>The other main factor that cannot be ignored is that the alarming increase of population in the past two decades both in Ethiopia and Egypt and the prospect of that number to be higher in the next three decades. The United Nations World Population Prospect Report revealed that “a projected addition of over one billion people, countries of Sub-Saharan Africa could account for more than half of the growth of the world’s population”. Ethiopia is one of the Sub-Saharan African nations with a rapid population growth. Therefore, the utilization of resources at its disposal is more important today than ever before.
The completion of the GERD project will contribute significantly to address these essential problems. Thus, to the argument that whether Ethiopia should finish the project asap or not, the evidence suggests that the nation is in dire situation and need to explore its options how to accommodate its growing population in terms of basic needs. Egypt’s population is growing at an alarming pace as well, however years of mismanagement and waste of resources at its disposal is putting the nation in a difficult position. Thus, Ethiopia has the legitimacy by any standard to utilize its resources at its disposal and yes, there is an urgent need for the East African nation to complete this dam and make use of it after such a long time.
Egypt’s Attempt to Involve Global Powers in the Dam Dispute
In today’s global climate, age of information technology, and rapid transformation, it is impossible to progress together as one big community with the continuation of the status quo. There are many challenges that the world is facing today, and Africa as the least developed part of the world is left behind in today’s world advancement, mainly because of the zero-sum game. The world has failed in Africa. Donation of sums of money in the name of development to Africa has proven itself to be ineffective for the past over thirty years. As the saying goes, “Don’t feed him a fish, show him how to fish.” Africans needed to take the initiative and develop a plan that can change people lives forever. Ethiopia is one of the African nations that is trying to join the world in development using everything at its disposal. Ethiopia has a growing population with no access to basic needs, no electricity, and no drinkable water. Now, the GERD dam is essential for Ethiopia to address these challenges and not only help the nation, but the whole region at large including Egypt.
Egypt called on Washington in November 2019 to help broker an agreement between the two African nations. Egypt’s call to involve the Trump administration was timely and calculated one. The Trump administration just announced the so-called “Peace plan of the century” for the Israel-Palestine half a century-old conflict. Now, to make that “Peace plan” work they need the support of powerful Arab nations. Egypt along with Jordan are the only two Arab states that have signed a peace agreement with Israel following the 1967 Arab-Israel war. Egypt as a powerful country could use its position as a leverage for the United States to take sides on the dam negotiations. Trump answered the call and assigned the inexperienced and out of tradition the Secretary of Treasury to host the three countries Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan for “negotiations.” The State Department should have been the host because of its expertise in international relations, but Trump chose the treasury for some other reasons.
The treasury department oversees the IMF and World Bank, both organizations have promised the current Abiy’s administration to aid his reform. As Lashitew observed “It seems the involvement of the Treasury and the World Bank, therefore, seems to be stepping up pressure on Ethiopia by signalling the financial cost of recalcitrance”. As Lashitew accurately predicated World Bank and IMF are putting conditions on Ethiopia to secure the developmental aid. Ethiopian negotiators participated in two consecutive meetings along with the foreign and water ministers of Sudan and Egypt since December 2019. However, Ethiopia withdraws from the last meeting in February 2020 citing its need for more time to consult on how to move on to the next step. Despite Ethiopia’s absence Egypt and Sudan attended the meeting like the old good days with the US Secretary of Treasury, and Egypt signed a so-called agreement “that addresses all issues in a balanced and equitable manner” according to the press release from the Secretary’s office. At this point, the US has evolved from mere observer to negotiator and now it is sending a warning to Ethiopia, by stating that “final testing and filling of the GERD should not take place without an agreement”. That is the outcome the Egyptians desired with the involvement of the United States. If Ethiopia accepted the statement from the Trump administration, the only thing Egypt have to do is just to refuse to agree to the next 100 proposals from Ethiopia and Ethiopia will never fill the dam for the next say ten years.
The Trump administration has no regard for international relations and does not understand it in the first place. The other mistake Ethiopia made is to sit down in this so-called negotiation, where the United States is an arbiter at Egypt’s behest. Involving Western powers has been the same outcome, whoever offers more to the national interest and foreign policy of the western powers gets a good deal. Ethiopia rejected US warning and accused Egypt of stalling instead of coming with real terms and negotiate. Amid the heightened tensions the COVID-19 outbreak put the world on hold and divert all nations attention in fighting the public health crisis. However, this did not stop Egypt from writing a letter to the UNSC and the Arab league. The latter has reiterated its support to Egypt, and UNSC listened to the case of Egypt and Ethiopia. The UNSC declared it supports a peaceful negotiation on the dispute.
As a blow to Egypt’s reliance on Trump administration, the US Congressional Black Caucus that includes Sen. Cory Booker signed a letter to Secretary Pompeo, supporting Ethiopia’s endeavour in development, and warning the Trump administration in its lack of impartiality. If that has any effect in future negotiations or no remained to be seen. Now, the other party involved in the negotiations in Sudan. Why Sudan is retreating from its previous position? Is it because of the new government? Or any other reasons?
