Two decades ago, we created a foundation focused on global health because we wanted to use the resources from Microsoft to improve as many lives as possible. Health is the bedrock of any thriving society. That fact has never been clearer than it has been over the last year, as the pandemic has upended lives in Africa and around the world.
My dear, how are you holding up in these trying times? I hope you are faring well as much as one can given the circumstances. And I pray we will not be burdened with more than we can bear and that this time will soon come to pass for the both of us.
Dearest, I hear of your frustration about the progress—or lack thereof—on the negotiations over my dam. That is a frustration I also share. I look forward to the day we settle things and look to the future together.
Beloved, though your approach has recently metamorphosed in addressing your right to our water—officially stating you never held on to any past agreements—the foundation, that you do not want to settle for anything less than 66 percent of what is shared by 10 of your fellow African states, remains unchanged. I must be honest: I cannot fathom how you still hold on to this.
Both you and I know the underlying factor of the 1959 agreement birthed in 1929. It was for neither of our needs except that of your past coloniser: cotton and the Suez Canal. Now, what troubles me is how you can hold on to something whose origins—colonisation—you so despised. When your cherished Abdel Halim Hafez roared:
“قلنا هنبنى وادى احنا بنينا السد العالى
يا استعمار بنيناه بايدينا السد الع “,
“we said we will build, and we built the high dam…
O coloniser, we built it with our own hands”
Were not those words the very sentiment of everyone in the 60s and 70s? The celebration of your emancipation that started in 1922 and culminated in the (re-)rise of your self-sufficiency via your High Aswan Dam? I applauded your achievements then like I still do for you continuously shape your path. My dear, now, what I do not get is how you can cherry-pick among the worst of what is left for us from the time we were scrambled over.
I cannot, once again, fathom what keeps you holding on to this entitlement that you were bountied with when the rest of your then eight co-riparians were in no position to speak up and challenge for what was—and still is—rightfully ours as well. Perhaps it is fear, beloved.
I know you fear the waters will decrease during my filling period and it will affect you. And know I am in no denial of that and your fear is understandable. Nonetheless, this time around, I believe you should share carrying the burden that I have done for thousands of years. And I know you can. The privilege nature bestowed upon you—via gravity—has made you the sole proprietor of the Nile for long and made you better-off than any of your riparian neighbors; enough to see you through the potential effects of my dam’s filling.
But please, do not take my stand as if I bear any ill-will towards you, it is in fact on the contrary. Remember when your son Sadat visited Jerusalem in 1977 in a bleak protest to your Arab compatriots?
That was you saying “I will once more define my destiny” even with the risk of defying the status quo, that, now and then, you have to separate yourself from the herd. I am, in a way and in my way, following in your footsteps in that aspect. Even if I initially stood alone on the quest to put our water to use, which makes up the majority of what I have not only in volume but also in the amount of my land it takes to be brought to life, I said, perhaps, this is a journey I have to start alone. I have started it and I will see it through.
But like you should take some credit for—the once-unimaginable—your Arab compatriots’ relations with the Israelis (albeit in the disguise of no formal diplomatic relation), so do I give myself a bit of credit in motivating not only our other riparian neighbors but also you in acknowledging the necessity and fairness of using our water together. You took a bold leap of faith out of your accustomed privilege in signing the Declaration of Principles in which you acknowledged the significance of our water as a source of livelihood and development not only for you but for me as well. I hope someday you will make even a greater leap when it comes to the Cooperative Framework Agreement.
My dear, revisiting the issue of your Arab compatriot-ship and heritage, I sense—with an inkling of sadness—you have an issue of identifying as an African than an Arab. And I hold no grudge, perhaps you have more heritage shared with them. As Foud Ajami, wrote in 1979 “early advocates of pan-Arabism moved between Damascus and Baghdad, but the League of Arab States was headquartered in Cairo when it was founded in 1945”.
Despite your ups and downs and sometimes falling out with your family, I get and respect the role you played and still play in the Arab world. To be honest though, in addition to the obvious shared cultural and historical heritage, nothing proved your bond more strongly than the spirit of young Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi that set-off the Arab Spring and culminated, in your part, in your legendary Tahrir Square.
One can assert—albeit with a small risk of hasty generalization—that there was a strong political and economic repression you all shared. Now, I do not mean to poke into your wound—God knows I have my ample share of assignments at the home front—but my dear, I wonder how you make the case of our water a centerpiece when the key to your progress lies within the control of your very border and reach. Why is it not your priority to formalize your informal economy that makes up a hefty chunk of your GDP that in turn can be channeled for your needs as you see fit? Why is your army the main gateway for economic opportunities at the cost of your public body?
Why is it that you mobilize your citizens on an issue that you have securitized—which should never have been securitized to begin with—when many of your tangible and imagined woes can be confronted at the home base? Again, this is not to antagonize but merely to point out that our negotiations currently being coloured with a lack of empathy will add to, not deduct from, our vast backlog of loads we each face in our homes. And what then when I continue to make use of my share of our water not only through my dam but a variety of other plans that I have?
Anyhow, my dear, I hear that you are already on the move to use our water better than you did in the past: cultivating less water-intensive crops and even collaborating with your mosques to implement efficient use of water, and I hail you for that. After all, compared to your other bounties, and despite your continuous assertion that our water is a matter of survival for you but not me, we both know the contribution of your agriculture that takes up most of our water hardly contributes to your overall well-being. And, I know if you are honest with yourself, you will see the injustice of expecting me to not use what makes up a significant amount of all I have on that premise. I should also not pass without mentioning that others are faring well on much less water than ours.
Dearest, perhaps I have tired you with my drudgery by now, so let me say a bit about things I uphold highly of you. As you might expect, I hail you for one of the greatest civilizations of the world you gave birth to, the marvels of which this letter will not do justice, but know that I grew up learning your history and that I felt pride knowing that it was somehow mine as your fellow African.
My dear, do you remember that you helped me set up my first bank in 1905 in a noble quest of helping an African in need? And do you also recall that my first flight by my Ethiopian was to your beautiful Cairo in 1946? Maybe I do not say this enough but know I am also ever grateful for your long service in providing me with Patriarchs for my Church, helping me in cementing a strong base in my Christian faith. You also were gracious enough to have many of my Muslim scholars study at your great Al-Azhar in your lovely City of a Thousand Minarets. I have a lot I am grateful for you, I hope you can find a few things you are grateful for me as well.
Beloved, both of us know that a desirable future for Africa can only be secured if we move together than apart. I know you know that the Nile’s fruit is more when shared among all of us than by any of us alone. But I also sense perhaps you fear that I, along with the rest of your riparians, might pull you back if you open up to the possible ties over our water. Maybe that is not a baseless fear, as we have some catching up to do with you and as you are the most well to do among all of us.
Maybe, the idea of taking a leading role— which I hope you will—in transferring the basin into a prosperous one is a complicated and daunting task. But what I can say is have a bit more faith, I will need your help in transforming not only myself but our co-riparians, but I am not helpless. You have witnessed the commendable role I am taking in regional security, among many other things, and a very current evident role in excellence my national carrier is playing at this tiring time for Africa and beyond. And we know the immense potential that lies in our African free trade area that we both have ratified and hope to reap from together.
So, my dear, I am hopeful; I am hopeful we will be ok; that we will change that seemingly unending negative narrative of our continent; that we stand for reason; and that we are sufficient and capable to solve any of our problems by ourselves. I hope you share my hope and in that hope, I pray you channel the wisdom of the very expansive concept of “Maat” your gods devised thousands of years ago embodying the essence of “truth, balance, order, and justice”, and so befitting of this time that has shown us that you and I are after all tailored with the same infectious human fabric. My well-being is yours and yours mine.
This article was first published in Ethiopia Insight