Can Trump resolve the Egypt-Ethiopia Nile dam dispute?

As a biased mediator, the Trump administration cannot deliver a deal that would satisfy both Egypt and Ethiopia.

Trump sisi reuters
US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as they hold a bilateral meeting in New York, US, September 24, 2018 [Carlos Barria/Reuters]

In early February, officials from EgyptEthiopia and Sudan announced in a joint statement that they had cleared the way for the filling and operation of a disputed mega-dam being built by the Ethiopian government on the Nile River. The statement, which came on the back of months of US-led negotiations, caused many to believe the three northeast African countries may finally reach a deal on the multi-billion-dollar project. 

This seemingly positive development, however, caused widespread concern in Ethiopia that its delegation is being pressured by the US to agree to a deal that is against the best interests of the country. As a result of this, on February 26, Addis Ababa announced that its delegation will skip the next round of talks in Washington.

Despite Ethiopia taking a step back from the negotiations, the US continued its talks with the Sudanese and Egyptian delegations and put forward a draft agreement for all three countries to sign. Furthermore, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who has been acting as President Donald Trump’s point man on the negotiations, issued a statement in which he imposed three demands on Ethiopia: that it signs the draft agreement after finalising consultations, that it does not test or fill the dam before signing the agreement and that it recognises the need “to implement all necessary dam safety measures in accordance with international standards before filling begins”. In response, Ethiopia accused the US of being “undiplomatic” and said as the owner of the dam it would commence the filling, “in accordance with the principles of equitable and reasonable utilisation and the causing of no significant harm”. 

While all parties still say they are willing to continue negotiations, the fate of this decade-old project, dubbed The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), once again appears to be undetermined. 

Addis Ababa and Cairo had been at loggerheads since Ethiopia started constructing the dam in 2011, prompting Egyptian fears that filling the huge reservoir too quickly could lower the Nile’s flow and affect Egypt’s water supply. Despite years of wrangling that even saw Egypt threaten military action against the dam, Ethiopia refused to give up on this massive development venture and appeared to hold the whip hand in negotiations for years.  

But Addis Ababa’s fortunes turned in 2018, when the US Department of the Treasury (DoT) stepped in after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi put in a request to his ally, US President Donald Trump.

In its efforts to resolve the dispute, the DoT chose to act as a representative of Cairo’s interests rather than an impartial and honest broker, leaving Ethiopia isolated. This, of course, did not come as a surprise to anyone who had been paying attention to the Trump administration’s policies and alliances in the Middle East. 

Today, Egypt is a primary member of a Saudi-led anti-Iran bloc in the Middle East that is tightly locked in a strategic alliance with the US and Israel. Even though Ethiopia is also a US ally, it does not hold the same significance for Washington. Since taking office, Trump repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to openly support one US ally against another in regional conflicts to further his own interests – he, for example, swiftly backed Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against Qatar during the 2017 GCC rift, despite Doha also being a long-time American ally and host to a large US military base. As Ethiopia carries much less weight than Egypt in the prism of Trump’s foreign policy ambitions, it was clear from the very beginning that Washington’s involvement in the negotiations over GERD would disproportionately benefit Cairo.  

The quagmire in which Ethiopia now finds itself is rooted in Addis Ababa’s failure to recognise this geopolitical reality. So why did Ethiopia’s government allow an administration that was obviously going to be biased against it to lead the negotiations? 

Egypt has long been trying to internationalise this dispute, based on the belief that the involvement of regional and global powers would limit Ethiopia’s ability to fill and operate the dam as it pleases. It had been partially successful in this quest, with several nations expressing their interest in GERD negotiations. Also, beyond Egypt’s efforts, many regional and global powers, such as the EU, Turkey, Israel and the Gulf states, already had an interest in following the negotiations closely, as they all have long-standing geostrategic interests in the region. Even Russia’s President Vladimir Putin recently extended an offer of arbitration. 

Until the US came on the stage, Ethiopia successfully managed to stop any outside power from taking a direct role in negotiations – it, for example, rejected President Putin’s offer of mediation.  

However, when an offer of mediation came from the Trump administration, Ethiopia’s government changed course, perhaps as a result of its frequently criticised excessive reliance on its sponsors in the West. 

As a consequence of this catastrophic lapse of judgement, the negotiations which were once between Ethiopia and Egypt-Sudan, suddenly turned into negotiations between Ethiopia and Egypt-US, where Sudan takes on the role of arbiter and intermediary.  

Given Washington’s global reach and power, this is an uncomfortable position for Addis Ababa to sustain. The only way for the Ethiopian government to get out of this quagmire is to change course once again, stop bending over backwards to please the West, and instead start listening to the wishes and interests of its people. The Ethiopians are mobilising themselves in firm opposition to Mnuchin’s pronouncements and in support of the fair sharing of the Nile waters. The Ethiopian government can and should use this strong public reaction to stand firm in its rejection of Mnuchin’s plan and to re-establish itself as the dominant party in the negotiations. Such a stance would also likely increase the public support for the current leadership and prevent it from backsliding in the planned elections when they do take place.  

But this does not mean Ethiopia should not allow any outside party to help mediate the negotiations over GERD. Involvement of honest and impartial brokers can help peacefully and swiftly resolve this long-standing dispute to the satisfaction of all involved parties. 

The Nile dispute, at its root, is a pan-African problem that affects not only Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, but the rest of the continent too. Eleven riparian African countries rely on the Nile for economic development, and the outcome of the negotiations will have implications for other river basins too. For this reason, the African Union (AU) is well placed to play an active role in the resolution of this issue.  

The AU could actively engage with the issue and initiate consultations with and between all the Nile riparian countries. It can also consult with all international players who have a stake in resolving this issue without putting any involved party in a disadvantageous position. Some moves in that direction may already be in the pipeline. In early February, Moussa Faki, chairperson of the African Union Commission, stated that: “We, at the AU, demand [that] our brothers in Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt … seek a compromise formula on this issue.”

It is true that the record of the AU, many members of which are themselves riven by unresolved disputes, does not suggest that it is currently equipped to singlehandedly resolve an issue in which major world and African powers have strong interests to protect. Nevertheless, if it takes on a more active role in the negotiations, it can help soften the Trump administration’s aggressive approach and prevent any party from being bullied into a deal that its people would not support. 

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to reflect the fact that Ethiopia’s elections were postponed.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.