The Clash of Pax Britannica and Pax Africana over the Nile River (Part 1)

Egypt’s incessant insistence on its singular utilization, use and development of the Nile River remains a mantra, lingering on in north eastern Africa as Egyptian politicians, opinion makers, academics and media continue to insist on the sacro-sanctity of the exclusive entitlement of their country to the Nile waters. This, of course, was implanted under the shade of the Pax Britannica, long gone except in Egypt.

Equally, it is an insistence that appears incompatible with the Pax Africana to which the upstream states subscribe and which promotes the equitable and fair, mutually beneficial usage and development of the Nile for all present and future generations. Implementation of the Pax Africana use of the Nile, however, is under pressure from the diplomatic and political armory of Egypt’s version of the Pax Britannica, which in theory offered Egypt full utilization of the River Nile under colonial-era agreements of the last century.

Egyptian presumptions about its control of the Nile waters are currently filling the output of its media, academia and politics and in its international relations as the Nile Basin countries leap into forging on an agreement that benefits all. They have also been sparked off by the launch of Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project (GERDP), a central element in Ethiopia’s efforts to escape from the repeated and painful experiences of famine, poverty and instability.

Ethiopia’s successful efforts to encourage fair share and utilization of the Nile waters have reactivated the selfishly unilateral illusions of Egyptian politicians, intellectuals and journalists even in this age of multilateralism. The Renaissance Dam has become the spark to encourage the politicians to try to revitalize the inviolability of their supposed ‘acquired’ and ‘historical’ rights.

They appear, regrettably, once again to have started another hydro diplomatic and political campaign with the objective of trying to persuade European countries and international financial institutions to refuse any technical and financial support to the GERDP. A source from the Egyptian Government told the Al Monitor paper on February 19, 2014 that “Egypt will continue its international escalation and all options are open to us to protect our share of the Nile waters.” He added that “more negotiations with Ethiopia only waste time and directly threaten Egypt’s water security.”

Egypt has also launched a strategy of trying to encourage Arab countries to denounce the construction of the dam. One example of this came when Mohammad Abdel Motalib, the Egyptian Irrigation Minister, on February 12, 2014 vilified the Turkish Foreign Minister’s recent visit to Addis Ababa. He went on to compare Turkey’s Ataturk Dam with the Renaissance Dam, adding that the Ataturk Dam had left the Syrians and Iraqis thirsty. Egypt is planning not only to internationalize its anti-Dam campaign but also Arabize it to alienate Ethiopia in its friendly diplomatic, political and economic relations with the Arab world.

Egypt’s moves to block funds and technical support to the development of the Nile and its tributaries are nothing new. Over the last century, diplomatic intrigues supplemented by colonial attitudes and Cold War rivalries, helped Egypt disrupt and prevent the Lake Tana projects in the early 1930s, the Abbay master plan studies (1958-64), the Gilgel Abbay project in the 1960s, the Tana Beles development project of the mid-1980s and a number of other proposed water development projects in Ethiopia. These efforts to disrupt and destroy development projects continued even during the periods when the peoples of Ethiopia were suffering from the disastrous droughts and famines of the 1970s and 1980s when millions starved and died. The concerns of Egyptian politicians for people have never extended beyond their own borders.

Attempting to block financial and technical support was not the only strategy employed by previous Egyptian governments. Haggai Erlich, Professor of Middle Eastern and African History, has noted that President Nassir consistently deployed a hydro-political and geopolitical strategy to weaken Ethiopia and destabilize the country. It was Nassir who first came up with the idea of a mythical, Eritrean Arabism, to encourage support for turning the Red Sea into an Arab sphere of influence as well as gaining control of the sources of the Blue Nile, after his equally imaginative idea of creating and leading a State of the Union of the Nile Valley collapsed.

The government of President Sadat followed the idea up, requesting Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Kuwait and others to accept the responsibility of supporting the Eritrean revolt. The effect was to force any attempts at a development agenda in Ethiopia into necessary issues of security and defense. Professor Daniel Kende, using global intelligence sources, has also given details of the way Egypt committed itself to supply light and medium arms and explosives, military intelligence and expertise to the Government of Eritrea during in Ethiopia-Eritrea war during Mubarak’s time in power after Eritrea invaded Ethiopia in May 1998. Destabilizing Ethiopia, in fact, was a central element in Egypt’s strategy to extend its ‘acquired’ and ‘historic’ rights and avoid sharing the use of the Nile upstream.

Planting his belligerence stance to solely marshal all the affairs of the Horn of Africa, President Isayas Afework has been struggling to weaken Ethiopia’s march towards peace, stability and prosperity, according to a 2008 Chathamhouse Report. Based on his intransigent strategic goal, he expressed his support for Egypt’s claim to ‘historical rights’ to the Nile waters through his Foreign Miniser, Osman Saleh, and Advisor, Yemane Gebreab, in April, 2013. The recent high level exchange of visits and meetings between Eritrea and Egypt entail the stratagem to outfox Ethiopia’s fight against poverty and instability and outwit upstream countries’ efforts to replace the ‘historical rights’ of Egypt with a more reasonable and equitable utilization of the Nile waters.

Nassir’s Pan-Arab revolution did not confine its anti-Ethiopian policies to Eritrea. In addition to trying to undermine Ethiopia’s geo-political interests in the Red Sea, it was also directed towards the Indian Ocean, encouraging the concept of ‘Greater Somalia’ in order to annex Ethiopia’s Somali-speaking region and to encourage Somali nationalists to claim Harar, already known of course as one of the holiest places of Islam and the political center for the activities of Ahmed Gragn in the 16th century.

The continuing effect of the conflicts and incursions from Somalia in the 1960s and 1970s, and subsequently, had a major impact in weakening any attempts by Ethiopia to eradicate poverty, drought and famine in the later part of the last century. Egypt, it might be added, took no interest in the effect its policies have also had on the lives of millions of Somalis as well as Ethiopians. In the 1960s, Emperor Haile Selassie expressed his apprehension over President Nassir’s behavior, noting that “the Somalis would have never dreamt of such an idea without being incited by Nassir.” President Nassir’s successors have continued in the same approach, supporting President Siad Barre, and more recently stirring up various Somali extremists to oppose and attempt to destabilize Ethiopia. The effects of all this can be seen throughout the Horn of Africa, in civil-wars, inter-state conflicts, drought, famine and other catastrophes.


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