GERD: Last chance wasted

Doaa El-Bey , Thursday 8 Apr 2021

What comes after the failure of yet another round of GERD tripartite negotiations

Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (middle), Ethiopia's Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen (left), and Sudan's Foreign Minister Asma Mohamed Abdalla sit in a theatre in the Fleuve Congo Hotel in Kinshasa. (photo: Reuters)

“Did not make any progress and did not result in an agreement”: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ terse judgement on the outcome of the latest three-day round of tripartite talks sponsored by the African Union (AU) over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) had the sole virtue of being brief.

Addis Ababa, said the ministry, rejected every suggestion presented by either Egypt or Sudan on how negotiations should proceed.

The Kinshasa-based talks, which came nearly two months after the last round stalled in January, started after President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi issued one of his toughest statements yet on the building of the dam, warning that “there will be inconceivable instability in the region” should anyone take a drop of Egypt’s water.

That Addis Ababa declined to continue negotiations beyond the end of Tuesday’s session under the existing mechanism as Egypt had suggested indicates that Ethiopia’s intransigence has finally turned full circle, says Ali Al-Hefni, a former deputy to Egypt’s foreign minister. Egypt and Sudan must now look at other options, with both countries likely to continue with diplomatic efforts to win international support for their case. 

The failure of this week’s negotiations puts the AU in a potentially embarrassing situation, says Al-Hefni, since acknowledging the failure of its sponsorship means Egypt and Sudan could now take the issue up with the UN Security Council.

A diplomat who said that expecting the AU to issue a report on the deadlock is far-fetched argued Cairo should refer the issue to the Security Council straight away. “Both Cairo and Sudan took the GERD file to the Security Council last year and now they have stronger proof of Ethiopia’s unwillingness to reach a fair solution,” he said.

In an official statement, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ahmed Hafez said on Tuesday that Ethiopia had rejected a Sudanese proposal — backed by Egypt — to form an international quartet of the AU, the UN, the EU and the US to help resolve the dispute. He added that Ethiopia had also rejected other suggestions and alternatives proposed by Egypt — with Sudanese support — to allow observers a more active participation in the talks.

During the final session of talks Addis Ababa objected to an Egyptian proposal, backed by Sudan, that talks resume with the participation of observers within the current negotiation mechanism.

Hani Raslan, a political expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said Egypt’s attempts to cooperate with Addis Ababa had been spurned for a decade, with Ethiopia seemingly determined to provoke a regional conflict.

Sudanese Foreign Minister Mariam Al-Mahdi blamed the failure squarely on Ethiopia, saying that Addis Ababa’s unilateral decision to start a second filling of the dam in the absence of any agreement had wasted 200 days of negotiations.

The latest negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia on the decade-long dispute started on Sunday in the Congolese capital Kinshasa. Foreign and irrigation ministers, together with the negotiating teams of the three states, attended the talks.

The round was supposed to identify and agree on a methodology and future negotiating path according to Abbas Shaharki, a professor at Cairo University’s Institute of African Research and Studies, who explained: “The talks were supposed to discuss Sudan’s proposal of a mediation quartet including the UN, EU, the US and the AU… Khartoum wants these bodies to participate as mediators, but Ethiopia wants them as mere observers.”

Before the start of the three-day round of talks Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri described them as “the last chance” for the three countries to reach an agreement before the beginning of the flood season in summer.

Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi had called for “a fresh start” and “new dynamic” ahead of the meetings, which were always seen as a long shot.

Last week the UAE invited the foreign ministers of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia to Abu Dhabi in an attempt to give the talks a diplomatic push. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Oman also announced their support for Egyptian and Sudanese efforts to protect their share of Nile water, and insisted water security is integral to Arab regional security.

The arrival of Donald Booth, the US special envoy for Sudan, to the region was seen by some observers as evidence that Washington was seeking to push forward a diplomatic solution. Booth’s tour took him to Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Sharaki, however, saw Booth’s tour as an information gathering exercise.

“The US could have sent a more influential envoy if it wanted to resolve the differences. Biden’s policies on the issues are not clear yet,” he said.

During his stop in Egypt, Booth met Deputy Egyptian Foreign Minister Hamdi Loza who highlighted the need to reach an agreement on filling and operating the massive dam as soon as possible, and Minister of Irrigation Mohamed Abdel-Ati, who underlined that “unilateral measures” over the dam will inevitably have negative repercussions. 

In Addis Ababa Booth met with Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen who said that although Ethiopia contributes 86 per cent of water to the Nile, 60 per cent of its citizens still live in darkness, a situation Ethiopia aims to change once the construction of the dam is complete.

On Friday Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde revealed that her country is preparing for the second phase of the massive dam filling with or without an agreement.

“Ethiopia is determined to complete the construction of the dam that is the aspiration of all Ethiopians and represents one of the pillars of the state’s development,” she said.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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