By: Merhatsidk Mekonnen Abayneh
The golden maxim of ‘the African Solution to African Problems’ is a wave-hitting and ear-deafening rhetoric that we hear being propagated on a routine basis to the level of our dwindling appetite. Yet it is a seemingly futile project without its meaningful fruition to be noticed on the ground.
Sad to recollect, quite a slew of Africa’s pressing problems lingering to this date are, in the mainstream, associated with and inherited from its colonial past. The infamous dispute in the use of the Nile water between Egypt and the Sudan on, one hand, and the former’s upstream riparian countries such as Ethiopia, on the other hand, is just one separate and obnoxious instance likely to exacerbate the geo-political climate of the already tense and volatile sub-region in question, unless handled and resolved using primarily local wisdom endemic to Africa.
Yet, even Notable institutions such as the African Union and its regional sub-divisions are not as vocal as they ought to be by way of approaching this apparently sensitive and prominent agenda with a command of courage and determination. In other words, they do not seem motivated to confront it by putting forward plausible initiatives and thereby attempting to generate home-grown solutions in the face of the strange and unwarranted interference of other alien actors far from beyond the continent.
Geo-political Setting of the Shared River System
Nile is an international watercourse geographically and hydrologically inter-connecting a chain of countries, (11 to be exact), throughout the splendid basin. It originates both from the Great Lakes’ Region in Central Africa and Lake Tana in Ethiopia flowing all the way down to the Arab Republic of Egypt after which it slowly slips into the giant Mediterranean Sea as its natural and final destination.
The world’s longest, (but not, by far, the largest river), is made up of a bulk of numerous big and small tributaries widely spread over the upstream nations with particular reference to Ethiopia. In fact, the total volume of water it holds and carries down does not exceed two percent of the Amazone and 6 percent of the Congo rivers respectively.
As Salman M. A. Salman has vividly recorded it in his concise article published on Water International, Vol. 38 No. 1 in 2013, the mighty river traverses for as far as 6680 k.ms. Two of its principal tributaries are the Blue Nile and the White Nile.
The Blue Nile, (locally known as Tikur Abbay), originates in northern Ethiopia. It makes a steep descent from the country’s highlands mostly carrying an appreciable amount of brown silt before it joins the White Nile in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, having been augmented by several large rivers from southwestern Ethiopia. The White Nile, on its part, originates in the hills of Burundi and Rwanda to flow northwards from the Great Lakes region crossing Tanzania, Uganda, and South Sudan.
Regardless, it is the Blue Nile with the scores of its tributaries and streams spread over the Ethiopian territorial expanse that makes up the insurmountably huge volume of water which the Nile river carries towards the Sudan and Egypt. These are the two downstream countries which have alone exploited and immensely benefited from the natural resource in terms of both irrigation development and hydro power generation as of the time immemorial without any noticeable challenge from the upstream basin states.
The Nile River as an International Watercourse
As has been indicated hereof, The Nile river does not locate itself solely in the territory of a single sovereign state. this kind of transboundary water body of a multi-jurisdictional coverage is governed under international water law. As a logical consequence, that communality obviously subjects its resource, (wherever that resource might be located), for an equitable and reasonable utilization and participatory protection so as to ensure its sustainable use and development by all the riparian countries embraced in the entire basin.
Technically, The term ‘watercourse’ denotes a “system of surface waters and groundwaters constituting a unitary whole by virtue of their physical relationship and normally flowing into a common terminus” within the meaning of Art. 2. of the UN Convention on the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses.
The above-mentioned universal magna carta, (the first of its kind), was adopted by the UN General Assembly on May 21 1997 and came into force in August 2014, only 6 years ago. Astonishingly enough, none of the 3 disputing countries has so far shown substantial interest to ratify or accede to the said convention.
Unquestionably, the Nile river is collectively owned and shared by all the states embraced in the Nile basin. Yet, it is Egypt and the Sudan which, often times, claim the generic ownership of and solely utilize the basin-wide resource in its entirety to the exclusion of all the other riparian states.
Of all the obstructive developments, the hegemonic monopoly of the Nile waters on the part of Egypt is especially disturbing and troubling to tolerate for Ethiopia which has mercilessly been denied an equitable share of the natural resource regardless of the glaring fact that the latter turns out to be the major contributor of the river’s significant portion of water in the form of annual flow amounting to 86 percent.
The absurd claim for an exclusive ownership of the Nile waters is primarily premised on the 1929 treaty between Egypt and Britain’s East African colonies, namely, Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. These colonies gained formal independence from Britain in the 1960s.
That infamous treaty is blamed to have allocated 57 percent of the waters to Egypt while requiring the other upstream nations to clear with Cairo even before launching any major water-related project to be constructed on the river.
May God excuse the country, Egypt consistently justifies its dominance over the river whose entire water flows from beyond her territorial boundaries merely by citing this colonial-era exchange of notes with Great Britain on May 7 1929. No doubt that this stubborn attitude and unilateral deal on the part of Great Britain, Sudan and Egypt had for long put Ethiopia at odds with that country from time to time.
Another insuing treaty separately signed between Egypt and Sudan on November 8 1959 following the latter’s political independence from Great Britain raised Egypt’s share of the Nile waters to 66 percent. The two signatories, dividing up virtually all of the Nile waters, did not even consult Ethiopia, the main source of the river. Following the infamous 1959 accord, both Egypt and Sudan had to build a number of mega-dams including the Aswan High Dam in order to utilize the water, pre-dominantly for irrigation purposes.
For years, upstream Nile Basin countries have had misgivings about the colonial-era accord in which they had no say. However, they grudgingly acquiesced mainly because, unlike Egypt and Sudan whose arid lands are largely dependent on the river, they were not entirely reliant on the Nile waters as such.
Yet, having been gradually overwhelmed by the profound challenge of feeding their growing populations solely relying on the rain-fed subsistence farming alone, upstream countries had no choice, but to initiate fresh negotiations as of 1999 with a view to finding a workable mechanism in an equitable and reasonable way of sharing the Nile waters.
Consequently, the decade-long negotiations resulted in the 2010 Cooperative Framework Agreement, )known as the Entebbe Agreement). This landmark accord signed by the six upstream countries was, however, rejected outright by both Egypt and Sudan.
Essentially, the Nile Cooperative Framework agreement calls for the creation of a joint commission to oversee any development projects on the Nile river. It, of course, needed ratification by the legislatures of each of the signatory countries. But its implementation is still in limbo until at least another Nile Basin state, for example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo which is still dragging its feet will have signed and ratified it.
It is against this backdrop of ups and downs that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam whose construction was launched in April 2011 is being built on the mouth of the Blue Nile, a major tributary that contributes most of the water flowing into the Nile River, having created an exaggerated impression that it might affect Egypt’s most vital natural resource. Even fears of armed conflict surfaced during the brief tenure of Egypt’s former president, Mohamed Morsi, who said at the time that “Egyptian blood” would substitute for every drop of lost water due to the ongoing construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia.
According to Dejen Yemane Messele who commented on the subject using his opinion piece entitled ‘Negotiating tripartite treaty on GERD: flaws and overhauls’ as published in Addis Standard on February 5th 2020, “lack of cooperation plays out as the mother of all turbulence in the Nile conflicts”. He is of the opinion, (and this writer fully agrees with him), “that the Nile question would have been answered on its entirety had all the basin states committed themselves to the 2010 ‘Cooperative Framework Agreement”.
Unfortunately, it is the dire attitude of Egypt and Sudan which still continue to disagree on the lasting significance of the 2010 framework accord which is meant to expedite an all-out cooperation towards the proper conservation and shared utilization of the river that has been negatively contributing to the solidification of the dispute deteriorating by the day.
The Union Sidelined from the Dispute
The Organization of African Unity (O.A.U) has been Headquartered and hosted in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia as of its original inception and inauguration in 1963 as the first ever continental platform of Pan-African unity and solidarity.
Art. 3. Sub-Art. (f) of the Constitutive Act of the African Union Commission which replaced it in Johannesberg, South Africa in 2002 Proclaims one of its cardinal objectives to be “the promotion of peace, security and stability on the continent”.
Moreover, the union was conceived and structured to function in accordance with a body of guiding principles with a view to realizing the objectives set out hereof. To that effect, Art. 4. Sub.Art. (a), f) and (i) of its unifying instrument mandate the Pan-African institution “to champion and advance the ideals of the “prohibition of the use of force and the threat to use force” and “peaceful co-existence” not short of observance of their “sovereign equality and interdependence with one another”.
