Last Tuesday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was addressing a session of the House of People’s Representatives, Ethiopia’s lower chamber of parliament.
The session, supposedly a routine one to discuss the internal affairs of Ethiopia and the situation abroad, went against the grain, however. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who seemed hot and bothered, spoke of war as a means to settle the impasse over the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
“If there is a need to go to war, we could get millions readied. If some could fire a missile, others could use bombs,” he said, according to the Associated Press and other world media outlets. Moreover, the reformist leader apparently wanted to raise anxieties among the opposition and the Ethiopian media at large, threatening action against them if they continued to misuse the freedom bestowed upon them.
Above all, his fiery speech against Jawar Mohamed, the nationalist Oromo leader whose online activities in exile led to Abiy Ahmed’s taking power, put the Ethiopian premier in a cleft stick. His fury at Jawar has also left as many as 67 dead in clashes with the police in his own Oromia state. “Medamer,” the book Ahmed has released recently in which he details his philosophy on a national merging of all ethnicities in one centralised Ethiopia, has been burned by furious Oromo nationalists who seem not to like the idea of a “centralised” Ethiopia, as Ahmed prescribes in his book. Instead, they prefer the status quo or some form of self-governance.
Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement in which it said it was “shocked” over Ahmed’s talk of “military options” while negotiations on the GERD were underway, particularly as it came ahead of a scheduled meeting with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in Sochi in Russia on the sidelines of the first Russia-Africa Forum. Egypt has never abandoned the path of negotiations as the only means towards settling the impasse, the statement said.
Sitting with Egypt’s Al-Sisi, Ethiopia’s prime minister then toned down his comments, however, and took the easy way out. He said his words had been “taken out of context,” putting the blame on the media for reporting them. However, Ahmed knows that the powerful Ethiopian Office for Government Communication Affairs, the body that regulates the work of the local and foreign media in Ethiopia, is zero tolerant when it comes to misreporting Ethiopia by foreign news outlets. Perhaps the Ethiopian premier, who bears the brunt of growing dissatisfaction even among his own ethnicity, was inspired by the late Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi, who almost uttered the same words in 2010. Zenawi was referring to a war over the Nile that Egypt “would never win” because Ethiopia, he said, had never been colonised.
Egypt will never give up its historical share of the River Nile. This was the powerful and clear-cut message that President Al-Sisi delivered to the Ethiopian prime minister in Sochi. He also delivered another resounding message: that the construction of the Ethiopian Dam will in no way be at the expense of Egypt’s right to the Nile, and that the dam needs to be constructed in a balanced way to realise the best interests of both upstream and downstream nations.
The president also made it clear that the Nile should never have been a bone of contention between the two countries and that cooperation should be the medium when speaking of the river. The two leaders agreed on resuming the work of the Independent Scientific Research Group that combines 15 experts from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia for a final say on the filling and operation of the giant project.
How can one be sure that Ethiopia’s prime minister is strictly on the level? In truth, the situation needs more than pretty words and good wishes. If Ethiopia is not willing to inflict any harm on Egypt’s share of the river, it needs to practise what it preaches and pay due heed to Egypt’s concerns. It needs to seriously reconsider the filling schedule that it has persisted with, of three years versus seven as per Egypt’s request. This is how Ethiopia should get down to business instead of fancy talk about the cultivation of 20 billion trees to increase the volume of rainfall over Ethiopian territory that would solve the problem of water for downstream nations once and for all.
In his talks with President Al-Sisi, Ahmed said his country had no intention of harming the Egyptian people and that Ethiopia was committed to the negotiations in the search for a final and binding solution, being the only means to ending the deadlock. Based on the findings of the Independent Scientific Research Group, Ethiopia will take its decisions in a manner that does not harm the Egyptians and benefits the Ethiopians at the same time, he said.
However, Egypt needs to set a deadline for a viable and binding outcome of the upcoming technical meetings. This is not to take a dim view of the discussions, but rather it is a necessity that should be heeded. Over the course of the negotiations that have spanned over eight years, Egypt has received many sweet words from Ethiopia. But when it has come to the time for action, Ethiopia had never got to the bottom of the problem: Egypt’s limited 55.5 billion cubic metres of water from the Nile does not now suffice to meet the basic needs of the country’s 110 million people.
On the contrary, Ethiopia has seen Egypt’s legitimate requests as an attempt to turn the country into Egypt’s “hydrological colony,” as one of the top Ethiopian negotiators recently put it, a claim which is clearly false. In a nutshell, a win-win deal remains probable only when Addis Ababa stops hanging fire and works in good faith with Egypt towards a binding compromise on the dam.
*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 31 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.