By Amanuel T. Muhzun
February 13, 2021
Egypt’s pre-emptive policies are challenges to Ethiopia
Ancient Egyptians could not have settled across the watery soil banks without the hope and pleasure in the ever-flowing Nile River. On the other hand, Ethiopia is archeologically recognized for its origin of human being and now the home to around 120 million in population demanding more water consumption than ever. We cannot escape those realities. The mighty Nile is unique in its importance compared to other transboundary rivers in the world; because it is the only lifesaving major River in that north-east African region, and beyond. That is why the Nile is the most famous and historically documented River in the world.
There are historic and cultural relationships between Ethiopia and Egypt. For example, the Alexandrea Coptic Church of Egypt was admitted by Ethiopian kings and held leadership role over Ethiopia’s Orthodox Coptic Church for centuries. Through such religious connections, Egyptian patriarchs and messengers have pioneered people about the importance of the Nile River to Egypt’s survival.
Over the past many decades, Egypt’s water hegemony has established significant pre-emptive policies in suppressing Ethiopia through international financial institutions, and several countries. That means, denying or blocking this poor upstream country from getting funds to develop some of its Nile waters, even when Egypt had a small sized population in the past. Egypt claims it has veto power on the Nile freshwaters. Egypt has also been criticized for antagonizing Ethiopia’s national interest on the Red Sea region, organizing external proxies including media tools, while supporting local groups of instability in the country. So, Egypt has had a considerable role in manipulating Ethiopia indirectly through internal and external means.
Despite Egyptian governments’ pre-emptive policies and strong challenges, former and present day Ethiopian leaders have sought multilateral cooperation with the downstream to support their backward economies; not to take over the Nile waters, or to harm our partners Egypt and Sudan.
For example, after the 1950s, which was during the monarchy rule of Emperor Haile-Selassie, Ethiopia had made meteorological and hydrological feasibility studies including surveys of selection sites around Lake Tana. That prospect was mainly for a medium size hydroelectric power generation, and of course for some irrigation purposes. That dream was not realized because of Egypt’s pre-emptive measures against Ethiopia.
When consecutive drought of 1983 to 1986 caused hardship in many parts of the country, the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, known as the Dergue regime led by President Mengistu Hailemariam was the first to break the iceberg in developing some area of the Blue Nile sub-basin. The Dergue government officials said that, “Ethiopia has the right to use its natural resources”; where the original Tana-Beles multipurpose project was implemented to deal with the severe impacts of drought; while contributing to poverty reduction strategy in the country. However, that ambitious Project had strongly challenged Egypt’s pre-emptive policies till the TPLF/EPRDF rebel forces advanced into the territory.
The government of TPLF/EPRDF led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had successfully inaugurated the 460 megawatt Tana-Beles Dam in May 2010. That is a special achievement; because the dam is backed-up by Lake Tana itself, without destroying vegetation and without enforcing people displacement to create a reservoir. The dam can also help the Lake Tana vicinity with flood control. The plan of this 460 MW dam was basically originated in the time of the Dergue government. Dam construction was close to commencement but discontinued due to security issues in the country. In fact, there should be a substantial improvement in the last design, and of course a bigger MW capacity.
From a geopolitical point of view, despite the fact that the survival of Egypt depends on the Nile waters, the Country is strategically more important than Ethiopia and Sudan to the rest of the world. There are the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea which are potential maritime access points, and the Suez Canal is an international gateway boosting relationships. Egypt’s political role in the Middle East affairs is also considerably important. Egypt has been working pre-emptively through international diplomacy to maintain its dominance in securing the regular flow of the Nile River, even though 85% of the waters are from Ethiopia. Egyptians are much more aware and politicized about the Nile waters than Ethiopians. So, Egypt’s full dependency on the Nile waters and its international role could exceed Ethiopia’s argumentation styles and diplomatic norms. I think such glowing opportunities are bringing to Egypt a favourable lobbying atmosphere in the world of hypocrisy.
Egypt spends billions of US dollars for purchasing sophisticated armaments to intimidate and control Ethiopia from using the Nile waters. The endurance of threatening psychologies by incoming and outgoing Egyptian government incumbents and their media outlets would have to address freshwater concerns in a friendly manner. Ethiopia would continue to suffer from the Nile geopolitics, unless Egypt could acquire enough confidence and adopt a cooperative policy towards Ethiopia. This country deserves understanding and reconciliation with the downstream countries, Sudan and particularly with Egypt.
Nowadays, there are some constrictive commentaries of mutual concerns about the Nile Basin. For example, Sudanese scholars Mr. Salman M.A. Salman and Egyptian Rawia Tawfik (PhD) have both analyzed the mutual benefits stated in the 2015 Declaration of Principles on the GERD. (See their commentaries in the ‘Bibliography list’ of this Article}.
