AFRICANGLOBE – Late last month, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid Bin Sultan fired a shot across the bow from the Arab Water Council in Cairo to let the regime in Ethiopia know that his country takes a dim view of the “Grand Renaissance Dam” under “construction” on the Blue Nile (Abbay) a few miles from Sudan’s eastern border. According to Prince Khalid, “The [Grand] Renaissance dam has its capacity of flood waters reaching more than 70 billion cubic meters of water… [I]f it collapsed Khartoum will be drowned completely and the impact will even reach the Aswan Dam…” The Prince believes the Dam is being built close to the “Sudanese border for political plotting rather than for economic gain and constitutes a threat to Egyptian and Sudanese national security…” The Prince raised the stakes by accusing the regime in Ethiopia of being hell-bent on harming Arab peoples. “There are fingers messing with water resources of Sudan and Egypt which are rooted in the mind and body of Ethiopia. They do not forsake an opportunity to harm Arabs without taking advantage of it…”
A spokesman for the regime in power in Ethiopia sought to minimize the importance of the Prince’s statement by suggesting that the Saudi Ambassador in Addis Ababa had disavowed the Prince’s statement as official policy or a position endorsed by the Saudi government. The alleged disavowal of the statement of a member of the Saudi royal family and top defense official seems curiously disingenuous after the fact. But that is understandable since “an ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” The regime spokesman also insinuated in fuzzy diplomatese that such inflammatory statements could result in war between Arab countries and African countries in the Nile basin.
The real possibility of a water war between countries of the upper Nile basin, and in particular Ethiopia, and Egypt and Sudan over the so-called Grand Renaissance Dam is the (white) elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about openly and earnestly at this stage. But in November 2010, the late dictator Meles Zenawi in an interview with Reuters seemed to defiantly relish the possibility of war with Egypt. With taunting, dismissive and contemptuous arrogance, Meles not only insulted the Egyptian people as hopelessly backward but bragged that he will swiftly vanquish any invading Egyptian army. “I am not worried that the Egyptians will suddenly invade Ethiopia. Nobody who has tried that has lived to tell the story. I don’t think the Egyptians will be any different and I think they know that…The Egyptians have yet to make up their minds as to whether they want to live in the 21st or the 19th century.” Meles also accused Egypt of trying to destabilize Ethiopia by supporting unnamed rebel groups which he promised to crush. Meles served the Egyptians an ultimatum to engage in “civil dialogue”: “If we address the issues around which the rebel groups are mobilized then we can neutralize them and therefore make it impossible for the Egyptians to fish in troubled waters because there won’t be any… Hopefully that should convince the Egyptians that, as direct conflict will not work, and as the indirect approach is not as effective as it used to be, the only sane option will be civil dialogue.”
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit denied Meles’ allegations and expressed amusement and amazement over Meles’ braggadocio. “I’m amazed … by the language that was used. We are not seeking war and there will not be war… The charges that Egypt… is exploiting rebel groups against the ruling regime in Ethiopia are completely devoid of truth.” Gheit may have been diplomatically deescalating the war of words, but his statement belies statements by a long line of top Egyptian leaders over the decades. President Anwar Sadat in 1978 declared, “We depend upon the Nile100 percent in our life, so if anyone, at any moment, thinks of depriving us of our life we shall never hesitate to go to war.” Boutros Boutros Gahali, when he was the Egyptian Foreign State Minister (later U.N. Secretary General), confirmed the same sentiment when he asserted “the next war in our region will be over the water of the Nile, not politics.”
What will Egypt do if Meles’ “Grand Renaissance Dam” is in fact built? “Simple.” They will use dam busters to smash and trash it.
An email from the American private security organization Stratfor released by Wikileaks citing its source as “high-level Egyptian security/intel in regular direct contact with Mubarak and Suleiman”, “If it comes to a crisis, we will send a jet to bomb the dam and come back in one day, simple as that. Or we can send our special forces in to block/sabotage the dam. But we aren’t going for the military option now. This is just contingency planning. Look back to an operation Egypt did in the mid-late 1970s, I think 1976, when Ethiopia was trying to build a large dam. We blew up the equipment while it was traveling by sea to Ethiopia. A useful case study…”
The same source further indicated that Egypt is “discussing military cooperation with Sudan” and has “a strategic pact with the Sudanese since in any crisis over the Nile, Sudan gets hit first then us.” That military cooperation includes stationing Egyptian “commandos in the Sudan for ‘worst case’ scenario on the Nile issue. Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir has agreed to allow the Egyptians to build a small airbase in Kusti to accommodate Egyptian commandos who might be sent to Ethiopia to destroy water facilities on the Blue Nile…The military option is not one that the Egyptians favor. It will be their option if everything else fails.” So far Egypt has successfully lobbied the multilateral development and other investment banks and donors to deny or cut funding for the dam and to apply political and diplomatic pressure on Ethiopia and the other upstream Nile countries. The World Bank has publicly stated it will not to fund any new projects on the Nile without Egypt’s approval.
The Grand Renaissance Dam or the grand dam (de)illusion?
All African dictators like to build big projects because it is part of the kleptocratic African “Big Man” syndrome. By undertaking “white elephant” projects (wasteful vanity projects), African dictators seek to attain greatness and amass great fortunes in life and immortality in death. Kwame Nkrumah built the Akosombo Dam on the Volta River, at the time dubbed the “largest single investment in the economic development plans of Ghana”. Mobutu sought to outdo Nkrumah by building the largest dam in Africa on the Inga Dams in western Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire) on the largest waterfalls in the world (Inga Falls). In the Ivory Coast, Félix Houphouët-Boigny built the largest church in the world, The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro, at a cost of USD$300 million. It stands empty today. Self-appointed Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic built a 500-room Hotel Intercontinental at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars while millions of his people starved. Moamar Gadhafi launched the Great Man-Made River in Libya, dubbed the world’s largest irrigation project, and proclaimed it the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Gamal Abdel Nasser built the Aswan High Dam which could be affected significantly if upstream Nile countries build new dams. Ugandan dictator Yuweri Museveni built the Bujagali dam which was completed in 2012. The backflow from that dam has submerged a huge area of cultivable and settled land forcing migration and resettlement of large numbers of people.