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Deconstructing the Nile hegemony: an exercise to ponder

Nile _ Ethiopia

Yigedebal Abay
June 13, 2020

Much has been said about the 6,695 KM long, a basin shared by 11 countries and accounts for 10% of Africa’s landmass; river Nile. Egypt, apart from the brainwashing it has been advancing on its people, grew effective in directing the narrative in most global mediums of mass communications. This is amongst the reasons why Ethiopia, a latecomer struggling to make its version heard. In this article, the writer will focus on essential facts surrounding the Nile and will put forward suggestions. 

In the latest developments concerning the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) where Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan respectively submitted a comprehensive aide-mémoire to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) condemning one another, it became apparent that things will not continue as they were as the first plan of impounding the dam will start come July. 


Ever since GERD was heralded in April 2011, Ethiopia has been promoting the benefits of the dam both to its people and the downstream countries. Sudan for quite some time endured optimism about what it may accrue upon completion. Though today, with a new and fragile socio-political standing and arguably with a pressure from Egypt whose intelligence and military officials frequently shuttle to Khartoum, took an afterthought which indisputably altered the dynamics in favor of Egypt. What is needed to have a clarity on is whether Ethiopia embarked constructing GERD with all a positive sentiment or not. It is only when the project was launched on a hostile intent to harm others that Ethiopia shall retreat from its plan for filling and operation. It is loud and clear that Sudan is a sovereign State and it is entitled to its own choice. It is good that you have supporters for your genuine cause and it takes a determination to remain devout when you have none in support but your cause is sacred. Therefore, as Ethiopia faced similar challenges in the international forums in the early days of colonialism, now for a stronger reason it shall stand solid. 

The reason Egypt was left out in most of the content above is plain and simple; it kept engaged in a manifest dilution of the entire process and below are concrete illustrations that give a good reason for Ethiopia’s insistence in filling the dam. 

  1. The flagrant double standard of Egypt

In its 1st of May 2020 letter to the UNSC, Egypt had rather committed a fatal mistake that vividly demonstrated its untrustworthy character.

First, on the issue of duty to notify, the Egyptian Foreign Minister accused ‘Ethiopia’s announcement of its intention to fill the GERD without agreement is consistent with its policy of unilateralism that it adopted since it commenced the construction of the GERD in 2011 without notifying or consulting with its downstream riparian in violations of its obligation under international law’. Nonetheless, he should have recollected Egypt’s failure to respond to multiple appeals from Ethiopia extended in the years 1956, 1957, 1980 and 1997 requesting for a consultation as Egypt was erecting the High Aswan Dam, Toshka Project or El Salaam Canal where it changed the normal course of the Nile. 

Second, Egypt accuses Ethiopia of walking out from the Washington process although the latter in a much-dignified manner sent a Special Envoy to Cairo and handed over a letter from Prime Minister Abiy addressed to President El Sisi requesting for an extension of the meeting dates. On another occasion, Egypt agreed to the findings of the National Independent Scientific Research Group (NISRG) on the first filling and operation of the dam and accepted it in Khartoum on 25 September 2018. Typical of Egypt, when the Minister was requested to sign on a minute of the meeting he already agreed to, he declined to do so at the eleventh hour indicating the need for a consultation back at home. What Ethiopia requested above was the same consultation as Egypt did but Egypt labelled it as obstinacy.  

Third, what Egypt’s expectation from the GERD negotiation is either an agreement that solely satisfies their tiring demand or to vilify the process in its entirety. On 10th April 2020, Egypt outrightly rejected Ethiopia’s proposal to have an agreement on the first filling and operation of the dam disparaging it as partial. Whereas, cold-blooded of its scheme, it urges Ethiopia to initial a document framed by the self-anointed arbiters of the US and World Bank which was not comprehensive either.

Fourth, in 2007, Eastern Nile Technical Regional Office (ENTRO) commissioned a prefeasibility study under the name ‘border dam’ which was conducted by the three countries and the team was led by an Egyptian hydrologist. In its finding, the team suggested that the 14.47 Billion Metre Cube hydropower dam can be erected. Egypt was the first to oppose this finding. Currently, after Ethiopia decided that it will build GERD, Egypt complained that the reservoir shall only contain a maximum of 19 Billion Metre Cube which is conflicting to what it earlier vehemently opposed. Had the protest been principled, Egypt could not have come up with a more suggested capacity than the study group led by none other than its citizens. This adequately explains the textbook example of Egypt’s bad faith. In Ethiopia’s submission to the UNSC on 14th May 2020, it articulated its firm position that ‘Egypt cannot get away with advancing contradictory positions, first by impeding the progress of the negotiations and next by blocking the filling of the dam’. Nobody could have expressed it better.  

  1. The Washington processes

The matter of Ethiopia’s participation in the Washington process had drawn considerable criticism. Before rushing to conclusions, it is better to weigh the facts as to what Ethiopia could have lost in declining the invitation or what it has gotten through attending. 

