Ethiopia: Of Egypt, Gratuitous Contempt, and National Identity

By IndepthAfrica
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Jun 13th, 2013
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Nile dam project a hydropower hope, but regional sore point

Nile dam project a hydropower hope, but regional sore point

Teshome Abebe
Much has been said and written over the past couple of weeks about Egypt, the Blue Nile, Ethiopia’s determination and resolve, and the national identity. This article is not intended to add to the volumes of responses and musings, some of which appear to be giving advise to the Ethiopian government on how to respond to the provocative acts of an unreliable sisterly state. Others have simply taken to the feverish swamp of the Internet to respond to the barrage of insults and the perceived arrogance of Egyptian politicians who have yet to free themselves from the deadly grip of the 19th century.

The Egyptian response to Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) initiative has been confused, confusing and unfortunately, immature as well. From all indications, the Egyptians initially supported the initiative; then, at Ethiopia’s insistence, they agreed to the formation of a select committee drawn from experts from Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and internationally renowned experts to study the impact of the dam. Though the initial framework called for a non-binding report, the Egyptians, true to their trademarked dilatory tactics utilized for ages, decided not to accept or even consider the report once it was finalized. In other words, they began trashing the work of the committee they themselves had a hand in constituting.

Over the course of a few days, Egyptian politicians, egged on by their chief cheerleader Islamist president Morsi, began trashing Ethiopia and its interests. Even beyond that, Egyptian politicians trashed Sudan, and by naming Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia as potential partners in crimes against the Ethiopian state, set out to make official an otherwise secret but well-trodden tactic of subversion and destabilization against a sisterly country. In the opinions of some of Egypt’s politicians, what will hurt Ethiopia most is pitting one African country against another in such a way that, in the words of one politician giving advise to Morsi, “… the Africans finish off each other”. Sadly, this is a country that appears to know nothing of giving a little or has never ever learned to share. A message to Egypt’s leaders ought to be that Ethiopia and Ethiopians are no longer a people who want nothing more than we were able find! We wish to create, we wish to utilize, and we wish to prosper using our natural resources. Furthermore, Egypt’s leaders need to know that as citizens, our location in a particular place is our only distinction, and that otherwise, we are a people bound by one common bond: we are Ethiopians.

It is disturbing to note the gratuitous contempt Egypt has for Africans in general, and Ethiopia in particular. Perhaps, we suspect, Egyptians may not wish to be seen as Africans. Perhaps, this is a new development since the emergence of an Islamic government in Cairo. Perhaps, it stems from a sense of national identity crisis that has been suppressed by successive regimes only to manifest itself at a time of a national crisis. Whatever the cause, we as Africans, need to be quite alarmed that there appears to be forces within Egypt who seem to enjoy the gratuitous doling out of contempt for the people of the continent.

Satisfied and in harmony with the way the Ethiopian government has handled the entire situation to date, I will not comment further on Egypt’s belligerent behavior or on the ignorance of its leaders. Suffice it to state that the Ethiopian government has been exemplary in its response to Egypt’s manufactured crisis with regard to the GERD. From Dina Mufti’s responses [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] to Mr. Kebede’s eloquent statements [Prime Minister’s Office], Ethiopia has been respectful, firm, point-of-factly precise, and diplomatically dignified and impressive. The icing on the cake, however, is Prime Minister Haile Mariam’s observation that those in Egypt who wish to declare war over water must have gone mad! There is a Chinese martial art form called Tai Chi, and according to Tai Chi, “movement in one direction usually begins with a very subtle move in the opposite direction”. Let us just hope that the clumsy movement to the extreme position by the Egyptian’s is an episode of only temporary insanity.

The aim of this brief article is to humbly suggest a couple of ideas worth exploring. The first of these ideas, in view of the declared hostile acts by Egypt against Ethiopian interests, is the formation of a Select Committee for the Protection of National Assets (SCPNA). Ethiopia has been investing billions of dollars in infrastructure and related projects. Billions will be spent on the GERD itself; billions more on a national railway system; several other big and significant dams; major airports; power grid systems which will cost billions more; transportation networks; storage and warehousing networks; supply chain management networks, etc. All of these require billions of dollars of investment, and most if not all of these projects will be funded using borrowed funds. The borrowed funds are the nation’s liabilities, and must be paid back to the lenders with interest. As is the case with all self-funded projects, the money to pay back the loans is expected to come from the stream of incomes the projects are expected to generate. However, a disabled power line does not help generate income; a sabotaged power station does not generate income; a malfunctioning supply chain network is not only useless but also does not help generate income. It also undermines the confidence investors have in the system. A sabotaged railway network is only good as scrap metal unless repaired immediately; and an interrupted transportation network damages the profit margins of businesses, and makes the supply of essential materials and goods difficult if not impossible. For the cost minimizing entity, time is money.

