Kenya says African Union capable of resolving Nile dam dispute

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

A general view of the Blue Nile river as it passes through the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia.

Photo credit: Eduardo Soteras | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Kenya warned against “inflammatory remarks” but said the UN must allow the continental bloc to continue seeking for a long term solution.

Kenya on Thursday rallied for the African Union (AU) to continue leading discussions on Nile dam operations in Ethiopia, even as Egypt warned the mega hydro power project was “an existential threat”.

At a session of the UN Security Council (UNSC), Kenya warned against “inflammatory remarks” but said the UN must allow the continental bloc to continue seeking for a long term solution.

“Kenya recognises the critical importance of the principle of subsidiarity in this matter and recommends it to the security council,” Dr Martin Kimani, Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the UN, told the session.

He was referring to a practice in diplomacy where regional blocs take leading roles in resolving issues within their jurisdictions, with supplementary effort from the UN and other external parties.

“We call on the parties to recommit to negotiating in good faith within the AU-led process, in a spirit fired by our shared dream of building a more united and prosperous Africa by 2063.

“Kenya has every confidence that our Egyptian, Ethiopian and Sudanese brothers will make the principle of ‘African solutions for African challenges’ a reality.”

This satellite image obtained on July 21, 2020 shows a view of northwestern Ethiopia, that focuses on the status of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), and the Blue Nile River as pictured on July 11, 2020. 

Photo credit: Handout | Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies | AFP

Kenya, a non-permanent member of the council spoke during an open in-person debate on “Peace and Security in Africa.”

Dr Kimani told the UNSC session that the UN must back the AU to ensure Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, which are squabbling over the Nile, reach an amicable solution.

It was a subtle rejection of the council’s role to place the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD), which Ethiopia is erecting on the Blue Nile, on its agenda.

Normally, the council discusses issues that are a threat to global peace and security and Kenya argued the dam’s controversy had not yet reached that level.

All the three countries, and the nine others in the Nile Basin have “legitimate rights” on the use of the Nile, Dr Kimani said, but their differences and desires to secure waters for their people are not yet a threat to international peace and security “because the legal principles underlying the initiative are protective of all its members.”

He referred to the Nile Basin Initiative, where riparian countries had been discussing equitable usage of the Nile, the world’s longest river.

Egypt’s view

The session, the second over GERD since 2020, was called by other African members of the council, Tunisia, after Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia each wrote to the council, after Ethiopia launched the second filling of the GERD reservoir.

Egypt, which spoke as an interested party to the issue, said the council must reprimand Ethiopia as the waters of the Nile determine Egypt’s existence as a country.

Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s Foreign minister, said his country may be left with no choice but to defend its people’s “inherent right to life” whose survival, he argued, depends on the Nile.

Ethiopia opposed the session, with its representatives telling the council that it has no mandate to discuss the GERD, which has been the agenda of the AU since last April.

“Ethiopia believes it is unfitting of the UN council to discuss the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam,” said Dr Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s Water, Irrigation and Energy minister.

“Their objection is not directed as such to the construction of the GERD, but rather to oppose Ethiopia’s utilisation of the Nile.”

The three countries have failed to agree on how to fill the dam safety and environmental safeguards dispute resolutions about it.

In April, an AU-led session chaired by President Felix Tshisekedi ended without any concrete deal.

Tunisia’s draft resolution had called on the three countries to pursue a negotiated solution and to reach a binding agreement within six months.

It had rejected any unilateral decisions, including filling the dam without an agreement, and suggested observers take a more active role for the AU-led process.

Egypt, though argued the AU process had been without success and accused Ethiopia of not consulting downstream members before refilling.

The dam had become an “existential threat to the livelihood” of millions of Egyptians, Shoukry said.

“The singular cause of the stalemate has been Ethiopia’s intransigency . it demonstrates that the source of this crisis is political. Ethiopia has chosen to ignore the realities of geography.”

Sudan’s complaints

Ethiopia rejects calls to seek permission to fill the dam, arguing it is an internal resource on which it has total sovereignty. Although Ethiopia produces nearly 85 percent of the Nile waters, it had not harnessed the resource.

Now officials say $5 billion GERD, built with local fundraising, will help produce enough electricity for its 110 million people, while controlling irregular flooding downstream.

But Sudanese officials say Ethiopia has not yet provided safety measures for its second filling, exposing its own smaller dams to possible disasters.

Mariam Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi, the Sudanese Foreign minister, told the council on Thursday there would be a “direct danger” on Sudanese people if safety measures are not agreed. Addis Ababa, she said, had given Sudan a short notice last time, which caused panic when the gates of the Nile were reopened after the filling.

In its earlier letter to the council, Khartoum demanded “cross-border environmental and social management and plans to mitigate harms” and warned filling the dam without an agreement will present a risk to regional security and stability.

Omar El-Faroug Sayed Kamel, the official spokesman for the negotiating team for GERD in Khartoum, had told reporters this week that his country had just been notified of the second filling decided by Addis Ababa.

“Sudan reiterates its rejection of the unilateral filling of the Renaissance Dam for the second year in a row without an agreement, which is an explicit violation of international law and the agreement of principles, agreements and stable practice regulating the exchange of benefits for common rivers,” Kamel said.

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Construction workers work are pictured at night at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia, on December 26, 2019. 

Photo credit: Eduardo Soteras | AFP

Sudan considered Ethiopia’s notification useless unless negotiations and agreement on filling and operating the dam are negotiated.

“Sudan reaffirms that the unilateral filling of the second year without an agreement represents an imminent danger and threat to Sudan,” the statement said.

Sudan had asked the UNSC to hold a session on GERD “in addition to urging all parties not to take unilateral measures, including the second filling by Ethiopia, and to accept the principle of mediation to resolve the outstanding issues.”

The session which came as Ethiopia, now in the middle of a humanitarian crisis in Tigray, began filling the GERD, was also briefed by various other dignitaries.

They included UN security Council’s Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for the Horn of Africa, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga; the Executive Director of the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) Inger Andersen; and a representative of the Permanent Mission of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to the UN, as the chairperson of the AU.

Ireland, Vietnam, India and the UK all supported dialogue for a solution and France which chaired the meeting said an agreement was needed sooner to avoid tensions following nearly a decade of talks.