Ethiopia's PM calls Egyptian elites "Racists"


Credit - getty images
An interview of the Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi by Eritrean media about the country's economy and relations with Egypt, Eritrea


Quotes from Interview
  • “Nasser (Ex Egyptian President) went out of his way to recruit non-Arabs into the Arab League simply because they were in close proximity to Ethiopia”
  • “they (Egyptians) do not need to stop us because we are doing their job….these are dams that they ought to finance, at least partly, because they will benefit from them.”
  • The last ten years have been “the golden years of Ethiopia”
  • “there is clearly light at the end of the tunnel and it is visible to every Ethiopian. And you don’t have to come to Addis to see it; you could see it in Washington.”
Ethiopian Egyptian relationship has been deceiving on the surface because, deep inside, both countries were mutually suspicious of each other—two major issues have been the Eritrean revolution and, hydropolitcs: the Nile water. You have now embarked on an ambitious power generating (not irrigation) project and it is making the Egyptians uneasy. You said that the projects would protect both Egypt and Sudan (in fact you said they should partially fund the projects). If that is the case, how do you explain the Egyptian reaction? Or is it the Egyptian wish to keep the 1929 agreement intact? Why would they object to Ethiopia generating power from the Nile?
Meles: You know the advantage of being in my position is you get to access information that is not necessarily publicly available. And the first thing that I learned that these Nile issues, debate on distribution of The Nile issue, was really a bogus issue. It was really a bogus issue because if you were to treat the Nile basin–and the most sensitive part of the Nile basin is the so-called eastern Nile, the Nile that goes from Ethiopia to Sudan and Egypt– because 85% of the water that goes to Aswan comes from Ethiopia. This part of the water, Nile, which is supposed to have shortage of water, doesn’t have shortage of water; it only has shortage of money. Ethiopia is structured to be the power generating center of the Nile, geographically. Sudan is, geographically, created to be the main agricultural producer of this region. Only the delta part of Egypt is supposed to produce goods, agricultural goods. And so if you use the Nile water in a rational manner, there will not be any shortage of water. The fact is, for example, that if you built dams in Ethiopia and removed Jebel Awliya from Sudan, it is useless; it generates 17 mega watts of electricity but exposes Nile water to evaporation in unheard of proportion. So you don’t need the regulation of Jebel Awliaya because the water would have been regulated here. And reduce the operating level of Aswan Dam, you would have enough water to irrigate more than a million hectares in Ethiopia; and 4 to 5 billion cubic meters of additional water for the Sudan, and Sudan can use the water better than anybody else. The Egyptians themselves have a water conservation project which will end in 2017. And their plan is to save 8 billion cubic meters of additional water. Now, unless they want to take this water and let it evaporate in the desert, they don’t have land that requires 8 billion cubic meter of water. So it is not really about water, it is about politics and power.
The problem, as I see it, is the politics of the Egyptian elite: there is a bit of racism behind it, and there is a bit of colonial inheritance behind it. Colonial clerks tend to be more colonially inclined in their attitudes than their masters and the Egyptians have been, to some extent, clerks of British colonialism in Sudan. And so they inherited this British theory of the Nile serving Liverpool via Egypt. Egypt growing cotton for Liverpool. And finally, the Nile has been this drug that has been used to hook the Egyptian people for external enemies and justify this gargantuan state, Egyptian state which is there to protect the Egyptians vis-a-vis the Abd from the South. So it has been a political instrument more than anything else. And the fact that the Egyptian edifice is beginning to crack now, is allowing alternative opinions amongst Egyptians to creep through the cracks… and these opinions are: why should we quarrel over some natural resource that belongs to us, let’s see if there is a rational win-win alternative…this is unheard of, but it is beginning to creep even into the Egyptian media, so I am very encouraged by it.
Do you intend to develop irrigation projects using the Nile in the future? And how would you balance the natural rights of lower Nile countries and your country’s right to exploit the Nile water resources?
Meles: The fact is that the Egyptians could sustain this irrational policy for a number of reasons. First, the geopolitical position was such that they could prevent Ethiopia from accessing grants, loans and credits for projects on the Nile. They have completely shut off our access to credit whether it is from World Bank, or Brazil or China or Europe or the USA. And so they were assured, given the poverty level in Ethiopia, that Ethiopia will not be investing anything on the Nile, of substance. That was the key instrument. The other instrument they had was that Ethiopia itself was unstable and was not going to focus on development and it was surrounded by hostile government. That is why [Gemal Abdel] Nasser went out of his way to recruit non-Arabs into the Arab League simply because they were in close proximity to Ethiopia—Somalia is a case in point. Now we have reached a stage where some of these assumptions are no longer valid. We are now able to do something significant. We first started with minor projects on the Tekeze [River], Lake Tana. Now we are in a position to be able to finance, on our own, the biggest dam that can be built on the Nile, in Ethiopia. We believe that this is going to dismantle much illusion amongst the Egyptians. We believe that this is going to convince them that they cannot stop us. We believe that this is going to convince them that they do not need to stop us because we are doing their job. The dams we build, we are unable to use 100% of their service, because much of the service is downstream-inevitably, unavoidably. So we will show them in practice, that where we build dams, these are not intended against them. In fact, these are dams that they ought to finance, at least partly, because they will benefit from them. So once we break this taboo, I believe the path will be opened for a rational engagement between ourselves and the Egyptians. By the way, on balance, the Sudanese have taken a rational position on the Nile. On the surface they seem to be twins on their positions on the Nile; that is far from the truth.
Eritrea is considered a Nile basin country, what is the strategic leverage that Eritrea has to influence Nile politics?
Meles: Eritrea is a marginal player on the Nile; it is part of the Nile riparian countries primarily because of the Tekeze River. As you know the Tekeze River or the Atbara River in the Sudan carries about 9 million cubic meter of water. There are one or two minor rivers from Eritrea that flow to the Tekeze and maybe contribute about 0.1% or so of the Tekeze which is itself part of the Nile basin. Every stream counts. That is why, technically, Eritrea is a riparian country but it is not in the meetings of the ten riparian countries of the Nile. This is not by design but because your president is not infatuated with international organizations of any sort.
The head of the Eritrean regime had close relations and coordination with Egypt on Somalis’ and Sudanese politics. He also had good relations with Gaddafi and benefited from him financially. Now, Mubarek is gone and Gaddafi is on the edge of the cliff. How do you think this would affect the Eritrean regime and how would that effect the stalemate between Eritrea and Ethiopia?
Meles: The thing is that Isaias needed the support from these parties, to do not just their bidding, but his own internal drive. So this was a marriage of convenience. This was not Egypt and Kaddafi hiring out Isaias. These [are] two groups coming together on the basis of a common agenda. Egypt providing some of the diplomatic clout, some of the training and assistance; Kaddafi providing the finance and Qatar also providing the finance. Now, what the current environment suggests is that this external support is no longer available. But that doesn’t mean Isaias is going to change his color; he will seek alternative sources of financing—and by the looks of it, he is likely to look at possible mining resources within Eritrea to fill in the gaps that will be left by the discontinuation of support from abroad.Continued

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