Home | Comment & Analysis    Wednesday 3 June 2020

Ethiopia GERD: Let us work for sustainable solution


by Dejen Yemane Messele

The recently published opinion piece on the Sudan Tribune in the title ‘Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam: A last chance for Diplomacy’ triggers me to write this piece as a reply. The piece lures this reply as it misstates the parties’ position in the negotiation; exaggerates some situations and possibilities and it lacks neutrality or is highly biased.

It is my sincere stance that GERD will never be a subject of contention and dispute among the three nations as it is a unilateral project owned by a sovereign country. The goodwill invitation of the dam owner to have their say on the project should not be manipulated and this manipulation could be stopped by the owner who invited the manipulator to its podium. The attempt to manipulate negates the very principle of good faith and friendship. GERD cannot determine the future of co-riparian relationship on the utilization and governance of the Nile River. It is with the highest patience that Ethiopia and other upper riparian states are waiting for Egypt’s and Sudan’s membership to the CFA. It has been ten years since the CFA is adopted. So portraying GERD as a decisive subject of relationship is a fiction and dealing with the side issue than the centrality of the relationship. Negotiating on a single project without addressing the basic and central issue of the utilization and governance of the Nile River is illogical and unrealistic. A cart before the horse approach is uneconomic to the Nile dispute.

It was Ethiopia who opened GERD to be a project of cooperation and regional integration but Egypt and Sudan intentionally turned it to a cause for disagreement and competition. So the dam owner could manage it as its own plan and the invited guests should leave the venue with gratitude for the time they have stayed in the dam issues. Nothing could lead to further conflict as the dam was not a joint project. In African traditions, an invited gust never left his good inviter disturbed. An act contrary to this established practice may have consequences.

GERD and its negotiations cannot be a sensitive issue to Egypt and Sudan. Nothing is unprecedented as a number of projects were built and operated on the Nile River. Portraying GERD as the issues of the three countries is part of the escalation project of Egypt to maintain the unfair status quo on the utilization of the river. GERD is entirely Ethiopia’s issue in any form, either in its sensitivity or normality aroma. Neither AHD nor Rosaries Dam never became Ethiopia’s sensitivity. The same logic still works for the GERD realities. Hence GERD never becomes the source of dispute and a threat to regional peace and security as downstream projects never been the source for regional insecurity and instability. Egypt and Sudan must act responsibly and stop their purposeful escalations which could hinder the basin-wide cooperation which has proudly been launched by Ethiopia since 1999. The policy of bilateralism should come to an end.

There is no first and last chance with regard to the GERD. Chances of diplomacy and cooperation are counting only on the basin-wide arrangement of utilization and governance of the Nile River. The countdown should be on this subject matter.

No legal dispute is established on GERD
The contributor of the piece is certain about the existence of dispute on the filling and operation of the GERD but it is an error like his mistake in spelling out Abi instead of Abiy, names with two different meanings in Amharic.

No legal dispute can be established on the GERD between and among the three nations. Factually it is a unilateral project and legally no law obliges Ethiopia to seal an agreement with the two countries. The 2015 DoP is mistakenly mentioned to support a legal basis but this instrument lacks normative force in the eyes of international law and it was conditioned on the cooperation of the two countries and it is vivid that these countries never come with a spirit of cooperation. Hence, in the non-existence of both a factual and legal dispute on the GERD should be underscored before looking for any possible agreement through negotiation. Negotiations on other properties will remain possible until the owner is willing. Negotiations can unilaterally be terminated and the negotiating counterparts cannot claim the continuation of negotiation as of right.

Reflections on some of the author’s main points in the piece
Hence on Egypt’s and Sudan’s quest for the signing of a comprehensive agreement, they may not even be offered a proposal of a partial filling agreement which was big-heartedly offered before. Nothing compels Ethiopia to sign an agreement to fill its own dam. Neither morality nor law justifies the down stream’s plea for a signing of a trilateral agreement over the GERD.

As far as Ethiopia’s position on the filling of its reservoirs is concerned, yes as honourable FM Gedu’s letter unequivocally stated Ethiopia is not obliged to wait for Egypt’s approval to start filling its reservoir. Do Egypt and Sudan ever ask Ethiopia’s request to fill their dams? If so, what mystic reason justifies Ethiopia’s request for approval from these countries to fill its own dam?

Before resorting to calculate the reduction or loss of water flows due to the years to be taken to fill the GERD reservoirs, the question is there a prior appropriated an allocated share of the Nile waters to each riparian states must be addressed. Talking the water share of the two countries as appropriated by 1959 as a baseline is a barefaced refusal to the state of the art in the utilization and governance structure of the Transboundary Rivers. Furthermore, it is a dishonour to the supermajority of the other riparian states. So think about the existence or not of a basin-wide appropriated water share before (mis)calculating your loss or excess.

The author raises one overwhelming question which is “Will Ethiopia continue with its plan or will it hold back until an agreement is reached with Egypt and Sudan? And if it does not back down from its plan, how will Egypt, which has most to lose, respond?
For this issue, let me assure you that Ethiopia will proceed to commence impoundments of waters and filling of its reservoirs without any precondition. Any foreseeable or unforeseeable responses from Egypt will not stop Ethiopia from its plan. Any reaction from Egypt could then be illegal.

