If Egypt is the gift of the Nile, then the Nile is Ethiopia’s gift.

By Dilwenberu Nega
July 02 2010

It is often cited that the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had once remarked that Egypt would regard any measure which threatens the continued flow of the Blue Nile as casus belli and would be spurred into mounting robust retaliatory action. On his part, a one time Egypt’s Deputy Foreign Minister, who later became Secretary General of the United Nations, Boutros Ghali, on his part warned that the next world war would be a “Hydro-war.” Although such statements, which carry strong life-and-death connotations, were said in the past, they surely continue to be echoed today by key members of the current Egyptian leadership every time the Nile Question is raised. Egypt’s Ministers of Irrigation and Water, the Speaker of the Egyptian Parliament and the Minister of Agriculture all continue to reflect a similar stand. Egypt’s media, on the other hand, had over-egged Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit’s “no party must cross the red-line” stern warning. What is incredible, however, is that some Ethiopians have also resorted to blindly echo Egypt’s stand without properly studying the pros and cons inherent in the pronouncements of leading Egyptian personalities. It is strange, then, is it not, that we have refused to acknowledge our reason for not making use of the Nile water was based not only Egyptian obduracy, but on our own difficulties.

There are those who like to link recent Egyptian statements with the recently signed The Nile Initiative Cooperation Framework Agreement (CFA) and reach the conclusion that war with Egypt is inevitable. Some Ethiopian newspapers have even gone as far as predicting that the end is near. Foreign-based Ethiopian web-sites, on the other hand, saw it fit to demonstrate a modicum amount of ‘literary sabre-rattling’ by proclaiming “Bring it on Egypt!” and by citing the bravery of our forefathers in the face of blatant Egyptian incursion from the annals of history. I, however, believe that not only is there nothing new in what has been flowing from the mouth of Egyptian officials, the intelligentsia and the press, but it would be wrong to relate it to the recently concluded Agreement. Moreover, we should make an effort to understand Cairo’s hue and cry over the issue, because, after all, Egypt without the Nile is a nonentity. While I appreciate journalists’ urge to provide accurate and detail information to the public, I, however, see no rhyme or reason to overegg the Nile Question to this extent. My reasons are crystal clear. Not only has any action that endangers the basic interest of Egypt been taken, but our country has no wish to indulge in such act of provocation. The root cause for the stream of official Egyptian statements and comments is neither the Nile water nor the Agreement signed by Riparian Countries, but it is a clear reflection of Egypt’s prevailing political, economic and social crises.

Nile, O Nile, thou art a nation’s blessing!
Ethiopian folkloric songs are dedicated to the Nile. Though it would be hard to state that Riparian Countries’ efforts on the equitable use of the Nile water in the past has been as ceaseless as that of Ethiopia, we can nonetheless, confidently talk of their grieve over their inability to share the dividends of the Nile. It is, therefore, my guess that the people of the signatory countries of the CFA share Kenya’s daily, The Standard’s vision of: “Now the Agreement has been signed, we can start planting trees."

Given this earnest desire, therefore, it is incredible to note that there had so far not been concerted efforts by Riparian Countries to make use of the Nile water. Though the river bank occupies one-tenth of Africa’s land mass where close to 300 million people live in a habitat blessed by nature, not much of it has been developed. The Riparian Countries had, therefore, found themselves in the unfortunate circumstances of being unable to tap the Nile, because they were firstly made victim of a colonial agreement between Egypt and the Sudan which solely respected their “historical right” to the Nile. Secondly, because the absence of peace and stability in the Upper Riparian Countries, and the fact their weak economies were not in a position to fund hydro-based developmental projects, had meant that they could not possibly address Ethiopia’s and other Riparian Countries’ demand for fair and equitable use of the Nile water. Other states’ political, economic, military and diplomatic support for Egypt are believed to have been carved out in line with the lending of tacit support for the prolongation of the tendentious Agreement between Egypt and the Sudan. While Egypt’s influential position within international organisations as well as the Arab world had succeeded in warding off Riparian Countries’ attempts at securing loans to tap the Nile water, Riparian Countries’ capacity to mount a concerted countervailing action against Egypt was also weak. When all these pressure failed, Egypt would resort to its usual, “Whosoever-tampers-with-the-Nile-tampers-with-Egypt’s-eyeball” threats. In point of fact, a cursory glance of our last hundred year’s history is testimony to the state of direct or indirect confrontation we had with Egypt. In point of fact, in anticipation of a possible war with Ethiopia, many military analysts claim Egypt has readied a highly-pronged military unit specialized in guerrilla warfare. Moreover, as Egypt’s former Defence Minister, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi once highlighted: “Egypt’s defence strategy was carved-out with a possible war over the Nile very much in our mind.”

Apart from Egypt’s adamantine and threatening mode, nothing of significance had taken place all these years. The life of meaningful co-operation among Riparian Countries’ hardly exceeds 10 years. In “The History of Conflict and Cooperation,” Expert on Horn of Africa Affairs, the late Dr Kinfe Abreha cites that real efforts on proximity and cooperation talks started with the UN-commissioned work on the flow of Nile water and the nature of the Nile. Two cases in points of cooperative efforts are mentioned. In 1993 the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) made an effort to reach The Nile Riparian Countries’ Development and Environment Agreement, and the World Bank in 1997 initiated Nile Riparian Countries’ Cooperation Efforts.

Relative peace as well as subsequent economic growth which the Nile Riparian Countries secured was the main stimulus for the prevalence of a common spirit of cooperation among the concerned states. Consequently, Riparian Countries galvanized their resolve to harness Nile’s resources for hydro-electric power, for irrigation and for similar uses. With rapid growth of population in their respective countries, the Riparian Countries have now made Food Security a top priority of their development agenda. It is, therefore, a sad case scenario to witness these Riparian Countries - for whom the lakes of the Nile, Victoria, Albert and Edward – are all a stone throw away and, yet, inaccessible to their peoples. As we say in Ethiopia, it surely is a case of “The son of the Nile suffers from thirst of water.” Fortunately, the journey Nile Riparian Countries had undertaken in fits and starts has today reaped the desired fruit. On the 14th May 2010 Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda signed The Nile Initiative Cooperation Framework Agreement (CFA) in the Ugandan capital, Entebbe. A week later Kenya, too, signed the CFA. While Burundi and Democratic Congo are both expected to sign the CFA well before the one year dead-line for signing of the CFA expires, Eritrea, which has an observer status, on the other hand, has totally rejected the CFA. Sudan’s and Eritrea’s unsavoury stand toward the CFA has more to do with politics than anything else. The fact that Sudan decided to back off from the CFA after its Water-resource and Irrigation Minister had assured Nile Riparian Countries at the 10th Anniversary of the Initiative in 2007 that Sudan is committed to fair and equitable distribution of the water of the Nile only goes to demonstrate that Khartoum may have succumbed to Cairo’s arm-twisting. However, for Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki to oppose an anachronistic bilateral Agreement which prohibits even a bottle of water from the Nile to Eritreans, is further proof of Isaias Afewerki’s continued resolve to oppose everyone and everything which Ethiopia supports. Moreover, as an influential Eritrean online publication had further exposed, Mubarak has now requested for an Eritrean base to be made available to the Egyptian military.

Once the CFA is signed by six Nile-basin countries, and subsequently approved by their respected parliaments, the African Union will officially be notified. Egypt, on its part, has mounted a robust diplomatic manoeuvre, the aim and goal of which is to scupper the CFA and to give new lease of life to the anachronistic and unfair Agreement that it has with the Sudan. Egypt is, then, leaving no stone unturned to cut a wedge between the signatories of the CFA, and is applying her influence within the Arab world and among its Western allies to achieve its objectives. Egypt has so far invited the Presidents of Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi for talks in Cairo. The CFA has set out in no ambiguous manner the Nile Riparian Countries’ rights and responsibilities on use of the water, development and environmental protection. Each CFA signatory country will be able to know in due course the exact amount of water it is allowed to use per annum. CFA has already raised the hopes and dreams of millions of people living in the signatory countries. As Tanzanian Vice President, Dr Mohammed Shein, had observed at CFA signing ceremony, “Though the Nile-basin countries’ initiative will inevitably encounter all sorts of challenges in the years to come, CFA has for now succeeded in removing the miasma of fear and suspicion from among member states.”

Contrary to CFA signatories’ positive spirit of hope of a better tomorrow, Egyptian officials and their media have resorted to sabre-rattling, reminiscent of their preoccupation of 30 years ago. Further more, an influential Egyptian official told Cairo’s daily “Al Tayaar”: “Egypt could be forced to take military action. She can also attack Ethiopia via Sudan or Eritrea.” Now an Agreement which guarantees common ownership of the Nile water had been signed, a sense of utter trepidation seem to have engulfed those very Egyptians who, on earlier occasions, had been advocating the enlargement of the ‘cake’ (Nile) rather than fighting about the ‘cake.’ Notwithstanding the above-mentioned threats by Egypt, it is important to follow up the case in a composed and meticulous manner. As a UNESCO-funded research had pointed out – with the exception of a war between the Iraqi cities of Uma and Erkak - no war was caused over right to harness water of a river in the last 5000 years from the Tigris to the Euphrates, from the Nile to the Danube. Read more-->