Ethiopia founded its policy to illegally build its dam on the Blue Nile on a strategy of driving a wedge between the two downstream states, Sudan and Egypt. Although the strategy worked while the ousted Omar Al-Bashir was in power in Khartoum, the situation has changed since the revolution. Now the people in Khartoum realise that Cairo has been acting in the interests of both countries and that it is Ethiopia that is posing a grave threat to Sudanese national security with a dam that could crack or give way under the pressure of the first heavy flooding season. The danger to Egypt lies in the reduction of the water reaching it through the Blue Nile, which accounts for 64 per cent of the water that flows through the Nile Basin.
When Egypt succeeded in internationalising this cause by bringing the US and World Bank in as mediators and then by lodging a complaint with the UN Security Council, Ethiopia took its divide-and-conquer strategy to the next level: driving a wedge between Egypt and other African countries. Ethiopia now claims that the controversy surrounding the dam is an “African problem” that should be solved at the African level. So suddenly Ethiopia is casting itself as a champion of African cooperation and solidarity.
This is the same Ethiopia that rushed into a bearhug with an Asian superpower that now effectively controls all Ethiopia’s economic activities. It is the same that leapt at the offer from 25 European countries to pour billions of dollars into turning over 10-million acres of Ethiopian land to the cultivation of biofuel crops. If the powers that be in Ethiopia were really as pro-African as they pretend, those 10 million acres would be put to use cultivating much needed food for the people of Africa and it would not be handing control over its economy and agriculture to foreigners.
Of course, other African countries see through all this. They know that Ethiopia turned to non-African countries to build its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the other 12 Ethiopian dams before it. Had Addis Ababa truly been as keen to promote African interests as it says it is, it might have at least once taken Tanzania’s lead and engaged an African firm.
In 2011, Ethiopia agreed to let an international panel of experts study the economic, environmental and other potential impacts of the GERD project on downstream countries. After negotiating an obstacle course of Ethiopian impediments, these experts submitted their findings in May 2013. The experts came from the UK, Germany, France and South Africa. Apparently, Ethiopia had no problem with including non-Africans in this question at that time. But when the report by this international committee raised grave concerns over the dam’s technical specs and environmental impacts, as would any committee regardless of the national affiliations of its members, Ethiopia decided that, henceforth, it would only accept experts from the three countries concerned. It did not want “outsiders” witnessing its breaches.
An exception to this exclusion occurred four years ago when it agreed to let a French consultancy firm do a study. But that firm’s report also criticised the Ethiopian project. So, Addis Ababa reverted to its insistence on excluding outsiders from this question. At the same time, it ratcheted up an anti-Egyptian mudslinging campaign though, again, few African countries fell for the line that Egypt snubbed its African affiliation. African leaders and peoples remember very clearly the moral and material backing that Egypt gave to their liberation movements and they see, today, Egyptian development experts on the ground in all quarters of the continent. Where was Ethiopia during all this time? Aiding and abetting foreign powers with their bids to invade Somalia and Eritrea and to control Djibouti. The awareness of Egypt’s African commitment was reflected in statements of support for Egypt by key officials in the White Nile Basin during the Egyptian foreign minister’s tour to explain Egypt’s position on the dam.
In November last year, Ethiopia must have felt that it had no choice but to agree to negotiations sponsored by other non-Africa parties— the US and the World Bank. Then it regreted that moment of weakness when those “outsiders” censured Ethiopia for its intransigence, reviving echoes of the first international panel of experts’ and the French consultancy firm’s objections to the mammoth dam’s structural shortcomings and potential detrimental economic and environmental impacts on downstream nations. So, it took to strumming the pan-African refrains again and said that the UN and the Security Council have no business meddling in this matter, as though these bodies had not been created precisely in order to resolve disputes of this nature.
Could Ethiopia at least try to be consistent with its “pro-African” pose? It could, for example, turn away the World Food Programme, which spends billions in Ethiopia, and replace it with African committees. It could turn to the African Development Bank instead of non-African banks for aid, grants and loans. Or it could do its military hardware shopping in exclusively African markets.
After a decade of haggling, manoeuvring, and time wasting, Ethiopia still thinks it can dupe the African and international communities into its falling for its narrative that the question of the dam is about national sovereignty and African identity rather than about international law, common rights to a shared watercourse and substantial threats to downstream nations. But it has fooled no one. All are aware that a country that cannot bring itself to respect international law and honour its commitments under international treaties and conventions will naturally try to exclude impartial third parties.
*The writer is professor of agriculture and water resources, Cairo University.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly