Ethiopia: Having Your Cake and Eating It Too: Egyptian Style (Awash Lemma)

23 mins read

By Awash Lemma


An Egyptian government minister who visited Addis Ababa earlier this week has urged Ethiopia to halt construction of a multi-billion dollar hydroelectric dam project on the Nile's upper reaches – but the request was denied.
An Egyptian government minister who visited Addis Ababa earlier this week has urged Ethiopia to halt construction of a multi-billion dollar hydroelectric dam project on the Nile’s upper reaches – but the request was denied.

The Benefits of the GERD to Ethiopia and also to the downstream countries of Egypt and the Sudan have been discussed exhaustively elsewhere and I do not intend to repeat them here. This piece is triggered by the mindless hysteric propaganda from Cairo – declaration after declaration – threatening, blackmailing, posturing – abuses of all sorts against Ethiopia. The motto seems to be ‘a declaration a day will blow the GERD away!’ The Egyptians even gave Ethiopia the status of god, by demanding Ethiopia should guarantee that the volume of water flowing from the Nile will never change because of the construction of the GERD.

This paper examines key issues in this saga: Ethiopia’s stand and strategy in safe guarding its interests; the position & strategy of the Egyptian government; the role of some key players in the region – the Sudan and Saudi Arabia in particular; and likely outcome of the current conflict. All propaganda and posturing aside, I speculate that, in fact, Egyptian officials consider the GERD a blessing in disguise. Read on.

1.Ethiopian Position

The Ethiopian government has shown a great deal of wisdom in handling the Nile issue but I believe it can improve its communication and public relations strategy. There seems to be a thinking that as long as we (Ethiopia) are on the right side of the argument we will win at the end. But in this age of the internet astute communication and use of various forums to put your views across is of paramount importance. In this kind of conflict it could be more lethal than actual weapons.

Communication, Communication

So far Ethiopia seems to have ignored the threats, and disparaging campaigns thrown at it from Cairo. While patience is a virtue there should be limits. Ethiopia should do everything diplomacy allows; inform, complain where necessary to various governments, regional and world bodies including the UN, the AU, and other pertinent bodies. Just ignoring Egypt’s misdemeanors only emboldens it and helps the spread of confusion in the larger international community.

Countering the Egyptian propaganda requires actions on several fronts. While the campaign may not be as frantic as that of Egypt Ethiopia should take its campaign of peaceful development to its friends worldwide: friendship associations, and support groups, in universities, professional bodies, churches and mosques, etc. Dedicated Ethiopian groups should strive to inform, Ethiopian embassies playing the role of anchors for guidance and coordination. Through various networks the position and interest of Ethiopia should be made clear.

Ethiopians at home and in the diaspora should actively follow up and expose the machinations of Egypt and its allies to influence world opinion through misinforming, and at times bribing people and organizations. For example, just look at the anti-Ethiopia campaigns of such organizations as International Rivers, and Human Rights Watch. There is an Ethiopian saying “wusha bebelabet yichohal” (rough translation – a dog barks for {in protection of} whoever feeds it). It is easy to know /guess who ‘informs’ them but who finances them? It is our duty to find out and expose the conspiracy, and ulterior motifs of such campaigns.

Ethiopia should take various steps to encourage and maintain people to people friendships to build an understanding of Ethiopia’s position. What does the Ethiopian government do to approach the Egyptian people, the Arab people? People of the Horn?, East and Central Africa? What does it do to inform and influence the Arab media, the likes of Aljazeera, Al-Arabia, etc.? Or, the regional channels and publications? Though the loyalty of some of these media outlets can easily be predicted Ethiopia should try to appeal to their objectivity and fairness. For example, I can trace Aljazeera’s effort to be seen to be objective in its reporting.
Ethiopia should launch (or strengthen where they already exist) TV and radio programmes in main languages of the region i.e., Arabic, English, Swahili. French, etc.

Reaching Out

Overall, Ethiopian institutions seem to me to be rather insular and inward looking. This includes the established religious institutions. I feel churches and mosques can play a role here. Ethiopian Moslem institutions and their learned scholars can play an important role. Why should teaching and interpretations in Islamic affairs always have to be sourced from Cairo or Riyadh? Ethiopian Moslem scholars have the same if not more knowledge of Islamic affairs. In fact, Ethiopian Muslim scholars are much better placed to preach and teach because they have centuries of experience living and thriving in a multi-faith, multinational ancient society, Ethiopia. Beyond giving a fresh view of the world to the faithful they can pass on the message of Ethiopian peoples’ yearning for peace, co-existence, and friendship. The same can be done by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and other Christian denominations. Preaching just in church and mosque compounds to the already converted won’t suffice. They should reach out and pass on the message of peace and co-existence at least at regional level.