There is also a YouTube video by Abbay Media with Mr. Maggid Kalel from the USA, who expressed his best wishes to his country (Egypt) and made a factual analysis of balanced perspectives on the GERD as well as the Nile Basin in general without sticking to old water treaties and thoughts. This bold scholar explained to his audience that Egypt, especially since President Gamal Abdel Nasser has followed strategies of animosity against Ethiopia by supporting various opposition movements, including religious groups, to destabilize and impoverish that country. For example, Egypt had played a significant role in the separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia by making the latter land locked for its own strategic interest, he added.
Maggid also told that Egypt and Sudan had both rejected an offer from Ethiopia in April 2011 for a complete joint venture on the Millennium Dam/GERD Project. Mr. Maggid Kalel is not only the son of Egypt but he is also the son of Ethiopia and the Nile Basin as a whole. His speech in the Arabic language is translated into Amharic by the enthusiastic Ethiopian Ustazz Jamal Bashir for his large audience under the “Abbay Media” Logo.
Dr. Haled Abd-el-Kader is Egyptian geologist who spoke in Arabic to say that there is about 10 billion cubic meters of Nile waters abused or exposed to extravagancy annually in the Egyptian desert, when Egypt opposes Ethiopia to do a limited development with the help of Nile waters. Mr. Ustazz Jamal Bashir of Abbay Media TV has translated this information into Amharic language.
Ustazz Bashir and his Ethiopian friends such as Mohammad Al Arusi who are mostly based on Aljazeera Arabic and Egypt’s Al-Ahram News sources are appreciated for their contributions in communicating various opinions on the Nile issue from the downstream audiences, Ethiopians, as well as in the Arab World. Transparent and balanced intellectual views from our downstream brothers would also help Ethiopians feel that their concerns are shared. Such attitudes of creating common awareness can help to manage water conflicts peacefully.
Of course, Ethiopians are eager to see their country supplied with substantial electric power services. The Ethiopian Government mass media and other outlets such as Zehabesha.com website plus its TV/YouTube channels, as well as ESAT News in the country and in the diaspora are updating the public with news, interviews and publications. There have been lobbying activities across the globe, particularly in USA that includes written articles by scholars such as Prof. Alemayehu G. Mariam to support Ethiopia’s position on the GERD with mutual concern on water use. Meanwhile, Ethiopians have to come together with full understanding and responsibility over the tough challenges surrounding their country. The GERD/Nile issue should be handled with flexibility in sharing of concerns and proper approaches, unexhausted diplomacy and diligence. It has to be well-identified or recognized that Ethiopia is facing the biggest hydrological and national security challenges in frequent disagreements with Sudan and particularly with Egypt.
Nile requires regional stability
The Nile River is geopolitically influential watercourse beyond its own Basin. This renewable transboundary resource demands a sharing of concern and regional stability to sustain its increasing populations. Then, the GERD/Nile controversy which has closely allied Egypt and Sudan together against Ethiopia is a destabilizing effect in the region. Water dispute behaviours are so intense compared to other transboundary river basins, because the mighty Nile is the only lifesaving major River in the north-east African region. Proper water use assessment, more cooperation and insights of national security are important to Ethiopia to move safely through this complicated regional hydro-political issue.
Ethiopia and Sudan have seen some skirmishes between May 2020 and November 2020 on their common borders. Unusually, Sudanese well equipped regular army had penetrated into Ethiopia’s territory on December 15, 2020, when the Ethiopian Federal armed forces were engaged in a crucial operation to settle political and humanitarian havoc in Tigray Region. Ethiopia has repeatedly warned Sudan to withdraw its troops from the occupied territory and discuss it amicably. Fundamentally, the Ottoman-Egyptian (1820s – 1885) and later the Anglo-Egyptian (1898 – 1956) occupations in Sudan pushed into a large area of communities that were parts of Ethiopian territory during the feudal systems and expanded the upper Nile basin for their own colonial ambitions, which increased the territorial establishment of the Sudan.
Our neighbour Sudan which was thought to be in a proper transition for peace and democracy is still shaking in its decades of ethnic conflicts. The greater region, especially Ethiopia has suffered from heavy flooding and a mass of locust outbreak in 2020. There is no change in behaviour or mercy in the Horn of Africa to provoke armed conflict even in this difficult time of Corona Virus Global Pandemic. Such incursion on the backdoors of the GERD in this critical moment to Ethiopia sounds like a pretext for destabilizing this country. In November 2020, Egyptian and Sudanese military forces exercised a joint aerial performance in Merowe, Sudan. The complex interest over the Nile waters in the conflict ridden African region is an additional looming security threat that may escalate to a full-fledged armed operation to cause much more instability if not handled diligently.
