New Proposals and Modalities For a Nile Accord
At the heart of the prolonged postponement of an earnest search to a negotiated resolution of the issue of the Nile has been the dismal performance of past regimes in confronting the issue squarely and pragmatically. In the 1960s, the issue was first overshadowed by the Pan-African commitment of the Haile Selassie regime which took precedence over Ethiopia's national water security interest and concerns. At least a serious attempt could have been made to enhance Ethiopia's protest at being excluded from the bi-partite agreement of 1959.
The same could also be said about the period of the Derg which was preoccupied with its survival as polity rather than other more paramount issues on national concern. As recently observed, although "the Nile has always been at the center of Ethio-Egypitan relation, a veneer has also always been maintained in an attempt to conceal the real essence of the relations between the two countries. For the Derg regime, which has always been on a shopping spree for weapons, its convoluted sense of properties did not allow it to focus on what should have been one of the top priorities in the foreign policy of any Ethiopian government."
A genuine attempt to break the code of silence which had governed the Nile issue for far too long than is desirable did not therefore come until some two or three years ago when the EPRDF government assumed power in Ethiopia. The move was as inevitable as it was necessary for the reason outlined below.
For one thing Egypt can no longer pretend not to know what Ethiopia considers to be the central issue in Ethio-Egyptian relations. The premise for fruitful relations between the two countries is the full acknowledgment of the fact that the status quo with respect to the Nile cannot be maintained indefinitely. This is what the Framework for General Co-operation between Ethiopia and the Arab Republic of Egypt signed in Cairo by the heads of state of the two countries on 1 July 1993 essentially represents. Notwithstanding the very many fictitious reports and commentaries either out of malice or ignorance about Ethiopia's rights having been compromised, serious talks on the issue between Egypt and Ethiopia have, in reality, not even began. The above mentioned document, though important on the symbolic realm, was neither a binding agreement nor has it settled all vital issues between the two countries. As far as Ethiopia is concerned, the significance of the signing of the document is that it represents the first ever attempt by the two sides to tackle the very vital issue between them whose resolution cannot be delayed.
It is also important that the issue of the Nile is dealt with diplomatic finesse and in a spirit of mutual respect between the two countries. Indeed as observed quite correctly "It would, on the other hand be rather unhelpful for Ethiopia, as well as for regional and continental security and co-operation, for all dealings between Egypt and Ethiopia to be made contingent upon the full resolution of the issue of water between them. What is important is that tangible progress towards addressing the inequity that the status quo constitutes is made and concrete efforts exerted in transparent manner to change the unnatural situation whereby a country, Ethiopia, from whose territory 85 per cent of the water of the Nile originates, so far has been ignored."
The current Ethiopian government has so far showed a commitment to the issues, but it is also fully cognizant and appreciative of the need to resolve it more with reason than passion.
Indeed, as the above quoted author rightly argues, "from all indications" it is very clear that the Transitional Government was very much determined to change the situation. Neither vacuous bravado, nor resignation growing out of temporary lack of capacity, should be the approaches that govern Ethiopia's policy vis-à-vis the Nile, which obviously is the most challenging issue for this generation of Ethiopia. Bravado on this issue is the result of ignorance of the complex political, legal (although murky) and one should add, of the human considerations, that are raised by tranboundary rivers.
Further, as the author of the same article adds, "the hackneyed phase 'our water' is neither false nor completely true, for the River Nile also belongs to others. The point is to get what Ethiopia is entitled to, and Ethiopia has not only failed to do so far but had for long failed to pursue it in earnest as a goal. In this regard, the 1959 agreement between Egypt and Sudan is a sad commentary not only on the lack of vision and of fairness of others, but also on how Ethiopia had been enfeebled in the past. The record of the Haile Selassie regime and of the dictatorship that followed would always remain tainted on this issue alone."
Given the above, Egypt's best deal is to be amenable to an open and transparent discussion on the matter. It could not hope to find a regime which governs less by passion and anxiety than the present one. The truth about the current development is also that Ethiopia's choices are determined by the demand of its rising population which has great bearing on its attitude. The question is: Should it be necessary for Ethiopia to accept with resignation the gross imbalance that the prevailing status quo on the Nile represents?
Indeed, those whose advantage the status quo serves and who continue to bank on their influence on international financial institutions might feel that given financial constraints, Ethiopia's options are only two: To indulge in empty rhetoric and puerile polemics, or to accept and live with a fait accompli. However, this is myopic and the foreign policy of the Transitional Government on the issue is so far reassuring.
(This article was first published in Occasional Papers Series No. 14[June/July 2000] on the Nile hurdles. The series is being published as special issues by the Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development, an autonomous training, research and think-tank institute.)