Ethiopia: Dispelling the Curse of the Nile

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By Terefe Masresha

Since Ethiopia started building a large dam on the Nile River, it has been at the receiving end of a barrage of disinformation and mixed messages aimed at discouraging, frustrating and halting the construction. This means putting on hold the country’s growth and development efforts.

The aim of this article is to encourage compatriots from all walks of life to express their views against the coordinated campaign Egypt and its allies are aggressively waging. This is important, because we cannot afford to leave the on-going disinformation drive, its implications and consequences unattended until too late.

The faces of disinformation
On March 24 this year, Mustafa al-Labbad posted ‘Egypt is Battling Ethiopia over the Nile Water” on Lebanon’s As-Safir Arabic Newspaper. The author, in a speculative and assertive manner, stated: “Egypt and Ethiopia may be forced to fight a “water war” because Ethiopia’s ambitions contradict Egypt’s historical and legal rights in the Nile waters.” Please read the translated English version of Mustafa’s post.

On the 1st of May, Egypt’s state-controlled MENA disseminated ‘Ethiopia’s Dam Likely to Collapse for Technical Problems’. It further indicated that the construction site is exposed to seismic risk.

Mohamed Bahaa El-Din, Egypt’s Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation, says “Crisis in the distribution of water faced in Egypt […] and the complaints of farmers from lack of water confirms that we cannot let go of [single] drop water from the quantity that comes to us from the Upper Nile”.

Ethiopia has started diverting the flow of the Nile and Egyptian authorities are saying we were aware of the diversion plan, the dam will not affect the Nile water share, the dam is a reality to cope with, etc. While Egypt officially states the project’s importance to Ethiopia, we cannot be certain that Egypt supports the dam without reservations. This is because Egypt will need an additional 21 billion cubic metres of water per year by 2050, on top of its current quota of 55 billion metres, to meet the water needs of a projected population of 150 million people. This means Egypt cannot be expected to support Ethiopia’s initiative by compromising its strategic interests.

Where do we go from here? 
It is very difficult to be neutral to the barrage of disinformation (media aggression) being waged against Ethiopia. The situation calls for making our voice heard and ensuring the strategic interests of our country are promoted, protected and fulfilled. Ethiopians from all walks of life (regardless of our political persuasion) need to take part and demonstrate our responsibility by speaking about and advancing the long-term interests of the country – political parties and/or leaders come and go, but Ethiopia remains forever! We, therefore, need to stand united against Egypt’s campaign and mixed messages.

Over the long dignified history of our country, we have learned from our heroes and heroines that we do not need to be invited to defend the interest of our country. Our political paths can be different, but Ethiopia’s interests must be supreme. Promoting and entrenching deep-rooted differences of opinion over the merits and demerits of the dam (with regard to timing, cost, environmental and social impact, etc.) in the midst of extreme poverty misses the point. If there is a debate to be had, it need not focus on the dam, but on policy issues concerned with long-term growth and people-centered development.

We have a tradition of standing in unity when our country is threatened and is confronted with blatant aggression. We need to strengthen and build on previous experiences. Our efforts must transcend political differences, because Ethiopia is greater than the divergent discourses regarding where the country must be, how it ought to be led or who is in power. In the late 1970s, the government of Somalia was emboldened to go to war with Ethiopia; taking advantage of internal weakness. In 1992, Isayas Afeworki waged war on Ethiopia at a time when the country’s army was dismantled. However, Ethiopians united against the aggressor and resolutely defended the country and maintained our dignity. The sacrifice of the defense force, the contribution of the diaspora and the unity of the opposition parties will be vividly remembered.

We all recognize the shuddering head to toe feeling that resonates in our hearts and minds when our national flag is held high in victory. On May 5, we celebrated Ethiopian Easter and marked Ethiopian Patriots’ Day. When Jesus Christ was crucified on the cross he said “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). Jesus didn’t waste precious time blaming those who sentenced, mocked, cursed, tortured, nailed, deserted and denied him. He rather focused on his mission of love, compassion and forgiveness. When our patriots relentlessly fought and stung the Italian invaders and became martyrs, their primary motivation was the liberation of our country (to see our national flag to be raised and to fly high). This doesn’t mean that they didn’t have issues which divided them, but they knew division could fatally weaken them. This generation must demonstrate exemplary wisdom and responsibility by focusing on the big picture (protecting and defending Ethiopia’s long-term interests).

Analysing the disinformation campaign 
Returning to the disinformation campaign, it is important to underscore that the dam is one of the most important projects for Ethiopia. The reason for this is simple and straightforward. Energy is critical for advancing a country’s growth and development strategy. Ethiopia is, reputably, the water tower of Africa. It must, therefore, optimize the use of its water resources now and in the future.

Since the overthrow of Mubarak’s regime two years ago, Egypt has been unstable. The on-going disinformation crusade and warmongering seems to be an effort to divert Egyptians’ attention from an aggravated internal crisis. The news from MENA is part of this distorted priority; at a time when many poor Egyptians are struggling to meet their basic needs, Coptic Christians are fleeing the country because of increased discrimination and violence, and when the decline of significant revenue from tourism is causing economic havoc.

The MENA report states that an expert team composed of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia has been commissioned to assess the quality of the construction work and the effects of the dam. This invites the following questions: a) Is it possible that adequate studies were not conducted on the geological structure of the site before the construction started? b) Could it be true that the risk of seismic activity was not adequately appraised? c) Why is the finding so important to MENA at this time? Is it to warn Ethiopia about an impending structural failure? If so, why did MENA find it important to leak the information before the report is submitted to the presidents of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan?

The Government of Ethiopia has a huge responsibility to put the record straight by openly and transparently informing the public about the state of the dam (I am not being naïve here, but highlighting the duty of a government to inform citizens). The possible answers to the above questions lie in the intentions and strategic interests of Egypt with regard to the use of the Nile waters; accompanied with the claim of historical and legal rights. However, Egypt has never accepted the rights of upstream countries to have their fair share of the Nile. Most importantly, Egypt and Sudan are still procrastinating to sign the Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA). Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, signed the agreement in 2010 and Burundi followed suit a year later.

Instead of looking for a constructive, forward looking and win-win arrangement under the Nile Basin Initiative, Egypt uses various proxies to thwart Ethiopia’s important project. To this effect, several efforts have been made to frustrate and distract construction. For example, the statement made by the Deputy Defense Minister of Saudi Arabia opposed the dam and an Egyptian newspaper article threatened Ethiopia of war. The latter suggested a military intervention by Egypt and advised Egypt’s President to prioritize preparations for war instead of dealing with the deepening political, economic and social quagmire the country is bogged in.

The news from MENA is a plot by Egypt to advance its long standing agenda (full utilization of the Nile without due consideration of the interests of upstream countries). For anyone reading between the lines, the report implicitly suggests: Ethiopia need to suspend and delay the construction of the dam.

So, what might be MENA’s intentions in disseminating the malicious news? Admittedly, the news that the dam is likely to collapse due to cracks could trigger doubt and public anger, because many Ethiopians have contributed and are contributing to the construction effort; by buying bonds from their meager earnings and making financial contributions through other means.

There is widespread awareness that Egypt has plaid a destabilizing role against our country; using various proxies. The latest disinformation is no exception. On the basis of empirical evidence, it is fair to say that Egypt doesn’t want Ethiopia to be a strong nation. Egypt’s stance towards Ethiopia, concerning the use of the Blue Nile, gives the impression that Egypt views Ethiopia’s development as an indicator of less water flowing from the Blue Nile. Ethiopia’s efforts to raise external finance from major lenders like the World Bank have been frustrated, because of Egypt’s strong lobbying against the project. In doing so, it has garnered the support of other Arab countries and continues to do so. We need to recognize that the plot against Ethiopia is so ominous that some countries including Egypt will use any means to weaken the country.

Concluding remarks
The disinformation campaign being aggressively promoted by Egypt and its supporters seems to aim at paving the way for limiting the progress that Ethiopia could make. The Government of Ethiopia needs to do more to inform the public in an open and transparent manner about the progress being made in the construction of the dam, and should take concrete measures against the disinformation campaign. Most importantly, it should handle such destructive external soft aggression as carefully as possible. Is someone listening?

I am aware that advising a government which advances ethnic policy to the extent of emboldening federal authorities to make Ethiopians refugees in their own country is difficult. Despite such repulsive actions reminiscent of Rwanda in 1994, Ethiopia and the spirit with which we hold our nationality is much bigger. A few days ago, I finished reading Hiwot Teffera’s book Tower in the Sky. The book in a nutshell is about the failure of a generation that failed to listen to each other and lost a golden opportunity to work together. This failure destroyed Ethiopia’s best and brightest and our country hasn’t recovered since then. Folks, we need to listen to one another. The path of division, character assassination, blind faith, and the ‘what is in it for me’ attitude will not facilitate our emergence from the quagmire that we are in.

I do not want to see Ethiopia and Egypt to go to war over the use of the Nile water. I believe there are constructive ways to address the issue with the aim of meeting the water needs of upstream and downstream countries. However, Ethiopia’s efforts to grow and develop need to be supported by wisely using its natural resources including its rivers. The dam on the Nile belongs to present and future generations of Ethiopians. Ensuring adequate access to electric power is important to break the darkness that continues to trap the country in poverty.

Egypt’s objective is to deter the construction of the dam by blowing up geo-political issues and misunderstandings, out of proportion, under the pretext of a dooms day scenario for Egypt and Sudan; by preordaining the looming danger of Ethiopia’s rise and prominence for the two countries in terms of a potential reduction of water from the Nile.

I encourage my compatriots to respond to such noxious disinformation campaigns by demonstrating that there is another way to resolve contentious issues other than war. Egypt’s longstanding strategy around the Nile waters and its implications for Ethiopia needs to change and Ethiopia must be prepared for all sorts of eventualities.

At this time, we cannot accept such malicious reports to distract our attention from paving our future.

May the spirit of cooperation thrive over unproductive rivalry and the propagation of conflict!

Long live Ethiopia!