Is Ethiopia’s rendezvous with history really arriving, or are we in some fantasy?

24 May

“I don’t believe you should put the future on hold in order to bring the past to account.” 

 Mohammed Heikal’s advice to Egyptian revolutionaries, Al Ahram, 19 May 2011

By Keffyalew Gebremedhin

I

Ethiopia & Egypt: Fresh optimism for new beginning

The question of utilization of the Nile River is not simply a matter of national sovereignty or spiritual issue for Ethiopia, as Abbay has always been viewed by tradition. Nor is it mere symbol for demonstration of patriotism that would barely go beyond emotions and sentiments. This time with Ethiopia’s determination to utilize it effectively, the Nile must become the potent mechanism Ethiopia has needed to lift millions of its citizens out of abject poverty and jettison the country into the 21st century. Ethiopia’s determinations now in taking bold initiatives and the onset of changed attitudes in Egypt since its revolution have coincided to create positive environment for that.

Therefore, this now is the real test for the ability of the Ethiopian state to mobilize all citizens toward realizing its major initiatives in the coming five years, including the 48 targets of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG). It is against the backdrop of a bold vision of Ethiopian transformation, largely attended by  a number of unknowns, that Egypt’s prime minister paid a two-day working visit to Addis Ababa recently.

Nevertheless, perhaps informed by false starts of the past, PM Essam Sharaf’s visit from 12-13 May 2011 was low-key. The international media did not give it any attention. Al Ahram and The Egyptian Gazette of 13 May 2011 were content to reprint Reuters’ reportage on the visit and its implications. Ethiopian media coverage was brief and to the point, but incomplete with the usual abundance of superlatives in praise of the home front mercifully suppressed. To tap it off, in a country where official and working visits easily crossover, this time even the habitual joint press conference by heads of the two parties at the end of the official talks was dispensed with.

When one compares this latest visit with PM Ahmed Nazif’s from 18 months ago, this time things were really demure. But the message the Egyptian prime minster brought with him, “The waters of the Nile are nobody’s exclusive property. So we have to utilize this gift of God equally. If there is a will there is a way” (www.waltainfo-com, 14 May 2011), was what Ethiopia has always yearned for Cairo to utter and put into practice. This time it came, but it possibly sounded unreal to Ethiopian officials.

By every measure, however, the utterances of the Egyptian leader in Ethiopia were weighty. He came with a clear goal and left impressing on his hosts “Every country has the right to development and the development in Ethiopia is absolutely helpful to Egypt and vice versa” (www.sudantribune.com, 13 May). With words and body languages, Mr Sharaf did his best to assure repeatedly Ethiopian officials of revolutionary Egypt’s open-mindedness, even about the building of the Renaissance Dam (RD). This is honorable as a principle; it is a position the Nile Basin countries have long sought and demanded from Cairo, but were denied.

This time, there was no protocol(s) to sign on the future utilization of the Nile River. A couple of times he said, “What we are doing now is to create a whole new environment for discussions and exchanging ideas.” He finally stressed, “Egypt is set to play a positive role on fair utilization of the River Nile” (www.ertagov.com, 14 May). His bottom line was that Ethiopia and Egypt need each other (www.news.egypt.com, 14 May). To be fair, he could not have conveyed this any better at this time than to wait for “the best form of implementation” to be recommended by the technical committee of experts reviewing the RD plan, as the spokesperson of Egypt’s foreign ministry Ambassador Menha Bakhoum indicated on 7 May 2011 (www.mfa.gov.eg).

Consequently, Ethiopia too has to wait looking to the future with its options open. Only time would tell whether the new Egypt would indeed become an active player in paving the road toward elaborating an international river basin agreement for the Nile River, eventually its signing by all Nile Basin countries. In so doing, it should not be lost on anyone for a moment that Egypt has grave apprehensions about the future of its water security. Also, let there be no mistake that revolutionary Egypt, in whose name PM Essam Sharaf and his colleagues speak, would for a long time be in search of its future.

Thus, when Egypt makes up its mind about that future it chooses for itself, it would also be making decisions on its relations with its Nile coriparians. Whether the new Egypt should balance its interests with that of its citizens’ needs and desires, or remains secular-cum-religious, or dominated by one or the other, or whether it could ensure equality and stand for justice across genders, religions and class divisions internally or improves the quality of its relations with others externally… whatever its choices, this time around Ethiopia has to stand firm to make sure that it would not sit idle hoping, as it has done for thousands of years, Egypt to become cooperative.

II

Everything is in a state of flux in Egypt

Against the history of relations between our two countries, it should not be surprising if still doubts on Ethiopia’s side and unyielding desire to project power on Egypt’s persist to tempt fate; deeply embedded habits scarcely shed off overnight. Since the aftermath of the revolution and subsequent decapitation of the Mubarak regime, Egypt has been going through the processes of change, including sectarian strife and upheavals, as part of its attempt to redefine itself and the future it wants to embrace. There have been some clashes of ideas and personalities, as it is of values. It is a situation where both the new and old are struggling in search of legitimacy and re-emergence, respectively. The concern for Egyptians and outsiders is what place societal consensus would be accorded to minimize unwanted outcomes.

As discussed above, so far both PM Sharaf’s visit and early on the people’s diplomacy delegation (PDD) have unmistakably intimated desire of the Egyptian people for mutually beneficial relations with Ethiopia. There is clear harmony between the two. It would be recalled that for a few days PDD was cause for celebration of hope by Ethiopians and Egyptians for of improved relations between our two countries. This gives even the worst skeptic reason or courage to believe the future indeed is promising. Yes, still the question must be asked with frankness what means and possibilities these messengers of peace and friendship have to make their vision come true.

For one, it should not be lost on anyone that this only symbolizes popular sentiments in countries where influences of ordinary citizens and civic organizations have yet to be accorded rightful and meaningful place in laws, especially in their implementation. This means that greater efforts need to be exerted to ensure that their respective institutions and governance systems tame the known impulses and capacities of the states to ride roughshod over civil society. The decades we have traversed to reach this point have informed us that the journey has only begun. Building the necessary institutions on the path of democracy still requires more sacrifices at the popular level and the opportunities need to be seized.

For the other, PM Essam Sharaf and his government are in office not longer than six months. A permanent government should be installed by early 2012, unless end of the process is further postponed. We should ignore asking what would happen if the past should weigh heavily on the new outfit and Egypt only sharpens its rhetoric with heavy flavor of interstate cooperation, all its accent on trade, commerce and investment.

As a country where new political parties mutate every other month without predictable gravitas, there are concerns what the future would be like in Egypt. In the crowded field of Egypt’s presidential aspirants, already there appear some nostalgic of the country’s politics of hydro-hegemony as continuing to the future. After all, they may calculate that they stand better chance of winning if they provide a sense of security to a country with serious concerns about overpopulation and water scarcity that have long been recognized as threats to Egypt’s future. Would this tempt the military government in Egypt to turn public attention from political and economic difficulties in the usual way authoritarian regimes do?

I would not be surprised if these worries should lend reason and cause for anyone of those men and women to come up with wholly populist agenda. After all, water is a very sensitive political issue in Egypt. That is why I believe Ethiopia must accept the fact that the Mubarak regime is only decapitated, but its unhealthy legacies have not been uprooted. Sharing this concern is also Khalil El-Anani, researcher at Durham University, who in his article “Egyptian revolution reconsidered” observed (Al Ahram, 19-25, 2011):

“Although the Egyptian revolution succeeded in ousting the Mubarak regime, it has not yet managed to uproot the ills of its culture, value system and prevailing modes of behavior. Therefore, it remains “half a revolution”, or more precisely, a “revolutionary act” that still needs follow- through towards completion…During the past three months we have seen only surface changes in the Egyptian state. Leading political figures and symbols were toppled, but the “heart”, or foundation, of that state remains unchanged…Since the 25 January Revolution, not a single political party, movement (such as the Muslim Brotherhood) or public institution has undertaken internal reforms, let alone radical overhauls, to bring it in line with the spirit of the revolution. Not a single official has voluntarily left office, admitted error, expressed desire to reform himself.”

This very situation in Egypt also bothers Mohammed Heikal, the long time and most cerebral of Egypt’s political commentators, respected journalist and prized writer whose counsel used to be sought in higher places at home and abroad. He recently emerged from hibernation to give his take on the old Egypt and the new one on Al Ahram, for the second time in 37 years. From his privileged observatory where he became witness how things came into being, he applied his incisive mind to render his observations and concerns about the present interim period, which in his view, is becoming “a phase of biding one’s time and postponing action at the level of institutions” (May 19).

On top of that, Egypt’s economy has suffered contraction and, taking advantage of new freedoms, popular demands for jobs and higher pays are increasing, for which the military council running the country has tried to exploit it to have ordinary people turn their back against the revolution, possibly as a way of reversing its course.

Therefore, notwithstanding some of the few fundamentally happy omens that flow from Egypt’s 25 January revolution, I could not help being chary of some undercurrents.

III

Troubling signs from Cairo

Experience has shown that a very typical feature of Egypt’s diplomacy has been the multiplicity of its conflicting impulses, as it goes about achieving its objectives. In the past six weeks, these have become too obvious for any disguise. Perhaps, coupled with the normally dogged behavior of foreign service as  national security instrument of an old state bureaucracy, the clash between existing policy guidelines and expectations the new political environment has engendered might have made it difficult for it to make seamless adaptation to the new situation.

In this situation, therefore, the foreign policy machinery has been lumbering against numerous pressures to advance Egypt’s interests, as modernity, new politicians and new ideas complicate its tasks, with all sides dabbling in their individual visions and political expedience. For instance, after Burundi signed NBI’s Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) on 28 February, Assistant Foreign Minister Mona Omar went to Kinshasa from 4-6 April 2011 and stayed four days to accomplish two tasks:

            Deliver message from interim President Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi to President Kabila; and,

            Ensure that opinion in the Nile Basin would not become monolithic, especially regarding the Nile Basin Initiative’s (NBI) Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA).

The message of Interim President Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi Soliman, Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to President Joseph Kabila, according to Mme Omar, beseeched the latter to avoid signing the CFA. She told Almasryalyoum of 9 April 2011, “The message stressed the importance of relations with Congo, promised cooperation in all fields and praised the Congolese government’s decision not to sign the Entebbe Framework Agreement, which redistributes Nile water to the detriment of Egypt’s share”. On his part, Congolese FM Alexi Thambwe Mwambaa reaffirmed his country’s decision not sign it. Egypt showered Congo DR with several tractors, operators training, short-term services of Egyptian surgeons and Cairo’s commitment to support the country’s nominee for the post of political affairs commissioner in the AU (www.mfa.gov.eg, 4 April).

When such action was taken, Egypt was fully aware that Burundi has signed the agreement and it means nothing holds back the CFA from becoming a new regime in the Nile Basin, culminating the veto power and control over the Nile the obsolescent treaties and agreements have bestowed on Egypt and partly on the Sudan. The thinking may be that there would be to politic around lack of unanimity within upstream states of the Nile Basin. Can Mr Sharaf explain this? No. No. I should address this question to the interim president.

Further, as far as future Egyptian relations with Nile Basin countries are concerned, Egypt has recently picked up a new strand. While definition and the nature of operations have not been explained clearly, Assistant Foreign Minister Mona Omar on 20 April 2011 outlined Egypt’s choice of NGOs as foreign policy tools. In the first place she regretted the its detrimental absence to date, and then said, there would be:

“Focus on the NGOs activities, which was not available in the past phase, nor were there any communications between the NGOs representatives in Egypt and their counterparts in the African countries in general, and the Nile Basin countries in particular …The past phase witnessed mutual misunderstanding amongst parties concerned. There was skeptical understanding as every party thought the other would harm…[This] helps achieve the desired détente leading to resolving crises”(www.mfa.gov.eg, 20 April).

I presume this would be resisted by Ethiopia, whose civil society law has been heavily criticized internationally for its rigidity and restrictiveness intent on discouraging or controlling grassroots level activities by citizens. It is not also clear in the case of Egypt how it could operationalize this in other countries. In the past, such efforts have, for instance, in the case of Burundi resulted with serious complaints by concerned citizens from that country, alleging that Egypt has been bribing the Muslim community to become pressure point against the Burundi government in the event that it decided to sign the CFA (Jimma Times, 7 Dec. 2010, http://www.jimmatimes.com/article).

