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Flashpoint on the Nile: Egypt Destabilizes Ethiopia

Aklog Birara (Dr.)
January 21, 2020

A flashpoint in current diplomatic relations in Africa today that can potentially lead to war is Egypt’s continued assertion that it will continue to exercise its hegemony over the Nile.

Historically, Egypt’s relations with Ethiopia has been characterized by mutual mistrust and suspicion. The core policy issue behind this intractable problem is Egypt’s belief that its hegemony over Nile waters is dependent on Ethiopia’s internal ethnic and religious divisions, its continued socioeconomic, technological, national security and defense backwardness; and its adversarial relations with its neighbors, especially Eritrea and the rest of the Horn.

The Islamist regime led by Mohammed Morsi echoed Egyptian anxieties and mistrust of Ethiopia, called on Egyptians to prepare for war against Ethiopia; and vowed to ensure that Egyptian hegemony over the Nile will continue unchallenged.

Egypt’s ultranationalist zeal and warmongering posture towards Ethiopia went against all of the new norms that upstream and downstream African nations were discussing and negotiating under the auspices of multilateral agencies including the UN, the African Union, the World Bank, UNDP and others.

I recall vividly that, at the time, the World Bank had established a special Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) unit at its Headquarters in Washington, D.C. The unit housed volumes of documents and reference materials on the subject. Experts familiar with the subject used to tell me that a new cooperative agreement was in the works. A new paradigm of thinking in in public diplomacy seemed to emerge. Peaceful resolution of conflicts on the Nile seemed possible.

Mohammed Morsi was overthrown and replaced by General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Unlike the fundamentalist and ultranationalist that he replaced, General El-Sisi offered a refreshing and new perspective that took into account fundamental changes that had taken place in the rest of Africa, especially Ethiopia. He called for a new diplomatic relationship with Ethiopia that is “informed by cooperation and love, not hatred and belligerence,” as captured by the Ethiopian Reporter in 2015.

By projecting this statesmanship posture, General El-Sisi seemed to embrace dialogue, discussion and negotiation rather than warmongering and belligerence against Ethiopia. This new spirit of cooperation and mutuality was welcomed by Ethiopia because it differed radically from previous positions Egypt held. It was implicit that El-Sisi had acknowledged Ethiopia’s legitimate rights to construct the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). He also declared that Egypt will henceforth stop supporting proxy wars with the intent of destabilizing Ethiopia.

This new attitude on the part of Egypt was further bolstered by a welcome people to people relations that had begun to strengthen mutual cooperation and reduce mistrust and mutual suspicion. Bilateral agreements on trade and investment were reached.

Whether adversarial or friendly, Ethio-Egyptian relations go back to Pharaonic times. A special feature in this contentious relationship is the tie or link between the Ethiopian and Egyptian Orthodox faiths. Egypt has leveraged this connection to advance its penetration of Ethiopian society and to influence public policy.

In the light of this historical, cultural and religious connection, His Holiness Abune Mathias, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church paid a visit to Egypt and renewed relations between the sister faiths interrupted by the Socialist Military regime before the TPLF/EPRDF took power in 1991.

It is important to note that the interruption was prompted by open Egyptian military, armaments, logistics and intelligence support to secessionist groups including the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF), the Tigray People’s Liberator Front (TPLF), the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), the Oromo Liberation (OLF) and other fronts.

For many decades, Egypt and other Arab countries had vowed to dislodge Ethiopia from its red-sea ports. This scheme required Egyptian interventions on multiple fronts including faith.

El-Sisi pronounced that change in relations would serve both Ethiopia and Egypt. The question in my mind is whether this posture is another Egyptian ploy or more fundamental. 

In my view, Egypt’s desire to strengthen its relations with Ethiopia on multiple fronts—faith, investment, tourism, trade etch— has much more to do with its determination to apply new and sophisticated surveillance and spying techniques on the ground than the advancement of Ethiopia’s development. Egypt still wants a fragmented, weak and underdeveloped Ethiopia.

In its negotiations with Ethiopia concerning the GERD, Egypt continues to insist on physical site visits by its technical experts and by so-called independent experts that can do its bidding.   

I shall present a compelling argument why Egypt should not be allowed by Ethiopia to conduct direct and close site visits. The GERD is an Ethiopian project. Ethiopia has sovereignty over the project; and not Egypt. Accordingly, site visits by Egypt contravenes Ethiopia’s sovereign rights. Egyptian authorities must respect this right the same way that they expect other counties including Ethiopia to respect their rights to protect the Aswan Dam or the Suez Canal from global scrutiny. Would they let Israel scrutinize these sites? The answer is no.

