Egypt vs Ethiopia: Hydropolitics of the Nile Basin

I just finished reading John Waterbury’s The Nile Basin: National Determinants of Collective Action. The book offers a concise introduction to the politics of international water basins as well as the various points of contention among the riparian states in the wider Nile Basin.

Here’s an excerpt:

All upstream riparians in the Nile basin, including the Sudan share varying degrees of suspicion towards Egypt and Egyptian motives in seeking cooperative understandings. It seemingly follows that Ethiopia could mobilize these fears and occasional resentments into an alliance of upper basin riparians. The British in fact tried to do just that from 1959 to 1961, as Egypt and the Soviet Union jointly pursued the Aswan High Dam project at the expense of the upper basin (p. 86).

Why would upper basin riparians care about how Egypt uses water that flows up north?

As Waterbury explains, this is because of the international norm of Master Principle of appropriation — “whoever uses the water first thereby establishes a claim or right to it” (p. 28). Therefore, Egypt has an incentive to use as much of the Nile waters as possible in order to establish a future right to high volumes of downstream flows. Increasing domestic water consumption makes it easy for Cairo to demonstrate “appreciable harm” if any of the upper riparian states were to divert significant volumes of the Nile’s flows.

This is principle is in direct conflict with the principle of equitable use that also underpins riparian regimes (which are legion, apparently. Read the book). And that is where inter-state power politics come in.

Waterbury accurately predicted the current problem bothering Cairo:

The ultimate nightmare for Egypt would be if Ethiopia and the Sudan overcame their domestic obstacles to development and to examine coolly their shared interests in joint development of their shared watershed in the Blue Nile, Atbara, and Sobat basins. Given Ethiopian and Sudanese regional behavior in the 1990s, Egypt need not lose sleep yet (p. 149).

Well, it is time for Egypt to lose sleep. Big time.

A resurgent Ethiopia is damming the Abbay (Blue Nile) and is likely to divert more of its waters in the future for agricultural projects.

What’s puzzling to me is why Egypt is not interested in cutting a deal right now. Given that Ethiopia is only likely to get economically and militarily stronger with time, why wouldn’t Cairo want to cut a deal under conditions of a favorable balance of power?

An obvious explanation is that Egyptian domestic political concerns make it harder for the government to sign a deal that diminishes claims to the Nile (Sisi doesn’t want to be the one that signed away water rights!) But this problem will only get worse for Egyptian elites, assuming that Egypt will get more democratic with time.

I am not surprised that Ethiopia is playing hardball.

Africa’s Billionaires in 2014

Only 9 out of 54 African countries are represented on the 2014 Forbes billionaires list. There are certainly more than 29 dollar billionaires on the Continent (most of the rest being in politics). Let’s consider this list as representative of countries in which (for whatever reason) it is politically safe to be publicly super wealthy – which in and of itself says a lot about how far Nigeria has come.

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Source: Forbes

Some will look at the list and scream inequality. I look at the list and see the proliferation of centres of economic and political power. And a potential source of much-needed intra-elite accountability in African politics. For more on this read Leonardo Arriola’s excellent book on the role of private capital in African politics.

See also this FT story on the impact of currency movements on the wealth of Nigeria’s super rich. Forbes also has a great profile of Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man.

More on Eritrea and armed groups in eastern Africa

While Eritrea has in the past been repeatedly accused of supporting Somalia’s Islamist militia Al Shabaab, a charge it strenuously denies, the current report catalogues Afewerki’s growing notoriety in the world of terrorism finance, and in particular the global web through which these funds are routed, with Kenya serving as a global transaction distribution hub.

The report details the country’s activities in funding the terror group, following the money trail from its citizens in the diaspora in Europe and North America, through Dubai and the Eritrean embassy in Nairobi, and into the hands of Al Shabaab, all the while concealed in convoluted and opaque informal financial networks.

That is The East African reporting on Eritrea’s support for armed groups in the wider eastern African region. Mr. Afewerki’s actions are a threat to regional security for the following reasons:

1. Eritrea’s (opportunistic and cynically instrumental) use of Islam as a galvanizing force (against “Christian” Ethiopia) threatens to ignite a wider regional conflict that would probably include North Sudan and Egypt. The reason this is likely is because:

       (a) Remember that the use of the waters of the Nile continues to be a source of friction between Egypt and the riparian states of eastern Africa. Egypt itself has in the past been linked to armed groups in Somalia opposed to Ethiopian rule of the Ogaden region. Both countries have a history of funding rival clan militias in Somalia. In all of this the principle of my enemies’ enemies’ are my friends will most likely apply.

        (b) Because of its own problems with South Sudan, North Sudan might have an interest in using Eritrea’s networks to destabilize its southern neighbor. Recently the government of South Sudan banned all people of Somali origin from entering the country by land for security reasons. Juba clearly suspects either direct or indirect links between Khartoum and the myriad armed groups in war-torn Somalia

2. Given that the groups it supports (e.g. al-Shabaab) have other enemies besides Ethiopia, President Afewerki has effectively declared war on countries like Uganda, Burundi, South Sudan and Kenya that have also either been attacked or threatened by al-Shabaab. I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two of these EAC states decided to materially support the Ethiopian side the next time Addis and Asmara fight over their barren disputed border lands.

Rants and Raves / Thoughts on the African Union

The African Union (AU) has had a rough few months. The diplomatic failures in Zimbabwe, Cote d’Ivoire, and Madagascar exposed the organization’s incompetence. The misguided anti-ICC crusade continues to cement the image of the organization as nothing more than a club of out-of-date and tone deaf autocrats. To many observers, calls for “African  Solutions to African Problems” amid all this failure has been seen as a cover of impunity and mediocre leadership on the African continent.

It says a lot that the current chairman of AU is President Theodore Obiang’ of Equatorial Guinea; a man who leads an oil-rich country of under 0.7 million people, with a per capita income of more than 30,000; but with more than 70% of its population living on less than $2 a day.

The epitome of the organization’s woes was the total snub it got from NATO before the military campaign against Libya’s Gaddafi, one of the AU’s main patrons. The AU was created by the Sirte Declaration, in Libya. Mr. Gaddafi’s influence ranged from his “African Kings” caucus (in which he was the King of Kings) to investments from Libya’s Sovereign wealth fund. I bet Gaddafi had a hand in the organization’s green flag.

So what ails the African Union?

The AU’s problems are legion. In my view, the following are some of the key ones.

  1. Lack of a regional hegemon(s): The AU faces massive collective action problems. With no regional hegemon(s) to act as the rudder of the organization, most of the organization’s resolutions are not worth the paper they get written on. The rotating chairmanship is a distraction from the real leadership needed in the organization. For instance, I had to google it to find out who’s currently in charge of the presidency of the EU (Poland). Everybody knows that France and Germany run the EU. Their word has gravitas in the Union. In the AU on the other hand, there is no leader. Could it be Navel-gaving South Africa or serially under-performing Nigeria?
  2. Too much political control: Most successful international organizations, despite having political principals, tend to have technical agents that are to some extent shielded from the principals. The AU is political through and through. The key decision-making body is the assembly of heads of state. The council of ministers does nothing. And the commission is all bark and no bite. Cronies of dictators staff most of the key positions in the organization.
  3. Disconnect from the masses: Most Africans have no idea what exactly the AU does. What is the point of the organization? Is it to preserve Africa’s borders? Is it to defend the likes of Gaddafi when the ICC’s Mr. Ocampo comes calling? Giving the people a voice in the Union might force the organization to do the people’s bidding, instead of being a protector of impunity in the name of African sovereignty.

What would reforming the AU entail?

  1. Radical restructuring: Like all inter-state organizations, the AU’s leadership should reflect regional power differences. The current assembly – in which Chad has the same power as Nigeria – makes no sense. There should be a smaller assembly of sub-regional representatives (West – Nigeria; East-Ethiopia; North – Egypt; and South-South Africa) with veto power and the mandate to implement the organization’s resolutions.
  2. Competent staffing: The practice of presidents appointing their sisters-in-law as AU representatives should go. An injection of competent expertise into the organization would go a long way in making it appear to be a more politically independent, competent and respectable organization.
  3. Direct elections to the AU parliament or no parliament at all: Instead of having the members’ parliaments elect representatives to the AU parliament, there should be direct elections. If that cannot happen then the parliament should be scrapped all together. A toothless and unrepresentative parliament is a waste of resources.
  4. Constructive and focused engagement with the rest of the world: Who is the AU chief foreign policy person? Are there permanent representatives in Beijing, Brussels, Brasilia, New Delhi and Washington? Why aren’t they trying to initiate a collective bargaining approach when dealing with these global powers (even if it is at the sub-regional level)? And what with the siege mentality? Not every condemnation of African leaders’ incompetence and mediocrity is a neo-colonial conspiracy, you know. For instance, instead of whining against the ICC’s Africa bias, the AU should clean up its own house. It doesn’t matter that George Bush is not being tried for crimes against Iraqis. The last time I checked none of the leaders of Switzerland was being tried for crimes committed in the German cantons.
  5. A more consistent commitment to progressive ideals: The AU is the only organization in the world that includes in its charter the provision to intervene in its member countries under the principle of responsibility to protect. If the AU were slightly more serious, the disasters in Zimbabwe, Cote Ivoire and Madagascar could have been nipped in the bud. As things stand it is only tiny Botswana that keeps shouting about the organization’s commitment to proper governance and responsibility to protect.

I am not a fan of the idea of the United States of Africa. That said, I believe that a regional organization like the AU can be a force for good. But in order for it to fulfill its purpose, it has to change. The change must reflect the regional power balance; it must increase the competence quotient in the AU and it must increase the voice of the average African within the organization.

tunisians run their president out of town

Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has fled the country. The Prime Minister went on television on Friday night and announced himself the new president. The NY Times reports:

The apparent fall of Mr. Ben Ali, whose authoritarian government ruled for more than two decades, would mark the first time in recent memory that widespread demonstrations had overthrown an Arab leader.

The UK Guardian reports:

Opposition leader Najib Chebbi, one of Ben Ali’s loudest critics, captured the sense of historic change. “This is a crucial moment. There is a change of regime under way. Now it’s the succession,” he said.He added: “It must lead to profound reforms, to reform the law and let the people choose.”

The events in Tunisia might have ramifications in the wider Middle East and North Africa region. Regimes in Algeria and Egypt are potentially the most vulnerable. Egypt has presidential elections later this year while Algeria has been experiencing disturbances in the Annaba province.

We might be seeing the beginning of the end of the peculiar fact that there is not a single Arab democracy in the world.