ETHIOPIA: Scars of the Nile Dispute since the mid-1900s

Zerihun Abebe Yigzaw

Natural Resources: Assets and Liabilities

Due to different factors different countries have different types of natural resources. Some are rich but a few poor. Countries Blue Nilesuch as in the tropics are rich in natural resources. The utilization of natural resources have made miracles in different countries and expanding their economies with a tangible effect of changing the lives of their people to the better. On the contrary, there are countries rich in natural resources and minerals but the poorest due to different factors. D.R. Congo is the best illustration of such an enigma. Shall we call it a resource curse? Not actually the story is different. It will be clear below. In any case, if a country is rich in any natural resource or minerals-especially when that resources is transboundary-in case shared with other states such as rivers, ground water, grazing land, oil fields and so on or if different states or non-states actors have an interest of using that resource, the resources to the state have either of two features. i.e. they could be assets or liabilities.

Firstly, the natural resources could be assets as their proper, effective and efficient utilization and exploitation will enhance the economic prosperity of the state concerned or the wellbeing of the society at the grass root level. These resources in this case are assets because they are the source of the country´s economic, political, socio-cultural as well as psychological life. Their reward is huge. Secondly, resources could be liabilities to the state/s concerned if they are underutilized and other states or non-state actors have a greed interest on the resource. For example, the crisis in D.R. Congo is attributed to the underutilization of the resource by the government in a way that benefits its people. To make the long story short, from the era of Leopold II to the death of Lumumba, from Mobuto to the Kabilas, the rich resources have not been turned to change the life of the Congolese people but the king, the multinationals and the dictators. In the middle those who are suffering are the poor ordinary people. This is the case in one country more on minerals. Now let us look in to transboundary water resources and their feature as assets and liabilities.

Rivers never knew boundaries. They do not recognize artificially and politically demarcated lines which tried to fight the undefeatable nature. They have sources and mouths. That is what they know. But due to the boundaries lined there are rivers called transboundary watercourses which are shared between two and more than two sovereign independent states. In some countries these transboundary water resources have turned into miracles in shining the states with lights and feeding population with their outputs. Among others, the Colorado, the Mekong, the Rhine, the Euphrates-Tigris, Indus, to mention the few rivers which are being utilized for the benefit of the people who shared them and where their source countries are in one way or another beneficiaries. But there are rivers which had been liabilities for generations without yielding benefits but were instrumental in the process of the weakening of their source countries. In this regard, no river in the world is analogous to the Nile. Of course, we can mention about the water problem in the Palestine-Israel conflicts especially the aquifers in the West Bank which added wounds on the Palestinians due to Israel´s water interest in the dries region of the world.  But the Nile is unique. It is a source of life and hosting the world’s ancient civilizations of Axum, Nubia, Merowe and Kush Egypt. Yet it had been a liability to its source Ethiopia especially since the first three decades of the 19th century to the 21st century. Despite transboundary watercourse could be used as catalyst of cooperation and integration between the riparians sharing them political decisions of states have made them more political and source of tension and conflict.

The Nile Dispute and its scars on Ethiopia

Dispute over the Nile waters is not new and not a surprise. The foreign policy of the country regarding the Nile was designed in the late 1860s by a Swiss mercenary-some called him adventurer Warner Munzinger. The then king of Egypt was advised by the Swiss man to control the source of the Nile and the motto of the King’s imperial expedition was to “put the whole Nile valley under the green flag of Egypt.” Munzinger advised Khedive saying “Ethiopia with a disciplined administration and army, and a friend of the European powers, is a danger for Egypt. Egypt must either take over Ethiopia and Islamize it, or retain it in anarchy and misery.” (I recommend readers to find and read Wondimneh Tilahun´s 1979 book entitled “Egypt´s imperial aspiration over lake Tana and the Blue Nile and Sven Rubenson´s Survival of Ethiopia´s independence for the details.”) Egypt has failed to achieve the first goal of controlling the whole Ethiopia as evidenced in the sixteen battles fought between the two countries from the 1832 Gedarif to the 1876 Gura. Egypt lost all the battles. Munzinger himself was died while leading a battalion in today´s Afar region where no single person was survived to tell the story on his side. Yet since the 1950s, Egypt used the second policy and strategic tactic in order to “retain it [Ethiopia] in anarchy and misery.” In line with this, different methods that the timing allows Egypt have been used in order to make Ethiopia weak, divided and fragile. Such Egypt´s policy is based on one unkindly fermented and grown assumption of the Egyptian policy makers and academia that “War in Ethiopia is peace in Egypt and Peace in Ethiopia is war in Egypt.” The scars of such Egypt’s move are visible as discussed below.

