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The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD): From Zero-Sum Politics to Win-Win Solution

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD): From Zero-Sum Politics to Win-Win Solution

In the vocabulary of African politics, zero-sum game politics and associated terms such as spoils politics, patronage, rent-seeking and clientele politics are prominent. Zero-sum in politics simply refers to a competitive interaction of political actors where considerations in political interactions are predominately premised on securing whole sum of scores or risk gaining nothing.  Only two outcomes are expected from competitive politics; win or lose. There is nothing in between or beyond.

Undertaking zero-sum politics incurs heavy toll not only on those who are considered losers but also on those who ‘win’ wholesomely. An eloquent expression of this is ‘winning the war but losing the battle’. In the field African international relations, the fact that African politics is vicious and aggressive is because of zero-sum politics approach and the aftermath resentment and adversity that arise from competitors or the underdogs, and fester in the background. To keep real or potential competitors weak and unable to mount a challenge, political ‘winners’ usually resort to design a web of control and domination with the aim of crippling competitors’ resources and opportunities.

In win-win politics, political actors interact to benefit from cooperation. In theory, the possibility of a political participant losing from cooperative process or outcome is minimal. The process of cooperation itself and distribution of benefits may be varied and complex depending on the context of the interaction. Nonetheless, once favourable outcome is achieved, benefits flow to all participants albeit not necessarily always evenly. As benefits also arise from sharing costs of political interaction, the damages of failure are shared and minimized. Political actors in win-win politics are presumed to avoid the risk of leaving out partners to resort to adversarial position. Therefore, balancing distribution of costs and benefit generates incentives among stakeholders to harness engagement and cooperation. Win-win solution is essentially premised on trust, transparency and collaboration.

This may sound very simplistic. However, international relations experience among African countries at continental and national level shows it to be inherently conflictual, and cooperation deemed unprofitable at best if not a trap for sinister and exploitative intentions. At a global level, African countries have merely taken the role of wilful prey to global predators. It is not uncommon to see African politicians complicit in the looting and exploitation of their own African resources. In a global order where superpowers have dominated and monopolized a uni or bi-polar world, African politicians find themselves victims of intricate manipulations of zero-sum games. At times, their redundant skill at global level comes as handy in entrenching their power in domestic or regional politics. Fortunately, the evolution of global order to an increasingly multi-polar world is creating conditions more suitable for inclusive and collaborative politics than anything else.

The change towards collaborative politics also seems to hold ground in some cases of international relations in Africa. We are witnessing an encouraging signs of win-win solutions to ‘wicked problems’ in recent times. The potential of win-win solutions if fully realized is immensely liberating to Africans from the shackles of neorealist politics. A clear example of this involves two major powers in the Horn of Africa; Egypt and Ethiopia. At the centre of this is complex and contentious challenge is the issue of sharing resources of cross-national waters, specifically the Nile River. Matters of international waters and their sustainable and judicious distribution have been elusive to consensus not only to African context where there have been limited legal or historical antecedents but also in other international context.

Water resource is often flagged by pundits as potential sources of conflict in the international system; if not managed properly, potentially leading to major international conflicts. We see advanced countries in unrelenting search of water not only on earth but also in outer space through extra-terrestrial explorations. This is because water as a limited natural resource is indispensable resource in sustaining human life as we know it. Therefore, the lesson of that may be gained from successful completion and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) with constructive engagement of all riparian countries and other stakeholders is immense.

Apart from the need to utilize water resources wisely at a national level, there is a whole scientific, legal and political dilemma and endeavour on how to manage international waters judiciously and efficiently. This is especially true in transnational water systems where natural origins and destinations of water resources do not take the course of fairness and proportional distribution. My intention is this article is to share my personal reflection on the significance of the recent agreement between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. I will focus on the significance of the recently signed Agreement on Declarations of Principles on international relations of African counties, without delving much on theoretical or legal matters of transnational rivers. I have tried to draw some insights in light of win-win solution versus zero-sum politics. Egypt and Ethiopia have signed Agreement on Declarations of Principles-GERD on 23 March 2015. This is encouraging development not only for the Nile riparian countries but also others who may be interested to draw lessons learnt from the process. It is remarkable development in African international politics in general, heralding a new and fresh start in post-colonial African politics.

To anyone who has been following developments around the Nile River, the recent roller-coaster drive in the relationships of the Nile river riparian countries is evident, particularly Egypt and Ethiopia. In early 2011, Ethiopia announced its plan to build a large dam along the Blue Nile River close to its western border with Sudan. GERD as is officially know is speculated to be the largest dam in Africa with a capacity to store 79 billion cubic meter of water for the purpose of generating electricity power, estimated at a capacity of 6000 MW once completed. Due to its size and magnitude, the announcement of GERD drew strong controversy not only from countries directly affected such as Egypt and Sudan but also from other quarters on its environmental and social impact. 