On this particular issue, the fundamental question that needs to be addressed is who invited the US and WB to participate in the process? According to Egyptian Foreign Minister’s account, it is Egypt who did so under the guise of assisting the three parties to reach an agreement. Under article 10 of the DoP, any dispute on the document or its interpretation shall be solved amicably and failing which they shall jointly request for conciliation or mediation. There was a perceived impasse in implementing the document and Egypt wanted a third-party intervention. Therefore, procedurally speaking, there was a fault as the invitation failed to meet the test of unanimity. Then, is it because Egypt missed the essence of article 10 of the DoP that it unilaterally invited the US and WB? As far as history and contemporary politics are concerned, Egypt as one of the oldest civilizations and having a long history of diplomacy in no doubt will err in grasping the crux of article 10, rather it was a trap. 

First, Egypt understands how the new world order; more or less a unipolar global environment function. Despite being aware that what they are doing is procedurally incorrect, they sought to generate a strain in the bilateral relations between Ethiopia and the US. Ethiopia could have objected to the participation of these parties but it did not and by doing so it has saved itself from succumbing to Egypt’s trick. Second, Ethiopia made a proviso that the role of the US and the WB shall only be confined to observation. By doing so, it managed to keep its relationship with the US while establishing their participation as a mere party to observe. The latter even assisted Ethiopia in exposing the fabrication that Egypt was waging. It is a blessing in disguise for Ethiopia that the observers turned themselves otherwise. 

Therefore, what did Ethiopia achieve from the Washington process? Apart from the points mentioned above, the unwarranted bias the United States took galvanized an ever-increasing rally by the Ethiopian people. One of the good qualities Ethiopians have is that they act in unison and take the bull by the horn whenever injustice ascends from outside. Now the people grew keener in following the issue and its positive side is that the government is duty bound to be transparent which in turn abates if not avoid the space for a manoeuvre. 

Thus, without the slightest hesitancy, the decision to participate in the Washington process can be considered as one of the big game changers Ethiopia had in its recent history.

The way forward

As it was highlighted earlier, Ethiopia’s approach towards the negotiation was too humble in a way that many of the appalling tactics by Egypt was endured and still it didn’t falter from stretching its arms. However, there is also a time to recalibrate Ethiopia’s position towards a more pragmatic direction as babysitting shall not last for eternity. In his submission to the Security Council, Foreign Minister Shoukry gestured belligerency in saying ‘the prospect of being subjected to significant harm to its riparian rights and interests would be wholly intolerable to Egypt’ It is in this vein, the following opinions and recommendations are put forward. 

  1. The change in a narrative

The primary focus Ethiopia shall endeavour is to change the misguided narrative it has been following with respect to the utilization of its cross border natural resources. Egypt ascribed Ethiopia a minimalistic objective on the Nile as a pursuit for hydropower generation whereas it raised its own as a matter of life and death. Provided that 86.3% of Blue Nile originates from its mountains and valleys, over 60% of its surface is more prone to critical water scarcity and having one of the lowest water per capita in the world, Ethiopia sadly failed in objectively communicating its case to the global community and even to its very own citizen-as this is a clear failure from all administrations in Ethiopia, they owe an earnest apology to the people; the Blue Nile is more than an agent of cooperation and socioeconomic integration. The government of Ethiopia therefore must openly assert its position that GERD is not only a mere development venture and its subsequent engagements ought to be informed from this premise. 

  1. The need for a plural media

What will be dealt under this subheading is perhaps one of the compelling reasons that merits plurality of media in Ethiopia. Since the introduction of modern mass media communication to the country, citizens had no choice but to follow news feeds from government sources. This significantly assisted in bringing a parochial perception about its actual position in the world. The writer is not claiming that Ethiopia is not that much vital, rather it is not as indispensable as it is portrayed in the government media too. 

Forming a sense of good reputation is natural. Nevertheless, it shall have limits too and it is for these propaganda machinations that many Ethiopians paralleled the strategic importance of Ethiopia with Egypt. Unless ready to deceive oneself, that is not the reality. The writer contests that Ethiopia is not as strategically vital as Egypt especially to the western world. The 21st-century politics is fundamentally transactional and you are worth as much as you can offer. Therefore, the last straw of delusional propaganda has to immediately stop as the current magnitude of complacency disseminated by prosperity as well will do anything but ruin it. 

  1. Scope of the negotiation

The trilateral negotiations held thus far are limited in scope to the GERD file which is a non-water consumptive project and shall in no way aim for a water allocation exercise which Egypt is strongly pushing for. The position Ethiopia pursued is commendable as water allocation can only be discussed together with all States in the basin. The benefits of this approach are twofold; it capitalises the currency of trust on Ethiopia from the remaining riparian countries in the White Nile and it paves the path for the entry into force of the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) where in due course establishes the basin commission for an equitable and reasonable utilization of the resource. It is for this reason that whatever concessions Ethiopia will make under the auspices of the trilateral negotiation have an impact on the impending water allocation endeavour which will speak volumes on Ethiopia’s credibility. 

