Talking from experience

Ambassador TofficAbdullahi Ahmed (MD) is a former Ethiopian ambassador to Yemen and a recognized diplomat in the country. Toffic’s tenure as an ambassador to Yemen lasted from 2006-2011. And it is his latest job by way of public service. However, Toffic was originally a medical doctor and a specialized orthopedic. Later on, he studied International Law at the University of Amsterdam where he wrote his thesis on the Nile Basin Initiative. Prior to his career in diplomacy, Toffic was an elected Member of Parliament (MP) for one term. Now, Toffic has retired from public service and is running his own private business. In light of the recent developments in Yemen, where Toffic served for five years as ambassador, Solomon Goshu of The Reporter sat down with him to analyze how the conditions in that country and developments in the Nile region affect Ethiopia. Excerpts:

The Reporter: As you well remember, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt have recently signed a document called Declarations of Principle on Ethiopia’s Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Some are calling this agreement a big step forward. How did you evaluate it?

Ambassador TofficAbdullahi Ahmed:As you know the three countries are part of the larger community of the Nile Basin countries all in all incorporating nine. They, in fact, make up the Eastern Nile Basin countries, one branch of the general Nile Basin community that may in the future include the new state of South Sudan. The other branch is the Great Lake Nile Basin countries which includes the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Sudan and Egypt. As far as cooperation is concerned, these groups have the liberty to discuss and agree to cooperate on development initiatives on the river basin under any of the two branches. When we come to the recent declaration of principles between the three nations, we can see that this declaration is specifically on the GERD. The declaration incorporated some 10 different articles which reiterated the framework of cooperation and development regarding the GERD. In a nutshell, we can see that the declaration of principles is consistent with the principles that govern international cross-boundary rivers. These principles inherently maintain that the usage of cross-boundary rivers should be based on the principle of fair and reasonable utilization among all the riparian nations. Also, the principles require that utilization of the water body by one party should not cause a significant harm on the other riparian nations and that all the countries concerned should come together to cooperate on development activities on the shared water body. Although the declaration first and foremost states that riparian countries should work together to better exploit the resource, it also holds some provisions on how they resolve a possible dispute or disagreement among them. So, generally, given what it has incorporated, I evaluate the declaration rather positively. One strong attribute of this agreement is that it does not contravene the general Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) which was signed by the larger Nile River riparian countries. At this juncture, I have heard comments questioning the appropriateness of this pact among a subset of countries under the CFA, but, as far as I  can see, there is nothing wrong with this approach since the principles were agreed upon only regarding the GERD, a dam that affects only the three co-signatories of this document. Partly, I think that this should be explained to the people of the Nile Basin countries. We need to make sure that the peoples and governments of the riparian countries, outside of three co-signatories, understand that this agreement has nothing against the commonly adopted CFA. Speculation surrounding this issue should be straightened out.

We know that previously the lower riparian countries, especially Egypt, were belligerent in opposing any new accord of any form on the Nile River. Its refusal to ink the CFA is a showcase of that. What do you think would happen now? How come the Egyptians signed this declaration of principles now?

One thing that has to be very clear is that the CFA is quite different from the recently signed declarations of principles by the three countries. As to the CFA, it is a pact that can be said to have changed the status quo in the region where almost a monopoly use of the Nile River by Egypt and Sudan was declared to be no more acceptable by the other six riparian nations. In this regard, Ethiopia has managed to rally the six nations which were kept out of the utilization of water resource for many years. Apart from that, Ethiopia was the first to move beyond signing the accord and actually muster the needed financial resources to conceive a grand project like GERD on the Abbay River. I remember, back when the CFA was inked by the six riparian nations, I foretold that it was just a matter of time before Egypt and Sudan join this agreement on this shared river. Although the recently agreed upon principles do not exactly mean acceptance of the CFA, I see that it is a step in the right direction. So, I still believe that rejecting the CFA is a luxury that these nations do not enjoy and that they would accept it sooner or later. But, the question is why now? I think the primary reason is the fact that the upper riparian nations have shown their seriousness about ensuring an equitable and fair utiliztion of the Nile River. Next, especially Ethiopia, has shown that it is not only about ensuring its fair share from the shared water body, but it has also managed to garner the financial capability to carry out actual development activities for the benefit of its people. For me, these factors would inform Egypt and to some extent the Sudan of the clear intentions of the upper riparian nations and that they have no choice but to join the new pact. As to the internal and regional political dynamics which might have forced the two nations to come to the discussion table, I would say they qualify as secondary factors at best.

According to reports, this declaration adopted by the three nations is yet to be ratified by the law-making body of all countries to be part of their law. However, there are experts who question the binding nature of this agreement since it is a mere declaration of agreed upon principles and not a specific agreement. How do you evaluate the binding nature of this declaration of principles?

In its essence, the declaration of principles signed among the three nations is not a binding document. It has to be clear that this document is a general agreement on the directions that the three nations would take regarding the issue of the GERD which is being constructed on the Blue Nile river. It in no way can be construed to carry a legally binding contract among these nations. It is an agreed upon general principles on the dam. This I think has to be crystal clear.

But, experts in the field contend that the declaration of principles could have indirect implications such as that the agreement can be taken to mean a recognition of the GERD from the side of the Egyptians. Meanwhile, experts also comment that an article in the declaration of principles which states that the dam would be used for hydropower generation purposes would at the end of the day bar Ethiopia from using the dam for any other alternative purposes. If the principle as you said is just declaration of intentions, why are such arguments being presented by experts?

Yes, one thing that should be understood is that any agreement on the Nile River is of global interest. This is a major issue internationally and such an accord can attract lots of analysis and commentaries from pundits and observers. However, the most important thing is to understand what this agreement really amounts to. As far as I am concerned, it is useful as far as showing the intention of the three nations regarding the issue of GERD. This, of course, can be useful to have debate on the matter and the River Nile in general. But, by itself, this declaration does not mean anything. So, issues that you have cited above would be rhetorical at best because the principles are not binding at any rate. For example, the one that you mentioned that the principles stating that the dam would be used for hydropower generation purposes only is yet another point of discussion at best since there is no clearly stated prohibition of using the dam for alternative purposes. I think this document would serve as a starting point for a brainstorming around the dam, but it carries no legal accountability and has no binding nature whatsoever. It is just an expression of intentions by the signatory nations.

Now let us talk about Yemen. Recently, Yemen seems to be in a big political turmoil. As a diplomat who worked in Yemen fairly recently, what do you think is the source of this turmoil?

From the time I had been stationed in Yemen, I had gathered different problems that might have contributed to recent developments in that country. The first one is lack of good governance and an economic justice issue that have brought about the recent uprising by the Houthi group. The other issue is the presence of al-Qaeda in Yemen. For a long time, Yemen served as a major al-Qaeda base in the gulf region and this was a big problem for the nation. There is also a longstanding problem in Southern Yemen which revolves around a movement that seeks to separate the south from mainland Yemen. The contribution of these factors and the weight they carry for the recent turmoil notwithstanding, I say all have something to do with the current problem in one way or another. On top of that, Yemen was also hit by the 2011 wave of Arab Spring which further complicated things there. For one, the outcome of the Arab Spring in Yemen was nothing like in other Arab and Northern African countries for it brought about mere change in individual leaders than change in government or the system. As result of the Arab Spring, the former President Ali Abdullah Salah was replaced by his deputy. They were both from the same party–General People’s Congress. The fallout between the two personalities and the siding of the Houthis, and the other tribal leaders with deposed president Ali Abdullah Salah have all contributed to the condition that Yemen is in at the moment. As far as the Houthi are concerned they have a history of raising arms for quite a number of times in the past and winning favorable conditions for their tribe. One has to know that tribal forces wield great power and influence in Yemen. So their siding with the former leader had a significant impact on the current condition that Yemen is in.

As you might have heard already, Ethiopia is showing its support to the Saudi-led coalition of states which is fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen. In fact, PM Hailemariam Desalegn this week announced that his government is going to stand with the coalition forces. Knowing what Yemen means to Ethiopia, do you think it is a wise decision to get involved?

As far as I am concerned, Ethiopia’s position at this point is support for the Saudi-led coalition and what it seeks to do in Yemen. I don’t know about any plan to get involved and how far it would go. And, Ethiopia’s position in this matter looks to be a stand that is supported by most countries, with the exception of nations which have developed close ties with the Houthi rebels. I think, any nations with the right mind would support what the coalition is trying to achieve in Yemen.This position is not that unique for me.

Ok. Given the relationship between the two nations in the past, and the presence of a significant number of Ethiopians in Yemen, and as a former diplomat, what do you think should be Ethiopia’s role? What is Ethiopia’s interest there?

If you start from history, the two nations are longtime partners. Furthermore, the people of the two nations are tied together via actual blood ties. Generally, in my stay in Yemen, I had observed that Yemenis have a positive attitude towards Ethiopia. And, many have the chance to settle here and even intermarry with Ethiopians. Even at the government level the two nations have supported each other and still are supportive of one another.

But, last week, the Ethiopian embassy in Sanaa was shelled and sustained heavy damage. Some reports said the attack was intentional in response to the support the country was showing to the coalition forces. What is your take?

We can all understand in these type of situations it would be easy to draw any conclusion that one desires about an incident. Now, Yemen is a battleground. Under such a condition, not only an Embassy of ours, any institution or individual can be victim. As far as, I know the location of our embassy in Sanaa is next to a school in some sort of a residential area. For one, I cannot imagine any potential military target in the vicinity of the embassy. Perhaps, one of the residents of Ali Abdullah Salah is located near the Embassy; so maybe what is meant for the residential compound could have damaged the embassy. But, I do not personally believe that our embassy could be a target for any of the warring parties in Yemen.

What about the threat of al-Qaeda and al Shebab in Yemen..?

I know that Ethiopia has close cooperation with Yemeni government when it comes to security and exchange of security intelligence. On the other hand, we are separated only by the sea. So, this area could be a threat for Ethiopia as it is one region where there is illegal human trafficking and illegal arms trade across the waters. So, yes, the stability of Yemen is quite important for Ethiopia. The country (Ethiopia) is faced with the challenge of fighting an al-Shebab attack on a daily basis. Hence, there is no doubt that what happens in Yemen is quite important to Ethiopia.