Using the historical context we can calibrate geopolitical lenses of realism and pragmatism in today’s world, to make sense and give more meaning to GERD
In the 1870s, Khedive Ismail Pasha of Egypt under British protection, directed his Chief of Staff, William Wing Loring, to launch an expedition into Ethiopia with the intention of annexing the Blue Nile (Abbay) river basin for the Khedivate crown. This followed Egypt’s successful annexation of the Sanjak of Habesh in 1866, which had led to the dissolution of the Ottoman Habesh Eyalet in 1869.
Although the British and European powers backed this endeavor primarily to unseat the Ottoman Empire that had significant control of the strategic Red Sea corridor, Egyptian governors sought to leverage this European venture for their own goal of obtaining control of the source of the Nile. British industrialists with a stake in Egyptian cotton also understood the value of the Nile to insure cheap cotton imports to Europe. The Nile was one area were Egyptian and European interests at the time converged. The taking of Habesh Eyalet, which had been a domain of the Ottoman Turks since 1557 provided a strategic foothold for British ruled Egypt in Massawa and Keren, leading the Khedive to believe that the inland campaign into Ethiopia would be relatively straightforward. However, in the 1870s the expedition encountered unexpected resistance.
Under the leadership of Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes IV, Ethiopia repelled Egypt’s plan, which was backed by the British Empire, and aimed to control Ethiopia, with the eventual goal of controlling the Blue Nile. Under the military leadership of Ras Alula Aba Nega, Emperor Yohannes was able to achieve a significant victory over the Egyptian invasion at Gura in 1876. This triumph showcased Ethiopia’s robust defensive capabilities. It also angered European creditors, who had financed the Egyptian campaign that failed to colonize key regions in the Upper Nile basin, which now comprise parts of Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Later international agreements in the early 20th century such as the Kellogg-Briand Pact and the Stimson Doctrine further discouraged the conquest of sovereign nations, effectively closing the door on Egypt’s aspirations to claim a stake in the Horn of Africa.
In the 1950s, after its independence from Britain, Egypt developed a new strategy to safeguard its Nile basin hydrological interests, which can be summarized as follows:
Prevent Ethiopia from developing the Blue Nile river basin by employing a combination of hostile diplomacy and incitement of internal instability, including support for Somali irredentism and domestic rebellions, diverting resources away from hydrological and agricultural projects.
In September 1960, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie openly accused Egypt of promoting the concept of Greater Somalia, which was driven by an irredentist claim of Ethiopian territory. Later, Mengistu HaileMariam denounced Egypt for arming Somali rebels during the Ethiopia-Somalia War in Ogaden. Despite these accusations, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat continued to supply Somalia with weapons. According to a report by the New York Times in February 1978, the Kenyan Air Force intercepted 20 tons of Egyptian arms en route to Somalia. In May 1980, President Anwar Sadat declared, “Somalia is an Arab country and a member of the Arab League, and Egypt would not hesitate to send its troops to Somalia to fight alongside the Somalia’s then government against Ethiopia if necessary.” Can Egypt now deploy soldiers in any nation neighboring Ethiopia so as to fight against Ethiopia?
Today, the Nile River remains crucial to Egypt, making agreement between Egypt and Ethiopia over shared Nile waters a complicated matter. Most of Egypt’s population centers are situated along the Nile River basin, including Cairo, Giza, and Alexandria, which collectively house a substantial portion of Egypt’s population. Moreover, the fertile Nile valley supports agriculture, so any decrease in water volume directly impacts arable land.
Egypt continues to raise concerns about the potential negative consequences if the dam operates without considering its water share, viewing it as an existential threat. As the most densely populated country in the Arab world, Egypt heavily relies on the Nile River to provide water for its agriculture and sustenance for its vast population, which exceeds 100 million people. Approximately 85% of the river’s flow originates from Ethiopia.
Ethiopia does not recognize the 1959 Nile Water Treaty, an agreement it was not party to, and one which was made between Sudan and Egypt, allocating the entire average annual flow of the Nile to be shared among the two downstream countries, at 18.5 and 55.5 billion cubic meters respectively, but ignored the rights to water of the remaining eight Nile countries, of which Ethiopia contributes approximately 85% of the river’s flow.
In 2011, amidst the Arab Spring uprisings, Ethiopia initiated the construction of The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam(GERD), Africa’s largest dam on the Abay River, also known as the Blue Nile. Initially called the Millennium Dam, this project aimed at providing much needed electricity, economic development, and enhancement of food security.
However, a rebellion in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, from 2020 to 2022 posed a challenge to the nation’s stability and the completion of GERD. External actors, including Egypt aimed to leverage ongoing insurgency of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to disrupt Ethiopia’s defensive-offensive realist dynamics and influence the country’s trajectory. They exposed Ethiopia to hostile diplomacy, information warfare, exacerbated ethnic divisions, fractured the military, and heightened domestic instability. While this major threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country has now been averted, conflicts in the Oromo as well as Amhara regions persist.
The events that followed Ethiopia’s Tigray war and ensuing internal feuds raise several critical questions:
- Will Egypt and its partners be able to inhibit large-scale water usage in the Abbay basin by fomenting instability in Ethiopia to keep it underdeveloped and weak?
- How did rebel groups like the TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) come to be aligned with Egypt?
- Was TPLF being supplied through Sudan? If yes, who are the suppliers and what are the supplies (military and otherwise)? We know several secret flights ferried arms to the rebels during the war in 2021, when Ethiopia’s air defense strategy was still in shambles. There has since been an effort to bolster defensive capabilities. How adequate is Ethiopia’s defensive posture now?
- Will growing ethno-nationalist polarization lead to fracturing, and eventual balkanization of Ethiopia?
- Can political Islam in Sudan and Somalia be weaponized as a geo-strategic tool to destabilize the upper Nile basin nations? Will Islamists exploit this to their advantage and play a double game that benefits them?
- Have similar counter-terrorism strategies, which had the end result of fueling extremism in places ranging from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, strengthened jihadism led by Al Shabab?…. Might this jihadism be concealed under the guise of the Greater Somalia project, aimed at destabilizing the entire region?
- Why did foreign policy makers and institutions in the West go to the lengths they did to salvage the TPLF, primarily as a wedge-between to avert possible convergence between Ethiopia and Eritrea after the peace agreement of 2018? and how is this related to the Nile Basin Agenda?
- Can Ethiopia still win the information war being waged against it?
The fear of losing control of the Nile has been a central feature of Egypt’s relationship with Ethiopia. To secure its interests Egypt has leveraged the Arab world, as well as Western powers, where their interests conveniently converged. This strategy was successful in foreclosing international multilateral financing for the GERD, an outcome that galvanized Ethiopia to self finance. For its part Ethiopia has been somewhat successful leveraging African solidarity and African solutions, particularly among Nile basin countries.
Now that GERD is nearly complete and the water continues to flow, how does the calculus change, if at all? And will this force the two sides to choose constructive engagement that builds trust? Using the historical context we can calibrate geopolitical lenses of realism and pragmatism in today’s world, to make sense and give more meaning to GERD. Attempting to answer these questions is crucial to understanding dynamic events in the Horn of Africa.