Winter is coming

The second filling phase of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is set to start from around July. This, a much anticipated and hence inevitable filling of the dam’s reservoir, is also ushered by military maneuver ever seen in the region, which conceivably has potential of shaking the fragile East African region. The roar is particularly manifested in Cairo’s latest aggressive move to augment its strategic ties in the region with aim of building a new alliance. As of late May 2021, Egypt has entered defense pacts with four East African countries.

The inking of such agreement has started in March with Sudan followed by Uganda and Burundi in April and the latest being with Kenya. The overall objective attached to these pacts came in the text of dealing with “common challenges and threats to national security, other times put as, for matters of mutual benefit,” “intelligence exchange,” and “joint military drill.”

The latest nuptial between Egypt and Sudan could have provoked the immediate neighbor Ethiopia whose border dispute with Sudan is yet unresolved. In this case, the pact between the former has reached to joint areal exercises. Accordingly, they have launched several joint military drills since November 2020 dubbed “Nile Eagles 1” and “Nile Eagles 2” in March and April 2021 followed by “Guardians of the Nile” in May 2021.

Amid renewed tensions on GERD such military partnerships have an implication imposing Cairo’s desire to proactively manage changes in the hierarchy of the East African order. The new alliance has thus a potential to change the outlines of the existing regional order, sponsoring contradictory tendencies of its future aspirations linked to Nile water use and development, as well as influencing the dynamics of the development of the diplomatic and military spheres as components of the system of regional alliances. Therefore, the military cooperation with many countries in the region can reflect the process of the formation of the future.

Part of Cairo’s oath making effort in the Horn is also President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi recent visit to Djibouti. It was the first by the country’s leader since Djibouti was declared independent in 1977. Sisi’s office said in a statement same day of the visit that Sisi and Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh have agreed that the GERD should be filled and operated according to what it said “a fair and binding legal agreement.” The statement said such agreement “could maintain regional stability and preserve the interests of all parties”.

The notion of regional stability aligns to Sisi’s earlier threats of destabilizing the region if Ethiopia goes in accordance to the plan of filling its dam. However, Egypt itself has asserted that the second filling will not have impact to the flow of Nile waters. Sisi’s visit to Djibouti can be seen as major step in view of surrounding Ethiopia using its immediate neighbors. Had Somalia been free from its current domestic wrangling, it would have likely drift into serving Cairo’s interest. In view of that Addis Ababa has to revisit its approach to foes and friends of Mogadishu based government.

The summation of these all signifies the coming of winter with much of a challenge for the region. As much rains hit the ground the more the filling of the dam’s reservoir gets easier with ample flow of water and that eventually dodges the unsubstantiated fears of water security, while posing a new state of frostiness surrounding to downstream neighbors Egypt and Sudan desire of maintaining a status quo on use of Nile waters. Nonetheless, the time gives Ethiopia an opportunity to prove itself and break the ground of power generation. Hence the rhetoric of undermining water security in downstream countries and an issue of existential threat for both nations should come to an end.

In the meantime, Cairo’s establishments have been urging Egypt and Sudan to ask the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to insist that the second filling of the GERD be postponed for a year, at least. According to this suggestion it will “give the disputants time to resume negotiations.” However, putting aside the cost Ethiopia could incur in delaying the completion of the project it is in the belief of this writer that an extension of time to the second filling will likely bear no change in position of the downstream countries regarding the minor point of difference over the negotiation table.

Ahead of the second filling of the dam the month of June will be a busy one for Ethiopia as it is scheduled to hold national elections in the face of domestic and international challenges. In the world where much of everything is about national interest Ethiopia cannot be naïve enough to appear saintly state. In this regard Ethiopia’s appeal in the global alliance surfacing to UNSC intervention might face some daunting road ahead as Cairo pushes to pursue UNSC’s greater role on the issue.

Ethiopia was able to garner Chinese and Russian support at the UNSC previous hearing over the matter. After Ethiopia’s recent decision to open its telecoms market, it is worth noting here that the issue comes at a time when a Chinese-backed bid for a mobile license lose out to a consortium that had US support and yet US went on imposing restrictions against Ethiopia relating to the crisis in the Tigray region.

It is eminent that Cairo is excreting efforts to make use of the odds Addis Ababa is faced with. The Egyptian leadership has display of diplomatic gesture for “resolution through negotiation” while making “all options remain on the table” statement. Although military option has never been explicitly ruled out deluging into any sort of armed conflict linked with the GERD could come with an unimaginable consequential impact for the region that can also extend into the rest of the world. The pressure next year will be no less than the present and it is time for Ethiopia to disprove that its purpose with GERD is not an existential threat but a means for cooperation.

Kiram Tadesse is commentator on East African affairs.


The Ethiopian Herald June 1/2021

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