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A Brief Comment on Current GERD Political Crisis

Dawit W Giorgis
May 23, 2020

By Dawit W Giorgis

The GERD crisis has gone from the US to the UN. Both were wrong. The crisis concerning the GERD is first and foremost Ethiopian and next the Nile Basin and an African matter which should never have been allowed to go beyond the continent. Now it is on the doorstep of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

It is extremely important to understand how the international system operates to successfully handle such a crisis. The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and the UN Security Council are not the forums to litigate international issues. These two forums operate in the context of raw politics. The legislative entity of the UN established by the UN Charter is the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
When issues come to the SC decisions are reached and resolutions approved mainly on the basis of the political interests, particularly of the big powers who have the veto powers. It is not about who is right and who is wrong. If that were the case the issue would have been presented to the ICJ. The Charter of the UN gives primary responsibility for maintaining peace and security to the SC. The functions and powers of the SC are defined in the charter especially in chapters V- Vii. When such issues are tabled in the SC, lofty principles aside, the primary consideration for each of the 15 members of the SC is how the issue affects their interests as a country or as part of a region.

Ethiopia should not have allowed the internationalization of the Nile. The case should have remained within the sole mandate of the Nile Basin countries and the AU. When it allowed the US to intervene in the case, knowing fully well that the US would favour Egypt, it lost control of the situation and allowed International politics to take center stage on the GERD issue. That is when things became more complicated. Ethiopia rejected the recommendation of the USA but by doing so it offended the Trump administration and Trump personally. The Nile Basin countries and AU were also quietly offended by the actions that took away an African agenda and gave it to the USA. This created a more conducive atmosphere for Egypt which has relentlessly been working with Djibouti, South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda and Kenya to get their support. Its efforts have been successful. Today all the Nile Basin countries and Somalia and Djibouti are all either directly or indirectly aligned with the position of Egypt. Just in the last few days, Egypt has been shipping “corona medical equipment” to South Sudan. In this highly politically charged atmosphere, it is easy to suspect that these shipments might not be medical supplies. It has been reported that Egypt has been helping both South Sudan and Uganda in more than one ways including the construction of dams and supply of armaments. This is all traditional politics which countries play to get support from other countries. Israel is also close to South Sudan and Egypt. North Sudan is being torn apart by the tug of war but has tried to play safe politics. But the American pressure is the hardest and Sudan may relent unless the AU is forcefully behind it.

For the first time in modern Ethiopia’s history, all its neighbours have a hostile or unfriendly relationship with it. Eritrea being an observer in the Arab League, did not express an opinion in favour of Ethiopia when the entire league members including Somalia and Djibouti sided with Egypt.

Considering the very warm personal relationship between the two leaders one would have expected Eritrea to be on the side of Ethiopia on this critical issue. The exercise of Ethiopia to woo the Eritrean government did not have any effect on this or any other regional diplomatic issue. Wise Ethiopian politicians should ask in what way this relationship between the two leaders has affected regional peace and security?

Despite its huge population and its history as the powerhouse of Africa, Ethiopia has become the weakest country in the region. If African countries watch carefully and cautiously at Ethiopia it has more to do with their concern on the implications of civil war or conflict in the region and not because Ethiopia is the most respected and most powerful country it used to be. Today it can be dispensed easily and exchanged for other offers. Ethiopia’s sovereignty over the Nile is unquestionable. Through its skilful experts, it has presented a solid case and initially the entire Nile Basin countries supported it. When did Ethiopia lose this lead?

For Ethiopia, it is not time for confrontations. It is the time to avoid war rhetoric and continue the dialogue by bringing the case of the Nile back to Africa where it belongs. The UN is not where it belongs. The US has encouraged Egypt to bring the case to the UNSC where it has the most influence. As I write this I am quite sure the draft resolution has already been prepared to be submitted to the UNSC by Egypt or one of its allies. In this, the USA will certainly side with Egypt. The composition of the security council members this month and the presidency (Dominican Republic) of the council favours Ethiopia. It will certainly be able to avoid the worst that can come out from the SC. If the resolution is too strong Ethiopia can be certain that one of the permanent powers will veto it. Eventually, a watered-down resolution might come out of the council.

