Somalia: How GERD is steering Mogadishu into the crossfires of Egypt & Ethiopia

By Mohamed Sheikh Nor
Posted on Tuesday, 22 June 2021 17:08

Ethiopians protest against international pressure on the government over the conflict in Tigray, below a banner referring to GERD, at a demonstration organised by the city mayor's office held at a stadium in the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Sunday, May 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

After meeting in the Qatari capital with foreign ministers from the 22 Arab League member states, a statement was issued on Tuesday 15 July in support of Egypt and Sudan regarding the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). This puts Somalia in a difficult position: it is member of the League, but it has also created a new military alliance with Ethiopia. Can Mogadishu wriggle its way out of this ‘water war’?

Somalia’s regional diplomacy is on overdrive, but is it creating more issues than it is solving? A new alliance with Ethiopia and Eritrea – under the ‘Horn of Africa Cooperation’ agreement – has, for example, frustrated the regional bloc IGAD, which has its own ambitions for regional institutional leadership.

Meanwhile, Somalia’s renewed alliance with Turkey may also be upsetting Egypt’s desire for hegemony in the horn of Africa. In the past, Somalia-Egypt bilateral relations have been lukewarm at best.

Somalia may have wanted to keep a neutral stance in the ongoing row over Ethiopia’s giant hydropower project known as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). However, the situation has become more complex following the statement from the Arab League that “Ethiopia must respect the Nile rights of Egypt and Sudan.”

Somalia can no longer sit quietly on the fence. The country is being forced to take a stand: either to support its neighbour to the west, or follow through on its Arab League obligations and prevail on Ethiopia to make concessions on GERD negotiations.

Somalia has always been part and parcel of the Arab League and should support any initiative in solidarity with any Arab nation. On the other hand, Somalia has good relations with both Egypt and Ethiopia, but this doesn’t mean that Somalia cannot maintain good relations with either of the two conflicting countries.

“Somalia can get away with this kind of contradictory position as long as it is the [Arab League] that is making decisions,” Ahmed Abdisalam, Somalia’s former ambassador to Ethiopia tells The Africa Report. “The challenge is when the members have to vote for a decision to be taken by the League. This is not unique to Somalia. Djibouti, for example, recently hosted Sisi and the two countries signed agreements. Djibouti remains close to Ethiopia and it cannot side with a rival country on such important issues.”

Arab League supports Egypt

Egypt relies on the River Nile for nearly 90% of its fresh water and views the dam as an existential threat. After a change of trajectory, Sudan now also feels that its Nile dams and water stations will become obsolete if Ethiopia fills the GERD.

The Arab League meeting – that was held in Doha – focused on diplomatic efforts to resolve the GERD conflict among three main states: Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. The League called on the UN Security Council to intervene, given the lack of progress from the African Union’s mediation.

Ethiopia remains adamant in its refusal to adhere to any binding agreements, and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed insists that come July, the second filling of the dam will take place, irrespective of any external pressure. Ethiopia slammed the Arab League resolution that clearly supports both Egypt and Sudan: “The Nile is a shared resource and not an exclusive property of Sudan and Egypt.”

Although the Blue Nile originates from Ethiopia’s Lake Tana, it is often said that without the River Nile, there would be no Egypt, and the country has controlled the waters for thousands of years. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi recently said his country’s share of the Nile waters must remain untouched.

The Arab League echoes these sentiments and that resolution has left Somalia caught between a rock and a hard place, as it tries to strike the right balance between being a friendly neighbour and maintaining its obligation to the ideological organisation.

Somalia must stand with the Arab League

“Somalia has always been part and parcel of the Arab League and should support any initiative in solidarity with any Arab nation. On the other hand, Somalia has good relations with both Egypt and Ethiopia, but this doesn’t mean that Somalia cannot maintain good relations with either of the two conflicting countries,” says Abdiwahib Abdisamad, a researcher and analyst on African Affairs.

READ MORE GERD: The Dam of discord

Ahmed Awad, a former foreign affairs minister, sheds light on the country’s position on the conflict. “During my tenure, we always made attempts to mediate and even proposed a goodwill initiative that received support from Qatar. Nonetheless, things were complicated as diplomatic relations within the Gulf States were at an all-time low and the Arab League was in disarray,” he says.

The recent declaration by the Arab League further aggravates the situation. “Matters in the Gulf Region are now rectified, the atmosphere is different and I don’t want to guess which way our country voted on the matter. However, through diplomatic solidarity, it is possible that you can vote against a country that you have good relations with and it doesn’t mean that you become enemies. An example is our country and Djibouti: though we are homogeneously and ideologically similar, they once voted against us, but we did not end up as enemies,” says Awad.

Going forward for Somalia and Ethiopia

Ethiopia has vehemently rejected the Arab League’s resolution in support of Egypt and Sudan while Somalia is yet to openly declare its position on the matter, as a friend of Ethiopia and also as a member of the League.

The Africa Report contacted the current Somali minister of foreign affairs, but at the time of publication, no response was given. Calls to the ministry of communication also went unanswered.

Egypt is bound to exploit the influence of the Arab League to get Somalia’s support in the horn of Africa region. But given how Ethiopia and Somalia have renewed their relations, it’s not clear how Somalia can continue to remain neutral in this unresolved battle for the Nile.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options