“It is not Ethiopia’s right to fill the reservoir of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) without an agreement with Egypt and Sudan.” In a rare show of disagreement with Addis Ababa, Khartoum officially made the remarks that Ethiopia should not unilaterally start to fill the 74-billion cubic metre man-made lake. Concomitantly, a state minister within Sudan’s Foreign Ministry said his country was not a “chorus dancing to Egyptian or Ethiopian tunes!”
Prior to the ouster of Islamist President Omar Al-Bashir, such remarks were nothing but fancy. Al-Bashir led an intensive “brainwashing” campaign that GERD would be beneficial to Sudan, even much more than to the owner of the dam, Ethiopia. His media mouthpieces, mostly shut down now within official moves by the new Sudanese leaders to “remove” pro-Bashir era powers and media agencies and confiscate their properties back to the state, used to propagandise that the Ethiopian dam would help Sudan fully utilise its share of the Nile. Unfortunately, the campaign was successful, albeit a paradigm shift is happening now.
Just before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdouk was readying for a “mediation” role between Egypt and Ethiopia to get both, especially the Ethiopians, back to the negotiating table after at the last minute the signing of a “binding and final” agreement on the dam failed in Washington. In effect, Sudan is not a mediator and should not play that role either. It is a party that has rights and obligations within which it needs to act. Seemingly, Sudan’s “new” officials hold the view that their country needs to discuss, thoroughly, any would-be negative impact of the dam and not take Addis Ababa’s “verbal” assurances for granted in that regard.
This may explain why the Sudanese prime minister explicitly said his government was “committed to the Washington-brokered talks” as the viable mechanism to end the standoff and reach a win-win compromise for the betterment of the three Eastern Nile Basin peoples. The three nations have taken long strides towards solving their differences over the controversial Ethiopian project and almost settled all pending issues except some technical details on how long it will take Ethiopia to fill the reservoir, and drought mitigation effects, assigning “responsibilities” in that respect.
With Al-Bashir in office, Addis Ababa used to “speak” on behalf of the Sudanese, while Cairo was playing “solo” to safeguard its people’s and Sudanese rights to the Nile waters. Now, the situation seems to be changing, though at a slow pace. Some Sudanese analysts went public to say that Ethiopia “deceived” Sudan on the issue by concealing “critical” information that would have changed Sudan’s position completely in terms of the “safety” of the colossal dam project. Some studies have warned that Khartoum, the capital city of Sudan, may be washed away in case of the collapse of the dam, a dreadful scenario Ethiopia has usually downplayed.
Other experts have gone far as to say Ethiopia wants a reallocation of water shares among the three nations. In fact, one of the reasons behind Ethiopia’s refusal to sign the US-drafted agreement on GERD is the claim that the deal effectively maintains the status quo regarding the allocation of 55.5 billion cubic metres (bcm) of water per annum to Egypt. Based on Ethiopia’s filling scenario, it wants to hold 4.9 bcm for initial filling to test the first two of the 13 turbines of GERD. In the second year, Ethiopia wants to hold 13.5 bcm in order to test the remaining turbines. After that, it aims to release 31 bcm of water annually. This plan considers neither Egypt’s nor Sudan’s water demands. In other words, the Ethiopian objection was not the agreement in itself, but rather the “share” Egypt and Sudan receive from the Nile. If Egypt’s share of the Nile drops drastically, a similar scenario would occur in Sudan, and in this case the total share would not be sufficient for the two countries’ basic water needs, something Addis Ababa does not seem to heed.
Now the idea of Sudan’s “huge” benefits from the dam look like so many castles in the air. This may be the reason behind Sudan’s most recent positions on the dam. Another possible reason may be Addis Ababa’s military pressure on Khartoum to continue to follow “Al-Bashir’s” policies regarding the dam. Some weeks ago, the Ethiopian military stormed into roughly 23,000 hectares in Eastern Sudan at Al-Fashaka, in a show of “negligence” for Sudan’s sovereignty over the territories. Earlier, militias affiliated to Addis Ababa, though officially dubbed as outlawed, had clashes with units from the Sudanese army, leaving soldiers killed and injured.
As a response, the Chairman of the Sovereign Council of Sudan Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, ordered deployment of the Sudanese army into the area, for the first time in 25 years. For three decades under Al-Bashir, Ethiopian settlers stretched over more than 250,000 hectares of the finest Sudanese lands, regarding them as their own, being protected by militias drawn from the Ethiopian Amhara region.
These factors may have caused the “slight” change in Sudan’s position regarding GERD. Above all, Sudan has never been asked to side with any party in the talks, but rather to support whatever it takes to cause no harm to the Sudanese people who, under Al-Bashir and his Islamist gang, sustained every and each kind of harm politically, economically and socially. Now, as their revolution managed to change the face of life in Sudan, at least politically, given the ailing economic conditions mostly inherited from the ousted regime, there is a need to march ahead with new thoughts and ideas to protect Sudan’s “interests”.
Like Sudan, Egypt acknowledges Ethiopia’s right to utilisation of the Nile waters, provided no harm be inflicted on downstream peoples. The issue of GERD should be kept away from “polarisation” by any party, so that technical experts from the three nations can find the best means to solve their remaining differences effectively. Transparent disclosure of all particulars of the dam, positive and negative, remains the only viable means to get the three “sisterly” nations closer to reaching a lasting compromise that would not fall apart once GERD goes online.
The writer is a former press and information officer in Ethiopia and an expert on African affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly