On the brawl over Nile waters

By Seid Hassan, 1 January 2011 –

Note: This article can be considered as a rejoinder to the recently published commentaries made public by Messrs. Robele Ababya, Jawar Mohammed, Girma Kassa, and Asrat Abraham.

A. Introduction and Personal Observation:

I lived in Egypt for about five and a half years (from late 1979 to the first few months of 1984) as a political refugee doing my undergraduate studies at the American University in Cairo. Just like any stateless Ethiopian who escaped the Derg’s murder, my 5 ½ years of stay in Egypt were filled with many ups and some downs. Speaking about the downs, two of them stood out of all. One of the nauseating and vexing issues had to do with listening to the constant barrage of negative campaigns carried out against Ethiopia by the Egyptian government, in which we felt was a deliberate implantation of “natural enmity” between the peoples of the two countries into the minds of the Egyptian people. On the other side, Mengistu Haile Mariam, standing on Maskal Square, and while mounting the “Red Terror” campaign against his opponents, was smashing bottles filled with “blood” to demonstrate the fate that his opponents, Egypt included, was awaiting them. Mengistu’s madness aside, I wondered why Egypt could have found it useful to instigate enmity and intensify the conflicts between the two nations instead of being thankful to the gift that both God and Ethiopia were giving her- the waters if the Blue Nile. Amazingly, the enmity barrage and the constant negative campaign did not stop within the sphere of international politics. In fact, it was very irritating to me and other true Ethiopians who observed the constant enmity barrage hurled against Ethiopia (and not Mengistu H. Mariam). The whole affair used to be broadcast live on TV as a staple recitation of Egyptian religious leaders during the Holy Friday Prayers. The constant rancor was being recited by the religious leaders irrespective of the fact that Ethiopia was the country chosen by Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) when his companions needed protection and freedom from oppression and persecution. Never mind that, in recognition of the kindness that the Ethiopian king who saved his followers, the Prophet had offered the first funeral prayer in absentia for a Christian. Never mind that the Prophet himself is known to have said: “They were generous to our companions, so I wish to be generous to them in person….” Never mind that the Prophet himself is even known to have personally served them meals when a Christian delegation from Ethiopian churches visited Medina.

The other was the two kinds of discriminatory treatments the Ethiopian political refugees received while in Egypt. On the one hand, those of us who claimed to be Ethiopian were not received well whenever we presented ourselves within the Arabic diplomatic circles, in general, and the Egyptian diplomatic community and officials, in particular. On the other hand, one could observe an unbelievable friendly reception being extended to those who claimed to be non-Ethiopian – nearly all of them being members of Liberation Fronts – the TPLF followers and “delegates” included. The recognition they received was comparable to the diplomatic immunity and extra-territorial status which is only extended to those who are friendly or allied militaries, foreign heads of state, ambassadors and diplomatic agents. I cannot help but just cringe wondering how on earth we let such groups and individuals, who wandered around the capitals of the Middle East, claiming to be partly Arabs, that they don’t belong to Ethiopia, and that they were fighting to secede from Ethiopia, smuggling and selling priceless Ethiopian religious relics along the way, be our rulers!? This absurd reality aside, which speaks volumes about the current generation of Ethiopians, please allow me to make my first point here: that Mr. Zenawi’s accusation of Egypt for backing anti-government rebels is quite accurate for he speaks from his own practical experience. Moreover, the historical enmity between the two nations, a substantial portion of the hostility originating from Egypt and Ethiopia’s neighbors is real and despot leaders such Messrs. Mubarak and Zenawi have a built-in tendency to exploit it. For picking a fight against both traditional and concocted enemies is a tool used by dictatorial and illegitimate regimes who are seeking unity in a highly fractured society.


Given the deeply held Egyptian unholy bitter resentment against Ethiopia, what would democrats, who happen to disagree with the current regime, do if Egypt launches punitive actions against Ethiopia’s newly built projects? Would the democratic forces ally themselves with Mr. Zenawi, even though they know that he is a despicable despot and has committed several treasonous crimes against the interests of their beloved country, if Egypt happens to trigger havoc against Ethiopia? My answer: “All things considered, and when push comes to shove: You Betcha!” They do so irrespective of the fact that the deeply rooted and historical enmity is being orchestrated by Meles himself, or, as Jawar aptly stated it, they know that “Meles is ratcheting up the rhetorical confrontation mantle in order to gain popular support” – http://ethiomedia.com/augur/4233.html .. The do so not because they are convinced treasonous and allegedly genocidal Meles has overnight turned to be a patriot when he tells them, via Reuters, that “I am not worried that the Egyptians will suddenly invade Ethiopia….Nobody who has tried that has lived to tell the story… I don’t think the Egyptians will be any different and I think they know that .” Instead, they are angered by the carefully orchestrated deception and placation. They will defend Ethiopia and its interests because they are fed up with the unjust animosity that Egypt harbors against Ethiopia for too long. They do so because they are tired of witnessing Ethiopia’s sovereignty and rights being infringed by its traditional enemies. They do so because, the position taken by Ethiopia and the other upper Nile riparian countries is just- an equitable distribution of water sources. They do so because they don’t want to set a precedent- since allying with Egypt and stopping the construction of the projects would be tantamount to Ethiopia’s fate being decided by foreigner elements rather than its citizens. For some of us who strongly believe that Ethiopia is better off by building smaller dams and/or who detest the non-transparent manner that projects are implemented, we do so because we just don’t want to “throw the baby out with the bath water.” We do so because…, well, we are placated (duped) by Meles’ merciless Machiavellian tactics. Help! Unless Ethiopians come to together and find ways to disentangle the web of traps that Ethiopia and its people have been logged into, their fates will be at the mercy of despots of Mr. Zenawi type.