At the same time, the policy conflict is mind-boggling, when on realizes against the above two that the assistant foreign minister was also the first senior Egyptian official to signal in clear terms that Egypt would be interested in participating in construction of the Renaissance Dam, as long as the RD did not affect Egypt’s water quota (www.rosaonline.net, 20 April 2011). Could this be another example of all roads leading to Rome?

Again on the other side, shortly after his appointment Water and Irrigation Minister Hussein Al-Atfy said he did not believe there was any need for Nile upstream states to sign the CFA (www.alahram.com, 11 March 2011). As the official in charge of the experts advising the government on the Nile Question, it is very likely that he may not be supportive of such information coming out from office, despite its neutrality. This is inconsistent with his prime minister’s publicly declared position. Another area of concern is also the treatment of Egyptian experts, when they do not oppose the building of dam by Ethiopia or any other upstream country. A particular case was discussed recently in Al Ahram on the basis of exclusive reporting by the Arabic language newspaper Shorouk.

A particular case in point is the accusation leveled against Abdul Fattah Motawi’, head of department of Nile Waters in the Egyptian ministry of irrigation. In February/March, some members of the ministry’s technical committee were up in arms against him, campaigning for his removal from his chairmanship of the committee alleging incompetence. They were displeased with his work of “denying any serious risks from the building of the Ethiopian dam on Egyptian shares of Nile water.” Al Ahram picked this story from Shorouk and wrote its take under the title Ethiopian hydropower Nile project alarms Egypt, 14 March 2011.

In highlighting these inconsistencies and troubling signals, the intention here is not to cast doubt on Mr Sharaf’s integrity or on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. It is only to temper undue optimism on the part of Ethiopia. This necessitates refreshing our memories how and why efforts at improving relations between Ethiopia and Egypt that started in earnest in December 2009 disastrously flopped by November 2010.

IV

Lessons from the rear view mirror

I recall from 18 months ago the budding optimism in Ethiopia and excited energies in the Egyptian media during and after the working visit to Ethiopia of PM Ahmed Nazif from 29-30 December 2009. A great deal of importance was attached to the occasion partly by the agreements signed and promises of billions of dollars in investments. The semi-official Al Ahram dubbed that visit “historic.” With Mubarak regime’s promissory note on cooperation on the Nile in his hand, at a joint press conference PM Meles Zenawi lauded it as one that has turned the ties between Ethiopia and Egypt “from distrust to a friendly cooperation” (Reuters, 3 January 2010). As a citizen with immense interests on the Nile Question, I admit, I too watched it with a sense of anticipation.

For all we know, that optimism was not translated into reality. Shortly after, media campaigns and words of some prominent Egyptians, including Mr Mubarak and members of his National Democratic Party (NDP), went on a separate track. They began to inject doubts about Ethiopia’s credibility regarding cooperation on the Nile. His official sticks were the burgeoning Ethio-Israel relations and how Israel was helping Ethiopia to build dams and modern irrigation technologies (!). Recall that the December 2009 Nazif mission to Ethiopia, accompanied by 100 officials and business people, was after all organized three months after Israel’s in September 2009, following the visit to Ethiopia by DPM/FM Avigdor Lieberman at the head of 20-strong delegation that formalized Israel’s close and  all-round ties with Ethiopia. At the time, Haaretz , 2 September 2009, reported that, in addition to top foreign ministry officials, Lieberman was accompanied “by around 20 Israeli businessmen from the fields of energy, agriculture, shipping, irrigation, infrastructure, chemistry, media, and security.”

Mubarak regime’s accusation of Ethiopia is astonishing for its hypocrisy, especially when one sees Egypt’s strong bond with Israel, as the latter’s only closest and trusted ally in the Arab world. This has earned Mr Mubarak and his inner circle huge political and economic fortunes that have now been exposed as corrupt practices. At the moment, amongst the accused for corruption, for instance, regarding the long time gas deal with Israel, which has now led into investigation of Egypt’s first family (http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2011/1039/eg40.htm, 17-23 March 2011).In spite of that, Egypt began complaining claiming, “Israel’s interest in the Horn of Africa is not limited to meddling in Egypt’s national security by interfering with Cairo’s quota of Nile waters, but also serves higher Israeli goals (Al Ahram,, Meddling in Africa, 6-12 May 2010).

Even the understanding Mr Nazif’s with Ethiopian officials was slanted in article entitled  Eyeing Abyssinia by Al Ahram  (7-13 January 20109), wherein it wrote: “The Ethiopian compromise, publicly acknowledging Egypt’s right to its quota of Nile water, is an answer so obvious that one wonders why it was not on the table already. Now that it is, Ethiopia’s pragmatism may produce better results.”  To this day, Egypt has not explained what that is all about. It is a different story if its desire is to take over through economic muscle. If Ethiopia had fed no such expectations, one may take that turn of events as an edifying evidence of Egypt’s unyielding policy goals on the Nile, which I had extensively discussed at the beginning of 2011 in the context of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera (AAida, Verdi’s opera, stands out as reminder of the ongoing Nile dilemma, http://www.ethioquestnews.com).

There is no doubt that Mr Nazif’s visit has strengthened economic relations between our countries. In less than a year, Egypt’s share in Ethiopia’s economy was estimated at about $1.1 billion, moving now to the $2.0 billion threshold; annual trade volume has grown to roughly $700 million, the balance hugely favoring Egypt. Nevertheless, the political relations between the two countries could not get out of the morass of distrusts on the Ethiopian side and dagger and cloak politics from the Egyptian side. Mubarak’s Egypt could not appreciate NBI processes or the direction of the negotiations on the framework agreement and Ethiopia’s role in strengthening the position of upstream states.

