By Genet Mersha, 15 January  2010 –As any prudent person would, I value pragmatism, especially if it promotes mutual benefits and facilitates common search for solutions to difficulties in inter-state relations. In that regard, official pronouncements by the prime ministers of Ethiopia and Egypt at the year’s end have somewhat conveyed that very impression about their budding relations. Its outcome is the singing of a memorandum of understanding on 31 December at Addis Ababa, fostering a consultative mechanism whose scope and seriousness probably makes it the first of its kind between the two countries.

Usually the dark side of diplomacy is that what is unsaid publicly has far reaching implications more than what is reported in the media, be it bilateral visits or agreements singed as groundbreaking venture. That is what I felt, after reading Gamal Nikrumah’s piece “Eyeing Abyssinia: Egypt stakes out a special place in Ethiopia” (Al Ahram, Jan 7-13 issue, courtesy of It encouraged me to at the new bonfire within the context of the needs and realities of the two countries. Nevertheless, more troubling for me is Mr. Nikrumah’s interpretation of ‘compromise’ and ‘pragmatism’ that has bedecked his entire article. On a minor point, he has chosen to lump them together in such a way that he makes them sound as if they were two interchangeable concepts.

However, real life has taught me, and I must say I easily recognise compromise and pragmatism when I see them. Their texture is distinct, although they are capable of interlacing with shared convictions between two parties. I am not so certain, if “Eyeing Abyssinia: Egypt stakes out a special place in Ethiopia” reflects that understanding. I acknowledge the article rather for its crisp delivery of the writer’s pride in his country’s diplomatic finesse in a manner that it harks back to the ill-fated Egyptian efforts through the centuries to ensure its control of the source of the River Nile.

In the light of the foregoing, it is befitting to ask whether the content of the latest understanding between the two countries is as the officials say. Alternatively, as an anterior to Egyptian foreign Ministry, is Al Ahram under instruction to spin the story as a diplomatic coup for Prime Minister Ahmed Nazief. Or, is there something that has not yet been made public? Alternatively, is Al Ahram encouraged to interpret the agreement through the prism of the existing and the unyielding Egyptian policy interests mapped out by Kedhive Isamail (1862-1879)? To what end? If the whole purpose of the article is to calm down domestic concerns, it does not show that Egypt is prepared to honour its part of the deal. If that were the case, it would have chosen to prepare its people for a sense of fairness and equity in sharing the Nile waters.

It would be dishonest of me to say, I am optimistic at this point; nor am I against their agreement. That is because I understand perfectly Ethiopia’s limitations. However, what I cannot understand is why interpretation of the new agreement on the part of the Egyptians is still characterised as an exchange between water rights and investments and technology related cooperation. Incidentally, it is not only the Egyptians that are seen on that mistaken path this time around. Ethiopian officials have done little to speak out in response and in the deportment the Egyptian minister of water works, as mentioned here down somewhere, has made clear his unchanging position.. Instead, our officials thronged to place on the Egyptian plate their respective wish list.

Official pronouncements on the agreement

In spite of the ease of his persona, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif seemed to go out of his way at the press conference to emphasise repeatedly that his visit to Ethiopia primarily is “to enhance trade and investment ties between the two countries.” As it happens, 120 businesspersons accompanied him, notably their size a quarter more than the 90-member trade delegation that visited the country last October. True by the sign of things, this time around Egypt appears determined to put its money where its mouth is.

At the state level, it has kicked of with a ‘sovereign wealth’ sort of investment by the National Bank of Egypt that has now become the first central bank owning a 20,000-hectare farmland in Afar region. In addition, private investors have envisioned a number of projects and investments that ranged from construction in Amhara region, possible establishment of five pharmaceutical companies, to manufacturing enterprises and an industrial zone in Oromia. I would not be surprised if the Egyptian bank should quietly spread the scope of its activities in a country where the law prohibits foreign banks from carrying out banking operations.

Otherwise, so far so good, so long as Ethiopia does not slump under the weight of economic dependence on Egypt and succumb to political arm-twisting that this usually entails. For now, at least, the Nile water quota was not ‘officially’ on the agenda of discussions or negotiations. If news sources are accurate in their reporting, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi freely broached the topic seemingly to reassure his powerful guest of Ethiopia’s keenness and good faith in seeking solutions to the sharing of Nile river water fairly. In that connection, he stressed Ethiopia’s “readiness to address the issue of the Nile on the basis of a win-win result for the mutual benefit of all the peoples and countries of the Nile Basin” (Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs press release).

