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    Nile diplomacy: what is expected from the Ethiopian MPs?

    On March 23, 2020, I got the chance to attentively follow a scholarly discussion on ETV from 9.00-10.00 PM by Ibrahim Idris (Amb.), Teferra Beyene (Eng.), and Fekahmed Negash. The lively discussion motivated me to supplement their views and, in due course, also express my independent opinion. First of all, I would like to congratulate them for their scholarly professionalism and their relentless effort in defending the legitimate right Ethiopia has over its own resources without creating any significant harm on lower riparian states, namely Egypt and the Sudan.

    I came to understand from their explanation how serious the negotiation had been particularly during the third and fourth round meetings. The first and the second round meetings were seemingly smooth, but the third and fourth round meetings were rough and tough, which, as a matter of fact, ended with no breakthrough.

    I have repeatedly heard from Ethiopian officials that they were disappointed by the US Government’s stance for favoring Egypt by putting unnecessary pressures on the Ethiopian team to accept Egypt’s proposal. I share their frustration. This disappointment will only encourage the other side. In order to turn the table against them, Ethiopian diplomacy should start focusing on the US authorities themselves, in a very fine tuned manner, as to try to make the American authorities and the World Bank to remain neutral, impartial and non-partisan in this process.

    The US Government authorities should be reminded that Ethiopia has had one of the long-standing and time-honored relations with the US which began in the year 1900, in fact, many years before Egypt got its independence in 1923. Ethiopia’s relation with the US is not only long standing but also indispensable. Ethiopia cannot afford to lose the US and the vice versa is true. This kind of approach is not only diplomatic but also the reality of life. This way Ethiopia can make the US think twice. This is what I call the nature of strong diplomacy of persuasion and influence. If Ethiopia succeeds, the success will be not only that of Ethiopians but that of American government itself and that of Egypt and Sudan as well.

    Before expressing my views on what is to be done, allow me to cast a brief light on what has transpired since the 1929 colonial treaty between the UK and Egypt, which still remains to be a puzzle and not a reality for many upper riparian states. To this day, the government of the Arab Republic of Egypt is hanging on this colonial Treaty as if this treaty has given her an absolute and eternal right which is not subject to negotiation. One may ask why Egypt is so adamantly unyielding in her position regarding this treaty.

    It is a crystal clear that the 1929 Treaty which was signed between the UK and Egypt is now left with just eight years to celebrate its 100th year. This Treaty was signed six years after Egypt gained its independence. This treaty granted Egypt a complete veto power that is, to undertake Nile related projects unilaterally and to block up-stream countries from undertaking any water project without Egypt’s expressed permission and the right to monitor the river including its tributaries in the up-stream countries. This treaty is often described as a notorious treaty by the upper riparian states. For Egypt, it is the most famous treaty that was given to her on a silver platter. Egypt has been hanging on the colonial treaty since the Nile Basin Initiative started in the year 1999 with its secretarial office at Entebbe, Uganda. This initiative started facilitating the negotiation process for drafting a Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) in which Ethiopia had played collectively, as well as unilaterally, a pro-active role guided by the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi who took the first initiative courageously and launched the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

    As often reiterated, it took over ten years to come to common terms with the final document due to the adamant position of Egypt’s historical rights and many other contentious issues, such as, water security and current use, not to speak of Egypt’s demand to maintain the above stated colonial treaty. Despite Egypt’s unflinching position, the CFA was finalized and the majority of the Basin countries have ratified and deposited the article of ratification with the African Union. Egypt and Sudan are still non-committal. But Sudan’s positive attitude towards the construction of the dam is to be appreciated, to say the least.

