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Deal on the Nile

Deal on the Nile

No Deal on the Nile

 By Mitiku Adisu

Ethiopians dreamt of one day using part of the Nile water to develop their nation. Lack of capital, expensive technology, and misplaced priorities made the dream untranslatable. Ethiopia’s agrarian economy continued to be subjected to the vagaries of seasonal weather and to poor and unstable governance. Only in the past two decades have efforts been made to transition to a state-led manufacturing economy. Some progress has already been registered despite embezzlement of funds, etc. To remain relevant, however, means ensuring stability and tapping into a reliable capital and energy source. 

In 2011, Ethiopia under Meles Zenawi activated a 1964 national development plan initiated by Emperor Haileselassie (reigned 1930–1975). The Emperor had to bide his time due mainly to Egypt’s bickering over water rights. Then came the 1974 drought, followed by a famine that claimed over 200,000 lives. A public outcry quickly spread, ending in a military coup. The military strongman Mengistu Hailemariam (1975–1991) re-viewed the 1964 dam plan in order to stop the recurrence of famine. He too had to abandon the plan due to pressure from the West and Egypt-supported insurgencies (remember, this was the Cold War era, and Mengistu was pro-Soviet Union). President el-Sadat (assassinated in 1981) had called Mengistu’s plan a declaration of war on Egypt’s sovereignty! The insurgency grew stronger, and in 1984, another cycle of drought struck, resulting in starvation that claimed the lives of over 500,000 people.

The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a $5-billion project, upon completion, is hoped to provide electricity to 65% of a 108-million population, with a total dependency ratio of 76.8%, now not connected to the grid (population was 25 million in 1964; 40 million in 1984; 75 million in 2004). Ethiopia would export some of the power in addition to realizing its manufacturing and industrialization capabilities. Dependence solely on an agrarian economy has come to be understood by many as a disaster waiting to happen. Not meeting the needs of a young and expanding population (80% are 40 years of age or younger) is a recipe for social instability, as was evidenced in Egypt (pop. 104 million with a total dependency ratio of 64.6%).

Here is the problem. Egypt is downstream, and 90% of its people live off dark-rich soil delivered to it from the Ethiopian highlands. Understandably, Egypt is worried. Egyptian rulers (both Pharaonic and Islamic) historically portrayed such fears in terms of a "Christian" nation upstream, likely to poison the waters or divert them to inflict starvation of biblical proportions. That fear was borne of ignorance and meant to divert public attention from the horrors of state corruption. 

Hear this: Egypt has had a plan to divert the Nile to irrigate Toshka and the Peace Canal in the Sinai desert—hear this—without ever consulting with Ethiopia. In other words, the current complaint that building a dam on the Nile will take away from Egypt’s quota is not only spurious but unreasonable and hypocritical. The real issue is that Egypt has convinced itself that it is the sole proprietor of the Nile and therefore could disregard the interests of its immediate neighbors—even when the evidence of famine decimating millions of Ethiopian lives is out in the open.

In reality, GERD is not a threat to Egypt. All parties involved (Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan) have been holding meetings at the international and technical levels for quite a while. Experts on both sides have consulted among themselves and with their counterparts in other regions, always operating within the framework of international agreements. Adjustments were made as soon as consensus was reached.

In April 2011, Islamic Egypt went further to take advantage of Christian ties by sending Father Shenouda III (d. 2012) as its emissary to meet with his Ethiopian counterpart, Abuna Paulos (d. 2012). Of course, the two churches have had ties for millennia. That is to say, back before Egypt turned Islamic. Remember that the majority of Egyptians in the tenth century were Copts, who are now treated as second-class citizens and subjected to constant harassment. To this day, the size of the Coptic population is kept secret and often underrepresented. Building or renovating a place of worship requires local government approval and is routinely turned down. Little has changed during the regimes of Mubarak (1981–2011) or el-Sisi (2014–present). Defying the laws, the late el-Sadat had  dethroned and banished Pope Shenouda III to a desert monastery. Now Shenouda is being ‘asked’ by el-Sisi's Islamic state to twist the arm of a shepherd with a much larger flock. 

