For Ethiopia, if there is a single war worth sacrificing the blood of its children, it is the fight to break open the century old blockade of the Nile River. More than 90% of the water and 96% of the transported sediments carried by the Nile originate from Ethiopia. Yet, Ethiopia’s legitimate right to the river’s use has been continually sabotaged by Egypt. While millions of Ethiopians starve, Egypt maintains its heavy utilization for various projects, wasting over 20% of the water (more than what all upstream countries demand to use) due to inefficient dams built in the desert.
Year after year, lacking technical, financial, and most importantly determined leadership, Ethiopian farmers watch as the rainfall washes their fertile soil away and gives it to Egypt. Thus, there has always been basis for popular resentment and anger towards Egypt for its unjust use of the Nile.
As a result, the making of war threats to Egypt over the right to use the Blue Nile has been an established propaganda used by successive Ethiopian rulers in order to gain a populist support. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has continued this tradition of rhetorical confrontation. But why did Ethiopian leaders fail to live up to the promises of utilizing the Nile for the benefit of their country, despite a paramount need and popular public support?
War has been the most common means by which disputes over natural resources between countries are resolved. It is often said that Egypt and Ethiopia could go to war in the event that Ethiopia decides to reduce the quality or quantity of the Nile water. Yet, despite intense rhetorical exchanges, neither country ever seriously considered war as an option. In a latest interview with Reuters, Meles said “I am not worried that the Egyptians will suddenly invade Ethiopia. Nobody who has tried that has lived to tell the story. I don’t think the Egyptians will be any different and I think they know that.”
It is true that Egypt will never contemplate invading Ethiopia, but not because they are scared of defeat as he alludes to. For Egypt, waging military confrontation with a country that is thousands of miles away and does not share a border is simply impractical. One tactic often touted by the Egyptians is to bomb any dam Ethiopia constructs on the river. I suspect this too is a bluff. The cost of such action would outweigh any potential benefit, as Ethiopia would most certainly respond by bombing Egyptian dams, causing catastrophic damage that could potentially wipe out Egypt as we know it. In short, any act of direct military confrontation would only be the very last option for Egypt.
However, Egyptians rely on other more advantageous strategies to counter Ethiopia’s ambition and preemptively disable its ability to temper the water’s flow. 1) Economic; by blocking Ethiopia from raising the funds needed to develop projects 2) Legal; by foreclosing future use of the river by developing projects before the upstream countries and asserting prior usage 3) Security; by destabilizing Ethiopia through strategic and material support for insurgent groups.
It’s obvious that in order to develop projects on the Basin, Ethiopia needs external financial assistance. Cairo uses all possible leverage to discourage global financial institutions and donor countries from supporting Ethiopia’s projects. Cairo’s strategic importance to the global economy and security (the Suez Canal, its crucial role in the Middle East conflict, etc.) has placed it in such a position that almost every financial institution has difficulty withstanding its pressure. Therefore, Egypt has been able block several promises made to Ethiopia by the World Bank and other institutions. Faced with this reality, Ethiopia’s best option is to generate enough domestic resources for its projects.
Since most agreements on Nile River usage were signed during the Colonial era, and gave veto power to Egypt, Ethiopia and other upstream states now reject them. However, as Meles said the Egyptians “have yet to make up their minds as to whether they want to live in the 21st or the 19th century.” Egyptians might have laid the foundation to assert legal rights over the river even beyond the 21st century. Legal scholars suggest that in accordance with the international law governing use of water resources, the ‘concept of foreclosure of future use’ could give a downstream country protection against an upstream country. For example, just like Ethiopia and other upstream countries could harm Egypt through physically reducing the quantity and quality of the Nile water, Egypt can assert acquired legal rights over the water flow and block Ethiopia from undertaking projects that reduce it.[i] For instance, if Egypt is the first to develop projects on the river, Ethiopia would have to forgo its own in order not infringe upon Egypt’s project by reducing water flow.
Since Egypt has developed many more water resource projects than Ethiopia, obviously Ethiopia would have to reject this principle as discriminatory. Nevertheless, Egypt can use the principle to drag Ethiopia through the international legal system and forestall its ability to undertake any project in a timely manner. Ethiopia must continue to insist on new negotiation that allocates fair and equitable quota among all Nile riparian countries. If Egypt does not come to terms, Ethiopia can exercise its right unilaterally.
Destabilizing and weakening successive Ethiopian governments have been Egypt’s most efficiently exploited strategy to protect its monopolistic use of the Nile water. Cognizant of the internal contradictions and historical animosities among various Ethiopian constituencies, Egypt has often supported rebel groups fighting against Ethiopian rulers. This support has been both direct and indirect – in the past, it armed Eritrean and Tigrean rebels, backed Somalia’s support for Oromo and Somali insurgents, and also supported Siad Barre’s invasion. Reportedly there was even a plan to settle millions of Egyptians in Somalia in order to balance Ethiopia’s population. Ethiopia has also alleged that Egypt took sides with Eritrea during the 1998-2000 border conflict. There is little doubt that Egypt has been using Eritrea to channel support for various Ethiopian and Somali insurgents. This Egyptian strategy has been fruitful, given the unfortunate fact that every Ethiopian ruler has relied heavily on violent suppression of dissent, and the implementation of policies that favors one ethnic group over the other, thus creating favorable domestic conditions for armed insurgency.
Countering Egyptian Monopolistic Ambition
A country engaged in war with itself cannot build the necessary financial and political strength to protect and advance its national interests against a competing external foe. Meles is right in saying that “If we address the issues around which the rebel groups are mobilized then we can neutralize them, and therefore make it impossible for the Egyptians to fish in troubled waters because there won’t be any.” The problem is that the prime minister’s statements run contrary to the policies he has been implementing. By promoting the supremacy of his ethnic group, and using the old, familiar divide and rule policy of pitting one group against the other, he has exacerbated the already rampant internal fragmentation. Wiping out the infant civil society organizations, cracking down on the press, and filling the jails with political prisoners is hardly ‘addressing issues around which rebel groups are mobilized’.
His intolerance for even modest dissent – demonstrated by the 2010 election – has killed any hope for a peaceful political process in the country, and has reenergized groups that advocate bringing political change though violent means. Just like his predecessors, Meles has been preparing internal conditions that are advantageous to the Egyptians, as evidenced with their renewed aggressive courting of rebel groups. It’s true that today Ethiopia is relatively stable and that Meles is not facing aggressive multiple rebellions as his predecessor did – however, the condition that fosters insurgency is ripe.
Responsibility of the dissident
The primary responsibility to eliminate internal conditions that expose a country to external intervention and manipulation falls on those holding state power. Therefore, Meles Zenawi and his party have the power and duty to ensure internal cohesion through peaceful resolution of political disputes. Unfortunately they are doing the opposite. Still, those who aim to replace the current government are also just as responsible for protecting and safeguarding the national interest of the people they promise to serve more effectively. That responsibility begins by refusing to be a proxy for an opportunistic external force that aims to permanently disable our potential to break out of the cycle of poverty.
[i] – See for example, Salman, Salman M. A.(2010) ‘Downstream riparians can also harm upstream riparians: the concept of foreclosure of future uses’, Water International, 35: 4, 350 — 364
–McCaffrey, S., 2007b. The law of international watercourses. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University