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‘Try Africa’ and the Nile Conundrum

Updated: Jul 17

"...There must be a way in which a solution can be found", said President Cyril Ramaphosa, when Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed called upon South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in January 2020, to intervene in an ongoing dispute with Egypt and Sudan over Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam (GERD). He accepted the task, expressing his optimism that a solution was surely possible. In subsequent discussions, expert at the International Crisis Group mentioned that, "… Ideally, future talks should be organized in an African city rather than in Washington …". A professor at the European University Institute again said the dispute "is an African problem and, as such, requires a pan-African solution", hence he urges the African Union to "actively engage" and initiate "consultations" with the concerned sides. In his daily briefing on 23 June 2020, the spokesman of UN Stephane Dujarric, responding to Egypt’s call for the UNSC intervention said, "We urge Egypt, we urge Ethiopia and Sudan to work together to intensify efforts to peacefully resolve outstanding differences," recalling the importance of the 2015 Declaration of Principles on the dam that stressed the need for cooperation based on good faith, international law and mutual benefit. The above calls for calm and dialogue were for the peaceful resolution of the ‘water right and water fight’ engagements of the three riparian countries. I am provoked by the aforementioned and other literature on the issue to reflect on and contextualize the conundrum over the construction the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the river Nile.

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan agreed in 2015 that the construction of the mega-project should not affect the economy, river flow and hydropower security of any of the three riparian states. Since then, Ethiopia has continued the construction of the hydropower dam and now it has reached 70% completion. At the same time, disagreements have continued to flair bilaterally to the extent of escalation for multilateral intervention. The hydropower initiative of Ethiopia is driven by its development needs. Egypt built the Aswan high dam on the Nile water in 1971 without consulting the riparian and now Ethiopia’s dam is in progress. The two dams have commonalities on the purpose and on their controversial nature at their inception. The purpose of building of the dams on the Nile by both sides is to regulate the flow of the river and serve their people as necessary without harming each other’s interest. So, it is normal and acceptable that Ethiopia is asking for its fair share of the Nile waters. Ethiopia endeavored to use the water equitably as necessitated by its development needs that require sustainable energy to transform its over 110 million population, with 2.3% population growth per year, from poverty to growth as proposed in the country’s Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP). Therefore, energy is placed as the key to realize Ethiopia’s development aspirations.

Nile is the longest river in the world at 6,695 kilometers long and shared by 11 riparian states, namely, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Burundi, DRD, Kenya, Rwanda, S. Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Eritrea. The Ethiopian highlands have long been considered the water towers of the Horn of Africa and contributes more than 86% to the Nile basin. Despite the large flow, only 44% of households in Ethiopia have access to Electricity. Ethiopia depends on imported fuels and the challenges of infrastructure development underline the case for the development of hydro-power.

The Argument

The upstream riparian states argue to ‘Absolute territorial sovereignty’, the concept that a state has the right to do as it wishes with the water within its boundaries, while downstream riparian states argue for the ‘absolute integrity of the watercourse’, which dictates that upstream riparian can do nothing to impact the quantity or quality of water flowing out of their territory.

As a downstream riparian country, Egypt considers the construction of GERD as existential threat as the country gets about 97 percent of its freshwater needs from the Nile. The current escalation of the Nile issue emanates from this fear and a sense of full ownership over the Nile water while disregarding technical and expert advice on the impact of the dam on the flow of the water. Ethiopia as upstream riparian wants the amount released to be based on inflow into the reservoir minus evaporation and local use, without specifying figures in advance.

Hence, there is a need to move from restricted sovereignty verses integrity arguments to a reasonable and equitable use of international waters so long as “no appreciable harm” is inflicted on co-riparian (J. W. Dellapenna, 2001)

According to scholars, explicit coercive tactic, including military force, to control the Nile from its sources started in the 18th and 19th centuries (Yacob Arsano, 2007). Despite this, Egypt’s goal of annexing the sources of the Blue Nile and administering Ethiopia under its flag was not materialized as it was subjected to successive defeats by Ethiopia. (Daniel Kendie, 1999). Egyptian authorities continued to advocate the uses of the Nile river that were considered by upstream riparian states to be detrimental to their national interest.

The Scramble for Nile

The approach to utilize the Nile waters has been multifaceted and at times sacred and mystified. It has cultural, normative and hegemonic narratives. Even though Ethiopia largely contributes to the flow of the water, it has never utilized the water flow. Egypt has been exerting tremendous influence both locally and internationally with the intent to have the sole ownership as well as an ambition to build an empire along the Nile basin countries to fulfill its objective of hydro hegemony.

