Sudan, on Tuesday, refused to sign an agreement that will enable Ethiopia to start filling the waters of its $4.6 billion Renaissance Dam from July. But Ethiopia had made it known over the years that such objection would not stop its completion of the dam, which began in 2011.
Egypt had threatened military action against Ethiopia if it continued with the dam construction. Ethiopian prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, said that his country was ready for military action over the dam.
Ethiopia is a generally a poor country relying on exports like coffee, with its airlines being a major source of foreign exchange for the country. But the closure of most of the world’s airspace due to the COVID-29 pandemic means that the country has been in dire straits. It is also beset by serious internal conflicts, which in 1991 saw Eritrea break away to become an independent country.
Ethiopia had to fight the Ogaden War with Somalia to keep that part of the country. Its power structure, which saw the Amhara, with 27.1 per cent of the population, ruling perpetually through leaders like Emperor Haile Sellasie and Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, crumbled in 1991. That was when an armed insurrection led by the Tigrayans, who constitute 6.1 per cent of the population, overran the country. Instability persisted as the majority Oromos, with 34.6 per cent of the population, were not allowed to come to power through the ballot box. Part of the attempts to bring peace saw the ruling party pick Ahmed, an Oromo, as prime minster on April 2, 2018.
Two major challenges of Ethiopia are development, for which it needs a lot of electricity, and long spells of drought due to reduced rainfall. But Ethiopia is like a man who lives on the banks of a great river, yet is perpetually thirsty. The Blue Nile, which provides over 85 per cent of the Nile River waters, has its source in the country’s Lake Tana. So by building the dam, Ethiopia plans to generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity, as well as irrigate its agricultural fields.
However, it is only one of 10 countries along the Nile. The greatest worry is that the Ethiopian dam has the capacity of holding 70 billion cubic metres of water, which is about half the Nile’s normal annual flow. This may reduce the flow of the Nile.
Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok said he refused to sign the agreement with Ethiopia due to “technical and legal issues” bordering on the dam’s environmental and social impacts. Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, is the confluence city where the Blue and White Nile meet.
The country, like Ethiopia, has serious political-economic problems. On July 9, 2011, South Sudan broke away with a lot of oil wells, a fratricidal war in Darfur and a street uprising, which despite ousting General Omar Hassan al-Bashir in 2019, is yet to end.
However, while Sudan has been quite measured over the Ethiopian dam project, Egypt has been boiling. The Nile is its blood, and 80 per cent of its waters come from the Blue Nile. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi told the United Nations in 2019 that, “While we acknowledge Ethiopia’s right to development, the water of the Nile is a question of life, a matter of existence for Egypt.” The country threatens ‘a strong reaction’ if the American negotiations fail.
In spite of calls in Egypt for war if Ethiopia does not stop the construction of the dam, it is uncertain what a military reaction by Egypt will be, especially when both countries have no shared border. Is Egypt relying on airstrikes through its 215 fighter jets and 81 attack helicopters or strikes by the U.S.? In case of a ground attack, does it hope to cross Sudanese territory to reach Ethiopia? In any case, the Ethiopian military, which for years now has seen battle in Somalia, may not be a pushover.
Ironically, the Nile that links countries is, today, a possible source of conflict. Yet, it may not be too difficult to reach a negotiated agreement, provided there is goodwill on all sides.
First, all sides need to accept that Ethiopia has a right to use the Nile waters for its development, just as Egypt did in building its Aswan High Dam, whose ten-year construction was completed in 1970.
Secondly, the matter cannot be resolved on the basis of the 1902 Anglo-Ethiopia Treaty or the 1929 Nile Water Treaties, which are colonial agreements awarding water rights based on the politics of colonial Britain.
Thirdly, all countries on the route of the Nile must agree on a shared use of its waters.
Fourthly, a compromise should be reached between Ethiopia’s plans to fill the dam reservoir within two years and Egypt’s demand that it be done over seven years.
Fifthly, there needs to be an agreement on the minimum release of cubic metres of the Blue Nile waters as demanded by Egypt.
Sixthly, a Joint Commission ould shbe established to monitor the running of the dam, especially how it can be filled without major effects on the volume flow downstream.
The main challenge is in finding an even-handed conciliator, a role the African Union (AU) has failed to play. Rather, the U.S. and the World Bank are playing the role of mediators. This can complicate matters.
First is that the U.S. works primarily for its interests and props up its allies. In this case, Egypt under the military dictator, General el-Sissi, is a major American ally, while another foremost American ally, Saudi Arabia, is playing big brother to the Sudanese government and bankrolling some of its basic financial needs. These have made Ethiopia, a country that is trying to be independent of super power plays, uncomfortable. Besides, Ethiopia is a major business ally of China, which has helped it build the transnational Addis Ababa-Djibouti train line.
This March, Egypt and the U.S. claimed an agreement had been reached by Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, and urged Ethiopia to sign this. The latter responded that the agreement was a fiction. Its foreign minister, Gedu Andargachew, said: “The recent statement by the US, we believe, is undiplomatic and does not reflect a great nation like this. We want Americans to play a constructive role. Any other role is unacceptable.”
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abby has voiced his distrust of the U.S. mediation efforts and opted for an African mediator in South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa. But Egypt objects on the basis that this amounts to buying time. Also, as is widely known, the World Bank is an American-controlled agency, so much that only Americans can be its president, just as only Europeans can be head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Unless neutral mediators step in, the Nile, which has over the ages been home to ancient kingdoms, might divide Africa.