Nile Basin deal hints at Sisi’s growing interest in region

Saturday March 28 2015

Presidents Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi (Egypt) and Sudan's Omar al-Bashir (centre) with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn (right) in Khartoum on March 23, 2015 where they signed the agreement of principles on Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam project. AFP PHOTO | ASHRAF SHAZLY

The signing of an agreement on the declaration of principles between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan over the contentious Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam Project in Addis last week, marks a major breakthrough for Nile River co-operation. But it could also be a hint at Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s evolving sub-Saharan strategy, analysts say.

Sudan and Egypt first parted ways with members of the Nile Basin Initiative — the organisation bringing together the Nile Basin states — when five of them signed the Co-operative Framework Agreement in May 2010. The CFA replaced the 1929 agreement that gave Sudan and Egypt countries veto powers over the use of the Nile waters.

The riparian countries are Burundi, DR Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. Eritrea participates as an observer.

Matters were exacerbated further when Ethiopia began constructing its 6,000MW Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, setting off new tensions with Egypt, which at one time threatened war over the development.

READ: Ethiopia says no to Egypt on new study on its dam

That the three Nile Basin Initiative members signed the agreement resolving longstanding differences over the project brought relief to the region, with the NBI describing it as an “outstanding achievement, expected to have immense significance for trans-boundary water resources management and development in the Nile Basin.”


The agreement will govern how the waters of the Blue Nile will be shared and provide a mechanism for resolving future conflicts as well as how compensation will be meted out in case of a falling out.

It follows a breaking of ranks first between Egypt and long time ally Sudan, after the latter rejoined the NBI last year, and Tanzania making a U-turn to declare that Egypt’s concerns over the CFA were valid.

READ: Nile: Sudan breaks ranks with Egypt, Dar also U-turns

Tanzania’s position set the stage for a series of behind-the-scenes initiatives that culminated in Egypt’s official return to the fold last month when, for the first time in five years, Cairo was represented at full ministerial level at the Nile Day celebrations in Khartoum.

Speaking to this newspaper recently, Egypt’s ambassador to Uganda Ahmed Abdel Aziz Mostafa said President Sisi had decided to open a new page with Ethiopia but he expected reciprocation.

He said that Egypt’s recent return to the Nile Basin Initiative was intended to “encourage the effort and show that differences can be minimised and that a way forward is possible.”

Mr Mostafa said that his country was committed to an NBI that “is a co-operative and fruitful framework that ensures fair use for everybody.

“We do not want the NBI or other institutions that come after it to die just because they did not adequately deal with issues. All the NBI’s predecessors died because they did not have a wide scope for proper functioning,” he said.

Prof Phillip Kasaija, programme manager of the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division at the Addis-based Institute for Security Studies, said that Sudan and Egypt’s capitulation to Ethiopia became inevitable after the CFA achieved the minimum threshold of six members needed to sign it.

“The latest developments can only mean that Egypt and Sudan have come to the conclusion that they cannot stop the CFA. In that sense, what has happened in Addis Ababa can only be good for Nile co-operation,” he said.

Tanzania became the third NBI member after Rwanda and Ethiopia to ratify the CFA on March 26, just three days after Cairo, Khartoum and Addis had signed the agreement on principles. That now leaves only Uganda, Kenya, Burundi and the DRC among upstream countries yet to ratify the CFA.

READ: Nile Basin risks water conflict as states dither over ratifying CFA

The other NBI members had remained unwavering in their support for the CFA, with the Rwandan Minister for Natural Resources, Dr Vincent Biruta, last month saying: “As water is common property, the implementation of the Nile Basin Initiative is not for a single party; we should implement this in agreement with other countries. One country should not have the monopoly of making decisions, and we should not follow the agreements made during the colonial period.”

Diplomatic sources further said that given his desire to engage deeper with sub-Saharan Africa and the need to consolidate his power in the face of rising threats from extremist groups both inside and outside Egypt, President Sisi needed to get differences with Ethiopia out of the way.

“Following Egypt’s suspension from the African Union in July 2013 after the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi by the military, Sisi realised that the relationship with the rest of Africa had not been managed well. So he made it his agenda to improve it,” a diplomat said.