Aiming for consensus on Abay should be the target

4 mins read

By Kebour Ghenna
March 3, 2020

Today, we turn to the world of diplomacy – The Abay (or the Nile) negotiation.

Water diplomacy is a tricky subject.

If you think the Administration of Abye Ahmed struck a poor negotiation position by accepting the US and the World Bank as honest brokers on Abay, you’re right. To begin with, it was crazy to assume that the US, which is the main economic and military ally of Egypt – a country considered a key in Middle East stability – would be at the same time a neutral and impartial mediator between Egypt and Ethiopia!

For US to pressure Ethiopia on Abay through an implicit measure to cut economic aid is standard operating procedure; yet, in volunteering to act as a disinterested mediator the US was also trying to advance other objectives: (i) Advancing Egypt-friendly position to reduce the typical undercurrents of suspicion and resentment that continue to define Egypt’s interactions with the United States; (ii) demonstrating to the whole world the US is the only country capable of imposing its will anywhere, and (iii) ensuring the legacy of the US president as a man of peace.

While the present US position on Abay makes no pretense of impartiality, the end result can only be bad for all parties. For now, Ethiopia’s relationship with the US remains fairly positive in practice. Economic and political relations have improved since the advent of PM Abye Ahmed to power, with an increase in aid, growing interest in US direct investment, and rising people-to-people links with the Diaspora.

The question is what if the US insists ‘if you don’t make a deal, we’re not playing! No World Bank, no dime.’

What can Ethiopia do?… wail enlightened daytime talk show hosts.

We will live with less, damn it!! And less is not necessarily bad. It’s better than losing our national pride in this 124th anniversary year of the victory of Adwa.

Naturally, Ethiopia remains most relevant in a negative sense, in that the United States and other interested governments are most worried about the ramifications of state breakdown in Ethiopia. Despite the current political malaise, there is a general consensus among the population of the need by this, or any future government, to stabilize and normalize the domestic political, economic, and security situation, and strengthen the country’s role as a major regional player. But this remains dependent on major reforms that the Abye Ahmed’s regime for now seems unable in undertaking.

Similarly, one can observe that Egypt is no longer a vital part of U.S. regional policy and is diminished in its ability to impact the politics and security trends of the Arab world. Egypt’s relationship with Israel stands on its own terms and is dependent on American intercession. It is unclear what the United States will derive from supporting Egypt on Abay beyond a tangible softening of atmospherics.

For Ethiopia friendly and close relations with the United States should not entail diplomatic subservience, and healthy relations should be capable of withstanding divergences of interests and policies. In fact, the way out of this blind alley isn’t to favor Egypt over Ethiopia but to help Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan negotiate a consensus to secure continued commitments to improve water sharing and conservation in the Abay River basin.

With or without a deal, I hope Ethiopia will still act as appropriate: Maintain its national interest, while at the same time attempting to negotiate fair, equitable, and reasonable water allocation treaty with Sudan and Egypt.

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