Let us rekindle the ancient ties between Ethiopia and Egypt -- boost trade and enhance cultural exchanges -- the Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zennawi told Gamal Nkrumah in an exclusive interview in Addis Ababa
A VERY SPECIAL BOND: "We are tied by an umbilical chord that neither of us can break," Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zennawi told Al- Ahram Weekly. "Egypt and Ethiopia are bound by the River Nile. The river is the vital umbilical chord," he explained.
There is nothing recondite about Egyptian- Ethiopian relations, but a long string of misconstrued moves and actions have created an unfortunate climate of mutual suspicion over the centuries. Speaking candidly in his austere office in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, Premier Zennawi outlined his vision for closer and more transparent interactions between Egypt and Ethiopia. Openly and frankly he touched on sensitive issues that have soured relations between the two neighbouring countries for at least the past two millennia. "We must now trust in a common destiny and not dwell too long and unnecessarily on imaginary conflicting interests."
The Nile is the eternal binding force between the two countries. If Egypt is the "Gift of the Nile" as the ancient Greek historian Herodotus postulated, then the Nile is essentially the "Gift of Ethiopia". An estimated 86 per cent of the water irrigating Egypt's agricultural land comes directly from Ethiopia -- or more precisely from the rivers and tributaries of the River Nile that originate in the Ethiopian Highlands, one of Africa's largest and highest mountain massifs, and containing rich volcanic soils.
In spite of the very special bond between the two countries, relations have often been strained. "We sometimes make a mess of it. That is one aspect of our long historical relationship," the Ethiopian prime minister said.
To improve relations between Ethiopia and Egypt, the Ethiopian prime minister believes that the two countries must start first by demolishing the ancient political dams that have poisoned bilateral relations. Chief among these is the notion, utterly groundless according to Zennawi, that the Ethiopians intend embarking on a massive programme of construction projects that would reduce the amount of water available for Egypt.
Egypt and Ethiopia have long shied away from formulating common water resource strategies. Such ventures would entail looking afresh at the cooperative trans-boundary management of the Nile. Traditionally, each country has harboured a guarded suspicion of the other. Motives have been vigorously questioned.
Ethiopia conjures up images of a latent threat to Nile water supplies to Egypt, literally the country's lifeline. The Blue Nile, or Abbay, or the Father of Rivers as it is called in Ethiopia, gushes through the precipitous gorges of the Ethiopian Highlands negotiating an impossible path to the Sudanese-Ethiopian border, where it meets the White Nile in Khartoum, then continuing majestically on to Egypt. The Baro-Akobo, known as the Sobat in Sudan, and the Takkezze, or Atbara, are two other great tributaries of the Nile that make equally treacherous and wondrous loops through the mountainous Ethiopian terrain, cascading over rocky escarpments, plunging down to the plains of Sudan and rushing on to the Egyptian Nile Valley and Delta and ultimately the Mediterranean.
The annual torrential downpours of the "Big Rains" which fall between June and September ensure that enormous quantities of silt from soil erosion are swept down from the Ethiopian Highlands to the Sudanese plains and onward to Egypt's Lake Nasser.
"But what is wrong with Ethiopia investing in the Nile? Egypt invested much money outside the Nile Valley, in Toshka and Sinai," Zennawi said. He lamented Egypt's lack of interest in developing Ethiopia's water potential which would increase the flow of water to Egypt and Sudan. He was critical of some of Egypt's investments in land reclamation projects outside the Nile Valley and recommended instead that Egyptians look into developing Ethiopia's water resources so as to benefit both Egypt and Sudan. "Egypt should have invested in the Nile in Ethiopia. Countries like Saudi Arabia and the US should have invested in developing the full potential of harnessing the waters of the Nile and other rivers of Ethiopia," Zennawi said.
The Nile being the umbilical chords tying Egypt and Ethiopia, the Ethiopian prime minister thinks economic cooperation between the two countries could drag the region out of its economic doldrums. "The Nile issue isn't a zero-sum game," Zennawi explained. He stressed that the two countries should be working towards a "win-win formula". Both Egypt and Ethiopia stand to gain from closer economic cooperation, he stressed.