Egypt’s historical approach to the flow and use of the River Nile is based on the Nile Waters Agreement of 1929 and 1959 that were singed between Great Britain, Egypt and later with the Sudan. Both agreements give Egypt the Lion's share of the Nile waters, as well as the power to veto any projects threatening its access to water. This one-sided agreement is more appropriate to the time in which it existed, i.e., the colonial era for which Cairo was favored over other riparian countries as an important agricultural asset for British colonial administration. As such, Egypt’s claims as sole proprietor of the Nile waters do not serve as anything other than an explanation of anachronism which does not fit to any ideals of the 21st century.

After all, it is, “The White Man’s Burden” (Rudyard Kipling, 1890). African problems have the trace of the colonial era. The colonial agreements had various features, they were mainly related to land acquisition and included water only as secondary. On the other hand, they were bilateral agreements without involving the riparian, which left tension between co-riparian on allocation and management of the waters. The purpose of the agreements was mostly to demarcate their respective spheres of influence using longitudes and latitudinal references regardless of human settlements on the ground. In the process, they deprived residents from water resources by imposing artificial boundaries that were of benefit to colonizers only. According to scholars, the Niger basin was made trans-boundary in early colonial period because it was shared by both French and British colonies. Similarly, the Senegal Basin remained under French influence until Guinea gained independence in 1958. The Nile Water Agreements of 1929 and 1959 are no different, they were bilateral agreements. The earlier one, especially, was only between Egypt and Great Britain, (Great Britain representing its colonies, of which Ethiopia was not part) and they both are not relevant for the post-colonial period African discourses on the subject.

It is obvious that the Nile basin is the lifeline of Egypt, owing to its dependency, the quest to change the status quo is not easy. The Nile is entrenched with many aspects, it is mystified. The Nile is mixed with identity and has been constructed to become an expression of national interest and a national security issue. This grand narrative is more likely to fit into the approach called the ‘third debate’ in the international relations that considers “a sociological perspective on world politics, emphasizing the importance of normative as well as material structures, and the role of identity in the constitution of interests and action” (Price & Reus-Smit, 1998). As such, both countries possess certain public prides and identities construed around territory, nationalism, water, history, and war. Similar scholars conceptualize the national interests as “social constructions,” which are “created as meaningful objects out of the interest, subjective and culturally established articulations with which the world, particularly the international system and the place of the state in it, is understood”. Accordingly, national interests are constructed by the state itself, mainly by state officials and elites to act in a situation (Weldes J, 1996). . In general, those century old catchwords, such as ‘Egypt is a gift of the Nile’, ‘Historic right” etc.. gave Egypt a strong identity with and ownership of the River Nile waters. Similarly, for Ethiopians, bravery, heroism, victory, lion of Juda, Queen of Sheba/Menelik etc. are built into their identities. Right or wrong, these narratives are inculcated deep in the minds of the people and serve as uniting the people to stand together whenever there are felt ‘security threats’ on the respective countries regardless of the fact on the ground. To date, the socially constructed identities are accepted norms and included in school curriculum, in religions, literature so as to advance them to become internationally accepted realities. The current standoff between Egypt and the Nile riparian countries over GERD is the result of those ideals about the Nile. How does the construction or narratives impact the two states?

Escalation over the Nile issue

Egypt’s call for external intervention is not a new phenomenon, rather it gives a historical significance for my analysis of the whole scenario related to this matter. Egypt tends to involve international players on issues concerning internal matters at various times and this increased vulnerability of the region to superpower influences.

In hindsight, president Gamal Abdel Nasser, built the Aswan high dam during the Cold War, seemingly taking advantage of the heights of rivalry between the two blocs led by the USA and the USSR that finally made the region a proxy zone. The tension was precipitated by Egypt, first by its move to seize the Suez Canal that was built by France and Israel, to fund the Aswan dam when the promise to partially fund the Dam by external sources could not be materialized. Second, the diversion of interest by Great Britain and France heightened as Egypt continued subversion in the French colony of Algeria in North Africa, that apparently impacted the political and economic interest of France. This 'amity-enmity' was manifested by the rare bilateral alignment of USA and USSR to pressure Great Britain and France to withdraw from Egypt; and the multilateral intervention for a ceasefire to relax the tension over the Senai Peninsula between Egypt and Israel. This process brought about the first international security arrangement in the region and finally the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted Resolution 1001 (ES-I) on 7 November 1956. Hence, the deployment of the first United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) with the mandate to stop the conflict from escalation in the Middle East. (A/RES, 1956).

