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Political Economy Dynamics of the Nile Conflict

Anwar A. Bashir

The Horn of Africa region, despite its geographically strategic location, and stupendous untapped natural resources, has become synonymous with economic and political turmoil. The conflict over the Nile River is beyond a conflict between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan, it will metastasize its repercussions to the entire region, and will usher in a proxy war between Russia, China, and the US.

Since Ethiopia started filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in 2020, there has been a simmering tension among Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan on the Nile Water. In a nutshell, this conflict involves Upper-and Down-Stream countries.

Since Addis Ababa relaunched the process, diplomatic relations have plunged and exacerbated. Cairo rallied the Arab League to hit back at Ethiopia.

Ethiopia argues that it has the right to use its indigenous natural resources for hydropower production, while Egypt’s contention is that, it will confront immediate interruption from changing Nile water flows. Research shows, that 90 percent of Egypt’s water comes from the Nile River. Sudan faces equally the deadlock between Egypt and Ethiopia due to its proximity. After several shuttle-diplomacy and tripartite talks ended up in vain, finally, Sudan’s position departed in favor of Egypt.

With all these unbecoming diplomatic clashes, Ethiopia has expedited the filling process of the Dam. Ethiopia’s aim is, to complete the filling within four to six years, while Egypt already suggested prolonging the process up to twenty-one years avoiding the immediate reduction of the water volume available downstream countries.

Moreover, deteriorating relations among Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan over Nile water could precipitate a military confrontation between two of Africa’s largest military capabilities.

The ramifications of a probable nasty battle between the two hegemonic powers will not be exclusive to them, but will have reprehensible impacts on the entire region, and also will hamper the Red Sea, which is geopolitically paramount for the global trade route. This route is specifically important for Europe’s access to global markets.

Proxy war: West vs Russia/China

Apart from the regional level, big powers are a component of the issue. Russia and China have a strong relationship with Egypt and Ethiopia. At the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit, President Putin offered to arbitrate the water dispute; before that, Trump’s efforts failed.

China has implemented enormous developmental projects and helped build the infrastructure in Egypt and Ethiopia. For instance, China has financed the expansion of the Suez Canal, and Sino-Egyptian relations have been progressing remarkably. Equally the Russian relationship with Cairo and Addis-Ababa is also commendable. Their link spans economics and security.


According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia was the largest arms importer to Cairo and Addis-Ababa.

Many think tanks say Egypt will be susceptible to reducing its arable land, economic losses, agriculture, gross domestic product, and widespread unemployment.  On the contrary, the Dam will enhance Ethiopia’s electricity generation, and uplift the country’s economic growth, especially in electricity-dependent sectors.

In this regard, if this imminent conflict over the Nile water, the longest river in the world, and the weaponization of water continue unabated, then collateral damage is unfolding.

On the other hand, there is a strong relationship between US and Egypt including economic, security, stability in the Middle East, the Suez Canal, and most important, sustaining a strong relationship with Israel.

Equally, US and Ethiopia have robust relations as the U.S is the largest donor of humanitarian assistance in Ethiopia, providing more than $1 billion throughout the country over the last year. But, when Biden has come to power in January this year, while the vicious war between Ethiopian National Defense Forces and Tigray troops continues, their relationship was festering. Abiy has orchestrated the most dubious election in Ethiopia in July last year, where many of the international community including Europe called a lack of free and square elections and refrained from budget support.

Somalia’s Unwarranted Position in the Nile Conflict

Somalia has a deep-rooted relationship with Egypt, and both are members of the Arab League. Also, Somalia has intermittent diplomatic relations with Ethiopia; and both are members of the IGAD regional block. Apart from this, what really matters is, how Somalia should play its position delicately, and not be used as a “cannon-fodder”, but exercise its diplomatic oasis for settling regional difficulties.

On 25th July this year, president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud paid a visit to Cairo and met with his counterpart president Sisi. In their joint press conference, they stressed many issues including cooperation on security, development, counterterrorism, and the perilous of unilateral decisions when undertaking projects on transboundary rivers. Many of the talking-heads have opined that the last part of the statement may cause a diplomatic clash between Somalia and Ethiopia as long as Mogadishu sided with Cairo. And this may stir the already smoldering flames. 

As the two rivers, Jubba and Shabelle, which are major water sources for Somalia are from Ethiopia; if the relationship between Somalia and Ethiopia deteriorates, there would be an imminent threat, and if Mogadishu and Cairo collide, Somalia may experience knock-on effects. Though politics has no morality, Somalia shouldn’t be stultifying and saddled with this knock-on effect issue over the imminent threat.

Anwar Abdifatah Bashir. Senior Lecturer at Somali National University, and Horn of Africa Political Analyst. He can be reached via @Anwaryare1000

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