Nile Debate: Egypt’s Voracity and Ethiopia’s National Resolve

Published on 23rd June 2020

Any rational person in the 21st century will understand the just and reasonable argument that Ethiopian children should no longer starve while Egyptians export food using Nile River waters, 86 percent of which comes from Ethiopia. Any reasonable person would equally understand that more than 65 million Ethiopians should not be denied access to electricity while 100 percent of Egypt’s population enjoy such privilege.

For me, the debate on the filling, completion and operational management of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (the GERD) is no longer an Ethiopian issue. It is an issue for the world’s population of African origin as well as global citizens who believe in justice wherever they live. Black Africans aspire to join the family of prosperous nations and peoples. But there are those with privilege and power who believe that, as a race and as people, Africans and people of African origin should remain trapped in poverty and for eternity. Egypt’s continued narrative on its hegemony over the waters of the Nile belongs to this ethnocentric world.

The United States and the World Bank sided with Egypt for their own strategic reasons. In doing so, they embraced and justified a colonial narrative that Black Africa can and should be treated under a set of different international laws and development standards than the rest of the world. Here, I am reminded of George Orwell’s classical work, Animal Farm. One group of animals tries to convince another group “to sacrifice their freedom” in order to ensure the “security of the other.” Egypt argues that its security is paramount. Ironically, both the U.S. and the World Bank bought this ploy at a huge cost to Ethiopia. A clear message of this double standard for me is that “one animal group” is deemed superior to another. Egypt feels entitled to Nile waters. When condoned by a third party, this entitlement mentality leads to incalculable damage for the entire world.

Why I believe this dual treatment is true

Any person who reads Egyptian English language newspapers and listens to broadcasts would arrive at a similar conclusion. I will cite one such example from the Middle East Monitor dated June 2, 2020. In a highly contentious and largely sensational piece entitled “After Turkey, Iran and Israel, is it Ethiopia’s turn to penetrate the Arab world?” the Monitor discusses the Ethiopian-Sudan border conflict and inflates the problem intentionally and deliberately. “This time, though, the situation appears to be different; a border issue is developing rapidly into a diplomatic crisis between Khartoum and Addis Ababa, which has seen Ethiopia’s Ambassador in Sudan being summoned in protest at the Ethiopian army’s crossing of the Sudanese border and attacks on army bases west of the Atbara River in the border state of Al-Qadarif. This is not a clash between irregular groups such as the popular defense forces backed by the Sudanese government and the Shifta militia backed by the Ethiopian army; it is fighting between the regular armies of neighboring states.”

What is the Monitor’s motive for declaring and emphasizing that the “fighting is between the regular armies of neighboring states?” Their intent is to sow the seed that Ethiopia is fighting with the Sudan now because the Sudan that had initially supported Ethiopia on the GERD had changed its policy; and is now supportive of the Egyptian position on the GERD. By making this assertion, the Monitor is attempting to Arabize the GERD and the Nile. In the words of the Monitor itself, “On this occasion, the timing of these clashes has special importance, as they are happening with the backdrop of the differences between Sudan and Ethiopia over the Renaissance Dam. These have been highlighted by Khartoum’s recent shift of its position in favor of the Egyptians after appearing for many months to be closer to Addis Ababa than to Cairo.” Sudan, under constant pressure from Egypt I believe, has lodged a formal complaint to the U.N. Security Council. This too will be dismissed.

The Ethiopian-Sudanese border issue is separate. There is no evidence to suggest that Ethiopian military forces violated Sudanese sovereignty and territorial integrity. Ethiopia and the Sudan share a border that spans 1,600 Kilometers. The Ethiopian and Sudanese peoples have more in common than the Monitor is willing to admit. Further, and as far as I know, Ethiopia had asked and continues to urge the Sudanese government to negotiate and agree on the festering demarcation that has persisted since the 1900s. Simply put, the border demarcation has nothing to do with the GERD. The motive behind the ongoing accusation and vitriolic is Egypt’s voracity to dominate Nile waters at any cost.

