Regional powers on their respective turfs, the increasing bellicosity between Addis Ababa and Cairo has been affecting both countries adversely in multiple ways. They should be encouraged to carry on the African Union’s (AU) proceeding course and a tremendous deal is achievable by pushing the UN, the World Bank and US President Donald Trump’s mediation out of the equation, the author of “The Art of The Deal.”
Where did it go wrong?
The “chief of rallies” –for he has held more rallies than any other recent president– exploded during one of his rally speeches before the pandemic lockdown, complaining that he went unheeded for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. The most prestigious peace award was given –individually for the first time– to an incumbent head of government in Africa, Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed.
The Norwegian institution honoured the Ethiopian premier in particular for his success in resolving the Eritrea border conflict, which had dragged on for over two decades.
Besides the historic peace achieved with neighbouring Eritrea, another equally important attempt for a peaceful settlement with Egypt was on the making over of an issue that is as old as history; the Blue Nile. It was thus a matter of fact why an Ethiopian peace corps led by the Prime Minister Abiy set off for Cairo on July 10 to meet with Abdelfettah El-Sisi, the Egyptian president.
The diplomatic meeting indicated that the two countries have a lot to gain by paving the way for addressing and resolving their contentions through peaceful means. It buoyed up entire Egypt, manifested in El-Sisi’s statement when he emphasized the long way the countries had come in building confidence. The president even wanted this astonishing mutual understanding to be sealed with an apolitical yet memorable event.
El-Sisi asked the Ethiopian Prime Minister to take an oath, repeating his words after him:
“والله والله لن نقوم بأي ضررللمياه في مصر”
“wallahi, wallahi, lan naqum bi ayyi darar lil miyahi fi Misr”,
“By God, by God, we will never do any harm to the water in Egypt.”
All these attempts at giving the peaceful dispute settlement mechanism a powerful impetus, which had actually begun in 2015 once the Declaration of Principles (DoP) was signed, turned grim when Trump became involved in the process. Perhaps El-Sisi did a miscalculation by asking Trump to step in to mediate out of the blue.
Being unconventional and unceremonious, the involvement was bizarre partly because the mediation effort was hosted by the Department of Treasury, not by the Department of State. In the occurrence of such issues, the latter would, at least in principle, have greater experience and expertise to assume such roles. The US involvement exposed the glaring unpreparedness of the Trump administration.
The instance of Trump’s foray into the dispute might have to do with Egypt seeking to seize the spontaneous attack the president made against the Nobel Prize Winner Abiy. Securing Trump’s involvement per se might have been perceived as a victory for President El-Sisi in the first place.
Notwithstanding, the Trump-led negotiation unsurprisingly revealed the mediator’s uncontained favouritism to Egypt. This caused a fast-eroding of the hard-earned trust Ethiopia and Egypt forged in Cairo in June 2018, sending them into the recent unprecedented measure of the rhetorical skirmish.
A tremendous deal is highly likely, not through the modus operandi, which has proved a flop. The achievable prospect lies in the pre- and post-Washington arrangements the parties carved out together, and importantly under the aegis of the AU. There is a defining, short and linear path that leads the states to a lasting win-win deal. What exactly is it, then, that Ethiopia and Egypt are currently sparring over in the first place?
Aren’t Ethiopia and Egypt disputing over water sharing?
Reading several media reports, one would swiftly learn that the River Nile is Egypt’s lifeline. Reports echo also that Ethiopia embarked on building a mega-dam engendering a terminal reduction to Egypt’s share of the river. The outstanding Addis Ababa-Cairo dispute, with both currently working to resolve it, is featured as a dispute over the sharing of the waters of the Nile.
This is utterly incorrect and the ensuing explanation will help in understanding the disagreement that lies elsewhere, and not in the sharing of the waters of the Nile.
Studies indicate that the expected annual flow of the Nile at Aswan is around 97 cubic kilometers. The figure is much greater than the average flow that stands at 84 cubic kilometers at Dongola / Aswan, as reported by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Of this latter amount, the 75-percent share of the water goes to Egypt. Sudan’s share stands at 25 percent.
The sharing of the river Nile’s waters is of fundamental concern to the countries both up and downstream. In other words, the yet-has-to-be-negotiated issue is a concern of equal gravity to all 11 Nile basin countries. To this day no inclusive framework has emerged that at once governs the water management and sharing of the Nile, except the 2011 ill-fated initiative which failed because of the rejection of Egypt and Sudan.
If history has any relevance, two anachronistic treaties, the 1929 and 1959, are worth a brief touch. Egypt’s longstanding claim of a “historical right”, which the Arab League echoed  in its recent expression of camaraderie to Cairo, stems from these colonial-era pacts. Egypt staked her privilege for an eternal privilege over the river with her unhampered win yesteryear.
The 1929 treaty  laid down the earliest de jure ground presenting the entire Nile as an exclusive appurtenance to Egypt and Sudan, then Britain’s colonies. The “legally” unfettered access apportioned 48 cubic kilometers of the waters to Egypt and 4 cubic kilometers to Sudan.
Three decades later, another treaty emerged, reinforcing all exclusive rights over the waters of Nile stipulated in the previous agreement. Now independent states, Egypt and Sudan once again fully allocated the Nile’s flow amongst themselves. The 1959 agreement over the Nile re-granted the lion’s share of the water (which amounts to 55.5 cubic kilometers) to Egypt. Sudan agreed to some 18.5 cubic kilometers, representing a significant increment from 1929.
The Khartoum-Cairo deals rightly deserved the hitherto sustained condemnation heaped on them particularly by the other riparian states. They denounced the pacts as exclusionary and obsolete at once, they thus see them as invalid. The Nile basin initiative, an organization they established, is a substantial move the countries undertook that made any such legal tool a thing of the past.
The question of equity on the waters of the Nile ought to involve all of the eleven sovereign states. The bottom line is that Ethiopia and Egypt are not locked up in the dispute over sharing of the Nile, nor are they the only states party to the dispute.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)?
Is it not ironic, on the other hand, to claim that Ethiopia and Egypt are not wrestling over the GERD itself? Absolutely, the GERD does not constitute the kernel of the current hostile rhetoric and the ever-escalating tension.
Of course, Cairo and Addis Ababa have come a long way in building up a vital consent about the dam. Egypt has acknowledged the dam is a fait accompli, which effectively brought the question about the dam’s existence to an irreversible end. Two noted phases over the past decade have marked this reality.
In March 2015, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt convened to ink an important document: the Declaration of Principles (DoP). The accord furnished Egyptian consensus for the building of the dam, marking quite a smooth transition into a post-dam-construction era of series of bargaining.
The agreement admirably attributed the dam, inter alia, to the shared value manifested in promoting transboundary cooperation and regional integration through generating power. In addition to this, the agreement emphasized the understanding that the downstream countries will be given priority to purchase electricity generated from the GERD.
The dam has to come to a full completion for these noble purposes to materialize and is no longer a point of contention at all, henceforth.
On the other hand, the recent fast development around the dam’s construction is remarkable. The Ethiopian government seeks to show its determination to finish the building phase of the project and commence generating power. Reports indicate that the construction has shown 30-per cent progress in just a little over a year after the current administration took office.
According to Seleshi Bekele, the minister of water, irrigation and energy as of July, the overall phase of the GERD is more than 87 per cent complete. Ethiopia’s tempered expectation is that two initial turbines are about to begin generating a total of 1500 megawatts by the end of this year.
So, what is then the bone of contention, and what is the current situation?
The current wrestling is precisely linked to Ethiopia’s scheme of proceeding with the first-phase filling of reservoirs and the ardent objection Egypt raised against this. While fiercely opposing Ethiopia’s plan, Egypt also suggested a different timetable, to which Ethiopia has shown no sign of flexibility. Simply speaking, Addis Ababa and Cairo disagreed over the schedule with regard to the initial filling of the reservoirs.
Egypt has proposed an unhurried pace and an extended period of filling the reservoirs. Reports show that Egypt welcomes a filling scheme that ranges between 10 to 20 years. Ethiopia, on the other hand, has insisted on a plan that reduces these years to a considerably shorter period. In addition to this, Addis Ababa announced its plan to commence the filling process in July, for the rainy season causes the Blue Nile to naturally swell.
As the 11-day negotiations, held in the presence of several experts and observers, ended on July 14, the countries reported that they have made noticeable progress  on the first-filling of the reservoir, though falling short of securing a major breakthrough. While the countries have technically come to a common understanding, they remain divided on whether or not the understanding should be legally binding.
Can the AU help them resolve the dispute?
The Pan-Africanist umbrella rescued the Trump-brokered negotiation that broke down in February and remained suspended for a while. The ball is currently in the AU’s court and signs of progress are promising that the AU can help the two parties resolve their disputes.
The promise of AU’s fair treatment motivated the parties to sit once again at the negotiating table and even to try to produce an interim deal in two weeks. As the countries wrapped up the series of meetings via teleconferencing, none of them emerged in despair. They were indeed quick to laud the efforts exerted by the AU and promised to the world that the talks would be continuing.
On July 21, the AU held the much-anticipated meeting with the leaders of the three negotiating parties. The leaders’ meeting came a week after the ministerial-level marathon talks that ended a week ago and prompted phone calls to the leaders by President Ramaphosa, the chair of the negotiations. The leaders agreed to talk over the sticking points which needed their follow-up and subsequent deliberation in the presence of other participants from the African Union members.
Hailed as fruitful  by the Ethiopian prime minister, the leaders’ virtual meeting was concluded with a common understanding and the need to continue the ministerial-level negotiation. The promising  outcome of the meeting was similarly echoed by other leaders in which they expressed their commitment to keeping the trilateral negotiations on track.
The state of the bargaining is therefore now past a perilous moment, as the negotiating parties have until now kept preferring to focus on the next phase. More talks of delegates, experts and observers seem to be continuing despite the lack of a formal announcement regarding the specific discussion times. However, the countries are expected to address technical aspects of the next filling phases of the dam and its operation.
The sense of cooperation and trust that the negotiating parties sticking to does augur well for a swift conclusion and might lead them to a lasting win-win deal. To get things moving in the tripartite talk, the parties should be well into the spirit of the “African solutions for African problems” principle. It will be ill-advised to stonewall the AU and pursue other approaches, all of which have so far proved fruitless.
By Endris Mekonnen Faris. Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The EurAsian Times.