GERD: Derailed talks

Doaa El-Bey , Wednesday 5 May 2021

Diplomacy goes hand in hand with escalatory measures as Cairo and Khartoum attempt to get negotiations over GERD back on track


Negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) remain deadlocked, with Ethiopia still rejecting international mediation. Egypt and Sudan are continuing their diplomatic efforts to focus international attention on the dangerous consequences of Ethiopia’s intransigence, and both Cairo and Khartoum are considering formally taking the matter to the UN Security Council (UNSC).

Egypt this week appealed to the US to intervene and break the current deadlock.

“Through principled diplomacy, the Biden administration can reset the faltering negotiations, bring about an equitable solution for all parties, and, in doing so, ultimately safeguard its strategic interests with three important regional allies,” Moetaz Zahran, Egypt’s ambassador to the US, wrote in the 29 April edition of Foreign Policy magazine. He called on the US administration to quickly move to mediate, and in an article titled “Only Washington Can Save the Renaissance Dam Negotiations Now” warned that the threat the unilateral filling and operation of the dam poses “is not hypothetical but real”.

Last month the Foreign Ministry sent letters to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the UNSC explaining the unresolved issues surrounding the dam and calling on the international community to pressure Ethiopia into refraining from taking unilateral steps.

A week later Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri embarked on an African tour that took him to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the current chair of the AU, Kenya and Tunisia, two non-permanent members of the UNSC, Comoros, South Africa, and Senegal. He carried messages from President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to the heads of the countries he visited, warning about the possible consequences of the GERD crisis.

Sudan has adopted a similar diplomatic approach, with Sudanese Foreign Minister Mariam Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi undertaking an African tour. Al-Mahdi also raised the possibility of referring the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Last month Sudanese Minister of Irrigation Yasser Abbas warned that his country would sue Italian contractors Salini Impregilo (rebranded as Webuild Group) and the Ethiopian government should a second filling of the reservoir take place without a deal. The lawsuits, he said, would be based on the need to compensate Sudan for the damage caused by the filling process.

Abbas Sharaki, professor at Cairo University’s Institute of African Research and Studies, points out that unless a case is referred to the ICJ by the UNSC, then it requires the consent of all the involved parties.

Whatever happens, says Sharaki, quick action and coordination between Cairo and Khartoum is needed given that Ethiopia has said a second filling is scheduled for July.

Khartoum sent a letter to the UNSC last month stressing that the three countries need to conclude a comprehensive agreement before Ethiopia begins the second filling of the dam. Al-Mahdi’s African tour took her to DRC, Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda.

It is clear, says former assistant foreign minister Mohamed Hegazi, that Cairo and Khartoum are coordinating their positions.

In an escalatory move, Sudan has announced that it is only logical that it should reconsider Ethiopia’s sovereignty over the Benishangul region, where GERD is located, if Ethiopia insists on disavowing international agreements relating to Nile waters and the borders between the two countries.

The Sudanese Foreign Ministry issued a statement that Ethiopia’s selective disavowal of international agreements for domestic political reasons is a harmful approach that does not help in reaching a negotiated agreement acceptable to all parties. The statement pointed out that the same agreements on Nile water share that Ethiopia now brands colonial and refuses to recognise transferred sovereignty of the Benishangul region from Sudan to Ethiopia in 1902.

Addis Ababa, meanwhile, in one of its strongest reactions,
described what it called Sudan’s attempt “to mix the boundary treaties with the unjust, exclusive, and colonial-based bilateral ‘agreements’ on the utilisation of Nile water” as regrettable.

The statement issued by the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry on Tuesday stated that the country has repeatedly expressed its position regarding those colonial-based agreements, whose sole aim was and still is to deny the rights of upper riparian states, including Ethiopia.

“Ethiopia, therefore categorically rejects any and all attempts to preserve a self-appropriated water quota among the downstream countries. The insistence of downstream countries to monopolise the waters of the Nile and the politicisation of technical issues are the main challenges that the trilateral negotiations have faced,” read the statement.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed referred to the 1902 border agreement and the 1959 Nile water agreements as colonial treaties and insists that Addis Ababa will undertake a second filling of the dam in July with or without an agreement.

Benishangul was Sudanese territory for most of the 19th century. In 1898, Ethiopian forces occupied it, along with other Sudanese areas, until the British reached an agreement, the Treaty of Addis Ababa, in 1902, under which Ethiopia retained Benishangul but withdrew from other areas it had occupied.

Addis Ababa refused a recent offer from Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to move beyond the failed talks in Kinshasa early last month by holding a meeting at a prime ministerial level in Khartoum. It refused an earlier Sudanese proposal to allow for a quartet of the AU, the EU, the UN, and the US to help mediate a deal.

Ethiopia sent a letter to the UNSC last month calling upon the international body to urge Egypt and Sudan to return to tripartite AU-mediated negotiations. In the letter, Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen said the UNSC had supported the African Union-led talks on GERD but Egypt and Sudan were now “internationalising” the issue to increase pressure on Ethiopia.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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