The two countries, he continued, must make a fresh assessment of the riparian dynamics that have been a source of both togetherness and tensions for many centuries. The fundamental challenge of developing the shared waters of the Nile will be to do so equitably, Zennawi stressed, pointing out that sharing resources should be done in an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable fashion.
Managing Ethiopia's water resources will have important repercussions for food security and poverty alleviation in Ethiopia, a country prone to periodic droughts, erratic rainfall and the attendant famines. Ethiopia's failure to take the proper precautions of storing some of its vast water resources, and the development of a modern irrigation system has had catastrophic results for the country, put millions of lives at risk and severely hampered economic development.
There is currently a growing awareness in Ethiopia that the country's water potential must be utilised for the benefit of its people. Since the early 1990s, both Egypt and Ethiopia have intensified their efforts to reach an understanding concerning the sharing of the Nile waters. The two countries have no common border, but their histories have traditionally been interwoven.
Ethiopia, like Egypt, is a history-oriented society. Ancient Axum, the celebrated kingdom in northern Ethiopia whose kings adopted Christianity in the fourth century, cultivated close ties with Egypt. The Aksumites, like the ancient Egyptians, drew a major part of their national identity from the geography of their land. The Egyptians instinctively clustered around the river that gave them sustenance, that embodied their raison d'être, while the Aksumites traditionally barricaded themselves in their mountain fastness. No two neighbouring lands are as different as Egypt and Ethiopia.
Regular interaction between Egypt and Ethiopia goes back to the days of the Pharaohs. Ethiopia was most probably the hinterland of the mysterious Red Sea territory the ancient Egyptians conceptualised as the "Land of Punt" -- the "Land of the Gods", teeming with gold, timber, myrrh and frankincense. By Ptolemaic times Egyptian vessels were charting the Red Sea, then known as the Erythraean Sea, more frequently. Trade between Ethiopia on the one hand and Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula on the other was maintained via Ethiopia's then chief Red Sea port of Adulis.
A proper assessment of the precise nature of the relationship between Egypt and Ethiopia, therefore, has to be seen in a regional context. Ethiopia, since time immemorial, also had close cultural and commercial ties with Sudan, Yemen and Arabia generally, and the Levant.
Yemen, in particular, has had extensive and deep-rooted cultural, ethno-linguistic and political ties with Ethiopia since ancient times -- at least since the third millennium BC. Indeed the highlands of Yemen and Ethiopia have a strong physical and environmental resemblance, both exhibiting lofty peaks and rugged terrain. The ancient Aksumites undoubtedly exercised intermittent control over Arabia Felix, the ancient designation for Yemen, and their influence often extended to Hejaz and other parts of Arabia, as the Qur'an attests.
"People who have such long memories and histories," the Ethiopian prime minister told the Weekly, "have selective memories and very often only the negative aspects are remembered."
Ethiopians, too, must shake off the false sense of being surrounded by hostile Arab and Islamic forces. The Ethiopians' traditional siege mentality is based on fiction rather than fact. Zennawi stressed that contemporary Ethiopia is a multi- religious country. He said that neighbours must not regard it as a bastion of Christianity in the Horn of Africa, adding that in the past the country was indeed ruled by an Orthodox Christian aristocratic elite, but that today the country's Muslims play a dynamic role, both economically and politically and in all strata of society.
True, Ethiopia is a unique repository of Orthodox Christian culture in Africa. The country has long cherished a special spiritual affinity with Egypt's Coptic Christian community. Historically, the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was an Egyptian monk appointed by the Coptic Christian Pope of Egypt, bearing the official title of Abuna -- meaning "our father" in both Arabic and Geez, the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Such an ancient connection only serves to cement cultural ties between Egypt and Ethiopia. From the earliest beginnings of Ethiopian culture to its latest flowering, Egypt has had a special significance and symbolism for the Ethiopians.
THE SUDANESE QUESTION: The Sudan question is now of more immediate relevance to Ethiopia than ever before. The Nile features less prominently in Ethiopian-Sudanese relations than it does in Egyptian-Ethiopian relations. Geographically and historically, Sudan was a bridge between Ethiopia and Egypt and also a bridge between Africa north and south of the Sahara.