Until that time, the de facto situation when it comes to sharing the water resources of the Nile has been highly skewed, with Egypt and Sudan commanding a lion’s share of the water resources.  The developmental and natural resources exploitation rights of upper riparian countries such as Ethiopia were largely sidelined. During the colonial periods of early 1920s and late 1950s, Egypt and Sudan sponsored major treaties and agreements between each other under the auspices of the British Empire. These arrangements were intended to entrench the control of Egypt and Sudan (then under the British colonial empire) over the water resources of the Nile River. Lately, Egyptian politicians attempted but did not succeed in invoking such outdated and partisan treaties and agreements to dissuade Ethiopia from constructing GERD. Egypt also tried to exert its diplomatic muscle on other riparian countries and influential powers in stifling diplomatic and financial support from external sources. The eventual assent of Egypt to take collaborative approach is a significant precedent in potentially revising and reviewing old colonial treaties that were not meant to benefit African countries from the outset.

The aptitude and efficacy of Ethiopia on its announcement of its plan to build GERD caught Egypt and particularly its politicians by surprise. Egyptian politicians under the leadership former Prime Minister Mohammed Morsi were caught on camera contemplating to take a typical zero-sum approach on the issue. The then Egyptian leader Mohammed Morsi with his advisors and military commanders were caught live on TV deliberating on how to stop Ethiopia from undertaking the project at all costs including taking military action. This stems from their belief that Egypt has sole historical rights over water resources of the whole Nile River system to the extent of undermining the needs of other riparian countries and their people.

Ethiopia initially kept secret the planning and preliminary feasibility study of such a large project and complex undertaking. At first glance, this seems contradictory to a win-win solution principle of transparency and consensus building. Sudan and Egypt which rely on the Nile waters for most or all aspects of industrial, agricultural and household needs were left at the dark. However, considering the political culture of zero-sum politics in the region and Egypt’s resistance to engage in any deliberations in relation to the rights of other riparian countries along the Nile River, Ethiopia’s calculated move on announcing GERD is justifiable by any reasonable measure. In hindsight of the progress so far achieved in collaborative engagement, it is apparent that at the heart of GERD was win-win solution.

Ethiopia did not publicly seek the consent or permit from either Egypt or Sudan on the issues of constructing the Dam. However, the level of openness and good will that Ethiopia displayed thereafter to involve Egypt, Sudan other riparian countries on the process of constructing the Dam has seen its fruits in accommodating legitimate concerns from Egypt or Sudan or for that matter from other countries. The diplomatic ground work that Ethiopia had built preceding the announcement around fair access and use of the Nile River for all countries through Nile Basin Initiative among others was crucial factor in neutralizing any knee jerk reaction from any party.

Ethiopia’s diplomatic initiative continued after the announcement of GERD. At the initial stage of construction, Ethiopian government especially under leadership of the late Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi was engaged in a massive diplomatic gesture to convince Egypt to come to negotiation table. Ethiopia was willing to discuss a range of issues including co-ownership and management of the Dam. Ethiopia provided scientific information as well as diplomatic assurances on how the construction of GERD would bring all riparian countries substantial benefits compared to the status quo. It urged a construction of the Dam would minimize siltation and loss of water from evaporation at Egyptian and Sudanese water reserves among other benefits. At the same time, the country did not hesitate to openly underline its unalienable right as a sovereign country to fair use of its water resources including that of the Nile.

Initially, Egypt faltered and refused to engage in any deliberations that would tamper the complete and uninterrupted flow of all waters in the Nile water system to Egypt and Sudan. Ethiopia later claimed Egypt succeeded in scaring off international partners from financing the construction of the Dam. Meanwhile, Ethiopia, while progressing with construction of the Dam with its own resources, did not engage in counter-offensive but rather persisted on its endeavours to avoid undue confrontation with Egypt. Due to its reluctance to engage at a crucial early period, Egypt lost an opportunity to provide its desired input in the construction of the Dam. This could partly be explained by the fact that Egypt was under volatile domestic political situation at that time and a well-considered approach on the issue by Egypt would have been obfuscated by domestic political expediency.  However its eventual engagement under a new government led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to resolve its grievances through negotiation helped to recoup any missed opportunities. The recent Agreement on Declarations of Principles is a remarkable platform to rework points of conflict and differences.

The devil is in the detail, and the Agreement on Declarations of Principles does not guarantee yet that the countries are all out of the woods. This fact is not so much obscure from negotiators of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. However, the agreement signifies a clear path to the right direction of win-win solution to a potentially controversial issue. The signatory countries agreed to:

·         work together for mutual benefit

·         take due diligence in ensuring water resource from the Nile is utilized rationally and equitably  

·         utilize the water resources in a way that does not harm other dependents

·         work together to make sure that Nile water system is utilized optimally and all signatories to share data and information in this regard

·         resolve any risk or inadvertent harm peacefully

·         establish early warning system for potential hazard that may arise in the river system

·         prioritize signatory countries to be main beneficiaries of the energy resources

Principles of win-win solution underpin the Agreement in the sense that Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan have agreed to work with each other to create a situation that benefits all signatory countries and others. It is important to understand that win-win solution is premised in creating outcomes for a common good where the end result is a bigger than the sum of profits distributed to individual parties. In absolute terms, the interests of participating countries is almost guaranteed to be protected as long as sufficient focus is afforded on enhancing the common good. However negotiators and politicians of the signatory countries especially Ethiopia and Egypt have to consider a highly nationalistic and passionate populace at home where success or failure of their respective countries might be measured in relative terms rather than absolute terms.

