Is a war between Egypt and Ethiopia brewing on the Nile?

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: GERD: The dam of discord

By Olivier Caslin, Hossam Rabie
Posted on Thursday, 6 May 2021 20:37

Ethiopian forces in Addis Ababa during a military exercise in September 2020 AP

At the start of April, Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi spoke up for the first time using very direct words against any action that would take away any drop if its water resources. In this second part of our series, we examine how likely military action is between the two.

This is part 2 of a 5-part series

In response to Addis Ababa’s announcement of plans to begin the second phase of filling the reservoir behind the dam under construction on the Blue Nile, Cairo — backed by a growing chorus of countries, including Sudan — said it will not allow a soul to hijack its water resources and is willing to use force to defend them.

Is a war brewing on the Nile? An impasse has set in less than two months before the deadline of what amounts to an ultimatum — issued by Egypt and Sudan — calling on Ethiopia to reverse its plans to move forward with the second phase of filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

The gulf continues to widen between Egypt and Ethiopia in a dispute that dates back to April 2011, when Addis Ababa took the unilateral decision to divert waters from the Blue Nile to fill what is set to become, by the end of 2022, the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa.

Cairo is invoking its historical rights over the waterway, while Addis Ababa views the dam as a matter of national sovereignty. Both positions have become irreconcilable, with the two countries’ assorted leaders doubling down on their stances over the course of the decade-long feud.

Threats of military action

Ethiopia’s response to Egypt’s veto power over Nile projects — a vestige of British colonial rule — that the country continues to believe it enjoys, has been to impose a fait accompli.

As far as their respective populations are concerned, they manipulate symbols to stir up nationalist pride and prey on fears. For instance, Addis Ababa has talked up how the dam will benefit Ethiopia’s economic development by meeting its power needs, among other things.

All Ethiopia would have to do is offer Egypt and Sudan some additional assurances, while the latter parties would need to agree to waive the rights they’ve held since 1959 through treaties that Addis Ababa never even ratified,” said William Davison, senior analyst for Ethiopia at the NGO International Crisis Group.

Cairo, for its part, has stressed the risk the dam may pose — down the line — to Egypt’s food security, as it could reduce the river’s flow by 25%, with serious repercussions for farmers.

“It’s gotten to the point that each side seems to be stuck in their own discourse,” an African ambassador to the UN told The Africa Report. The same can be said for the nine other countries covered by the drainage basin of a river whose source originates, in part, in the Great Lakes region of central Africa, over 6,600km south of Alexandria.

With each day that passes, the GERD is becoming an increasingly visible reality, as satellite images show, but the various parties involved have yet to reach a water-sharing agreement for the Nile.

What’s worse, threats of military action are now being voiced alongside ongoing diplomatic posturing, jeopardising negotiations “that never really got underway in the first place,” Horn of Africa expert René Lefort says.

The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam at Guba on the Blue Nile 24 November 2017. © Gioia Forster/dpa/MAX PPP

During the most recent round of failed talks, held in Kinshasa on 6 April, Ethiopia and Egypt kept with their tradition of making knee-jerk statements.

“Rather than try to get on the same page, they went with their regular ‘one step forward, two steps back’ approach that has set the tone for their discussions for a decade now,” a UN source told The Africa Report.

United in their anger

Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi, a newcomer to the dispute in his role as chairman of the African Union (AU), had tried to strike a reassuring tone, going as far as promising ‘a fresh start’, after the first round of talks held in the hushed lounges of the aptly named Fleuve Congo Hotel (Congo River hotel).

After taking on an extra day of talks — an achievement hard won by Congolese mediators — people were, in Tshisekedi’s words, under the impression that ‘a new breakthrough had been made’.

Before the ‘last-ditch’ negotiations — how Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri referred to them — could end on yet another resounding note of failure, Ethiopia’s water minister, Seleshi Bekele, made an announcement the evening of 7 April: his country planned to proceed with the second phase of filling the dam during the upcoming rainy season.