Why do we go into all this? Well, having not succeeded by harboring and training insurgent groups and then by mobilizing the church, Egypt has now turned to America to mediate in what should have remained a local or regional issue. It is true that Egypt has been a strategic US ally since signing the 1978 Peace Accords with Israel. US aid to Egypt now totals $40 billion in military and $30 billion in economic assistance. Of course, those billions over the last four decades have dismally failed to translate into employment, human freedoms, or the rule of law (supposedly America’s cherished values) for two generations of Egyptians. Instead, as recent years have shown, Islamic Egypt has been decidedly authoritariancorrupt, and persecuting, especially against its Christian population

Several meetings have taken place in Washington since November 2019 between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan, interestingly, with US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and President Trump's son-in-law Kushner present. Kushner recently headed the "deal of the century" with Israel (without Palestinians). It could be that Egypt promised to deliver Palestinians to legitimize Kushner's "deal" in exchange for the US favoring Egypt's "cause." In the meantime, Egypt has mobilized its public relations outfit to present Ethiopia as a threat to its very existence! In fact, it has gone out of its way to arabize the problem!

The Trump Administration beat the Russians as mediators to revive the stalled three-party talks. So far, the expected "deals" remain distant. There are several reasons for this. First, the "deal" failed to incorporate the fact that no nation  however strapped for resources, is willing to let its sovereignty be mishandled by others. Secondly, despite previous insults to Africans, the Trump Administration now hopes to overnight displace the Chinese in Africa (beginning in Ethiopia, the continental capital). Secretary Pompeo’s recent visit and promise of billions of dollars in aid money are supposed to do the trick! Unfortunately, such a simplistic approach may in fact end up doing just the opposite. Remember, President Carter's misjudgment in 1974 was largely the reason for Ethiopia's siding with the Soviet Union! Thirdly, political leaders tend to make deals with their legacy and constituency in mind.

Mediators succeed in relation to the level of trust disputing parties place in them before, during, and after interacting. For starters, President Trump insulting Africans was not a wise way to build trust. At the G7 meeting in September 2019, the president praised Egypt’s el-Sisi (his "favorite dictator") for the "fantastic job" he has done without ever mentioning his dismal human rights record. In October 2019, el-Sisi separately contacted the US to take "an active role in this regard" and mediate in the stalled talks between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan. In the same month, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia was picked as the winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. In January 2020, President Trump made a statement that he, not Abiy, deserved the prize. To Prime Minister Abiy, those remarks suggested that he look for another mediator as well as explain to Trump how the prize thing worked. All this to say, the Trump Administration failed to show neutrality.

Ethiopia had to postpone the final meeting in Washington. US Secretary of State Mnuchin's statement before the US Congress that "Ethiopia shouldn't start filling the dam without reaching an agreement" demonstrated that the US role was not "fair and balanced" and could jeopardize regional stability.

Egypt’s policy towards Ethiopia has been consistent throughout the years. "Christian" Ethiopia could not be trusted with the Blue Nile headwaters within its borders. No amount of scientific data is good enough to convince Egyptian rulers that equitable water sharing is possible. Secondly, every regime from Nasser (1956–1970) on has used the Nile boogeyman to galvanize its long-suffering citizenry and cover up its own brutality and embezzlement of the state treasury. The Tahrir Square carnage resulted in the removal of a dictator (Mubarak, 1981–2011). Since seizing power in a coup, el-Sisi has not delivered jobs or human freedoms, for which many paid with their lives. Sisi's response? More crackdowns; telling the unsuspecting Egyptian public that an enemy upstream is about to divert the resplendent and eternal Nile, and it will not happen on his watch; seeking assurances from his friend President Trump; threatening to punish anyone who gets in his way; and rallying the Arab League (with only Sudan refusing to endorse the resolution).