Egypt's Identity Crisis as Hegemonic Heir of the Nile

Jul 18 , 2020
By Yonas Biru (PhD)

In exerting its dominion over the Nile River, Egypt has one leg in the colonial treaties of 1902, 1929 and 1959 and another in 1979, the year the UN adopted a convention on the law of non-navigational uses of international watercourses. The only way either of these arguments hold up is if Egypt sees itself as the favoured and entitled orphan of Colonialist Britain, writes Yonas Biru (PhD), the former deputy global manager of the International Comparison Programme at the World Bank and founder and chair of the Nile Club. He can be reached at

Nearly 60 years after the majority of Black African nations won their independence from colonialism, they are yet to be liberated from the original sins of anti-black supremacy - the sine qua nonof colonialism. Egypt's futile desire to exert its dominion over the Nile River stems from its identity crisis residing on the contours of the nexus between the cruel realities of an abandoned orphan and a whimsical wish of an heir-apparent of Britain's colonial legacy, including its hegemonic rule over the mighty river.

"No matter how much I tried, I found it harder to rule out race as a factor in the international play" surrounding the Nile waters, recently wrote Jesse Jackson, America's iconic civil rights leader, to Congresswoman Karen Bass, chair of the US Congressional Black Caucus.

The Nile River is borne out of the unity of the Blue Nile and the White Nile, the former of which originates from the highlands of Ethiopia. The White Nile is the product of nine black-majority African basin countries. The two rivers traverse through Sudan where they meet in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan and beget the Nile. The unified Nile flows northbound to and through Egypt before it spills its contents into the Mediterranean Sea.

Ethiopia contributes over 80pc of the Nile's water volume. The remainder originates from the other nine black-majority African nations. Egypt contributes nothing and still claims hegemonic control of both rivers from their sources.

Three years after Ethiopia broke ground to build the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Egypt replaced its Constitution to maintain the water-sharing status quo that denies 11 black-majority African countries, including Ethiopia, their fairshare of the Nile waters.

"In the Name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful," starts the preamble of the Constitution. "This is our Constitution, Egypt is the gift of the Nile for Egyptians and the gift of Egyptians to humanity."

Article 44 asserts: "The State shall protect the River Nile, preserve Egypt rational use of historical rights thereto ..."

Egypt's presumed "historic rights" are anchored firmly in colonialist water treaties dating back to 1902, 1929 and 1959. The 1902 agreement that was drafted both in Amharic and English was signed by "His Majesty Edward VII by the Grace of God, King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas, Emperor of India," and Emperor Menelik II.

The third article of the English version of the treaty stipulates that Emperor Menelik II "engages himself towards the Government of His Britannic Majesty not to construct, or allow to be constructed, any work across the Blue Nile, Lake Tsana, or the Sobat which would arrest the flow of their waters into the Nile except in agreement with His Britannic Majesty's Government and the Government of the Soudan."

Sudan was not mentioned in the Amharic version. Nor did it sign either the Amharic or the English Version of the Treaty. Egypt is mentioned in neither the English nor Amharic version. Nor did it sign either one. This has not stopped Egypt from using the 1902 treaty between Ethiopia and Britain as the legal bases of its historical claim of the Nile River in its Constitution.

"The reality, however, is that every treaty relating to the Nile that was concluded by Ethiopia was signed by its government," Sameh Shoukry, Egypt's foreign minister, nonetheless, stated before the UN Security Council. "Free of any compulsion or coercion, and as an independent and sovereign state."

Therefore, Egypt contends the 1902 colonial treaty is still alive and insists Ethiopia must honour it. This is why the Ethiopian government contended before the UN Council that "the matter being dealt with by the Council today is deeply rooted in a colonial legacy."

Let us unpack this. First, in 2020, Egypt wants Ethiopia to abide by, and submit to, a 1902 agreement that it was obliged to sign under circumstantial colonial duress by "His Majesty Edward VII, King of the British Dominions beyond the Seas." Second, Britain has relinquished its claim of the kingdoms "beyond the seas" and gone home. Therefore, it cannot ask Ethiopia to seek its permission to build a dam on Ethiopia's sovereign land.

In the context of the 1902 treaty, the only way Egypt's legal argument makes sense is if it sees itself as the favoured and entitled orphan of Colonialist Britain or the 21st century heir-apparent of Britain's hegemonic rule of the Nile.

