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The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): A Dangerous Stalemate
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): A Dangerous Stalemate
Calming the Choppy Nile Dam Talks
Calming the Choppy Nile Dam Talks
Commentary / Africa

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): A Dangerous Stalemate

Political uncertainty and increasing polarisation between government and opposition, combined with escalating violence in many provinces, have set the DRC on a dangerous trajectory. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – Third Update early warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to denounce attempts by the DRC government to further delay the polls and offer technical electoral support to the Electoral Commission.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – Third Update.

Political uncertainty and instability in the DRC are growing as the one-sided implementation of the 31 December 2016 (Saint Sylvester) agreement has deepened the gulf between a newly invigorated regime and a weakened opposition and civil society. The Electoral Commission (CENI) still has not published a new calendar for polls promised by the end of the year, although, speaking at the UN General Assembly on 23 September, President Joseph Kabila indicated it was imminent. Recent comments by the CENI president indicate that the elections would not be organised before 2019. In this context of political uncertainty, opposition and civil society are renewing efforts to bring people out onto the streets; whether they can do so is unclear, as is whether they could control any protests that do occur. The grave socio-economic crisis, harsh repression by security forces and lack of confidence in political elites make for a potentially explosive cocktail of resentment and frustration. Beyond urban centres, violence is escalating in many provinces, adding to concerns for regional stability.

An increasingly confident regime that lacks a clear strategy

Few, if any, of the 31 December agreement’s signatories sincerely believed in the agreement’s stipulation that elections would be held by the end of 2017. The government has since controlled implementation of that deal and interpreted its provisions to suit its agenda of delay. Meanwhile, domestic pressure to stick to the timeline has diminished, in particular following the February death of Etienne Tshisekedi, the charismatic opposition leader, and in March, after the Catholic Church withdrew from its direct mediation role.

For its part, Kabila’s government has engaged in a two-pronged strategy: violent repression and closure of political space at home on the one hand, intensive regional diplomacy to defuse U.S. and European Union (EU) pressure on the other. The latter track appears to have been particularly successful. African and especially Southern African powers now largely accept the government’s interpretation of the agreement (notably its unilateral choice of prime minister). While they have been more critical behind closed doors and acknowledge that the political manoeuvring and delay tactics increase the risk of violence, their public positioning has given the regime vital breathing space.

A weakened opposition focused on Kabila leaving power

Faced with the regime’s hijacking of the 31 December agreement, opposition and civil society are trying to regain the initiative. In July, Felix Tshisekedi, president of the main opposition coalition, the Rassemblement, suggested a six-month transition if the vote were not held in December, but without Kabila (whose constitutional mandate expired in 2016) retaining the presidency. In August, representatives of civil society platforms (including the youth protest movements Lucha and Filimbi as well as the “Debout Congolais” recently launched by Congolese businessman Sindika Dokolo) adopted a manifesto with a similar proposal. Moïse Katumbi, a prominent opponent in exile, added his name to this manifesto in September. It calls for non-violent actions to pressure the government, reminding the population of its duty, enshrined in Article 64, to defend the constitution against anyone seeking to exercise power by violating its provisions. It hopes such actions will force President Kabila out, with a national conference held afterwards to designate a transitional mechanism.

This approach has scant chance of success. The opposition, weakened by the exile and imprisonment of several of its leaders, is riven by distrust among its factions and lacks internal cohesion. Struggling to organise street demonstrations, or control them when they do take place, its leaders appear for now to be resting their hopes on greater international (particularly Western) engagement. But the opposition faces a paradox: international actors are unlikely to take a more robust position in the absence of a credible domestic dynamic.

Worrying security developments

Meanwhile, several provinces – including the Kasais, Tanganyika, North and South Kivu – are experiencing violent conflict, fuelled by both local tensions and the national political stalemate. Playing the role of pompier-pyromane, the government thus far has contained the fighting while people close to the regime have simultaneously stoked unrest and used it to justify election delays. But this dangerous strategy has increased tensions with several neighbours, notably Angola, which hosts thousands of refugees from the troubled Kasai region. As one of the world’s gravest humanitarian crises, with 3.8 million internally displaced and more than 600.000 refugees, humanitarian support remains under-funded despite some EU and member states contributions, and the recent additional amounts announced this year.

A recent small rebound in copper prices has allowed the government to promise better and more regular salaries as well as to ease currency depreciation pressures. But economic fundamentals remain poor. With families squeezed by rising prices and growing petty corruption, popular discontent is rising along with prospects for urban unrest.

