Is the Trump Administration Violating Ethiopia’s Sovereignty?
March 10, 2020
In the first week of March, representatives of President Trump’s administration presented conflicting responses on Ethiopia’s right to operate the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD) for the production of electrical power for the nations of East Africa. The construction of the GERD is over 70% complete and is expected to commence operation in 2021, with a capacity to generate 6,200 megawatts of electricity. The GERD built near the border of Sudan, will be filled by water from the Blue Nile, that flows from Lake Tana, located in the mountainous region of Ethiopia. Ethiopia cannot be deprecated for exercising its sovereign right to exploit its most important resource, water, for the benefit of its people, and neighboring African nations.
Ethiopia and the two downstream nations, Sudan and Egypt, have been involved in discussions that now primarily focus on the “fill rate”-how much water is withdrawn each year from the Blue Nile to fill the GERD’s 79 billion cubic meter reservoir. Egypt is justifiably concerned about how the reduced flow of the Blue Nile resulting from filling the reservoir will affect the level of water reaching Egypt’s High Aswan Dam. The Blue Nile contributes 85% of the Nile’s volume of water when it joins the White Nile just north of Khartoum.
Without harming downstream nations, the GERD requires a minimal fill rate to permit the generation of electricity. Egypt, claiming that filling the GERD reservoir with water from the Blue Nile will cause hardship for its people, has made excessive demands on Ethiopia to guarantee an unreasonable allocation of the Nile’s water. This is principally an issue to be resolved by the engineers in the technical committees of the three nations.
Since December, the Trump administration has hosted, several meetings of the three nations in Washington, under the auspices of the US Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin. Secretary Mnuchin’s involvement was to be as a neutral observer, not a mediator. However, recent written and oral statements from Mnuchin, and the Treasury Department, has called into question the impartiality of the US. Retired Ambassador David Shinn’s blog of February 29, he questioned whether, the United States seems to be “putting its thumb on the scale in favor of Egypt.”
Mnuchin Not Impartial
Following the decision by the Ethiopian delegation not to participate in the February 27-28 meeting with Sudan and Egypt, Mnuchin publicly tipped his hand in favor of Egypt. In a February 28th letter, the U.S. Department of the Treasury wrote that Egypt initialed an agreement on the GERD, and instructed Ethiopia that “final testing and filling should not take place without any agreement.” Feb 28 letter by Secretary of the Treasury on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The truth is, there is no existing document to be initialed or signed, because such an agreement can only come about as the fruitful result of the participation by the representatives of all three nations. Mnuchin, has no legal or political authority to instruct Ethiopia about the functioning of the GERD.
The next day, on February 29, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs rebuffed Mnuchin’s letter: “The ‘text’ reportedly initialed by the Arab Republic of Egypt in Washington D.C. is not the outcome of the negotiation or the technical and legal discussion of the three countries.” The Foreign Ministry wrote: “Ethiopia as the owner of the GERD will commence first filling of the GERD in parallel with the construction of the Dam in accordance with the principles of equitable and reasonable utilization and the causing of no significant harm as provided for under the Agreement on the Declaration of Principles (DoP).”
On March 3, testifying before the House Ways and Means committee, Mnuchin was even more blatant in his disregard for Ethiopia’s sovereignty over the GERD. Congressman Steven Horsford (D-Nev) asked Mnuchin to correct the narrative that the US is not trying to impose its will on Ethiopia and requested a balanced approach towards all the core nations involved. Mnuchin brazenly responded, “Ethiopia should not fill the dam until there is an agreement signed.” Presently, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia have not formulated any agreement to be signed. Clearly, Mnuchin has without any mandate, expanded his role as a neutral moderator to an advocate for Egypt’s position.
State Department Doesn’t Agree
On the very same day that Mnuchin was infringing on Ethiopia’s sovereignty, another branch of the Trump administration, the U.S. State Department, had a different response to the GERD negotiations. On March 3, the Woodrow Wilson Africa Program sponsored a forum, The Trump Administration and U.S. Africa Policy: What has been accomplished and what lies ahead? The speaker was Tibor P. Nagy, Jr., Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African affairs, an experienced ambassador to Africa. I was able to question him about the US position towards Ethiopia. Specifically, I asked, since President extols national sovereignty for the U.S. and repeatedly exalts “America First,” wasn’t it a double standard to deny Ethiopia the same sovereign rights regarding the GERD? Nagy then flatly contradicted Mnuchin, when he answered, “What I can say is that the U.S. has consistently said we are neutral in that whole business.” Nagy’s boss, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in Addis Ababa on February 18, said “A great deal of work remains, but I’m optimistic that over the coming months we can resolve this.” Clearly Nagy and Pompeo are not operating on the timetable of President Trump and Mnuchin who wanted the deal resolved by the end of February.
Sudan Differs With Egypt and Arab League
Mnuchin’s letter of February 28, implies that Sudan supported the so called agreement written without Ethiopia’s participation. Sudan in fact refused to add its initials to those of Egypt on the agreement. This indicates that it was only Egypt, just one of the three nations involved, who with Mnuchin, took this stance.
According to an article from Middle East News Agency (MENA), Sudan rejected a resolution from the Arab League supporting Egypt’s position regarding the GERD on March 5. MENA reports that Sudan, “asked not to include their name in the decision [resolution], and added that decision is not in Sudan’s interest…” (emphasis added.) At the Arab League Summit, Sudan formally withdrew its name from the resolution criticizing Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to the Arab League resolution in a strongly worded statement on March 6. They wrote, “Ethiopia expresses its profound appreciation to Sudan’s principled position that helps advance win-win solutions for all parties involved through a commitment to open dialogue. Ethiopia reiterated that it “has the right to use its Nile water resource to meet the needs of the present and future generations.”
Africa Needs Energy
Once the GERD is completed, it will have the capacity to produce 6,200 megawatts of electrical power. This will benefit not only the people of Ethiopia, but also those nations of the Horn of Africa and beyond. Sub-Saharan Africa needs energy, and lots of it-minimally 1 million additional megawatts. It is a matter of survival. Without abundant and accessible electricity, African nations will not develop, and thus be subjected to various forms of destabilization due to rising unemployment of its youth and persisting poverty. Ethiopia has taken a bold step in constructing the largest hydro-electric dam in Africa intended to develop the Nile River Basin. All existing difficulties can and must be resolved in a dialogue among the three principal nations, who share this majestic historic waterway, the birthplace of ancient civilizations.
There is no intrinsic conflict between Ethiopia and the down stream nations of Egypt and Sudan, as Sudan has already implicitly recognized.
It is appropriate here to repeat what I wrote last October: “How many years will it take to fill the GERD’s reservoir, and what will be the flow rate of the Nile at the Aswan Dam, are yet to be resolved. These are technical matters that scientists and engineers must continue to examine in an atmosphere of good will and good faith. Such cooperation is essential to promote the common interests of all nations for a prosperous Nile Basin.” Grand Renaissance Dam Essential for Africa’s Economic Growth
Lawrence Freeman is a Political-Economic Analyst for Africa, who has been involved in the economic development policy of Africa for 30 years. He is the creator of the blog: lawrencefreemanafricaandtheworld.com