EDITORIAL | Somalia has this week clarified its neutrality in the smoldering dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt over the large $ 4.8 billion water dam project on the Nile River that Addis Ababa is laying up.
In an interview with a television station this week, Ahmed Isse Awad, the Somali foreign minister explained that the neutrality of Mogadishu could actually help convey a useful solution between the two sides.
But it threw a new wrench into the works of relations between Somalia and Egypt as well as Mogadishu and Addis Ababa. Mogadishu prepared a recent referendum in the Arab League, approving a move by Cairo to ensure no violation of Egypt’s “inherent rights” to the Nile.
The dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia began about seven years ago when the Ethiopians decided to raise money among themselves to build a dam worth 4.5 billion. Dollars and meant producing 6.4 MW when in maximum use.
In short, it would be the largest hydropower plant in Africa, enough to pump electricity to the homes of all 110 million Ethiopians as well as export it to neighboring countries.
Except there is a problem: Egyptians see the project, known as the Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD) as a threat to its main source of fresh water, as the dam can divert approx. 27 billion cubic meters of water from the river stream.
Once filled, the dam’s reservoir, also known as the ‘lake’ dam, can hold up to 74 billion cubic meters of water to be filled over a period of time. Ethiopia has proposed that it should be filled at least 15 cubic meters per year.
Ethiopians, who produce 86 percent of the Nile, have cited sovereign rights to build the dam and exploit the Nile. But Egypt is swinging a 1959 treaty that gave it 55 billion cubic meters, while Sudan was to get 18 billion cubic meters.
The rest of the Nile Basin, which includes South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, was allocated zero cubic meters. An assessment by International Rivers, a global NGO that promotes the protection of river ecosystems, said four of the Nile basin countries are in fact “water scarce.”
“The dam is our sovereign right to utilize our natural resources. Nobody wants to stop us from filling the dam, ”Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew told reporters two weeks ago.
“We are starting to fill the dam as planned in July.”
The two countries had negotiated a possible dam-filling period, supported by the United States and the World Bank. In the last part of the negotiations, Ethiopia did not participate and cited time to consult. However, the United States presented a draft document asking the parties to sign. Cairo initialed it and went on to seek a statement from the Arab League.
By bringing together 22 members, most of whom are in North Africa and the Gulf, the league adopted the movement, which may have no legal basis, but gave Egypt political support. Sudan refused to sign it. Somalia and Djibouti initially supported, but have since withdrawn in favor of neutrality.
So why should Somalia take neutrality when it could choose Ethiopia, its latest alliance; or Egypt, a historical ally of the Arab League? Some experts believe it has to do with strategy.
Abdirashid Hashi, director of the Somali Think-Tank Heritage Institute, claims that Somalia is correct in proposing a negotiated outcome. [The] the stakes are too high for both of them, and as a “winner takes all” strategy may not work or is possible, “he argued.
Bridging the gorge can also help Somalia’s own problem with Ethiopia affecting Somali river systems. For some time, environmentalists have argued that Ethiopia’s manipulation of the sources of the Juba and Shabelle rivers had contributed to their lower volume downstream. An agreement on GERD could be replicated.
“Somalia’s two rivers, Juba and Shebelle, especially Shabelle, have alternated between unexpected drought and devastating floods; it has been suggested that Ethiopia is behind this, since the river flow from the Ethiopia, what is the Somali government doing about this? Hashi referred to the sources of the Somali river systems, referring to Ethiopia’s other hydropower projects such as Genale Dawa and Godey.
Kenyan historian Macharia Munene claimed that Somalia has traditionally benefited from both Ethiopia and Egypt, but rarely at the same time.
“If you look at the history of their relationship, Egypt supported Somalia when Ethiopia was Somalia’s enemy. Now Ethiopia supports Farmaajo’s forces to take control of regions, ”Prof Munene said, referring to the Ogaden war and the situation now.
During this war, Prof Munene argued that Egypt stood on Somalia, like other Arab states such as Libya and Yemeni side with Ethiopia. When the league turned to Cairo in the 80s, Somalia stood with Cairo.
But with Farmaajo, Ethiopia is considered friendly to Somalia and has worked with Somali national forces, albeit to the displeasure of federal heads of state.
“An attack on today’s Ethiopia is an attack on Somalia. Ethiopia is a Somali nation-state, stockpile and barrel like Djibouti, ”argued Farah Maalim, a Kenyan legal scholar who once served as legislator for Lagdera in Kenya’s Garissa County, which borders Somalia. He referred to the ethnic composition of Somalis in Ethiopia and Djibouti.
“Imperial Ethiopia has been the existential enemy of the entire Cushite race in the Horn of Africa for centuries. That story should never be played out again … and like decolonization, we now have a new Ethiopia. ”
However, this does not guarantee Somali support for Ethiopia at the dam. And despite Cairo’s support for Mogadishu in the past, observers believe Somalia’s condition may still be about interest, not emotion.
“[You may] also knows that Egypt had a strategic national interest in the continuation of the conflict between Ethio and Somalia as a proxy war against the Nile conflict, ”said Abdirashid Abdulkadir Warsame, an expert in Horn of Africa on peace and security.
Egypt has recently fought for Ethiopia’s neighbors to abandon Addis Ababa and speak independently in what could push Ethiopia’s call for a common front of states.
Abdalla Ibrahim of the East African Center for Research and Strategic Studies observed that Egypt’s blockade, usually outside the basin, supports US mediation, but the division of countries is a strategy to ‘internationalize’ the issue.
“Egypt faces two options: internationalization or the military option to preserve its water and the national security and bread of millions of its children,” he said, warning that the latter could be costly.
“It seems that the Ethiopian side’s insistence on its position will lead to one of two possibilities: Either Egypt’s resort to international arbitration or resort to the military option if the former fails.”
The Egyptian proposal, rejected by Ethiopia, had offered that Ethiopia fill the dam with 40 billion cubic meters over several years to fill the dam to ensure that Aswan High Dam in Egypt maintains its water level.
Could the United States help dispel tensions? Addis Ababa already accused Washington of “exceeding the mandate” in mediation rather than observing the talks.
Ibrahim believes, however, that Somalia’s change of attitude was up to pressure from Addis Ababa.