Yet, the voice of the pioneering continental apparatus is not that high on the state of affairs as the dispute spirals from bad to worse. In fact, it is striking to observe the continental machinery originally meant to advance preventive diplomacy and conflict transformation at the regional level has been reduced to simply sitting by and watching the dramatic development instead of coming forward with an innovative proposals.
Definitely, Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia had taken the initiative to approach Cyril Ramaphosa, the current Chair-person of the Union so that he would provide him an assistance in the facilitation of a negotiated settlement of the dispute. Nevertheless, it does not seem that he has managed to secure the meaningful attention he had desired having due regard to his enhanced position as the 2019th Nobel Peace Lauritz.
Far from a conscious and pragmatic institutional intervention, what one seldom recalls on this diplomatic front thus far is a few passing remarks from a selected group of individual officials of the A.U constellation with a modest and cautious tone for a self-engineered negotiation and resolution of the controversy on the part of the disputants themselves.
Such a mild advice from a far-away friend might be best explained by Moussa Faki Mahamat’s soft-worded call while in Khartoum in March 2020 on another mission for the Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia “demanding his ‘African brothers’ in those three nations to seek a compromise formula on the outstanding issue concerning the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam” nearing completion.
On that occasion, Mahamat was also heard echoing in his measured statement that the “Nile River has always been a link between the peoples and states of Africa”, with little elaboration, though. That is, of course, a simple rhetoric to be uttered by the ordinary man in the street devoid of substantial fruition.
As a rule, one may rightly be compelled to underline that the African Union has the primary and cardinal responsibility to promote peace, security and stability in Africa as anchored in the persuasive principle of “African solutions to Africa’s problems”. Yet, the union does not appear to have featured highly in the GERD negotiations while non-African actors are already meddling into the deeper intricacy without much knowledge and competence that may be required for proper and systematic exploration.
In an emphatic view of Meressa K Dessu, Dawit Yohannes and Roba D Sharamo who wrote a joint opinion piece entitled ‘Why A.U Has Been Silent on the Ethiopian Dam Dispute’ on 19th February 2020 in ISS Today published by the Institute of Security Studies, this prolonged silence of the continental organization amounts to a “missed opportunity considering its multilateral nature and aspirations to take the lead on such pivotal issues of crucial concern to the region that could have perhaps made it a more reliable and neutral arbiter than the outside mediators on the part of the belligerents themselves.
To all its discredits, though, the AU did not so far issue even a single louder statement in an effort to de-escalate the growing tension in the area with the exception of few protracted and in isolated occasions remarks from a distant tribune of invisible shadow. Of course, in March 2019, its Peace and Security Council (PSC) is reported to have encouraged member states to find peaceful solutions, but the council has since failed to discuss the dispute in real terms.
In the words of Andrews Atta-Asamoah, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies, also cited by the aforementioned critics, “the AU doesn’t have a credible track-record of publicly handing out definitive pronouncements on sensitive issues and politics on the PSC means that member states often refrain from placing difficult topics on the council’s agenda”.
Moreover, an African diplomat wishing to remain anonymous was quoted remarking that the “AU perhaps doesn’t have the appetite to engage in sensational agenda of this type somewhat involving influential powers” such as Ethiopia and Egypt. this disinterestedness may also be compounded by the lack of the requisite capacity to examine and mediate such a complex” dispute in an impartial and principled manner.
Come what it may, that might suffice to showcase the absence of a strong determination on the part of the AU and its sub-regional entities to actually engage in, process and mediate such disputes while relentlessly invoking the usual rhetoric of African solutions to Africa’s problems in the open.
According to Mehari taddele Maru, ”the chairpersons of the African Union and the African Union Commission may consider calling a preventive diplomacy and mediation of all the riparian countries to seek means of reaching “a win-win situation” of Pan-African solution to this African problem”.
In an article entitled ‘The Emergence of Another African Conflict: Egypt, Ethiopia and Geopolitics of the Renaissance Dam’ he wrote in a monthly newsletter of the Al Jazeera Center of Studies on 03/05/2020, Mehari goes as far as suggesting that “the AU needs to elaborate a continental declaration on the adoption of the UN Convention on Water Resources in order to avoid and reduce the triggers of ongoing and future conflicts over trans-boundary water resources and enhance cooperation”.