Sudan’s Role in the Dam Dispute
During the Al Bashir era, the Sudan has expressed its support to Ethiopia’s dam construction putting their interest into consideration. Now, following Al Bashir’s demise, Sudan is being led with a new form of government, civilian and military. The relationship between Sudan and Ethiopia is still warm, but the intervention of the Trump administration in the negotiations could change all of that coupled with the recent spar on border issues with Ethiopia. As mentioned above the Egyptians have invited the Trump administration and appear to be willing to exploit the administration’s so-called “peace plan” to their favour. Sudan has suffered for a long time because of the US sanctions against Bashir’s government. The economy is crippled, and people are suffering from the lack of basic needs, unemployment, etc. Sudan as any other country in this world should put their national interest first, and in this case, the lifting of the sanctions is in the best interest of the nation. The Trump administration just like its predecessors will give an ultimatum to Sudan to come on board with Egypt and work towards the thawing of relations with Israel. This is evident as the Sudanese military leader Abdul Fattah Al-Burhan met the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu amid condemnation from other Arab states.
The thawing of relations between the Arab states and Israel cannot be at the expense of Ethiopian people. The dangerous geopolitical game in the Middle East is spilling over to the horn of Africa, with a detrimental consequence for the entire population in the region. Sudan’s change of tone is not a good sign for Ethiopia to lose the support of its close neighbour. In worst-case scenario, if conflict ensues Egypt can use Sudan to attack Ethiopia. Ethiopia needs to convince Sudan and other influential actors in the region and internationally to consolidate support and balance Egypt’s pressure and its belligerent actions.
Will Egypt Risk a Conflict with Ethiopia?
Political commentators predicted future conflicts will not be over oil fields but water. Ethiopia in May 2020 announced that it is completing the preparation for the first phase of filling the dam. Egypt is one of the African nations that is significantly hit by the coronavirus but that didn’t stop them to send a letter to the United Nations Security Council and the Arab League to pressure Ethiopia to come to terms with Egypt’s demand. Ethiopia does not have a choice but to move forward to complete the project because there is no other option or plan b. There could be pressure from the international western led multilateral institutions and Egyptian allies, but the pressure within is mounting from frustrated Ethiopians since the project is financed by the taxpayers and everyone want to see the dam functional.
Does Egypt have the capability to strike Ethiopia if things escalate? Yes, Egypt has the capability. According to organizations that monitor the nation’s military capabilities, such as global firepower and military watch magazine, they ranked Egypt number 9 and 12 respectively in the world in their 2020 report. As Egypt has the capability to attack Ethiopia with its modernized weaponry, despite the outdated equipment that Ethiopia possesses, it is more than capable of defending the nation. Nonetheless, neither countries wanted to risk direct military confrontations for various reasons. There could be some temptation to risk direct confrontation from both sides but the reality on the ground and the repercussions if war breaks out are enormous. Egypt has already hands in Libyan conflict together with other regional powers, Sisi’s government is fighting occasional attacks on its military from the Sinai Peninsula with extremist groups that are affiliated with ISIS. In addition, the domestic political climate is intense and is only stabilized at the moment with an iron fist. Thus, risking a direct military confrontation with Ethiopia is not in its best interest. Moreover, it is in both countries interest to exhaust all diplomatic channels to reach a feasible agreement that could have a win-win outcome for both nations. The resumption of talks between the interested nations including Sudan has already started via a virtual meeting with the United States and the Word Bank participating as an ‘observer’. However, there is still no progress with all parties, particularly Ethiopia and Egypt accusing each other and waging a media war of words.
Resumption of Talks on GERD
The threat that is posed by the highly contagious deadly virus COVID-19 that has swept the world is still real and the continent that some thought were getting a pass for this virus is seeing an increase in cases lately. Egypt is one of the African nations that has registered one of the highest cases in the whole continent. The Egyptians who are more concerned about the dam than the virus is waging social media war and some of its public figures like the billionaire businessman Naguib Sawiris are warmongering over social media. On June 12 Mr. Sawiris tweeted, “we will never allow any country to starve us if Ethiopia doesn’t come to reason, we the Egyptian people will be the first to call for war”.Following their four days meeting on June 17, 2020, Ethiopian foreign minister Gedu Andergachew in his televised public briefing on the national state-owned broadcasting EBC claimed that what the Egyptian wants is to stick to the old colonial era (Anglo-Egyptian) agreement, where Ethiopia can’t utilize its water resources. They do not want to compromise in any way and that shows the “greediness” of the Egyptians. Also, he warned that “if Egypt walked away from this talk there is nothing to talk about anymore.” Thus, it is fair to say that tensions are escalating, and the Egyptians do not want to see the completion of the dam project.