The SC cannot enforce any kind of resolution but can hurt Ethiopia in different ways. The SC cannot declare war or impose sanctions. It can only condemn Ethiopia’s actions in the most extreme scenario or appeal to the parties to continue dialogue under the auspices of the USA or come up with recommendations on the steps to be taken by both parties to prevent escalation. UN SC resolutions are supposed to be binding but in most cases, they are ignored. Israel has the largest number of resolutions against its policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. It has largely ignored them and it has not been affected by its refusal to adhere to the terms and conditions of the SC resolutions. So has Saudi Arabia and a host of other countries. These countries can afford to ignore the resolutions because they have different cards to play with. They have either very good relationships with America and European countries or because they have the capacities to create damage to the interests of particular countries in the west and the permanent members of the SC, politically or economically.

Ethiopia does not have much of these cards these days. It used to be considered as a power that could play an influential role in peace and security in the region and in Africa. With the current fragile internal situation, Ethiopia is more of a concern to regional African peace and security than an asset. Ethiopia has to do a lot to retain that status by building peace and unity in the country and playing good old politics through skill and knowledge, to be respected and taken seriously.

For now, Ethiopia must undo what has been initiated by the US and Egypt

and bring the Nile case to the AU and express its willingness to negotiate. The statement that emanates from Egypt of not being willing to negotiate a “reduction of a single drop” of Nile water is not a starter. Ethiopia should bring back its old allies and beyond and remind them not to allow Egypt and the USA to take advantage of Ethiopia’s internal situation. Ethiopia will prevail and that their best bet is being with Ethiopia. Ethiopia has to inform the UN that the issue will be served best in African forums. This will pull the rug from under the feet of Egypt. The US and western powers will not be able to blackmail Ethiopia and use this situation to once again appease their powerful Arab allies.

Egypt cannot declare war on Ethiopia. It cannot send foot soldiers to Ethiopia across Sudan. It is an impossible scenario. What it may do is send aircraft and drones to hit the GERD. That is equally suicidal. It may be able to bypass Ethiopian air defence capacities and cause damage to GERD. But Ethiopia has a more lethal response than Egypt has. It can, very easily, hit the Aswan dam which is in the striking distance of Ethiopian airpower and or divert one of the feeder rivers to the Nile like the Atbara River. The Aswan Dam compromised Egypt’s desire, as the vanguard of Arab nationalism. Egypt challenged Israel at will as it did in three wars (1948, 1956, and 1967). But Israel threatened Egypt that it will bomb the Aswan dam if it tries to ignite another conflict. Sadat had no choice but had to make a strategic decision to make peace with Israel. Egypt’s primary security threat was water, not Israel. With this decision, the Arab nationalism and its ambition slowly disappeared. Egypt is no more a threat but an ally to Israel.

These and other options should be seen as existential threats to Egypt. Egypt will not dare to start a conventional war. But it can, as it may have already, intervene in the internal affairs of Ethiopia by using the current instability in the country, to conduct proxy war. That is certainly possible. For this not to happen the government of Ethiopia needs to put its acts together before it is too late. It is naive to think that such proxy forces from Egypt or other countries do not already operate in Ethiopia.

So the wisdom for this government is to unite its people and bring the Nile case to Africa and play smart politics. I advise the leaders to know more about the ambition of the Arab world which has never hesitated to vote against the vital interests of Ethiopia. It is mandatory to know more about the regional and global power play. Every country in the region has its short and long term interests. Even as we judge them as harsh leaders, they, however, are seasoned diplomats working in interests completely different from that of Ethiopia. Ethiopia may have and certainly should have converging interests with these countries but they will not hesitate to align themselves with the enemies of Ethiopia if it serves their best interests. In these complex political dynamics, naive leaders with over vaulting ambitions will lose taking down their countries with themselves. Grandstanding in such dangerous and complex dynamics hurts the country and will lead to uncharted territory.

Ethiopia will achieve its glorious position only when it decides to come out of its cocoon, beset by a myriad of internal problems, and play the expected lead role in Africa as one united people, Ethiopians. Ethiopia’s greatest challenge is of its own making; it’s fractured unity that can and Is possibly being used by its enemies.

Egypt and Ethiopia have survived together for thousands of years. They can continue to do so through peaceful dialogue without the intervention of others with different agendas. They come from one unique civilization built along the Nile valley. They are bonded by history, culture, blood and religion and they drink the same water. Let this water not be a curse but a blessing that unites the two people stronger than ever during these testing times in world history.

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