There was even a second attempt in between Mr Nazif’s visit to Ethiopia, when on 7 July 2010 the two sides had yet another stint. Again, they toasted their new understanding, following a few hours of tête-à-tête between former FM Aboul Gheit and PM Meles Zenawi. The high-level delegation headed by Mr Gheit included a second minister and the who-is-who of the Nile Question within the then Egyptian government. At the time, 45-minute airtime was also given to the Ethiopian PM on Egyptian television. He spoke directly to the people of Egypt on all the relevant issues of the Nile from the Ethiopian and upper riparian perspective and what would be best for Egypt and the rest of the basin countries.

In that, PM Meles Zenawi made no reference to any deals or breakthroughs in his talks. Former FM Seyoum Mesfin characterized that engagement as an attempt “to bridge the gap that exists in different capitals [Nile Basin]…” (Daily Ethiopia, 9 July). The press release by Ethiopia’s foreign ministry was so masterly convoluted with generalities (A Week in the Horn of 9 July), it was not easy to get a crack at what took place, as could be seen hereunder:

“Very serious and frank discussion was conducted and both sides agreed that the multifaceted relations between the two countries should be promoted and further enhanced. It was emphasized that the close bond that exists between Ethiopia and Egypt cannot, for obvious reasons, be broken. As regards the Cooperative Framework Agreement under the umbrella of the Nile Basin Initiative, understanding was reached to try to narrow the gap by negotiating in good faith notwithstanding the differences that might exist with all due respect to the principles of equitable and reasonable utilization and not causing significant harm to other Basin states. It was emphasized that there was no reason why the issue between upper and lower riparian countries could not be handled and resolved in such a way as would promote and protect the interest of both sides.”  

There is no reference here whatsoever to water-sharing agreement. What is surprising is, on his return to Cairo  Mr Aboul Gheit disclosed to Cairo’s diplomatic press on 8 July, as the media put it in ‘upbeat mood,’ his coup d’état Mr Gheit declared:

“Our visit was successful and went a long way towards the development of mutual understanding between Egypt and Ethiopia…The talks focused on the allocation of the waters of the Nile…The meetings had been fruitful… [They] have filled in a lot of details and allowed each side to gain a greater appreciation for the other’s position…Egypt and Ethiopia are willing to strengthen [their] relations” (www.almasryalyoum.com/en/ 9 July 2010).

At the time, I could not help feeling both the premier and his foreign minister were upstaged by the Egyptian foreign minister in ways they least expected, regarding his claim of victory. Very surprisingly, the Ethiopian side has kept mum to this day, no denials or confirmation. That situation helped neither side. Only four months later, the two countries were back at each other’s throat in November 2010. In an exclusive interview with Reuters, Mr Meles Zenawi on 23 November 2010 publicly accused Egypt of attempting to destabilize his two-decade old regime. He linked that to Egypt’s hegemonic interests, with Eritrea as agency this time. As before, the political relations between the two countries continued to suffer huge setbacks.

Without minimizing the difficulties and sensitivities inherent in working towards international river basin agreement for the transnational Nile River, especially with Egypt, I must seize this opportunity to underscore the much-ignored importance of transparency in national life. The need in today’s Ethiopia cannot be sufficiently emphasized. Its absence impedes cultivating informed citizenry, as promoter and reliable defender of the nation’s interests. The media also cannot do its job of informing and educating the people. If what Egyptian officials have told the world is as I read it in their official statements, the silence by Ethiopian officials would do no less than deepening distrust and misgivings of citizens.

This has reminded me of the words of one of the earliest United States delegates to disarmament talks Hugh Gibson’s disapproval of secrecy in diplomacy. While he made it abundantly clear he did not advocate, in his words, “diplomacy in the market place”, in his book the Road to Foreign Policy (1944) he advised diplomacy’s practitioners “We shall get farther faster by returning to the tested methods of real diplomacy: negotiating in private and making the results public.” Ato Meles Zenawi and his colleagues cannot miss how humiliating this could be for Ethiopian citizens always to learn about the real story of their country’s engagement with other countries from the media or other side of the table: in this case Egypt! In this, even the Mubarak regime that has been constantly vilified as dictatorial had better records in information sharing.   

V

Prioritizing human security and freedom

After the 7 July encounter with Ethiopia, Egypt’s diplomacy has changed track, giving emphasis to technical cooperation as its foreign policy tool. Egypt’s Africa technical assistance program in 2010 received a supplementary budgetary injection of LE100 million, the equivalent roughly of  $18 million, according to Al Ahram, 8-14 July 2010. After the huge drive in investments, Egyptian business activities began to take place in Ethiopia with increased fervor, with the enthusiasm of a newcomer to El Dorado. Already by March 2010, Egypt has become the fourth country, after China, Germany and India to open a branch of its central bank to facilitate operations of their businesses and interests of their entrepreneurs. The fact that something like this happens with simple directives is by itself in a country where the laws prohibit operations of foreign banks has not been explained to Ethiopians, nor whether the safeguards are in place to protect against harmful actions to the economy.

Egypt has now offered promises of huge investments. There is need to be selective. Unless investments make contributions to domestic economic growth (jobs, technology, production, expertise), Ethiopia could only be a loser on two fronts: not getting its goal of equal access to the Nile River and thus becoming facilitator of capital extraction by outsiders and perpetuation dependence on their activities that cannot strengthen the economy. It is imperative that Ethiopia appropriately judges the quality of local or international capital, not by its volume, but by its ability to satisfy national aspirations to overcome poverty, ensure the country’s development, instead of becoming honeycomb for the benefit of transient interests of foreign investors. As it stands now, investors in rural Ethiopia have become the new governments.

This is not denial of the fact that trade and investments are important tools for national development, interstate cooperation and, under helpful circumstances, to facilitate understanding in problematic relations. What the above means is that, unlike the past several years especially regarding foreign investments in agriculture, where Egypt is one amongst the throngs of foreign investors, there is pressing need for Ethiopia to re-examine its policies or their implementation, whether they are  tailored to maximize the country’s benefits and development (jobs, technology, finance and economic expansion). There is also need to ensure that there are institutions that monitor the activities of investors whether their investments are attuned to supporting greater human security, not human exploitation and humiliation through displacement of the rural population and environmental degradation, as has especially been the case in the last three years—as many evidences have begun to emerge. In that past few years, there has been more emphasis to putting the interests of investors, ahead of citizens’.

