The latest bout of negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which took place from 4–6 April 2021, reached a deadlock when the parties – Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan – failed to come to an agreement on the way forward.
As matters currently stand, Ethiopia plans to proceed with a second filling of the dam when the next rainy season begins in June/July, to the dismay of both Egypt and Sudan, which have denounced the move.
Facilitated by the African Union (AU) since 2020 under the chairing of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, discussions on the GERD have been handed over to the chair of the AU for 2021, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) President Felix Tshisekedi.
There have been moments of high tension in this process, particularly between Egypt and Ethiopia when the latter was getting ready to proceed with the first filling of the dam in June/July 2020. The AU, having succeeded in bringing the three parties to the negotiation table, took over from a process led by the United States (US) under the Trump administration.
Progress in 2020 was slow and the first filling of the dam became a fait accompli, mostly owing to high rainfall in Ethiopia. Ethiopia also argued that filling the dam was an integral part of the construction process; it had to take place in order to proceed with construction.
Going forward, the next rounds of negotiations are meant to find an agreement between the three parties over the continued filling of the dam, which is expected to take another four to seven years, depending on the volume of water for each filling and subject to the terms of a potential agreement between the parties.
When the AU began to facilitate the talks in 2020, Egypt had for several months expressed its preference for a process under the aegis of the US, while Ethiopia leaned towards the involvement of the AU. Sudan seemed much more indifferent over the platform for negotiations.
The major divergences between the parties have been around the nature of the agreement to be reached (binding vs. non-binding), water retention and release by the GERD during times of drought and low rainfall, the dispute resolution mechanism (international arbitration vs. diplomatic facilitation), and future developments upstream.
Ethiopia is particularly reluctant to make any commitments on future developments on the Nile and argues that the current negotiations are about the operations of the GERD and not the (future) use of the Nile waters.
The AU should stay the course and use its convening power to bring all three parties together to de-escalate the situation, particularly as tensions are sure to flare up again around the next filling of the GERD. This would help prevent a confrontation that would have disastrous consequences for both the countries involved and the region.
The continental body should also reflect on how to create a more conducive framework and process for the negotiations, including a clearly defined mediation process.
Complicated negotiating dynamics
The AU has put together a team of technical experts who have been facilitating the discussions. The experts have been assisted by European Union (EU), United Nations (UN) and US representatives with observer status; South Africa is sitting in on the talks as an observer.
Egypt and Sudan want the process to include the EU, the UN and the US as facilitators, if not mediators. This is a test of the commitment of AU member states to use the organisation’s processes and stay true to the aspiration of finding ‘African solutions to African problems’.
South Africa, as chair of the AU in 2020, seemed, from Egypt’s vantage point, too close to Ethiopia owing to bilateral relations. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed made a major state visit to South Africa in January 2020 – about a month before South Africa assumed the chair of the AU – during which he discussed the GERD matter with Ramaphosa and the idea of the AU’s involvement was publicly invoked.
Egypt’s bilateral relations with the DRC, chair of the AU in 2021, were also the subject of a state visit to Egypt by Tshisekedi in February 2021, on the eve of his assumption of duty at the helm of the continental body. Perceptions of neutrality have been somewhat polluted by these developments.
The Ethiopian president also visited the DRC in late January 2021, before Tshisekedi’s assumption of the AU chairship.
Crucially, throughout the negotiation process, the question has been that of the perceptions of the disputing parties about the suitability if not the neutrality of the facilitators. As some parties have contemplated the possibility of mediation or even arbitration, it would appear that the current facilitation process could be considered as inadequate. In fact, the talks to find a technical agreement on the filling of the dam are in conflict with other important political and historical considerations.
The GERD as a matter of domestic politics
The GERD situation is one where the international perfectly meets the national. All three parties, particularly Egypt and Ethiopia, have consistently stated that the GERD is a matter of survival for their respective countries and peoples. The former has claimed that millions of Egyptian livelihoods are at stake, while the latter has made a similar assertion about its development goals and aspiration of lifting millions of Ethiopians out of poverty.
These concerns have their own merits, as Ethiopia and Egypt are respectively the second and third most populous countries in Africa, with populations of over 100 million each.
Ethiopia, therefore, is increasingly asserting its claim to sovereignty and ‘natural rights’ over the waters of the Blue Nile, which contributes about 80% of the Nile River water during rains. For at least the past two years the GERD has been a key rallying point in the highly polarised Ethiopian socio-political climate.
Asserting sovereignty over the Blue Nile and forging ahead with filling the dam is one of the few things on which even highly divided Ethiopians agree. Internally, the Ethiopian federal government cannot afford to appear weak in the face of mounting pressure from Egypt and Sudan, as this will have a detrimental impact on its already contested power base.
The Ethiopian authorities seem even more compelled to stick to their guns on the GERD since they launched what they call ‘rule of law operations’ to squash the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) contestation of the legitimacy of the federal government and the resultant fallout.
It would not serve the Ethiopian federal government at home to uphold territorial sovereignty domestically while wavering internationally on its claim to sovereign use of the Blue Nile’s waters for the GERD.
Egypt’s assertion of its ‘historical rights’ to its desired volume of Nile waters – beyond their socio-economic importance – is also a matter of power projection and national pride. As a regional power, Egypt does not want to give its potential domestic detractors ammunition or appear to be unable to project and effectively wield power on a matter it considers essential to its survival.
Sudan, meanwhile, is undergoing a transition dominated by the military, with a civilian prime minister who has been striving to take a stronger role. The Nile question has, therefore, become a matter of competition between the military and civilians domestically but also in their international engagements, including with Egyptian and Ethiopian counterparts. The Sudanese military in particular needs to gain support both nationally and internationally.
Over the past couple of months, Sudan’s position seems to have evolved from being neither strongly on the side of Egypt nor specifically leaning towards Ethiopia’s, to aligning more with the former. The dam issue may also have contributed to rising tensions around the Ethiopia–Sudan border dispute (if not mutually reinforced a crystallization) and could partially explain why Sudan has moved closer to Egypt on the GERD.
In spite of these very serious and real considerations, all parties, with the help of the AU, need to meet each other halfway and make concessions to avoid reaching a point of no return for them and the region as a whole.