Turkey has been building dams on the Tigris and Euphrates River. It is an upstream riparian state. Lebanon and Syria are affected by projects Turkey initiates. It is true that both countries suffer from internal conflict; and do not have the means to fight back.

The principle I wish to underscore is this. If an upstream riparian state such as Turkey is free to construct irrigation of eclectic dams on the Tigris-Euphrates River within its own borders, Ethiopia must enjoy the same sovereign rights as Turkey and or any other country on the planet. 

Is there a real change of heart?  

I do not believe that Egypt’s government in particular and Egyptian civil society in general has changed with regard to Egypt’s hegemony over Nile waters. The impasse on the GERD illustrates mistrust.

It is vital for readers in general and the global community to appreciate how we got to this stage in the first place. We must weigh Egypt’s outdated position against dramatic changes in Africa.

Agreements on the Nile were reached in the absence of Black Africa. With the exception of Ethiopia that had remained defiant and independent, all of Africa and the Middle East was under colonial control, with the British dominating most of these two regions. International law and agreements governing waterways were dictated by colonial and imperial powers. For practical purposes, the economic interests of riparian states in Sub-Saharan Africa, including Ethiopia did not feature or matter.

The genesis of the problem

In 1929, the Imperial Government of the United Kingdom that ruled Egypt “exchanged notes” with its clientele regime in Egypt with regard to the use of the “Waters of the River Nile for Irrigation Purposes.” The agreement that allowed Egypt to utilize Nile Rivers—the waters come from Ethiopia and the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa—for Agric based-industry made an erroneous assumption, namely that Sub-Saharan Africa will remain dormant, colonized and disinterested in shaping its future.  

In 1959, the 1929 Notes were beefed up and formalized into an Agreement between the United Arab Republic of Egypt and the Republic of Sudan. The mediator, facilitator and crafter of the Agreement on the “Full Utilization of the Nile Waters” was the same power that controlled both countries, namely, the UK.

The 1959 Agreement legitimized Egypt’s “historical and natural rights” claim that remained sacrosanct under successive Egyptian governments. Upon achieving its independence from UK colonial rule in 1956, Sudan renegotiated the 1929 “Notes” to make the bilateral agreement more equitable. The 1959 Agreement to which Ethiopia and the rest of Sub-Saharan non-Arab countries were not parties allocated 55.5 Billion Cubic Meters of water to Egypt and 18.5 Billion Cubic Meters of Water to Sudan. This is the position Egypt holds today.

These allocations of Nile Waters to the two-ex-British colonies offered them a legal and legitimate basis to form a united front against Ethiopia and the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa legitimizing hegemony over Nile waters, with Egypt dictating terms since.  

Independence has value!

It was about the same time that the rest of Sub-Saharan African colonized states were beginning to rebel against colonialism and imperialism. Ethiopia was therefore no longer the lone star of independence in Africa. It had, in fact, paved the way for the rest to claim freedom and independence from colonialism and imperialism. Freedom entails legitimacy and responsibility to act.

Independence meant that each newly independent African state that is a member of upstream nations would begin to assert its sovereign rights over the use of its water resources. Egypt and Sudan allocated Nile Waters to themselves at the exclusion of Ethiopia and the other upstream riparian states. This anomaly had to be redressed either together or alone. This is the position Ethiopia holds.

The uncontested 1959 Agreement of hegemony over the Nile Waters has now become contestable. My argument is this. The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), launched in 1999 is a culmination of the contest to redress an unacceptable and unfair anomaly. Before NBI, each state that was never consulted in 1959 had began to map out strategies and to design programs on the utilization of rivers within its own borders with the intent of advancing its own development via irrigation and or power generation.

It is hard to argue why Ethiopia, that has made very little use of its share of the Abbay River and other rivers within its borders cannot complete the GERD and construct other dams and advance its development. My argument is that it must and it can.

International law, new norms and protocols embedded in NBI’s Cooperative Framework Agreements (CFA)are on Ethiopia’s side.

When the NBI was launched in February 1999, Water Ministers of the countries that share the Nile River—Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Eritrea participated.

What is the central or primary objective of the NBI?

