Stratfor for the Analysis:
A River Runs Through an African Rivalry
- The competition to secure water from the Nile River will create problems for Egypt and Ethiopia, much as it has for centuries.
- The countries will, however, probably find some common ground despite the ongoing construction of the divisive Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
- Distrust still defines relations between Cairo and Addis Ababa, and Egyptian-Ethiopian competition over water resources will not end.
Egypt and Ethiopia have been at odds for much of their modern history, perhaps nowhere more so than in their attempts to secure water of the Nile River basin. This particular struggle has been on full display in recent negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is situated on the Blue Nile. The history of competition over the critical waterway provides the context for regional dynamics that will endure long into the future.
Treaties lie at the center of controversy between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Nile River, primarily because most of these agreements never included Ethiopia as a signatory. The treaties were tools British colonial officials used in the 19th and 20th centuries to manage relations between their Egyptian and Sudanese holdings. Ethiopia, which was not a colony, at times negotiated with the British government but never had the same say in regulating the use of the Nile. Understandably, Addis Ababa has often rejected the legal framework established in this period for managing the river. One of Ethiopia’s main concerns is the fact that it, as an upstream country, is not protected in the same way as downstream countries such as Egypt.
From Ethiopia’s perspective, all countries in the basin depend on the water resource. Addis Ababa argues that it should have been invited to take part in initial agreements that set water use terms. Because it was sidelined from the process that laid down the management of the river, Ethiopia has instead pursued self-development projects such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. These kinds of projects are a problem for Egypt: the Nile is the desert country’s primary source of fresh water and of irrigation for agriculture. For that reason alone, Egypt has and will continue to dominate in use of Nile River water. Without it, Egypt could not survive.
Rather than try to force Ethiopia’s hand militarily, Nasser attempted to work with Addis Ababa diplomatically. Moreover, Nasser had a direct connection with Ethiopia’s rulers. During his career as a military officer, he had been stationed in Sudan and had interacted closely with Ethiopian officials. Nasser failed, however, to convince the Ethiopian emperor to visit Egypt. Despite the interest Ethiopia may have had in collaborating with Egypt on Nile River issues, the style of Arab nationalism Nasser propagated in his country and the region drove a deep wedge between the two countries. Ethiopia considered the ideology a threat to monarchies such as its own. Furthermore, Ethiopians were Africans, not Arabs, so Addis Ababa was suspicious of any potential ulterior motives that may have been guiding Nasser’s attempts to initiate dialogue.
The Ebb of Conflict
However, this interference eventually led to war between Ethiopia and Somalia over the disputed Ogaden region. By this time, communists had come to power in Ethiopia, and Nasser no longer ruled Egypt. Ethiopia’s military eventually defeated Somalia after the Soviet Union sided with Addis Ababa, beginning an era of communism in Ethiopia. During this period, Anwar Sadat became president of Egypt, and the country’s priorities changed. Ethiopia was in no position to continue its competition with Egypt regardless: It was distracted by internal conflict, not to mention Eritrea’s war of independence. And so, for a time, the two countries’ attempts to undermine one another declined markedly.