Bekele’s statement had the net effect of riling up Egypt and Sudan, making them more united than ever in their anger. “Ethiopian officials are using these negotiations to impose a reality on everyone that violates the basic tenets of international law and, on top of that, good neighbourly relations,” said Sudan’s Foreign Minister Mariam al-Mahdi. She said her country “is at immediate risk … while Ethiopian troops are massing” along the border in an area known as the al-Fashaga triangle.

The Tigray war that broke out in November 2020 imperilled the fragile compromise that Ethiopia and Sudan had reached in 2008 after a decades-long dispute over this 600sq. km area of fertile farmland.

Since March 2021, “Sudan’s army has been fighting Ethiopian militias backed by Addis Ababa,” Mahdi said. “The UN should withdraw its confidence in Ethiopia, which from this point forward has the means to put the people of the region and the entire continent in immediate danger,” she said.

A single drop of water

Egypt voiced a similar frustration and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, taking a cue from Sudan, hardened his tone, warning his “Ethiopian brothers” that there could be “inconceivable instability in the region” if the dam “take[s] a single drop of water from Egypt”.

Sisi’s stance on the dam received the unexpected support of opposition parties, including that of the Muslim Brotherhood, though many of the group’s leaders are currently imprisoned or living in exile.

With the dam elevated to the status of a major domestic political issue — one that could even determine the course of Sisi’s future — Cairo was quick to take action, announcing on 8 April that it had signed a military intelligence-sharing agreement with Uganda. Two days later, Egypt inked another agreement, this time with Burundi.

Egyptian Chief of Staff Mohammed Farid and his Sudanese counterpart Mohamed Othman al-Hussein in Khartoum, Sudan, March 2, 2021. ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP

“The fact that Uganda and Egypt share the Nile, cooperation between the two countries is inevitable because what affects Ugandans will in one way or [an]other affect Egypt,” said Maj Gen Sameh Saber El-Degwi, the country’s No. 2 intelligence official, in defence of the agreement, which had been “under negotiation since December 2020,” Uganda’s Ministry of Defence spokesperson said.

LISTEN GERD: 1959 Egypt/Sudan treaty -‘The worst agreement Khartoum could have signed’

The development came as an unpleasant surprise to Addis Ababa, which, since the outset of the water crisis, thought it had the general backing of upstream countries. A Ugandan official sought to offer reassurance, however, saying that “our Ethiopian friends have no cause for concern”.

In reality, Ethiopia has never appeared more isolated, at the same time that the Egyptians are closing ranks around their allies, as demonstrated by the country’s joint military exercises with Sudan’s air force on 3 April.

“Ethiopia has grown even more intransigent since the start of the Tigray conflict, which has substantially weakened its position in the international community. Abiy Ahmed [Ethiopia’s Prime Minister] has no more room for weakness, meaning he can’t back down now on an issue that has become a cause of national unity for the country and its people, who have contributed significantly to the dam’s funding,” said a Western diplomat stationed in Addis Ababa.

Diplomatic arsenal

Prime Minister Abiy could find himself in a particularly isolated position when Egypt deploys its entire diplomatic arsenal to make its case against the dam.

“Cairo recently tried again to get the UN Security Council involved,” a New York City-based African ambassador to the UN told us. The attempt was unsuccessful, however, as the Security Council formally recognised the AU’s authority over the matter back in June 2020.

The pan-African organisation headquartered in Addis Ababa is currently the sole outside intermediary deemed acceptable in the eyes of Ethiopians, in keeping with the principle ‘an African problem calls for an African solution,’ which the AU chair also echoes.

Moreover, the AU prides itself as being the only mediator to have achieved meaningful results in recent years, thanks in no small part to the almost personal commitment of South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, who served as the organisation’s chair throughout 2020 and firmly believed that a comprehensive agreement was on the horizon in June of that year. But within a few weeks, Ethiopia began the first phase of filling the GERD.

“Nobody questions the AU’s role as mediator anymore, as it has shown over these past months that resolving this major African crisis is its top priority,”a source from the UN told The Africa Report. What’s more, Egypt and Sudan are closing in on victory given Ethiopia’s consistent reluctance to bringing in other parties to negotiations.

