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Nile diplomacy: what is expected from our diplomats and MPs?

On June 2, 2020, once again, I got the chance to attentively follow to Tezera Woldemedhin’s (PhD) interview conducted by Ashenafi Sebsibe. The interview was fully focused on the Nile River and pertinent issues from the perspective of Ethio-Egypt’s policy and diplomacy.

The lively discussion as usual motivated me to supplement the views and, in due course, also express my independent opinion. First of all, I would like to thank the editors of this respected and broadly read local newspaper, The Reporter, for publishing my previous article on Nile Diplomacy.

In light of this, I will try to deal with some of the following crucial points briefly but as substantively as possible since the agenda discussed is the matter of our common national concern.

The proactive nature of diplomacy

Diplomacy is the art and practice of conducting negotiations between representatives or groups of nations. Once the foreign policy of state is formulated, the achievement of foreign policy depends on diplomacy. In a very clear term foreign policy designs what to do and diplomacy concentrates on how to do things and how to protect one’s own national interest.

True as it is, countries often define their national interests based on their own policy priorities, be it trade, utilization of their natural resources or others. The achievement of this national interests, short of the use of force, depends upon diplomacy. In similar manner, both Ethiopia and Egypt have defined their own policy and priorities and development objectives.

Since long, both countries have been expressing their conflicting views over the right of the utilization of the Nile River resources, 85 percent of which originates from Ethiopia. Even if one takes the currently ongoing tripartite negotiations, the form and method by which Egypt has been negotiating to maintain the current use of the Nile River resources, contrary to internationally accepted water laws and principles, is an established evidence.

This has shown the degree and spirit to which its diplomacy has been shaped independent of the will of others. This kind of diplomatic game of forcing others to surrender their major national interest does not go in line with 21st century diplomacy.

It is often hastily generalized that ‘Ethiopian diplomacy is not proactive; it is always reactive’. I believe that this characterization is not always true. Egypt has invested much more of its capital on diplomacy which we see today as a hard fact of life. However, in hydro-politics Ethiopian diplomacy has outsmarted Egyptian diplomacy making it subservient to the Ethiopian one.

In the first place, one should not capitalize on the proactive nature of foreign policy and diplomacy as long as it is not always reactive. Developing countries for that matter cannot play a proactive role everywhere and every time. Big nations usually do so based on their political, financial, technological and their military capability which enables them to have leverage on the world arena. Developing countries including Ethiopia have limitations individually but can do it collectively to protect their common national interests.

In my previous article, I have tried to argue that since the Nile Basin initiative has started Ethiopia had played collectively, as well as unilaterally, a proactive diplomatic 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. This proactive diplomacy resulted in the harmonization of relations between upstream states, rejected Egypt’s re-establishment of the status-quo gamble of maintaining colonial treaty and proved the sovereignty of upper riparian states.

The proactive diplomacy has been remarkably continued to date. The painstaking diplomatic struggle made recently by our young diplomats, professional engineers and government officials made in Washington DC in front of giant political leaders is the case in point. In this, Ethiopian diplomats have registered a diplomacy success story. My appreciation to this is deep down and I hope that it will continue with the same magnitude in any forthcoming negotiations.

What really surprised me or rather disturbed me was the nature of Egypt’s double-edged policy and diplomacy which I believe no one can understand its motive. I say this not without reason. The recent President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s visit to the US was a case in point.

While the tripartite negotiation was going on as scheduled, President el-Sisi paid an official visit to US and exchanged views with US President regarding, I presume, Trump’s Big Deal of the century, and the Nile related issues and the ongoing negotiation. This is what I call behind the screen diplomatic maneuvering; the skill in which Egypt is qualified in order to score advantage over the Ethiopian negotiating team whose negotiation spirit is designed in good faith for mutual interest and win-win solution.

Egypt’s geo-economic policy at the forefront

In his interview, Tezera has clearly and precisely explained the geopolitics in relation to Egypt’s policy of aggrandizement, alienation and the like. I fully subscribe to his thinking and explanation. But one thing should be crystal clear. Currently, is Egypt’s main concern geopolitics or geo-economic? Which one is at the forefront? It is undoubtedly geo-economic.

Since Egypt’s very existence depends on the water of the Nile, the first concern for any Egyptian government has been to guarantee that these waters would not be threatened. Therefore, the imperative is to ensure that no hostile power will be allowed to control the headwaters of the Nile, or to tamper with Egypt. Geo-politics is only designed to serve the geo-economic interest of Egypt.

