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Strategically Misdirected and MisalignedGERD Negotiation

Strategically Misdirected and MisalignedGERD Negotiation

                                              Makonnen Tesfaye; March 4, 2020           


The Construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)

“The one and only solution to the equitable and reasonable utilisation of the shared water of Abay is through a Win-Win approach and meaningful political consultations of all Ethiopian stake holders”


1. The Tragic Political Drama Over the Blue Nile

1.1The fundamental weakness of PM Abiy Ahmed’s negotiation strategy over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the underlying and larger issue of the equitable and reasonable allocation of the shared water of the Blue Nile has been vividly exposed by the current negotiation impasse, which is characterised bythe PM’s request to postpone the negotiation process at the 11th hour; the unveiled threats against Ethiopia by the US and Egypt; and the absence of an overarching strategic direction  of  Ethiopia’s national interests over Abay.  The Government’s request to postpone the negotiation for the purpose consultation (what consultation at the last minute after 5 years of negotiation!) is a sham as it is dramatic and tragic to put it bluntly. The truth is that this is akin to withdrawing from an ongoing boxing match(a rigged boxing match characterised by a biased referee and judges) at the concluding rounds, pleading for more practising time after sustaining several roundsof pounding and to avoid an inevitable TKO.The postponement should be supported since it is better late than never, but will the Government return to the rigged negotiations? Has the Government an alternative overarching strategy?

1.2The pertinent questions in the Country are how did we reach at this position of impasse and how do we come out of it and move forward. Furthermore, the crucial questions are whether the postponement is ashort-term political expediency for electoral purposes and is not a strategic response, or whether we need a different, viable strategic framework of negotiation that safeguards Ethiopia’s national interest over the Blue Nile.

2. “Internationalisation” of the GERD Project is the Problem, Stupid!

2.1Internationalising of the GERD Project has been the principal strategy of Egypt over the last decade and thisis for the purpose ofundermining Ethiopia’s sovereign right to control and manage its own national projects. In terms of a negotiation strategy, this is to fundamentally nullify Ethiopia’s advantage and ability to dictate the terms of the negotiation. Hitherto, the only onus on Ethiopia is to address Egypt’s legitimate concerns by providing appropriate mechanisms where these concerns could be transparently addressed. The establishment of an International Panel of Experts (IPOE) agreed by all parties to advise on technical issues; the disclosure and provision of pertinent technical and operational documents on the GERD to Egypt by Ethiopiaand the provision of negotiation based on good will principle will more than meet the requirements for addressing Egyptian concerns.

2.2 Furthermore and crucially important, the“Declaration of Principles (DOP)” signed by Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan in March 2015 does not commit or legally require any of the parties to bring in third-party mediators. Article 10 of the DOP stipulates that:

“The three countries commit to settle any dispute resulting from the interpretation or application of the declaration of principles through talks or negotiations based on the good will principle. If the parties involved do not succeed in solving the dispute through talks or negotiations, they can ask for mediation or refer the matter to their heads of states or prime ministers”.(Underlinedby author)

(Article 10 of the Declaration of Principles Signed by Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan in March 2015)

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2.3The Meles Zenawi and Haile-Mariam Desalegn Governments’ refusal in the past to internationalise the GERD Project was correct since it successfully countered Egypt’s repeated attempts to involve third parties’ in the GERD negotiations. However, former PM Haile-Mariam’s recent interview with Ethio360 where he expressed the need and inevitability of involving the US and the World Bank (because the US and the World Bank pressures are too strong to resist!) is not only contrary to the past EPRDF’s firm position not to internationalise the GERD Project but is also fatalist, defeatist and comprador in its political and ideologicalessence.Suffice to say that this only demonstrates the extent of the EPRDF Leadership’s political and ideological “degeneration” to the point of becoming cronies and dependent of external forces in the latter years of the Front’s existence, which paved the way for the emergence of a completely comprador party in the form of the Prosperity Party.

