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Battle for Nile waters spills over to East African capitals

Sunday March 22, 2020

Kenya has been thrust into the competing interests of Ethiopia and Egypt, who are jostling for regional support for a decisive agreement on a dam being built on the Nile.

The tussle, which kicked off two weeks ago, represents the latest haggling over the use of the Nile waters, a perennial discussion that has lasted 60 years.

At the centre of the debate is the Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD) in Ethiopia, which Egypt sees as a threat to its water source. But it has roped in riparian countries like Kenya, who form a group aggrieved by a colonial-era treaty that gave Egypt massive rights and control over the waters of the Nile.


Sources said Ethiopia was tapping this grievance to seek support from Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and other countries in the Nile basin affected by the old treaty. The Basin includes 11 countries. Egypt, in turn, is seeking to divide countries in the eastern Africa region and roil any joint statements.

That fight manifested this week when President Uhuru Kenyatta reportedly promised his Egyptian counterpart Abdelfattah al-Sisi Nairobi’s support.
Bassam Rady, al-Sisi’s spokesman, told Egyptian media that President Kenyatta had told his counterpart the Egyptian stand on the GERD was a result of “sincere political will”.

The revelations by Egypt were, however, clarified by Nairobi a day later, with officials insisting Kenya supports an appropriate agreement reached by negotiations between African countries themselves.

Officials who spoke to the Sunday Nation said Kenya sees sharing of water volumes of the Nile as one aspect that must be addressed through the African Union and not external bodies as the GERD issue has been negotiated, in order to benefit all riparian states.

The GERD, a $4.5 billion (Sh450 billion) project on the Nile’s main tributary in Ethiopia (the Blue Nile), was supposed to boost electricity generation once full, producing up to 6.5GW of power. But the project, largely funded by Ethiopians themselves, has seen opposition from Egypt, which argues that the programme to fill it might deny Cairo its “historical and rightful share” of the water.


President Kenyatta’s call with the Egyptian leader had followed a cancellation of a trip by Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry due to the Covid-19 outbreak. But the Ethiopians had sent President Sahle-Work Zewde to Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda to “brief” the leaders on the negotiations between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt on GERD, which Addis Ababa says “collapsed”.

On March 12, the Ethiopian leader warned there could be problems if any contentious agreement on the Nile was implemented.

“The President also underscored Ethiopia’s commitment to continue working with all Nile Basin countries, and to ensure that only treaties that are properly entered into by the countries will apply to the basin,” a dispatch from Addis Ababa said of Mrs Sahle-Work’s visit in Nairobi.

In turn, President Kenyatta called for a review of agreements on the Nile to take into consideration the “needs of its increasing populations”.

“The President (Kenyatta) also emphasised the importance of ensuring equitable and reasonable utilisation of natural resources. The two leaders agreed on the importance of reaching a resolution in the spirit of African Solutions to African Problems and concurred on the need for the African Union to support the countries reach a win-win outcome.”

At a meeting with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on March 13, the Ethiopian leader was told Uganda supports equitable distribution of the Nile waters.

“The two leaders recognised the strategic importance of the Nile for all the riparian countries, the livelihood of their peoples and the need to solve any issues among the countries.”
President Museveni even called for “frank” discussions on the Nile, possibly through a summit by riparian countries, according to a statement from their meeting. In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame also supported renegotiations to allow riparian countries more rights and control on their natural resources.


Egypt’s strategy on the Nile has been to seek support of blocs. A fortnight ago, Cairo tabled a motion to the Arab League which endorsed a communique supporting Egypt’s historical rights and urged for a rejection of any decisions that could alter or threaten the Egyptian share of the Nile.

Sudan, a member of the League, refused to endorse the declaration, warning such a move could risk cooperation between the League and Ethiopia, and did not serve its national interests. Somalia, though, endorsed the declaration. Last week Somali Prime Minister Hassan Khaire rushed to Addis Ababa to clarify Mogadishu’s stance on “horn of Africa integration”, interpreted to mean a change of mind from what a “junior officer” had voted.

Later, a statement from Addis Ababa said Somalia and Djibouti respectively called for bilateral and win-win solutions.

The dam itself became the central point of contention after negotiations facilitated by the US Treasury collapsed two weeks ago. Ethiopia had skipped the final negotiations, saying it wanted more time.

Washington had tabled a draft agreement and asked the three countries to sign. Cairo initialled on it, which in diplomatic parlance signals an end to negotiations. Addis Ababa was furious.

Ethiopian Ambassador to Kenya Meles Alem Tekea told the Sunday Nation the issue on GERD should be seen as a beneficial project for all the three countries, and that Egypt should not force through its stances.

“If there was justice in the world, then Sudan and Egypt should have contributed for the completion of the dam as they also benefit,” he said on Friday. “The dam will boost the flow of water by reducing annual flooding and siltation, which affects Sudan most. Besides, all the three countries stand a chance to utilise the electricity produced at a reasonable price.”

Some observers, though, think the Nile debate could be a chance for riparian countries to settle scores among themselves by supporting Egypt, especially if they disagree on other matters.

An assessment by the International Crisis Group this week said the three countries could reach an amicable deal if they appointed a joint arbiter.


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