Having posted an opinion article entitled “A win-win solution on the dam” on my Facebook page, I received some comments on it, especially from dear brothers and sisters in Ethiopia. In reality, all the comments revolved around one issue – that Egypt was still allegedly attempting to stonewall development in Ethiopia.
An old friend of mine wrote that “I was expecting you to write something about your experience in Ethiopia, the country you have made many friends in.” He went on to say that “the heated debate on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) will continue until the dam turns into reality on the ground, when everybody will realise that its sole goal is to generate power. Our brothers in Egypt will come to the conclusion that Ethiopia is building the much-awaited dam for the development of its people who have suffered much in the past.”
He also reminded me of the time I lived in Addis Ababa, when power outages lasted for more than 10 hours a day, a fact that was a daily routine because of the acute shortage of electricity and the poor national grid infrastructure, particularly during the years from 2010 to 2015.
In response, I would like to say first of all that Egypt, particularly under President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, has never objected to Ethiopia’s right to utilise the River Nile for generating electricity. Let me here remind our Ethiopian brothers that President Al-Sisi addressed the Ethiopian parliament during his historic visit to Addis Ababa in March 2015 and said that “I call upon you to set up together the pillars of a better future for our children and grandchildren, a future in which all classes in all schools in Ethiopia will be powered by electricity and in which all the children of Egypt will continue to drink from the Nile waters just like their fathers and forefathers used to do.”
The issue has never been Ethiopia’s utilisation of the Nile for development; rather, it remains Ethiopia’s non-commitment to Egypt’s “historical” share of the River Nile, a point which my friend again reiterated. He elaborated that the “historical” agreements were null and void because they were signed under certain conditions in the imperialist era and should in his view have no applicability in the present time. This view goes hand-in-hand with the official position of Ethiopia. In the wake of the failure of the talks on the dam in Khartoum, the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a strongly-worded statement that “the government of Ethiopia will continue to follow an approach that will not result in the direct or indirect recognition of any pre-existing water allocation treaty that has no applicability whatsoever to Ethiopia.”
This point has been a bone to pick between Egypt and Ethiopia for decades. So let’s cut the ground from under it. After many African countries gained independence in the 1950s and 1960s, the now-defunct Organisation of African Unity acknowledged a very important principle, widely known in international law as uti possideties iuris, or “as you possess under law.” By virtue of this principle, all the newly independent African countries were taken to possess the land they had when they were dependent.
Nobody dared to question the idea that Ogaden (the historical name of what is now Ethiopia’s Somali region), for instance, was land that belonged to Somalia before its annexation to Ethiopia in 1948. Perhaps driven by this historical truth among other things, Somalia’s then strongman Siad Barre ordered the Somali National Army to invade Ethiopia in 1977, igniting the Ogaden War that lasted for more than eight months and left more than 14,000 dead on both sides. The point is crystal clear: when it comes to “historical” agreements or “historical” de facto “truths,” no one should be allowed to drive a hard bargain.
On that particular point, another friend commented that “Ethiopia is by no means obliged to abide by the 1959 Agreement on the Nile, as it is not a signatory to it, and Egypt’s approach and argument on the Nile water emanates from this unfair agreement.”
He also referred to the so-called “conspiracy” tactics employed by Egyptian diplomats and media commentators when they talk about Ethiopia. He saw a win-win solution in Ethiopia’s view as being that “Egypt needs to accept the reality that Ethiopia is not part of the 1959 Agreement and that Egypt has to accept Ethiopia’s full right to utilise the river that originates from its land. This needs to take place while reminding the Egyptians that Ethiopia understands Egypt’s dependence on the water of the Nile.”
RIGHTS TO THE NILE: However, the fact that Ethiopia is the “origin” of the Blue Nile in no way means that it has exclusive rights to the River.
This would have been the case if the Nile had been a river that ran within one country only and not a cross-boundary one. A cross-boundary river is a shared resource, and mutual understanding to the satisfaction of all the parties concerned is the means to settle each and every dispute that may arise between the countries sharing it.
It is true that Ethiopia is non-signatory to the 1959 Agreement, as is the case with Egypt, which is non-signatory to the Entebbe Agreement of 2010 by virtue of which Ethiopia unilaterally claims the so-called “equitable” utilisation of the Nile water. I do not want to dig deep into the technicalities pertaining to the “equitable” usage of the River because most people know the truth by heart: fair does not mean equitable. In fact, Egypt’s estimated 1.3 billion cubic metres of annual rainfall is a drop in the bucket compared to Ethiopia’s roughly 1,000 billion cubic metres, let alone the 20 fresh water resources in Ethiopia.
