09.11.2020 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Africa: the Problems are Tough, but Solvable

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Egypt and Sudan have corroborated they will participate in re-established trilateral negotiations with Ethiopia after nearly seven weeks of deadlock – something suggested by the president of the African Union (AU) – concerning the controversial Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project.

Cairo did confirm to Ahram Online that a six-party videoconference meeting will be held on the dam between the foreign ministers, and the ministers responsible for irrigation issues, in the three countries.  Sources added that Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry may not be able to attend the online meeting due to a preliminary arrangement related to a business trip abroad.   Along with that, Egypt’s Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation has resolutely stated that Cairo is ready to “seriously” negotiate to reach a fair and well-balanced agreement that will safeguard the interests held by the three countries.

These statements came shortly after Cyril Ramaphosa, who is the current Chairperson of the African Union, said that negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan on the dam should resume, even though differences do exist that divide them.  Since 2011, Ethiopia has been implementing a project to build Africa’s largest dam on the Blue Nile, the GERD project, with 15 Francis turbine units. The capacity of the hydroelectric power plant, which will take the form of a cascade with four dams, is 5,250 megawatts, and commissioning is slated for 2022-2023. The cost of the project is USD 4.6 billion. For Ethiopia, constructing the power plant represents a gigantic economic project, and implementing it will both provide the country with electricity and permit exporting it to neighboring countries. Egypt and Sudan fear that operating the Ethiopian hydroelectric power plant in the Nile could lead to severe water shortages, which would in turn cause numerous social, economic, and environmental problems.

Concerning this, it is worth reiterating that Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt are in a stage involving extremely tense negotiations, and an agreement that satisfies all parties has not been signed yet. The Egyptian authorities react very sensitively to the Ethiopian facility, and there are even nightmarish rumors about potentially executing air strikes on the dam. For its part, Ethiopia regularly accuses Egypt of various kinds of sabotage, and committing cyber attacks on the country’s new infrastructure facilities. Another factor that introduces complexity into the system for the negotiations is that large companies from Italy are involved in building the dam, and Chinese banks are financing the purchase of the turbines and electrical equipment to the tune of USD 1.8 billion. This means that the conflict extends far beyond the borders of the African continent.

Naturally, it is difficult to accurately estimate all the large-scale consequences after an enormous hydraulic engineering structure is commissioned. On the one hand, Ethiopia is in a “state of euphoria” from the expected large increase in the scope of electricity generation, and intends to sell the surplus to adjacent countries. In the new, landmark “reservoir of the millennium”, thousands of tons of fish will be harvested, tourism will be fostered, and some problems with the river’s environment downstream of the dam are of little concern to the country’s authorities. On the other hand, according to some of the most pessimistic forecasts, the Nile in Egypt could become shallower by 30-60%, and the country would lose both a colossal amount of agricultural land and millions of jobs, as well as experience an acute shortage of fresh water.

As always, fuel was added to the fire of contradictions by the United States, which is savvy at doing this, when it brazenly and unceremoniously inserted itself into the negotiation process. Donald Trump presumptuously appropriated the laurels of an experienced negotiator thanks to whom this confabulation process is supposedly taking place, even though it more resembles regular haggling at a bazaar. On the one hand, the US President, trying to force Sudan to recognize Israel, promised Sudanese leadership many good things, including quickly resolving the dispute over the supersize dam, and putting pressure on Ethiopia.   “This is a very dangerous situation, because Egypt will not be able to live like this,” Trump told Sudanese Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok in a telephone conversation, adding that he was the one who acted as mediator in the deal to resolve the crisis, but Ethiopia allegedly violated the pact, forcing him to stop providing assistance to the country.  “They will never see this money unless they stick to the agreement … I said this, and I say it loudly and clearly, that Egypt could blow up the dam,” this ‘great democrat and active mediator’, declared threateningly.

However, it must be stated that Ethiopia is not a country that will so quickly and easily succumb to blackmail from the outside, even by such a powerful country as the United States. Gedu Andargachew, the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, immediately summoned Ambassador Mike Raynor to gain explanations about these comments.  “Inciting war between Ethiopia and Egypt on the part of the acting US president does not reflect the long-standing partnership, and strategic alliance, between Ethiopia and the United States, and is not acceptable in the international law that governs intergovernmental relations,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. Ethiopian media went even further, and called Donald Trump’s statements a provocation, and that they could contribute to sparking a war. Ethiopia, the newspaper Ethiopian Herald points out, has never been anyone’s colony or dominion, and now all the more so it does not intend to act in keeping with anybody else’s volition to inflict harm on the homeland.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said his country “does not intend to harm” Egypt or Sudan with its nearly completed dam on the Blue Nile, with a price tag of USD 4.8 billion.   A. Ahmed’s remarks were made during his speech at the 75th Session of the UN General Assembly, which was held online owing to the coronavirus pandemic.   “I want to make it very clear that we have no intention of harming these countries,” reports Reuters, quoting Ahmed’s speech.

For his part, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, speaking at the 75th Session of the UN General Assembly, underscored that the negotiating period for the GERD “should not be extended indefinitely” so that the status quo does not become something foisted on others.   “We spent nearly a decade in laborious negotiations with our brothers in Sudan and Ethiopia, trying to reach an agreement regulating how the dam would be filled in and operated, and to find the necessary balance between meeting the requirements so that the amicable Ethiopian people could develop and protecting the Egypt’s interests in water resources, ensuring its right to exist,” – stated A.F. el-Sisi. “Throughout this year, we have gone through successive rounds of intense negotiations, and we have also sincerely joined in the debate initiated by my friend, the Prime Minister of Sudan. After that, we entered the rounds of talks called for by South Africa, the current chair of the African Union; these efforts, however, did not bring about the desired results.”

Egypt believes that there is always a middle road that can help resolve a crisis. It understands that all sides in this very complex problem have specific goals and objectives. Naturally, Sudan is concerned about how safe the dam is from a technical standpoint. Egypt needs specific assurances regarding how periods of regular, continuous water flow will be set up that have the necessary deposits for agriculture. Ethiopia is trying to start generating electricity as fast as it can. But, according to Cairo, there is always a diplomatic way to resolve these problems for the benefit of all three countries involved.

It is quite obvious, and incidentally many political analysts note this, that Washington’s course towards a unilateral solution to this kind of complex problem has proved to be completely untenable, and there is every reason to assume that Cairo, Khartoum, and Addis Ababa will prefer to take advantage of Moscow’s offer to act as a mediator. Furthermore, the Russian side has repeatedly received proposals to become a mediator in the dispute between Cairo and Addis Ababa. And during the Russia-Africa Summit, a similar proposal was put forth personally by Russian President Vladimir Putin. There is no doubt that Russia, which has colossal experience in holding talks on many various issues, is capable of positively affecting the ability to eliminate the differences that exist between Egypt and Ethiopia, which will ultimately create the conditions for the stable development of northeastern Africa.

Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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