To safeguard the nation’s investments, to react to and prevent perceived threats in a timely manner, and to coordinate national policy on emergencies pertaining to such assets, the SCPNA should be established and organized. It is possible that such a body already exists; in which case, this suggestion should simply be viewed as an endorsement of that effort. I envision a SCPNA with four distinct organs: a military, intelligence, academic, and civil society. Very briefly, the military unit will be composed of crack units with rapid movement and deployment capabilities and training to secure, prevent, and in the event of attacks, to eject or capture hostile forces. The intelligence unit will be an essential part of gathering, detection and analysis of security needs pertaining to the national assets. The academic unit will be composed of notable experts, scientists and practitioners in the particular areas that end up as being deemed or classified as national assets. Finally, the civil society unit will be composed of members of civil society who could assist in the coordination of related or connected activities. Simply relying on local militias and the federal police is insufficient in the face of a determined adversary.

In my opinion, Prime Minister Haile Mariam is making very subtle moves that, while similar in form to that of the late Prime Minister Meles’, are different in their nuances. For example, he has taken a very public stand against illegal immigration, while previous policy was essentially ‘good luck, and may you enjoy your journey’. From what we have seen with the Muslims in Addis, and with the Blue Party a couple of weeks ago, there seems to be some space allowed for people to demonstrate and protest. As Tecola Hagos has observed recently [to the chagrin of Shiferaw Abebe, I must add]*, these may not constitute as examples of the showering of democratic rights in Ethiopia, they are certainly indications of subtle differences in the governing of the country. I believe that a national committee such as the SCPNA will give the Prime Minster another opportunity to bring in both supporters and detractors into the fold at least in an area of national interest and concern to all. Like it or not, the GERD is an Ethiopian project, and as such, it has, by definition, become a national identity project. The national railway network, regardless of whom and what it transports will be an Ethiopian network. These are projects for which we are collectively responsible—we are all debtors for those funds that have been borrowed in our names! Moreover, there will be enormous additional costs in maintenance once the projects are completed, and if these are not taken care of in a timely fashion, in deferred maintenance costs. The Egyptians have publicly stated what they are likely to do to our assets, and no one is absolutely certain who might be recruited to assist and enable them from within. For our forefathers, life was not based on what they had, but on how well one used what they had. It is up to us to meet a similar but an even more taxing challenge. I believe the SCPNA or a similar entity will help overcome some of these challenges. In addition, it would eliminate ad-hoc responses as the country manages to move from one crisis to another. Beyond that, it is simply a very prudent way of managing a country’s critical national assets.

The second major point I wish to make is with regard to Ethiopia’s position on the waters of the Blue Nile [Abbay]. As I understand it, current policy is framed in the vernacular of “equitable utilization” of the waters of the Blue Nile. This framework acknowledges and cedes the point that Egypt has as much right to the Blue Nile as does Ethiopia. Many Ethiopians believe this is a winning strategy. This position would also gather more diplomatic support, as seems to be the case now, and might even be consistent with international law. The problem, however, is that Egypt is not only unhappy with this view; it wants to control the waters of the Blue Nile only for itself and Sudan. Moreover, Egypt seems bent on the idea of uniting its people by giving them a common enemy—Ethiopia. I am wondering, therefore, if the Ethiopian position should shift in its nuances to: ‘Egypt is entitled to the waters of the Blue Nile when it reaches her’? In my opinion this is an appropriate response to an adversary who has mishandled and mis-managed a golden opportunity to cement a lasting, stress/conflict free relationship with a reliable ally from whose territory the life-giving Blue Nile thunders down stream. Perhaps we are making it too easy for the Egyptians to define the terms of debate and engagement on this crucial issue. Ethiopia had not utilized the Blue Nile in the past not because it was afraid of Egypt, not because it was constrained by a treaty, not because it had no need for the waters of this river. It had not utilized the waters of the Blue Nile simply because it lacked the necessary capital to develop it.

The proverbial camel allowed to shelter only its nose eventually takes over the entire tent!! The Egyptians are surely behaving like the proverbial camel—with insults added for good measure. May be the camel ought to be kept out at a distance until those already in the tent have secured enough space for themselves!! I know I am reaching a bit too far with this argument, but the ungratefulness of Egypt and its leaders, and the attempts to assail Ethiopia’s good name and it’s generosity makes one wish to behave as selfishly as they have.

• Tecola Hagos’ and Shiferaw Abebe’s articles appeared in Indepthafrica.

Teshome Abebe, who has previously authored the article titled “Not Just About Salvation or Religious Freedom”, resides in the United States, and may be reached at: teshome2008@gmail.com.

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