The GERD trap –can Ethiopia come out a winner?
It is in a swift and dramatic shift that a hydroelectric power project in one of the Horn of African countries became a global issue. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile River is not an issue of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt anymore. It is not even an issue of the eleven riparian nations along the Nile. Rather it has become an issue of global concern leading some to anticipate that the prophecy of the third world war to be fought over water resources has come closer. The Arab League is deep in it with all its biases and the United States of America (USA) along with the World Bank (WB) have joined the negotiations being carried out to carve our rules and regulations of the filling and operation of the dam.
But the turn of events became clear when the WB and the US Treasury Department became involved in the negotiations with an intention of “observing” the process. This role changed in the course of the negotiation where they claimed to be “mediators” and then “facilitators”.
While recognizing that the US has helped in bringing the parties closer and in narrowing down the gaps observed in the previous discussions, Gedu Andargachew, Ethiopia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs said that “Ethiopia never asked for the US to get involved in the negotiations,” and Ethiopia took part in the US and the WB “observed” negotiations heeding the call of the US President Donald J. Trump. Gedu said this in a press conference he gave at the Office of the Prime Minister along with the Water and Energy Ministry of Ethiopia, Seleshi Bekele (PhD., Eng.) last week.
The negotiation, involving the US and the WB, first convened in Washington DC on January 28, was intended to only involve the foreign ministers of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. Up on the request from the Ethiopian side, water ministers were made part of it. But, there were concerns among many Ethiopians as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia as to why the US Department of Treasury, not the State Department, was chosen as an observer along with the WB. These concerns were propagated because of the fear of influence by the Treasury Department on Ethiopia as the country receives huge financial, developmental as well as political support from the US in various sectors.
The conclusion of the negotiations held following the first meeting in Washington to bring about an agreement on the filling and operation of the dam did not end as intended. Rather, to Ethiopia’s “disappointment” according to the statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia, escalated the issue giving it more international face with the clear involvement of the Arab League nations.
But, the drive behind this is, according to Gedu, Egypt’s interest to control the Nile waters.
“The Sudanese still have a firm belief that the dam would bring them benefits although they have questions regarding safety issues as the construction is located near the border with them and any perceived damages would cause immediate harm to them. But they don’t have the intention to control the Nile waters. It is the Egyptians that have the intention of controlling the Nile waters,” Gedu asserted.
But, Seleshi asserted that the dam’s technology and the materials used for the construction will never cause safety issues for downstream countries.
Now involving the US, the world leader in the almost culminating unipolar global order, as well as the WB, one of the biggest multilateral source of financial as well as technical support for Ethiopia, with an extended reach to the middle east and the continental Africa, the issue of the GERD has become a center of attention for both individual nations and international bodies like the United Nations (UN). Egypt’s president Abdel Fettah el-Sisi appealed to the attendees during the 74th General Assembly of the UN saying that Ethiopia is building a dam on the Nile river which is not based on real studies and called for the international community to involve to resolve the dispute between the countries. Speaking on the same stage, President Sahele-Work Zewdie of Ethiopia refuted his argument saying that Ethiopia is building the dam based on the principle of the equitable and reasonable use of natural resources.
“Now the issue has become a global issue and Egypt has more or less succeeded in making the issue a source of security concern both for the region as well as the global community,” observes Yeshtila Wondemeneh (PhD), a professor at Addis Ababa University’s College of Development Studies, Center for Regional and Local Development Studies.
Nevertheless, to fully understand the current course of action, he says, we have to look back to the time the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) was signed in 2010. The signing of the CFA, which was a big success for Ethiopia in bringing in the Nile basin countries together, consequently making the 1929 and 1959 colonial agreements that divide the Nile waters between Sudan and Egypt obsolete.
“Those countries that were pushed back because of the colonial agreements became part of the negotiations. Here starts the dynamism of the Nile water issues,” he indicates.
With the signing of the 2015 Declaration of Principles (DoP), came another complication because this again excluded the other riparian countries and put the previously signed CFA under question, he argues.
“Even though the DoP is concerned about the GERD, the intention from the Egyptian side was to make the issue of the Nile waters only an issue of upper riparian countries. This resulted in the alienation of Ethiopia from the lower riparian countries which it mobilized to sign the CFA. So, the others were left out of the equation while the three dealt with the dam,” he says.
