The Nile: Why multilateralism and no room for divide and rule?

By: Zerihun Abebe Yigzaw

Unlike many transboundary watercourses across the world the Nile Basin is not lucky to have either multilateral treaties or customary rules to govern the utilization and management of its life giving waters. Even the Basin had no a multilateral body to facilitate negotiation for equitable and reasonable water share among the riparian states. Before the mid-1990s the Nile Basin was hosting a one state show where Egypt was determined to do whatever it wanted on the Basin and to allow or deny who would use the Nile waters and to what level. This self-claimed dictatorship was not exclusively attributed to Egypt`s power of “deciding who gets what, when and how.” Rather before the 1960s the European colonizers favored their downstream colony Egypt at the expense of upriver countries as they were hunger for raw materials such as cotton to their booming textile industries mainly Britain. Ethiopia despite independent at the time was passive in involving in Nile waters related affairs either with the colonial powers or downstream Egypt or Sudan in the post-colonial period for long.

Following the independence of Nile states in East Africa and Equatorial Lakes Region Egypt benefited from recurrent, destructive and savagery civil wars that the upstream countries from Ethiopia to Uganda, from Rwanda to Burundi found themselves chained. This trend has continued till the late 1990s. It was a period which was perceived as a zero-sum-game where Egypt was determined to win at the expense of other upstream states and their natural rights to use their water resources in their own territories. The old Nile Basin, however, starts to fade-away with the establishment of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI)-which established in 1999 as a transitional institutional arrangement to establish a Nile River Basin Commission to govern the utilization and management of the Nile waters. IN fact, the old Nile Basin is a dead end and a New Nile Basin is delivered. For the first time in the history of the Basin all riparian states except Eritrea (an observer in the NBI) gathered under one umbrella called the NBI and start to negotiate basin wide inclusive  Nile Treaty for the equitable and reasonable utilization of the Nile waters.

After ten years of negotiation the countries of the Nile come up with the Cooperative Framework Agreement of the Nile (CFA) which firmly founded on the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization of the Nile waters. The CFA declares that “Nile Basin States shall in their respective territories utilize the water resources of the Nile River system and the Nile River Basin in an equitable and reasonable manner…” (Article 4(1)). Under Article 4(2) the treaty outlines the different relevant factors to determine equitable and reasonable utilization. At the same time Article 5 (1) of the CFA states that “Nile Basin States shall, in utilizing Nile River System water resources in their territories, take all appropriate measures to prevent the causing of significant harm to other Basin States.” The agreement further stipulates different principles such as protection and conservation of the Nile River System and its ecosystems (article 6), regular exchange of data and information (Article 7), planned measures (Article 8) and so on which are basis for transboundary watercourse management. By and large the aim of the CFA is to establish Nile River Basin Commission (NRBC) as permanent intergovernmental organization “to promote and facilitate the implementation of the principles, rights and obligations provided for in the CFA” (Article 16). The CFA in general is a foundation to better enhance cooperation between the Nile Riparians and to ensure benefit from the fruits of the Nile to all riparian states equitably and reasonably. It is a means to create a positive-sum-game where all riparians are determined to win. No one is to lose.

The CFA was then signed on May 2010 by Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania. Recently South Sudan has declared to join the club for justice and equitable utilization of the Nile Waters. Democratic Republic of Congo is expected to join soon. While Ethiopia is initiating the ratification of this treaty Egypt and Sudan have still persisting not to sign the Agreement with the aim of maintaining the old zero-sum game on the Nile Basin. The major point of difference is on Article 14(b) of the Agreement which states that that the Nile Basin States agree “not to significantly affect the water security of any other Nile Basin State”. But Egypt and Sudan object this statement and Egypt propose its replacement by “Not to adversely affect the water security and current uses and rights of any other Nile Basin States.” Egypt brought this infant concept called Water Security in the negotiation process for the CFA just to maintain the so-called “old agreements”-namely the 1929 Colonial Treaty and the 1959 Bilateral Agreement between Egypt and Sudan, which only benefits mainly Egypt seconded by Sudan at the expense nine sovereign states. If the other riparian states were to accept what Egypt proposed it would be tantamount to putting a colonial yoke via a pseudo-treaty which would take the Nile Basin nowhere but a vicious-circle of mistrust and suspicion.

