Understanding the Preliminary Trilateral Agreement on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
On the 23rd of March 2015, leaders of Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt signed a Preliminary Trilateral Agreement (hereafter PTA) on principles which woud govern the first filling and the operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (hereafter GERD) and the allocation of the waters of the Abbay ( Blue Nile) River.
As Sudanese president Omar Hassan El Bashir said the PTA was historic and unprecedented, since it is for the first time in history that the three countries have reached the common understanding that the Blue Nile waters are indispensable for the three countries peoples’ respective national development and that they must share them on the basis of equity and reasonableness.
Unthinkable three months before the conclusion of the PTA, such understanding has been possible thanks to the seismic change of attitude in Egypt’s legal foreign policy. This means that, Egypt, which has always made the barefaced claim that it has a “special legal right” over the Nile waters, is now resigned to the fact that it is an ordinary riparian state with no more or no less right on the Blue Nile River than the other coriparians.
To be sure, despite the war mongering attitude of its sabre rattler Islamist politicians, Egypt has known from the beginning that fighting a rearguard action against the construction of the GERD would get it nowhere, because apart from blocking the foreign financing of the dam, there was nothing else it could do. But once it became clear that the Ethiopian people and government were determined to finance themselves the construction of the GERD, Egypt did not have any other viable choice. Form this point of view, the new Egyptian position represents a radical departure from its traditional hydro-imperialism.
This must be underscored all the more so as for sixty years Egyptian leaders have vetted the war option to reportedly prevent Ethiopia from harnessing the Abbai waters to promote 2 its national development. There is widespread wrong opinion in Egypt that Ethiopia’s economic development is synonymous of Egypt’s economic decline. That is why the motto of Egyptian officials has been: “Ethiopia must perish so that Egyptian economy can flourish”. Although they have always dreaded it, Egyptian leaders did not however believe that Ethiopia would be ready to even go to war in order to take the actual control of the Blue Nile.
Such a belief was based on the racist attitude that Africans would never dare to provoke a “superior race” by questioning its monopoly ownership over the Nile waters. And when Ethiopia announced in 2011 its decision to build the GERD after having successfully spearheaded the signature of the Entebbe Agreement in 2010, ordinary Egyptians were taken by surprise. Of course, following the decision of Ethiopia in 2013 to divert temporarily the course of the Blue Nile, Egypt’s Islamist leaders made the threat that they would declare war to stop Ethiopia from building the GERD. That sabre-rattling doubtless showed that the present generation of Egyptians does not know its past history.
It doesn’t know that the Ethiopian army annihilated the Egyptian army in 1875 and in 1876 despite the fact that Egypt had already had by then several decades of experience of industrialization. And that defeat made Egypt, which was then under Ottoman suzerainty, an easy prey for British colonialism. It doesn’t know either that Ethiopia has never lost a war in its very long history, although it lost some battles. Be that as it may, thanks to the Herculean efforts made during the last twenty four years by the Ethiopian people under the able leadership of the EPRDF to set the economy on high growth path and to build credible ground and air defence forces capable of warding off any foreign aggression, the Egyptian military leaders, who overthrew the Islamist government, have realized that war with resurgent Ethiopia would not be a walkover. Does it mean that Ethiopia has come out as the clear winner?
Yes. The conclusion of the PTA marks a resounding legal, political, diplomatic and economic victory for Ethiopia although that does not mean that downstream states are losers. To be sure, Sudan is the biggest winner in economic terms as well as in terms of 3 it being recognized by Ethiopia and Egypt as equally sovereign. In the 1959 Egypt-Sudan treaty, Sudan did not have such a status as it was forced to accept Egypt’s right of inspection over any works that it might undertake. For Ethiopia, the PTA is also a revenge against History in the sense that the days (during the Haile Selassie and the Derg regimes) when Sudan and Egypt were discussing in the African Union’s Head Quarters, in Addis Ababa, about the Blue Nile River issues by ignoring Ethiopia contemptuously, are behind us. In short, the days of Ethiopia’s humiliation are now a bad memory consigned to history. Read more