Someone gave me the sense that he was at pains to stress to sceptics “it would be a huge mistake to choose not to engage Egypt on other matters until the Nile question is resolved” (Reporter), although the media reporting that did not testify to that. Therefore, his approach, as implied by the press release and the reporting media, is presumed to be to use this agreement as a bridge to address the equitable sharing of the Nile waters in future. Shall we say, it is confidence-building measures, even though I am not entirely certain to whose confidence it refers?

Al Ahram’s interpretation of the agreement

The light speed with which the relations between Ethiopia and Egypt are being calibrated and the building blocks are set in process has made the whole thing seem like a torrent, a thing that has surprised Gamal Nikrumah. However, he is less than candid in his assertion, in attributing the whole thing to Ethiopia’s ‘compromise’ and ‘pragmatism’, as mentioned above. He writes, “The Ethiopian compromise, publicly acknowledging Egypt’s right to its quota of Nile water, is an answer so obvious that one wonders why it was not on the table already. Now that it is, Ethiopia’s pragmatism may produce better results.” It is not clear whether this reflects ignorance of history or is blindly one-sided, a shortcoming that has made his whole effort look like deviously antithetical to fairness and justice.

Furthermore, Mr. Nikrumah tries to give credence to his view by stating, “Ethiopia has no intention of circumventing the will of Egypt by building the new dams [the three dams agreed upon at the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI)]. Instead, Ethiopian officials explained that they wish to interest Egyptian investors into putting their money into such ventures. Egyptian officials readily resolved to accede to Ethiopia’s wishes albeit conditionally.”

The key here is what Egypt’s Minister of Irrigation Mohamed Allam has said. He was clear about the mission and mandate of his office under the new agreement. Mr. Gamal Nikrumah quotes him confidently asserting, “We have agreed to the offer as long as it doesn’t affect Egypt’s Nile water quota.”

Recall in this connection, the rapprochement between Ethiopia and The Sudan egged on Egypt into a trilateral undertaking between the three countries. The then Egyptian Minister of Water Resources Mohammed Abu Zeid on June 29, 2004 for the first time ever declared publicly¸ ”Ethiopia has the right to build dams”, into which The Sudan chipped in similar support (ENA, Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt reach agreement on Nile River projects). This created huge optimism about the direction of Ethio-Egyptian relations, the euphoria of which was no less than the present.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Abu Zeid was relieved of his post sometime later, judged as poor negotiator ( Even then, when he was in office for the greater part of the ten-year life NBI, 39 articles have been agreed, according to Ethiopian sources, although the negotiations remain stalled over a single subparagraph, 14 (b), the one that deals with the water-sharing proposal to which Egypt and The Sudan are mortally opposed. As a new minister, Mr, Allam seems keen to keep his job, whose constant flights to the capitals of the upper riparian states has got him the nickname  ‘the lobbyist.’

Therefore, it should not come as a surprise the ‘Ethiopian pragmatism/compromise’ Gamal Nikrumah refers to give rise to two questions. First, what is that an uttered compromise? Secondly, what does Ethiopia get in return, if the alleged compromise is in reference to the three medium-sized dams, which have already been agreed upon at the NBI forum? The answer probably lies in what different Ethiopian officials are expecting from Egypt, as Mr. Nikrumah’s article seems to suggerst. These are: (a) Prime Minister Meles says, “We have moved from mutual distrust to friendly economic cooperation.” (b) Ethiopian Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Tefera Derebew solicits, “We are confident that Egypt is willing and capable of supplying Ethiopia with much needed appropriate technology for sustainable development.” (c) Ethiopia’s Minister of Trade and Industry Girma Birru says Egypt would participate in the construction of an industrial zone.

Can Ethiopia truly benefit from this agreement?

There is no doubt that cooperation with other countries is beneficial, so long as our country knows where its interests lie and promotes them to its benefit in every possible way. This requires fine-tuning laws and regulations, preparing institutions to challenging responsibilities with the rising number of foreign companies and business activities. There must be the political will to fight both official and ordinary corruption. The manifest characteristic of pragmatism in form and substance is its belief in the need to gauge regularly the benefits of projects undertaken jointly with other governments and economic cooperation with foreign companies and their investments. The mere rise of the scale of investments is not necessarily a plus on its own, or effective for national development unless overtime it makes dent on unemployment, income generation, capacity building and transfer of technology.

In the case of Egypt, their diverse involvement requires greater diversification and improved production on the part of Ethiopia to increase its exports to Egyptian markets without, which the current planned level of Egyptian investments would hugely tilt the balance of trade in favour of Egypt. Already, as it stands now trade volume has reached $100 million. Available data indicate that in 2008, Egypt has exported to Ethiopia over $80 million, while Ethiopia’s export is a skimpy $13.4 million. The nine months figures for 2009 indicate further deterioration in that regard.

