Lasting peace in Horn depends on solution to Nile conundrum
- River Nile traverses 10 African countries, but its clearest impact is felt in only three — Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.
- It is not for nothing that Egypt is rumoured to have a contingent in its military that has been training in jungle warfare, though there are no jungles in Egypt.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali of Ethiopia was elected on April 2, 2018. Barely a year and a half later, he was declared the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, a rare honour for a politician who has not been tried and tested in the turbulent politics of the Horn.
The main reason for this recognition is that he ended the state of hostility between his country and Eritrea, which had lasted 20 years since a border war broke out between them.
He also did what his predecessors failed to do: opened up the democratic space, freed political prisoners and even appointed his opponents to high office, thus ensuring his country’s unity.
NOBEL PEACE PRIZE
Whether Dr Abiy deserves the Nobel Peace Prize this early in his career is contestable, but things may not be so clean-cut on another issue that has been festering for an even longer period — the dispute with Egypt, and to a lesser extent, Sudan, over the use of the River Nile waters for development.
At 6,650 kilometres, the Nile is the longest river in Africa and one of the longest in the world. It traverses 10 African countries, but its clearest impact is felt in only three — Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.
The reason there has been a dispute over the use of the Nile waters for well over 60 years is that it is an existential lifeline for Egypt.
A vast desert country, Egypt depends on the river for most of its domestic food production, electricity, commerce and industry, as well as its tourism earnings.
The country’s importance in history is well illustrated by the fact that it is a cradle of scholarship and civilisation, having given birth to modern-day writing systems, mathematics, modern irrigation systems, and many forms of art, literature and architecture — the pyramids, the sphinx, the pharaonic tombs and their mummies.
Ethiopia, for its part, is one of the oldest countries in the world, having come into existence 3,000 years ago. It is also, besides Liberia, the only African country that was never colonised.
The other distinction is that it supplies 86 percent of the water in the Nile through the Blue Nile, which originates in Lake Tana. The White Nile, whose source is Lake Victoria, supplies the rest.
That is probably why Ethiopia and Egypt have never seen eye to eye on the subject of the Nile; both have consistently displayed proprietary rights and both may one day have to go to war to settle the issue once and for all.
Indeed, that is the subject of our write-up today — the age-old dispute over how the Nile waters can be used for development by the Nile Basin states without affecting Egypt. Recently, Dr Abiy was quoted as saying that Ethiopia could prepare millions of people to defend the dam.
In 2003, former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s staff were overheard discussing how to destroy the dam. Although Egypt apologised, the mood was later reinforced by Morsi saying he would never allow Egypt’s water supply to be endangered.
Such warlike talk did not come out of the blue. The two countries have been feuding over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is expected to be the biggest hydropower source in Africa.
The dam started in 2011 will be the largest in Africa when it is filled up. Egypt has a right to feel threatened, but Ethiopia is not budging in its determination to make it operational in the next 15 years.
This stalemate has persisted for years, mainly because Egypt insists that three agreements signed between it and Great Britain, on behalf of its colonies in Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and the then Tanganyika (in 1902, 1929, and 1959) recognising its exclusive use of the Nile waters are still in force, as they have never been abrogated.
On the other hand, neither the East African countries nor Ethiopia recognise these agreements as binding. They rightfully claim that they were “not consulted” when the agreements were signed and they cannot continue to allow Egypt’s veto power on the use of the Nile.
Indeed, some of the conditions do not make sense today. For instance, though the agreements gave Egypt 90 percent of the water for its exclusive use, it wants them recognised as a precondition for negotiations.
This impasse may not have a happy ending unless a meeting slated for the United States on Wednesday comes up with a solution.
After all, the Renaissance Dam is a fait accompli and any attempt at sabotaging it at this late hour won’t be countenanced by the rest of the world.
It is not for nothing that Egypt is rumoured to have a contingent in its military that has been training in jungle warfare, though there are no jungles in Egypt.
In the meantime, Prime Minister Abiy will be walking a tightrope. He has just been honoured by the world for his peacemaking efforts and he can neither be intransigent in his demands nor ignore the wishes of his people. That Nobel may turn out to be the only safeguard that the Horn of Africa will not plunge into a war that cannot be easily won.
Mr Ngwiri is a consultant editor;