I suggest that Egypt and its Arab supporters are doing everything under the sun to present a Pan-Arab narrative by linking disparate issues into an overarching narrative. It is vital to remember that Egypt sought solidarity from the Arab League for the same purpose.

How in the world did the editorial team of the Monitor allow the writer to present Ethiopia as a country that wishes to go far and beyond its territory and “penetrate the Arab world?” As it states in the headline of the Monitor’s article, the piece “After Turkey, Iran and Israel, is it Ethiopia’s turn to penetrate the Arab world? “stretches the truth far and wide in order to make a point. It argues that Ethiopian forces ‘violated Sudanese sovereignty and territorial integrity.’ The accusation is that Ethiopia is an aggressor against an Arab nation. This is patently false. In the Middle East Monitor’s judgement, Ethiopia is out to harm the entire Arab World.

The strategic intent of the argument is to portray Ethiopia as inimical to the Arab world. Here is how the Middle East Monitor presented the core issue. “The truth is that Ethiopia, which has shown studied indifference to the rights of the two other countries dependent on water from the River Nile, has gone ahead regardless to build the Renaissance Dam, with a unilaterally-decided timeframe for filling the reservoir. It shows little concern for Sudan’s diplomatic efforts or moves on the ground. Moreover, it is likely that the Ethiopian army and the Shifta militia will continue to provide protection to the thousands of Ethiopian farmers and shepherds who are using Sudanese land. Diplomatic protests will continue to be ignored.”

Against this diatribe and innuendo by a major Arab media outlet that supports Egypt unabashedly, it saddens and infuriates me that Ethiopia’s ethnic elites are conflicted still on a major national imperative of speaking with one voice against Egypt’s hegemony over Nile waters. It needs repeating that 86 percent of the waters come from Ethiopia. The vast majority of Ethiopians do not have access to electricity; and 100 percent of Egyptians do. Egypt exports foods; while Ethiopia imports food. How fair and how just is that?

Ethiopia’s decision and resolve to exercise its freedom as sovereign country to build a dam, any dam, within its own territory is in line with U.N. sanctioned conventions, agreements and protocols. The 1966 Declaration provides transboundary river nations the right for “equitable utilization” while the 1985 modified Declaration urges riparian nations to “avoid significant harm.” Technical experts on the GERD agree that the dam will not cause “significant harm” to Egypt or to the Sudan. The problem is this. Egypt is determined to stick to its traditional entitlement policy.

In this regard, Ethiopia’s ethnicized and or fractured politics is a boon for Egypt. While concrete evidence might not be available at this time, some internal persons and political groups are “accused or suspected” of solidarity with Egypt for the sole purpose of short-term “financial and or political gain.” Should this prove to be the case, succeeding generations of Ethiopians will consider this affinity as a major and consequential betrayal of Ethiopia and the Ethiopian people. The reason for my concern is this. During its accession to power and the debate on the future of Eritrea, the leadership of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had declared that Ethiopia “never had a sea port to begin with.” Tis is a consequential example of commitment to Ethiopia.

This is the reason why I suggested in the subtitle of this commentary that It is a ‘Who we are moment for all Ethiopians.’ Ethiopia needs each and every one of us. If we act in unison, it is inevitable that we will win. If we do not, we will lose. Future generations will be punished for our failures. They will also be rewarded by our collective resolve to complete the GERD.
The Monitor is right in one single area. The Arab world is currently weak, fractured and lacks direction. However, the Monitor failed to acknowledge the reality that Ethiopia did not create this condition; Arab political and economic elites did. Why blame Ethiopia for Arab problems? Ethiopia’s legitimate and rightful claims to harness the country’s waters to improve life is not the same as transgressing on the rights of its neighboring nations.

It is Egypt that consistently transgresses. It is Egypt that supports proxy wars against Ethiopia. It is Egypt that seeks to limit Ethiopia’s capacity to develop and prosper. The test that the Arab world is facing is not germane to any substantive discussion and negotiation on “equitable utilization” of Nile waters. Egypt and the rest should, instead, focus squarely and boldly on the real problems the region faces from repressive governance, the dehumanization of the Palestinian people, the brutal war in Yemen, COVID-19, corruption and income inequality and so on.