Egypt tries to exploit every international moment to advance its strategic interest. As much as they had used the Cold War geopolitical rivalry to finish Aswan high dam, they also used the Arab Spring of 2010 to express their determination to work against Ethiopia’s plan to build hydroelectric power on Nile river. In an effort to divert the main objective of the protest, president Morsi addressed the protesters gathered at Tahrir square by saying, "The lives of the Egyptians are connected around Nile as one great people. If it diminishes by one drop then our blood is the alternative." According to analysts, Mr. Morsi could have been using the issue to distract attention from severe domestic political and economic challenges. Although Morsi's speech at the time was unrelated to the political intent of the Arab spring, the upheaval at least opened the Tahrir Square that had been closed off for many years to prevent public assemblies in Egypt, as Henry Lefebvre points out that citizens have a ‘Right to the City’ (Lefebvre H., 1996). Similar threats were posed by Egyptian leadership at various times depending on the local political climates. President Anwar el-Sadat, threatened the use of force, by saying “if Ethiopia takes any action to block our right to the Nile waters, there will be no alternative for us but to use force.” In addition, former spokesman, Badr Abdelatty described the Nile as “a national security issue that can never be compromised on”. The current leadership follows the same suits of heroism over the Nile water, and described the construction of dam on the Nile as a matter of “life and death” for Egyptians. The current arguments on the GERD are the results of Egypt’s long standing behaviour of attaching its strategic interest with the global political climate as can be observed from Egypt’s game at the heights of the cold war, the Arab Spring, the 'Corona moment' and UN, US and China dynamics in the regional political economy.

The foregoing alignment and misalignment as well as the dynamics in the international order inform us that (i) cross border resources are always controversial; (ii) financing a project and implementing it depends on the international order; (iii) alignment of the global players is unpredictable as evidenced by the rare alignment of USA and USSR to come to the aid to Egypt by calling the belligerent parties (Great Britain, France and Israel) to withdraw; and (iv) the global security system depends on the economic might of states and their capacity to influence an international organ. For instance, the ceasefire in 1956 was forged in the interest of the USA as expressed by President D. Eisenhower, president of USA at the time. (v) the culture of escalation of the Nile issue to exploit the changing international order seems to resonate even now. Does the subject of the 'dispute' have such weight to be on the agenda of UNSC or Washington?

The present international structure is articulated by three major manifestations: (i) Chinese global leadership in diplomacy, driven by its huge infrastructural development projects aimed at linking Africa, Asia and Europe, of which Ethiopia is part; (ii) the dwindling relations between China and USA following the grievances over handling of COVID-19; and (iii) the change in US diplomacy in the UN following the “America First Policy” which alienates world leaders and the unusual trends shown by USA in the international relations. Overall, the divergent stances of the USA in the face of the troubling world has brought China to the rescue of most of the financial vacuums. Due to this and others, scholars are not predicting cooperation but rather whether the Chinese or the US will emerge as leaders of the post-corona virus world. In light of this development, Egypt’s move to call US intervention in its plight with Ethiopia over GERD in midst of China/USA discourse may not yield a good result. Therefore, Egypt needs to reckon its strategy and resort to cooperation on the Nile river rather than utilizing the unpredictable international order. Although American intervention in 1956 helped Egypt gain a strong hold on the Suez canal, it signified Britain’s decline as a global power. Who knows? As Nathalie Tocci, adviser to the EU, coined her wonder of the moment as ‘coronavirus could mark the “Suez moment” for the US.’ (The Guardian, April 20).

Further more, the escalation of the case at the multilateral level does not make changes on the progress of the project but it only serves to fulfill Egypt’s need to reinvent the wheel in order to delay the process of the already in progress project; and to make the Nile, the 'Political market Place' in exchange for political loyalty to the USA. Alex de Wall, based on his experience theorized the ‘political marketplace’ by saying, national rulers control the resources, while intermediate elites control violence, (Alex de Wall, 2015). Likewise, Ethiopia’s hydropower project over the Nile is being commodified for the USA to meddle in and impose whatsoever to stop or control Ethiopia’s development plan on the river Nile.