Do Arabs Hate Us?
There is a general feeling of mistrust among Ethiopians in their relationship with Arabs, and I suspect this mistrust is mutual. Some in Ethiopia believe that all Arab peoples and governments are hostile to us. Obviously things are more complicated on such matters. In the first place it is important first to distinguish between the Arab peoples and their governments. It is unwise to brand any people hateful and bad. If some people seem to be hostile you will find their governments behind such an attitude. We have seen recently, for example, that there is a wide gap between representatives of Egyptian people and the government of Egypt. They seem to come from two different countries! Unfortunately, none of the Arabic countries particularly those that affect Ethiopian security are democratic and their attitudes and actions have little to do with the wishes of their people. So it helps to understand this and approach governments and the respective populations accordingly.

For many Ethiopians Arab hostility has been manifest through their support and promotion of secessionist movements, particularly that of Eritrea’s secession from Ethiopia. Cairo serving as the anchor almost all Arab countries played parts for generations – particularly Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Gulf States. Eritrean secession has ‘Made in Arabia’ written all over it. Their conspiracy is not limited to Eritrea but includes Oromo, and Somali secessionist movements as well. The strategy seems to dismember Ethiopia salami style – piece by piece, until the country is no more. It is ironic to look at some of these countries today – their governments who used to tell us they were ‘revolutionaries’, ‘liberators’ are now unleashing genocide on their own people who demanded freedom and democracy. They are dealing with fierce secession movements of their own!

Assuming all Arabic countries have the same viewpoint and all will support Egypt on the Nile issue is also questionable. Just look at the Sudan and Yemen and to some extent Qatar. Some others, such as Oman, Algeria, Morocco, and present day Libya are neutral. Such countries should be approached with due sincerity, friendship, and respect. Even those Arab governments that appear hostile towards Ethiopia, their behaviours appear to be moderated by some specific historical facts. It is reported that the Holly Qur’an states that Ethiopia has been a welcoming host to exiled Muslims, crediting the country for fairness, protection of Muslims, and generosity. I have no knowledge of the Qur’an but I have read that this fact has been cherished by many Muslims. This historical fact which affirms Ethiopia’ age old character – just, peaceful, and welcoming should be underlined by Ethiopia in building relations with Arab and Muslim countries and peoples.

The Failed Predictions and Prophecies

Ethiopia’s adversaries, including Egypt, have taken Ethiopia’s diversity as its Achilles heels and worked hard to exploit it for their advantages. It is surprising how the federal structure of the nations and nationalities of Ethiopia is perceived by ourselves as opposed to our adversaries. For us, though we know it is not perfect, the new structure is the bedrock of our unity and strength. For our adversaries it is a sign of division and weakness. Some have been just rubbing their hands together and waiting for the day when the country disintegrates into its numerous parts. So called think-tanks and pundits in the West and elsewhere had churned studies after studies for decades that predicted conflict, civil strife, civil war, and the eventual disintegration of Ethiopia. On this issue, the International Crisis Group (the International Crisis Promotion Group seems more appropriate) comes to mind. Its ‘researchers’ and ‘experts’ have been publishing paper after paper, predicting the eventual disintegration of Ethiopia. It turned out to be little more than their wishful imagination. It appears that they are now ‘tired’ and have given up predicting. This is the same miscalculation Mr Isaias of Eritrea did when he invaded Ethiopia some two decades ago. His thinking appears to be that what his army need to do is just give a little push and the ‘divided’ nations and nationalities of the country would be at each other’s throat. But the ‘researchers’, ‘experts’, and ‘pundits’ will be disappointed once again. All evidence suggests that the country is more united and determined than ever.

2. Sudan’s Support for the GERD

Many commentators, particularly Western journalists and writers, more deliberate than oversight in my opinion, failed to appreciate the position of the Sudan on the GERD. They seem to suggest that the disagreement is between Ethiopia and the downstream countries, or between the downstream and upstream countries. They deliberately ignore the stand the Sudan has taken, that in fact the Sudan, one of the two downstream countries, supports the GERD! It is only Egypt which is fervently anti dam. This is a significant fact. There are two downstream countries who depend on the Nile for much of their livelihood, two countries that can benefit or hurt (if the dam is hurtful) in similar ways, but one supports the dam and the other opposes it. How can a dam built in Ethiopia and good for the Sudan be that bad for Egypt? This, more than other factors, exposes Egypt’s unreasonable position. Egypt opposes the GERD alone.

Nothing shocked the Egyptian establishment than the support of the Sudan for the GERD. Egypt took the Sudan for granted. No matter what, it thought, the Sudan will stand by Egypt. But the Sudan stood its ground despite the barrage of scolding, fury, arm twisting, bribing, blackmailing, from Egypt and its Arab allies under the guise of Arab solidarity, and Arab brotherhood. It would no more be at the side of its bully ‘brother’. It opted for self-interest, self-respect, regional cooperation, and reason. The Sudan clearly saw where its current and long term interests lie, and that is cooperation with Ethiopia and the other riparian countries to develop the Nile for mutual benefit.

