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Buying Time for GERD Negotiations: Better Late Than Never

Buying Time for GERD Negotiations: Better Late Than Never

Asham Hagere 03-02-20

Ethiopia’s request for more time to consult on the GERD negotiation came late but better than never. It was late because the negotiation entered into a complicated stage and   no one knows how  the request  for more time would be taken  by the powerful   country hosting the negotiations and by the other negotiating parties.  As it was feared, the latest unilateral statement by the Treasury secretary clearly exposed how biased   USA is to Egypt. This should  come as no surprise and Ethiopia should not expect for anything less than that. For the first time, an outside force officially declared   that no filling of the dam and generation of power before signing the agreement. Sadly, the negotiation reached take it or leave it stage. USA proved not to be a neutral player and hence, its credibility is seriously questioned.

USA stand gave Cairo the courage to send strong warning to Ethiopia if it did not sign the deal.  Egypt’s  threat to use  ‘all means possible’ some say  is nothing more than a bravado, as this is not the first time such a   propaganda  wind was blown from Cairo. This time, it should however be taken seriously because she has the USA behind her.  Both Egypt and USA, should be reminded of the fact that Ethiopia is the source of the Blue Nile, contributing 86% of the Nile waters. If Ethiopia’s effort for a   win -win solution is not met half way, it is much either for the source country to play a zero -sum -game. Egypt has always been for a win-lose game, she winning and Ethiopia losing. Nowhere in the world is this acceptable.

Even though late, Ethiopia’s decision to ask for more time is better because it could accord the nation an opportunity to engage in wider and broader national consultations. It is hoped that such a move will save the country from entering into a rushed agreement that will have negative consequences for generations to come. Allowing the public participation on the fate of the dam that belongs to all Ethiopians is a responsible and wise course of action.

The Tripartite Negotiations

The arduous tripartite negotiations among the three lower riparian countries of the Nile; Egypt, Ethiopia and the Sudan on the Great Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD) have witnessed unprecedented ups and downs since the inception of the dam.  Concerns legitimate or otherwise, were raised by Egypt and Ethiopia, as many would have observed went extra mile, to address Egypt’s concerns. Ethiopia took the initiative to introduce several confidence building measures   among the parties, particularly to convince Egypt that the dam will not pose any significant harm to the water use of Egypt.  After all, the dam is meant to generate power and not intended for any other purpose.  The establishment of the International Panel of Experts (IPOE), the signing of the DOP and the formation of National Independent Scientific group, were supposed to ally the fear of Egypt but with no success. For Egypt, no amount of explanation was acceptable because the age old Egyptian strategy and orientation toward the Nile waters and hence to Ethiopia, have never been   changed. It may take, I am afraid, generations before any new orientation    and change of   attitude evolve among Egyptian society in general and the elites in particular. Every child in Egypt is moulded:  “Egypt is Nile and Nile is Egypt, Egypt is the gift of Nile” etc. Such   moulding of the society without scientific and rational thoughts   about the nature of the Nile waters (that it is a shared transboundary resources), shaped a mindset totally unprepared to listen to any plausible and scientific arguments. No international laws and principles governing shared transboundry water resources like the Nile can be discussed soberly in Egypt unless what was fed in the mind is unlearned. Apparently, no one in the establishment can gamble   to undertake such politically risky exercise.

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It was evident from the public utterances of the leaders in Cairo that each one of them wants to be seen as tough as possible on what they dubbed as the life line of Egypt, the Nile. Their stand on the Nile waters has always been seen as a measure of the strength and patriotism of the leaders. The recent statement by the incumbent president to the Egyptian youth was one such an example.  Ethiopia launched the construction of the dam because Egypt was grappling with its internal political crisis; the President was heard to have said. If the crisis had not happened, he said, Cairo would have not allowed Addis to launch the project. That is a bravado simply aimed at silence the internal demand against the regime. It was as if telling the youth, if you repeat anything of that sort, Egypt will be loser. 

