Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi last week agreed with Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to resume talks over the controversial $4 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
The two leaders met on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa Summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in what diplomats from the two sides said was a friendly atmosphere, ending heated exchanges since the last round of talks collapsed in Khartoum, Sudan, earlier this month.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had said in the run-up to the summit said he would mediate in the discussions, did not attend the 45-minute long meeting.
Instead he met the two leaders separately and asked them to directly discuss their concerns on the dam and offered his assistance if required, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
“The dam was discussed at (Russia President Vladimir Putin’s) meeting with the president of Egypt and during a meeting with the Prime Minister of Ethiopia,” Mr Peskov said.
Prime Minister Abiy later told state media that they had agreed to return to the negotiating table.
However, a key sticking point remains in the fact that Egypt prefers mediation while Dr Abiy wants the findings of a technical committee to guide the discussions.
Nebiyu Tedla, an Ethiopian diplomat, tweeted that the two leaders had discussed “bilateral relations and issues of mutual concern.”
Russia’s mediation had been in doubt on Wednesday when Egypt said through its Foreign minister that it had accepted an invitation by the US to discuss the dispute in Washington.
The Washington meeting will involve foreign ministers of the two countries and that of Sudan which will buy power from the 6,400 megawatt dam when it becomes operational next year.
1902 and 1929 treaties
The dam on the Blue Nile, which supplies Egypt with 90 per cent of its fresh water, has over the past decade been the focal point of conflict on use of the Nile waters in eastern Africa.
A three-way meeting between the three countries ended up in a stalemate two weeks ago with Ethiopia accusing Egypt of reneging on prior consensus on the filling of the dam based on joint technical evaluations.
Cairo on the other hand accused Ethiopia of not having Egypt’s interest at heart and called for the matter to be placed before a mediator, including discussion at a broader political forum that would possibly include the 11 Nile riparian countries.
At issue is how long it should take the dam to fill up, with Ethiopia initially preferring three years and Egypt 15 years. The technical committee reached a consensus of between six and seven years.
Ethiopia has since wanted the period reduced to four years at the quickest, with the rate of filling being pegged to hydrology and weather.
Egypt, on the other hand, wants the filling restricted as per agreements made by Britain in 1902 and 1929, and a bilateral treaty between Egypt and Sudan in 1959, which gave Egypt three quarters of the waters (55.5 billion cubic meters) against a quarter for Sudan or 18.5 billion cubic metres.
Ethiopia was not party to these agreements and argues that they would effectively bar it from utilising a natural resource in its territory for development.
Before Sochi, positions Abiy saying Addis Ababa would resist any military threats by Egypt but only preferred a negotiated solution.
He told parliament that Ethiopia would commit millions of soldiers—some launching missiles and others setting up bombs—to see through the project that it deems key to its economic revival and sovereignty.
A day later, the Egypt Foreign ministry termed Abiy’s comments unacceptable and said it had accepted the meeting in the US at a date yet to be announced.
Ethiopia has not commented on this with analysts saying it is focused on a technical solution led by experts instead of a compromise reached out of political expediency.
In the meeting with Fattah al-Sisi, Abiy said his remarks in parliament had been taken out of context, suggesting the media was drumming up the conflict. His political and economic reforms have fomented unrest in regions seeking autonomy.
Analysts say a full blown conflict that would suck in Burundi, DR Congo, Eritrea (observer), Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda, being the Nile Basin Initiative members, is unlikely.