"We have had a long history of close and intricately intertwined relations with Sudan," Zennawi said. He spoke of the special relationship between Meroe, as ancient Nubia was known, and Axum in days gone by. But, he pointed out that Sudanese-Ethiopian relations, like Egyptian- Ethiopian relations, must be put within a proper historical perspective. He said that Ethiopia must make the most of the "Sudanese bridge" to northern and western Africa and the Arab world.
"We have the same kind of love-hate relationship as we have with Egypt," Zennawi said. The Ethiopian prime minister spoke openly about the positive and negative aspects of the relationship. He spoke about Sudan's "tremendous positive influences" on Ethiopia, while saying also that some Ethiopians dwell too much on the lingering negative aspects of the historic relationship between the two countries.
"Our present relations with Sudan can only be described as nothing short of excellent," Zennawi said. "Sudan is an immediate neighbour, and it is important for us to have good working relations with the country that we share the longest borders with."
The prime minister expressed cautious optimism about the prospects for peace in Sudan. "Peace in Sudan will further improve the prospects for trade and closer diplomatic and political ties between Ethiopia and Sudan," he said. "The regional environment will become stable and more predictable."
"The importation of oil from Sudan directly from the source will save Ethiopia precious foreign exchange," he explained. "We can import oil directly from southern Sudan instead of through Port Sudan, as is currently the case," he added. "Peace in Sudan means economic and trade ties between Ethiopia and Sudan will increase tremendously."
Even though relations between Ethiopia and Sudan have improved markedly in the past couple of years, Ethiopia has maintained close links with Sudanese opposition groups. Zennawi felt confident that "the end is near for a peaceful solution to the Sudanese crisis". More importantly, he hoped that Sudanese peace and national reconciliation would be beneficial to Ethiopia. "That is why we have been working very closely with both sides, the Sudanese government and opposition forces."
AN UNFORTUNATE INCIDENT: The 1995 assassination attempt on President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa was a turning point in Ethiopian- Sudanese relations. Trade between the two countries plummeted as political relations soured.
Ethiopians harboured strong suspicions that certain senior Sudanese officials were involved in the 1995 incident. Zennawi said that what he called the "extremist tendency" had the upper hand then. "We believe that the influence of the extremist tendency is on its way out," he stressed, saying that it was important for both Egypt and Ethiopia to work together to support the less militant Islamist groups and prevent the extremist elements in the Sudanese political establishment from gaining the upper hand.
"Important changes are currently underway in Sudan," the Ethiopian prime minister pointed out, adding that it was important for influential neighbouring countries such as Egypt and Ethiopia to exercise a moderating influence in Sudan.
ISRAELI INFLUENCE?: A major source of concern in the Arab world generally, and Egypt in particular, is the relationship between Ethiopia and Israel. In the past Ethiopia and Israel were the only two non-Arab states possessing a section of Red Sea coastline and strategic ports. With Eritrea's independence, Ethiopia became a landlocked country and was no longer quite the focus of Arab apprehension in the Red Sea area. Ethiopia's chief port today is the predominantly Muslim, Arab League city-state of Djibouti.
Still, Ethiopian-Israeli relations are cause for consternation in Egypt largely because of fears, unfounded as far as the Ethiopians are concerned, that Israel will embark on projects that will eventually restrict Egypt's access to Nile waters.
"Ethiopian-Israeli relations go back a long way," the Ethiopian prime minister conceded. "There are a number of important factors that bind us to Israel," he explained, referring to historical and cultural ties. "The relationship has had its ups and downs. We were very close in the 1960s during Emperor Haile Sellasie's reign. Rightly or wrongly the perception in Ethiopia at the time was that the Arab world supported Eritrean secession and Somali aggression against Ethiopia. The Somali threat to Ethiopia was very real at the time."
During the 1970s the tables were turned. "In 1973, along with many other African countries, Ethiopia severed all diplomatic ties with Israel," Zennawi recalled. "Diplomatic relations with Israel were restored in the last days of the Mengistu regime."
Much of the controversy revolves around the little understood community of Ethiopian Jews better known as the Falashas, most of whom have left the country and reside in Israel today. Ethiopians do not understand the fuss made about the Falashas in the Arab world. Why, they wonder, should the immigration to Israel of that Jewish community be a source of tension between Ethiopians and the Arabs?
