Three reasons to not expect a full-blown war in Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan standoff over Nile

Nii Ntreh April 23, 2021
The volume of intensity has gone up in the rhetoric traded between Egypt and Ethiopia. Photo Credit: RAIA Group

After efforts led by new African Union chairman Felix-Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo to find an amicable solution among the disputing nations who majorly depend on the Nile River proved futile, the rhetoric has gone up in volume of intensity in the standoff Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are currently embroiled in.

Tshilombo, who is also president of the DR Congo, perhaps took on what he termed as the most pressing geopolitical problem within the continent, with a little more hope than the factions involved. The entrenched positions have not changed in the last few years and it did not seem the Kinshasa talks would be different.

Talks called by the United States last year also ended in vain. On their part, the Ethiopians have expressed dissatisfaction with what they see as the intentions of the Sudanese and Egyptian governments to invite non-African mediators into the matters. Addis Ababa has also blamed Cairo and Khartoum for acting in bad faith.

It would seem there is enough bad faith to go around since Sudan and Egypt are saying it is Ethiopia that does not want to reach a compromise. They point to Ethiopia’s refusal to commit to binding agreements.

Elected in 2018 on the back of promises of reinvigorating Ethiopian industrial hopes, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed recently boasted that he would “muster an army of a million men to defend” what is known as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Ahmed also said although he was committed to a peaceful resolution on the matter, ” there was no going back on the decision to build” the dam.

This year, Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi warned that Ethiopia’s opposition to Egypt’s proposals may result in “a level of instability in the region beyond anyone’s imagination.” If Ethiopia completes the GERD, Egypt does not have an alternative since more than 80% of Nile water originates in Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, Sudan, often more agreeable to Ethiopia’s vision, has in the last few weeks held a joint military exercise with Egypt along the Nile. Sudan has in the last few years, upped the ante against Addis Ababa, possibly out of seeing the desperation with which Ahmed tries to quell the fire in Tigray and in other parts of the vast landlocked country.

With no signs of tensions cooling down, observers are understandably worried. But are we about to see the most fierce intra-regional African clash?

There are reasons to believe we may not be heading towards a deadly conflict yet:

Egypt fears the cost of war

As would most nations, Egypt is not licking its lips at the possibility of war even though it is by some considerable mile the most potent of the three nations. The tough-talking and posturing are not necessarily precursors to war but Cairo aims to remind neutral observers of the options it is capable of. The regional instability he teased would worry all from Algeria to Zimbabwe and beyond.

But the country is mindful of its own records in foreign wars in Israel and Yemen in the 1960s. Sisi may also not be too keen on war because although a nationalist fervor exists, he would think twice about wrecking the consolidation of his power that is ongoing. Wars are dynamic for political fortunes.

Ethiopia cannot fight two wars

Ethiopia is at war against itself in the northern Tigray region and despite Ahmed’s prediction that victory last year would be swift and certain, national forces are still doing battle against Tigrayan People’s Liberation Forces (TPLF). Victory cannot seem further than the fact that Eritrea is now involved in the combat on the side of Addis Ababa.

There have been economic repercussions to the war with some development partners such as the European Union withholding expected funds. All the same, Ahmed cannot give up on the GERD as it is not only the crux of his political future but also provides a transformative future for Ethiopia. Ethiopia is looking at generating about 6,000 megawatts of electricity putting the country only behind South Africa in production in Africa. Renaissance will also be the world’s seventh-largest hydro-electrical power plant.

It is hard to see him losing sight of this to launch and assault or even invite one from Egypt.

Sudan is broke

To put it plain and simple, Sudan cannot afford an international conflict. It does not have the means or the logistical capacity. On top of this, there is a very fragile transitional government in Khartoum whose demise could actually be hastened by even internal aggression. In spite of its propensity to “inflame the situation” as described by an Egyptian foreign ministry spokesperson, Sudan cannot even continue to claim a hard-line lest it infuriates the other two major countries.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: April 23, 2021


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