The position taken by the Sudan is admirable. However, while strengthening friendship and cooperation, Ethiopia should be ever watchful at the same time. Egypt and some Arab entities will continue to harass the Sudanese govt. In their frustration they may conspire to create chaos of some kind, or orchestrate a coup d’etat, and overnight the position of a new Sudanese govt. may be different. While there is no doubt that the Sudanese people in general will remain friends of the Ethiopian people and govt. there are zelots, Islamic fanatics and fundamentalists in the Sudan. It is easy to see that such groups have rich, powerful and infamous backers. They won’t hesitate to play any role in plans of sabotage on behalf of Egypt, though their main aim would be islamisation of the region.

I do not forget an interview given by a Sudanese Islamist (I think it was Mr Tourabi) to a BBC journalist a few decades ago telling him something like, “believe me, very soon all these places will be Islamic”. I remember his chuckles and wry smiles as he spoke and the determination in his prophecy. In front of the two men was a map of Africa spread on the table, and as he spoke his hand was moving from north to south along North Eastern and Central Eastern countries including
Ethiopia (plus Eritrea), Somalia, Kenya, Sudan (Southern), Uganda, Ruanda, Burundi and Tanzania. The main target of his prophecy was easy to see from his emphasis, it was Ethiopia.

3. Saudi Arabia Is What Ethiopia Is Not

No two countries could be as different from each other. Saudi Arabia is rich, its wealth based on oil. Ethiopia is poor and agrarian. Saudi Arabia is Arab Ethiopia is black and African. Saudi Arabian society is unequal where a privileged class can do what it wants; women are segregated and considered second class. Saudi Arabia is rigidly hierarchical, autocratic, and theocratic where Islam (Wahabism) is the only and supreme guide. If you are black and Christian you are likely to find yourself at the bottom of the pile.

Ethiopia on the contrary upholds the equality of citizens, equality of men and women, is secular, pluralist, and has a devolved, federal structure.
Saudi Arabia is famous for exporting only two commodities to the world – Wahabism and oil. Ethiopia exports mainly agricultural commodities, and no ideology. In Saudi Arabia Islam is the only religion permitted and defines the characters of state and society. In Ethiopia state and church are separate. The famous motto upheld has been ‘haymanot yegil new hagger yegara new’ (rough translation:- one’s religion is a personal matter while the country is for all to share). Ethiopia has been exemplary in the fact that the main two religions coexisted and flourished in harmony since time immemorial. Ethiopians are proud of and got praise for their understanding, respect and tolerance of religious differences.

Of all the characters that defines Ethiopia, tolerance of religious differences and coexistence seems to irritate the Saudis most about Ethiopia. For them there are only three types of countries: a) countries where Muslims are the majority with minorities of other religions; b) countries where Muslims are a minority, and c) other countries where there are not that many Muslims. The last category does not seem to interest them that much. In countries where Muslims are majority Saudis encourage and support domination by Moslem entities, and suppression of other religions to the extent that such religions eventually disappear. Just consider what has happened and is happening in the Middle Eastern countries. Look at Christians in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and further afield in Pakistan. Their churches burnt and believers tortured, killed and forced into exile in this 21st century.

In countries where Muslims are minorities they are perceived by Saudis to be victims, discriminated against, and suppressed. The Saudis do everything to incite dissent and chaos by sending finance and fire brand Wahabi preachers and trouble makers. This it does often covertly, cunningly, and persistently without making a lot of fuss about it. They put Ethiopia in this category of countries.

Of course the reality is not as the Saudis perceive it. Statistics differ but Muslims form more than 34%, a very significant proportion of the country’s population. Their position and role in Ethiopian society is almost at par with Christians and enshrined in the constitution. This causes Saudi displeasure. They do not want co-existence practiced in their neighborhood; they want to see domination by those who share their religion. Therefore, the hostility they hold towards Ethiopia has been old and deep rooted. It was no surprise that their Deputy Defence minister made a speech in Cairo to his Arab compatriots about Ethiopia that was full of hate and contempt. Some claim that that is why Saudis have been only too eager to help and finance Egypt’s military machinery, hoping that it would hurt and weaken Ethiopia if Egypt puts its rhetoric of hostility to practice. There are also evidences that the recent Muslim extremist show offs in Addis and other Ethiopian cities were financed by the Saudis.

With this background it is really difficult to dismiss speculations that the Saudis are behind the demise of the oil exploration efforts in Ethiopia. Why do so many companies give up the development of oil at the juncture where they have almost reached the production stage? What makes them close shop and leave at the 11th. hour? This happened again and again for almost the last 50 years. Conventional wisdom suggests the reason is that powerful hands are at play. The companies are offered a deal ‘they can’t refuse’. Why bother developing new oil fields if someone just gives them as much money for not doing so? In the murky business world of oil do not tell me that this view is far-fetched.

Part 2 will follow soon.