Outcome of the Nairobi Nile Council of Ministers Meeting – An Inevitable Consequence of a level-playing field?

The following post is by Dr. Salman M.A. Salman, an academic researcher and consultant on water law and policy and former water law advisor to The World Bank. He can be reached at Salmanmasalman [at] gmail.com.

The Ministers of Water Resources of the Nile Basin countries (Nile Council of Ministers, or Nile COM) were supposed to hold an extra-ordinary meeting on January 27, 2012, in Nairobi, Kenya. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the legal and institutional ramifications of the entry into force of the Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA). That meeting was requested by Egypt and Sudan, following signing of the CFA by six of the upper riparians, namely Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda Tanzania and Uganda. Coincidentally, the CFA needs six ratifications to enter into force.

The Nile Basin Countries

In fact Egypt and Sudan had asked for that meeting back in July 2010, during the eighteenth annual meeting of the Nile COM in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. They had wanted to reopen discussion on the CFA, but the upper riparians objected. Egypt and Sudan renewed their demand for the meeting during the nineteenth annual Nile COM meeting in Nairobi in July 2011. As a compromise, it was agreed that an extra-ordinary meeting would be held in Kigali, Rwanda, on October 27, 2011, in connection with the 3rd Nile Basin Development Forum.

About a week before the meeting was to take place, Egypt and Sudan asked for a postponement. The parties then agreed to hold the meeting in Nairobi on December 27, 2011. Yet again Egypt and Sudan asked for a postponement, to which the others reluctantly agreed. That meeting was to take place on January 27, 2012 in Nairobi.

On Thursday January 26, 2012, all of the Nile ministers of water resources arrived in Nairobi except those from Egypt and Sudan. And the two nations did not ask for another postponement. Angered and frustrated, the ministers of Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, in addition to the representative of the Democratic Republic of Congo (which has not yet signed the CFA), decided to hold their own meeting, but under a different umbrella. They decided to meet as the Nile Equatorial Lakes Council of Ministers (NEL COM), one of the institutions established under the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) with its head office in Kigali. Although Egypt and Sudan are also members of the NEL COM, it seems that the upper riparian ministers decided they have the authority to hold the NEL COM meeting, and not the extra-ordinary Nile COM meeting requested by Egypt and Sudan who were absent.

The second decision taken by the NEL COM was to upgrade the observer status of Ethiopia in the NEL COM to full member. No doubt, this upgrade solidified the NEL COM and strengthened it as a coalition force against the alliance established by Egypt and Sudan under the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement. That alliance was epitomized by the establishment of the Permanent Joint Technical Committee by the two countries under the 1959 Agreement, headquartered in Khartoum.

The NEL COM discussed and approved a series of measures regarding the NEL investment program, including the strategic plan 2012 – 2016; financing from the World Bank Cooperation for International Waters in Africa (CIWA); and the investment conference to be held with the development partners in June 2012 for hydropower and water storage facilities in the NEL countries.

NEL COM Ministers

The NEL COM then turned to the CFA and took three bold decisions which can be expected to have major ramifications on the relationship between the Nile River’s upper and lower riparians.

First, the NEL COM decided to go ahead with ratification of the CFA with the view of having it enter into force and effect, and thereafter to establish the Nile Basin Commission as prescribed in the CFA. This means that the ministers have reversed their earlier decision to delay the ratification of the CFA, in light of the Egyptian revolution of January 2011, so as to give Egypt and Sudan time to reconsider their position. The ministers also agreed that they would keep each other updated on the ratification process in their respective countries.

Second, the NEL COM instructed the Chair of the Nile COM (Ms. Charity Ngilu, Kenya Minister of Water Resources) to continue discussions with the three countries that have not signed the CFA (Egypt, Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo) with the view of bringing them to ratify the Agreement; such discussions are to be concluded within sixty days.

Third, the ministers indicated their frustrations with the indecisiveness of Egypt and Sudan regarding the extraordinary meeting that the two nations requested but failed to attend, and which the ministers believed would have been an opportunity for dialogue and cooperation. The ministers instructed Mr. Stanislas Kamanzi, the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources of Rwanda and the current chair of NEL COM, to communicate these decisions to the members of the NBI (see story from The New Times here). The outcome of the meeting was included in the Nairobi Statement.

These are no doubt major decisions that will have far reaching consequences. Thus far, Sudan and Egypt have refrained from making any comments or issuing any statements. Perhaps the two lower riparian countries realize that the idea of the extra-ordinary meeting was not a good one, because the discussion would address the ramifications of the entry into force of the CFA, and not the areas of differences between the upper and lower riparians. Those differences concern the demand of Egypt and Sudan that the CFA include explicit reference to their existing uses and rights; clear provisions on prior notification; and that the CFA should be amendable either by a consensus or majority that includes both Egypt and Sudan. The upper riparians had rejected those demands. Now, they have decided to go ahead with ratification of the CFA.

It should be added that ratification of the CFA and its entry into force will create some legal problems related to the status of the NBI Secretariat after it is replaced by the Nile Basin Commission. This is because the programs, assets, and liabilities of the NBI will be inherited by a Commission that would not include Egypt and Sudan, both of whom are active members of the NBI.

The Nile Basin is clearly going through critical and uncertain times. The emergence of the upper riparians as a power to reckon with is, in my view, an inevitable consequence of a level playing field resulting from the NBI itself.

Will the Nile countries manage to resolve their differences in the next sixty days, or is the Nile heading towards more polarization and conflicts? This is what the next few weeks will tell.

You can find prior IWLP Blog posts on the CFA and NBI here, here, and here.

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