Geopolitical Changes and New Realities 

Profound and unprecedented geopolitical changes and major changes occurred in the three countries   since the turn of the century; but one thing that remained unchanged is Egypt’s strategy toward Ethiopia.

The long pursued strategy that has been in work and continues to be well in place   is blocking any financial support to Ethiopia, in any modality, from outside to any project on the Nile. Egypt succeeded so far and it will also in the future, until Ethiopia’s internal vulnerability is remedied. Unfortunately, the   current political, economic and security challenges are not creating conducive environment for Ethiopia to negotiate   from the position of strength. Any attempt to exploit the situation by providing   financial incentives to meet the current bottlenecks would be a grave mistake and would be highly immoral.  Such temptation must be staunchly rejected.

Ethiopia’s national interest, pride and sovereignty were never exchanged for any valuables. Nor can they be put for exchange now, how dire the situation we are in is.

Since Egypt never changed its strategy, it was obvious   that Ethiopia cannot get a penny for such projects from outside, so Ethiopia has to   change its strategy and hence resorted to domestic resource mobilisation. That was a game changer. With this change of tactic, Egypt left no stone unturned to block outside finance for other projects in Ethiopia arguing that it would leverage and strengthen Ethiopia’s arms to finance GERD. Such is an ill motive pursued by Egyptian leaders. Egyptian diplomats unsuccessfully campaigned against the foreign companies involved in the construction of the dam. It is always wise to remain cautious to counter their campaign. Egypt will continue relentlessly to appeal to countries that the participation of their companies is harming Egyptian national interest.  Egypt’s superiority in diplomatic representation, better capacity in lobbying and campaigning and its strategic importance   should not intimidate Ethiopia.

The second strategy Egypt used to follow and continue to use   is  to make sure that Ethiopia remained    a weak and unstable  so that it cannot  pay enough  attention  to the fight against poverty. Egypt created obstacles to Ethiopia so that it did not enjoy    lasting peace, stability and economic growth. In other words, Egypt has never been ready to live with prosperous, strong and peaceful Ethiopia that can have a role in the region, in the continent and globally. Prosperous, strong and competitive Ethiopia is seen as a geopolitical rival and a strategic threat and not a partner for Egypt. In order to sabotage Ethiopia’s progress, Egypt used   neighbours of  as stepping stone to disturb Peace in the country. Egypt also used Ethiopia’s own armed groups to work against their   national interest. 


With the fast  economic growth and improved stability (until recently) and Ethiopia’s good neighbourly relations with the countries in the Horn (except for Eritrea until recently), that strategy did not bring the desired result. Ethiopia’s remarkable economic growth for the last decade and half, its relative peace and increased strategic importance in the continent and beyond, partially diminished Egypt’s influence that it used enjoy over Ethiopia for so long. These changes in Ethiopia, in the Horn of Africa and globally did not deter Egyptian policy makers to change their course and attitude toward Ethiopia and to the Horn. Egypt’s ego, patronising attitude and its outlook to African countries including Ethiopia have not changed.  Egypt never considered itself   as an African country if it were not for the Nile waters. It has always displayed an arrogant behaviour to Africans and tended to portray itself as defender and protector of African interests as if Africans cannot defend their interest.

The GERD: The Flag Project 

The GERD is not like any other project, it is a national pride for more than one reason. It broke the long held belief in Cairo that a poor country like Ethiopia cannot venture to build any project of this scale on the river Nile. Secondly, it created a national consensus among all Ethiopians   that a national capacity to build and mange a project of such magnitude, the largest dam in Africa, even larger than the Aswan dam, which the Egyptians see as their flag project. So is GERD a flag project for Ethiopians. Moreover, the success will lead to another national projects and the spirit it creates and the confidence it builds for self reliance would be significant national achievement.

 What is the way Forward for Ethiopia from the current quagmire in the negotiations of the GERD? 

