With his expertise and knowledge in hydro-politics and regional integration, a man of huge caliber in the academics of political science, Yacob Arsano (Prof), is a celebrated expert. He has been a lecturer since 1980. He also held various positions, including committee memberships and leadership positions in colleges and departments at the university. He has a high interest in researching issues of hydro and comparative politics, as well as conflicts.
With his research and advisory engagements on hydro-politics as part of his community service, Yacob has always been a focal voice on the issue of the Nile River and the basin. He advised several ministerial offices, including Foreign Affairs and Water and Energy. He was a member of several national committees established to address concerns regarding the Nile River.
Yacob is currently a member of the GERD negotiating team and also served as a member of the negotiating team for the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) for a long period of time. Samuel Bogale of The Reporter sat down with him to find out more about the political pressures that Ethiopia is dealing with in relation to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and to get his perspective on the negotiations that have been stuck since 2020.
The Reporter: It has been over a year and a half since the last negotiation talk on GERD took place. How come the negotiation has not resumed? Wouldn’t there be a negative impact on Ethiopia due to the lengthy negotiations?
Yacob Arsano (Prof): We got into it from the beginning, not because we developed the desire for negotiation. We started it because it became mandatory. We still don’t consider it a negotiation, because it is basically a dialogue since we have not ceased building the dam. It is a dialogue we are conducting on the issue of equitable and reasonable water use concerns by another party while assuring that we have the right to build the dam in our territory with the internal capacity. We don’t need to wait for the outcome of the negotiation to finish or stop construction of the dam. Indeed, there hasn’t been a continued follow-up of the discussion since it took place last in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), but that is because Egypt has put preconditions, which we have rejected. Lengthy negotiation is not a threat for us. What would have been dangerous is if we hadn’t filled the dam and committed to proceeding. It would have been dangerous if we couldn’t prove that we could benefit from the dam without affecting the downstream countries. It is totally Egypt’s fault that the dialogue couldn’t continue, but it never affected our country.
It is claimed that Egypt specifically comes up with various ideas to compel Ethiopia to sign a binding agreement. There are also fears that Egypt will use the COP27 conference for the same purpose. Wouldn’t that change the course of discussion and dialogue?
The COP27 conference to be held in Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh is clearly about climate issues. However, Egypt might use it to advance its agenda on the Nile. It may be advantageous to appeal to the international community to force Ethiopia to sign a binding agreement. These discourses are those of Egypt’s desire, but the conference should in no way make this an item on the agenda or pass a resolution about it. The conference’s main theme is the international climate issue. That is beyond the issue of one or two countries. It dictates that countries take measures so that their economic development is considerate of humankind’s survival in general, not based on issues like which country takes much water or which one doesn’t.
Ethiopia has more evidence to present to the world. We have built several dams so far, and even at the level where GERD is now, no neighboring country or Egypt itself has been affected so far. It has been quite good so far and won’t even have any effects in the future. The delegation at the conference should compile each piece of evidence and present it to the world. Ethiopia has better points to mention. They can also mention the tree-planting campaigns that are contributing to more water gains and climate adaptation.
Some people are concerned that the Nile is a big regional issue because several countries are connected because of it; won’t that entice big concerns from the world community?
What Ethiopia can possibly do to avoid that is present the available evidence that the water is enough to be shared by all parties and that Ethiopia is committed to that. One of them is the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) negotiation, which was conducted over a long period from 1991 to 2010. Other countries agreed to use the water resources equitably among each other, but Egypt left this negotiation with a refusal to share resources with others.
What direction do you expect the trilateral negotiations to take going forward? What else might be discussed during the next negotiation? And what should Ethiopian delegates do at the Conference?
What the future will hopefully be is to sign on to the points that Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt have discussed for a decade now and administer the water resources reasonably in each country based on that. The demand from Egypt that countries have to get approval from it to build any dam on their own land is no longer acceptable to Egypt. There is no other country that Egypt discussed with when building the dams and even spills the water into the ocean. This is the principle that should continue after now, as in being accepted by all six member countries of the CFA as well.
There could be so many obstacles that Egypt could put in place to make Ethiopia not use the dam, so the Ethiopian delegation team in the conference should do a lot in tackling that as they don’t lack the material, knowledge, evidence, or directions on how rivers should be used equitably. Unless the delegates get weak or are not prepared enough, it won’t have much effect, even though the country is the host.
Ethiopia’s bargaining position is usually blamed for being weak because the country is usually reactive to the agendas that the downstream countries set for discussions. How do you see that, and what do you think about the criticism Ethiopia receives for failing to set the agenda?
It is surprising to see the public, experts, and even officials claim that Ethiopia doesn’t set agendas on the Nile issue, which I believe should be carefully seen. The agenda of GERD itself is the top priority for Ethiopia. Starting to build the GERD is a huge undertaking in and of itself. All the accusations against Ethiopia—that it began building the dam without approval of other countries and that there were unfair guidelines on how the water should be filled, along with questions on the administration of the water—came following the big and new agenda Ethiopia already put in place, the GERD.
There is no new agenda that Egypt and Sudan have brought in relation to the dam; what they are doing is reacting to ours. They are doing lots of reactive activities like conducting meetings and press conferences, lobbying third parties, making fun of the issue and inappropriate statements, and running academic conferences, and this makes it look like they are setting new agendas. There is now any new agenda they are setting.