    Paradoxically, one should not be surprised by Egypt’s adamant position. Egypt has always been consistent in its position regarding the equitable utilization of Nile water resource. In 1993, as an advanced member of a delegation, with my position as Head of the Department of North Africa and Middle East, I got the chance to go to Egypt with the advance mission to facilitate the ground for the then forth coming high-level delegation to deal with bilateral agreement which was signed in July 1993, entitled, Framework for General Cooperation between Ethiopia and the Arab Republic of Egypt. This agreement was signed by the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, President of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia and Hosni Mubarak, President of the Arab Republic of Egypt. For instance, Article 4 of the agreement stated that, ‘the two parties agree that the issue of the use of the Nile waters shall be worked out in detail through discussions by experts from both sides, on the bases of the rules and principles of international law’. The implementation of this agreement is still remains to be doubtful to me because, agreements are said to be good when they are signed but not when they are practiced. Coming to my visit as advanced delegation surprisingly, a warm reception was given to us. That very evening, the protocol officers took us to Giza, a place where the great pyramid is located and they showed us a documentary film entitled ‘The Nile’. In this program of sight and sound, very repeatedly appeared one important slogan, which reads, ‘the Nile River that made Egypt will not unmake it.’ This is the cornerstone of Egypt’s position regarding the river. All previous Egyptian kings and presidents strongly promoted this keynote idea, including King Farouk, President Gamal Abdel Nasser, President Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat, President Hosni Mubarak, President Mohamed Morsi and the current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, just to mention a few. Their position was further manifested when Egypt and the Sudan took full control and utilization of the Nile waters based on the 1959 bilateral treaty without allocating any amount of water for the upper riparian states. The upper riparian states including Ethiopia became like a camel that was going thirsty in the desert while carrying sufficient amount of water on its back.

    How to go about it in diplomacy

    Diplomacy in brief is how to do things and how to protect one’s own national interest. I do share a statement which is often stated by renowned writers that, diplomacy is war by other means. Ethiopia has already entered into this diplomatic war the very day it entered into the tripartite negotiation with Egypt and the Sudan. This negotiation is the first positive step by these countries as the international order of the day most ardently requires. The reason is clear. If you win in war, victory is only yours. But if you win in dialogue, victory is for all. This is the centerpiece of diplomacy that is why every time you turn on your television to watch the news, you will see Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, repeatedly conveying the Ethiopian Government’s position, saying that, the Ethiopian government is governed by diplomatic laws the principle of give and take, and the principle of win-win solution. This direction given by the premier is again the core value and a guideline to be owned, internalized and followed in all areas of major negotiations. For all powerful countries, negotiation as a diplomatic tool may not be so significant, because they may have the power to back their diplomacy by force or take any other options such as economic embargo and the like. On the other hand countries limited in potentials should put their greater reliance on their skill of diplomacy in order to give their viewpoints or their national interest the necessary impact in order to come to win-win solution. There is no other option.

    Ethiopia, therefore, should not disengage itself from the on-going negotiations. The Ethiopian negotiating team should at all times present itself for the negotiation with a better diplomatic overture to defend the national interest of Ethiopia at the right time and at the right place, without surrendering its major national interest to minor ones. To be in the negotiation does not mean to accept the position of others; neither does it mean to comply. No! Not at all! As an African adage goes, ‘a person can take a horse to a river, but twenty people cannot force it drink’. Thus, till the negotiation ends up in a win-win solution, Ethiopia should take all the necessary measures in order to keep the negotiation alive. Let me close this part by a quotation from a book entitled the Discipline of Dialogue by Mu’awiyyah Ibn Sufian, who said ‘I will never allow the hair between me and my adversary be cut off for, should he pull I will relent and should he relent, I will pull’. Such an approach to diplomacy leaves much room for possibilities. This is what I believe is the nature of not only diplomacy but a strong diplomacy to influence not only friendly countries but also to influence unfriendly ones.