Since Nile is a shared resource and since GERD is such a huge project, working with concerned parties to create an understanding on the objective and purpose of the dam was not a bad idea.  In the meantime, the non interruption of the construction of the dam was a smart strategy and it should continue that way until the completion of the project, even if there were no settlement on the negotiation. The initial thinking that involvement of the IPOE and its ultimate recommendation would suffice to address the Egyptian concern and the view that the whole issue will remain at technical level was a total misreading of the Egyptian long held view and strategy about the Nile. I am not, in any way, suggesting that it was wrong move.

Ethiopia strongly resisted the involvement of a third party until the recent one where   it accepted the powerful nation and the powerful global financial institution to find their way into the GERD negotiations as ‘observers’. 

Two important lessons to bedrwan: Ethiopia  should have never  allowed any third party to be part of the process, in what ever status; second if it  were  forced to do so( for any reason the public made not  aware of ), it  should have asked  for involvement of  other countries and institutions that can balance  US and the world bank. Ethiopia had experience in selecting the two companies for environment and social impact assessment   and also   members of the IPOE where it was done with the agreement of the three countries. The current choice was that of Egypt and Ethiopia joined the bandwagon. Ethiopia’s position to say no to a third party was precisely because of the complicating role of a third party. Ethiopia has a legitimate right even at this stage to demand for the involvement of parties agreeable to the three negotiating countries. The second lesson is that it is important to make all agreements, as significant as this one, transparent and allow participation of the public and concerned stakeholders and full involvement of the concerned institutions.


Why the Rush by USA and Egypt

The rush by USA to get the agreement (as complex and as complicated as this one that took almost more than seven years now) to get it done in couple of months leaves a lot to be desired and should never be repeated again. Because it did not give enough space and time for wider consultation and analysis on such a vital project for Ethiopia.  The negotiating team even did not have enough time to get back home and brief the leadership and get political guidance. That is why there was deep suspicion that there is hidden agenda behind the rush. The duo who initially was named as observers gradually assumed the role   mediators and then finally negotiators. They had the temerity to producing negotiating documents and ask countries to give their positions, a new approach and clearly dictating terms of negotiation. It is that pressure finally compelled the Ethiopian team express their feelings to Ethiopian public and said no to the   undue pressure on Ethiopian negotiators. Ethiopians through media, petitions, open letters, staging demonstrations   and use other means mounted campaign not to yield to the pressure. The team should be commended for standing its ground despite enormous challenges it faced in the process. Even though it was late, it is wise on the side of the leadership to call for national consultation and request for more time. This is an issue for each and every Ethiopian now and in the future.

The pose should give Ethiopia to better digest and strategies and come up with couple of conditions.  Egypt and USA are in a hurry because they have their own agenda, election, Middle East peace package and other interests. Ethiopia is not negotiating from the position of strength as we have other national priorities including the upcoming elections. In fact it would be wrong on the side of the Government to sign such a deal at a time when election campaign has already been launched. Postponing Ethiopia’s participation to post election period should be the nation’s best choice or to totally pull out of it.  

Many experts in the field criticised Ethiopia to negotiate a single project by putting aside the CFA and NBI that were negotiated for a decade. There should be a way to bring in the CFA and NBI framework as part of the negotiation.

Most importantly, Ethiopia should invite other parties including AU, EU and UN and selected countries into the negotiating table. Ethiopia should be able to demand Egypt to abounding the colonial and the 1959 agreements to which Ethiopia was not party to.

Ethiopians all over the world should unite and petition the USA to put its hands off the GERD and play a neutral role. Americans of Ethiopian origin in USA should come out in their full strength and petition   their congressmen to put pressure on the Trump administration to stop its biased approach to Egypt. Note that this is also election time in USA.

Ethiopians inside and outside should also launch globally movement against the USA and Egyptian Government to stop threatening Ethiopia.  Mainstream and social media users should take up their pens and write about the unfair move by USA. 

In the face of such a formidable national challenge, Ethiopians should remain united regardless of their political differences. Ethiopia’s sovereignty and vital national interest are always above petty party politics or any other interests. Let us rally behind our negotiating team and the government.

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