Sudan could accept the CFA had it been free to decide by its own regarding the waters of the Nile. Many reasons can be enumerated.  One can guess the hydropolitical quandary Sudan finds itself. It is imperative for Sudan to join upstream states and enhance multilateral cooperation efforts so as to increase its benefits from the Nile waters. Nevertheless, Sudan is shackled by the 1959 Agreement with Egypt to have similar policy with the later and one cannot also undermine the long hand of Egypt in Sudan`s domestic economy and politics. Be that as it may, despite with all the fortunes and win-win gain it carries the CFA is still not embraced by Egypt and Sudan and it is evident that the CFA will not hug these countries unless they accept Article 14(b) as agreed by upstream states. Unsurprisingly, however, Egypt is still not tired in using the same old strategy of divide and rule the Nile Basin-which is a dead end.


Egypt`s Divide and Rule in the Nile: The Origins

The Nile Basin as a matter of its nature has divided sub-basins-which can be broadly categorized as the Blue Nile; which represents all waters joining the Nile from Ethiopian Highlands which accounts 86% of the Nile (Abbay, Tekeze and Baro-Akobo) and the White Nile which originates from the Equatorial Lakes Region accounting 15% or less of the total Nile flow. For long Egypt has used this natural divide as a God sent opportunity to divide and rule the riparian states so as maintain its grip on the Nile. Egypt has followed two strategies in this regard. One is establishing pseudo-cooperation efforts witnessed through the so-called Hydromet, Undugu and Tecconile. All these institutional attempts were initiated by downstream states mainly Egypt and designed to maintain its selfish interest. In these processes Ethiopia was not as active as it had to be. One of the reasons is that, it was marginalized from these processes by Egypt`s systematic and chicanery tactics by focusing on White Nile states. The other main reason was Ethiopia itself was passive and preoccupied by the long protracted civil war which drained the country`s resources.

The second mechanism employed by Egypt has been weak unhelpful bilateral dealings with countries in the Equatorial Lakes Region. Egypt for long was able to maintain bilateral and partially multilateral relations with the White Nile states. The very purpose of this move was to alienate Ethiopia from the rest of upstream states. These all processes coupled with years long civil war in some of the White Nile States such as Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, and their smugness of the water resources they have other than the Nile or their less contribution (15%) to the whole Nile System assisted Egypt to succeed with this strategy of divide and rule the Nile. This has continued till the end of the 1990s which marked the beginning of new era in the Nile Basin as upstream states emerged as more assertive than ever before with Ethiopia`s proactive and leading role. As mentioned earlier despite the change in political dynamics in upstream states with their growing assertiveness that resulted in the CFA after ten years of negotiation, Egypt is still with its old stratagem.

Egypt`s Lost Trials of Divide and Rule Since the CFA 

Following the signing of the CFA what the then regime of Egypt under Mubarak did was the same old story of trying to divide upstream states. Mubarak`s regime had invited leaders of Congo and Burundi to visit Egypt for bilateral cooperation, negotiations and to boost their relations. For instance between March 13, 2009 and August 2010 alone Egypt and Burundi exchanged 23 high-level ministerial visits. In 2010 Egypt invited DR Congo for high ranking official visits where President Joseph Kabila visited Cairo in May 2010. The focus of Egypt after the five upstream states signed the CFA was strengthening its bilateral relation with these two states which was an attempt to play them not to sign the Agreement. Nonetheless, despite Democratic Republic of Congo did not yet signs the CFA Burundi has joined the club as the 6th riparian on 28 February 2011.