2.4Although many have correctly figured out that involving the US and the World Bank was the most disadvantageous and stupidest scenario for Ethiopia (due to the obvious imperatives of US’s and World Bank’s strategic and geo-political interests to advance Egyptian position at the expense of Ethiopia), a number of commentators seem to miss out the kernel issue, which is the internationalisation of the GERD project. Some have argued the need to involve the EU, UN etc. which will still internationalise the issue. Furthermore, it is innocence of the highest order, if not stupid, to assume that the EU or the UN would act impartially, given the entrenched position of Egyptian interests in international institutions.  Similarly, involving South Africa or the AU will still internationalise the issue (which is the point) although one can possibly assume they could be neutral on the matter. Although a second best scenario, Egypt would still accept South African or AU mediation since it will serve Egyptian principal negotiation strategy, which is to internationalise the GERD project at any opportunity.

3. Postponementis a Short-term Political Expediency not a Strategic Response

3.1It is now clear (as can be discerned from leaked information)   some members of the Ethiopian Technical Team  threatened to resign and expose  US’s and World  Bank’s  undue pressure on Ethiopia and the weak response and disposition of the political-wing of the Negotiating Team and the PM to sign-off the Tentative Agreement following the 15thJanuary 2020 meeting. That the Abiy Government was ready to sign the Tentative Agreement can be discerned by the Joint Statement by Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan, the US and the World Bank on 15 January 2020 and the upbeat and “optimism” expressed at the Press Briefing given at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington DC by Gedu Andargachew, Foreign Minister, and Seleshi Bekele (PhD), Water, Irrigation and Energy Minister, on 17 January 2020 (Source: Ethio360 17.01.2020).The essential take aways of the Briefing (given to a selected audience, lacking transparency, inclusiveness and accountability as usual!) was that the Tentative Agreement safeguards Ethiopia’s interests and that subject to tying the loose ends of some minor technical issues pertaining to the filling of the Dam, the document was essentially ready to be put into a legal document for signing-off at the end of February 2020. Crucially, the delegation confirmed at the Press Briefing that the Ethiopian Government was ready to cede 37 bcm of water, on average, annually out of the average annual total water flow of 49-50 bcm of the Blue Nile, conferring a minimum 75% share of the Blue Nile water to Egypt and Sudan (refer to Aigaform article on 17 January 2020: This is against Egypt’s request of 40 bcm water share (i.e.80% share!), which is not different from its “historical claim” since colonial times. There lies the true magnitude and significance of Egyptian victory at the expense of Ethiopia according to the Tentative Agreement that was scheduled to be signed-off at the end of February 2020. This is not a Win-Win settlement by any measure of equity when viewed by current and future generations of Ethiopians.

4. How a Month of Political Developments and Protests Made a Difference

4.1 The sudden and panicky decision to seek a postponement of the negotiation at the 11th hour is the result of a number of developments including the threats of resignations and exposure by some members of the Ethiopian Technical Team as alluded above. Perhaps more importantly it was also due to the mounting criticisms of the Tentative Agreement and the overall direction and framework of the negotiation, in particular the perceived bias of the US and the World Bank that fundamentally weakened Ethiopia’s positions in favour of Egypt’s.

4.2 The Tentative Agreementhas been criticised by legal and professional experts in Ethiopia and in the Diaspora for allowing Egypt to secure its “historic claims” of water share through the backdoor of the technical issues pertaining to the filling and operation of the GERD. In essence and in the first degree Egypt’s interest and rush for an agreement was intended to secure its lion’s share of the shared water of the Blue Nile at the expense of Ethiopia. It also became very apparent that - contrary to the deliberately false statements by the Ethiopian Government on the US and the World Bank roles in the negotiations (for which many governments would resign for public disinformation on a supreme matter of national interest!) - the USA and the World Bank were not mere Observers butalso active and self-serving Mediators,Negotiators and Hegemonic Enforcers.

4.3 On the home front the Tentative Agreement has come under increased scrutiny and has been severely criticised by some of the leaders of the Opposition Parties, in particular by Dr Debrezion[i], Ato Lidetu, Ato Yilikal and Ato Derege, amongst others. Some have even threatened to galvanise massive popular demonstrations against the perceived “sell-out” Agreement that fundamentally undermines Ethiopia’s interests over Abay with adverse implications over national sovereignty, invoking similarities with the “Wuchalle Treaty” that undermined Ethiopia’s sovereigntyby past colonial powers.

4.4 The upshot of the above is that the Government has been pressurised to postpone the negotiationas the result of the mounting domestic criticisms of what is now clearly seen as a sell-out Tentative Agreement and given the likelihood of it inciting massive national protests during the year of General Election. The point, however,is that a postponement on its own as opposed to a strategic withdrawal from the internationalisation of the GERD Project is not a viable strategic response but rather is a short-term political expediency by the PM.What is required is to address the kernel issue of the misdirected and misaligned strategic framework of the negotiation, in particular the role of third-parties.Similarly, there is a need to separate the long-term issue of the water right over the Blue Nile and the short term, project-specific issue of the technicalities of the filling and operation of the GERD in a manner that does not undermine Ethiopia’s ownership of the Project and its long-term interest whilst at the same time addressing Egypt’s and Sudan’s legitimate concerns through the IPOE mechanism, good will principle and negotiations confined to the concerned parties only.

5. From Observation, Mediation and Negotiation to Bribery and Threat!

5.1 It is surreal how quickly allegedly neutral observers have suddenly changed to become mediators, negotiators and now hegemonic enforcers. The US and World Bank threats that Ethiopia ought  to return to the rigged Negotiation ASAP and not to begin the filling of the GERD prior to signing the Tentative Agreement is tantamount to an infringement on Ethiopia’s sovereignty  and its ownership of the GERD. As argued above, there is no legal requirement on Ethiopia to return to the negotiation table involving third parties. Moreover, as the owner of the GERD Project that is situated on its sovereign territory, it is entitled to begin the filling of the Dam. The onus on Ethiopia is to address Egypt’s legitimate concerns through the IPOE mechanism and negotiations based on good will principle involving the concerned parties without third parties. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MOFA) response, though purporting to be diplomatic, has the whole mark of a comprador Government response for its lack of robust and resolute defence of the national interest and sovereignty of the Country. The Ethiopian Foreign Minister, Gedu Andargachew, at a Press Conference held in Addis Ababa on 3 March 2020,  characterised the US communique as “undiplomatic”,  but confirmed that Ethiopia would return to the negotiation table, indicating that the postponement is not a strategic withdrawal from the existing rigged negotiation framework. Worryingly, Foreign Minister Gedu appeared to be baffled,belatedly asking clarification on (at this late stage!) US mediation role in the negotiation.  On the other hand the US President has assured the Egyptian President that the US would continue to work tirelessly to mediate the negotiation and resolve the dispute. Confirming US pressure on Ethiopia, the former US Ambassador in Ethiopia, David Shinn, stated that the US is lining upwith Egypt at the expense of Ethiopia. The upshot of all of this is that the Ethiopian public needs to be aware of the pressure and arm-twisting by the US and the World Bank on the Government by being vigilant and ensuring the Government does not succumb to such pressure.

5.2It is crucially important to remember that Ethiopia under the EPRDF Government led by the late PM Meles Zenawi (and to some extent by former PM Haile-Marian Desalegn) maintained its national policy independence to a large extent by resisting undue pressure whilst pursing the GERD Project. In fact, it even managed to secure, without unduly compromising the Country’s independence, billions ofDollars of Official Development Assistance (ODA) from Western powers and institutions as well registering record foreign direct investment (FDI) for economic development other than for the direct use on the GERD project. In the present multi-polar world you do not need to be a comprador regime to secure ODA or FDI provided you have a non-aligned foreign policy that is based on developmental priorities and national political consensus. If anything you get respect and recognition globally for being principled and resolute in protecting your national interests, unlike for a dependent and weak government that is manipulated and pushed around.

5.3 The Egyptian Government has taken cue from the US and has begun to intimidate Ethiopia by threatening to use all means possibleto bring Ethiopia back to the rigged negotiations and to stop the filling of the GERD. This is in line with an age-old Egypt’sstrategy of securing its “historic claim” over the water of the Blue Nile through threats, amongst others.  As the late PM Meles Zenawi told Parliament in the past,the response must be not to be intimidated whilst taking all precautions against potential Egyptian miscalculations. It is important to emphasise the one and only solution to the equitable and reasonable utilisation of the waters of the Blue Nile and the associated mitigation issues is the peaceful, Win-Win approach and solution. Similarly, the specific issues of the filling and operation of the GERD need to be addressed in accordance with the letter and spirit of the DOP, not by internationalising the issue orthreats, which is a Lose-Lose, Zero-Sum political game for all parties.

6. The Way Forward and What is to be Done

6.1The postponement of the negotiation at the 11thhour is a victory for the resistance shown by some members of the Ethiopian Negotiating Team; growing national resentment and protests; criticisms by national experts and professionals inside the Country and in the Diaspora; and social media activists who fought against the sell-out Tentative Agreement that was about to cedeover 75% rights over the water of the Blue Nile to lower riparian countries, which is tantamount to a national betrayal and treachery. What is crucially important is to recognise that it is only a postponement, not a strategic response by the Government. In fact, it is a short-term political expediency by the Government to avert the mounting criticisms and with an eye to the upcoming General Election.  The upshot is that national protests and scrutiny by experts and professionals do matter, and ought to continue and should be sustained. Moreover, the Opposition Parties need to be explicit and take clear political positions on the matter. This is more so during the year of General Election. The domestic media, in particular the establishment media,  need to cease to be cheer leaders for the Government, and instead must raise the issue to the top of the national political agenda.

6.2 Caught pants-down and red-handed as well as forced to seek a postponement of the negotiation, the Government will inevitably make good of its bad job by appearing to defend Ethiopia’s national interest over Abay. This is to be expected of a politician who initially rose to prominence on a populist platform of “Ethiopiawinet”. We now know the Emperor has no cloth and the public will not be hoodwinked this time since we all know perfectly well that the PM was predisposed to sign-off the sell-out Tentative Agreement until the 11th hour had it not been for the threats of resignations and exposure by some members of the Ethiopian Negotiating Team and the building up of national resentment and protests that present detrimental political implication for the beleaguered PM on the eve a General Election.

6.3The Government has already got away by undermining the GERD project by downsizing its energy generating capacity by 20%, diminishing national and independent industrial capacity(e.g. METK with all its deficiencies and shortcomings); increasing national dependency on foreign firms; and side-lining leading project personnel (e.g. the late Engineer Simegnew) as well as by deflating the moral and focus of the Country with regard to the Dam. It is time that further damage is prevented through national political re-awaking and mobilisation in order to secure and to make the GERD happen.

6.4 Notwithstanding the postponement, and as it is, the negotiation is strategically misdirected and misaligned by being internationalised to Ethiopia’s disadvantage. Ethiopia has to de-internationalise it by walking away from the negotiation framework that is essentially asymmetric and against its national interests. The whole point of a negotiation is that any party can walk away from it when it is apparent that it is rigged against its interest. As alluded above, there is no legal requirement of the DOP or Ethiopia has not made a binding commitment to involve third parties. Involving other parties (e.g. South Africa, or the AU or others for that matter) in lieu of or otherwise of the US and the World Bank misses the whole point. It is to Ethiopia’s disadvantage to internationalise the GERD Project (apart on issues of the long-term equitable and reasonable utilisation of the water of the Nile, and mitigation mattersthat should involve the whole of the Nile Basin countries. An example is the Nile Basin Initiative).