Those within Ethiopian society that remain numb on the GERD might want to learn from the Arab media blitz. At least, the Middle East Monitor recognize Ethiopia’s resolve opining clearly that “The government in Addis Ababa seems to have been empowered by the extremely weak political and military situation across the Arab world. It apparently believes that with its political and economic achievements at home and the expansion of its international relations abroad, it will be able to go ahead and become a major regional power, even if this comes at the expense of Arab water rights and the sovereignty of its neighbor Sudan.”

Why not accept the resoluteness and patriotism of the Ethiopian people? “The weak political and military situation of the Arab world” as stated by the Middle East Monitor is a laughable opinion contrived to create a sense of impending economic collapse and dire need in Egypt.

Egypt is among the most well-armed nations on the planet; as is Saudi Arabia and so on. Each and every year, Arab nations spend hundreds of billions purchasing arms from the West. Just take a look at the destruction of Yemen; and ask who is responsible for this catastrophe? It is hardly Ethiopia. Does the Monitor even recognize the fact that Ethiopia welcomed Syrian refugees and gave them home?

The penultimate conclusion by the Monitor is patently wrong. There is no evidence whatsoever that Ethiopia’s GERD will be filled and managed “at the expense of Arab water rights and the sovereignty of its neighbor Sudan.” You cannot assert Arab rights over Nile waters inherited under colonial rule. An African water cannot become Arab by declaring that it is. The Nile River is an African River and Ethiopia is its hub.

Wake up!

Egypt and the rest of the Arab world need to grasp the reality that change is inevitable. Neither Ethiopia nor any of the other Sub-Saharan African (non-Arab Black African nations) ever accepted the 1959 Nile Water Agreement that gave hegemony to Egypt. It is time for a Nile River Agreement that is fair, equitable and mutually beneficial for all nations.

Contrary to the edict from the Monitor, the Sudan will be among the top beneficiaries of the dam, among other benefits are huge tracts of irrigable lands and cheap electricity. The benefits to Egypt are also substantial.

Finally, it is true that Ethiopian society “has read the situation well.” I say this because, the vast majority of Ethiopians agree on the completion, filling and operation of the GERD. Leaders of all faith groups, including the large Muslim Community support the GERD. After all, Ethiopians, including poor farmers, shoe shiners, shopkeepers and numerous others financed the GERD in its entirety. The World Bank did not give a single cent. The Government of the United States did not offer a single dollar. It is a monumental achievement that is a model for the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa; and for all Black peoples across the globe.

I urge the Government of Ethiopia not to participate in a future meeting on the GERD in Washington D.C. The matter should be negotiated among the three parties—Ethiopia, Egypt and the Sudan—on African soil; and if needed, with facilitation by an African head of state or by the head of the AU. The World Bank has lost credibility and should not be a party to any discussion on the GERD.

I do not agree with the attribution of the Monitor to Ethiopia that “the Arabs have weak negotiating experience on a life or death issue for the Nile Basin countries. It is also likely that Addis Ababa has studied the Iranian, Turkish and Israeli penetrations of the Arab world’s strategic, geographical, water and security depths, from the Levant and the Gulf; from the Eastern Mediterranean across North Africa. It is looking forward to having a share of the legacy of the sick Arab man, starting with his water, and it would not hurt to surround itself with a new security zone by turning Sudan’s Al-Qadarif state into another Shebaa farms occupation, or even another Jordan Valley.”

This is fictious. Blaming Ethiopia for “the sick Arab man, starting with his water” is absurd and foolish.
It would have been more honorable and more constructive if the Monitor in general and the writer in particular had championed and called for the resolution of the GERD impasse through the only way out, namely, a trilateral negotiation that will result in an Agreement that is fair, just and mutually beneficial.  Arabization of the GERD is disingenuous and dangerous.

By Aklog Birara (Dr)
Courtesy: Satenaw


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