If the recent initiative undertaken by the current African Union chair succeeds in resolving the outstanding differences between Egypt and Sudan, on the one hand, and Ethiopia, on the other, over the rules for filling and operating the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), paving the way for a final agreement that observes the rights of all three parties to the waters of the Blue Nile, it will mark a rare victory for this regional organisation in dealing with African disputes and serve as a model for handling other issues that threaten African security, stability, and development.
As tensions spiralled between Cairo and Addis Ababa after the last round of GERD negotiations broke down in June and Egypt was forced to ask the UN Security Council to invoke Chapter VII of the UN Charter to compel Ethiopia to return to the negotiating table in a constructive spirit, South African President and current African Union (AU) Chair Cyril Ramaphosa invited the heads of state of Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia and the leaders of the AU Executive Bureau to an online summit to break the deadlock over outstanding technical and legal issues.
Then, on top of this unexpected last-minute initiative, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok announced that the participants had agreed that Ethiopia should refrain from beginning to fill the GERD reservoir until the three parties had reached a final, legal, and binding agreement over the filling and operation of the dam and that negotiations should resume immediately towards this end at the level of the legal and technical experts from the three countries, with the additional participation of observers from the AU Executive Bureau and AU Commission experts.
This “augmented Tripartite Committee” was given a week to present a progress report on the negotiations to the AU chair, and the summit participants agreed to reconvene after two weeks. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri added, in televised remarks, that the three parties had agreed to build on the areas that they had agreed on in previous negotiations.
Describing the summit as “fruitful”, Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed told reporters that the AU was the right place to discuss Africa’s crucial issues, which observers interpreted as an allusion to his continued rejection of UN Security Council involvement. He made no reference to the agreement to defer filling the GERD reservoir until the parties had reached a final, legally binding agreement. However, his office issued a communiqué stating that the filling process would begin within two weeks. At the same time, the Ethiopian irrigation minister said that there would be an agreement over the filling of the dam within three weeks and that there was now a consensus over the final touches to an agreement with the support of the AU.
Unless the minister’s remarks were not accurately reported, it is significant that he spoke in terms of an agreement over the “filling” of the dam, as opposed to both “the filling and the operation” of the dam. It suggests that Addis Ababa is still contemplating a proposal that both Cairo and Khartoum have rejected, namely a partial agreement that would let Ethiopia proceed with the filling of the dam while negotiations are still in progress. If so, this is a sign of bad faith and an attempt to sow confusion even before the experts in the Tripartite Committee resume their work.
Conceivably, such statements were meant for domestic consumption as a kind of posturing to show that the Ethiopian government has not backed down on its declared intent to begin filling the reservoir on 1 July. Yet, surely it would have made more sense to tell the Ethiopian people the truth and to justify it as a demonstration of good faith and a means to encourage the success of the AU mediation. Certainly, if Addis attempts to push its partial agreement proposal, it will encounter Egyptian-Sudanese opposition which, in turn, could jeopardise these negotiations, too, unless the AU acts effectively.
It is also noteworthy that Al-Sisi, Hamdok and Ahmed agreed with Ramaphosa and the heads of state of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Felix Tshisekedi, to ask the UN Security Council to take the points agreed upon during the summit into consideration when the Security Council, at Egypt’s request, discusses the GERD issue at its session on 29 June. The Egyptian and Sudanese statements also suggested that the observers from South Africa, Mali, Kenya, and the DRC, as well as observers from the US and the EU Commission, would take part in the discussions and, perhaps, contribute ideas to help bridge the Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Sudanese views and facilitate an agreement instead of acting as mere observers, as Addis Ababa had insisted. As of this writing, Ethiopia has made no reference to this point.
What accounts for this sudden shift in the course of the dispute, especially after the many years of Ethiopian opposition to outside participation in the tripartite negotiations? And what should we make of these three parties’ sudden assent to AU intervention despite their earlier reluctance to turn to this international organisation because of their well-known scepticism over its ability to settle ordinary African disputes, let alone one as complex the GERD?
Clearly, Ethiopia saw the AU as a face-saving escape route that could pull the rug out from under the UN Security Council after the US, which had brokered negotiations on the GERD in Washington in collaboration with the World Bank, and France, which currently chairs the Security Council, had moved to schedule discussion of Egypt’s request and, simultaneously, to take a measure that would prevent Addis Ababa from starting to fill the reservoir in advance of a final agreement.
Perhaps Ethiopia felt that an agreement through African-sponsored talks would be more “honourable” than having the UN Security Council call on it to refrain from acting on its threat to unilaterally fill the Dam, in accordance with the Egyptian request. It would certainly recall how it had angered Washington by boycotting the meeting in late February that had been scheduled to sign a fair and equitable draft agreement on the dam that the US had prepared in collaboration with the World Bank and based on the results of tripartite talks in Washington from November 2019 to February 2020. Ethiopia may have feared “revenge” in the form of a tough and binding UN Security Council Resolution calling on it to resume negotiations with a genuinely constructive attitude for a change and not start the filling before reaching an agreement.
Egypt, for its part, had never explicitly objected to or accepted the Ethiopian appeal to the South African president to mediate in the dispute before Pretoria assumed the AU chair in February this year and before the Washington talks began in November. Then, when Ramaphosa proposed the online summit, Cairo agreed without reservation out of its long-held belief that solutions to African problems should come from Africa if possible. The GERD crisis is of such urgency that Egypt would welcome any intercession that shows promise of promoting a just and equitable solution. In this case it also helped that South Africa was both the current chair of the AU and a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Sudan had been reluctant to bring the GERD dispute to the UN Security Council before all other avenues had been exhausted, whether through consultations and negotiations between Khartoum, Addis Ababa, and Cairo, or through African mediation. Therefore, it welcomed Ramaphosa’s invitation to a mini-AU summit and, perhaps, also offered some new ideas on how to overcome obstacles. Khartoum has spoken with the UN Security Council twice to explain its point of view and demonstrate its readiness to propose solutions.
Naturally, the proof of AU mediation will lie in the results, namely its ability to broker a final agreement that safeguards the legitimate rights of all three parties to the waters of the Blue Nile, the largest of the branches of Egypt’s sole water artery. Success will augur well for Africans looking to the AU to resolve the many other disputes that have plagued the world’s wealthiest continent in terms of natural resources and its poorest in terms of standards of living. Failure will encourage sceptics in Africans’ ability to resolve their own disputes and weaken the arguments against outside intervention in the affairs of the continent that is home to more than a quarter of the UN members.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly