Ethiopia, Egypt and Blue Nile: A strategy 20 years in the making.

Articles and Analysis

Ethiopia, Egypt and Blue Nile: A strategy 20 years in the making.

Mekonnen Kassa September 17, 2011 - Negotiations have been on-going for over ten years to right a historical injustice around the equitable use of the Nile waters among the upper riparian nations, Egypt, and the Sudan. The Ethiopian government has been negotiating in good faith within the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) and has played a leading role to realize the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework.

A 1929 agreement signed by Britain and its colonies gave Egypt the right to use all the Nile waters and veto any project that could be undertaken by any of the upper riparian countries.

Though Ethiopia was never a colony of Britain and not a signatory of the agreement, it nevertheless was directly and indirectly thwarted from utilizing the waters of Blue Nile for over five decades through the intriguing political maneuvers of Egypt. Every Ethiopian, more so political activists, have seen the finger prints of Egypt in all conflicts that have kept Ethiopia immersed in war and in perpetual poverty.

The new leadership of the Ethiopian government was keenly aware of the importance of the Nile and the role of Egypt and had the Nile waters in its design even before it became a government. It was almost 20 years ago that Professor David Mercer of the Open University travelled to Ethiopia as a representative of the Britain’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) to teach MBA to the former rebel turned Ethiopian government leaders. By his own admission, Mr. Mercer had also played an additional role as liaison (accidental spy?) between the senior members of the Ethiopian government and the Western embassies.

Mr. Mercer tells us, one day he was given a mission by the then British Ambassador to Ethiopia, to find out and report on “what was in the minds of the leaders of the new country Ethiopia.” Mr. Mercer went to his “intellectually dominant” student, Meles Zenawi, and asked him “How did the Ethiopian government see its role in leading Africa.” Mr. Mercer writes that the answer he got from Meles Zenawi was surprising and perplexing. Mr. Mercer writes:

“The previous Ethiopian governments had seen their role as leading the whole of Africa. Indeed the Organization for African Unity (OAU) was based in Addis at this time, having one of the biggest complexes of buildings there. To my, and the ambassador’s surprise, Meles reply to this was that he wanted to make Ethiopia a big player in the Middle East; ranking alongside Egypt. This was a complete reversal of strategy -- though I am not convinced that it was ever put into play.”

Assessing recent political developments in the region shows that Ethiopia is now a major player and, at the same time, Egypt’s influence had been reduced to a considerable extent.

I am convinced putting this strategy in play has also been a precursor to resolving the issue of Nile water management and to reach a fair and equitable water usage agreement. A few months ago an NBI agreement was signed by almost all upper riparian countries including Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. And now Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf is quoted as saying Ethiopia's planned Nile project "could be source of benefit."

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