After two years of a break in the trilateral negotiations between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over the filling and rules of operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi agreed this week to initiate expedited negotiations to finalize an agreement between the countries and exert all efforts to reach a deal within four months after they held a face-to-face meeting in Cairo. The joint announcement by the two leaders, which also affirms Ethiopia’s “commitment, during the filling of the GERD within the hydrological year 2023-2024, not to cause significant harm to Egypt and Sudan, in a manner that provides the water needs of both countries”, comes a week after Prime Minister Abiy told MPs during a budget hearing that Ethiopia was ready to resume talks with the two countries to resolve the dispute over the GERD. The decision to resume talks, which had been deadlocked over a host of seemingly intractable issues, is a welcome news as Ethiopia looks to put behind it a row that has put it in the cross-hairs of and an intense pressure campaign at the hands the West. While the agreement to restart the talks may bode well for all sides, the Ethiopian government should proceed with caution given the high stakes involved.
Ever since Ethiopia announced plans to build the GERD in 2010 and commenced construction works in 2011, Egypt has been displaying naked hostility to the project. The authorities and media outlets of Egypt have made use of every opportunity to portray the GERD as an ill-conceived project that harms the interests of Egypt and its people. Since time immemorial Egyptian rulers have resorted to intimidation, invasion and diplomatic campaign when it suits their purpose and when it does not to cajoling and forging ‘friendly’ relations to get their way on the Nile. Though Egypt has come across as a party interested in negotiating genuinely over the GERD, it has shown time and again that it is not willing to sign up to the River Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement—a pact which nullifies colonial-era treaties on the river and has gained international acceptance— that six out nine Nile basin countries have ratified to date. Furthermore, it is to blame for the collapse of several rounds of the tripartite talks.
Egypt has even tried to enlist the help of the international community initially to stop the construction of the dam and later to delay its filling. It attempted, through friendly nations, repeatedly to convince the U.N. Security Council to intervene in the dispute by adopting a resolution calling on the three countries to reach a binding agreement. The Council, however, declined to take up the resolution, saying any substantive negotiation should be held under the auspices of the African Union. Egypt also prevailed on the U.S. to force Ethiopia to sign a binding agreement on the filling period. Egypt wanted the filling to take place over 12-21 years, managed carefully on water availability, hoping to reap the reward of increased electricity production as soon as possible. The Ethiopian government, however, refused to accept a US-drafted agreement echoing the Egyptian position, insisting it has the right to fill the dam at its own pace and would complete it in no more than seven years.
Ethiopia accounts for around 86 percent of the annual flow to the Nile. The GERD is a national treasure that is crucial to its economic development and to provide affordable power to more than half of its 120 million people who are off-grid. As such it has an inalienable and justifiable right to use the waters of the Nile in a manner that is both equitable and does not adversely impact the water rights of downstream countries. Egypt’s intransigence to any modification regarding the hitherto unjust usage of the water is driven by the desire to maintain its hegemony by whatever means necessary. The people of Ethiopia have never sought to harm their neighbors. But they will not stand idly by when the national interest is imperiled. No one can dictate to them when and how to fill or for that matter operate a dam they have built with their own resources. Anyone intent on coercing them to do something against their will better realize that their misadventure is bound to fail miserably.
Ethiopia needs to display prudence in the upcoming round of talks over the GERD. Accordingly, it is incumbent upon it, inter alia, to ensure that the upper riparian countries of the Nile remain steadfast in their support of the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA); to mobilize the countries which have ratified the CFA to promptly discharge their respective obligations; to plug all the loopholes Egypt may exploit to maintain the status quo as provided for in the 1959 treaty that apportioned the entire average annual flow of the Nile among the Sudan and Egypt; and apply the lesson of the trilateral talks held in the U.S. in mid-2020 so that no country is allowed to insert itself into the negotiation process and impose the terms of a settlement that blatantly favors one side. The resumption of the stalled talks is a long overdue measure. As Ethiopia gears to dive into the negotiations amid the plethora of grave challenges facing it, it’s imperative that the positions adopted by the government are solely guided by the national interest.