Mobhare Matinyi, The Citizen
Immediately after independence in 1961, the then Tanganyika raised concerns about the unfair colonial-era treaty the British had signed with the Egyptians in 1929 over the waters of the longest river in the world, the Nile.
As we speak today those misgivings have never disappeared since Egypt has been playing a cat-and-mouse game all along even signaling military action. The problem with the 1929 agreement is simple: Egypt has veto power over the control of the waters that run through nine countries.
Now, the seven countries upstream want to be able to implement irrigation and hydropower projects in consultation with Egypt and Sudan, without Egypt’s exercising the veto power it was granted in 1929.
Last Friday, in Entebbe, four countries, that is, the host Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Ethiopia, signed a new agreement to replace another unjust agreement signed in 1959 by Egypt and Sudan. Kenya later signed the agreement, while Burundi and the Democratic of the Congo didn’t show up. Egypt views the signing as a unilateral action.
The 1959 agreement between Egypt and Sudan following Sudan’s independence in 1956, warranted 55.5 billion cubic metres of the Nile waters to Egypt, and 18.5 billion to Sudan, a combined total of 87 percent of the Nile flow.
The two “Arab countries,” as they would prefer to be called, had no obstacle in 1959, since six Nile countries were still under colonial rule, and Ethiopia had no power to challenge them with their master, Britain, watching. A quick assumption was made: The “Africans” have other sources of water.
Coincidentally, Britain happened to be the colonial master of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan and Egypt. Furthermore, since Egypt owns the Suez Canal, which is the only gateway between Europe and Asia, the country became extremely important to Europe even before striking another deal with the United States in 1978 to ensure the safety of Israel.
Since then, Egyptians have been arrogant, to say the least, thinking that they, Arabs, are better than the Africans, and even making childish claims such as “historical rights” over the Nile River waters.
In 1980, the then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat characterised Ethiopian opposition to Cairo’s project to divert Nile waters to one desert area as an “act of war.” Ethiopia bowed down and Egypt remained big-headed.
However, in 2004, Tanzania said enough was enough. The government hired a Chinese company to pull Lake Victoria waters to the arid areas in Shinyanga and Kahama. Why should our people suffer while a massive lake sits before us?
Lake Victoria is sensitive because it is the mother of the Nile River. The lake is fed by several small rivers flowing from the mountainous areas covering the DRC, Burundi and Rwanda, which form Kagera River in Tanzania and then deep into Lake Victoria. Kenya is source of Mara River, which feeds Lake Victoria through Tanzania.
As of today, Egypt is still uttering very provocative words such as: “Egypt only has water coming from the river. The Africans have it from the rains,” which a television station, French 24, extracted from the mouth one Egyptian diplomat.
Interestingly, the French news agency, Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Monday quoted another Western European diplomat saying: “Egyptians are behaving with the Africans the way they accuse Israel of behaving with the Palestinians; they say they are ready to negotiate but without committing to the difficult issues.”
The four countries which signed a new agreement on Friday each have a unique situation. Tanzania, the home of the half of the second largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Victoria, is adamantly pursuing a project to supply her people with water.
Ethiopia, which happens to be the source of the Blue Nile but constantly facing drought, is bitter with the drama for a while now and has already started building a dam with financial aid from Italy. Uganda, known in history as the source of the Nile River wants more than the 1954 Owen Falls Dam off the Nile River.
Rwanda, despite a psychological appetite for conflicts whenever an opportunity arises, has a point in the whole saga. Why should one country bulldoze everyone? We hope the DRC and Burundi will soon add weight to the new agreement.
The river is 6,700 kilometers long serving more than 160 million people who inhabit 10 percent of the African continent landmass. No doubt that the Nile River is very sensitive but nobody now seems to care about the old saying: The Nile is Egypt and Egypt is the Nile.
The diplomatic war has just started. Let’s hope that a war will not break out.