BY ROBBIE GRAMER/ FP
July 22nd, 2020
The Trump administration is weighing withholding some aid to Ethiopia over a Nile dam project that has severely strained its relationship with downstream countries Sudan and Egypt, six officials and congressional aides familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy.
The massive dam, Africa’s biggest, has become a flash point of geopolitical tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia, with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hinting that his country could use military force to halt the project. Many in Egypt fear the dam could threaten its water supplies.
But some U.S. officials said the project has also fueled divisions and confusion over policy within the U.S. government, ever since Sisi asked President Donald Trump to help mediate negotiations over the dam last year.
U.S. participation in four-way talks over the dam earlier this year, led by the Treasury Department, helped advance talks. However, Ethiopia refused to sign a final agreement. Now there’s growing concern that the Trump administration is putting its thumb on the scales to favor Egypt at the expense of Ethiopia—even as new signs of progress emerge in negotiations.
“The Trump administration has gotten it into its head that it has to take Egypt’s side on this,” said one U.S. official familiar with the matter. “Nobody in the White House seems to be looking at this through the Africa lens and its impact on Ethiopia, which is equally important,” the official added. “This is just shooting ourselves in the foot.”
A Treasury Department spokesperson said the administration is working as an impartial mediator. “The sole objective of the U.S. government has been, and continues to be, to assist Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan in reaching a fair agreement on the filling and operation of [the dam] that addresses the interests of all three countries,” the spokesperson said.
On Tuesday, Ethiopia said the three countries had made “major” progress on their dispute in talks brokered by the African Union, and they agreed to more negotiations aimed at a comprehensive solution on water issues around the dam. The announcement sends a positive signal to some U.S. officials and observers who feared that if Ethiopia continued filling the reservoir behind the dam without an agreement with Egypt, regional tensions could boil over into a military confrontation.
Two administration officials who spoke to Foreign Policy cast the announcement as an indication that negotiators have laid the groundwork for a final agreement. “The Trump administration’s engagement has helped Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan make more progress in negotiations over the last nine months, than the last nine years,” said one. “The considerable work by Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan over the last nine months shows it is possible to come up with a fair and balanced agreement if there is a commitment among all to do so.”
In the “major common understanding” reached Tuesday by Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan, the three countries agreed to have more technical discussions on the pace of the reservoir fill and drought mitigation measures with an eye toward inking a final agreement.
Several U.S. officials said that the Trump administration could move forward with aid cuts to Ethiopia if negotiations hit another impasse and the sides can’t reach a final deal.