International actors need to step up support for the 31 December agreement

The EU, UN, the African Union (AU), relevant sub-regional organisations and the Chinese, French, Russian and UK governments, together with the DRC government, met on 19 September on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York. The chair’s summary of that meeting reaffirmed broad support for the Saint Sylvester agreement, despite the inevitability that its electoral timetable will now slip. This is welcome news insofar as the agreement’s core principle – the need to hold elections without amending the constitution – deserves strong support in the face of the regime’s attempts to kill it with a thousand cuts.

But international actors need to turn this support into concrete action that pressures the government and electoral commission to move forward with election preparations. While the EU should offer technical electoral support, as envisaged at the New York meeting, it should denounce attempts by the DRC government to further delay the polls (including through publishing unnecessarily long timetables). It also should condemn, of course, any attempt by Kabila to change the constitution’s presidential two-term limit. International reaction to the soon-to-be-announced electoral calendar will be an initial test – if the timetable stretches too far into the future, as recent communications from the CENI indicate it may, the EU, in concert with other relevant international actors, should make this clear, stressing that elections could be held sooner and offering technical support to reach that goal while actively criticising delay tactics. Alongside this, EU and member states should continue work that supports Congolese civil society and internal voices calling for democracy and constitutionalism.

Effective pressure on President Kabila to move toward elections and stick to term limits requires better international cooperation. Western powers – notably the EU and its member states – should reach out to African leaders to hear their concerns and try to iron out differences. At present, African powers tend to acquiesce in Kabila’s interpretation of the agreement and refrain from criticising (at least publicly) his efforts to remain in power, while the West has adopted a more critical stance. Disagreement thus far has revolved around how best to push Kinshasa toward elections. African leaders are hostile to Western sanctions on DRC leaders put in place over the last fifteen months. While those sanctions may have had some impact in 2016 in deterring violence and helping forge the December agreement, they increasingly have diminishing returns as Kabila’s regime uses them to portray pressure on it as a form of Western imperialism. They ought not be reinforced while efforts are made to align international views.

 

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Sudan’s President Omar Al Bashir take part in a tripartite summit regarding a dam on the Nile River, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 10 February 2019. AFP/ANADOLU AGENCY/Handout /Presidency of Egypt
Commentary / Africa

Calming the Choppy Nile Dam Talks

Egypt and Ethiopia are exchanging harsh words over the dam the latter is building on the Blue Nile. At issue is how fast the Horn nation will fill its reservoir once construction is complete. The two countries’ leaders should cool the rhetoric and seek compromise.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed are set to meet on the margins of an ongoing two-day Russia-Africa summit in Sochi in an effort to ease tensions over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Ethiopia is building the dam on the main tributary of the Nile, and Egypt fears that the project will imperil its water supply.

Experts from those two nations and Sudan, the third country directly involved, had neared a technical consensus last year on how fast Ethiopia would fill the dam’s reservoir. But the past few months have seen Addis Ababa and Cairo move further apart amid feisty exchanges of rhetoric. Experts made little progress at their latest meeting this month in Khartoum.

There are still reasons to think a deal can be struck. First, however, the two leaders need to reiterate at Sochi their intention to cooperate over the GERD, so as to create an atmosphere conducive to agreement on filling and operating what will be the continent’s largest hydropower plant.

The background

Ethiopia began building the GERD on the Blue Nile River in 2010. Meles Zenawi, then Ethiopia’s leader, argued that the dam was critical to the country’s development efforts and would benefit the whole region. He said nearby states, including Egypt, would gain from purchasing the cheap electricity Ethiopia intends the dam to produce.

The scheme alarmed Cairo. Egypt claims “historical rights” over the Nile, stemming from treaties to which upstream countries, with the exception of Sudan, were not party. Most of those treaties date to the colonial era; the latest, a 1959 Egypt-Sudan pact, apportioned all 84 billion cubic meters of the Nile’s waters between Egypt (then the United Arab Republic), Sudan and evaporation. Egypt still bases its supply on the 55.5 billion cubic meters agreed upon in 1959 but it is estimated to use more than that as Sudan does not use its full allocation.

Egypt is especially vulnerable to reductions in Nile flows.

Egypt is especially vulnerable to reductions in Nile flows. It relies on the river for about 90 per cent of its water needs. Abdullatif Khalid, head of the irrigation sector, said recently that “drinking water is consuming 11 billion cubic meters. … Industrial usage consumes 8 billion cubic meters, and the rest is distributed to agriculture”. Egypt also relies on the Nile to generate about a tenth of its power, particularly from its High Dam at Aswan. Egypt characterises the status of the Nile as a life-and-death matter. It fears the loss of Egyptian influence and control over upper Nile states that Ethiopia’s unilateral project represents. It also worries that acceding to Ethiopia over the GERD could pave the way for other major hydropower and irrigation projects by upstream Nile nations.