The author’s submission of 1959 a bilateral agreement between Egypt and Sudan is irrelevant for both the GERD issue and the Nile dispute as a whole. But the way the author presents Ethiopia’s rejection of this agreement is galling. The author misrepresents Ethiopia’s realities in previous times. Though the author is under a veil of ignorance about Ethiopia it has been an icon of freedom for blacks and Africans who were under oppressive rules of colonial powers. Its rejection of both the 1929 and 1959 colonial and bilateral agreements vividly represents Ethiopia’s timeless understanding of what does sovereignty means. Ethiopia is a defining symbol of sovereignty. Nothing is more backward than accepting the colonial powers agreement after independence. Nothing can define backwardness than appropriating the whole Nile waters in the exclusion of the significant majority of the co-riparians. Hence I call upon the author to revise his perception about Ethiopia.

In his narration of the launching of the GERD, the author raised Ethiopia’s aim to control the Nile River. But controlling Nile has never been in Ethiopia’s vocabulary from past to present. Ethiopia is building the GERD just for the sake of economic development. Controlling Nile is Egypt’s fabricated rhetoric against Ethiopia. Or Egypt is telling her side of the story in relation to the Nile, an eternal dream of water hegemony.

On another turn, the author asserts that “The 2015 DoP was a major shift in Egypt’s stance with regard to what it called its historical rights, and it ushered at the beginning of a new era of cooperation between the three countries.” But I am of a different view of this assertion. Egypt’s participation in the GERD issue was part of its strategy to dominate the Nile River. In the first place, Ethiopia’s invitation to the two countries to have a say on its unilateral dam was a mistake. The fact that Egypt and Sudan refuse to sign the 2010 CFA has revealed their dishonour for cooperation and mutual benefit. Though the DoP is a mere document without normative force under international law, Egypt has violated the principles and procedures provided therein when she unilaterally assign the United States and World Bank as observers. So the assertion that Egypt made a shift from its historical, natural, or acquired rights remains untrue. All those terms are vehemently embraced by Egypt until very recently. And technical issues of the dam is the business of a dam owner. What business do Egypt and Sudan have on Ethiopia’s dam? Does not it an attempt to trespass Ethiopia’s sovereignty? Certainly, it is an encroachment.

On the aborted negotiation under the observation of the US and WB, The United States acted beyond its assigned role and shifted into a position of an adjudicator and drafted an agreement which is a clear violation of the UN Charter and 1969 VCLT. Negotiating and drafting an agreement is the very manifestation of sovereignty under international law. The act violates the sovereignty of the three-country. The author still seems accepting of this violation even for his country Sudan. That is not good. But we Ethiopians are unwelcome to such transgression of our sanctified sovereignty.

The author, on the part of his discussion about the peace and security effects of the GERD, forecast that “If Ethiopia continues with its plan to fill the reservoir without reaching an agreement with Sudan and Egypt, this will leave Egypt facing difficult choices, not only because of the reduction in water that it receives but also because of the damage to its reputation as a major power in the region.” He continues and asserts “In the worst-case scenario, Egypt could launch an airstrike to stop work on the dam. But this option is fraught with risks not only for the two countries and their long-term relationship but for the entire region. Ethiopia would lose the billions of dollars it has spent on the dam, and the project would be delayed for many years. There would also be potential impacts on the environment and Ethiopia’s relationship with Sudan.” The short answer to this prophecy is this never happens. But let me illustrate in this way. There is disrespect for Ethiopia when attributing reputation to Egypt. Ethiopia is a country of nations who knows reputation and sovereignty more than any other country. Never consider its concessions made on the basis of goodwill and good neighbourliness as a surrender and as a sign of compromise on its national interest. When others fail to understand the value of cooperation Ethiopia and Ethiopians will keep their path to exercise their unlimited sovereignty. Ethiopia will never start a war with any country but any country that starts a war with Ethiopia will see its demise and mark its unfortunate historical turning point. I guess no one opts for this despite the author’s prophecy. So writing with responsibility and moderate tone could have been expected from the scholars than beating a drum of war. Stopping the propagation of war is better as it may cost us a lot. I advise my fellow Egyptian and Sudanese brothers in this regard.

The Way-Forward
Let us stop beating of a war drum and focus on the sustainable way out. Negotiation with a bad faith never yields a win-win solution for any dispute. It is striking that Ethiopia has travelled extra-miles to accommodate the interests of the two countries and listen to their concerns. It did without any legal obligation. For sure Ethiopia will be remembered as the only country in the history of transboundary water governance who brought its unilateral dam project for negotiation. It is this partner who is accused of obstructionism. Hereafter, Ethiopia may proceed only with its own terms towards the filling and operation of the dam. She is not obliged to sign a trilateral agreement which the two countries are looking for. Guideline and rules of first filling, as provided under principle 5 of the DoP, does not mean a comprehensive agreement. Egypt’s and Sudan’s request to sign this comprehensive agreement is intended for a water appropriation and allocation agreement. This is not the right venue to do so.

Hence the sustainable solution is let Ethiopia proceeds with its own plan and Egypt and Sudan get ready to come through the CFA to talk about water allocation. The attempt to realize this water allocation agreement in the guise of GERD is seen unsuccessful. This should not be taken as a loss. A short curt approach is a betrayal and disrespect for the other riparian states which could instigate perpetual instability in the basin states. Let the colonial sentiment stop here and a new chapter of a relationship kicks off.

The author is a PhD student at Addis Ababa University, College of Law & Governance Studies. Academic Blog on Nile: Addis Standard and Addis Fortune and General Blogs at International Youth Journal.]

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