The Trump Trap

Originally published on Addis Standard, March 11, 2020:

Addis Abeba, March 11/2020 – After four months of intense mediation efforts between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on the question of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the US government and the World Bank have failed to get Ethiopia’s signature on a proposed agreement they put forward. 

On February 28/2020 the US Treasury Secretary called for an additional ministerial meeting of the three countries. Requesting more time for domestic consultations, Ethiopia did not attend the meeting. Nevertheless, the US government and the World Bank prepared an agreement on the filling of the GERD and its operational management, for the three countries to sign.

Washington has warned Addis Abeba that ‘final testing and filling [of the GERD by Ethiopia] should not take place without an agreement’ with Egypt and Sudan. The statement by the Secretary imposes two additional demands: Ethiopia is to sign the agreement after finalizing consultations; and secondly, must recognize ‘the need to implement all necessary dam safety measures in accordance with international standards before filling begins.’

In response, Ethiopia announced that “as the owner of the GERD [it] will commence filling … in parallel with the construction of the dam, in accordance with the principles of equitable and reasonable utilization and the causing of no significant harm.”

Signalling its satisfaction with the US and World Bank agreement, Egypt expressed its readiness to conclude the agreement by initializing it and calling on the other parties to sign it. The Ethiopian delegation led by former Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalegn went to Cairo and Khartoum to argue for the postponement of the meeting, but the request was rejected by both Egypt and Sudan. Egypt, further characterized this as Addis Abeba’s intransigence and time-buying tactics. It warned Ethiopia that Egypt will “defend with all means available the interests of Egyptian people, their fate and future.” Siding with Egypt, the Arab League Council has also denounced Ethiopia. The hard-nosed exchanges have morphed into a diplomatic tiff, with Egyptian Foreign Minister touring the member states of the League.

The sticking points

The sticking points in the dispute have not changed. The first three are water security, dam safety and water quality. As to the first of these, the stages of dam impoundment and stored body, its impact on water volumes during drought period, and the controlled release of stored water is emphasized by Egypt. The dispute over the distinction between ‘drought’ and ‘severe drought’, in turn relates to the filling (stages ranging from 3-21 years) and management of the dam. Some of the claims are supported by evidence, while others are simply nationalistic and ideological posturing. In the negotiations, evidence-based positions and persuasion have some place but little influence. Rather, the main arguments (even those of the US) are driven by strategic national interest. Ultimately, such negotiating positions are enmeshed with cost-benefit calculation, policy sovereignty and international law.

The GERD has attracted offers of mediation from other quarters. Indeed, two years ago, Ethiopia rejected a request by the World Bank to mediate in the GERD dispute and likewise rejected Russia’s offer of mediation. However, the current stalled negotiations began in November 2019.  Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan held a series of tripartite meetings called by US President Trump at the behest of Egypt. The US-led mediation team resolved to hold ministerial meetings before 15 January 2020, which US and World Bank delegates would attend as observes. Ethiopia’s later acceptance of US-led mediation therefore represented a bizarre break from Ethiopian previous position defying any logical explanation.

Now, the Trump administration seems ready to use its power including its Departments and the World Bank to pressure Ethiopia to agree to some of Egypt’s demands.

The US position

For a long time, Ethiopia’s aspiration to use the Nile water for hydropower was repeatedly frustrated for lack of domestic finance. But in a relatively successful attempt Egypt has used strategies to impede Ethiopia’s plans by threatening military action through shows of force; and using its diplomatic advantage, including the support of the US, to thwart any external funding requests made by Ethiopia to develop its water resources. Since 1970, Ethiopia has wanted to develop the Nile waters by approaching an American company to conduct an impact study of dam construction on the Nile. This so infuriated Egypt that the former president Anwar Sadat, at one time threatened the use of force to attack Ethiopia.  As prominent Sudanese scholar on water resources Dr Salman Ahemed pointed out in his 2013 piece, in the past five decades British colonial administrations and previous Egyptian governments have followed a successful strategy of threatening and dissuading external financial assistance to Ethiopia and the other riparian states. They have thereby weakened Ethiopia’s internal capacity to construct the dam. As a result, Ethiopia decided to mobilize its resources to fully finance the dam through domestic means. While directly enabling Ethiopia to advance its developmental dam construction, this approach has already forced Egypt to reconsider its long-standing position of ignoring upstream states on the Nile and to begin negotiating with all riparian countries.

Ethiopia’s decision to self-finance and commence the construction of the GERD on the Nile broke that long barrier of self-actualization.

Given this historical background, why did the current administration believe that the US will serve as reliance neutral facilitator of the negotiations?

Trump as mediator

The 2019 intervention by the US administration had begun after a strange comment from President Trump, who asked  the Ethiopian delegation why their country had decided to build the dam on the Nile River, and why it planned to do so rather than seek other sources of energy. The question mirrored Egypt’s long-standing misgivings about the project. Trump also promised to appear personally to inaugurate the dam when completed. Through his usual style of diktat by Twitter, Trump singled out one provision (Article 10, providing for peaceful resolution of differences) of a Declaration of Principles (DoP) on the GERD signed by the Eastern Nile countries in 2015. He tweeted that ‘the foreign ministers agree that Article 10 [of] the 2015 Declaration of Principles will be invoked.’