Egypt's legally sanctioned hegemony comes into picture in a 1929 Anglo-Egyptian treaty. The Treaty bestows exclusive rights to Egypt over the Nile River, including veto power to reject any water-related projects such as irrigation or dams by Ethiopia or any of the other 10 black African basin countries. Ethiopia’s position is that it does not recognise a colonial-era treaty that it is not a signatory to, and that colonialist Britain had no legal authority to grant exclusive rights to Egypt ignoring the rights of sovereign Ethiopia.

After Britain left Africa as a colonial master in 1959, an agreement between Egypt and Sudan was signed that allotted 75pc of the Nile water volume to Egypt and the remainder to Sudan, leaving not even a drop of water to Ethiopia. Ethiopia rejects this agreement as utterly unfair and legally non-binding.

In exerting its dominion over the Nile River, Egypt has one leg in colonial treaties of 1902, 1929 and 1959, and another in 1979, the year the UN adopted the Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. Widely known as the UN Watercourses Convention, the international law establishes the tenets of equitable cross-boundary water-sharing principles.

The most important part of the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention that Egypt finds Ethiopia in violation of is the tenet of "equitable and reasonable" share of the Blue Nile waters. The conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt is how to divide the around 50 billion cubic metres of the average annual flow of the Blue Nile.

In February 2020, the US and the World Bank, violating their role as "observers" of the mediation between Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia, and acting like "mediators," attempted to pressure Ethiopia to sign an agreement that guarantees the release of 37 billion cubic metres of the Nile.

In what the US government called a "balanced and equitable" compromise, the country that produces 100pc of the Blue Nile River was asked to accept less than a quarter of the water volume for its use.

The supposed agreement legal draft that the US and the World Bank produced with expressed opposition of Ethiopia was inexplicable. This is better illustrated by way of an example.

Mexico and the US share two major rivers, including the Colorado River. There are 250,000 rivers in the US compared to Mexico's far lower amount. Under the 1944 Water Treaty, the US is releasing only about a tenth of the Colorado River's average flow to Mexico. That is what the US believes is balanced and equitable because the US contributes over 90pc of the water volume of the Colorado River. It is inconceivable that the US would accept releasing 76pc of the Colorado River waters to Mexico as balanced and equitable.

The injustice against millions of Ethiopia's poor does not end there. If, in consecutive years, the volume of the Blue Nile River drops to less than 37 billion cubic metres, because of low rainfall, the legal text that the US and the World Bank drafted requires Ethiopia to compensate Egypt for the deficit.

Should the average volume drop to 32 billion cubic metres for three consecutive years, Ethiopia must release 15 billion cubic metres of water from its reservoir.

It is utterly appalling for Egypt to accuse Ethiopia of violating the principles of "equitable and reasonable" share of the Blue Nile waters. The incontestable truth is that it is Egypt that stands in contravention of the principles of "equitable and reasonable" share of the River.

No matter how one slices and dices it, spins and swings it, the root cause of the current impasse between Ethiopia and Egypt is the latter's desire to hang on to the remnants of Britain's colonial rule. We are talking about a racial enterprise that disenfranchised black-majority African nations of their natural resources and national sovereignty that are both the source and guarantee of a dignified life, liberty, and the pursuit of prosperity.

There is also Egypt's recent gesture to offer partnership with Ethiopia on electricity projects, on the condition that Ethiopia "abide by international commitments and law," presumably the 1902 treaty between Ethiopia and Britain. Put in the vernacular, Egypt wants Ethiopia to relinquish its sovereign rights to build development projects on the Nile River in exchange for an unspecified amount of electricity.

Expecting that Ethiopia will agree to forego its self-reliance for its development goals and surrender its sovereign rights to pursue its own path for prosperity is utterly condescending. It reflects an identity crisis of an orphan of a colonial epoch that sees itself as an heir apparent of Britain's colonial legacy, including its hegemonic rule over the Nile River.

As current negotiations unfold under the auspices of the African Union and observation of the European Union, the US and South Africa, the world is watching not only Egypt but also the international community that ignored Ethiopia’s long-standing complaint against the colonial-era treaties.

Would they exert pressure on Ethiopia to uphold the 1902, 1929 and 1959 documents as legally tenable or bring their influence to bear on Egypt to accept that its colonialist-driven ambition of hegemonic control of the Nile River is a futile dream of a bygone era?

The world is watching.

PUBLISHED ON Jul 18,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1055]

Yonas Biru (PhD) (, former deputy global manager of the International Comparison Programme at the World Bank and founder and chair of the Nile Club.

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