6.5It is also vitally important to separate and uncouple the short-term, project-specific issue of the technicalities of the filling and operations of the GERD Project from the long-term issue of the share of the water of the Blue Nile. Egypt’s stratagem is to secure its “historic claim” of the share of the Blue Nile (and also of the White Nile by creating a precedent!) through the backdoor of technicalities as per the Tentative Agreement that was about to be signed-off at the end of February 2020.

6.6Ethiopians must be aware of the pressure being applied by the US and the World Bank on the Government as well the unveiled threat by the Egyptian Government. Moreover, such threats must be countered through concerted and unified fronts and by advocating peaceful and Win-Win solutions. Putting aside the history of controversies (that includes the good, the bad and the ugly) amongst the Ethiopian Diaspora pertaining to the origin, development and Bond Funding of the GERD Project, they must come together to safeguard Ethiopia’s interests and sovereignty by supporting the postponement but most of all by pressing the Government to withdraw from the rigged negotiation and to adopt an overarching strategy that safeguards the Country’s interests.

6.7In the final analysis, the issue of the GERD and the much larger matter of the share of the Blue Nile water are too important to be left to a handful of challenged politicians and to too severely compromised Government of Abiy Ahmed. Parliament, experts and citizens need to be consulted (not like the token and sham meeting the PM had with a handful of experts at the 11th hour of the negotiation!)  on what constitutes an equitable and reasonable use of the shared water of the Blue Nile  with a view to reaching an agreement and consensus  on Ethiopia’s long-term and lasting interest on the Blue Nile.  This is a most important national interest and sovereignty decision the country has to make given the profoundly historical and inter-generational implications. Many would argue that failure to undertake informed, transparent and inclusive public dialogue with a view to reaching a national consensus on the issue is tantamount to a historical betrayal and national treachery. Moreover, the question of Ethiopia’s lasting interest on the use of the water of the Blue Nile is too important a question to be decided in the current political climate and under an illegitimate and incompetent Government; instead it requires a Government with a clear democratic mandate and authority, and a much more unified national approach and consensus. This is as in the spirit of the 124th anniversary of Ethiopia’s Victory at Adwa against colonialism and imperialism.



[i]ከዓድዋ ድል የምንወስደው ትምህርት ዘመናዊ መሳርያ መታጠቅ አለመታጠቅ፣የወታሃደር መብዛት ማነስ፣መሰልጠን አለመሰልጠን የየራሳቸው አውንታዊና አሉታዊ ጫና ቢኖራቸውም ህዝባዊ አንድነትና ፅናት ምን ግዜም የድል በለቤት መሆኑን እሙን ነው፡፡

አሁን በአገራችን እየተከሰተ ያለው የውጭ ሃይሎች ጣልቃ ገብነት በበሄራዊ ማንነታችን፣በበሄራዊ ክብራችንእናለአላዊነታችን የደቀነው አደጋ ለማስተካከለም የአድዋ ጦርነት መንስኤ የሆነው ከውጫሌ ውል በአስተማሪነቱ ተወስዶ ልንጠቀምበት ይገባል፡፡

በቅርቡ በኢትጵያ ፖለቲካና በህዳሴ ግድብ ዙርያ በተላላቅ ሃገሮች ብቻ ሳይሆን  በአላፊ አግዳሚው ጭምር እየታዩ ያሉ ጣልቃ ገብነቶች ከነመነሻ ምከንያታቸው ታውቀው ተገቢ ጥንቃቄ በማድረግ የቀረበው የውል ሰነድ ቆም ብለን ከውጫሌ ውል በመማር በውሉ የሰፈሩ ሃሳቦችና ቃላቶች በለአላዊነታችን ላይ የመጡ ከዛም አልፈው ለሌላ ጂኦፖለቲካ ዒላማ ማስፈፀም ገፀበረከትና እጅ መንሻ ሁነው እንዳያገለግል ከፍተኛ ጥረት እና የማያዳገም ውሳኔ ሊወሰን ይገባል፡፡

ዶክተርደብረፅዮን ገ/ሚካኤል በ124ዓኛ የዓድዋ በዓል ካስተላለፉት መልእክት የተወሰደ


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