Kenyan view: On ‘belligerent noises’ from Egypt, Ethiopia

(Charles Onyango-Obbo)

Well, with a new government that is still taking shape, [Kenya] is understandably preoccupied with domestic affairs.

The same is true of most of the rest of East Africa. Uganda is in the throes of a messy squabble over President Yoweri Museveni’s succession.

Tanzania has its hands full of former and current US presidents visiting, and figuring out who will step into President Jakaya Kikwete’s shoes when he leaves office in 2015.

Up north, however, Ethiopia and Egypt are coming dangerously close to a nasty face-off over Addis Ababa’s move to build the giant Renaissance Dam on the River Nile.

Reports have it that at 6,000MV, the dam will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, and 14th largest in the world.

In March 2011, when Egypt was still distracted by the uprising that had just ousted its strongman Hosni Mubarak, Ethiopia awarded the contract for the building of the $8.4 billion dam, and a month later on April 2, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi laid the foundation stone.

By the time the dust settled in Cairo, the dam deal was done.

On Sunday, Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsy, a man who lately has had no time for the political parties in his country except his own Muslim Brotherhood, called a meeting with them to discuss Ethiopia’s dam plans.

Egypt in the past has threatened to go to war over its “rights” to River Nile waters, given by a discredited 1929 colonial treaty that gave it and Sudan 90 per cent of the river’s water.

On Tuesday, press agencies reported Egypt’s minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Bahaa-Eddin arguing that the 74 billion cubic meters of Nile water stored behind the Egyptian High Dam would be diverted to Ethiopia’s intended dam.

“We are living in an era of water shortage and we will not allow any reduction of Egypt’s share of Nile water (which is 55.5 billion cubic meters),” he said.

Secure its rear

“Life in Egypt depends on the Nile, water is a national security matter for us, and we will never relent on this issue.” Tough words.

With growing populations and economies in the Nile Basin countries, more and more of them will dam the Nile and divert water to irrigation.

Add to that, Ethiopia is a stubborn country. Its population today is nearly 90 million. Egypt’s is close to 83 million. Egypt is an African power in decline. Ethiopia is an Africa power on the rise.

Everyone hopes that Egypt is smart enough, and won’t go to war. It would be an expensive conflict. It does not share a border with Ethiopia, so it will have to get [north] Sudan to join it or allow it to use its territory to attack Ethiopia.

But generals can be mad men. In any case, if Egypt loses just 25 per cent of the water it is receiving from the Nile, it could collapse.

Such a war could see millions of Ethiopians flooding Kenya. So Kenya, and East Africa for that matter, can take early steps to minimise the fall-out.

First, and most critically, South Sudan needs to be supported to get its house in order and become a strong state with a modern military. Secondly, Ethiopia must bury the hatchet with Eritrea and bring it into its fold of allies.

From South Sudan and Eritrea, Ethiopia could choke off any Egyptian-Sudan southward advance from the flanks. But even more important, Somalia needs to be helped to stabilise.

That will allow Kenya to move its troops to the border with Ethiopia, but also a stable Somalia will allow Ethiopia to secure its rear.

Indeed, if I were Egypt, I would fight the war over River Nile in Somalia and support not just anti-Addis Al-Shabaab militants, but also back Ogadeni nationalists intent on retaking the Ogaden Province from Ethiopia (not surprisingly, two Egyptian generals were in Somalia this week to discuss military training).

Just keeping its long border with Somalia protected, and preventing the Ogaden from being pried away, would leave Ethiopia no time or resources for anything else, including pushing ahead with the Renaissance Dam.

It might be a good thing for journalists covering regional security to take to sleeping lightly.


* Originally published on African Review, on June 5, 2013, titled” Why Kenya needs to heed belligerent noises from both Egypt and Ethiopia”, authored by Charles Onyango-Obbo.


View Comments (4)

  • Hey Charles,
    I read your article with interest. However, I have to ask you that have you ever heard Ethiopians flee to Kenya or for that matter to any country because of war? I guess you don't know that we are the best warriors. I, therefore, advise you to read a little bit of Ethiopian history and then correct your article accordingly.
    Good luck

    • Hi, dear Charles
      Do you know what the Egyptians' military threat on Ethiopia mean? It is a threat against any upstream country that tries to build a dam over the tributaries of the Nile river. So if the insane generals of Cairo miss the consequences of declaring war on us, then it will be a cardinal mistake to face in the aftermath. Plus to this how do you know the winner of the war? Victory is not only a product of having an army equipped with state of the art military technology or the size of the army (as we know Egypt has more than 400 thousand regular army). Do not you know our arm's strength and our peoples' patriotic feeling? When you country were under the colonial rule(including the "mighty" Egypt), we were independent due to our forefathers' bravery in confronting and resisting the European well trained and highly equipped army. Anyways against your prediction, there will be no military confrontation. Thus, we hope that Nairobi will not be flooded with Ethiopian war-induced migrants.

  • Yes,Benshangul Liberation has come home.All other steps have to continue.Asmera has to come to Addis Ababa for cooperation.The late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles has said ,If Egypt counts to destablishe Ethiopia ,it does not work.Ethiopia is stable more than ever.So,it is futile to try that.As to North Sudan , North Sudan has more benefit from Ethiopia than from Egypt.First North Sudan and Ethiopians are the same people more than Egypt and Sudan are.Regarding Muslims ,Ethiopia has also considerable Muslims.The only problem is Egypt has hyptomized and intimidated Sudanes politicians and they fear the security and army of Egypt.Otherwise, Sudan will be more free if Ethiopia becomes richer and stronger.We know the heart of our Sudanes brothers,they are praying for Ethiopia to progress.But, true the dam has to build safe and safe.

  • @ Charles Onyango-Obbo---------I was reading your comment seriously , hoping that I may develop some insight on the issue of Africa on Nile river.............Unfortunately you don't know any thing about the region /any thing / blogger or journalist you wouldn't have mentioned that Egypt should do this or Ethiopian should do that.......this is not football........whatever you don't know any thing except you write English! sorry!

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