Ethiopia rejected a U.S.-brokered agreement on the Grand Ethiopian Dam (GERD) and said it would commence first filling of the structure, one day after the Trump administration concluded two days of what is supposed to be the final round of talks. Addis Ababa did not participate in the latest negotiation in Washington.
In a statement released Saturday, the country said it did not accept the U.S. "characterization that the negotiation on the Guidelines and Rules on the First Filling and Annual Operation of the GERD (Guidelines and Rules) is completed."
Ethiopia said the text of the draft agreement reportedly initialed by Egypt was "not the outcome of the negotiation" with Egypt and Sudan, but noted its commitment to continue engagement with them to address the matter.
Addis Ababa and Cairo have been at odds in a water war on the issue of the filling and operation of the giant Ethiopian dam that Egypt worries could threaten its supply of water from the Nile.
Instead of meeting with the three countries involved in the conflict, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, host of the negotiations, participated in bilateral meetings Thursday and Friday with ministers of foreign affairs and ministers of water resources of Egypt and Sudan.
According to a Treasury statement late Friday, the United States “facilitated the preparation of an agreement on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) based on provisions proposed by the legal and technical teams of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan and with the technical input of the World Bank.”
“The United States believes that the work completed over the last four months has resulted in an agreement that addresses all issues in a balanced and equitable manner, taking into account the interests of the three countries,” the statement said, adding that the final testing and filling of the dam “should not take place without an agreement.”
The statement noted “the readiness of the government of Egypt to sign the agreement” and recognized that “Ethiopia continues its national consultations.”
On Wednesday Ethiopia said it would not participate in the latest rounds of negotiations. The country’s ambassador to the United States, Fitsum Arega, said on Twitter that, “Ethiopia will not sign any agreement that gives up its rights on how to use its own Nile water.”
A second statement by Ethiopia’s Water, Irrigation and Energy Ministry, published by Ethiopia’s state-owned media, said it would not take part in this week’s meetings because it has not completed internal consultations.
“They aren’t really talks without Ethiopia,” said Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
Sources tell VOA that Ethiopia has been urging Mnuchin since Feb. 13 to postpone the talks, as well as remind the U.S. of its “neutral observer status.” Mnuchin responded that the U.S. will continue talks as planned.
Mnuchin also disputed Ethiopia’s characterization of his role, saying that the observer status the U.S. agreed to is limited to regional technical negotiations and does not include Washington talks.
Despite the setback, the process may not be entirely lost.
Ethiopia is calling this a postponement, said William Davison, senior Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“They’re not suggesting that the meeting has been canceled forever, but only that they need more time to prepare for it,” he said.
Final negotiations among Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan on the guidelines and rules of filling and operation of the $4.5 billion mega dam were scheduled for Thursday and Friday. Mnuchin, whom U.S. President Donald Trump had appointed to lead on the matter has hosted several rounds of talks since November, with ministers from the countries and the World Bank.
The Treasury Department has not responded to VOA’s requests for additional comments.
There has been widespread concern in Ethiopia that its delegation is being pressured by the U.S. to accept a deal it cannot live with.
On Thursday, a few dozen Ethiopians in Washington protested in front of the U.S. Department of State building, urging the U.S. to stop its pressure campaign against Addis Ababa.
The dam is the centerpiece of Addis Ababa’s bid to increase domestic energy production for its growing population. Ethiopia and Egypt have been negotiating for years, but one sticking point remains the rate at which Ethiopia will draw water out of the Nile to fill the dam’s reservoir. Cairo fears Ethiopia’s plans to rapidly fill the reservoir could threaten Egypt’s source of fresh water.
“It is a hugely important and sensitive issue,” said Mirette Mabrouk, director of the Middle East Institute’s Egypt Studies program. “It’s a matter of life and death for a lot of people, certainly for more than a million Egyptians.”
In the last round of Washington talks last month, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan agreed on a schedule for staged filling of the dam and mitigation mechanisms to adjust its filling and operation during dry periods and drought.
The parties said at the time that they would sign a final agreement by the end of February. It is unclear whether there will be any follow-up talks after this week’s negotiations broke down.
Trump has been interested in the project since he agreed to intervene based on Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s request in September. He has since invited officials from the countries in the dispute to at least two Oval Office meetings, and called Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali to discuss the matter.
An administration official told VOA that Trump prides himself in his deal-making abilities and wants to see this agreement achieved. No one from the administration, though, has elaborated on what the U.S. interest is in this deal.
In November, the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington held a press conference during which officials gave a detailed account of their U.S.-brokered meeting and said Trump was planning to “cut the ribbon” after the completion of the dam.
America’s significant leverage over Ethiopia could provide Trump with a chance to push for a treaty to prove his deal-making prowess, said Addisu Lashitew, the Rubinstein Fellow in the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution.
“In the wake of his controversial peace plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, President Trump might be keen to strengthen his friendship with Egypt by resolving his thorny issue,” Lashitew said.
Egypt has been a key player in the Middle East peace talks. Last month the Trump administration released its plan to resolve the conflict between Palestine and Israel, without buy-in from the Palestinians.