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On the Nile, Somalia’s declared neutrality gets tested


EDITORIAL | Somalia has this week clarified its neutrality on the simmering dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt over the $4.8 billion mega hydro dam project on River Nile that Addis Ababa is putting up.

In an interview with a TV station this week, Ahmed Isse Awad, the Somali Foreign Minister explained that the neutrality by Mogadishu could, in fact, help mediate a useful solution between the two sides.

But that threw a new spanner in the works of relationships between Somalia and Egypt, as well as Mogadishu and Addis Ababa. Mogadishu was clarifying a recent vote at the Arab League where it endorsed a motion fronted by Cairo to ensure no violation of Egypt’s “inherent rights” to the Nile waters.

The dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia began around seven years ago when Ethiopians decided to raise money among themselves to put up a dam worth $4.5 billion and meant to produce 6.4MW when at maximum use.

Simply put, that would be the biggest hydropower site in Africa, enough to pump electricity to homes of all 110 million Ethiopians, as well as export it to neighbouring 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 freshwater as the dam could divert some 27 billion cubic metres of water from the river flow.

When full, the reservoir of the dam, also known as the dam ‘lake’ could hold up to 74 billion cubic metres of water, to be filled over a period of time. Ethiopia has suggested it should be filled at least 15 cubic metres a year.

Producing 86 per cent of the Nile waters, Ethiopians have cited sovereign rights to build the dam and utilise the Nile. But Egypt is brandishing a 1959 treaty which granted it 55 billion cubic metres, while Sudan was to get 18 billion cubic metres.

The rest of the Nile Basin, which includes South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya were allocated nil cubic metres. An assessment by International Rivers, a global NGO that promotes the protection of river ecosystems said 4 of the Nile Basin countries are in fact “water scarce.”

“The dam is our sovereign right to utilise our natural resources. No one will prevent us from filling the dam,” Gedu Andargachew, Ethiopian Foreign Minister told reporters a fortnight ago.

“We will begin filling the dam as scheduled in July.”

The two countries had been negotiating over a possible dam filling period, supported by the US and the World Bank. On the last bit of negotiations, Ethiopia didn’t attend, citing time to consult. However, the US tabled a draft document asking parties to sign. Cairo initialled on it and went ahead to seek a declaration from the Arab League.

Bringing together 22 members, most of who are in North Africa and the Gulf, the League passed the motion, which may have no legal basis but provided Egypt with political support. Sudan refused to sign it. Somalia and Djibouti initially supported but has since withdrawn in favour of neutrality.

So why would Somalia take neutrality when it could choose Ethiopia, its latest bosom buddy; or Egypt, a historical ally in the Arab League? Some experts think it has to do with strategy.

Abdirashid Hashi, the Director of Somali Think-tank Heritage Institute argues Somalia is correct to suggest a negotiated outcome. [The] stakes are too high for both of them and as a 'winner takes all' strategy may not work or feasible,” he argued.

Bridging the gap in the dispute could also help Somalia’s own issue with Ethiopia that affect Somali river systems. For some time, environmentalists argued Ethiopia’s tampering of the sources of Rivers Juba and Shabelle had contributed to their lower volumes downstream. A deal on GERD could be replicated.

“Somalia's two rivers, Juba and Shebelle, particularly Shabelle has been oscillating between unexpected drying up and devastating flooding; it has been suggested Ethiopia is behind this since rivers' water flow from Ethiopia, therefore, what is the Somali government doing about this?” Hashi posed, referring to Ethiopia’s other hydropower projects like the Genale Dawa and Godey, at the sources of the Somali river systems.

Kenyan historian Macharia Munene argued Somalia has traditionally benefited from both Ethiopia and Egypt, but rarely at the same time.

“If you look at the history of their relations, Egypt supported Somalia when Ethiopia was the enemy of Somalia. Now Ethiopia is supporting Farmaajo’s forces to take control of regions,” Prof Munene said, referring to the Ogaden war, and the situation now.

During that war, Prof Munene argued, Egypt sided with Somalia, as other Arab states like Libya and Yemeni sides with Ethiopia. When the League turned against Cairo in the 80s, Somalia stood with Cairo.

With Farmaajo though, Ethiopia is seen as friendly to Somalia and has been working with the Somali National Forces, albeit at the discomfort of federal-state leaders.

“An attack on today’s Ethiopia is an attack on Somalia. Ethiopia is a Somali nation lock, stock and barrel just like Djibouti,” argued Farah Maalim, a Kenyan law scholar who once served as a legislator for Lagdera in Kenya’s Garissa County that borders Somalia. He was referring to the ethnic composition of Somalis in Ethiopia and Djibouti.

“Imperial Ethiopia was the existential enemy of all the Cushitic race of the Horn of Africa for centuries. That history shall never be replayed again…and just like decolonisation, we now have a new Ethiopia.”

That, however, doesn’t guarantee Somali support for Ethiopia on the Dam. And despite Cairo’s support for Mogadishu in the past, observers think Somalia stand could still be about interest, not emotion.

“[You may] also know that Egypt had a strategic national interest in the perpetuation of the Ethio-Somalia conflict as a proxy war of the Nile Dispute,” said Abdirashid Abdulkadir Warsame, a Horn of Africa expert on peace and security affairs.

Egypt has lately campaigned to Ethiopia’s neighbours to abandon Addis Ababa and speak independently, in what could jolt Ethiopia’s call for a united front by riparian states.

Abdalla Ibrahim of the East African Centre for Research and Strategic Studies observed that Egypt’s inclusion of blocs normally outside of the basin, support for an American mediation, but dividing of riparian states is a strategy to ‘internationalise’ the issue.

“Egypt faces two options: internationalisation or the military option to preserve its water and national security and the bread of millions of its children,” he said, warning the latter could be expensive.

“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 first fails.”

The Egyptian proposal, rejected by Ethiopia, had offered that Ethiopia fills the dam with 40 billion cubic meters, over several years to fill the dam to ensure the Aswan High Dam in Egypt retains its water level.

Could the US help diffuse the tensions? Addis Ababa already accused Washington of “overstepping mandate” in mediating rather than observing the talks.

Ibrahim thinks Somalia’s change of position though was up to pressure from Addis Ababa.


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