When the state is clear where the interests of the nation lie, it could turn them to the benefit of the people with good policies and transparent program auditing capability. Most importantly, program auditing is relatively easier, less time-consuming than auditing accounts. Beyond strengthening the nation’s economy, such an approach would positively impact the domestic economy and also would have positive accent on the problematic Ethio-Egyptian relations, at the core of which is the Nile Question. After all, the responsibility of government is to ensure the well-being of its citizens and safeguard the nation’s interests. Unfortunately, there is now a great deal of leakage in the economy that takes away resources from where they should have been put to productive uses. I have in mind poor macroeconomic policies and official and other forms of corruption, about which much has been reported.

VI

The RD can become Ethiopia’s title-deed on the Nile River; it is now or never!

Since 1997, Egypt has been eying the year 2017 with great anticipation. By that time, work on its mega projects (water infrastructures, several thousand sq.km of desert reclamations for expanded agriculture and building new cities) is expected to be complete. That is its way of responding to future needs of a country with growing population and limited natural resources. As discussed in my earlier article (Mubarak era power play on the Nile must give way to basin-wide cooperation, http://www.nazret.com, 2 March 2011), the more time Egypt gets the more water it needs.

By the admission of Egyptian experts, these projects would raise Egypt’s total water requirements to 97.8 BCM, as against its present self-allotted quota of 55 BCM. Egyptian experts claim the target could be met within existing Egypt’s self-allotted water quota, which is very questionable. What we need to ask is where does that additional volume of water come from, unless Egypt continues to block utilization of upstream states from use of the water resources of the river. 

This thinking has required the Mubarak regime to dig its heels to buy more time to ensure its permanent control over the Nile, as it kept on distracting Nile River upstream states with empty rhetoric. Egypt’s existing Nile policy is largely shaped by former ‘Foreign Minister’ and UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who has since 1977 tried to make it work in “exchange for something.” He made this clear in an interview with Francesca De Châtel in her Water Wars (13 March 2003). If this policy approach failed, he has made it clear on several occasions since 1985 that there would be war on the Nile River (Middle East Quarterly, September 1997).

In a February 2nd 2005 interview on BBC, he reiterated that in clear terms, why that has become essential for Egypt: “The real problem is that we need an additional quantity of water and we will not have an additional quantity of water unless we find an agreement with the upstream countries which also need water and have not used the Nile water until now.” In other words, the Mubarak regime’s policy has been openly geared to encouraging underdevelopment of upper riparian states toward realization of Cairo’s hegemonic policy objectives. 

The last thing Mubarak’s Egypt did in June 2010 was to sanitize Egypt’s policy position on the Nile to make it more palatable. This sanitized version came out as instruction to Egyptian officials in a lecture by former President Mubarak. As he was preparing to send Abul Gheit to Ethiopia in July 2010, he criticized his officials dealing with the Nile issue in his government for allegedly advancing conflicting positions. Instead, he told them to learn and streamline their views with his, as follows:

“Our message is not that we will get our share [self-allotted water quota] no matter what. Our message is that we need this share and we are willing to work with concerned states to make sure that our sustainable access to this share does not in any way undermine their access to development” (Taking a different track, 1–7 July 2010, http://www.alahram.org.eg).

During his visit to Ethiopia, Premier Sharaf rejected that Egyptian approach as “flawed.” The essence of his message is that so many decades and resources Egypt has spent imposing penalty on upstream states through their unequal development, denying them access to the Nile River, Egypt has also restricted itself of its own growth and development, even encouraging instability in the south.

Regarding the problems the Mubarak has left behind and the new administration is grappling with, Mohammed Heikal recently drew attention of the new leaders that problems must be addressed from their roots, as one example of which he took his negligence of the Nile Question. In that regard, he pointed out:

The “political crimes”[Mubarak’s] include the assault on the spirit of the republic, staying in power for 30 years, amending the constitution to allow a succession scenario, expending the country’s resources and wealth as if it were personal property, acute negligence on issues that are imperative —such [as] Nile water and sectarian strife, cooperation with Israel at the expense of the interests of the Egyptian people, ordering the forging of the people’s will in election after election, violating human rights by making Egypt a destination for torture, and conspiring in clandestine operations to achieve illegal political and financial gains that harm Egypt’s reputation, national security and stature.     

The leaders in post-revolution Egypt seem to have understood this. So far what we know from their official pronouncements and preliminary actions is that they seem ready to deal with the Nile Question within the framework of genuine cooperation and understanding with all Nile Basin countries. That responds to the issue of negligence their country that Heikal one of its prominent sons has accused it of.  

I truly believe that Ethiopia and Ethiopians within their power to do everything to ensure Ethiopia succeeds in this endeavor to hold its own title-deed on the Nile. This should become Ethiopia’s fact on the ground, as the High Aswan Dam is for Egypt! 

A title-deed does not come only with completion of a house or a project. With the RD started, Egypt would be made to understand in so many ways that since November 2010 Ethiopia has gone about its business on the Nile in a determined way.

VII 

Why this time cooperation between Ethiopia and Egypt could possibly work

History does not come with a bang like suddenness or demolition. It is a process, the accumulation of whose pieces must be carefully scrutinized, embraced and nurtured to pave the path to progress in human security and freedom. Egypt’s revolution and Ethiopia’s RD may now usher in a new era of cooperation, prevailing over Cairo’s intransigence and sense of comfort in transnational injustices successive Egyptian regimes have institutionalized in the Nile Basin both before and after WWII.

What Ethiopia is now seized onto through the RD may have a slight resemblance, unhappy though, with a 1924 unhappy incident between colonial Britain and nationalist Egypt in nudging Cairo into serious engagement and transparent action.

After the assassination of the Governor General of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan in 1924 by seven Egyptians while he was on a visit in Cairo infuriated Britain. It fired a stern seven-point ultimatum to be met by Egypt within 24 hours. Most flustering for Egypt were two points: first, increasing the Ghezira irrigation scheme using the Nile water “from the 300,000 feddans to unlimited numbers, as the need may arise”; and secondly, Egypt was ordered to withdraw all its forces from Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, where along Britain it was the co-administrator of the Sudan.

