As Egypt and Sudan were scrambling to push forward negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) before the start of the flood season, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed chose to make the provocative announcement that Addis Ababa plans to build an additional 100 dams across the country.
Cairo described Ahmed’s statement on Monday as a continuation of “a regrettable approach” that disregards international law.
“Ethiopia views the Nile and other international rivers it shares with neighbouring states as falling under its sovereignty, to be exploited in any way it wants,” read a statement issued by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry.
In an attempt to pressure Addis Ababa to adopt a more constructive approach Egypt and Sudan held joint military drills last week. Egyptian ground, naval, and air forces, including special forces and paratroopers, took part in the Guardians of the Nile exercise held in Sudan.
Hani Raslan, an expert on Africa and the Nile at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, says that Ethiopian threats to Sudan, whether in relation to GERD or to the border dispute over the Fashqa region, lay behind the exercises.
“The drills,” argues Raslan, “send an important message: the national security of Sudan is part and parcel of Egypt’s national security, and vice versa.”
A similar training exercise was conducted in April after tripartite talks sponsored by the African Union (AU) in the Congolese capital Kinshasa collapsed.
Meanwhile, Khartoum and Cairo continue with separate diplomatic campaigns to garner support for their water rights. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi visited Djibouti last week. In a meeting with his Djiboutian counterpart Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, Al-Sisi reiterated Egypt’s determination to refuse Ethiopia’s attempts to impose a fait accompli over the dam. Both presidents underlined that all negotiating parties should display the political will necessary to reach a legally binding agreement.
The visit, says Raslan, came as part of a much wider Egyptian diplomatic campaign. Egypt has established strong bilateral relations across the Nile Basin, signing an intelligence cooperation agreement with Uganda, and last week initialling pacts with Burundi and Kenya.
Strategic analyst Samir Ragheb points out that the visit was held within the framework of growing Egyptian-Sudanese coordination.
Djibouti is of strategic importance to Egypt’s security due to its location, says Ragheb. As well as being a Nile Basin state, it is a member of the Arab League, the AU, and the Organisation of Islamic Conference.
Sudanese Foreign Minister Mariam Al-Mahdi staged her own African tour that concluded this week and took in Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, and Niger. Al-Mahdi’s tour aimed to underline Khartoum’s commitment to finding a peaceful solution to the dam dispute based on a legally binding agreement.
In addition to improving bilateral relations, says Raslan, the visits aimed to refute Ethiopian claims that it represents all the Nile Basin states, and to draw attention to the way Addis Ababa’s policies threaten the security of its neighbours.
Recently, the US has showed signs that it is willing to push the parties to return to AU-sponsored negotiations.
During his latest visit to Egypt US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken reiterated Washington’s commitment to Egypt’s water security and stressed the need to resume negotiations under the AU while US President Joe Biden underlined the same position in phone calls with President Al-Sisi.
Biden “acknowledged Egypt’s concerns about access to River Nile waters and underscored the US interest in achieving a diplomatic resolution that meets the legitimate needs of Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia,” said a White House statement.
Biden also issued a statement last week expressing concern over violence in the Tigray region and underlining that US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman is leading renewed US diplomatic effort to peacefully resolve interlinked conflicts across the region, including a resolution of the GERD dispute.
Feltman, who was appointed in April, visited Congo, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia last month in an attempt to revive tripartite negotiations, and is expected to return to the region this week or early next week.
“The US has recently shown a will to bring the parties back to the negotiations, though so far it has not been accompanied by a plan of action which is urgently needed ahead of Ethiopia’s threatened second filling. After the AU-sponsored negotiations that started last year failed to produce the needed agreement we need to press ahead in the little time we have left,” said a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.
He questioned whether Addis Ababa, which refused to sign a US-sponsored agreement in February last year, would listen to the US after Washington imposed sanctions on Ethiopian government officials for their involvement in the violence in the northern Ethiopian Tigray region.
GERD’s first-year filling of 4.9 billion cubic metres (bcm) last July is due to be followed this summer by a much more ambitious second filling.
The dispute between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia dates back to May 2011 when Ethiopia started building the dam. In 2015, the three countries signed the Declaration of Principles which states that downstream countries should not be harmed by the construction of the dam.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly