By; Kiflu Hussain
Despite repetitive adverts of a documentary and even its screening on Aljazeera titled “Struggle over Nile,” it’s a couple of days ago that I managed to watch it. My first attraction to the documentary stemmed from the fact that I am a denizen of Ethiopia from where flows, according to the documentary itself, 85 percent of the water that sustains the land of the Pharaoh’s. Indeed, the Blue Nile River is Egypt’s lifeline. It joins hand with White Nile at Khartoum that originates from the Ugandan side of Lake Victoria to its final destination, Mediterranean Sea. Blue Nile, popularly known as Abbay in Ethiopia, would have been unparalleled had it not been for the other wonders of nature, Amazon River in South America. While I don’t recall hearing about Amazon River being the cause of mistrust and bickering between the Latinos on whose valleys Amazon traverses, Nile on the contrary has always been the source of discord in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is particularly so between Ethiopia and Egypt. Perhaps it’s because none of the countries in South America depends desperately on Amazon like Egyptians do on Nile. According to a cyber source “on average, only an inch of rain falls in Egypt per year.”(Sic but not so sic).Hence, no wonder if Egyptians feel touchy on any design upstream countries entertain on the flow of Nile.
At present, Egypt is pissed off with almost all the riparian states for disregarding the colonial era treaty that gives it monopoly on the use of Nile through a partnership these countries formed and christened as Nile Basin Initiative (NBI).Yet, as Aljazeera’s documentary depicted, Egypt is naturally more nervous by the current fad the Ethiopian regime trumpets on Blue Nile. Those who constitute the NBI partnership, by the way, are Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, DR Congo, Ethiopia, Egypt itself and Eritrea as an observer. Notwithstanding the fact that the initiative began with “a dialogue” to “achieve sustainable socioeconomic development through the equitable utilization of, and benefit from the common Nile Basin water resources,” Egypt baulked when it felt the partnership’s ambition upsets its monopoly on Nile. However, Wikipedia informs us further that the upstream countries namely, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi signed an agreement to “seek more water from the River Nile.”To the vehement opposition Egypt alongside its historical lackey, Sudan showed, the representatives of the signatory states responded as to how “tired” they are to always appease Egypt “before using River Nile for any development project like irrigation.”Even though, Aljazeera’s documentary highlighted all aspects of Nile in terms of ecology and geopolitics among all riparian states, it ultimately and rightly focused between the two main rival countries, Egypt and Ethiopia. On top of picking scholar’s and expert’s brains from both sides, the documentary also reflected the sentiments of ordinary people on River Nile or Abbay.Thus; an Egyptian historian intimated that King Menelik of Ethiopia threatened to “divert Nile to the Red Sea.”
Considering Egypt’s blatant aggression against Ethiopia in the wake of Egypt’s emergence following the decline of the Ottoman Empire, diligent students of history would agree that Emperor Menelik was within his right to make such a bluff. No record on this end, however, shows that Menelik was given to making such idle threats. The crude fact is Egyptians have always felt insecure that Nile is their only source of water and much of it comes from Ethiopian highlands. Consequently, it’s understandable if some of its elites get carried away by figments of their own imagination. To their credit, Egyptian elites, while still prone to paranoia over Nile, have “matured” from making any frontal attack against Ethiopia like they did at the battle of Gundet and Gura in 1875 and 1876.Instead, as Shumet Sishagne showed in his scholarly researched book “UNIONISTS & SEPARATISTS; THE VAGARIES OF ETHIO-ERITREAN RELATION” they had resorted to sponsoring subversive groups such as the Eritrean secessionists who in turn nurtured another ethno-fascist and divisive element in Ethiopia. Notable among these is the group that ousted the military regime of Mengistu Hailemariam on a ticket to secede another Ethiopian province adjacent to Eritrea. The master-mind of this ethno-fascist element romanticized the Eritrean secessionists in a publication he titled “The Eritrean struggle; from where to where.”Ironically, the man whose heart and mind belongs to the Eritrean secessionists by blood and deed; and who was indirectly sponsored by the Egyptians became the ruler of Ethiopia, postponing his agenda of seceding the other province he meant to “liberate.”This Trojan horse named Meles Zenawi who died on July 14 but pronounced dead effective August 20 by his cronies traded off many of Ethiopian vital interests to the cause he championed.Zenawi, the “Ethiopian” representative pushed aside an offer to successfully negotiate the retention of Assab as its rightful gateway to the sea at the London peace talk in May 1991. Mr. Herman Cohen, Assistant Secretary of the United States for African Affairs mediated the talk. Assuming power in Addis, Zenawi went on to disparage and belittle anything Ethiopian. He disbanded the professional Ethiopian military and jailed upright officers known for their valor and uncompromising patriotism under the pretext of prosecuting war crime. He allowed his Eritrean secessionist cousins to distort history and foment hate, while gagging Ethiopians including unionist Eritreans by denying them the right to air their views on the electronic media that his régime monopolized. Having made sure that the field is so skewed to the Eritrean secessionists, he wrote a letter to Mr. Boutros Boutros- Ghali, then secretary general of the United Nations so that the latter sponsors a referendum on Eritrea’s fate. Feeling more Egyptian than behaving as an impartial arbiter of the UN, Mr.Ghali failed to consider at least two glaring hindrances to conduct a referendum in a free and fair environment. The first one was that Zenawi, as mere president of a transitional government, had no mandate to write such a letter to the UN on behalf of Ethiopia. Secondly, the choices the Eritreans were confronted with in the referendum were so monstrously reduced as a question of “freedom or slavery.”When asked as to what would be the fate of thousands of Eritreans enjoying life more than any other Ethiopians, Zenawi bragged that “Ethiopia and Eritrea will not go the Pakistani-Indian way.”Alas! A few years later after this asinine remark, Zenawi dragged Ethiopia in the most senseless bloody war never recorded in its history against Eritrea. Without mentioning the carnage at the battlefield, Zenawi himself instigated mass deportation of Eritreans and those suspected of having Eritrean ties. Ironically once again, the man who championed the Eritrean cause and promoted anything Eritrean at the expense of Ethiopia justified the mass deportation, waving a flag of “sovereignty” all of a sudden, as a statesman’s prerogative to order the expulsion of anyone if he doesn’t like the “color of that person’s eye.”
From “sovereignty” to the “Renaissance” dam
While acknowledging that it’s a daunting task to incorporate every aspect of a geopolitical history in a half hour documentary, I am of the opinion that Aljazeera missed the convoluted history of collaboration between “Ethiopian” secessionist elements and Egyptians. While the documentary echoed the fear that “asserting patriotism and politics over the River Nile” exacerbates the existing tension thus reminding me of Captain Fikreselassie Wogderes’s—prime minister during the Mengistu era—prediction on “the future war over water” which has also been reiterated by current analysts that “access to freshwater can become more incendiary than access to fossil fuels,” again I am of the opinion that Egyptians feel no immediate pressure to blow the “Renaissance” dam to smithereens.Although,Egyptians might have entertained the idea to bomb Zenawi’s pet project on River Nile as disclosed by Wikileaks,I don’t think that it amounts to anything more than a psychological warfare. Egyptian elites know very well that the deceased embarked on fancy “development” projects such as the “Renaissance” dam for diversionary purposes sugarcoating it with patriotic fervor. They know too that he was not crazy enough to risk confrontation with their highly trained and better equipped military after disbanding the elite Ethiopian military, particularly the Air force to replace them with his own morons that frequently crashed jet aircrafts and helicopters on markets in towns and on farms. They also remember as to how he duped Ethiopians after sacrificing the Ethiopian youth on empty talk of “sovereignty” over a barren land; and how he traded off the victory gained at the battlefield to a defeat in diplomacy waving the right of appeal and by agreeing to be adjudicated via a colonial treaty that was inimical to Ethiopian interest but beneficial to Eritrea. In light of this and innumerable other betrayals of his own country, Egyptians are smart enough to see that the deceased was in the habit of coming up with diversionary tactics under the guise of big projects to escape from his own deception that threatened to choke him. It was also obvious to them that without his Western financiers that he could never bring such a project to completion except using the scheme to extort money from his own gullible subjects by feeding on their fear or by pandering to their patriotic feelings. More comforting to the Egyptians is the man who replaced the deceased. In addition to being spineless with no mind of his own, the people who manipulate him are still busy with unfinished power struggle. Notwithstanding the rhetoric, therefore, carrying on the much vaunted “vision” of the deceased is not in their priority list. Despite this respite, however, Egyptians must recognize the right of the people of upstream countries including Ethiopia to use River Nile. Like Aljazeera’s documentary pointed out, so long as we maintain “calm heads” and employ “cooler words,” I don’t think there will be any difficulty to enjoy Abbay equitably. After all, Nile’s blessing or in the words of one ordinary Egyptian in the documentary, “God’s blessing is all around us.”Concerning the latest fad in Ethiopia on Blue Nile reminds me of my own doggerel which I scribbled twelve years ago. I am happy to share it once again as published by the Ethiopian weekly newspaper of August 2, 2000.
Speaking of Rivers
A thought struck me
While I was savoring the breathtaking scenery
From a vantage point
Selected by an ex-serviceman
With a keen foresight
Whereupon, he called it after his rank and name
As Basha Amare Hotel.
So, standing there at the edge of the terrace
I said to myself looking down at Awash
Which had been flowing like that
Dividing in twain for centuries the barren land
That if it’s possible for the Israelites
Why would it be difficult for Ethiopians
In Asaita like Negev in the Middle East
With Awash flowing right under its nose?
Can’t see any obstacle to do that
If the Israelis, despite all those fights
Succeed to bring heaven on earth
There’s no reason on our part
That we can’t turn the barren land
With a river that anyways ends up in a sand.
Being a layman, I may sound naïve
But, please consider this doggerel of mine
Now that the fad is all about the Nile.
An Ethiopian social and political commentator exiled in Uganda
 I read Fikereslassie’s prediction published years later after the fall of Derg by an independent Amharic magazine called TOBIA.At the time of publication which was around 1997, Fikreselassie was languishing in prison. He got released recently after two decades of imprisonment.