Egypt’s minimum expected condition for an agreement was to internationalize the tripartite negotiation and, in this way, ventilate long-standing differences with Ethiopia. At the same time, it aimed at pressurizing Ethiopia into accepting its stance of triggering Article 10 and appointing a mediator. This was in line with the original DoP statement that ‘if an agreement is not reached by January 15, 2020, the foreign ministers agree that Article 10 of the 2015 Declaration of Principles will be invoked.’ Hence, in some sense the US intervention in GERD represented Egypt’s first win in the negotiations and served to validate the Ethiopian side’s fears that Article 10 could become a trap. It looks as though these fears may have been justified.

Not all allies are equal

All allies are equal, but some are more than equal.  Egypt is far strategic an ally of the US and Israel that it is difficult to imagine how Washington or any other power close to it can be an impartial arbiter on the Nile. Given that the Camp David agreement is the cornerstone on which the US – Egypt relation is founded, it would be almost impossible for the US to treat other riparian states equally. The stakes are too high for the US and the Middle East. What is more, the US, especially under Trump’s essentially transactional administration, has a history of throwing its support behind one country against another even when both have been its traditional allies. In this context one might recall Trump’s outright support for the Saudi bloc against Qatar during the GCC rift. Due to their different weightings in US strategic interests some riparian countries enjoy stronger support from Washington than others. And although an ally of the US, within the framework of the new US foreign and security policy, Ethiopia carries much less weight than Egypt.

Failure to understand this geostrategic analysis led to the current quagmire the country is in. In the first place yielding to Trump’s offer for mediation was Ethiopia’s fall into a trap.

Neither the US nor any other non-African body will be a fair mediator or arbitrator when the question involves strategic powers in the Middle East and when Egypt carries exceptional weight in the region for global strategic interests always to come down on its side.

New axis of confrontation

Now, the axis of dispute has shifted from that of Ethiopia/Sudan-Egypt to that of Ethiopia-US/Egypt and Sudan. This is a second and bigger win than the first gain by Egypt.

The first of all questions is: How and why on earth did Ethiopia get itself into this no-win conundrum? Now, the way out has been made even more difficult. It seems now that there is no easy way out from here onwards, but what is to be done? This is the second question.

What is to be done

Granted mature political leadership, visionary regional cooperation and fair international and regional leadership, the Nile could become a major opportunity for creating interdependence among the riparian countries.

Nonetheless, the gravest challenges to the sharing of the Nile River and its tributaries is a nationalistic domestic political discourse that totally rejects compromise and is highly selective in its application of available scientific evidence. Professional opinions and scientific facts have become subservient to political decisions, as government leaders pander to electoral constituencies, nationalist politics or perceived public pressure.

The widespread questions posed by the public hint at the low level of trust when it comes to dealings with some foreign countries. Furthermore, the cost-benefit calculation needs to take the time for the returns on the large foreign currency investment in Ethiopia and this will be dependent on the pace of filling. Slower filling means producing less hydropower at slower pace than what was originally intended. The cost to Ethiopia’s stability, environment, and relations with riparian countries is additional cost-benefit analysis. Many Ethiopians believe the internal political turmoil, the sudden decision to reduce the production capacity of the GERD from its original design, targeting of METEC and its eventual ruin are not irrelevant.

The only option for the current leadership, then, is to rely on itself and its people. Mass mobilization of people in firm support for fair sharing of the Nile is a must. In the first place, yielding to Trump’s offer for mediation was a result of the current leadership’s excessive reliance on non-African allies. The negotiations have led to forfeiture of policy sovereignty. It sets a new right for some riparian countries and undermines trust and confidence already built amongst the riparian countries through their own negotiations.

For the sake of Ethiopia and its own, it needs to heed to its people more than external actors. This will also prevent any backsliding in pursuing people’s demands and pressures the government to be honest and keep negotiations transparent. It may also offer a face-saving exit from the current quagmire it plunged in itself.   

Pan African solution

Though the negotiations have been tough, this latest round under the US Treasury Secretary could kill the progress made in the previous tripartite ones. That was the reason why sticking to policy sovereignty governed by international law and tamed by multilateralism was and is the only way for safeguarding Africa’s interest.

The disputes on the Nile and GERD are an African problem and as such it requires a pan-African solution.GERD is a signature project of African policy sovereignty. It makes Ethiopia the center of energy, and integrating all neighboring countries and distant places.

At the African continental level, the AU and the AU Commission need to actively engage with the issue and initiate consultations with and between all the Nile riparian countries and with the major international players on the stage. Some moves in that direction may be in the pipeline. As Mr Moussa Faki, Chairperson of the Commission, stated that ‘we, at the AU, demand [that] our brothers in Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt … seek a compromise formula on this issue.’ It seems desirable for the chairpersons of the African Union (AU) and the AU Commission to revive an earlier proposal to convene an urgent meeting of the Nile’s riparian countries. In addition, the AU needs urgently to apply pressure to resolve their differences under the aegis of the core principles of the AU. AS