Some African journalists are calling it the Nile Revolt: Last May, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania signed the Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement, a document that could profoundly change the way the life-giving waters from one of the world's most important rivers are distributed. Congo and Burundi likely will soon add their signatures as well. Only Egypt and Sudan refuse to sign. And the reason they are dragging their feet is obvious: The Agreement would end the virtual monopoly those two Arab-led nations have had on Nile water for generations -- and thereby overturn the politics, economics and demography of northeastern Africa.
The Nile is the longest river in the world, 6,000 kilometres from start to finish. As the Greek historian Herodotus once wrote, Egypt is "the gift of the Nile," as it is almost completely dependant on its waters for its survival. This is as true today as it was in the 5th century B.C., when Herodotus wrote his histories. The Nile begins in numerous highland streams in the mountains of Rwanda, in the Ruwenzori range, once dubbed the Mountains of the Moon by the ancient Greeks. These and other streams feed into Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa, whose shores are shared by Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
The White Nile drains out of Lake Victoria's northern end and crosses into southern Sudan. There, it moves through miles of verdant swampland, amongst the cattle herding Nuer and Dinka tribes (traditionalists and converts to Christianity) who recently fought a successful 20-year defensive war against the largely Arab and Muslim northern Sudanese, who wanted their water and the oil that lies beneath it. The Nile then threads its way into northern Sudan -- meeting the Blue Nile, whose origins lie in Lake Tana in highland Ethiopia. The combined river then flows through Sudan to Egypt, passing through the Aswan dam, which generates much of Egypt 's electricity and regulates the country's annual floods.
There are ecologists and water engineers who argue that the Aswan dam is a failure because of its interference with the Nile's natural regenerative processes, and that it will eventually cause irreparable ecological damage to the entire basin. But that is a minor headache for Cairo. Egypt's biggest problem is control. A few years ago, during a trip to the region, I surveyed the Nile from Cairo and Lake Victoria. I was convinced that one day soon the upstream countries would finally demand their water rights so that they, too, could build local economies around the irrigation that the Nile can provide. That day has come.
Egypt and Sudan negotiated the original two Nile river treaties when they were the only independent countries in the Nile basin-- 1929 and 1959. At the time of the latter agreement, Ethiopia was still slowly recovering from its occupation by fascist Italy, while Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda had not yet attained independence. They were still colonies.
And so Egypt and Sudan claimed the whole river --with Egypt taking 87%of the Nile water and Sudan 13%. This control includes a veto of any upstream projects. Egypt's Aswan dam, which depends on a steady flow from upstream countries, was constructed in the 1960s, during the political acme of the Arab League, and Sudan supported the project. Egypt's president, Gamal Nasser, then was the chief spokesperson for African socialism, and Africa's Marxist elites saw Egypt as a leader in the liberation and modernization of their continent.
But that relationship began to break down. In 1973, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, the Arab League and OPEC submitted the West to an oil embargo. The Arab League promised to provide the countries of sub-Saharan Africa with discounted oil if they broke diplomatic ties with Israel. African nations complied, but later discovered that no discounts were forthcoming. They had been stung.
When I was working in Tanzania in the 1990s, many Tanzanians whom I met remembered this betrayal. It was one of many factors that motivated a new group of African rulers to begin to think in national and regional terms, as opposed to the Pan African ideology, which had swept the continent during the euphoric days of independence in the 1960s.
They also have a new-found sense of their own history, as Western and African scholars have spent the last 50 years uncovering a distinctively sub-Saharan narrative of the continent, one transformed by the phenomenal rise and spread of the Bantu speaking peoples, as well as other tribal movements (such as those of the Masai) during the last two millennia. It became clear to these new elites that their ancestors had suffered terribly from the East African slave trade, whose main perpetrators were Egyptians, Sudanese and coastal Zanzibaris. Today, they no longer look to Egypt and Sudan as leaders of African politics. Indeed, they see them as more corrupt and autocratic than their own fragile democracies.
These new African elites contain a significant number of feminists, and professional African women holding advanced degrees. And so it comes as no surprise that the key Kenyan politician behind the Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement, Charity Kaluki Ngilu, is a woman. Many of these men and women also happen to be devout Christians. They know their Bible better than most Europeans. In my meetings with them, they have expressed a clear understanding of Egypt's role as oppressor in the story of Exodus. They no longer want to render unto Pharaoh.
This emerging mentality, one of increasing African self-confidence toward the Arab states to the north, has not been widely reported in the Western press. In essence, the descendants of the enslaved are now confronting the descendants of their enslavers. The Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement is a manifestation of this demand for regional social justice.
Meles Zenawi, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, is one of the agreement's most assertive spokesperson. "Egypt continues to maintain the obsolete notion that it owns the Nile and can dictate the distribution of its waters, and that upstream states are incapable of using the water because they are politically unstable and poverty stricken," he says. "But circumstances have changed."
Until recently, Ethiopia was using only 1% of the Nile for irrigation -- even though it is a country famous for periodic drought and starvation. But the country has just opened a new dam on Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. It is called Tana Beles, and will generate much needed electricity for the highly stressed Ethiopian electricity grid. Similar projects will add more power -- including Gibe 3, which will be the biggest hydro-electric dam in sub-Saharan Africa.
This fight over water could get ugly. Given Sudan's continuing support for the destabilization of Uganda, and al-Qaeda's bombing of the American Embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam in 1998, the future emergence of more radicalized Islamic regimes in Sudan, and possibly even Egypt, could trigger a military showdown between upstream and downstream countries -- including a sort of hydrological jihad. We have not heard the end of the Nile revolt.
First published in the National Post.