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Ethiopia’s PM Hailemariam Desalegn made a cool-headed reference to the forgotten NBI platform to solve the tensions over the Nile; it is another opportunity for Egypt to make the right move

Tsedale Lemma

In December 2009, Dr. Ali Mohamed Shein, President of Zanzibar (then Vice President of Tanzania), paid a deserving tribute to the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) when he said, “ten years ago there was an atmosphere of mistrust, suspicion and doubts. Today Nile Basin countries are open to each other, ready and willing to interact and exchange information. This is an achievement to be cherished, nourished and nurtured by all.”

There is nothing wrong with Dr. Shein’s statement except that it appears less exciting today than it was three years ago.

His statement came at a time when hopes were picking an all time high for “One Nile, One Basin, with One Vision,” a concept adopted in 1999 by ten Nile Basin riparian countries – Burundi, DR Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda (Eritrea as an observer) – as they came together for the first time and initiated the NBI, a cooperative program designed to “address poverty, environmental degradation and instability in the Nile Basin.”

Hailemariam Desalegn - Closing Plenary: Africa's Next Chapter -For many, the establishment of the NBI was nothing more than just a good thing to have. Three outstanding reasons explain such apprehension. First, member states never had to spend a penny to sustain its existence, depriving them of real ownership of the whole show. Almost all of the funding for the NBI was flowing from the International Consortium for Cooperation on the Nile (ICCON) that included the World Bank (WB) through a trust fund and other donor countries. “Everything that has happened inside the NBI has external strings attached to it. Egypt, having secured board seats in many of the donor organizations, has been unpleasantly influencing major policies initiated by the upstream countries on the equitable use of the Nile,” said an Ethiopian water engineer who was deeply involved in the NBI negotiations.

Second, any small achievement scored in the technical side of the initiative, particularly the establishments of sub-basin projects thought to have benefited all riparian states and guarantee their fair share of the water have always been overly shadowed by morbid political negotiations. Two years ago, when this magazine asked Audace Ndayizeye, a former NBI Executive Director about the most challenging aspect of his work, he said it was “the sustaining of assets and outcomes of the Shared Vision Program (SVP), which was phasing out before the conclusion of the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA).”  SVP was one of the three big basin-wide projects launched by the NBI. The story is similar when it comes to other projects too. Take for example the Nile Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Program (NELSAP), which was one of the two NBI investment programs that had successfully implemented constructive projects such as the Lake Victoria Development Program, the Lake Victoria Visioning Exercise of the East African Community, and the Lake Victoria Environment Management Program. But they have always been helplessly consumed by bickering between riparian states, Egypt being the lead architect behind.

Third, dangerously stuck in what it claimed for centuries to be its righteous “God given gift”, Egypt took Sudan, which anyway was inflexibly tied to it thanks to the 1929 and 1959 colonial era treaties, to its wrong side and consistently bullied other basin states throughout the existence of the NBI, which took every negotiation one step ahead, two back and planted seeds of bitterness and victimhood amongst upstream countries.

Be that as it may, while battling the odds against their own aversions, politicians of riparian states have used the NBI platforms to produce the CFA, a document designated to guarantee equitable use of the Nile, which was signed by six out of the nine member states, and rejected by Egypt for wording reasons on article 14b, Sudan for confusing reasons and DR. Congo for unknown reasons.

The NBI was marred by mistrust and political morbidity, but for all its fault lines it is the first and so far only platform Nile Basin states come together and agree to disagree on matters that are the Nile.

Back to square one

Since the government in Ethiopia announced to build the giant Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) two years ago, everything was, understandably, focused around a water doomsday forecast between Egypt and Ethiopia, the former the biggest consumer of the water whose 85% of the flow springs from the highlands of the later. Fed up by lack of Egypt’s political will and consistent bullying Ethiopia announced its decision to build the dam unexpectedly in the midst of negotiations to have the CFA signed by all riparian states. Since then there were hardly any mention of the use of the $150 million worth NBI, adding to worrying developments between Egypt and Ethiopia.

The plans for the dam have everything it takes to make Egypt nervous. Although candid reflections from many Egyptians rule out the existence of the dam itself as a major threat to the country’s water security, at a reservoir with a volume of 74 billion cubic meters no one knows how long the filling period will be, which, as it stands now, is the decisive factor to know the amounts of water that will end up downstream during the filling of the reservoir. From Ethiopia’s side a few more points justify its decision: its urgent need for more electricity driven by its unprecedented economic growth, and its sense of being prejudicially deprived, for decades, of the water that streams from its own backyard. Now, for what it is worth, and there are countless reasons to believe that it is worth plenty, the dam is on its way but in the expense of trust between Egypt and Ethiopia, which has suffered the biggest causality since the latter’s single handed decision to build the dam. Owing to decades old snowballing dirty tricks by Egypt and Sudan, trust has never been in good supply in the first place.

But now speaking for the first time to the private and state media together on Friday June 28th, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn made a rare reference to the benefits of basin states cooperation through the NBI to guarantee equitable use of the Nile. PM Hailemariam was unequivocal when he said Ethiopia has “played a major role” in sustaining the NBI momentum. He is right.