C. Why War (Conflict) Between Egypt and Ethiopia is Possible

There are several factors which indicate to me that hostility between Egypt and Ethiopia is likely to continue and I will mention just a few of them to save space. First, a significant portion of the Egyptian populace erroneously believes (or is made to believe) the Nile waters belong only to them. As a result, they believe that dam constructions in Ethiopia are tantamount to crossing the “red line.” Second, the growing political uprisings of the Nile delta provinces of Kafr al-Sheikh, Gharbiya, Alexandria, Giza and Marsa Matruh due to water shortages indicate that, as argued by Lutfi Radwan and others that Egypt was facing severe water shortages (about 20 billion cubic meters per year) even before power dams are built in Ethiopia . The causes of the water shortages are known to be many- some of them being population pressure, life-style changes, the effects of global warming, the gradual changes of crop patterns such as the increased production of water devouring crops of rice and sugar cane. This suggests that, as correctly articulated by Alya Kebiri, water, which is becoming increasingly scarce, is not “priced and managed properly. Proper pricing could have been more efficient and sustainable. Moreover, the Egyptian government monopolistically controls the distribution and management of water, with a lot of subsidization, bureaucratization and inefficiencies involved. ” A government which is not willing to communicate with its people about the current realities will have a tendency to find scapegoats. Experts who have advised the government of Egypt to give up its production of some crops (or change some of the crop patterns) have indicated that the government is not willing to do so. Such irrational usage of water may have corrupted that nation and its farmers and such spoiled attitudes involve negative repercussions. Add to this the war mongering rhetoric Mr. Sadat, the late president of Egypt and Butrous Butrous Ghali, a former Secretary General of the United Nations who plaid a role, in collaboration with the treasonous regime of Meles Zenawi, for the break-up of Ethiopia- both of them known to have said that “The next war in our region will be over the waters of the Nile, … “ Wasn’t it Egyptian Mr. Ismail Serageldin, who was vice-president of the World Bank, who told the world that future wars would be mostly about water? As John Vidal informs us, nations already sparing over rivers and dams such as India and Pakistan over river Indus; China, Nepal, India and Bangladesh over the rivers originating from in the Himalayas; Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over the Amu Daria and Syr Daria rivers; Argentina and Uruguay over the river Plate; Iraq and Syria over the Tigris; Israel, Palestine, and Jordan over the Jordan River watershed and other water sources; Iraq and Iran over the Shatt al-Arab waterways; Botswana, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe, over Zambezi and its tributaries, etc.

But I seriously doubt that Egypt will invade Ethiopia for Egypt can create enough havoc by doing what it knows best – supporting disaffected insurgent groups and perhaps even using individual terrorists. If Mr. Zenawi knows that Egypt uses disaffected Ethiopian insurgent groups to attack Ethiopia, wouldn’t be wise and less costly for his government to deny Egypt and other Ethiopia’s enemies by finding solutions to the causes of (reasons) that such groups are forced to be used by Ethiopia’s traditional enemies? Unfortunately, this is not possible for it is not in the nature of undemocratic rulers like Mr. Zenawi and the TPLF/EPRDF to look inside themselves. They would rather opt for the ultimate placation of patriotic citizens. Let’s face it: the fact that I and other patriots, such as Messrs. Jawar Mohammed, Robele Ababya, Girma Kassa and others are calling for unity among Ethiopians when it comes to the Nile may indicate that the placation and Mr. Zenawi’s shrewd Machiavellian plan are already underway. Some of us had seen this ultimate placation coming for quite some time, and a precedent was already set during the Ethio-Eritrean war. The costs associated with the impending hostilities and placation, particularly in terms of treasure, would be incalculable. It is for this reason that I call upon politicians, intellectuals, political scientists and all patriot Ethiopians, to design mechanisms/responses so that we are neither placated nor the hostilities get intensified, while at the same time standing together to protect Ethiopia’s rights to use its own waters.

Additional References:

Robele Ababya. Thirsty child of the Nile versus the Nile accord irony andPayback time for the children of Blue Nile
Girma Kassa writes, The politics of the Nile
Asrat Abraham: Meles_Zenawi_and_Egypt
Tristan McConnell, War clouds gather as nations demand a piece of the Nile
Alya KEBIRI:Egypt Water Pricing: A Viable Solution for Egypt’s Water Crisis?
P Kameri-Mbote Water, ConfliCt, and Cooperation: lessons from the nile river Basin
Finnigan wa Simbeye, We must prepare for a war vs Egypt over Nile water
Jawar Mohammed: Internal cohesion key to advancing our interest on the Nile

[i]Khaled Diad, The Curse of the Nile
[ii] Lutfi Radwan, Water management in the Egyptian Delta
[iii] John Vidal, Water the new source of conclict


The writer can be reached at seid.hassan@murraystate.edu

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