Historicizing the call for USA intervention by Egypt, the Camp David Accords of 1978 that was negotiated by the US President Jimmy Carter was to stabilize the relationship between Israel and Egypt and the occupied territories. The outcome of this diplomatic effort resulted in the joint awarding of the 1978 Nobel peace prize to President Anwar Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel for their new effort to end the 30 years of Arab-Israeli warfare. Recalling this important event, Egypt’s current call for the USA is to tell that the USA is a cutting-edge negotiator on sensitive international matters and to give historical significance to USA in negotiation skills. However, evidences in the process show to the contrary. The negotiation on GERD in February 2020, in Washington, was directed to trip the progress of the dam in favor of Egypt. It was basically to help secure the 1959 agreement which allocated 55.5 bcm of the Nile’s waters to Egypt, by ensuring that almost the average ‘natural’ Blue Nile flow (49bcm/year) will continue downstream forever.

According to a Senior analyst for Ethiopia at the International Crisis Group, "The US and the World Bank's role does seem to have extended beyond being observers and actually they have been involved in drafting an agreement, obviously using the input of the negotiators from the three countries, and it's that draft agreement which Ethiopia has rejected." Again, Egypt’s call for the Arab League is to reaffirm to members that Egypt’s water security is an integral part of Arab national security, to present Ethiopia as a destabilizing agent in the face of the Arab world equivalent to Zionism, and to voice rejection of any development activity on the Nile as an infringement of Egypt’s historical rights to the waters of the River Nile. Under this pretext, Egyptian politicians work relentlessly to subvert Ethiopia’s internal affairs including escalating Ethiopian domestic problems to appear as issues of an international nature, spending millions to support irredentism, giving offices to oppositions and the recent foiled attempts of cyber-attacks on sensitive information of the country are a few to mention. The purpose of these endeavors by Egypt were to destabilize and make Ethiopia fragmented by civil wars. Where does all these take Egypt and Ethiopia? Egypt’s strategy to see to USA for mediation is risking the Nile basin to be a proxy again or calling American interest to prevail over African resources. Now that the Cold War is over, World Bank and other multilateral sources can retreat from funding the project due to its ‘controversial’ nature, but the multiplicity of the new world system gives an impetus for Ethiopia to finance and realize its own projects that is in its own territories, which is why the project continued its pace of construction and has reached 70 per cent.

Optimism on African Solutions

The establishment of the African Union (AU) in 2002 was particularly aimed at enhancing Africa’s capacity and coordination for the realization of African solutions in African states (AU Assembly, 2013). In addition, Article 33 (chapter VI) of the UN charter provides that African solutions should be sought first before conflicts are referred to the UNSC. This provision became known as “Try Africa first”, the origin for African solutions (Mays: 2003). The provision does not preclude the international mediation, but it suggests that Africans should first seek the mediation of the continental body before they present it for international interventions. Scholars also agree that, while global solutions to challenges are key, the values and perspectives of weaker states are often undermined and untested. For this reasons, the need for African solution was stressed by Jean Ping, the former AU Commission Chairperson as, “the solutions to African problems are found on the continent and nowhere else” (Pambazuka News, 2012).


However, some concerned politicians argue that African centered solutions are abused by Africa’s leaders to avoid scrutiny of corruption and protect their political vested interests. This, argument however has been reversed through the strong commitment of to invest on education and developing informed African scholars in peace security field. Now, Africa has already adopted a world-class solutions for African problems. In this connection, AU made significant stride in mediation efforts and conflict resolutions in many troubled regions of the continent. Among others, the AU peace and reconciliation initiative in Libya, was one of African solution to African problems. Moreover, the peace effort in Libya was to bring sustainable peace and shield Libya from external interference that have their own agendas for Africa. The AU role in facilitating the national political dialogue in Cameroon has contributed to the pacification of the political tension in the North West and South West regions of the country. Similarly, the AU-led mediation helped foster an agreement between the government and armed groups in the Central African Republic. To sum up, the above sighted interventions confirm AU's continental capacity in resolving conflicts and peace mediation for African problems.

It is important to highlight that international interventions have also registered success in resolving African conflicts and preventing civilians from attacks during armed conflicts for many years. For instance, the UN peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) had successfully disarmed and demobilized more than half a million ex-fighters, including child soldiers and assisted the national elections. The UN mission in Liberia (UNMIL) had successfully disarmed fighters and assisted in the holding of three peaceful presidential and legislative elections. The African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) has done remarkably well and stabilized the fragile situation in Darfur. The international intervention in both civilian protection, peace keeping and peace building activities in Africa has transformed the lives of millions of Africans men, women and children from conflict to peaceful life.