Composed and cool-headed, he says negotiations over the matter must look back to the platform outlined by the NBI for an equitable use of the water, offering a great opportunity the government in Egypt deplorably missed to use over the last 14 years. He wasn’t short of envisioning regional cooperation on other areas, too, such as transboundary trade and “many more.”

Plus the forgotten Pan-African solution

The latest diplomatic rage came from Egypt following Ethiopia’s decision on the 28th of May to divert the flow of the Blue Nile to make ways for the construction of the dam.  It turns out it wasn’t about the diversion itself as it was about lack of knowledge and information on its non-existing impact on downstream counties.

Ironically though, the diversion happened hours after Egyptian President Mohammod Morsi left Ethiopia after attending the 50th founding anniversary of the OAU/AU and the 21st heads of state and governments summit of the African Union (AU), in which African leaders pledged to work together to unite the continent under the theme of “Pan-Africanism and African Renaissance.”

During the summit the leaders have discussed at length about diverse issues that they said were crucial to unite the continent especially in the areas of infrastructure. Currently, the AU, along with its development partners, is considering ways of funding a number of continent-wide infrastructure projects in different areas including transboundary water.

But buoyed up by the determination of the country’s politicians to neither downsize nor delay the construction of the dam, Ethiopians, tasked to foot the bill for the $ 4.8 billion (most likely more) worth dam, are not in the mood to consider anything beyond their own ultimate use of the water they believe is rightfully theirs but have been deprived of; and Egyptians, who feel victimized by the whole project keep on desperately looking at their politicians who are scrambling to find a sane gravity to contain the nation’s political grief since the revolution in February 2011; in their desperations they are using the Nile as the mere unifying factor.

Lost in this frenzy are three fundamental facts. First, as it is not ordinary Ethiopians’ fault that they have been unjustly deprived of the water that mean so much to them; nor should it be the fault of ordinary Egyptians that the river Nile flows downstream and that their lives heavily depend on it.

Second, Africa has never been more determined to push through transboundary infrastructure programs. Gone, slowly, are days when individual countries make single-handed decisions and leave the consequences unattended. The AU, along with NEPAD and AfDB, is enthusiastically pushing through a continent-wide infrastructure projects in four key areas: energy, transport, transboundary water and ICT. Using an initiative called Program for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA) it has identified 51 priority projects in these four sectors and hopes for their completions by 2020. Almost all of these projects, located in different regions of the continent, are thought to potentially benefit more than two countries when, and if, completed. The GERD itself was mentioned as a potential project to benefit Eastern Nile basin countries (Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan). Most of the funding for these projects are expected to come from public and private sources from the countries sharing these transboundary resources. When AUC Chairperson Dr. Nkosazana Dilamini Zumma referred to a “Pan-African solution,” to the recent diplomatic tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia over the dam, there was no doubt she meant that in today’s Africa, a problem shared has a solution shared.

Third, the wellbeing of the whole basin – its vulnerability to environmental degradation and overpopulation – is receiving zero attention. Back in the heydays of the NBI, the establishment of different structures within the NBI such as the creation of the Eastern Nile Subsidiary Action Program (ENSAP), a program that brought together Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan in their attempt to achieve “joint action on the ground to promote poverty alleviation, economic growth and reversal of environmental degradation” and was overseen by the Eastern Nile Council of Ministers who helped to establish The Eastern Nile Technical Regional Office (ENTRO) were more than encouraging and have, despite mutual distrusts, achieved a lot until they were all rendered ineffective by the toxic confrontation happening over the last two years.

Thankfully, after these two years of diplomatic saber-rattling, Ethiopia and Egypt are now back to negotiation tables. To the relief of onlookers, PM Hailemariam, currently the chairperson of the AU, said these negotiations should be based on NBI principles on equitable use of the water, which is Ethiopia’s redline, and beyond which his country will never let others to cross. Fair enough. But as negotiations continue, negotiators must render significance to what Dr. Ali Mohamed Shein said three years ago.

The achievements made through the multi-faceted technical cooperation front under the NBI were meant to pave ways for the political negotiations to take shape and help the CFA to become a binding agreement between riparian nations by establishing the long talked about Nile Basin Commission, which will officially repeal the already useless 1929 and 1959 colonial era treaties. That is where the Nile Basin states need to get back at.

But above all, beyond the “drop of water” rhetoric Messrs Morsi (if he survives the political tide accumulating around him) and Hailemariam need to come together more often, confront the immediate causes of the tension between the two countries and beat the odds to trust each other all afresh. In the absence of trust, the danger is that both sides will be stuck in their sense of righteous claim to the waters. It is good to listen to public discourses too, but so far emotions on both sides are overly excited assisted by none other than the politicians on both sides – a sense of righteous claim (Egypt) and of victimhood (Ethiopia). The politicians should dismiss those sentiments and do the jobs of making the water make every country in the basin happy. It is possible.

Photo: AP- WEF

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