Opinion: Ethiopia and the Nile: Sacrificial lamb for the “Deal of the Century”?

Alula Alemayehu, For Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, February 03/2020 – Tuesday, January 28, 2020.  This date will mark an important event in the annals of history when Ethiopia was unjustly coerced by the administration of Donald Trump and his son-in-law to accept the unacceptable and concede its sovereign right on the Nile to Egypt.

On Tuesday, 28 January 2020, President Donald J Trump in the presence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House released his long-awaited peace plan also known as “Deal of the Century” to “resolve” the nearly seven decade- conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. On the same date at the Department of the Treasury nearly seven miles away from the White House, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Water Affairs Ministers of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, with the US and World Bank attending officially as “observers”, were conducting another meeting on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Is the co-occurrence of these two seemingly unrelated events in the very same Washington D.C.  a mere coincidence? I do not think so.

It is to be recalled that since November 6, 2019, the US and the World Bank have been officially attending as observers on-going tripartite technical meetings between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). It is also to be recalled that Ethiopia stuck to its long-held position that the disagreements between Egypt and Ethiopia over the GERD are purely technical matters that can and should be, provided there is sufficient good-faith and goodwill, resolved by the three countries themselves, without the need for any third party involvement. Toward this end Ethiopia facilitated, supported and otherwise provided all possible assistance to the NISRG (National Independent Scientific Research Group), a scientific committee jointly established and tasked by the three countries to find technical solutions to bridge the differences among the countries. Ethiopia, along with Sudan, was working hard to see the completion of the work of the NISRG despite Egypt’s unrelenting effort to sabotage the NISRG from within, striving to limit its work to placating Ethiopia without producing anything substantial.  Why Egypt was undermining the NISRG eventually has become transparent. Egypt, by pretending to take part in the NISRG, has been all along working to convince the international community that NISRG has failed  and is and will be unable to deliver the expected solution, and the dispute cannot be resolved without third party involvement. In hindsight it is obvious that Egypt was envisaging this third party to be Donald Trump’s Administration (and the World Bank). In any case, Ethiopia departed from its long-held position of refusing third party involvement in the GERD technical discussions, simply because it trusted the US to play a neutral, genuinely fair role, without siding to one or the other of the three countries.  Nay, how naïve Ethiopia has been!!

With Ethiopia’s acceptance of the US and the World Bank to be observers, Egypt inched one step closer to realize its goal of getting third parties to be engaged in the tripartite GERD negotiations as “mediators”.  Since then, the US-World Bank ‘observed” Negotiations have been hastily convened and took place in Washington, DC, Cairo, Addis Abeba and Khartoum and again in the final lap in Washington D.C,.  Despite all these meetings taking place at break neck speed one after another, the three countries have not arrived at anything resembling moving in the direction of arriving at an agreement, much less at amicable solution that is based on the principles of international law, justice and fairness that  addresses the legitimate concerns of all three countries.  

Of particular interest here is the way the process is unfolding. The process that has unfolded this far begs the question whether the Middle East Peace Plan unveiled by Donald Trump AND the GERD negotiations are related.

The relationship between the “Deal of the Century” and the GERD negotiations

Trump`s Peace Plan dubbed “Deal of the Century” is not only about Palestine and Israel but also includes the neighboring countries namely Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon. The Peace Plan is purportedly accompanied with a carrot: a plan to invest 50 Billion US Dollars in the region. For such a Grand Plan, as Trump’s Peace Plan is,  to be successful significant allies of the US in the region, mainly Egypt, must be on board. It was reported in June 2019 that Egypt would get nine billion of the 50 billion USD dividends accruing from  the “Deal of the Century.” Egypt’s dividend from the “Deal of the Century”, however, does not end here.  The Trump Administration seems to offer Egypt another enticing incentive for coming on board supporting the “Deal of the Century”, which is  assisting it realize its interest, rather its ill-interest, in the GERD. The GERD in particular and Ethiopia’s legitimate interest in the Nile, nay Africa’s interest in the Nile, in general, is being offered as the ‘sacrificial” lamb at the altar of Egypt’s uniquely, unabashedly one-sided, selfish interest which, while contributing zero to the Nile flows, aspires to MONOPOLIZE its use one hundred percent!! Trump is attempting to impose this injustice on Ethiopia. Trump, a narcissist, whose ego is so well massaged and manipulated by Sisi, cannot and should not get his way in selling out Ethiopia to the modern Pharaohs.

What is the Trump Administration aspiring to Achieve through  the GERD negotiations?