Egypt dreaded the expansion of that much irrigation, for fear of its impact on the flow water to Egypt and the precedent it sets. At the time, Time magazine reported (1 Dec. 1924), “the Gezira irrigation area in the Sudan is a cause of hot dissension among the Egyptian Nationalists who assert that the waters of the Nile diverted for irrigation purposes will result in depriving Lower Egypt, a rich agricultural district, of a vital supply of water.”

As for troops withdrawal, Egypt’s anger was caused by the mere fact that the request was coming from a foreign power that was in denial of Sudan’s Egyptian-ness. Thus, after an all night session of raucous debate in Egyptian parliament, unable to find solution the primer resigned and Egypt had to comply with the British ultimatum under a more stern final notice.

I see Ethiopia’s recently announced plan to harness the Nile River both an advantage to Ethiopia and pressure point on revolutionary Egypt to remain firm in its expressed pronouncements of fair utilization of the Nile River. It could also strengthen the hands of those that are committed to friendship, mutual respect and mutuality of interests between the two countries. Ethiopia is determined to push forward, irrespective of Egypt’s attitude now or in the future. That is what I glean, from a not so refined approach that the official statement of 11 May 2011 by State Minister Shimels Kemal of Communication Affairs Office to the Sudan Tribune conveyed a day before Sharaf’s arrival: “There won’t be any reason that would stop or delay the ongoing construction of the Nile Dam. It is not something based on the goodwill of Egyptians.” Its impatience is striking in not keeping that for the closed doors official talks between the delegations of the two countries.

Whatever the situation with THE RENAISSANCE DAM, whether it is finished on time on budget, it is Ethiopia’s fact on the ground, its ultimate title deed acknowledging its full right to utilize the Nile River to move the country into the 21st century. That is why, as a citizen of Ethiopia, I have happily embraced the idea of the RD, notwithstanding the enormous political, technical and financial obstacles, stuck before it. A title deed does not come only with completion of a house or a project. Egypt would be made to understand in so many ways that since November 2010 Ethiopia has gone about its business on the Nile in a determined way.

VIII

Latest government initiatives should be accompanied with serious political reforms

That simply is the case because Ethiopian society is need of it. Today, Egyptians have a lot to be prouder because of their revolution. It has relatively opened possibilities for self-expression. It has promised them empowerment of their quest for human dignity and freedom through a better life. Toward that journey, they have come from across the spectrum to work together on the major issues that matter to them and their country’s future. In contrast, it is sad to see Ethiopians divided and that division worryingly growing deeper by the day.

What strikes me most is that, although the Mubarak regime has been repressive and dictatorial, when it crumbled the very political parties he had suppressed, but barely could destroy were the ones that saved Egypt from descending into total chaos and anarchy, as criminals within the ranks of his police and security forces unleashed murders and robberies. His party’s, NDP’s, political vigilantes, maimed and killed so many revolutionaries, only to be caught and by these parties to be handed over to prison guards for containment. Prison escapees were caught by members of these parties and returned to prison. Of these political parties, the Muslim Brotherhood is 80 years old and the Wafd 90. Having survived the worst repressions, they are now playing an active role in the processes to determine the make Egypt of the future. 

What force could save Ethiopia, where the regimes in the country have fought not only its today but also its future? The Meles regime, like the Dergue, has been fighting and destroying civil society organizations to replace them with its own networks. This may have given it temporary upper hand to hold down the lid tight. But at a time when there are huge frustrations in the country, it has only badly deprived itself of any safety valve through open public expressions. Therefore, the lesson in Ethiopia has been political power should be seriously concerned with this outer calmness since this appearance is deceptive.

For a country such as Ethiopia, image should have been its valuable asset. The efforts in all forms that so far have been tried by the Meles regime at polishing its image have not achieved what is desired. More serious major investors, that could have boosted income generation, economic expansion and technology transfer in diverse sectors have avoided the country, although they are very much totally persuaded by Ethiopia’s potentials. Based on reading of the evolving characteristics of societal inter-relations, they do not want to pour huge resources and plant enterprises in a country where forces within society are being  postured to eventual conflicts.

For this, they cite as example the conflict in the Ogaden that is headed into its second decade and has been flaring with intermittent and substantial losses of lives and human suffering. Unless addressed in some form, this situation would remain a serious threat to Ethiopia’s stability and territorial integrity. At present, this is also a region that has been extremely vulnerable to cyclical droughts and floods. How could Ethiopia attain its dream of becoming food self-sufficient within five years under this condition?

Restlessness and low-level conflicts in the south have also entered into their second decade. In fact, these are now gaining traction and spilling over into friendly Kenyan territory, because of which Nairobi has now posted forces posted border activities monitoring force along its frontier with Ethiopia. Similarly, the Eritrean problem is still festering below the radar, with intermittent attacks on both sides. In the West and in the hinterlands, there are activities government has not been capable of controlling. In addition, the prevalent sense of human insecurity in general (poverty, rising frustrations and tensions in the relations between the state and citizens because of repression, the shutting of public space in the country and centralization of everything in the country under a single party) do not augur well for Ethiopia going forward.

Further, despite continuing reports of economic growth, all the credible international indices that report on the country’s performance in the human, social, economic, environmental and political fields do not report anything positive. With my sanity intact, I would find it hard to believe that they are all motivated by hostility toward the country, as EPRDF on several occasions has announced with dismissiveness. The EPRDF has found comfort in treating the diaspora, as if they are not Ethiopians, although the foreign exchange it transfers into the country has been higher than income from exports. The country has also lost immense opportunities from investments by the diaspora and the possibilities for technology transfer.

This conflicting relations between the Meles regime and the diaspora came to the surface in a very embarrassing manner, when the prime minister sent his half cabinet to 18 cities in North America and Europe in April 2011 to solicit their political and financial support for the TGTP and RD. The delegation was comprised, by my count from news reports, 11 ministers, including one from PM’s office, one from the party and one state minister, governor of the national bank, two senior party officials  (one of them doubling ministerial rank—although he is the party’s chief for organizational matters) and a number of regional chiefs. A not negligible segment of the diaspora chose to oppose the briefings and disrupt the meetings. What better evidence could there be for the division amongst Ethiopians than that embarrassing spectacle on foreign soils? All these people cannot be ill wishers for their country, as Ato Meles and his lieutenants have portrayed them to the Ethiopian people, although they are its children.

