Since the launch of the most recent trilateral talks between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), there has been an unequivocal truth: Ethiopia has done nothing other than buying more time. A final deal should have been concluded by the end of February after the mediation of the United States and the World Bank to resolve the nine-year standoff among the three nations. Now Ethiopia sees the US and the World Bank as “neocolonialists” which would like to impose things on a country that has been proud over all the years of safeguarding its “sovereignty”.
Oddly enough, Ethiopian officials have recently connected issues pertaining to the filling and operation of the dam with “sovereignty” clearly to mobilise the crowds, as if the enemy was at the gates, ready to infringe upon the country’s sovereign rights and independence. This was an old tactic widely exercised by Ethiopian officials, particularly under late prime minister Meles Zenawi, and re-employing it now is a reminder that the incumbent Ethiopian government is much like the pouring new wine into old wine bottles.
Ethiopia withdrew from participating in the last round of talks held in Washington DC, 27-28 February — the date set, five months ago, for reaching a final agreement. Ethiopian officials said they needed more “time” for consultations with “local” parties and “legal” experts before signing any agreement. More than seven years of intense diplomatic activities, endless meetings and “smile diplomacy” have not been seemingly enough for the landlocked Horn of Africa nation to decide on a final binding compromise on the dam. In practice, this is not intransigence: it is much more akin to belligerence.
Effective participation with high-level delegations in the previous rounds of talks brokered by Washington since they started in October 2019 implied Ethiopian consent on a need for a joint US-World Bank role to resolve the stalemate after the country failed to remain committed to any findings of talks with Egypt over the GERD. Otherwise, Ethiopia would have boycotted the meetings right from the start, if it had a firm belief they were of no avail. Were Ethiopian officials expecting a favoured deal well-designed for them, and that when this did not emerge, they threw a hissy fit?
The statement of the US Treasury Department, the broker of negotiations between the three nations, made it clear that “seven years of technical studies and consultations between the three countries, and the resulting agreement, provides for the resolution of all outstanding issues on the filling and operation of the GERD.” Every single detail has been, therefore, discussed over seven years of meetings at regional levels as well as those in Washington. Inability to reach an agreement after all these tough years simply means Ethiopia was not willing to reach an agreement at all.
“Final testing and filling (of the GERD) should not take place without an agreement,” the statement reads. This has infuriated Ethiopian officials and made them resort to the “sovereignty”-related argument. A joint statement by the Ethiopian ministries of water and foreign affairs expressed “disappointment” over Washington and concluded that the country “will commence first filling of the GERD in parallel with the construction of the dam”. Across the course of negotiations, Ethiopia has committed itself, though disavowed now, not to cause any “significant harm” to downstream countries — Egypt in particular as the Nile is the sole source of fresh water to the nation. As for Sudan, its ambassador in Addis Ababa, Mukhtar Bilal Abdel-Salam, recently described his country’s support for Egypt at the talks underway in Washington DC as “rumours” disseminated by Egyptian media outlets and social media platforms.
Provoking Cairo, he went to say that the GERD would not have “seen the light without the help of Sudan”. Well noted, Mr Ambassador. Clearly, Egypt is playing solo to safeguard the rights of its own people to Nile waters.
In effect, a unilateral initial filling of the dam’s reservoir at a level of 595 metres above sea level to allow for test operations of two hydropower plants means a loss of some 20 billion cubic metres of Egypt’s quota of the Nile only this year. This is a “significant” harm for the average Egyptian, whose quota of water per capita has dreadfully fallen into the lowest level possible (roughly 500 cubic metres — already below the Water Poverty Index internationally estimated at 1,000 cubic metres).
Furthermore, the Ethiopian cabinet hit the final nail in the coffin of current and future talks stating that Ethiopia will not participate in any GERD-related talks that might be of any “harm” to the country. Ethiopia, as the joint statement of water and foreign affairs ministries clarified, is “the owner of the GERD”. But it is not the “owner” of the Nile, the river that has flowed for thousands of years downward from the Ethiopian Plateau into Egypt and will continue to flow for eternity no matter what, because this is an issue of survival and existence.
Given the fact that the agreement brokered by Washington DC has been a balanced one, taking into account the interests of all three nations, Egypt did sign in initial letters of the agreement. This did “evidence its commitment” to the process as the US statement elaborated. While regretting the “unjustified” absence of Ethiopia from participating in the “decisive” round of talks in Washington DC, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry has emphasised, in plain language, that the country would continue to “defend the interests of the Egyptian people with all possible means”.
Egyptian officials have repeatedly reiterated that they will never allow any tampering with the lifeline of the Egyptians — the Nile. Egyptian authorities have braced for impact long ago by taking “harsh” measures to ration the use of water, including the ban on the cultivation of a daily staple for average Egyptians, rice, a highly consuming water crop, over an acute shortage of enough water for irrigation. This cost Egyptians dearly as prices of the staple skyrocketed, homage which Egyptians paid to allow Ethiopians carry on with their plans for a “fair” utilisation of the Nile. Ethiopia responded with persistence on “equal” utilisation of the Nile River, demanding in meetings a given “share” of the river for future irrigation purposes.
Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian prime minister, is racing against time to win the next general elections, slated for 29 August. The initial date for holding the elections was May this year, but the delay is clearly now rooted in a political game aimed at inflaming the sentiments of average Ethiopians when they see their GERD realised two months ahead of elections, a well-knitted recipe to gain the confidence of voters when they go to the polls, even if this would rock the stability of the whole region. If Ahmed was not willing to proceed with talks on the GERD, Ethiopia may have asked for a postponement of the whole process, including the construction of the dam, till the end of elections.
This is not likely to happen as the dam is now being “politicised” to distract average Ethiopians from a volatile situation at home where they are torn between unionists led by “Colonel” Ahmed and ultranationalists who would like to maintain the status quo of the ethno-federal system.
Instead of addressing pressing issues and mounting divisions in Ethiopia, it was much easier for Ahmed and his entourage to rally the crowds to close ranks in the face of an external enemy: Egypt. Patriotic sentiments have been inflamed and ordinary Ethiopians have already turned their backs on the fact that their country is a powder keg and that the spark is the next elections.
Ahmed, the Nobel Peace Laureate, has failed to make peace both at home and abroad, with his neighbours. The reckless behaviours of the Ahmed-led government jeopardise peace in an already troubled region and it is now up to the international community to exercise more pressure on Addis Ababa in order to strike a balanced deal on the Nile before the protagonists in this drama lock horns.
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 5 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly