States stockpile arms as row over Nile waters rages
Written by Edris Kiggundu
Wednesday, 19 May 2010 21:31
Egypt adopts tough stance as Uganda calls for dialogue
Two senior Egyptian government officials have said that Egypt would do anything –including going to war – to safeguard what they called their country’s historic right to the largest share of the Nile waters.
Briefing the Egyptian Parliament last week, Moufid Shehab, the Minister of Legal and Parliamentary Affairs is quoted by MENA, a state news agency, as having said that the four countries that signed the Nile River Co-operative Framework Agreement (CFA) last week took a “wrong step.” He added that this was not “the end of the game,” affirming that Cairo still believes in its “inalienable and historical rights” over Nile waters.
Another government official, Mohammed Allam, the minister of Water Resources and Irrigation, added: “Egypt reserves the right to take whatever course it sees suitable to safeguard its share.”
Their comments came shortly after four Nile basin countries; Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Ethiopia signed the Nile River Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) last week, in Entebbe.
Other countries; Kenya, DR Congo and Burundi affirmed that they would also sign the agreement that will transform the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) into the Nile Basin Commission (NBC), which will coordinate the equitable usage of the water. Countries will have to submit their intended projects along the Nile to the Commission for endorsement.
On their part, Egypt and Sudan declined to sign the agreement, saying they want to maintain the status quo as stipulated in two colonial agreements they signed with the British colonialists in 1929 and 1959. These agreements stipulate that other riparian countries should first seek permission from them before embarking on any large scale development projects that would affect the level and flow of the waters.
But of the two, Egypt appears to be more aggrieved. While Egypt has not explicitly declared that it will take up arms to defend its rights, the stern statements from their ministers barely disguise the potential for conflict.
As early as April this year, when it became clear that Egypt would lose the battle over the agreement, some Egyptian legislators urged their government to take stronger action against other Nile basin countries – a veiled threat of war.
Other Nile basin countries, including Uganda, are already wary of this threat.
Okello Henry Oryem, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, told The Observer on Tuesday that the war threats, if Egypt was indeed invoking them, were unfortunate.
“The Government of Uganda was doing its job [by signing the agreement]. These [war] threats should not be there and I know the door is still open for dialogue with our brothers (Egypt) under the AU framework,” Oryem said.
Kenya’s Director of Water Resources, John Nyaro, told the BBC last week: “If we don’t have an agreed co-operative framework, there will be no peace.”
A book on the conflict published this year notes among other things that until the countries find a peaceful resolution, the fear of war will always loom large.
“The Nile waters might become a pathway to peace or a currency of war or both at different historical junctures,” notes the book titled: The River Nile in the Post Colonial Age; Conflict and cooperation among the Nile Basin Countries. The book was edited by Terje Tvedt, a professor of development studies at the University of Bergen in Norway.
No wonder some analysts have linked the disagreement over the Nile waters to increased military spending by some countries in the East African region in anticipation of war.
In a 2008 survey of weapons purchases carried out by the Swedish International Peace Research Institute, Kenya was ranked fourth out of 23 East and Southern African countries and, according to a news report in The East African of April 12, 2010, Kenya’s military expenditure rose from $222 million in 1999 to $260 million in 2008.
The survey notes that Kenya has recently purchased armoured personnel carriers and Y-12 military utility planes from China. For Uganda’s case, notes the study, military spending rose from $173 million to $237 million between 2003 and 2008.
Last month, while defending the army’s decision to buy six fighter jets from Russia for Shs 654 billion, Army Spokesperson, Lt. Col. Felix Kulayigye, said Uganda needed the jets because it faced many threats among them the unresolved conflict over the Nile waters.
Reached this week, Kulayigye declined to expound on his earlier assertions.
Oweyegha Afunaduula, who chairs the Nile Basin Discourse, a civil society organisation that has been at the forefront of ensuring equitable sharing of the waters, told The Observer that Egypt’s war threats will not work.
“Whenever we talk about equity, Egypt talks about war in an attempt to harass other countries to submit to their terms. We are opposed to this arm-twisting,” Afunaduula said.
It is not the first time that threats of war have punctuated negotiations over the Nile. In 1985, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the former UN Secretary General who at that time was Egypt’s minister of Foreign Affairs, told the BBC Radio 4 in an interview that the next war in the region could be over the waters of the Nile, not politics.
“The security of Egypt is related to the relation between Egypt and Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya and other African countries. The real problem is that we need an additional quantity of water and we will not have an additional quantity of water unless we find an agreement with the upstream countries which also need water and have not used Nile water until now,” he said.
Maj. Gen. James Kazini, the late former army commander, said in 2002 while launching a new Defence Reform Programme, that Egypt and Sudan “wanted to control Uganda through River Nile”. He too cautioned that the next war in Africa could be over water.
Egypt’s claim to the Nile waters is based on a 1929 agreement between it and Great Britain on behalf of Britain’s colonies which gave Cairo the right to most of the more than 100 billion cubic meters of Nile waters.
Egypt says this agreement with Britain is sufficient enough to address any outstanding issues regarding the sharing of the Nile waters, but other Nile basin countries, including Uganda, contend that this particular agreement favours the Egyptians and have been working on a new agreement.
The Nile River Basin is home to an estimated 160 million people, while almost 300 million live in the 10 countries that share its waters. The World Bank projected in a 2004 report that the population in the basin will double in the next 25 years, adding more pressure on arable land.
As the 10 riparian countries–Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Eritrea–seek to exploit the Nile waters to provide for their growing populations, the dispute simmers.
Egypt owes its entire existence to the Nile.
The largely arid country has no other source of fresh water and depends on the river for irrigation and industrialisation projects to sustain its 80 million people. However, the countries upstream, including Uganda, want to use the Nile to build dams and create hydroelectric power for industrialisation, to provide clean drinking water to their people, and to establish irrigation schemes to grow enough food to feed their growing populations.
During a water conference in March, President Museveni attacked the colonial agreements on the Nile waters. The agreements, he noted, had stipulated that 85 billion cubic meters of water per annum would be consumed by Egypt and 18 billion by Sudan.
“The rest of us are supposed to get nothing,” he said.
By signing the CFA last week, the riparian countries sought to correct this historical imbalance.