Another problem is transportation of goods, as the country’s exports are likely to increase because of the massive lands that have been rented out to foreign countries and governments. Although the Ethiopian government claims the products would satisfy domestic markets first, this is simply untrue. First, the objective of those huge farms is for markets in the home countries, the rest of which would seek foreign markets. This is a function of better prices on one side and the weak purchasing power of Ethiopians on the other. Secondly, the increased volume of exports imposes huge burden on local transportation of goods and to and from the ports of Djibouti and The Sudan, perhaps Berbera too. It is not clear whether government has mapped out strategy and producers so that local producers would not be discriminated against systematically in use of transport and port arrangements.

There is no doubt, by dictates of circumstances we have become a nation of sceptics. It follows that this is also one of those things that have to be judged in the coming months and years by how much the Ethiopian government would give priority to the country’s longstanding interests, benefits and privileges of its people. I recall writing about our country’s foreign policy that stoops low to those that come with a ‘fist fool of dollars’, especially citing the case of the Saudi Arabian embassy at Addis Ababa that demanded property owned by two of our decorated athletes to be transferred to it and got it. There have been several painful moments in our country’s history, when our national interests failed to be the guiding post and citizens are first-class relative to foreigners.

Another problem is joint venture has taken a different meaning in Ethiopia. A foreign company claims it is a joint venture, but there is no evidence that to show the identity of its partners. This is very common practice among Chinese companies in developing countries. For instance, Norinco-Lalibela Engineering & Construction Share Company (NORI-LA) claims it is an international share company, established in accordance with the commercial code of Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. That is quite all right. Then it discloses its joint venture agreement was made on April 7, 2004 between Chinese and Ethiopian enterprises with a total capital of about $34 million. When one browses its webpage, it does not their partners. It is a normal practice to say who their joint venture partners are, but not in this case. I raise this example because it is important to see and understand how foreign companies operate in the country and whether the country derives the benefits, it is entitled to.

Finally, I must state that an inherent problem in Ethiopia’s policies, domestic or external, is the question of balance. Often emotions flare with a short fuse, creating problems of inconsistency. Growing relations with Egypt requires a careful balancing act, a quality in short supply. Closer ties should not curtail Ethiopia’s freedom of action, as that would affect its relations with the rest of Africa. They are many and their networks extensive. For instance, if one takes our side of the region, the other upper riparian states and the East and Southern African economic initiatives under the AU are one to bear in mind. It should not also alter the political cohesion that over the years has evolved within IGAD, where those upper riparian member states have maintained through the years beneficial relations with Ethiopia.

On Al Ahram’s insensitivity

As I come to the end of this article, I must register my strong resentment against the tone of Mr. Gamal Nikrumah’s kicker, “Eyeing Abyssinia.” Even to a disinterested reader, its yearning for a return to an ignominious era is glaring. Perhaps what its author has made evident is Egypt’s undying desire to keep alive Egypt’s goal of controlling the River Nile, with or without Ethiopia.

He must be aware though that Ethiopia has not accepted the 1902 treaty with colonial Britain. Nor has it been agreeable with the 1959 agreement between Egypt and the Sudan, setting out water use quota among them, without contributing a bucket of it. If Al Ahram’s thinking, as reflected in the title of Mr. Nikrumah’s article “Egypt stakes out a special place in Ethiopia” is anchored on the Nile question, nothing has changed for Ethiopia that would make her overlook those two treaties/agreements.

By the terms of the 1959 treaty, annually the River Nile doles out to Egypt 55.5 billion cubic meters of water—representing 87 percent of the Nile’s flow—and 18.5 billion cubic meters to The Sudan. In contrast, Ethiopia uses less than one percent of it, of course, about which we cannot put the entire blame on Egypt and The Sudan, as our underdevelopment has played part. Nonetheless, the case for sharing equitably with Ethiopia should have been evident to him as a respected journalist.

In fact, Mr. Nikrumah insinuates as though Ethiopia has said, “take whatever you want, but make sure you cooperate with me in the economic field. Even then, the best he could is to state, “Egypt, too, [compared with Israel] stands poised to prove that it can offer technical assistance to Ethiopia. Though no small challenge, it is one that can be met.”

Nonetheless, referring to the visit by Minister for International Cooperation Faiza Abul- Naga, he expresses his worries that it would be costly for Egypt.

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Posted by on January 15, 2010. Filed under NEWS. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.