This is not “green with envy talk,” as one former Ethiopian foreign minister put it, but instead is the simple reality. So, the “equitable” utilisation theory of water use should not have been put forward because Ethiopia, codenamed “the Tower of Water,” does not need to put the issue on the table when it comes to a country like Egypt that is simply a “narrow green strip” on the map and unfortunately suffers from a general scarcity of water.
Egypt believes that development that inflicts no harm is the right not only of Ethiopia, but also of the other riparian countries. It is worth reminding ourselves that a consortium of giant Egyptian companies is in charge of the construction of one of the biggest dams in Africa, the Stiegler’s Gorge Dam in Tanzania, which when it goes online will produce an amount of electricity roughly equivalent to that from Egypt’s Aswan High Dam. This is further testimony to the fact that Cairo has never stonewalled development in any of the riparian countries as long as its interests are not infringed upon.
Last but not least, one of the comments I received was slightly ridiculous, even if also alarming. A friend wrote that “Egypt has been stealing water from the owner for years and adopting suppressive policies.” The comment is part and parcel of the rhetoric that the late Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi instilled in the minds of many Ethiopians, employing it as a tactic while in power to rally the population behind his policies in then Tigray-dominated Ethiopia. Though Ethiopia has, since Nobel Peace Prize laureate Abiy Ahmed took office more than a year ago, distanced itself from many of the policies adopted under the once-influential Tigray minority in the country, it seems that Zenawi’s ideas have not died.
This rhetoric is being widely repeated today, and it means that the Zenawi regime has died in form but not in substance. This makes the debate on the dam heavy-going because public opinion in Ethiopia seems rigid when it comes to the GERD. In truth, Zenawi based much of his reputation not on internal economic or political reforms but on showing off as a “defiant strongman” who would bring to an end “Egypt’s hegemony” over the Nile, as he used to claim.
The view that Egypt somehow “suppresses” Ethiopians remains a daily accusation in Ethiopia. It is also one of the leftovers of the propaganda that was once deeply rooted in the country. It is alarming when an average Ethiopian embraces such terms as the “theft of water” and “suppress” when it comes to cross-boundary issues such as the case of the Nile, as it means that “mutual understanding” and “cooperation” are in danger of falling into oblivion.
Some other remarks are worthy of mention, this time from neighbouring Sudan. “The Egyptian media is busy intimidating public opinion by saying that Egyptian land will turn barren and water will be cut off in order to divert the public’s attention from the real issues,” one of my Facebook followers said.
What are these “real issues” if not the lives of the Egyptians, however? And what kind of “distraction” is being employed? Back to my days in Addis Ababa, I remember the Sudanese man who wrote these words that I met somewhere in the city. He, unfortunately like many in Sudan, was of the conviction that Egypt was doing all it could to stonewall development in the country’s southern neighbours.
No wonder, then, that the “harsh” statement from Ethiopia on the dam read that “Ethiopia and Sudan followed a constructive and inclusive approach for the discussion of the dam. Whereas the Egyptian side persisted in its position of having all its proposals accepted, without which it was not willing to conduct an analysis.” It is true that Sudan would benefit from the GERD in terms of purchasing cheap electricity and preventing sediment from building up behind Sudan’s dams, a process that will prolong their lifespans. But it is also true that Khartoum, as some geological studies have warned, would be wiped off the map should the Ethiopian Dam collapse.
It is time that we cut to the chase, as some of our brothers in Sudan look dead set against our interests. Sudan was the first donor of GERD machinery under ousted former president Omar Al-Bashir, and it now sees eye-to-eye with Ethiopia’s plans for the dam. This indicates that Sudan should no longer be counted on when it comes to the talks on the dam.
Things would not have reached this heightened level of tension if Ethiopia had gone ahead with the first specifications of the dam, namely a 90-metre dam with a reservoir that would hold as much as 14 billion cubic metres of water. This would have been enough for a dam whose end is only to generate electricity, as Ethiopia has repeatedly claimed. A dam with such specifications would have helped Ethiopia add as much as 2,100 Megawatts to its national grid and may have left a surplus for export. Above all, it would not have put the stability of the whole region in the balance.
The writer is a former press and information officer in Ethiopia and an expert on African affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.