More neutral

The collapse of the United States-sponsored mediation process is still fresh in the minds of Ethiopians. After Sisi, Donald Trump’s ‘favourite dictator’, called on the US to get involved, the American government organised a new round of talks between two of its key African allies.

Between November 2019 and February 2020, five meetings were held alternately in Cairo, Addis Ababa and Khartoum. A sixth and final meeting was set to take place in Washington to assess the progress made; except that the Ethiopians refused to show up, on the pretext that the US had openly aligned itself with Egypt’s positions.

Eight months on, the US State Department announced suspension of more than $260m in aid to Ethiopia. Ever since, the decision has only fuelled Addis Ababa’s distrust of outside mediators, beginning with the US, although the country has become more neutral since President Joe Biden arrived in the White House this past January.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed meets with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on 10 June 2018, to try to smooth out their dispute over the dam. © AFP

Addis Ababa cited the aid cut as the official reason behind the failure of the recent Kinshasa talks. While some progress appears to have been made on outstanding issues such as the timeline for filling the dam and the shared management of water resources outside of drought periods, Ethiopia rejected Egypt and Sudan’s request to incorporate negotiators from the European Union, the US and the UN to assist the AU-led mediation process. The move prevented a joint communiqué from being signed and drew the ire of the two downstream countries.

And since no date has yet to be put forward for a possible resumption of talks, “all options are on the table,” says Sudan’s Irrigation Minister Yasser Abbas, who does not shy away from reusing, on behalf of his country, the kind of provocative statements employed by Egypt’s former president, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013.

Is Africa on the threshold of witnessing a conflict the scale of — at least in terms of the number of countries involved — the war that ravaged eastern Democratic Republic of Congo from 1998 to 2002 which goes down in history as Africa’s first world war?

“The GERD already exists and now that filling has begun, it’s too late for Egypt and Sudan to try to destroy it. They would be the first to suffer the consequences,” said Christophe Brachet, deputy general manager of the International Office for Water (IOWater), starting with the failure of their own dams. This includes the Roseires Dam, located less than 100km from its larger Ethiopian counterpart.

Pointless escalation

Military experts are, for their part, highly sceptical about Egypt’s capacity to blow up such a massive structure.

“Despite Cairo’s vastly superior air capabilities, they don’t have the arsenal needed for such an endeavour. The Egyptians can of course bomb the site to delay the dam’s commissioning, but the only option they have is to send in troops on the ground to blow it up from the inside,” a retired French military general told The Africa Report.

Accordingly, there is no reason to continue down the path of escalation. As Lefort says: “There has never been a better time for compromise”, especially since there is no shortage of success stories, even in Africa, along rivers in Senegal and Niger, whose basins have been collectively managed for decades by all the countries in question.

For collective management to become the norm on the Nile, “All Ethiopia would have to do is offer Egypt and Sudan some additional assurances, while the latter parties would need to agree to waive the rights they’ve held since 1959 through treaties that Addis Ababa never even ratified,” said William Davison, senior analyst for Ethiopia at the NGO International Crisis Group.

But before that could happen, “a minimum degree of trust needs to be restored between all parties, even if it’s just partial trust,” said Fana Gebresenbet, an Ethiopian scholar who teaches at the ‎Institute for Peace and Security Studies.

Perfect mediator

Sudan may hold the key to the problem. Caught between its two big neighbours, Khartoum is currently aligned with Cairo, after siding with Ethiopia in the past. Promises about the dam’s myriad benefits — access to electricity, expansion of irrigable land and reduced flooding in the region around the capital — have been drowned out by security concerns as the situation at the border with Ethiopia has grown more tense.

“Perhaps some concessions can be achieved by trying to resolve the various crises surrounding the GERD, the Tigray conflict and the al-Fashaga triangle,” Lefort told The Africa Report. That would reassure Sudan and, as a UN diplomat put it, enable it to “serve as the perfect mediator”.

Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok is already showing signs of being up to the task; in April he invited his Egyptian and Ethiopian counterparts to resume a dialogue that never broke off permanently. Although the invitation was declined by Addis Ababa, Khartoum is starting to take a stronger stance in the 10-year old dispute.

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