African Union and the dispute on GERD

African Union has encouraged all parties to pursue collaboration as stipulated in the 2015 Declaration of Principles on the GERD. In addition, the AU showed commitment to assist all parties in finding a peaceful resolution and achieving a mutually beneficial agreement, underlining that the negotiation on GERD should strike a fair deal benefiting all stakeholders. It was against this background that Ethiopia sought African solution to arrive at a negotiated agreement with Egypt regarding the GERD. It is fair to understand the two important facts that, Ethiopia's commitment not to inflict any visible harm on Egypt’s sovereignty and the construction of the dam inside Ethiopia’s territory. Given these assumptions, the construction of the hydro power dam on the Nile basin is legal and its riparian right. On the other hand, Egypt preferred the solution through the intervention of USA then the UN Security Council, although, the right intention for such level of intervention lies on averting human suffering, in which case, there has not been any incidence or tendency leading Egypt to invoke such action.

Conventional wisdom has it that, water disputes can be handled diplomatically and per the agreements. Accordingly, it has been long time since countries started negotiating to cooperate on cross boarder waters. For instance, the Niger basin has been a catalyst of cooperation among the nine countries, namely, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria for the development of the Basin’s water. By the same token, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam cooperate on the use of the Mekong river. Israel and Jordan cooperate on sharing of the Jordan River, even though they are in a legal state of war. Similarly, India and Pakistan cooperate on the Indus river. Accordingly, Owing to this fact, Egypt and Ethiopia need to handle the case in good faith in a manner that addresses concerns on the power production and water supply. For Egypt the construction of the GERD is controversial, but for Ethiopia the objective of building the dam is solely to realize its development endeavors without harming the interests of the people of Egypt. For the simple reason that, the deep rooted socially constructive narratives over the Nile river prevail, the Nile basin continues to flare sensitivity among the co-riparian. Both sides need to resolve to reckon the historical and political constructions around the Nile to put them aside for a lasting resolution.

The role of Media and GERD

The media’s handling of the information in many cases fails to live up to their responsibility as providers of the kind of information that people need to make sense of the world. Contrary to this, the media report on GERD seems to have been geared towards provoking serious responses from domestic audiences and political elites in both countries. As such, the reports directly or indirectly fuel the water conflicts and instigate anger in the Arab world due to unbalanced information against the construction of the GERD. This has eventually created a security dilemma to the degree of calling the Arab League to denounce the construction of the dam. It has been quite some time since Nile became the headline of the news media. Similarly, the GERD has been used to illuminate their columns to attract the readers, to mention a few, “The Emergence of Another African Conflict: Egypt, Ethiopia and Geopolitics of the Renaissance Dam”, Aljazeera; “Egypt… Gift of the Nile: Threatened by Ethiopia’s GERD “ Daily News Egypt; “Ethiopia is trying to mobilize Nile Basin countries against Egypt when it comes to dispute over the Renaissance Dam.” Al-monitor.

Reports about the Nile Basin and GERD continued to surge as the project progresses. It is equally important for the news media in the three countries to explore ways to strike the balance between neutrality and maintaining proper culture of reporting and how this could possibly shape the narratives on the Nile river. In the same vein, the actions of the news media is well asserted by Noam Chomsky in his articulations on the “Manufacturing Consent”. According to his analysis, the news media defend the economic, social, and political agendas of the privileged groups that dominate domestic society, the state, and the global order. The same applies to what is termed as the 'CNN effect' that the mainstream media influence public attentions through a prolonged coverage of news and that will cause aggressive reactions towards the subject matter. He further analyzed the risk of the media industry behavior in their performance by referring to their complicity with political power. (N. Chomsky, 1988). Therefore, the news media need to commit themselves to send out correct and balanced news and be enlightened about the facts prior to posting. The various news and reports about the Nile and GERD suggest that journalists contributed for the confusion of the audiences on the dispute over the construction of GERD on river Nile.

On the other hand, the news media has important roles in disseminating information to audiences swiftly, for better or worse. All the same, the media coverage on the ground is biased towards one direction and being used as a political arm to divert attention for political legitimacy. The Arab Spring of 2010 can give more clarity for my views about the different aspects of the news media on various arena. Although the protest started in Tunisia, it did not take long to engulf the whole Arab world owning to the connectivity in social media. The role of media in this case was taken as constructive as it facilitated the information to reach its audience on the right time with the help of the new technologies of social media. The global real time news had united the Arab people to respond as one against oppressive regimes and low standards of living and for democracy and freedom. In the same fashion, the media need to endeavor to use various platforms to release the right information and contribute for peaceful resolution of the GERD conundrum.

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