Jean-Jacques Cornish

Could the Nile be the casus belli for Africa’s next war?

It is pretty much common cause among strategic analysts that the next world war will be fought over water .

The argument that oil might be the casus belli has been dealt a body blow by the Covid 19 lockdown.

The black stuff remains vital to economic prosperity – important enough, certainly to take up arms over it.

But in the last three months as the economy was forced to take a backseat to public health, the price of oil dropped below zero.

And through the worst times since the Second World War,  the clear stuff has remained as vital to life itself as ever it did.

The most dramatic example of this is the battle over the water in Africa’s longest river stretch 6650 kms from south to .

President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his capacity as revolving chairman of the African Union, presided over a virtual summit yesterday seeking agreement on the use of  the Nile.

The three parties in the thick of things – Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt – agreed to continue pursuing an accord.

That is obviously better than having any of them walk off in a huff.

But they are still a considerable distance from finding an African solution to this existential African problem.

We may take comfort from Egypt asserting that it will not go to war over the Nile.

But since President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has involved both the United Nations Security Council and the Arab, in addition to the African Union, in this imbroglio we may be assured the matter will not go away for some time.

El Sisi would have us believe that the problem started when Ethiopia broke ground nine years ago on the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) across the Blue Nile.

The six-billion-dollar wall rising 155-metres above the water below and extending 1,85 kms across the valley  will make Ethiopia Africa’s largest producer of hydro electric energy and lift many of that country’s 106-million people out of poverty.

Downstream, Egypt counters that the dam will reduce the supply of water on which 100-million of its people are entirely reliant for their survival.

The third riparian country at the top end of the giant river is Sudan, where the White and Blue Niles meet in its capital Khartoum.

It too complains that the GERD will reduce its supply of Nile water. But its position is convoluted by the fact that it will buy some of the 6500 mw generated at the GERD and that the dam will reduce the flood damage it suffers annually from the Nile.

Egypt’s historical hegemony over the Nile was underpinned by agreements signed in 1929 and 1959 by the colonial power, Britain.

Ethiopia was not party to those agreements that it maintain are part of an unhappy past.

It has sought a new agreement with all eleven riparian countries – Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and Eritrea in addition to the northern troika.

This has proved problematic because it requires more than a technical accord on water sharing.

It runs to legal, historical and trust issues that have brought the United States and Europe into the equation.

The matter has come to a head now because satellite pictures show Ethiopia is carrying out its plan to start filling the dam.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for the compromise he showed in forging a peace with neighboring Eritrea, has been stubborn on this issue. He refuses to tell Egypt how much water will be allowed to flow downstream from the GERD.

Egypt wants this and more, nothing less than an agreement on how much water it can rely on in times of drought and an agreement on the very definition of a drought.

There is also divergence over the timing of the filling.

Ethiopia says it could complete this process in three years but offers a compromise of taking four to seven years. 

Egypt maintains the faster this happens, the greater the impact on its farmers downstream. It is asking for Ethiopia to take at least 21years to fill the dam.

However forceful the ministers of Ahmed and El Sisi may sound in negotiations, their positions must be seen against the domestic troubles in both Ethiopia, which has had to postpone for a year elections scheduled for August and Egypt which has had to commit its full military capability to fighting insurgents in the Sinai.

El Sisi’s claim to be fighting for the very existence of his people must be measured against the real beneficiaries of the Nile water – the factory owner and big farmers who are all part of the power elite that keep him where he is.

Ahmed, for his part, cannot back down on a project financed by loans and donations from a public that still vividly remembers the civil war and famine that turned it into a basket case.

The GERD is an integral part in Ethiopia continuing on its upward trajectory.


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Jean-Jacques Cornish is a journalist and broadcaster who has been involved in the media all his adult life.

Starting as a reporter on his hometown newspaper, he moved briefly to then Rhodesia before returning to South Africa to become a parliamentary correspondent with the South African Press Association. He was sent to London as Sapa’s London editor and also served as special correspondent to the United Nations. He joined the then Argus group in London as political correspondent.

Returning to South Africa after 12 years abroad, he was assistant editor on the Pretoria News for a decade before becoming editor of the Star and SA Times for five years.

Since 1999 he’s been an independent journalist writing and broadcasting – mainly about Africa – for Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape
Talk, Radio France International, PressTV, Radio Live New Zealand, Business Day, Mail & Guardian, the BBC, Agence France Press,
Business in Africa, Leadership, India Today, the South African Institute for International Affairs and the Institute for Security Studies.

He has hosted current affairs talk shows on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. He appears as an African affairs pundit on SABC Africa and CNBC Africa.
He lectured in contemporary studies to journalism students at the Tshwane University of Technology and the University of Pretoria.

He speaks on African affairs to corporate and other audiences.
He has been officially invited as a journalist to more than 30 countries. He was the winner of the 2007 SADC award for radio journalism.

He’s been a member of the EISA team observing elections in Somaliland, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Egypt and Tunsiai.

In October 2009 he headed a group of 39 African journalists to the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Peoples’ Republic of China.

In January 2010 he joined a rescue and paramedical team to earthquake struck Haiti.

He is immediate past president of the Alliance Francaise of Pretoria.

Jean-Jacques is a director of Giant Media. The company was given access to Nelson Mandela in his retirement years until 2009.
He is co-producer of the hour-long documentary Mandela at 90 that was broadcast on BBC in January 2009.