Ethiopian officials portray such concerns as quasi-imperialist. “The struggle is between a country which wants to ensure equitable and reasonable utilisation and another which wants to maintain a colonial-era treaty of injustice and unfairness”, said one Ethiopian diplomat. A statement from the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry blamed Egypt for acting as a spoiler at this month’s Khartoum talks. Ethiopian officials argue that Egypt built the Aswan dam in a bid to drive its own economic growth but that Cairo has since used its international influence to prevent upstream Nile development. They portray Ethiopia’s eventual decision to construct the GERD as an effort to redress a historic imbalance and as a last resort after Egypt refusal to cooperate over the basin.

Forging an initial filling deal could increase trust among the parties, which is all the more important given the threat posed by rising temperatures in the Nile basin.

In March, Crisis Group encouraged Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to persevere in trying to agree a detailed policy for filling the GERD’s reservoir. The three countries had taken some steps in that direction. In 2015, they signed a Declaration of Principles pledging to equitably share water resources and cooperate over the GERD, and since then have met regularly at both technical and political levels to try to reach agreement.

Forging an initial filling deal could increase trust among the parties, which is all the more important given the threat posed by rising temperatures in the Nile basin. In the longer term, Crisis Group supports the idea that the three countries, together with the other eight who share the Nile’s waters, establish a broader resource-sharing arrangement via the Nile Basin Commission that is to form once six of the eleven riparian nations ratify the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA).

Egypt signed on to the 2015 Declaration, but, along with Sudan, it rejects key parts of the CFA. Cairo stresses in its Nile policy the “inviolability of our water share”. Addis Ababa, meanwhile, is explicit that water allocation treaties to which it was not party have “no applicability whatsoever on Ethiopia”.

After some heated words of its own, Cairo put its well-oiled diplomatic machine into action at late September’s UN General Assembly meeting in New York. Egyptian diplomats met with counterparts from Burundi and South Sudan, two riparian countries that are cash-strapped and experiencing major internal crises. Burundi, along with Kenya and Uganda, has signed but not ratified the CFA, while South Sudan has not yet made its position clear. An experienced observer of Nile politics says it is “common knowledge that Cairo increases its activism with upper riparians, especially South Sudan, whenever rhetoric with Addis increases”. Egypt’s intention appears to be to forestall explicit statements of support for Ethiopia’s position from other upper Nile nations and to drag out the CFA’s ratification.

The sticking point

The initial challenge lies in the sides’ competing positions on filling the GERD reservoir.

The initial challenge lies in the sides’ competing positions on filling the GERD reservoir. Ethiopia wants to move quickly to expedite maximum power generation. Egypt is concerned about how the dam will be managed during drought years and wants the GERD filled slowly enough that a sufficient volume of water can flow downstream each year during filling. Egypt also says it wants an office at the GERD site staffed with its own technicians. Ethiopia counters that this proposal breaches its sovereignty. It also has repeatedly rejected as unnecessary Egyptian calls for third-party meditation in the dispute.

The GERD’s 74-billion cubic meter reservoir is to be filled in three stages. The first consists of tests of the initial two turbines, which require some 3 billion cubic meters (bcm) of water and would take one year. Second, all 13 turbines would be tested, requiring at least another 12 bcm and one more year. Last, Ethiopia would fill the rest of the reservoir – although its volume would fluctuate by around 50 bcm each year as Ethiopia would have to allow much of the water out ahead of seasonal rainfall to prevent overflowing. The first two years’ filling would use too little water to significantly affect downstream supplies. It is the final stage that worries Egypt and prompts its disagreement with Ethiopia.

Last year, the National Independent Scientific Research Study Group, comprising Egyptian, Ethiopian and Sudanese experts, made progress toward a filling agreement that all parties could get behind. This deal would entail Ethiopia annually releasing about 35 bcm (around 70 per cent of the Blue Nile’s average annual flow) of water downstream as it fills the dam.

Egypt subsequently slowed down the pace of talks. At the February meeting of the African Union, President Sisi told Prime Minister Abiy that he wanted to discuss the minutes from the study group meetings. These conversations led to a new Egyptian proposal, which called for a minimum annual release of 40 bcm of water from the GERD during the period of filling. Egypt had also requested that the entire average annual Blue Nile flow of 49 bcm be released once the GERD is operational and the dam filled. If the flow decreases, Cairo says Addis Ababa should make up for the deficit the next year. Ethiopia has rejected both suggestions.