  1. Why the negotiations shall remain technical: 

It takes a few hours of reading the trilateral process on the GERD and an ounce of common sense to reach a conclusion that Egypt from the get go lacks interest in pursuing a productive technical negotiation. To be precise, all the numbers and statistics speak loud in the interest of Ethiopia. As long as the issue remains technical with the professionals on the steering wheel, to whatever extent the negotiation drags, Ethiopia will stand the victor in deconstructing the unjustified hegemony of Egypt rooted in the so-called ‘historic rights and current use’. The moment we take this issue into a political platform it is then that Ethiopia will commit a colossal blunder over the hard-fought efforts towards righteousness. 

First and foremost, political solutions inherently are detached from truth and facts. As it stands, there is no legal obligation that binds the three countries including the Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses of 1997. However, there are principles of customary international law which the three countries cherry-pick as they deem fit to serve their respective interests. This is why Ethiopia in its submission to the Security Council powerfully stated ‘it does not have a legal obligation to seek approval of Egypt to fill the dam’. The only binding agreement to be invoked is the Declaration of Principles (DoP) of 2015. Egypt has posed a menace against this very document, Sudan remained lukewarm whereas Ethiopia defended the sanctity of the text. If Ethiopia decides to go for a political solution, it is highly likely that this document will be left aside which will be a disaster as it tarnishes its principled position. It will be forced to negotiate a new term of reference with several parties involved which might not be that balanced. It is only from numbers and reason that Ethiopia must yield. 

Second, no one can be sure of what the outcome of a political process would be and at times it might be too late and cumbersome to withdraw. Even as an alarm, the Washington process is a litmus paper in pre-empting the true colours of a political compromise. As it was briefly discussed above, Egypt is a tectonic force in that its tactic of disseminating persistent lies coupled with its ability to create an issue that elevates its importance in the region, this zone is the least advised wilderness for Ethiopia to explore. Just have a look at what Egypt did in Libya a few days ago; it successfully turned itself as a mediator while it was already a party to the conflict. In his recent one-on-one interview with Walta information centre, this scenario and its likes are what Foreign Minister Gedu was attesting to inputting it as an invasive diplomatic practice by Egypt despite lacking a valid case. 

Third, it equates as accepting an improvised colonial treaty which Ethiopia has been fighting for ages. To begin with, the government of Ethiopia has no authority to accept this kind of draconian settlement as it goes against the sovereignty of the nation. Even if the government suggests that it is the only viable means, that power is exclusively vested in the people and the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia shall hold a popular referendum where the people directly decides as the issue pertains to whether we as a nation are ready to trade in our sovereignty. As a custodian, the interest of the future generation in no way shall be compromised and we have no power to decide whatsoever on the fate of the river Nile. 

Lastly, on 15 September 2019, Ethiopia rejected Egypt’s proposal on the rules of filling and operation of the GERD that requires the former to release an annual guaranteed minimum of 40 Billion Metre Cube water and sustain High Aswan Dam at 165 metres above sea level. The reason for the denunciation was the proposal tampers against its sovereignty and makes GERD subservient to Aswan dam. On the Washington negotiation too, one of the pending questions was the definition of drought, prolonged drought and prolonged period of dry years. It is in this status quo that Prime Minister Abiy in his address to the parliament on 8 June 2020 found to be extremely remiss stating ‘storing a massive amount of water is vital and it can be released to the downstream riparian if drought appears’. This is totally against the position of the technical team. No drought that befalls Egypt and Sudan and spare Ethiopia and this was the essence of Ethiopia’s argument. At this juncture, I do not want to cast doubt on Abiy’s patriotism but his unbridled craving for omnipresence in every technical matter aggravated by a possible pressure from the West may cost the nation dearly. Henceforth, it is for those manifest reasons that the writer urges Prime Minister Abiy not to snub advice from the technical experts and stumble into a political solution.  

Concluding remark:

Ethiopians as ever before shall realize that this issue is not only about water. Egypt’s path is engraved in its ambition to reckon itself as a hegemon in North East Africa and the Mediterranean and it is prepared to bulldoze whatever is in its way. It is a real deal and Ethiopia shall foresee and prepare for any eventuality. 

Second, all grassroots structures outside of the government, be it political, social etc shall work in tandem to build a consensus on this issue. This is a beacon of hope and the living witness of a generation of yes, we can ‘ይቻላል’. Of any kind our differences could be, GERD is a positive force multiplier and anything that prevents its normal course is an existential threat. 

Last but not least is the need for transparency. The government has to admit that the Washington process could have turned out catastrophic had it not been for the full force agitation from the people. The government for no apparent reason kept the GERD file from its people and it was through the consistent media campaign after rumours surfaced in the Washington process that it started mainstreaming the contents of the negotiation. Never any official or public institution shall be empowered to bring to the people an issue of fait accompli particularly involving the integrity of the nation. It is a mandatory minimum that the people of Ethiopia shall own the process and keep the government in constant check.


Yigedebal Abay is a keen observer on GERD. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. She can be reached at 

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