"I am told there are more Jews from North Africa in Israel than there are Israeli Jews of Ethiopian origin. There are more Jews of Yemeni origin in Israel today than there are Falashas in Israel. Why are there no sensitivities or suspicions concerning Yemen and Yemeni Jews for example in the Arab world as there are suspicions regarding the Ethiopian Jews? There are many lingering misconceptions," Zennawi complained. "The Ethiopian Jews left their historical homeland in northwestern Ethiopia for Israel in the 1980s. But Arab Jews left for Israel much earlier."
Zennawi said that there was currently no mass exodus of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. "Each Ethiopian makes the decision individually," he explained. "The question of the Falashas is a sensitive political question for both Ethiopia and the Arab states."
NILOTIC ENIGMA: "There is also a misconstrued theory that Israel has been helping Ethiopia to build dams and other projects on the River Nile," Zennawi said. He hinted that Egypt was even suspected of providing Nile water to Israel. "It is the same old myth that Egyptian kings had about the ancient Ethiopian kings' ability to hold back the Nile waters," Zennawi said. He explained that in medieval times Ethiopian kings threatened to block the course of the Nile and hold back the Nile waters if the Egyptians failed to send the Abuna to head the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The Egyptians, he said, actually feared that the Ethiopians would interfere with the flow of the Nile, even though the Ethiopians lacked the technological know-how. Yet, the myth has persisted down through the ages.
In much the same vein, Zennawi said, some Egyptians today fear that Ethiopia, with Israeli assistance, would be able to hamper the flow of the river.
"Israel has not allocated a single dollar to the development of the Nile in Ethiopia. The Israelis do not have the money to embark on these grand projects," Zennawi protested. "And even if they do have the funds, they have not showed us any such money." He said that the Israelis had never shown any interest in developing Ethiopia's Nile water potential, but he did concede that the Israelis have provided technical assistance, particularly in the agricultural sector. "Yes, the Israelis trained agricultural experts during the days of Emperor Haile Sellasie, and set up meat packaging and canning factories in the past. Israel itself has not invested a dime in the Ethiopian stretch of the Nile."
"The only country that has ever expressed a keen interest in harnessing the Nile River was the United States. And what it did was to carry out a feasibility study," Zennawi said. The Ethiopian prime minister was referring to a 1964 study by the US Bureau of Reclamation which recommended 26 projects. These include the construction of four dams, creating a Blue Nile reservoir, which was expected to increase and regulate the water flowing from Ethiopia to Egypt and Sudan. The reservoir would provide Ethiopia with water for irrigation, as well as increasing the supply of electricity and allowing surplus electricity to be exported to neighbouring countries.
The Ethiopian prime minister disclaimed rumours that Ethiopia is sympathetic to the Israeli side. "There is no truth whatsoever in the Arab charge that we in Ethiopia support Israel against the Arabs," he said.
Zennawi stressed that Ethiopia's position concerning the Middle East conflict is comparable to that of moderate Arab states. "Our political position is very similar to that of Arab countries like Egypt and Jordan. We have diplomatic relations with Israel, but we recognise the rights of the Palestinian people to national self-determination. We are [in favour of] a peaceful solution to the Middle East problem."
But he qualified his statement. "In emotional and sentimental terms the relationship is not the same. We have no cause to fight Israel. Our people expect us to have normal relations with Israel," he said. "But I stress normal, rather than special. There are no special relations between Ethiopia and Israel."
Zennawi pointed out that some of the misunderstandings between Ethiopia and some Arab countries stem from contrary cultural perceptions concerning Israel. "The Arabs cannot blame us for not feeling as strongly as they do about Israeli oppression," he added. "Our good working relations with Israel are not directed against a third party such as Egypt or the Palestinians. We have a vested interest in cementing ties with Egypt and the rest of the Arab world."
TEARING DOWN TERROR: "Terrorism is not, and must not, be narrowly defined in terms of a particular political ideology or religious group," the Ethiopian prime minister warned. "Terrorism is not a monopoly of a specific religious creed or political ideology. Terrorism is an instrument of various ideologies which sometimes use religion as a cover. There are Christian fundamentalists, there are Jewish fundamentalists and there are Hindu fundamentalists, just as there are Islamic fundamentalists," he explained. "We must not be fooled by the terrorism that comes under the guise of religion. Terrorism is terrorism and has nothing to do with religion."
