Kenya could soon be in for a shock. Why?
Well, with a new government that is still taking shape, the country is understandably preoccupied with domestic affairs.
The same is true of most of the rest of East Africa. Uganda is in the throes of a messy squabble over President Yoweri Museveni’s succession.
Tanzania has its hands full of former and current US presidents visiting, and figuring out who will step into President Jakaya Kikwete’s shoes when he leaves office in 2015.
Up north, however, Ethiopia and Egypt are coming dangerously close to a nasty face-off over Addis Ababa’s move to build the giant Renaissance Dam on the River Nile.
Reports have it that at 6,000 MV, the dam will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, and 14th largest in the world.
In March 2011, when Egypt was still distracted by the uprising that had just ousted its strongman Hosni Mubarak, Ethiopia awarded the contract for the building of the $8.4 billion dam, and a month later on April 2, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi laid the foundation stone.
By the time the dust settled in Cairo, the dam deal was done.
On Sunday, Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi, a man who lately has had no time for the political parties in his country except his own Muslim Brotherhood, called a meeting with them to discuss Ethiopia’s dam plans.
Egypt in the past has threatened to go to war over its “rights” to River Nile waters, given by a discredited 1929 colonial treaty that gave it and Sudan 90 per cent of the river’s water.
On Tuesday press agencies reported Egypt’s minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Bahaa-Eddin arguing that the 74 billion cubic meters of Nile water stored behind the Egyptian High Dam would be diverted to Ethiopia’s intended dam.
“We are living in an era of water shortage and we will not allow any reduction of Egypt’s share of Nile water (which is 55.5 billion cubic meters),” he said. “Life in Egypt depends on the Nile, water is a national security matter for us, and we will never relent on this issue.” Tough words.
With growing populations and economies in the Nile Basin countries, more and more of them will dam the Nile and divert water to irrigation.
Add to that, Ethiopia is a stubborn country. Its population today is nearly 90 million. Egypt’s is close to 83 million. Egypt is an African power in decline. Ethiopia is an Africa power on the rise.
Everyone hopes that Egypt is smart enough, and won’t go to war. It would be an expensive conflict. It does not share a border with Ethiopia, so it will have to get [north] Sudan to join it or allow it to use its territory to attack Ethiopia.
But generals can be mad men. In any case, if Egypt loses just 25 per cent of the water it is receiving from the Nile, it could collapse.
Such a war could see millions of Ethiopians flooding Kenya. So Kenya, and East Africa for that matter, can take early steps to minimise the fall-out.
First, and most critically, South Sudan needs to be supported to get its house in order and become a strong state with a modern military. Secondly, Ethiopia must bury the hatchet with Eritrea and bring it into its fold of allies.
From South Sudan and Eritrea, Ethiopia could choke off any Egyptian-Sudan southward advance from the flanks. But even more important, Somalia needs to be helped to stabilise.
That will allow Kenya to move its troops to the border with Ethiopia, but also a stable Somalia will allow Ethiopia to secure its rear.
Indeed, if I were Egypt, I would fight the war over River Nile in Somalia and support not just anti-Addis Al Shabaab militants, but also back Ogadeni nationalists intent on retaking the Ogaden Province from Ethiopia (not surprisingly, two Egyptian generals were in Somalia this week to discuss military training).
Just keeping its long border with Somalia protected, and preventing the Ogaden from being pried away, would leave Ethiopia no time or resources for anything else, including pushing ahead with the Renaissance Dam.
It might be a good thing for journalists covering regional security to take to sleeping lightly.