While the major economic and social initiatives underway are encouraging, the government is always hasty and gifted in covering its mistakes. For instance, in sending this high-powered delegation, it has even ignored the need to prepare the groundwork to bring Ethiopians together for the major undertakings. For that matter when Meles sent such a big delegation To America and Europe, they had hardly done their homework, overall preparation-wise and sequencing their activities within and outside the country. For instance, the Ethiopian people who are now bearing the costs of the RD was not even informed of anything whatsoever these initiatives are all about. Ethiopia’s ambassador to the US conceded this in his interview on Selam Radio, TPLF’s outfit in the US.

After the delegation returned to Ethiopia, media campaigns were loud to arouse the people to give a month’s salary and to buy additional purchases of the government bond. The response was seemingly enthusiastic. of but in its Fine Line of 1st May, Addis Fortune first observed:

“Predictably, his [Meles Zenawi’s] foot soldiers, trained to create mass enthusiasm, and their allies in the state media were quick to grab the opportunity to turn patriotism into mass hysteria. The popular purchasing of bonds and handing out of cheques to the state by almost all state-owned entities lead one to quip, “The legend of Abbay was to carry the logs of the highland to the deserts of Egypt; now does so with the salaries of public servants.”

In The Fine Line of its 22nd May issue, Addis Fortune revisited this same question to register the public’s mumbled complaints, although it would go nowhere, as follows:

The peer pressure on almost every federal government and regional state affiliated agency to do likewise has been incredible. This has now moved onto the private sector. The senior management teams and staffs of 12 private banks are scheduled to assemble at the Millennium Hall on Tuesday, May 24, 2011, to decide on the fate of their respective annual salaries gossip claimed. How these popular decisions made at assemblies and meeting halls are enforced has begun to raise questions during private conversations, gossip observed. There are people who are reminded of the final years of the military government, where people were boxed into giving away their monthly earnings to the war effort, with little regard to their individual choices.

The response is unmistakable: denial and washing away of the hands, not investigating and correcting them. In an interview on the The Ethiopian Reporter, DPM/FM Hailemaiam Dessalegn was not convincing when he said: “የመንግሥት ሠራተኛው ስምምነት ከሌለ ማንም ሊነካው  [ደሞዙን] እንደማይችል ይታወቃል፡፡ በተለይ ደግሞ ከዚህ ግድብ ግንባታ ጋር ተያይዞ ምንም ዓይነት ቅሬታዎች እንዳይኖሩ መንግሥት ፅኑ ፍላጎት አለው፡፡” (unofficial translation:-Without the agreement of the individual civil servant concerned to make contributions, it has long been established practice that no one can take decision on salary on his or her behalf. Especially in respect of the construction of the dam, it is the government’s firm desire there to be no complaints of any sort.” 

Nevertheless, in that statement Ato Hailemariam Dessalegn has not chosen to seek to dispel doubts by doing what a responsible government would do: initiate investigation to clarify the situation. Clearly, these giant initiatives need money, which the country does not have. Unless the government succeeds in its plan in economic expansion, this would become the most ambitious undertaking, as the cliché  en vogue now. It also needs to improve the political situation in the country through healings, which would help improve its relations with the diaspora.

Without this, the fear is real that chance on good prospects could short-circuit. Nevertheless, today more than ever before, the situation in the country calls for serious political reforms and sincere political engagements on all fronts. We have all seen it under the Dergue, whose reliance on force had led to its demise. We have also witnessed in the last two decades how dismissiveness, misrepresentation of facts and reality and political expediency have mis-ruled Ethiopia. Obviously what happened during the briefings of the diaspora in different countries is a tip of the iceberg.

At the end of that spectacle, most distressing to many citizens has been the beauty contest between government and its opponents, debating who won, i.e., whether government achieved its objective of reaching the diaspora or its opponents successfully ‘foiling’ its mission. I disagree with assessments of both sides. Ethiopia has become the loser, while neither of them has won. In the first place, it is difficult to understand why government should operate within the ‘them and us’ parameter, when its objective should have been to unite and mobilize all citizens to nation building.

Those who opposed the government cheered themselves, as if disrupting meetings is the ultimate goal of their advocacy for democracy, when it is not. Many of them suffered possibly in prison or seeking refuge away from home, in the process having lost their youths. While I salute those that went into the meetings and raised the hard and difficult questions peacefully, regardless of how much it rattled the visiting delegation and embassy staff, I cannot understand what is achieved by blocking people from entering meeting halls, or government actions to identify individuals they have blacklisted and blocking them from entering at entrances of meeting halls, even when some have come with invitation–worst of all the explanations given when they were turned away.

Did it ever dawn on them what they have done is no less than them what their citizenship has entitled them to. At this age and time, government holding blacklist of its citizens is by itself a telling example of how rights are lost not only by bad actions but also by their bad understanding of it and their role in society.

This situation has negatively reflected on the opposition. They have failed to separate a time bound important project especially of the harnessing of the Nile from political differences with the regime. In my humble opinion, as a citizen, indifference on an issue of such importance and huge implications to the national sovereignty of Ethiopia and its future and I hope we would not live to regret it. The point is the regime is in power and there is no one else to do what needs to be done now!

This situation has also exposed inability of government to mobilize Ethiopians and to ensure their human, political and financial contributions to this major national effort. As mentioned above, going forward this would be the strongest test yet of government’s ability to steward the nation toward a better future with a view to enabling it attain the objectives of GTP in general and the RD in particular and move it to the 21st century.

As it has indicated in its propaganda campaigns, if indeed government is truly successful then it means that: (a) its message has reached across to as many Ethiopians as it has planned and has persuaded its opponents to stand with it on the GTP goals; and finally, (b) it has achieved its financial objectives.