    On March 20, 2020, I also heard an interview organized by an Egyptian journalist named Rim to the president of Uganda, Yoweri Musaveni. The interview was fully focused on the Nile River and the construction of Ethiopia’s great renaissance dam. Museveni strongly defended the legitimate rights of the upper riparian states including Ethiopia. Contrary to this Mrs. Rim strongly argued that Egypt has also a historical right to use the Nile for it is the matter of life and death to the Egyptians. In reaction to this, the President vividly stated that, ‘if the Nile is a matter of life to Egypt, then why do the Egyptian leaders spend most of their times in the affairs of the Middle East, Europe and America giving no significant attention at all to the Nile issue and to the basin countries where their entire life and livelihood fully depends’. Surely, for this strong political statement Museveni should be appreciated for his positive view point towards Ethiopian development plan. He further added that, ‘the Egyptians always need to milk the cow without feeding it’. This statement I think is the best sounding African expression. During the dialogue and exchange of views with Mrs. Rim, Museveni asked: why Egypt is not willing to sign the CFA? Rim reacted to this stating that it is due to three reasons: Egypt’s right of veto power, water security and the concept of majority in vote which is in the protocol. Regarding this last point, I have tried to refer to the amendment section of the Framework or Protocols, Article 36 sub-article 3, which reads ‘… the  Parties  shall  make  every  effort  to  reach  agreement by consensus. If all efforts at consensus have been exhausted, and no agreement has been reached, the amendment shall as a last resort be adopted by a two-thirds majority vote …’ Egypt however vehemently opposed this concept stating that a majority vote which does not include or which Egypt does not support should and be considered as null and void, and more so Egypt called for the re-writing of many other articles in the CFA, an agreement that is already ratified by the majority of upper riparian states accepting it as all-inclusive negotiated with active and full participation of Basin countries based on the internationally accepted and implemented fundamental principles of international law and practices.

    What is expected from Ethiopian Members of Parliaments?

    It is a fact of life that a better coordination between governmental diplomacy and parliamentary diplomacy is of a paramount importance in keeping each other informed. Parliaments have access and leverage to international parliamentary unions such as Pan African Parliament (PAP), African, Caribbean, Pacific and European Union Joint Parliamentary Assembly (ACP-EU JPA), African Parliamentary Union (APU) and others, to mention a few. Governments often do not. Members of parliament have to effectively use this advantage by equipping and preparing themselves for this particular mission of the Nile related diplomacy. The question is how and in what manner? The modus-operandi is simple and clear, not sophisticated but every day routine. At this moment, I believe that we have a capable and experienced leadership in the parliament who can articulate and protect Ethiopia’s national interest in the best way possible than ever before. Our honorable speakers, Tagesse Chaffo and Shitaye Minale, Government Whips, heads of Standing Committees, Friendship groups and many others are the case in point. Of course, one additional requirement is necessary before engaging oneself in these prime diplomatic activities. That is, when discussing the Nile related issues with their audiences, very well-articulated discussions are necessary based on sufficient knowledge without fear or favor because the Ethiopian position is a legitimate one. It is a just cause supported by international water laws and practices. This message, I believe, should be conveyed carefully with a sensitivity it requires without contravening over the interests of lower riparian states. I ardently believe that, in this way, one can win the sympathy, trust and support of their audiences. For this mission however, a brief brain storming session needs to be organized, if time allows, for the parliamentarians that will equip them for these particular diplomatic activities, so that all of them can proceed with this noble duty by standing on a common ground and similar positions.

    Last but not least, I as a member of parliament would like to call upon the authorities of Egypt and others to come to their real sense and wisdom and try to avoid unnecessary diplomatic hostilities and beating war drums, and come to the negotiating table with the spirit of cooperation and mutual trust as per the dictum, Nile for cooperation and not for conflict. It is with due respect that I call upon the American authorities in charge of facilitating these negotiation to refrain themselves from taking positions and treat all their longtime allies with the eyes of equality and justice, for what they say and do today will remain history tomorrow.  I hope that the US Government and Egyptian authorities will do this in the best possible time and place. This, no matter how subjective, is my optimism.

    Ed.’s Note: Mohammed Ali is an Ethiopian Member of Parliament and former Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Republic of South Africa. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter.

    Contributed by Mohammed Ali

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