Cooperation over the Nile remains Ethiopia’s firm policy

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(MoFA Sep 24,2012)- In recent weeks, a number of online media outlets have carried statements by unidentified Egyptian officials professing the hope that a new political leadership in Ethiopia might be inclined to compromise over the Nile. Polemics from anonymous functionaries quoted on obscure websites should not be taken too seriously. They cannot be seen as serious indication of what the Mursi administration's stance on the Nile issue might be. However, when they are uttered by authoritative voices, and become possible portents of policy, they are cause for concern.

This is why the comments of a senior cabinet member of the new government, former General Reda Hafez, deserve to be looked at seriously. His outrageous claim that Prime Minister Meles was to blame for the confrontation between Ethiopia and Egypt over the Nile was totally uncalled for. Indeed, it is a complete misrepresentation of fact. Coming as it does from a senior military officer under Hosni Mubarak regime whose trademark saber-rattling was the linchpin of Egyptian diplomacy over the Nile Issue, it is bizarre. In fact, to the extent that there has been any thawing of relations between Egypt and Ethiopia, it was Prime Minister Meles’ farsighted leadership which was primarily responsible. As far as Ethiopia is concerned there has been no reason to change this.

Any Egyptian expectation that the appointment of the new Ethiopian Prime Minister might lead to some radical change in policy over the Nile is based on a flawed understanding of Ethiopia's history, and is an egregious misreading of the government's present disposition towards Cairo, and, by extension, suggests serious misconceptions about the future of Ethio-Egyptian relations.

General Hafez’ statements, providing they have been accurately reported, appear to rest on an serious misunderstanding of Ethiopian history. Ethiopian governments, irrespective of their ideology, have consistently striven to safeguard Ethiopia's interests over the Nile. The government of Emperor Haile Selassie, for instance, distributed in 1947 an aide-memoire to all embassies in Cairo, reaffirming Ethiopia's right to use the Nile "for the benefit of present and future generations of its citizens" and "reassert[ing] and reserv[ing] now and for the future, the right to take all such measures in respect of its water resources." Ethiopia reiterated such a right at the 1971 UN Water Conference at Mar de Plata.

Even the Derg regime, at the opposite end of the political spectrum, did not differ from its predecessor, trying to solicit funding for Nile projects from its Soviet patron. There is no reason why any Ethiopian government, current or prospective, that respected the interest of its citizens would deviate from this approach.

The point is that considerations of equity, law, and economic development continue to animate Ethiopia's desire to develop the Nile. Today, as in years past, utilization of the Nile remains strikingly inequitable. Ethiopia, which contributes over 85% of the river's flow, makes no use of it; Egypt which contributes nothing continues to argue in favor of its continued status as primary beneficiary. Egypt still justifies this lopsided allocation of use on the basis of obsolete colonial treaties that Ethiopia neither signed nor supported. With all notions of fairness and law in its favor, it is no surprise that Ethiopian governments, past and present, have refused to accept the Egyptian position.

That any Egyptian official to expect a post-Meles government in Ethiopia would be more amenable to meeting Cairo's demands displays a serious misunderstanding of Ethiopia's past. It also highlights a total lack of appreciation of the non-confrontational tone of Ethiopia's present government. In fact, the government of Ethiopia has gone above and beyond the call of duty in trying to assuage Egyptian concerns and reach consensus over a more equitable allocation of the Nile.

Examples of this conciliatory approach are numerous and obvious. Ethiopia, for instance, postponed by one year its ratification of the new Cooperative Framework Agreement for the Nile which it had signed along with other upper riparian states. This was in response to Egypt's request for time to reconsider the agreement after the demise of the Mubarek government.
Despite Ethiopia's good faith in acceding to this request, Cairo has yet to communicate the outcome of its review. Ethiopia exhibited a similarly positive spirit following the announcement of its intention to construct the Renaissance Dam on the Nile. Though under no legal obligation to do so, the Ethiopian government proposed, on its own initiative, the establishment of a Tripartite Committee composed of equal numbers of Ethiopian, Egyptian and Sudanese experts, supplemented by international specialists, to assess the impact, if any, of the dam on Egypt and Sudan.

By contrast, there has been no single initiative taken by Egyptian authorities to consult Ethiopian counterparts over projects along the Nile. Egypt certainly never solicited Ethiopia's views during the construction of the Aswan dam, never consulted with it over the diversion of the Nile to Western and Eastern Sinai and never discussed the diversion of the Nile for irrigation in newly reclaimed western desert areas.

Addis Ababa's numerous attempts at initiating consensus-driven negotiations have not occasioned any significant change in Egyptian policy. Indeed, the Ethiopian government's outstretched hand has been met by nothing but a clenched fist. Internal political distractions may have temporarily caused Cairo to temper its previously fiery rhetoric and momentarily discontinue active support to insurgent groups which are anathema to Ethiopia. However, there have been no signs of any significant policy shifts. Cairo has still shown no indication of change in regard to substantive matters. It has not signed the Nile basin Cooperative Framework Agreement, nor has it explicitly disavowed the inequitable allocation of water enshrined in colonial treaties although we always made it clear that these treaties are not binding on Ethiopia.

These, not a change of government in Ethiopia, are the very points that need to be met if any compromise is to be reached. The government and the people of Ethiopia have been remarkably patient and for a very long time. Given Ethiopia's developmental needs and her people's attachment to the Nile, any expectation that some future Ethiopian government will make significant policy changes and accept Egypt’s claims is mere wishful thinking. If Egypt is really interested in peace and mutually beneficial development of the Nile basin, it should concentrate on reaching an agreement with Ethiopia's present government. Ethiopia is certainly predisposed to any mutually beneficial developments for the river. As it has clearly detailed, its plans for the river will provide significant advantages to both Sudan and Egypt. Now, it is up to Egypt to reciprocate.

It is really regrettable that we are forced by irresponsible statements like that of General Hafez to go into some detail on the issue of the Nile especially at a time when Ethiopia/Egypt relations have turned over a new leaf since the change of regime in Egypt, and the visit of the late Prime Minister Meles some months ago. Needless to say, the Ethiopian government will not be deterred by vicious and counter-productive statements by people like General Hafez from pushing ahead on the path laid down by our late Prime Minister towards a new relationship between Ethiopia and Egypt.