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A zero-sum game

Ethiopia’s hardline positions and refusal to strike a deal on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that favours all the parties threaten the very basis of peace, stability, and security in the region

Mostafa Ahmady , Thursday 25 Jun 2020
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“Deal or no deal, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam [GERD] will be filled on time.”

Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew made this reckless remark after recent talks stalled with Egypt and Sudan on the first filling and operation of the colossal Ethiopian dam’s 74 billion-cubic-metre reservoir.

Andargachew’s remarks have exacerbated the already volatile situation between the three Eastern Nile Basin nations. He has poured cold water on a possible win-win scenario at a time when the incumbent Ethiopian government led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Abiy Ahmed is bearing the brunt of growing cracks within Ethiopia’s political structure at home.

The “virtual” talks between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan had not been counted on to bring about a breakthrough in the decade-long crisis over the GERD. Ethiopia was never willing to reach a compromise that would ensure that its right to power generation would be enshrined, while the right to life of the downstream peoples in Sudan and Egypt would also be respected. Attempting to preserve Sudanese-Egyptian rights to their quota of the River Nile’s water is not “dictation”, as the foreign minister of Ethiopia claimed. It is a legitimate means of survival.

What is even more alarming is that the foreign minister made a reference to the Nile as being “our river”, describing a shared, transboundary resource as “our own water resources”. The minister is unequivocally confusing the ownership of the GERD, which is solely Ethiopia’s, with that of the Nile, which is definitely not. This sets an unprecedentedly dangerous precedent that takes the current “controversy” over the GERD to another level, because by now it is no longer a project aimed solely at power generation, but rather is one attempting to impose Ethiopia’s “hegemony” over the Blue Nile.

This can be clearly understood from comments on the so-called “future developments of our resources”, a hint at other colossal dams that Ethiopia plans to construct on the Blue Nile. It would open up a Pandora’s Box: instead of regional cooperation for the benefit of all the Nile Basin nations, each would be able to act alone to make sure that its control over the “water resources” that passed through its border remained uncontested.  

Again, the Ethiopian government is playing a most dangerous game: if there is no enemy, we create one! The unprecedented rhetoric against Egypt, accusing it of being “the greediest nation on the planet”, sends us back to square one and casts doubts on the future of the “deep-rooted” people-to-people relationship between the two countries.

Indeed, the GERD is being held hostage to an internal political gamble. The incumbent government in Ethiopia, which has secured an extension to stay in office for another year until the coronavirus pandemic “is no longer a threat to the nation”, is apparently racing against time to fill the dam and make use of it for political gains.  

Oddly enough, it was the Ethiopian foreign minister who accused the Egyptians of making a “political gamble” and of “longing for war”. His need to mobilise his public against a “delusional” outside enemy, ie Egypt, just to ease the burden of a “cloudy” political atmosphere in Ethiopia is the real political gamble here. Taking hard positions and showing no willingness to strike a fair deal that favours all the parties concerned sets all of us off on the bumpy road of conflict and an endless one to say the least.

In effect, those who beat the drum of war are surely not in Egypt, but rather are those who have taken rigid positions from day one of the GERD talks. A country that disavows its legal commitments by virtue of international law gets all of us closer to the point of no return.  

Above all, which party is “exaggerating” the “propaganda” on the GERD? When the Washington-drafted deal, initially signed by Egypt, was reached, Ethiopia rejected it on the spot and orchestrated quasi-official propaganda to the effect that the United States was a new “colonial” power that favoured Egypt and paid no heed to Ethiopia’s “fair” requests.

But if Ethiopia did not trust the US and the World Bank, why did it engage in the talks? Was the Ethiopian government expecting a “tailored” deal that, when it was not reached, it could dub such “mediation” as “partisan”?

Ethiopia’s “fair” cause of providing access to electricity to over 50 million people, as Ethiopian officials have recently revealed, should not be confused with another fair cause of denying the access of almost 150 million people in Sudan and Egypt of their sole source of water. Had the problem been access to electricity, a hundred solutions could have been reached a decade ago by the three nations without risking their good neighbourly relations or employing rhetoric by any side. Apparently, hydro-hegemony in the Nile Basin is being disguised as the noble cause of “access to electricity”, with this being the core of the current standoff.

Egypt headed to the UN Security Council to find a peaceful solution to a decade-long crisis and being supported by legally binding agreements even if Ethiopian officials have wrongly insisted on calling them “colonial”. The aim was to defuse the tension with the help of the international body because the continued escalation over the GERD does, indeed, threaten the very basis of peace, stability, and security in the region.  

Egyptians have never been warmongers because throughout their history they have known the devastating costs of war more than any other country in the region. Though they have massive firepower that gives their army the rank of the ninth most powerful in the world, they have never flexed their muscles or shown off their military might for expansionary or aggressive purposes. On the contrary, Egypt used its forces to liberate Ethiopians kidnapped five years ago by militias in Egypt’s neighbour Libya. On that occasion, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi received them and asked them to deliver a message to their government that Egypt sought Ethiopia’s well-being.

Moreover, the president, while inspecting Egypt’s Western Military Zone some days ago, reminded the “sisterly” Ethiopians that he had addressed the Ethiopian parliament in 2015 and delivered a clear-cut message that Egypt was in no way working to “obstruct” development in Ethiopia. But in the same way that the right to development needs to be appreciated, so does the right to life. This is the only win-win deal; otherwise, the whole process will be a zero-sum game.


 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 25 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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