture of owning the totality of the waters of the Nile. The international community should impress upon Egypt that a position that deprives upper riparian states of their right to utilize the Nile waters for the needs of their ever-growing population is a nonstarter.
The final stage in resolving the Nile quagmire is a standing process of identifying projects that would benefit all parties. Other than the problematic issues related to the Nile, the countries of the Nile Basin, particularly the Eastern Nile States of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt have the historical, the people to people as well as the geographic advantages to identify shared development projects and achieve common goals. Such a process will introduce an end to the malicious mistrust among the lower and upper riparian countries of the Nile Basin and herald an era of peace, economic prosperity, and integration.