This hindered the entry into force of the CFA helping the Egyptians advance their interests under the DoP by proposing various ideas here and there. Although the Egyptians also came to recognize the principle of the equitable and reasonable use of the Nile waters, they have succeeded in persuading the world that the GERD causes significant harm to them.
“While they did so successfully, little has been done from the Ethiopian side be it regarding scientific researches of other means,” Yeshtila states. “For instance, they persuaded the US to get involved in the issue claiming that the dam would cause instability in the Middle East.”
And the reason for the involvement of the US, Yeshtila stresses, is the Israeli and Palestine peace initiative that President Trump is spearheading. For this to succeed, the president needs the support of Egypt- the traditionally considered the leader of the Arab world. And because of the Egyptians influence, many of the Arab countries did not oppose the initiative by Trump which he says would bring lasting peace in the Middle East.
The implications of this are two-sided, according to Yeshtila, one Egypt has recognized that Ethiopia also has the right to use the water.
“The push now is to keep Ethiopia’s water share low as much as possible. And that is why they are seriously negotiating on the filling and release of water from the dam intending to maintain their water share in the colonial agreements,” he says.
The other side of the implication is creating an influence on Ethiopia by persuading the international community that the dam would cause significant harm to the lower riparian nations.
“The main strategy is to alienate Ethiopia from the Arab nations as well as neighboring countries and weaken the nation,” he adds. This, in turn, affects Ethiopia’s strong economic relations with Arab nations especially the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Hence, the efforts Egypt exerts to bring in other nations into the play is “to make the isolation in a concerted manner.”
For Ethiopia to become a winner in the deal, “the best alternative is to instigate the CFA”, according to Yeshtila.
“Now the previous motivation around the CFA has dwindled and the issue of the Nile is almost made to concern only Ethiopia and Egypt. The others were made to feel irrelevant. The discussions around the dam should have been made along with the CFA. Still taking the case back to the CFA is important even though it would mean huge cost to the country,” Yeshtila asserts.
Again, as the Egyptians have already taken the matter and received a positive response from the member countries, Ethiopia must bring the issue to the African Union.
Thirdly, as confronting the US and other international bodies might have its consequences, public diplomacy should be given due attention, he recommends.
Others also recommend that, lobbying the US congress, as well as other influential political figures in the US, should be considered as an alternative in dealing with the issues of GERD negotiations.
Yeshtila also agrees that this is a possible alternative but it should be seen per its financial requirements as well as its effectiveness.
“Ethiopia can make the general public in the US, the academic, the elite and the congress understand some issues surrounding the dam,” he observes.
According to other observers, as positive signals are coming from the US side in support of Ethiopia’s interest, like that of the prominent human rights activist Jesse Jackson’s commentary criticizing the US approach and congressman Steven Horsford’s heated argument with Steven Mnuchin, the Secretary fo Treasury of the US, regarding the department’s partisan approach, Ethiopia could find more support had it lobbied in the US.
Jackson, in his article published last week, even said that “the African Union, Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Ethiopian-American Caucus, and American civil rights leaders should stand by and with the government of Ethiopia.”
Apart from the challenges this negotiation is posing in the country, it also comes with an opportunity whereby Ethiopia could find a conclusive deal to end the Egyptian animosity and establish a sustainable and longlasting relationship with Egypt as well as other Arab nations.
“Egyptian foreign affairs policy has been focused on destabilizing Ethiopia. But if we find a conclusive end to this matter, they might lift their hands from meddling in Ethiopia’s internal political affairs. To do so, Ethiopia should gather supporters and maintain the power balance. But it is unpredictable as to when it would end,” Yeshtila foresees.
For that matter, the government might use it as political currency to garner political support and acceptance in the country, Yeshtila says, also questioning the capability in the government to withstand the pressure from the supporters of the change process in the country.
With the GERD negotiations carrying more and more global features, some commentators recommend Ethiopia approach other global powers apart from the West like the Russians and the Chinese.
But the Ethiopian government does not show any intention of doing this. Gedu during the press conference said that Ethiopia does not expect other parties to get involved in the negotiations and the three countries can resolve the matter by themselves. He even said that they are not into the negotiations because of the supporters the country has but because of the truth it carries in its arguments.