GERD deadlock: The cost of Ethiopia’s behaviour

Ahmed Amal , Thursday 6 May 2021

Ethiopia’s picking and choosing which international treaties to abide by and which to reject on the management of the Nile’s water — which cannot work in its favour

Grand Renaissance Dam

Ethiopia is nothing if not “steadfast” in its reiteration of pretexts for avoiding a tripartite agreement with Sudan and Egypt, despite how fragile most of its arguments are.

Some of its claims have been more durable than others, such as the one that says that Egypt’s and Sudan’s rights to Nile water stem from “colonialist” agreements that are no longer applicable, as the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesperson said as recently as 27 April.

However, such is the extremely complex and sensitive nature of the negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) that such irresponsible remarks inevitably sparked an angry and potentially escalatory response from the Sudanese Foreign Ministry in Khartoum.

“Worthless” was how it summed up the Ethiopian spokesperson’s provocative statements which, it said, had only confirmed once again Addis Ababa’s determination to shirk its international obligations.

Khartoum was also forced to give Ethiopia a lesson in its own history. Ethiopia was an independent state at the time it signed the treaty between Great Britain and Ethiopia of 15 May 1902 governing the use of the Nile. Furthermore, if Ethiopia repudiates its obligations under that agreement, then it also renounces its sovereignty over the Benishangul region.

As the Sudanese Foreign Ministry statement put it, “Sudan does not need to remind Ethiopia that its unwise usage of such misleading claims and its disavowal of previous agreements undermines Ethiopian sovereignty over the Benishangul region, sovereignty over which was transferred from Sudan to Ethiopia in accordance with the agreements under this treaty in particular.”

Benishangul is the region in which the GERD is located.

The statement stressed that Ethiopia’s cherry-picking approach to international agreements for propagandistic purposes “is a harmful and costly approach and does not help in reaching a negotiated agreement acceptable to all parties.”

It cautioned Addis Ababa against media campaigns to turn public opinion in Ethiopia against Sudan, thereby poisoning relations between the two countries and undermining good neighbourliness. It concluded that Ethiopian attempts to drag other issues into the discussion that have nothing to do with the subject of the negotiations, which is the filling and operation of the GERD, is “unproductive and aims only to prolong the obstruction of the negotiations to impose de facto realities.”

This was not the first Sudanese statement to bring up the question of sovereignty over Banishangul. In January, during the dispute over the Fashqa region, head of the Sudanese National Border Commission Muaz Tengo told the Sudanese Intibaha newspaper that if Ethiopia refused to uphold the 1902 treaty with Sudan, “then Benishangul-Gumuz is a Sudanese region”.

Ethiopia’s claims also conflict with historical facts in other ways. Egypt and Sudan have never asked Ethiopia to commit to the provisions of the 1929 agreement on the White Nile or the 1959 agreement that Egypt and Sudan signed after the end of the colonial era in both countries.

However, Addis Ababa is still obligated under international law to fulfil the terms of the treaty it signed as a fully sovereign and independent nation in 1902. Under this treaty, Ethiopian emperor Menelik II pledged that his country would not construct or permit the construction of any structures on the Blue Nile, Lake Tana, or the Sobat River that would impede the flow of Nile water to Sudan and Egypt.

Ethiopia’s pitiful attempts to wriggle out of its international pledges are revealing. On the one hand, they betray the current government’s blurred view of Ethiopian history. If the 1902 treaty with Britain exacted “concessions” from Addis Ababa, it also rewarded Ethiopia with major gains that were crucial to the survival and prosperity of the Ethiopian state at the time that Menelik II signed it.

Above all, Article I of the treaty granted Ethiopia sovereignty over a large area of Sudanese territory that is now part of the Benishangul-Gumuz region, even though its inhabitants have more in common, linguistically and culturally, with the inhabitants of eastern Sudan.

On the other hand, such Ethiopian attempts also show how muddled its thinking is on the treaty. While Ethiopia denounces it as “colonialist” as a ruse to deny Egypt and Sudan their water rights, it simultaneously defends it because portions of it back its claims in border disputes with Sudan on the one side and Eritrea on the other.

It is an irony that the Amhara, who monopolise the conduct of Ethiopian diplomacy, are spearheading a campaign targeting an accomplishment of one of their most powerful historical figures, Ethiopian emperor Menelik II.

The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s provocative and irrational statements and the Sudanese foreign ministry’s response concerning sovereignty over Benishangul gain further significance against the backdrop of the mounting sociopolitical friction in the region and, more generally, the friction between the federal Ethiopian government in Addis Ababa and the regional governments.

The Amhara expansion into Benishangul-Gumuz as a demographic component of the region and as a dominant influence in local government has generated seething tensions. The outbreak of the war in the Tigray region of Ethiopia will also inevitably spill over into other parts of the country.

In the second week of the war in Tigray, while Ethiopian forces backed by Amhara militias were engaged in this northernmost region of Ethiopia, violence erupted in Benishangul-Gumuz to the southwest. It started in mid-November when gunmen attacked a bus and killed 34 passengers. The violence then quickly escalated, and in December another attack claimed more than 200 victims.

On 19 April this year, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission announced that an armed rebel group had seized control of Sedal Woreda in the Kamashi Zone of the western Benishangul-Gumuz region.

Such strife is not the only threat to Ethiopia’s sovereignty over this region that is home to its mega-dam project. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s bid to restructure federal-regional government power arrangements in the country is also falling apart. The central government has been forced to postpone scheduled elections twice, and now observers doubt that the general elections will go ahead as scheduled in June.

With this disappears Ahmed’s hope of promulgating a new constitution that would do away with federalism in Ethiopia and strip the country’s ethnic regions of their right to self-determination, as enshrined in the 1994 constitution. While Ahmed wants to centralise power in the country, more and more groups in Benishangul are pushing in the opposite direction and are demanding more autonomy in order to better address the deteriorating conditions that affect large portions of the population.

Not the least of their concerns is the GERD, which the federal government rushed to build without consideration of its environmental, social, and economic impacts on the inhabitants of the region. One wonders whether Khartoum, when provoked into drawing attention to the sovereignty issue over Benishangul, has helped bring Addis Ababa to its senses and forced it to realise that the costs of its escalatory and unilateral behaviour on the GERD will far outweigh the gains.

*The writer is head of the African Studies Unit at the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies.

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

Short link: