The much anticipated latest round of talks held on April 6, 2021 of this year between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in Kinshasa, Congo have ended with no progress, with Egypt and Sudan attempting to politicize and internationalize the dispute. To that effect, they tried to bring the case to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), not once, but four times. Through all these, Ethiopia remained steadfast in its view that the dispute should only be mediated by the African Union (AU) rejecting the role of the UNSC.
Despite the repeated attempts of riparian countries, members of the Security Council finally came to a decision that favors Ethiopia’s position. During last week’s meeting held on July 8, 2021, the UNSC members backed the AU’s mediation efforts between the three countries, urging the parties to resume talks.
Egypt and Sudan both called on the Council to help resolve the dispute after Ethiopia began the second round filling of the reservoir.
After last week’s UNSC meeting, many Ethiopians celebrated the latest decision, welcoming it as victory against the West which many Ethiopians believe is pressurizing Ethiopia under the pretext of a humanitarian crisis and bias towards Egypt.
Even though these arguments remain to be contentious, many praised the Minister of Water, Irrigation and Electricity, Sileshi Bekele (Eng.) and his entire delegation. During the Council’s meeting in New York, Sileshi told members that it is unfitting of the Council’s time and resources to hold discussions on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The project is not the first of its kind in Africa, nor in the world, he said, adding: “Perhaps what puts [the dam] in distinction from other projects is the extent of hope and aspiration it generates for 65 million Ethiopians that have no access to electricity.”
Ethiopia has the best wishes at heart for its neighbors, Egypt and Sudan, and believes in their ability to cooperate for their mutual benefit, he said, pointing out that both countries have dams and canals, large and small, constructed without regard for the rights of other riparian countries. He pledged that Ethiopia will continue to negotiate in good faith, while emphasizing: “None of us ought to stand thirsty while watching others drink.”
The Russian Federation’s representative suggested that negotiations among all countries of the Nile Basin would be the best outcome, and cautioned against statements about the possible use of force, stating: “We are concerned about escalation of confrontational rhetoric.”
The Ethiopian government, vying to realize its goals, has repeatedly expressed that “Internationalization and securitization” of the Dam will not help the three countries reach a win-win solution.
Before the Security Council’s meeting, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) stated that it was not the right place to discuss a hydropower project and requested the council to return the matter to the AU, and allow the three countries negotiate in good faith.
However, the AU is yet to announce when it will begin facilitating the negotiations, after the UNSC decided the matter would be seen by the Union. The AU is expected to announce its schedule and venue upon consulting all parties.
Nevertheless, both Egypt and Sudan seem impatient to wait for the AU, and have been lobbying governments outside Africa in search of diplomatic pressure. For instance, Egypt sent its Minister to Brussels to meet with EU officials, while a Sudanese Minister traveled to Moscow.
African solutions to African problems
Considering the Ethiopian government’s position with regards to the AU, its involvement to solve differences among the countries is a welcomed step since Ethiopia is an ardent supporter of the notion ‘African solutions for African Problems.’
“It is also an opportunity for the three countries to strengthen the Union and show the world that Africans can solve their own problems by themselves,” stated MoFA in a statement issued last week.
Historical accounts show that the post-colonial–era of Africa is characterized by civil war, instability and cross-border conflicts. Thus, the AU has been promoting peace and stability by bringing member nations together. However, this pan-African institution has been weak and incapable when it comes to conflict resolution, especially in the last half of the century.
The formation of the Union was precisely aimed at finding African solutions to African problems, with powers and objectives meant to bring fundamental changes to how the continent conducts itself.
When the crises in Côte d’Ivoire and Libya began, it was hoped that the AU would be the one to find a solution. However, the organization has sometimes taken half-hearted measures, and suffered from internal division among its members, on how to react to crisis and their consequences, which rendered the notion of ‘African solutions to African problems’ moot.
For Selam Mulugeta, an International Relations Analyst, this is a golden opportunity for the AU to prove its capability of handling its own problems and bringing solution from within the continent.
“Now, the AU is in a better shape than any time before. This time is the right time for the organization to shine, when it comes to bringing solutions.”
He also believes that the institution is well equipped with technical and political capacity to help it settle disputes and conflicts among its member states.
“Since the nature of the dispute between Ethiopia and the lower stream countries is one type of challenge that should be addressed by the AU, such a crisis is one of the four pillars of the AU,” Selam told The Reporter.
For Selam, the GERD was supposed to be purely addressed in terms of technical and transboundary water legal framework, but due to lower stream countries, especially Egypt, the matter has turned into a political and diplomatic matter.
In terms of matters of peace and security, the AU in the past few years, has made progresses in countries such as Somalia through AMISOM, South Sudan, Sudan etc.
Selam underscored the need for support from other countries and partner institutions (outside Africa) including multi-lateral institutions to achieve their role. He told The Reporter that the AU could successfully accomplish its required role and can bring the dispute to an end despite the process being arduous.
GERD as litmus paper for commitment
African solutions must remain a guiding principle. However, more must be done. Crucially, the AU needs more support from its member state governments. In part, this means financial contributions and, while the growing support of the 0.2 percent levy is a good step in this regard, more is needed. But the AU also needs more member states buy-in and trust. Too often, AU officials see member states as unreliable and uncommitted.
They complain about leaders’ unwillingness to attend summits and the limited implementation of AU agreements by member states. For example, the African Union Non-Aggression and Common Defense Pact, adopted in 2005, has been ratified by just 22 members and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, adopted in 2007, only by 32.
Thus, if the AU reaches a binding agreement or any sort of resolution to narrow the existing gap among the three nations, it would be regarded as a major success. This, however, will prove difficult considering the commitments and support of other member nations.
Success and failure should not only be attributed to the AU but rather all member states. Hence, the upcoming negotiations will serve as a litmus paper for the entire continent on how Africa is committed to strive for a solution to its own problem.