Space for compromise

Despite the recent disagreements, the 2018 progress and expert studies suggest that a compromise solution exists. In a period of average or above-average rainfall, releases of around 35 bcm would allow Ethiopia to fill the dam at a slightly faster rate than if the annual release was at 40 bcm, while also avoiding acute water shortages in Egypt.

Ethiopia seems ready to agree to a 35 bcm release. According to experts like Kevin Wheeler from the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, who has studied the GERD filling options with a team of experts, a 35 bcm release could fill the dam’s reservoir in five to six years, assuming average flows. Ethiopia said after the latest inconclusive talks that it proposed to fill the GERD in four to seven years.

There are also steps that Egypt could take to manage water more efficiently and mitigate the dam’s potential impact on agriculture and manufacturing.

Despite Cairo’s reservations, this fill rate does not appear likely to significantly damage Egypt’s water supply or power generation. “Under wet to average conditions with a 35 bcm release, Egypt does not need to suffer any shortages, or very minimal reductions if they use their drought management policy”, Wheeler told Crisis Group.

There are also steps that Egypt could take to manage water more efficiently and mitigate the dam’s potential impact on agriculture and manufacturing. Aid programs could improve irrigation efficiency, for example.

For its part, Ethiopia could also be more accommodating, especially given climate volatility and Egypt’s concerns about how the dam will be managed in drought conditions. One experienced observer questions why Ethiopia is apparently so fixated on filling the reservoir quickly to its maximum volume of 74 bcm. After all, the reservoir will need draining to around 20 bcm each year before the rainy season to guard against over-spilling.

Nor is it clear whether sufficient demand exists in either Ethiopia or export markets to justify maximising the GERD’s power generation in the first few years. For example, in 2017/18, all of Ethiopia consumed less electricity than the 15,760 gigawatt hours a year that the GERD is projected to generate. In that same year, Ethiopia sold 1,516 gigawatt hours to Sudan and Djibouti. It has ambitions to sell power to East Africa via an under-construction transmission line to Kenya, but there is work to do on building further inter-connections and negotiating export deals, including, potentially, with Egypt and Gulf states.

The likely gap between the dam’s maximum output and demand means that Ethiopia could take a concertedly flexible approach to the initial stages, including filling the dam only to the extent it needs at present. Such an approach may allow it to initially release more water each year, ensuring that the reservoir at Aswan retains a healthy volume and giving Egypt more time to adapt.

Returning to constructive talks

It is hard to say precisely when the GERD will start impounding water, but parties should have at least all next year to thrash out a deal on filling. There was a major hiccup in the dam’s construction last year, when Ethiopia’s political power struggle and the transition that saw Abiy come to power rocked the mega-project. But the Ethiopian state seems to have rallied behind the GERD again. Its completion is inevitable – as Prime Minister Abiy made clear in Parliament yesterday – even if there are further delays.

Given the renewed spat between their countries, Sisi and Abiy could help prepare the ground for constructive negotiations during their meeting in Sochi at what is the first Russia-Africa summit. Even if warm words are exchanged, a real breakthrough at the technical level is unlikely any time soon. But if Sisi and Abiy can achieve a reset it would increase the chances that the engineers, lawyers and diplomats can hammer out a deal.

A deal on filling and operating the GERD should create space for renewed diplomacy aimed at safeguarding the Nile basin’s long-term future.

More broadly, a deal on filling and operating the GERD should create space for renewed diplomacy aimed at safeguarding the Nile basin’s long-term future. Climate change means that not only Egypt but all Nile nations should be concerned about water shortages. A study published in August in the Earth’s Future journal found that despite models projecting increased rainfall, nations like Ethiopia, South Sudan and Uganda may have less water available to them due to hotter and drier years in the Nile basin. Such findings are of even more acute concern to rain-starved Sudan and Egypt, which rely on downstream flows.

Addressing the mistrust among riparian nations, which the GERD presently symbolises, is critical. Those countries need to institutionalise cooperation, including exchanging data on critical elements such as rainfall levels, river flows, dam volumes and power needs. If President Sisi and Prime Minister Abiy can set the right tone in Sochi, they could set a path for a GERD agreement that in turn could catalyse the eventual ratification of the Cooperative Framework Agreement and management of the world’s longest river via the Nile Basin Commission.

This commentary is co-published with The Africa Report.