In monetary terms, it is very difficult to speak with certainty how it would pan out. Nor could the government know it until sometime. However, there should be no doubt that it would certainly be a rough ride for technical, political and financial reasons. Is the Ethiopian economy dependent on export of commodities is perennially suffering from structural and policy problems big enough to provide the resources required in sufficient quantities and in time? As the GTP plan itself indicates the risks are too great, although they have not even been sufficiently analyzed–even where the risks posed by the impact of adverse cyclical nnatural forces to which Ethiopia is too prone–is ignored. How much can the diaspora contribute financially in this uninviting political climate?

For instance, according to the National Bank of Ethiopia, the Ethiopian treasury has received $2.34 billion for three-quarters of 2009/2010 in private transfers: In QI $641 million; QII $810 million; QIII $890 million. The fourth quarter figure is not available NBE’s quarterly report is not out. Thus, for that we can take the figure of $780 million, an average of the three-quarters. Therefore, this puts the total receipt in 2009/2010 to €3.1 billion. 

This means that if we assume there to be a million Ethiopians in the diaspora, in 2009/2010 each one of them has transferred $3,100. This is regular transfer to family members at home. The normal private transfer in the six-year period until 2014/15 rises to $19 billion. Total estimated government revenue during the GTP period is $37.1 billion and the estimated total expenditure of $41.6 billion. As can be seen from these figures, provided by the government, there is a shortfall of $4.5 billion.

Private transfers do not have anything to do with GTP, RD or the purchase of bonds. In financial terms, money could be fungible; but budgeting operates with the zero sum rules. PPrivate transfers have already been covering other needs in government budget for a long time. Now the assumption of the government, therefore, is to receive more money. 

The question now here is how much more contribution could the diaspora make, either through the purchase of bonds and increasing its transfers. The time of unemployment is high on many minds on account of continuing factors affecting the world economy, especially in the developed countries. This requires serious thinking on the part of government. Certainly, there would be many in the diaspora in fortunate situations. But one has also to take into account ordinary members of the diaspora to whom one-go-payment for bonds may be on the high side. This means government ought to think of other practical arrangements, instead of simply whipping up patriotism.

Wining the diaspora requires engagement, with the goal of bringing healing to Ethiopia. Blaming the other side has this far been easier; dismissing criticisms has always been the automatic response, as it was in the case of the Dergue. That did not help the Dergue. It is not going to help now. Ethiopia needs to improve its image by working with citizens, coming together on new thinking and operational parameters for citizens and the state. We are also aware that EPRDF’s spending of hundreds of thousands of money each year on international public relations firms to work to improve its image, which have not helped either. The time has now come to take appropriate political measures to that end, instead of wasteful reliance on international image ‘polishers’.

In the situation we are in, I find the words of two respected social scientists extremely relevant and beneficial. In their widely quoted book Governance, Politics and the State (2000), they observe, “The best proof of the state’s leverage and its political capacities is not whether it can accomplish desired changes in society by itself but whether it is able to muster the resources and forge the coalitions necessary to attain those goals at all.”

Let it be clear that I am not promoter of the regime or its apologist. Nor am I beholden to any one group or espouse a political line of any group. I give my support to any ideas and specific policy measures that advance Ethiopia’s interests. As a person who has seen three governments,  I know that Meles and the EPRDF would not be there forever. Nor could they take with them the dam when they part from power in whatever form. Consequently, we should not now throw out the baby (RD) with the bath water!

As Mohammed Heikal in the above-mentioned informative series of interviews on Al Ahram  (11-19 May) intimated to young revolutionaries of his country, in his words, “I don’t believe you should put the future on hold in order to bring the past to account.”

IX

Conclusion

Finally, if Ethio-Egyptian relations evolve, they would in the future require careful nurturing and institutionalizing, instead of treating them as pet projects of individual leaders. In this connection, I must add that the situation is still very sensitive and delicate, as discussed above. In fact resolution of the Nile Question still hinges on goodwill. But goodwill is no substitute for laws, treaties, good policies and institutions—in both national life and in its international dimensions. Ethiopia could only stand before any challenges with farsightedness, healing the tension that exist within society to ensure internal cohesiveness and broad-based economic growth, that stimulate society better than the locality repression commands and a policy of fishing for shifting alliances in a society the state has so far has effectively divided to advance its interests. 

As mentioned above, our lesson to date is that RD may take time and many sacrifices. But it would have to begin now and moderate the relations between Ethiopia and Egypt. It is Ethiopia’s title-deed on the Nile River. It would also bring to Egypt better understanding of our country’s needs and its determination to go it alone, as it has started now. RD must govern that forlorn part of the Blue Nile Basin, with Ethiopia seizing this golden opportunity to lift its people out of their sub-human existence.

In this situation, the best way for Egypt to show the sincerity of meaning and purpose of what Mr Sharaf brought to Addis Ababa is to inform donors and financial institutions to finance construction of the RD, once the technical committee composed of Ethiopia, Egypt and the Sudan has established that there should be no harm from the dam that should affect interests of the two countries, i.e., Egypt and the Sudan.  As the immediate neighbor 40 km away from where the RD is to stand, the Sudan has already intimated its support for the project, according to latest statement by PM Meles Zenawi. As its guideline on funding projects on transnational rivers, therefore, this should be all the World Bank’s Operational Directive 7.50 should require of the Bank to proceed into funding.

As far as the World Bank is concerned, so far with Directive 7.50 as its cover, it has defended fiercely the acquired rights of states on international rivers, what Egypt likes to refer as its ‘historic right.’ This has come at the expense of equitable utilization of the resources of international river basins. From the point of view of its mandate, in promoting Egypt’s “historic right” and in refusing funding to Ethiopia has not made it neutral. This time, the RD should open its eyes to the need to address itself to this imbalance and the bias in the operations of the Bank it has legitimized.  I understand the intent is first to prevent armed conflicts on shared international rivers and secondly to firewall the Bank and its affiliates from becoming party to any conflict.

It is time the World Bank and multilateral donors woke up to this precedent and saw how they could weigh in against this obvious bias and made the necessary adjustments to their mandates with greater effectiveness against rampant poverty around the world and in the interest of human security and greater freedom.