As it was in the past, the geo-strategic import of the Nile Basin is not lost on the US. At the heights of the Cold War, when Egypt was in honeymoon with Khrushchev’s then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the US, under both Dwight Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations attempted to counter the Soviet’s move. Thus they supported then Imperial Government of Ethiopia thru the USBR (1956-1964) and undertook a series of studies of the Blue Nile Basin as a result of which d more than 30 potential water resources investment projects were identified.  . The US studies have clearly demonstrated that upstream water resources infrastructure development in the Nile, especially in Ethiopia`s Blue Nile Gorge, will benefit all countries, more so  downstream countries, for one because storage infrastructure (of a GERD scale) located in the deep, cool Ethiopian highlands would save water that otherwise is left to evaporate in the hottest part of the Nile basin, the Sahara. Note that the two-year storage capacity Aswan High Dam loses nearly a fifth of its stored volume of water to evaporation, benefiting none of the countries.  In addition to water saving many other benefits would accrue to downstream countries, not least from control of flood, situation and sedimentation of irrigation and other infrastructure in the Sudan and Egypt, etc. But such win-win benefits can happen only among just and fair-minded neighbors and with the support of equally just and fair-minded international powers of the day. But, alas, the coincidence of the selfish interests of Egypt and the transient interest of the only Super Power of the World, the US,   trumps hard science, international law, justice and simple human decency.  

Following the turn of events with President Jimmy Carter’s mediation of the peace between Egypt and Israel in 1979, also known as the Camp David Accord, things started to change.  Egypt turned against the then USSR and switched sides, joining the US-led western camp.  It is widely believed that, according to an addendum to the Camp David Accords:  “[i]n parallel with … [Camp David] accord, USA signed a side agreement with Egypt in which … the USA has given Egypt assurance of … [Egypt`s] monopoly over the waters of the Nile.”  In effect, this addendum, is a pledge from the US to maintain Egypt`s colonial, unfair and exclusive treaties on the Nile which, while granting it monopoly on the Nile waters, at the same time insults and  disenfranchises nine up-stream African countries’ natural, legitimate and sovereign rights..

What Egypt is trying to come out from the GERD negotiations is very clear. Egypt is practically demanding  Ethiopia to throw away its sovereign and natural right of utilizing the Nile and instead carry an Egyptian colonial yoke, deprive its people of their basic right of quenching their thirst from their Nile waters.” The US is playing as an arm for Egypt in attaining that same goal. The observed recent US-World Bank pressure on Ethiopia is part and parcel of such  game-plan.

The Personal[ity] Flavor

. As historical coincidence would have it, Presidents Trump and el Sisi have got good chemistry. Patronization aside, the following event is descriptive of the personal chemistry between the two leaders. During … [the] Group of Seven summit in Biarritz, France, in 2019, President Trump, awaiting a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, was heard saying “where is my favorite dictator?”

As Paul Krugman in his New York Times article once remarked, Trump’s hallmark leadership style is bullying and intimidating foreign governments.  The “strong-man-leader” trait seems shared by the two leaders. It would not be surprising, therefore, if both leaders premise their expectations from the GERD negotiations on effective bullying and effective intimidation of an apparently weak Ethiopia.  What a colossal mistake they are making, history shall show.

Lessons from the US?

If Ethiopia took lessons from the US as an upstream country her stance would be a complete contrast to the initiative it is taking now to convince Egypt to agree that Ethiopia partake in the equitable utilization of the Nile waters, currently monopolized by Egypt, by and large.  One need only remember the US stance toward downstream Mexico on the Rio Grande and the Colorado Rivers. One only needs recall the Harman Doctrine.

 Ethiopia in contrast to  the power play most upstream countries resort to,  is calling for cooperation with downstream countries. This goodwill of Ethiopia, however, seems not appreciated by both downstream Egypt and the “Observers”, mainly the Trump Administration. So far, Ethiopia, an upstream country, has gone the extra mile and made overtures to  to persuade Egypt and made many concessions. Ethiopia initiated and invited the tripartite consultations;   and the signing the Agreement on the Declaration of Principles and now agreeing to the involvement of third party “observers” and further  conceding to Egypt`s demands agreeing to extend  the GERD filling to seven years (despite Ethiopia’ desire and ability to fill  the dam within three to five years.)

What next for Ethiopia?

Despite its being geographically located within Africa, Egypt’s “African-ness” has always been fluid. That is, it has always been contingent.  Instead of first looking for and exploring solutions within the ambit of African institutions (such as the OAU), Egypt’s preference has always been to run to and invite but Africans. Egypt’s preference is to invite Mid-Eastern/Arab, US, or European powers in what is essentially an African problem. This is how we got here. Be that as it may, as our history has repeatedly demonstrated, Ethiopia’s allies in its hours of trial, are God and its people, poor and “backward” as they may be!! Ethiopia never stoops to pressure, arrogance, bullying and intimidation. We are a proud nation. Our history is our witness: we never desire to do harm or be selfish, particularly to our neighbors and co-riparians. It is Egypt rather that had been aggressive toward us from the times of Mohammed Pasha to the Nasser regime! We have survived many onslaughts. Neither Egyptian war-mongering and intimidation nor Trump’s and his son-in-law’s coercion and bullying will make Ethiopia forfeit its legitimate, God-given rights on the Nile! We shall never give up any bit of our equitable use of the Nile. Unlike Egypt, Ethiopia’s faith is in Africa and Africans. African solutions to African problems!

 It is comforting to note that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, during his official visit to the Republic of South Africa in Mid-January 2020, has requested President Cyril Ramaphosa “to help resolve the dispute among Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.” This is the way to go. We have been betrayed many a times by the West, even during when we were unjustly invaded. AS

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