Whatever happens in Sharm el-Sheikh as well, Ethiopia’s delegation is never going to be a reactive one because we already have an agenda. There have been several attempts to hamper this project in the face of the international community previously. It was an agenda in the face of the African Union, the United Nations Security Council, and single negotiating countries including the United States of America, resulting in anger and insults from the former American president Donald Trump. They have never been successful.
But partly, their influence in big countries succeeded because, when it comes to funding the project, Ethiopia is all alone. Countries helping Ethiopia in small matters have turned a blind eye on GERD.
The geopolitical situation is a big factor. In the eyes of European countries and America, Ethiopia isn’t as important as Egypt is in the region. Ethiopia is a strong country that never lets its integrity be questioned, and with the strong nationalism Ethiopia has, it is never easy to use the country as a tool. The two countries’ geographical location can also have its own effect. Egypt is located at the corner of Africa, connecting Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, which is the better place for the world economy.
All the fuel and several other commodities in the world pass through Egypt, so there could be a bias in order to prevent anything that is perceived to disturb the country. Furthermore, Egypt has been the main negotiator between Israel and Arab countries, which has easily secured the support of Europe and America. The lobby groups of Israel and Arab countries would also do what is best for Egypt.
Ethiopia also did great at sustaining these pressures to keep the national interest, which can be frustrating for other countries. So there might not be a support call from other countries to Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s geographical location might not be very tempting to the rest of the world. It is rather valuable to the rest of the African countries, but Africa isn’t in a position to control the big financial institutions, including the IMF and the World Bank.
How do you see Ethiopia setting an example for other countries in the area when it comes to GERD?
Even though Ethiopia wants to befriend Egypt, it is quite the opposite on the other side. Ethiopia is unchallenged and will look up to Egypt to use the water, which is usually what Egypt wants. Sometimes they might use the language, ethnicity, and religious differences to divert attention and cripple the capacity with internal conflicts. Last year, for example, it was visibly observed by the Egyptian media how Ethiopia would be divided into regions and ethnic groups. For long time, Egypt has been supporting rebels in Ethiopia so that its objectives are met. But the resilience in Ethiopia is very promising. No evil plan can become reality.
In contrary to their initial stand, Sudan is now harshly against Ethiopia. Given that the dam can highly benefit Sudan in power or other means better than any other country in the basin, why did they choose to be against it?
No simple way can answer this big question. It involves several factors, long history to the current circumstances, influential individuals to politicians and political situations. Egypt and Sudan have long history of enmity and friendship. This influence got at least half the Sudanese population to be on Egypt’s side due to the political representations and their influential personalities’ favoritism. For long time, a lot of Sudanese influential personalities have been linked with Egypt economically or by blood. At the same time, there is a big class of people opposing Egypt’s interference and role in Sudanese politics at all.
Sudan was in deed in favor of the dam at the beginning and was supporting its cause with only one concern, that the dam should be built very strong to prevent high magnitude of flood in their country in case of an accident. It was after this of their concern that the saddle dam in the farthest side of the dam was built with strong concrete. They were then happy with the outcome, removing their concern from the dam, until the last negotiation talk held in Washington DC. Then the government there is also changed, with the new officials that have different views of the situation and favoritism to Egypt than Ethiopia coming to power. That is practically what we are observing now. This tells how the political situation and politicians in Sudan change on issues regarding Egypt whenever there is a change of people in power. It is difficult to consider Sudan as one country on the national issues. It’s completely different.
Is it Ethiopia’s fault for failing to convince Sudanese people to support it? Why isn’t Ethiopia doing enough to lobby the groups there?
Ethiopia has actually been doing that. To balance the narration that GERD is affecting Sudan, Ethiopia was conducting discussions and dialogue with the others, who would know and support it. That is still continuing, and is bringing results. I believe it is through political means that Ethiopia is doing it, and as far as I know, Ethiopia is working on this political diplomacy.
Countries like those in the Arab League that are not in the Nile basin have officially shown their support for Egypt by denouncing Ethiopia for continuing to build a dam. Why would they choose to do that and breach Ethiopia’s sovereignty? How can Ethiopia withstand their pressure?
Ethiopia can only withstand these pressures by getting stronger and building the country with national unity. Whenever it takes to make the country the strongest of all, we should only keep pushing despite the storm of problems that are coming on us. That is how it has always been. Environmentally, Ethiopia can work on increasing the water development works and getting a higher capacity of power production than the 45,000 megawatts that the country currently has as a potential. By building other projects on different rivers with the same capacity as GERD, we can make that happen.
The energy production in several countries, including the Middle East nations, is through oil and fossil fuels, which might not have long-term sustainability. So more energy would be needed globally, and the cleanest energy can be obtained from Ethiopia. The world’s demand for energy is now changing so much that even cars are demanding electricity now. The European countries are now undergoing a massive energy crisis; they don’t know where to get the energy from.
Even though none of the three leaders who have led the country throughout the project life of GERD showed reluctance to it, the political and economic situation has been tough. How do you see the internal conflicts and economic situation affecting the GERD projects?
For many years, Ethiopia has been under the government of regimes that were very different politically and had leaders that despised one another, but they had no differences on the issue of the Nile. Regarding the GERD, they understood that the project was useful even though they didn’t start it and have since done so, and that it can benefit the country in line with what their plan is for the country. It was a development project that would make their leadership well-regarded as well. Whether they liked it or not, a national issue is always the bottom line. They probably believe that extending this project will get them support, but they are doing well with it anyway.