In summary, the NBI “seeks to develop the river in a cooperative manner, share substantial socioeconomic benefits, and promote regional peace and security.” It also “provides an institutional mechanism, a shared vision, and a set of agreed policy guidelines to provide a framework for cooperative action.”

Almost a decade later, NBI Member States signed the non-binding Khartoum Declaration. Signatories identified “clear environment functions for the permanent Nile River Basin Organization. The nascent NBI Secretariat was charged with the responsibilities of “harmonization of environment management policies; data and information exchange; environmental impact assessment; policy, institutional, and legal analysis; and a coordinating role on climate.” It was also empowered to establish a “cooperative framework agreement (CFA)” replacing bilateral treaties and formalizing “the transformation of the Nile Basin Initiative into a permanent Nile River Basin Commission.”

In April 2010, seven of the Nile Basin states agreed to open the CFA for signature. Egypt and Sudan rejected the Commission. Egypt believes that it is not bound by the CFA. It is my considered opinion that the reason for Egypt’s rejection is that a multilateral agreement will undermine Egypt’s leverage and preponderance. This is the reason why I suggested that Egypt’s leadership is insincere and not truthful.

Egypt and its partner Sudan offered their own alternative suggesting instead that all riparian countries issue a “presidential declaration to launch the River Nile Basin Commission while negotiations on the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA)continue.” Negotiations must have an end.

Out of the 9 member and one Observer status NBI countries–Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Eritrea (Observer), three of them, namely, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania signed the CFA almost immediately in 2010, with others following suit, except for Egypt and Sudan. Eritrea continues its membership as an Observer.

I suggest that the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework is a new instrument that has effectively made the 1929 and 1959 Agreements null and void. Egypt’s position is thus, weak and indefensible

To its credit, Ethiopia announced and launched the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) a year after it signed the CFA. In terms of international protocol and new norms that govern waterways, Ethiopia’s GERD initiative is justified.

At the time of its launch by Meles I welcomed this $4 billion project that was conceived by Emperor Haile Selassie but not feasible to implement at the time because global conditions did not favor Ethiopia and the rest of Sub-Saharan African riparian countries. The world has changed since. Ethiopia used the change to advance its national development. Ethiopia has more to gain from harnessing its rivers than most other countries.

Among other things, Ethiopia serves as the origin of 90 percent of Nile waters and has a legitimate right not only to finish the GERD for electric power generation; but also, to construct other dams for irrigation. Food security and self-sufficiency is a priority for Ethiopia.

Egypt’s colonial position of “historical and natural rights” over the Abbay River and other tributaries of the Nile is no longer a winning proposition. Despite “warming relations” between Ethiopia and Egypt, the later has not abandoned its position of hegemony.

In my considered opinion, Egypt and its allies are trying to undermine Ethiopia’s development objectives by weaponizing ethnic and religious divisions. The widespread instability, arms trafficking, robbery, lawlessness and rebellion throughout Ethiopia is deliberate and well financed and is designed to dismantle Ethiopia.

What makes Ethiopia vulnerable is the system itself. The ethnic-federal system and administrative structure that the TPLF with support from other ethnic parties and foreign governments imposed on the Ethiopian people has diminished Ethiopian national identity; and has replaced it with ethnic identity.

Ethiopia is now porous, vulnerable and weak. Its intuitions cater more to ethnic and religious elites and less to Ethiopian national identity and developmental goals. Egyptian society shows a unity of purpose with regard to the Nile. Ethiopians are conflicted.

“Amhara, Oromo, Tigre etc. first” is a mantra that diminishes Ethiopian nationalism and solidarity. This is the reason why Ethiopia in 2020 is identified as a “failing or failed state.” Remember the old adage “You reap what you sow.”  The seeds of fracturing and potential dismantlement were sown when the current nationality and language-based constitution was formalized.

Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that incorporated secession. It is the only county in Africa that legalized ethnic political formation, with the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Party (EPRDF) that has now morphed into the Prosperity Party as Ethiopia’s pioneer in the ethnicization of politics.

While the ethnic coalition may have evolved, its roots, political culture, ideology, structure and institutional making are still intact. This setting diminishes Ethiopia’s capacity and resolve to defend its national interests and promote its development goals. Its adversaries, including Egypt take advantage of this internal fracturing and weakness.  