A. Eritrea and the Red Sea

AssqabThe 1950s marked the turning point of the Ethio-Egyptian relations on the Nile in particular and the overall relations in general. The new regime in Egypt under Gamel Abdel Nassir was starting a new initiative of controlling the Nile by any means. He was thinking of the Aswan High Dam and he did it later. In line with this, thanks to the 1958 coup d’état in Sudan he was able to force Sudan to sign the 1959 Agreement in Egypt´s favor. A problem for him was the presence of Ethiopia as the mother of the Nile River on its source. The most immediate mechanism he sought was trying to cunning Ethiopia but his attempt failed. Then the internal problem of Ethiopia regarding the Eritrean issue was an opportunity for him. Disgruntled Eritreans were called to Cairo and hosted with a delivery of what they all need. Especial program from Radio Cairo was doing the propaganda job by an attempt to alienate Ethiopian Muslims from Ethiopia, Al Azahar University gave scholarships to Eritrean Muslims and A military training camp for Eritreans was opened (For the details read Daniel Kinde). The main objective of such move was to undermine Ethiopia in the region and to turn the Red Sea in to an Arab Sea (ethiopia-and-the-middle-east-haghai-erlich and ethiopia-and-the-red-sea-mordichi-abir). The womb of the Eritrean rebels ELF later EPLF is therefore Cairo and the godfathers were Nassir, Sadat and Mubarak-rememebr from Woldeab Woldemariam and Ibrahim Sultan Ali to Shabia. The recent Shabia´s show up of pledge to stand on the side of Egypt regarding the colonial and bilateral agreements is part of rewarding the patron.

Later own with the escalation of the armed conflict between the rebels from Eritrea and the Ethiopian government under Emperor Haileselassie and Dergue the blessing and support of Egypt to the rebels was tremendous.  From the very first day to date the group in Asmara has been Trojan Horse of Egypt in the Horn of Africa. In addition to the years before 1991, Egypt´s support to the group in Asmara during the Ethio-Eritrean war of 1998-2000 was enormous.

B. The Ethio-Somali wars and the Current Somalia Crises

Despite the Somalia chauvinism and irredentism had its origins from a series of historical trajectories it was though heightened by the support of external actors in the region.  For obvious reasons the Cold War politics had its impact on the process as the two super-powers were playing their game through their proxies. Yet the support of countries such as Egypt to Siade Barre was tremendous.  Egypt supported Somalia in military trainings, weaponry and military experts.  Siade Barre would not have the gut to invade Ethiopia had he not been aided by Egypt and used the Cold War rivalry as an opportunity.

After the end of the Barre regime and the turning of Somalia into a collapsed state Egypt had to play a destructive role to any peace initiative. Between November 1996 and January 1997 Ethiopia was able to gather 26 Somalia factions to make peace at Sodere. But this move of Ethiopia that was believed to be constructive faced a challenge from Egypt because it hosted another conference in November 1997. Investigating the way Egypt involves in the post-1990s Somalia Medhane Tadesse (2002) noted that Egypt by organizing the Arab world, its foreign policy towards Somalia has been based on obstructionist diplomacy. Sally Healy, in her Lost Opportunities in the Horn of Africa has identified the same policy orientation of Egypt in Somalia. In addition to this, Egypt was one of the major states and militant groups in supporting the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) which had appeared as a danger to the overall security of the Greater Horn of Africa in general and Ethiopia in particular. According to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1724/2006 of November 2006 citing the final report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia (document S/2006/913 (see paragraph 213 Page 42) stated that, Egypt with others by defying the UN arms embargo on Somalia supported the UIC with huge arms flow. The UIC was then declaring holy war against Ethiopia (July 2006) and the later was forced to ambush the danger in a self-defense on December 2006. Be that as it may, due to the UIC politics Ethiopia once again fought a battle in the Eastern frontier. One can imagine the human and material cost of the war.