As numerous ethnic based conflicts in Ethiopia are threats to national stability and progress, there are enough evidences of fatal armed incursions that were not far from the GERD with immediate psychological impact on this Project. For example, several mass media told that from September to December 2020, over seven hundreds of innocent citizens were killed with humiliation by coordinated attacks of local gunmen and alleged external agents. That deadly incident has caused over hundred thousand displacements of people from several districts in the Benishangul-Gumuz Administrative Region of Ethiopia. The deadly incidents in Metekel Zone are very concerning ethnic conflicts with pretext to destabilize the GERD operations located in the Guba District. Ethiopian Aviation Authority had announced in early October 2020 that it banned all flight movements over the GERD for security reasons; amid escalating tensions over this dam between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan.
Ethiopia is in an environment of enormous internal and external challenges requiring primarily focus to reconcile its main problems. The ethnic-centred administrative structures in the country have been dividing the socioeconomic life and psychology of Ethiopians. Unfortunately TPLF, the concocter of ethnic federalism, was very reluctant to adjust itself to the transfer of power made in the country and to cooperate in a necessary or proposed change with dignity, which greatly contributed to huge human and material losses to Ethiopia. National peace and economic achievement in Ethiopia will depend on strength and the unity of its own people.
Support from the international community including moral obligation from Egypt and Sudan will be helpful to Ethiopia’s main concern about its national stability. Political stability and economic progress in Ethiopia are very demanding not only to Ethiopians but to the whole region, including great importance to Eritrea’s survival. Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) could help to mitigate the GERD crisis as well as the disturbing border conflict between Ethiopia and Sudan, which is now associated to the conflict of interests over the GERD. The world in general would like to see a large populated Ethiopia united and self-reliant for socioeconomic and immigration reasons.
Unlike the unfortunate situation in the Horn of Africa, there are no serious fights or armed incursions between political parties or business organizations when it comes to postponement of public elections and international events as there are obvious social hardships in physical attendance due to the sneaky COVID-19. Today, many countries and benevolent organizations in the world are carrying their own responsibilities by providing necessary services for social survival and economic recovery as the first priority, while contributing to international cooperation. For example, Canada, the country in which I live, has been doing well in protecting its population.
As far as the Nile Basin is concerned, the disputing parties of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are responsible to acknowledge and explain to their own peoples that the ongoing scarcity of water resources is already affecting to most of the Nile countries. Similarly, the distribution of freshwaters is causing conflicts over transboundary river basins between many other countries in the world. The conflicts of interest in this essay are not about race or religion, but are basically about economic needs and water distribution. Hydrological scholars, politicians, and experienced intellectuals are expected to approach their governments with balanced commentaries and proposals to introduce mutually beneficial policies. Journalists and other media personnel can help in promoting unbiased reports and ideas to the public. Inflammatory propaganda through a few mainstream media and several other outlets as well as spurious comments of hatred by cyber warriors must all abide to universal regulations and act in a responsible manner.
Peace and cooperation between Ethiopia and Eritrea is also helpful for regional stability. Eritrea is separated from Ethiopia since April 1993. Although the Government in Asmara was resisting dialogue on the so-called border issues; the EPRDF (Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front) government, which was dominated by TPLF (Tigray People Liberation Front), wasted two decades by pushing UN sanctions and regional sympathy of containment policy against Eritrea; rather than finding other ways for close cooperation. It is quite shameful and regretful to play the zero-sum games at which Eritreans and Ethiopians were incapable of breaking-through to the predicament of two decades in a wise manner. There is always a great importance for both peoples of Eritrea and Tigray to help stabilize or protect Ethiopia for common peace and economic progress.
The agreements of September 2018 on peace, friendship and comprehensive cooperation concluded in Seven Articles signed between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Isaias Afeworki in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, were witnessed by the UN Secretary and Saudi Arabian Government; which are necessary perspectives for Eritrean and Ethiopian social peace and economic interests.
Thanks are due to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia led by His Excellency King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud for his sponsorship and surrounding geopolitical cooperation. Thanks are also due to His Excellency Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary General; the contribution of the United Arab Emirates; as well as the United States through its diplomatic personnel, such as the seasoned former Ambassadors Herman Cohen and David Sheen. Both diplomats had made consistent efforts to address the problems between the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Ethiopians including the people of Tigray stretched their hands with generosity in welcoming their Eritrean brothers and sisters to Ethiopia. Ethiopians were welcomed by emotional expressing warm fraternity during their visits to several cities and locations in Eritrea. The high emotions during the resumption of people to people relations manifested that they regretted the senseless war of extensive human and material losses. It was obviously an internecine conflict that caused several decades of suffering. People were excited with joy and nostalgia on both sides of the border and the reunification of families and friends ensured bright events were all covered by various mass media outlets.