The evidence on the ground suggests that Egyptians are exploring all methods to stall the negotiations and delay the filing of the dam before the signing of the agreement. They are lobbying the United States government to pressure Ethiopia. For instance, on June 17, 2020, the office of the US president tweeted in its official account, “257 million people in east Africa are relying on Ethiopia to show strong leadership, which means striking a fair deal. Technical issues have been resolved – time to get the GERD deal done before filling it with Nile River water”. This tweet is directed to pressure Ethiopia to come to terms with Egypt. This is the very reason Ethiopia must complete the dam and utilize the water resource successfully. Unless the least developed countries, like Ethiopia, take the risk for development and become self-reliant, they will always be held hostage by interested global powers. As things stand today, Egypt wants to stick to the colonial era Anglo-Egyptian treaty which perpetuates the status quo. However, Ethiopia has reiterated it seeks to complete the dam project at any cost.
How can the Two Countries Resolve the Dispute Peacefully?
There is only one way to resolve this tension peacefully. Egypt needs to come to an understanding that the lives of Ethiopians and all the other riparian countries matter the same as the Egyptians. People from the upper riparian countries deserve to have access to clean water, electricity, and infrastructure just to name some of the benefits from the GERD dam. Ethiopians and the rest of the tributaries of the Nile water have every right to use their resource within their territory for the development and transformation of their economy and people. Egypt needs to cooperate with Ethiopia showing a willingness to compromise to bring a feasible outcome for both countries.
The other country that is showing disagreement with Ethiopia recently reversing its previous position in Sudan. Sudan is not a bigger problem on the dispute of the Nile waters, there is some squabble in border issues with Ethiopia, and pressure from Egypt and the Arab league, perhaps from the United States forced Sudan to retreat from its previous position on the dam issue. If Egypt and Ethiopia resolve the issue peacefully, Sudan’s concern will be resolved. If Sudan persists, it is not in their best interest, only cooperation and understanding can bring a win-win outcome. Let alone the warmongering, even entertaining the idea is not in the best interest of all the parties involved. The only way to move forward is to cooperate and solve the issue without the involvement of other outside forces that want to accomplish their goals than helping these nations reach an agreement. A peaceful outcome and strict restraint from the use of force and coercion is in the best interest of all the parties involved.
The internal political tensions and deep ethnic divisions between opposition parties to grab power in the most anticipated upcoming Ethiopian elections (now delayed because of COVID-19) will not help Ethiopia if there is a threat from outside forces. Some opposition figures who are fighting for power grab are willing to put their interest before their people which is unethical and dangerous. It also makes them susceptible to Egyptian exploitation to reach their political ambition. Ethiopians like Egyptians should unite in their national interest putting all other differences for another time. Otherwise, enemies will take advantage of domestic division and capitalize on that to the detriment of Ethiopians. The recent murder of famous Oromo musician is quintessential for those foreign forces that want to stoke domestic divisions. Although there is no evidence of the Egyptians involvement to that specific murder, social media and bots of Egyptians has exploded in the aftermath. Ethiopia has lost many opportunities because of senseless ethnic violence and the country is still ravaged in extreme poverty. To come out of that Ethiopians does not need to play in the hands of the enemy.
For Egypt, mutual understanding is vital to come out of the looming crisis peacefully, and both Egypt and Ethiopia should put their pride and ego aside to negotiate on reasonable terms. There is no winner if war breaks out, the winners will always be the global powers who love to exploit the developing world’s weaknesses. The region has already seen enough killings and loss of many innocent lives. The only way forward for Egypt is to understand that Ethiopians just like Egyptians deserve a better life in the twenty-first century. None of this means, all Egyptians are well off today or the dam completion will make all Ethiopians prosper. The completion of the project is a leap forward for Ethiopia and its ambition to come out of extreme poverty. There must be an understanding that Ethiopia’s achievement on this will be an achievement for Egypt and a learning experience.
The blessed Nile water must be a path that connects these two great civilizations and people to find a way to overcome the hardships of their people. Ethiopia and Egypt’s proximity to failed states should give them a clear vision of what war does to people and it has never been a solution. The two great civilizations that the world has ever seen do not need western interference in African politics, both nations are more than capable of solving this issue putting the interest of both people first. Neither of the two countries wants to see the suffering of their people, thus first putting the interest of the people will help solve the issue not lead them to conflict. Egypt instead of running to the Trump administration who does not have any regard for international relations it should have brought the issue to the regional African Union. The resumption of talk is important and should continue but making conflicting statements here and thereby the Egyptians are not helping.
Lastly, Africans always complain about the condescending attitude by the west. Though the question must be, how can we demand respect when we cannot even solve our regional issues without the involvement of the west? The west hardly invites Africans to mediate into their dispute with other nations. Understandably, the Egyptians life is dependent on the Nile River, where 95 per cent of the population lives by the Nile delta. However, Ethiopia is also in a dire situation with rising population growth and unemployment of the youth that has become so disillusioned to try the dangerous route to Europe. As Egypt has a right to utilize the Nile river within its territory, Ethiopia has the right to utilize its water for its development and transformational growth. Ethiopia has suffered from internal conflicts and natural disasters for a very long time and now is the time for Ethiopia to sacrifice what is needed to be sacrificed and finish this project and many other projects that could be inherited to the next generation to move forward towards prosperity and harmonious life.
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