In mid-June, Ethiopia’s youthful new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, and his host, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, came out of a meeting in Cairo showing an unusual optimism and mutual confidence.
This suggested that tensions over the $4bn 6,000 MW Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) being built on the River Nile might be on the wane. Ahmed is the man principally responsible for this transformation.
In the short time he has been in office he has brought about many changes, from calming tensions in Ethiopia’s restive Oromia region (of which he is a native) and releasing political prisoners to extending an olive branch to neighbouring Eritrea, with which relations have been sour for years. There is huge optimism about Ethiopia at the moment.
If liberalised as increasingly expected, the country’s banking and telecommunications sectors – sought after for years by international investors – could easily put to rest perennial troubles with foreign exchange supply and provide much-needed jobs. In this regard, Lemma Senbet, chief executive of the Nairobi-based African Economic Research Consortium is “cautiously optimistic”.
Many Egyptians probably share this sentiment after hearing Ahmed say, “We will take care of the Nile and we will preserve your share and we will work to increase this quota and President Sisi and I will work on this,” at the Cairo press conference.
With the River Nile flowing down to Egypt from Ethiopia via Sudan, the land of the pharaohs – which also has a big dam of its own on the river, the 2,100 MW Aswan High Dam – could potentially lose a great deal from the reduced flow of water that the GERD could cause. And with water increasingly scarce, the Egyptian authorities cannot afford the slightest threat to what has been a source of livelihood for their people for millennia.
As Jordan Anderson, sub-Saharan Africa risk analyst at London-based research firm IHS Markit comments, “Egypt [was] increasingly being compelled to accept the reality of the GERD, and thus [already focusing] on negotiating to limit the dam’s downstream impacts rather than opposing its existence outright,” but mistrust between the two sides has hitherto made progress difficult.
In fact, the Egyptian authorities were becoming increasingly frustrated: “There is a need to accelerate the pace of negotiations after some three years or more have passed since the signing of the preliminary agreement in Khartoum and things have remained frozen,” Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry told reporters in late April.
The Egyptian view was that Ethiopia was deliberately dragging its feet in what had become longwinded talks that seemed to achieve little but buy Ethiopia time. Its fears were not unfounded. In addition to the advantages Ethiopia clearly enjoys already, once the dam is completed, it will be in an even stronger negotiating position. Sudan, on the other hand, seemed more agreeable to the Ethiopian side early on. This is not surprising. There are more benefits for it from the dam than there are troubles. The Sudanese authorities are excited about the power that will be transmitted to the country’s grid from the dam, for instance.
Sudan and Ethiopia have found it easier to cooperate, agreeing to develop Port Sudan in early May and establish a joint military force to protect the GERD. Understandably, the warmer relations between Ethiopia and Sudan became increasingly worrying for Egypt. With the recent rapprochement between the Ethiopian and Egyptian sides, however, that may no longer be the case.
Despite better relations, Egypt likely still desires some international mediation. When it first mooted the idea, it suggested the World Bank. Hailemariam Desalegn, the Ethiopian prime minister at the time, would have none of it. With the negotiation advantages Ethiopia clearly enjoyed, it probably did not seem rational to him for his country to cede control to any external institution, even the World Bank.
Still, despite the uneasy relations at the time, Egypt and Ethiopia did manage to be constructive. The two countries signed a political and diplomatic consultation agreement in January. And fears that Egypt might have a contingency military solution have certainly now receded. IHS Markit’s Anderson thinks it is highly unlikely it would go to such lengths: “The Egyptian government is unlikely to isolate itself internationally by taking any kind of unilateral military action against the GERD, and it also lacks the military capacity to make such an operation probably successful.”
Filling the reservoir
The immediate priority is to agree modalities for filling the dam’s reservoir – which could start as early as July during the Nile flood season – and how to ensure dams downstream in Sudan and Egypt will not be overly constrained. Both downstream countries also want ample water from the river to be available for irrigation and other uses during any filling period, and once filling is completed they want water to be released from the reservoir unconditionally during difficult periods such as prolonged drought.
A resolution between the parties at their meeting in mid-May suggests they are likely to agree more than they disagree from now on. They plan to meet more regularly, at least – every six months in fact. A joint fund to build infrastructure in the three countries is also planned.
A compromise has also been reached on differences over the preliminary technical report by French consultants on the potential downstream impact of the GERD; a new one by a team consisting of members from the three countries has been contracted. This is not ideal. A scientific evaluation hardly needs the distraction of politics.
Refreshingly, the Egyptian government has begun to take confidence-building measures of its own. As a goodwill gesture to Ahmed, 30 Ethiopian prisoners were released from Egyptian jails in June.
The deep-seated emotions of Egyptians towards the Nile remain nonetheless. Take the unprecedented move by President Sisi of asking Ahmed to swear before the Egyptian people during his visit in June that he would protect their interests. Ahmed did not hesitate to do so, but is this a promise he can keep? Ahmed faces resistance from the ruling elite in Ethiopia and he has been ruffling the feathers of the military establishment, members of which enjoy wide-ranging influence over the Ethiopian economy.
With Ahmed’s fast-paced reforms already loosening their grip on power, it is probably only a matter of time before their restrained grumblings boil over, especially as the security establishment is believed to have entered into a tacit agreement with Ahmed for the maintenance of certain rigidities – one of which is likely to be the GERD negotiations – in exchange for supporting his candidacy for prime minister.
The importance of international mediation cannot be overemphasised.