For example in Ethiopia, the population has been mobilized not only to garner political support but also to provide a significant sum of resources required to finance the Dam. Similarly, for an average Egyptian, any issue that touches the flow of the Nile River is deemed to be felt directly at individual household. Ethiopian negotiators might be constrained in terms of their thinking to ensure that Ethiopia benefits relative to Egypt and vice versa. Maximizing the overall size of the pie before worrying about a piece of pie goes where could be a better way of making the region better off with GERD than without.

The significance of this Agreement for peace and security of the region is also immense considering the fact that Ethiopia and Egypt dwell in a region of volatile political conflict hotspots. If Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan succeed in collaborating on GERD (the indications so far suggest they will), it is likely the countries will be drawn closer to each other away from the existing matrix of conflicts in the Horn of Africa; or may help resolve them. Ethiopia is a major player in the ongoing civil conflict in Somalia. The conflict in Somalia is particularly difficult due to its intractability and unpredictability of causes and effect. The conflict in Somalia has been described as a battle ground for a proxy wars.  An example of this the real or imagined involvement of Eritrea in the conflict in Somalia which pitted Ethiopia with its arch-enemy and former province of Eritrea, and by extension implicating Egypt on the side of Eritrea according to some pundits. Ethiopia and Eritrea have had ongoing conflict which stared out as a border conflict but exploded to other fundamental issues of national independence, access to the sea as well as ideologically motivated grievances and perennial international relations policy differences.

Ethiopia and Sudan maintained a cordial relationship during the last decade. Ethiopia takes a role of peace maker in the north-south divide in the Sudan through its peace keeping forces and mediation efforts. The conflict in the Sudan led to secession of the oil rich south from Sudan proper, creating a brand new state. Despite this, Ethiopia has secured a favourable nod from Sudan (North) in earnest in its development endeavours of GERD. The South Sudanese are yet to emerge as a competent players in the political life of the Horn, but yet the significance of their vulnerability in regional politics cannot be completely discounted. Ethiopia’s relations with Djibouti in the northeast and Kenya in the south and southeast could only be described as harmonious.

Egypt, geographically an African country but politically and culturally a Middle Eastern has maintained strategic presence in Africa mainly in retaining its dominance on issues related to the Nile River waters, the major tributary of which -the Blue Nile originates in Ethiopia then travels through Sudan in to Egypt. Egypt has a very large diplomatic profile as well as military capacity in Africa and Middle East. It has been a major ally of the United States in manoeuvring conflicts in the Middle East and to lesser extent in Africa. It has established very heavy diplomatic networks at the heart of which lies a hegemonic network that focuses in ensuring the steady flow of the Nile waters system from upper riparian countries to the lower riparian countries, the Sudan and Egypt. For example, Egypt’s sympathy for Eritrean 30 years’ liberation struggle against Ethiopia had its main purpose in maintaining weak and fragmented Ethiopia, incapable of tampering with the flow of Nile River.

Despite the complex nature of the politics of the East Africa, and the Arab Spring induced instability in the Middle East, Egypt and Ethiopia have managed to reach understanding on a challenge the magnitude of which is millennial. We have seen in Africa where massive conflicts that shook the very foundations of nations were ignited over seemingly mediocre causes. Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia and many other African countries unfortunately are not strangers to such common sense defying experiences of conflict and its disastrous consequences. The Agreement on Declaration on Principles, the details and implementation of which are yet to be tested is set to defy the often murky and intangible nature of political discourse in East Africa. It seems clear enough the signatory countries have decided to break through the complexities of zero-sum politics in a region of the world known as the ‘horn of conflict’ for its particularly conflictual and confrontational politics.

A comprehensive study of the motivations and factors that led Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt to take a collaborative political course is open to further academic or practical scholarship as the experience develops along. The ever growing prominence of Ethiopia as a regional player might partly explain a balance of power politics rather than a benign beliefs in win-win solution.  However the outcome so far is outstanding and unprecedented. Zero-sum politics which has immersed Africa in a downward spiral of conflict and poverty should have come to a stark contrast with the shared benefits of mutual understanding and collaboration that accompany win-win solutions to wicked problems. The loss of opportunities and disastrous consequences of zero-sum politics has caused Africa to be vulnerable to exploitation and patronizing advances from the rest of the world. It is time that African politicians think beyond their narrow turf and start exercising their rights and responsibilities as agents of peace and development not only at a national and continental level but also at universal level.


Samuel Afeworki  

May 2015

Writer is contactable at 


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