Our diplomacy, therefore, should equally be fine-tuned and focused on geo-economic objectives in order to counter the Egyptian policy to that end. Ethiopian diplomacy, therefore, should focus on the agenda that Ethiopia needs to feed its growing population. That Ethiopia is among those countries that are left century behind in their development and many other convincing aspects of multidimensional problems. This kind of economic approach to our audiences makes it sound stronger than geopolitical one. If possible, use both objectives interchangeably.

Arab governments and the Arab League

It is an undeniable fact that since the last two years the Ethiopian government has performed well in securing big financial assistance from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but not collectively from the Arab League. Although I have no well-established record of Arab League’s resolution on Ethiopia, the recent resolution passed by the Arab Foreign Ministers’ Councils held on March 5, 2020 expressed the pan-Arab bloc’s rejection of “any form of infringement on Egypt’s historical rights to the waters of the River Nile.”

The statement further stressed the need for Ethiopia “to adhere to the principles of international law,” noting that “Egyptian water security is an integral part of Arab national security.” This resolution which threatened Ethiopia and passed in favor of Egypt without giving any slightest consideration to the Ethiopian legitimate right is an unforgettable historical mistake.

The League could have called upon all countries to settle their dispute by peaceful means. But the League did otherwise, without giving any consideration to Ethiopia’s development plan to feed its population who are facing food insecurity. Thus, the League has tarnished its own honor, and image by passing one sided and unjust resolution.

The case of the Sudan is an exception. The resolution put forth by Egypt was endorsed by the League member states, save for Sudan who requested that its name be removed from the text saying it had not been consulted by Egypt. The Arab League came out with such hasty resolutions, in fact following a US-brokered or mediated statement by the US Treasury Department’s draft agreement on the filling and operation of the dam.

Following this the Sudan’s Foreign Ministry released a statement on March 6, 2020 stating, “the draft resolution does not serve the spirit of dialogue: to reach an agreement between the three countries on the process of filling and operation of the dam”. I believe that as a sovereign state Sudan has the right to express its position without fear or favor by putting its interest first or support any countries development plan.

What is expected from our diplomats and MPs?

As an insider-outsider, I would like to contribute the following points on diplomatic attributes which I believe may help, leaving the matter to those who are in the mainstream diplomacy and more so, to those who are most qualified to do the job.

  • A diplomat should have a well-rounded knowledge on the following Nile related items such as, agreement on Declaration of Principles signed between Ethiopia, Egypt and the Sudan in Khartoum on 23 March 2015, the UN Convention of 1997 on Trans-boundary Rivers, and the latest information on the fourth round negotiation and why it ended up in a deadlock. This information is necessary if shared between members of parliament.
  • Diplomat or MPs should be articulate in defending the national interests of their state and be capable to defend them in a proper fashion inside and abroad. This will enable them to be on top of the issue.
  • A winning personality: when discussing the issue with their counterparts and audiences, they should do so on equal basis in order to win their confidences.
  • Use the host countries local and international media and their services. If possible, in the host country’s language is advisable. Language is a tool to access and communication. The only key to open one’s heart is through his language.

To conclude, Ethiopia and Sudan are tied up not only by the River Nile, but linked up with unprecedented political relations, economic interdependence and cultural affiliations, illuminated with history. Both are like two rooms of the same house.

It is to be remembered that the government of Sudan showed a positive gesture at the early stage of the project, currently it appears that the government of the Sudan is being greatly overwhelmed by unnecessary external pressures. If my presumption is wrong, I stand to be corrected. If what I am saying is not possible it may at least be probable. Therefore, Sudan and Ethiopia should handle their relations with all the sensitivity it requires.

It is my earnest believe that – by any standard of logic – the significance of diplomacy, as an intellectual weapon, at this particular time in history is by no means less than any other options. Therefore, working towards the win-win solution is the only way out as a modern and civilized society. It is a sad fact that, contrary to this, Egypt is still remaining adamant to searching for genuine solution.

The government of Egypt never gets tired in its diplomacy to get the upper hand in this negotiation by using any would be international forces or possible allies. For them the sky is the limit. The government of Egypt, I believe, has failed to reciprocate Ethiopia’s good will, more so it has failed in its political and moral leadership. No doubt, Ethiopia will succeed in its genuine effort and hopefully its success will at the end be the success for all Africans.

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