Britain’s Historical Wrongs and Moral Responsibility to Ethiopia
June 26, 2020
I am writing to raise a matter of grave concern to me and many Ethiopians in the UK.
I am grateful to God and the UK government for the opportunities I had to raise a family and live a modest yet comfortable life. However, I cannot say the same for many of the people where I come from who live in abject poverty and hardship. This is painful to think and even more heart-breaking when an opportunity to rise out of poverty is unjustifiably jeopardised.
The government of Ethiopia in 2011 came up with a plan to construct a large dam, namely, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) to generate hydroelectric power that would enable Ethiopia to combat its chronic poverty and food insecurity. It was intended primarily for generating enough electricity for household use (more that 55% of households do not have access to electricity) industry and export of electricity as a means of revenue to fund the economy. Even though the dam is made for non-consumptive water use and that Ethiopia does not take share of the waters of the Nile River, (85% of the Nile River flows from Ethiopian highlands) Egypt objected to the construction of the dam.
I fear like many Ethiopians in the diaspora that the current acute conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt over the sovereign right of Ethiopia to start filling the dam in July 2020, may escalate into war that would cost many lives and worsen the situation for everyone including people of other African nations in the Nile Basin. This could even end up being cataclysmic for the wider region involving Arab countries in the conflict who have already warned Ethiopia through the Arab League taking sides with Egypt.
The root cause of the conflict is Egypt’s claim that is based on the Nile Water Agreements (1902 and especially the 1929 and 1959 treaties) which Britain instigated and was a party to the first two with the intention of protecting its colonial and hegemonic interest in the Nile Basin. Egypt claims ‘historic’ or ‘acquired’ rights over the waters of the River Nile based on these very treaties.
Britain wronged other nations of the Nile Basin by providing Egypt a ‘legal’ basis to claim the whole water of the Nile with treaties that are toxic to the legal position and sovereign interests of Ethiopia. These very treaties are now regarded as providing the very basis successive Egyptian leaders, from Anwar Sadat to Al Sisi are either threatening or imply to go to war with Ethiopia, if necessary. These agreements misrepresent the legal status of Egypt in relation to ownership of the River Nile and give false hope to its people while at the same time making the reclaim of one’s right over the waters of the Blue Nile difficult for Ethiopia.
At this critical junction of history Britain can help deescalate the tension through its diplomatic means and help Ethiopia, as part of its effort to redress its historic wrong, reach a fair and reasonable resolution with Egypt.
Egypt objected to the construction of the dam based on its ‘acquired rights’ especially in its reference to its veto power over any construction project across the River Nile, stipulated in the 1929 agreement between Great Britain (representing Sudan) and Egypt. This was reinforced in the 1959 agreement, between independent Egypt and Sudan. There are two matters to note here, namely, that in both cases Ethiopia was not a party to the agreements and that Egypt and Sudan never requested the approval of Ethiopia when they constructed the Aswan Grand dams and the Merowe Dam respectively.
Once the construction of the of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) became irreversible and is 73% complete to date,, Egypt strongly objected to the start of the filling of the GERD in July 2020 as it claimed that it would significantly reduce the amount of water flowing to Egypt and therefore no filling of the dam should be allowed before an agreement is reached in the tripartite talks between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. The recent wave of tripartite talks between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia started on 9 June. It was conducted in the presence of observers from America, the European Union, and South Africa and in the negotiations on the “Guidelines and Rules for the first filing and annual operation of the GERD” was partly successful in reaching an agreement on technical matters while differences on legal matters remained contentious. However, the talks were stalled after a week and Egypt has opted for a second time to refer the matter to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). This has further escalated the tension in the region.
However, it may be important to mention to you as an anecdote that America’s participation in the talks had been problematic for two reasons. First, America, which had a status of an observer, self-appointed itself to a status of a negotiator and wanted to dictate the terms of agreement that would favour Egypt. This was reflected in the ‘Statement by the Secretary of the Treasury on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’ on 28 February 2020. Moreover, this was repeated in June through a tweet from the National Security Council (NSC) which is chaired by the president of the USA, putting further pressure on Ethiopia to accept that final testing and filling of the dam should not take place without an agreement with the other parties. Such favouritism was not surprising coming from a government that unashamedly discriminates its own people racially. I hope Britain will play a better role in resolving the Nile issue at the UNSC.
Resorting back to the Nile Water agreements, the agreement allocated 48 Km3 of annual water to Egypt and 4 km3 to Sudan out of an estimated average annual yield of 84 Km3. The difference amounted to evaporation and seepage. As mentioned above it granted Egypt a veto power over construction projects on the Nile River or any of its tributaries. Entrenching the 1902 agreement, Great Britain set a legal cornerstone in this treaty, where its protectorate, Egypt, would assert its claim as ‘acquired’ right over the whole waters of the Nile.
The 1959 agreement between Egypt and Sudan, made again at the exclusion of Ethiopia, continued the totally selfish and hegemonic spirit of the 1929 British agreement. The new agreement reinforced Egypt’s ‘historic’ claim and ‘acquired’ rights and increased the share of both Egypt and Sudan without any consideration of Ethiopian interests.
At a time when the international community has moved in the realms of International law from ‘absolute territorial sovereignty’ to ‘limited territorial sovereignty’ over the use of trans boundary waters and adopted principles based on the ‘equitable use of waters’ and ‘ non-use of significant harm’, Egypt trails behind with an untenable legal position and a problem that eventually may only be resolved through political means.
Hence, tension is building between the two countries and belligerent action cannot be ruled out, as it had been hinted by several leaders of Egypt since the 1970s. War is not the solution as Egypt and Ethiopia have had two major wars between them in the 19th Century (Battle of Gundet 1875 and Battle of Gura 1876) that benefited no one except leaving bitter memories for all.
I hope I have explained sufficiently enough the damaging role Great Britain played in the past over the sovereignty of Ethiopia and its right to use the waters of the Blue Nile river. I very much hope that Britain will not repeat its past mistakes. Ethiopia has a genuine and pressing need to develop which can only be addressed if its right to its own resources is not interfered with and is able to maintain peace without foreign intervention.
Thus, as my MP, I ask that you raise this issue with the government to address the historical wrongs the United Kingdom committed against the interests of the people of Ethiopia and request that the British government supports Ethiopia’s sovereign right over the waters subject to international principles of ‘equitable use of waters’ and ‘non-use of significant harm’, not only to build a dam across the Blue Nile river but also to have its equitable share of the waters in the future. I would also greatly appreciate it if you would raise this matter in your speech at Parliament.
I look forward to your response on this matter and sincerely thank you for taking the time to read my letter.
Yosias T Negash
Editor’s note : Cover photo from the Twitter account of DAVID LAMMY, MP
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