One of the most extraordinary happenings following the decision of the upstream states of the Nile to sign the CFA was the most frequent diplomatic visits between Egypt and Eritrea. Between March 4th, 2009 and June 10th, 2010, the two countries exchanged some 23 diplomatic visits from both sides including the visit of Eritrea`s president to Cairo. Following such developments Eritrea`s dictator remarked that the signing of the CFA by upstream states “not only aggravates the situation but also creates tension.” In this context, it was the president`s idiocy which was uncovered and it ones again affirmed that he is still shouldering not the interest of the Eritrean people but his sponsors during the civil war in Ethiopia before Eritrea`s secession.

Egypt`s relentless trials of bilateralism in the Nile Basin was not bound to the upstream states in the White Nile states alone. It was the headlines of most news outlets that in the aftermath of the signing of the CFA a lot of business men from Egypt and different ministers had visited Ethiopia in mass. The focus of these visits was more or less on bilateral trade and investment affairs. Nevertheless, those moves had never been more than a show to the rest of upstream states to focus on bilateral relations instead of the multilateral path. It was a kind of demonstration to the White Nile States, as if Ethiopia has had a very strong bilateral relation with Egypt that would have undermined the multilateral path on the Nile so that the White Nile States would follow. These all ups and downs of Egypt were merely unsuccessful trials to halt the progress of upstream states from signing and ratifying the CFA.

Despite the old regime of Egypt under Hosni Mubarak was trying hard to reverse the CFA, upstream states better able to push ahead and enhance upstream-upstream cooperation so as to ensure equitable and reasonable utilization of the Nile Waters. In the meantime Hosni Mubarak`s regime was awash by the Arab riot and a new transitional government under the Supreme Council of the Armed Force came to power in Cairo. Following this change, Egypt`s Public Diplomacy Delegation visited Ethiopia and Uganda so as to request the upstream states to delay the ratification process of the CFA to give Egypt time till new government with full constitutional power was established in Cairo to reconsider the Agreement. The Delegation vowed and avowed that relations between Egypt and the rest of the Nile Upstream will never be back to what it looks like during the period before the Egyptian riot that casted out Mubarak`s regime.  They even went farther and gave the impression that they were unhappy about the colonial treaties on the Nile. Upstream states then as a good gesture and brotherhood as children of the same river accepted the request. Nonetheless, despite Egypt formed new government with full power, it has never shown any policy shift except buying time to finish its mega fait accompli water projects to monopolize the Nile Waters-mainly Toshka and Al Salam (We will see these projects of Egypt and their impact in future negotiations in other edition soon).

The New Government under President Mohamed Morsi and Prime Minister Hisham Qandil rather than joining the multilateral approach of accepting the New Nile Treaty for mutual benefit and sustainable peace in the Basin follows the same tread of their predecessor-a failed attempt to divide and rule the Nile Basin. The emphasis of the Government of Egypt has been bilateral cooperation and engagement with the Nile Riparian states. Their last failed attempt was a move to bring the new sovereign and independent South Sudan to join the club of downstream states where South Sudan has nothing to profit.

Egypt`s high delegation visit of March 2013 led by Prime Minister Qandil to South Sudan was headed with twofold objectives to attain despite covered in the name of boosting bilateral relations and cooperation. Firstly Egypt geared to beseech South Sudan not to join the CFA and accept the 1959 Agreement which was signed between Sudan and Egypt while South Sudan was battling for its independence.  Secondly Egypt was trying to persuade South Sudan to complete the construction of the Jonglei Canal which would increase water reaching Egypt and Sudan by drying up South Sudan`s wetlands in the Sudd Swamp. But a few days after Qandil`s visit as reported in the media South Sudan`s Water and Irrigation minister Paul Mayom Akech told local radio station that “South Sudan does not recognize-and underline does not recognize-the content of the 1959 agreement.”  He further affirmed that his country is “already a long way to joining the Cooperative Framework Agreement, being an entity within which all the Nile Basin countries come together and discuss how best they could utilize the water resource.”

