May 7, 2020
For those of us who live in the West, the past few weeks have been devoted to collecting whatever is essential to protect ourselves from the health scare Covid19. In my case, the doors are locked, the windows securely shut, and at those times when I have to venture out to get food supplies, I don my mask and wash hands as frequently as possible. By taking these simple but necessary steps, I protect myself as well as others. Cooperative self-interest!
You would think that the world’s priorities would be to continue to safeguard against this nasty virus until it is under control, and in the process, to also note how fragile life is and has become. One of the lessons of the Covid19 health scare and any of the zoonotic disease outbreaks is that cooperation with other humans is a critical part of survival, and that non-cooperation might yield short term gains but with lethal consequences.
Unfortunately, the leaders of the great people of Egypt have yet to understand that the future of their civilization depends largely on the cooperation of others—particularly their neighbors.
This short essay is a reflection on matters involving the Nile river—hereinafter Abai—and the most recent actions of Egypt regarding its purported “negotiation” with Ethiopia.
I am neither a water economist nor a lawyer (Al Mariam has done an excellent piece on this). I have keen interest on the topic and have also written a few essays on it. Without belaboring the minutiae of where, when, and how. Let us list a few significant points.
Historians suggest that there have been at least 16 documented instances in history where there have been wars or conflicts initiated by Egypt and its surrogates against Ethiopia. In all 16 instances, the victory has gone to the children of Abai—the Ethiopians.
In at least three instances in the twentieth century, Egypt or its occupiers have attempted, through treaties, for Ethiopia to cede its rights to the Abai without success.
Over the past decade or so, Egypt has been pretending to negotiate an agreement with Nile Basin Countries only to leave the negotiating table when it appears it isn’t going to get its demands.
Egypt has had an almost veto power over International Financial Institutions to demand that no loans be made to Ethiopia that could be used to build any structure over the Abai river.
Since 2011, Egypt has been holding talks in a tripartite arrangement with Ethiopia and Sudan. These talks eventually led for Egypt to ask the United States to intervene on its behalf. The talks between the three parties included the World Bank and the US Treasury department as “observers”. It is to be recalled that the US brazenly sided with Egypt when a statement was issued by the Treasury Secretary dictating to the Ethiopian side what they can and cannot do! This act was labeled by the Ethiopians as “undiplomatic”, and they refused to attend further talks for the time being.
Following the disruption of these talks in Washington, D.C., Egypt convened an organization, which it had founded and is based in Cairo, to take its side on the matter. The Arab League complied. This complicity of the Arab League was so brazen that it angered even Sudan—a member—that it refused to endorse the final document.
Over the past several months, the Egyptians have been visiting several foreign capitals, both in Africa as well as in Europe, to explain their position in an attempt to isolate the Ethiopian side.
Over the years, there have been threats of a military conflict over the Abai, and these outrageous threats are made by the Egyptian side in an attempt to intimidate and cajole the Ethiopian side to submit to their wishes.
In a continuation of their desire to assure complete control of the Abai at the exclusion of Ethiopia, the Egyptians are now reported to have placed a complaint to the Security Council of the United Nations.
The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same
Meantime, the Ethiopians simply continued their efforts on the moral task ahead: self-fund and build a dam on the Abai river. The purpose of the dam is to generate electricity. The discharged water will continue to flow as it had done for centuries less silt, and that both Sudan and Egypt would stand to benefit from the venture.
The Egyptian side has held on to the position that this was unacceptable for a number of reasons, but primarily because their constitution forbids any interference in the flow of the Nile, and as a consequence, it is the duty of every government to safeguard that interest. Mind you, this is their constitution!
What explains the Egyptian behavior and its manifestation in their most recent actions?
First, none of the mischief they have been engineering over the years has stopped Ethiopia from completing its moral task—self-fund and build a dam in its own territory to generate electricity.
Second, at no time over the past few years was Egypt engaged in a sincere attempt at negotiating an outcome that is beneficial to all three sides: Ethiopia, Sudan, and of course, Egypt.
Third, it is my view that the Egyptian government does not want to enter into an agreement over Abai with Ethiopia because doing so would doom it. They have a population that has been reared being told that the Nile belongs to them. And Oh, there is, however, a small, underdeveloped country without adequate means called Ethiopia from where the Blue Nile originates, and who has bequeathed it to them. Even more than that, the Nile is the gift of Alah to Egypt!
Fourth, because of three above, the current regime in Egypt would rather leave the decision to others, including at least in their thinking, to the United Nations. Why it is anathema to Egypt to negotiate and sew up an agreement within the framework of the three countries, the Nile Basin Countries Agreement, and/or the African Union should not be a big mystery for all to see.
Fifth, having not succeeded in getting its wish so far, and recognizing the futility of military threat to cajole Ethiopia–conceivable that Egypt possesses more military toys than Ethiopia does– the country has lost its confidence. And lost confidence is hard to conceal!
For the Egyptians: The way forward has always been the same: cooperate with Ethiopia and Sudan, hammer out an agreement, and secure the long-term interests of the Egyptian people. Nothing else will guarantee the interests of the Egyptian people in the long run than working together with the Ethiopians for mutual development. Every other scenario conjures up a lose-lose outcome.
For the Ethiopians: Scientists have concluded that there is only a certain amount of water on mother earth, and that total doesn’t change unless it escapes into space. What changes, however, is how that water is distributed through the Hydrologic Cycle—the Water Cycle. That explains, in part, why dry regions are getting drier, and wet regions are getting wetter.
Because of the natural Hydrologic Cycle, Ethiopia should never enter into an agreement that specifies how much water flowing from its territory should be guaranteed to Egypt. But by all means, bring the moral task to a timely, definitive conclusion.
May we all stay safe!
Teshome Abebe is Professor Laureate and Professor of Economics and a former Provost and Vice President. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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