As can be gathered from historical records to this date, lack of friendly cooperation and harmonized spirit on the part of Sudan and Egypt, the two downstream countries of the Nile Basin, appears to be the mother of all problems unnecessarily prolonging the resolution of the outstanding dispute thus far. Egypt, in particular, remains stuck with the past. The Sudanese position is equally dangerous as it is not always taken in a reliable and principled manner.
A simple reference to Art. 2. Sub-Art. (2) of the twin International Covenants on Economic, social and Cultural as well as Civil and Political Rights of 1966 and Art. 1. Sub-Art. (2) of the UN Declaration on the Right to Development adopted in 1986 would suffice to affirm that Ethiopia is inherently entitled to use and enjoy the natural endowment territorially available in her womb regardless of the fact that the resourse concerned happens to form part and parcel of the international watercourse so long as her actions do not substantially harm or infringe upon the respective rights and benefits of the downstream riparians. That is why she has been constructing the multi-billion dam set for hydro power generation for which she is not obliged to ask for and secure the license of either Egypt and Sudan.
In other words, one cannot succeed to trace or innovate any legal proposition on a regional and global scale likely to either constrain or prohibit a given sovereign country from developing, utilizing and protecting such resource in a rather responsible manner and thereby improve the quality of life of its ordinary citizens in an abject poverty and destitution.
No country on earth other than the Arab Republic of Egypt, and only Egypt that stubbornly claims to have a profound cause of action for unfairly and irresponsibly taking a law-abiding fellow African nation to and embarrassing her in front of the UN Security Council to gain a valid verdict of condemnation from the esteemed world organ in charge of the maintenance of international peace and security, but to no avail.
Having been trapped in this precarious position, it may not be that surprising for Ethiopia to expect other African allies as represented by their respective institutions to come forward and react decisively in the interest of peaceful and cordial settlement of the impasse we are in in an amicable way without undesirably siding with and irritating one or the other party to the dispute. Strikingly, though, nobody seems to have an appetite and provide us with full and unconditional support and solidarity in seeking for a mutually beneficial compromise.
In an open defiance of the stalemate, only António Guterres, the UN Chief, had the level of courage to call on the parties to the dispute, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan “to persevere with their efforts to overcome their differences and reach an agreement on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam”. Through his spokesperson, the Secretary-General noted on 19th May 2020 that “good progress” is being made in negotiations between the three countries in the hope of achieving a mutually beneficial “deal.
He further underscores the importance of the 2015 Declaration of Principles on the GERD which emphasizes an inter-party collaboration based on “common understanding, mutual benefit, good faith, win-win, and the principles of international law” thus applauding the progress towards an amicable agreement in accordance with the spirit of those Principles.
Earlier in the year, Rev. Jesse Jackson the prominent American civil rights activist and the founding president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, is recalled to have urged The African Union along with the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Ethiopian-American Caucus and American civil rights leaders to “stand by and with the government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD)” at this critical juncture. In his statement published on Addis Fortune, Vol. 20 No. 1035 on February 29 2020, “all people of conscience and justice around the world need to condemn the neo-colonial treaty that Egypt has been trying to impose on poor Ethiopia being backed by both the current US Administration and the World Bank” respectively. The latter is “a peaceful nation whose very desire is to harness its natural resources in order to elevate its people out of poverty”.
Admittedly, individual friends and institutions alike may well assist to tone down the rhetoric and even try to transform the conflict in view. Nevertheless, this writer vehemently contends that it is we, the sons and daughtors of Ethiopia, who have to take the lead in the diversion of each and every opportunity towards the advancement and satisfaction of our own lasting interests which must be interwoven with the regional peace and tranquility. What matter most is the degree of our own internal strength and firm determination to stand unified and resolute in the face of the profound challenges confronting us from each and every corner.
In the formidable opinion of this writer, two unifying factors appear to provide an opportunity for fellow Ethiopians who are otherwise pre-occupied in a rather acrimonious political discourse and highly polarized as a result of ethnic strife and linguistic divisions at this critical juncture in history. One is the ongoing construction of the Great Ethiopian renaissance Dam being proudly funded and finalized by public contributions along with the government budgetary support. Definitely, the other is the frightening spread of COVID_19, a deadly disease attributable to the Novel Corona Virus equally confronting our country as a global pandemic to combat in unison.