One of the reasons that I argue that Egypt is focusing on bilateralism is farther manifested during Mohamed Morsi`s two days visit to Sudan on 5 April 2013. In his remarks to reporters, it was reported that he said, “Egypt’s ties stumbled in the past, but now we are together [with other Nile states], with possibilities of enhancing cooperation that satisfies the interests of all sides,” is a very welcoming remark.” And he farther went saying there is no crisis on the Nile. But the very agenda of the visit was to strengthen the bilateral relation between Egypt and Sudan. To that end he met with Islamist leaders in Sudan and stated that his country needs “the Nile Axis of world development between the Arabs, Islam and Africa to be a source of rebirth, but that this cooperation and unity is not aimed against anyone.” In this remark the President of Egypt deliberately or not attempted to Islamize and Arabize the Nile waters and its politics. One must not be confused and played by the name Africa immersed together with Arab and Islam. If the president was talking about “the Nile Axis development” that included upstream states of the Nile, it would not be necessary to say “that this cooperation and unity is not aimed against anyone.” The question is then; will Egypt sustain its budge with old tactics that will neither setback the upstream states from ratifying the CFA nor prevent them from utilizing the Nile waters in their sovereign territories?

The Way Out 

In recent news, it is reported that Egypt has experienced “water per capita decreases annually due to the continued population growth, industrial development and agricultural expansion” according to Egypt`s Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Dr. Mohamed Bahaa’ Eddin. With the rapid population growth in other riparian states and the increase in the demand for water coupled with global environmental change such as climate change Egypt or any other single country in the Nile Basin cannot coup up with water shortage unless cooperative efforts are taken. UN reports and other studies are showing that the world will face sever water crises in the coming decades where the problem will be more sever in arid and semi-arid regions such as in downstream Nile. Thus the only way for riparian states of the Nile to ensure sustainable utilization of the Nile waters is when they multilaterally engage in cooperation and mange the river holistically.

One cannot deny the legal and political wrangling between upstream and downstream states of the Nile regarding the CFA and the future of multilateral engagements. The wrestle is between justice and unjust. The skirmish is between adopting a path to swim together or to sink. Egypt and Sudan are clinging with their objection to the CFA due to Article 14(b). But it must be clear for Egypt and Sudan that, it is unthinkable for upstream states to recognize any colonial or bilateral agreement signed without their say and to the worst where all these agreements are against their vital national interest. Because this is a route which escorts to the deepest ocean with no life boats nor with necessary energy to swim but to sink as a result of competition for scramble of the water. Besides, there is no any moral, political or legal obligation for upstream states to accept and bind by these pseudo-agreements. The solely available way to break the stalemate is when Egypt and Sudan come on board and sign the CFA. Yet, the CFA can only enfold Egypt and Sudan if and only if they accept Article 14(b) as agreed by the majority riparian states because it is for benefit of all.

The new leaders in Egypt should clearly understand that the old wine of the old regime of attempting to monopolize the Nile waters through different unhelpful strategies of trying to divide the upstream riparians will not be successful as each and every upstream state understands the water needs of both the present and future generation. Upstream states sign the CFA and are on progress to ratify it because they know all riparian states are winners from basin-wide multilateral cooperation efforts to better maintain the health of their shared resource and to increase its economic and developmental benefits. Hence, signing and ratifying the CFA and establishing the Nile River Basin Commission is the better way to search for solutions. In my view, the Egyptians have witnessed the significance of basin wide cooperation through the different projects of the NBI. Water can be increased through environmental rehabilitation efforts such as afforestation in upstream states. Furthermore, the more states cooperate is the better they will be integrated the lesser violent conflict to breakout. Egypt like Sudan can benefit from cheap energy produced from hydropower plants in upstream states while upstream states can also benefit from energy export. This water related cooperation will also catalyze cooperation and integration in non-water areas such as trade and investment. Sudan should also decide for itself and join the club of the CFA as it will be the greatest beneficiary. I think the Egyptians are aware of that free-ride and unilateral water development projects in a way that undermines the interest of other riparian state will worse hurt them since they are at the mouth of the river. It is not through cunning bilateralism or selfish unilateralism that riparian states can best ensure win-win gains and shares the fruits of the Nile but only through multilateralism. That is why, the Nile has no more room for divide and rule since all upstream states are speaking the same language-equitable and reasonable utilization of the Nile Waters by all and for all the peoples of the Nile.


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