The basin of the Nile is the turf of different wars between the riverine states. The main conflict is between Egypt and Ethiopia, but there are other disputes that, on a lesser level, put the relations between these countries at risk. It is important to be aware of a situation that could be more destabilizing for Africa than terrorist groups.
The Nile River is the source of water for approximately 300 million people in Burundi, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.
The conflicts in the managing of its waters and resources could lead to real wars in the future. On a geopolitical level, the battle between Egypt and Ethiopia for the control of the River Nile waters is often overlooked by the Western media.
Even if at this moment it is still only political and diplomatic, the quarrel between the two African countries poses a serious risk of conflict.
According to some estimates, 80% of Egyptians depend on the Nile River for the provision of water. Historically, Cairo based its rights to exploit the Nile on the treaties signed by riverine countries in the past, such as the 1959 treaties. But this stance is no more accepted by its partners, since it basically freezes their right to influence the flow of water. On the other side, Ethiopia apparently chose the so called ‘Harmon doctrine’ to assert its right to manage the Blue Nile, the branch that starts in Lake Tana. According to the ‘Harmon doctrine’, a single country has an absolute sovereignty over the waters that run through its territory, and has the right not to consider the effects on the neighbouring countries.Addis Ababa started to build the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a hydroelectric power plant that will transform Ethiopia into an energy-exporting country. Egypt sees the dam as a potential threat to its survival, since in theory it could be used to reduce its water reserves. In reality, GERD will influence only the flow of the Blue Nile, which merges with the White Nile near Khartoum. Even if Addis Ababa had the will to completely block the flow of water of the Blue Nile (and there is no sign of that), Egypt could receive the water from the White Nile (that starts in Burundi). But its water reserves would decrease dramatically.
The war of words between Egypt and Ethiopia escalated in 2013, when information on Egypt’s plans to bomb GERD leaked to the press. It was then difficult to ascertain if that news was real or if it was a sort of ‘ballon d’essai’ to verify the reactions of other governments to the possibility of an air bombing. According to some military analysts who spoke to the media in those days, Egyptian military airplanes don’t have the capability to hit a target in Ethiopia without refuelling in the Sudan sky. And Sudan is strongly against such a move. Khartoum basically chose to side with Addis Ababa in this dispute.
In April 2017 a Sudanese newspaper reported that, according to some Eritrean opposition groups, Egypt and Eritrea had reached a secret agreement. Eritrea allegedly gave Egypt the possibility to have a military base on Nora Island, in the Red Sea. According to that secret plan between 20.000 and 30.000 Egyptian military are to be deployed in Nora, which is near the Dakhla peninsula. The Ethiopian establishment reacted rapidly to this news. Redda Mulgeta, a member of the ruling Peoples Republican Democratic Front (EPRDF), claimed that the new base will be used to sabotage GERD. Moreover, the Ethiopian government accuses both Egypt and Eritrea of interfering in its internal affairs by supporting opposition movements or terrorist groups (including Al Shabaab) active in Ethiopian territory. In October 2016 Getachew Reda, the Communication Minister, spoke of a renewed threat to Ethiopian’s security coming from Egypt and Eritrea, which supported the unrest in the Oromiya and Ahmara regions. Both Egypt and Eritrea denied their will to destabilize Ethiopia and to build the base in Nora.
In May 2017 some Sudanese military sources told the ‘Middle East Monitor’ that Sudanese and Ethiopian troops were put on a stand-by due to the threat of an Egyptian attack on GERD.
Two other hotspots
Also the relations between Cairo and Khartoum are tense, although on a lesser scale. There are four sources of conflict. First of all, there is the Nile river dispute. Second, the situation in Libya, where Egypt is trying to interfere by supporting General Khalifa Haftar. The turmoil in Libya is worrying the Khartoum leadership. Then there are the relations with the Gulf countries. Finally, Egypt accuses Sudan of supporting Islamist extremists by letting Muslim Brotherhood members take shelter there.
In the background lies the dispute on the so called ‘Halayib-Chalatine-Abou Rahmad triangle’, a coastal area on the Red Sea. Sudan President Omar al-Bashir accused Egypt of “stabbing Sudan in the back”, because in the 1990s it occupied that Sudanese territory.
These elements can lead to moments of heightened tensions. As seen before, even if both Sudan and Egypt are countries with an Islamic orientation, as far as the Nile is concerned, their positions are very different. And Addis Ababa is trying to widen the rift. According to some sources, Ethiopian armed forces offered Sudan their support to defend its air space from a possible Egyptian attack.
Another (at this moment) minor dispute on the waters of the Nile concerns Migingo Island, in Lake Victoria. The government of Kenya and Uganda have different stances on who has the right to fish in the surrounding waters. On a general level, 30 million people depend on Lake Victoria for their survival. But the fishing stocks are decreasing due to excessive exploitation and pollution of the environment.
The need for a different approach
In reality, in the dispute with Ethiopia, Egypt is supported by the DRC. But Cairo is basically isolated on a political level. Its reliance on treaties signed decades ago, especially during colonial domination, is no longer accepted by other African countries. It does not imply that it has already lost the battle, but certainly it needs a great geopolitical effort to see its position prevailing on a regional level.
A military solution, like the one proposed in 2013, in reality will cause a backlash in Africa since it would be perceived as an aggression. Truth to be told, the news of a military base in Eritrea could be a tool used by Eritrean opponents to push Addis Ababa into a pre-emptive war again the regime in Asmara.
At the end of May, Alpha Condé, acting President of the African Union, tried to lower the tension. It is too early to say if these attempts will be successful. But the international community has to put in place ‘ad hoc’ tools to solve this kind of dispute on a political level or problems will worsen in the near future.