It was witnessed that there were emotions expressing nostalgia that filled the public with bright hope when President Isaias Afeworki of Eritrea and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia including their Governments’ high officials exchanged several visits between Addis-Ababa and Asmara as well as some other peripheries. In July 2018, Abiy and Isaias had signed a statement for cessation of hostilities during their first time conference in Asmara.
Intellectual commentaries have taught our peoples about the essence of close cooperation and further insights between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Artistic singers and dramas have contributed in raising public emotions for our social good. People have expressed their feelings with tears that they want to look into the future for a close cooperation by forgiving the skirmishes and uncertainty of the twenty years of predicament. I have been saying that our peoples can adopt structurally needed changes under visionary and proactive leaders who can correct political and social discrepancies. I am originally from Eritrea.
The African Union and European Union have both supported the deal for peace and comprehensive cooperation between Ethiopia and Eritrea; while many other countries have expressed good wishes to that mutual agreement.
All those diplomatic engagements and supports stated in the above, as well as related contributions have been helpful in the geopolitical arrangements designed for shared economic and ideological interests in the greater region. Now, although it is up to Ethiopia and Eritrea to exceed their relationships, the sympathy of the international community is still important.
As a matter of facts, the peoples of Ethiopia and Eritrea wish to have peace and inalienable cooperation for reciprocal benefits from the Red Sea, as well as other areas of social and material resources to develop national economies and improve their livelihoods. Focus towards great progress for our peoples are genuine in nature and need to be followed by any governments in office.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize of 2019 by the Norwegian Nobel Committee for his special contribution in making peace with Eritrea; to encourage his efforts in reforming Ethiopia, as well as mutual cooperation in the greater region.
Yet, the 2018 perspective for peace and close cooperation between the two sisterly nations was almost stuck in the early stage for the lack of some ingredients of inclusive approach in the process. In the beginning of relationships, the main rival TPLF with its rigid behaviours had sought a special attention of comfort or sympathy to get some relief for its own frustrations. So, internal and external obstacles have widely contributed in hindering the fresh relationships between Ethiopia and Eritrea. There is importance to improve the attitude and mindset of our people by providing well informed objectives about the effects of circumstantial and geopolitical dynamics challenging the survival of Eritrea.
It is good that the administrative zones in Eritrea are designed and named according to geographic areas, and not on ethnic divisions. In addition to that, proper application of the rule of law, reconciliation, human rights and practice the important features of democracy are essential for social peace and economic progress.
The Government of Eritrea is expected to facilitate the Ports of Massawa and Assab without delay for Ethiopian use to encourage mutual ties and benefit the Eritrean people. There is high geopolitical competition in the surrounding areas, especially on the south Red Sea region. Ethiopia, Eritrea and our neighbour Djibouti will have to show a fair cooperation with each other on ports and commercial matters. It is important to be fair with other neighbours as well.
During international approaches in mediating the Nile issue in general and the GERD in particular, great attention is required to address that Ethiopia and Eritrea are connected to the Nile Basin and the Red Sea strategic interests. Egypt’s pre-emptive policies, as well as its big role in international diplomacy to secure the major Nile waters from Ethiopia for its own survival has contributed in making barriers of a zero sum between Ethiopian and Eritrean peoples for several decades.
Therefore, Ethiopia and Eritrea must work together constructively to facilitate the fundamental conflicts over the GERD/Nile waters and earn geopolitical cooperation from our downstream neighbours Egypt and Sudan. International support such as countries in the Arab League that include Saudi Arabia and UAE is helpful to exit the impasse for lasting peace and sustainable economic development to the Nile countries. Ethiopia has to cooperate with full commitment that Sudan and particularly Egypt need the security in using most of the Nile waters. The whole region cannot afford to live in severe conflicts.
By the same token, Egypt and Sudan will have to support Ethiopia and Eritrea working together to reciprocate their main interests over the Red Sea for social peace and economic benefits. The four Nile countries will have to make a genuine shift over their policies to show conducive atmosphere for reliable economic interests and social stability in the restive African region. That is what the Nile River would have said. (Please see my commentary of July 2018: “Ethiopia & Eritrea Perspectives: Survival and Security in Geopolitics of the Red Sea”, especially the subtitles: “surrounding geopolitical cooperation” and “On the Nile”).
To be continued soon in the final Part III.