Despite this disadvantage, I suggest strongly that the most reasonable policy option is for Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to agree on an equitable and fair position that serves all countries in the long-term. A developed and prosperous Ethiopia is much more desirable in the Horn of Africa than a conflict-ridden and poor Ethiopia. Fundamentalism and homegrown terrorism spread like a virus; and Egypt can’t be spared from this virus. 

Further, Ethiopia won’t remain weak, fragmented and poor. Accordingly, allowing Ethiopia to finish the GERD is a prerequisite for future win-win options. If Egypt refuses to budge, Ethiopia should revert to other options, including constructions of numerous irrigation dams throughout the country. Irrigation dams will, in fact, have serious and adverse impacts on water volume than hydroelectric dams; and will affect Egypt.

Egypt should stop insisting that the filling of the Dam takes over many decades. This position penalizes Ethiopia and reduces the economic benefits that accrue from Ethiopia’s investment. Ethiopia must not be penalized to mitigate Egyptian fears. The current impasse that the United States, the World Bank and others are trying to mediate should not delay the timely completion of the GERD.

I know that the U.S. has more investments in Egypt compared to Ethiopia. However, this temporary phenomenon underestimates Ethiopia’s long-term potential and strategic importance. Further, Ethiopia’s relations with the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa, a region with explosive growth potential, cannot be overlooked by Western economies.  

Sponsors of the NBI including the UN and the World Bank are cognizant of the importance of honoring international law and standards in general and respect for cooperative agreements in administering the interests of riparian states.

What do I conclude?

  1. First and foremost, the government of Ethiopia must be firm and unwavering. It must apply diplomatic pressure on Egypt; and must muster the will and resolve to defend Ethiopian national interests.
  2. Ethiopia’s current efforts to strengthen its national security forces, its intelligence services and defense show promise; and must be bolstered even further. These institutions must be totally and unabashedly loyal to Ethiopia and defend its national interests and its sovereignty. 
  3. Ethiopian opposition parties must support the GERD project and express anger and resentment against Egypt’s proxy wars and propaganda.
  4. Irrespective of ethnic or religious affiliation or ideology and power, Ethiopians must show a unity of purpose with regard to the GERD.
  5. Ethiopians must recognize that Ethiopia’s rapid growth over the past decade is a source of envy and jealousy among its external adversaries including Egypt.
  6. While I worry about uneven distribution of wealth and income and inequitable investment among regions, it is vital for the government of Ethiopia at all levels to restore personal security, peace and stability and the rule of law.
  7. The World Bank’s projection of decline in Ethiopia’s growth rate is real; and this might be a consequence of ongoing insecurity and instability in the country.
  8. Completion of the GERD is therefore, in part a function of proactive diplomacy; but equally a function of Ethiopia’s internal governance and competent leadership.

January 21, 2020

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  1. Their goal of destabilizing Ethiopian must have worked because the people, including Amhara, are now engulfed in a total war of ethnicity border markings.

  2. Subject: Flashpoint on the Nile: Egypt Destabilizes Ethiopia, Aklog Birara (Dr.) January 21, 2020

    Commentary, 22 Jan 2020 “Egypt’s continued assertion that it will continue to exercise its hegemony over the Nile” Yes, it is a reflection of its attitude to Black Africa. Egypt uses “…its adversarial relations with its neighbors, especially Eritrea and the rest of the Horn.” And so, as an example, “The Islamist regime led by Mohammed Morsi echoed Egyptian anxieties and mistrust of Ethiopia, called on Egyptians to prepare for war against Ethiopia; and vowed to ensure that Egyptian hegemony over the Nile will continue unchallenged.”

    ”Mohammed Morsi was overthrown and replaced by General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.” But it didn’t matter, both are of the same fundamental faith – NOT because of spiritual faith but for the execution of Egypt’s old desire that was cemented with Great Britain, a long time ago, required the jolting of Ethiopia out of its ownership [control ship] of the Nile. Here is how Dr. Aklog Birara put it: Quote:“ In my view, Egypt’s desire to strengthen its relations with Ethiopia on multiple fronts—faith, investment, tourism, trade etch— has much more to do with its determination to apply new and sophisticated surveillance and spying techniques on the ground than the advancement of Ethiopia’s development. Egypt still wants a fragmented, weak and underdeveloped Ethiopia.” Unquote. These fifty-four (54) words summarize the Alpha Omega of Egypt’s interest, overriding the crucial need of Ethiopia, at the expense of one hundred ten million [110 million] people!!! I stop my commentary here. THE END





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