"Terrorism," he stressed "is not equivalent to or synonymous with Al-Qa'eda." He noted that terrorism long predated Al-Qa'eda. "We did not need the cover of 11 September to attack Al-Itihad Al-Islami [the militant Somali Islamist group]."
"Terrorism is often an act of desperation. Terrorists have different and desperate ideologies. Carlos the Jackal was a secular terrorist," Zennawi said. "There were Al-Qa'eda bases in Somalia before 11 September. We warned that the danger at our doorstep might spread in the region and beyond."
Zennawi recounted how in the mid-1990s several of the major hotels in Addis Ababa were subjected to terrorist attacks -- hotels such as the Wabe Shebelle and the Ghion among others. "There were many terrorist incidents in Ethiopia in the past decade. We have been fighting terrorists long since before 11 September," he said. "Al- Itihad Al-Islami attempted to assassinate Ethiopian ministers such as Abdul-Meguid Hussein, himself of Somali origin. Like Egypt, we have a long experience in waging war against terrorism."
Zennawi noted that the Somali group Al-Itihad Al-Islami is registered as a terrorist organisation by the US authorities. "Al-Itihad Al-Islami is by no means the only terrorist group in Ethiopia. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) is clearly a terrorist organisation, too."
Zennawi said that the OLF, which claims to defend the interests of the Oromo ethnic group, is the largest -- albeit heterogeneous and multi- religious -- in Ethiopia. "We have no information on whether the OLF has direct links with Al- Qa'eda, but the OLF is a terrorist group as far as we are concerned. The OLF has been planting bombs in railway stations, on trains and in hotels and other public places. They have no qualm about killing innocent civilians."
NO TOWER OF BABEL: Domestic changes since 1991 have often baffled the outside world. For the first time in its history Ethiopia is officially a federal country. There were initial fears that the country would break up after Eritrean independence and that previously marginalised regions and disgruntled ethnic groups would follow suit. "We cannot force them to be Ethiopian. They must be proud of being Ethiopian. If any ethnic group feels that they are not Ethiopian then we cannot keep them by force as Ethiopians. They are free to go, to secede," Zennawi said.
"Ethiopia was the first country to recognise Eritrean independence," Zennawi noted. "Even though we later went to war." He said that Ethiopia has no designs on Eritrea or any of its Horn of Africa neighbours. "As soon as we pushed the Eritreans out of our territory, we retreated to our borders."
The people of Ethiopia speak more than 80 languages grouped into 40 main groups -- Semitic, Cushitic, Nilotic and Omotic. Arabic, too, is widely spoken and understood, especially among the various Muslim communities of the country. Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi- linguistic country. "The various ethnic groups use their own languages and enjoy a great degree of autonomy," Zennawi said. "We are a diverse nation and we must come to terms with such diversity. The principle of self-determination is enshrined in our constitution," Zennawi said.
On the question of religion, the Ethiopian prime minister stressed that Ethiopians were free to practice their religion as long as it did not interfere with politics. "Religion is an individual and a very private issue. We respect all religions," Zennawi said. "Ethiopia was not a secular state until 1975. Under Emperor Haile Sellasie, Ethiopia was officially an Orthodox Christian state. Then it became an officially atheist state under the Derg."
"Now we have clearly separated religion from the state in Ethiopia. Religion belongs firmly to the private domain." According to Zennawi, Ethiopia's large, ethnically diverse and economically dynamic community is the key to a viable Ethiopian economy and to political stability in the country. The implementation of Shari'a law is now entrenched in family law in many areas where Muslims predominate. "We have Shari'a courts in Ethiopia, even here in the national capital, Addis Ababa. We have Shari'a courts at the regional and federal levels to deal with family law," Zennawi said.
The predominantly Muslim regions are free to apply Islamic Shari'a law in the domain of family law, the Ethiopian Prime Minister said. "But if they decide to have an Islamic states then they have to secede," he ended on a deadly serious note.