C. Hindering Access to International Finance

Mega projects on transboundary watercourses by economically poor states would be successful if states concerned secure external financial sources such as from development banks. Ethiopia for long has tried its best to secure funding from World_Bankinternational funding agencies for its water development projects such as from the African Development Bank and the World Bank. But none of these financial institutions are willing to be positive. In the early days of 1990, for instance, Ethiopia was denied loan from the African Development Bank for its dam projects. The main obstacle to the offer has always been Egypt claiming that Ethiopia’s water projects will cause adverse effects on its interest. John Waterbury in his 2002 book entitled The Nile Basin: National Determinants of Collective Action stated that, such financial institutions are hosts of struggle between riparian states whom requested for financial access and who are watchdogs not to allow such thing happened to the requesting state. In his observation “the real water wars take place [in these institutions], mercifully without bloodshed.” Comparing the presence of staffs of the institutions, Waterbury like anyone was unsurprised why Egypt is confident that Ethiopia will not secure finance from such intuitions.

Concluding Remarks

I would like to remind readers that there are other issues which I do not indulge on in detail. Even I do not mention some in detail. Following the whole process of discourse formation and other issues, looking at their writings and their scholarships at al Azahar University and the writings from Cairo University are worth discussing but when the time comes. Furtheremore, the role of the Nile walitics in Sudan´s war is not touched up on-which is a long story as part of resource war in the region.

In relation to Ethiopia and the unresolved Nile dispute since the mid-1990s, we can then identify two major scars in the whole process of the civil war and the inter-state wars Ethiopia came through. Firstly, Ethiopia lost its land, people and sea in the North as Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia. I would like to stress that I am not covering up the internal conditions of Ethiopia which was the fundamental causes of the mess. My point here is that the then rebels felt confident because of the support they secured from their Arab patrons especially Egypt.  Let us imagine what would happen if there was no any military or financial support from the other side of the Red Sea and the mouth of the Nile. Secondly, due to financing the consecutive wars fought Ethiopia´s human and material resource was lost. Because it was occupied on war for long Ethiopia had no time to engage in development activities. This was what Egypt needed and it was partially successful. Different projects commenced were halted due the war. Among others was the Tana-Beles Development Project of the 1980s which was meant to settle thousands of Ethiopian´s following the famine of the mid-1980s. Dr. Yacob Arsano in his 2007 book Ethiopia and the Nile stated that the project was not successfully implemented due to political instability and mismanagement. The political instability during those days was the civil war especially it was a time where the war in Eritrea was heightened. While treating the civil war the country´s resource was drained and its capacoty was limited to war and war only. The wounds of that period is still painful we accept it or not. The other scar has to do with the lack of access to international financial institutions because of Egypt´s objections.

Now let us ask one question, had the dispute on the Nile been solved would Ethiopia live with these scars? Solving the water Flag-Pins-Ethiopia-Egyptsharing dispute in the Nile basin will answer many question to the Greater Horn of Africa in general and Ethiopia in particular. It is the hope and optimism of this writer to see peoples and states quarreled, this way or that way and affected by the hydropolitics of the Nile be come together and unite due to this river of life-the Nile¦¦ It needs a political decision of politicians to leave the old school to change the Nile Basin and the whole region-a region of peace, development, mutual benefit and understanding. It is difficult and full of ups and downs. But through the Nile it is possible to heal wounds and remove scars¦¦


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