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God’s goons

By Philip Whitfield Who’s really behind the Battle of the Nile? Here’s a clue: Gold and girls. Don’t be fooled by hydroelectricity or irrigation. Focus on lust and greed. Skedaddle if you hear shankilla. It’s Ethiopian for slave. Head for the hills if they shout agbert – slavery permitted. Beware of God. He spake of …


Philip Whitfield
Philip Whitfield

By Philip Whitfield

Who’s really behind the Battle of the Nile? Here’s a clue: Gold and girls. Don’t be fooled by hydroelectricity or irrigation. Focus on lust and greed. Skedaddle if you hear shankilla. It’s Ethiopian for slave. Head for the hills if they shout agbert – slavery permitted.

Beware of God. He spake of doom for evildoers: “I will dry up the Nile and will sell the land” (Ezekiel); “The river will be dry and parched, and its canals will become foul” (Isaiah); “All the deeps of the river shall dry up and the sceptre of Egypt shall depart” (Zechariah).

Raiding and slaving characterises the history of Benishangul-Gumuz, where the new dam is set. Abduction didn’t end until after World War II, and even now, many Ethiopian brides are kidnapped.

Lassitude and corruption rule. In Washington DC the Internal Revenue Service is rounding up Ethiopian goons working in the embassy. The feds are interrogating them about worthless bonds they’re peddling on the street.

Question canards. The revered nineteenth century ruler Menelik II was reputed to have ordered three electric chairs to execute criminals. Ethiopia didn’t have electricity then.

Ignore plagiarists. Morsi’s peroration began: “If Egypt is the gift of the Nile, then the Nile is God’s gift to Egypt [Herodotus] … We will defend each drop of Nile water with our blood if necessary [Anonymous].”

Listen to clairvoyants. Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn – I don’t think they will take that option unless they go mad.

Hold flunkies’ feet to the fire. According to Prime Minister Qandil, the water crisis is a matter of life or death. Why didn’t he head off the catastrophe then? After all, he was, until recently, the Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation.

The dam story is being trumpeted to divert attention from the Egyptian government’s ineptitude. Here’s the bottom line: Confidence has evaporated. The investment pipeline is drier than an abandoned watering hole in the Sahara Desert under the noonday sun.

Before the revolution there were huge projects worth more than $400bn. Now there are none. My pocket’s full of business cards from foreigners who tell me their plans are on indefinite hold – oil and gas, construction and banking included.

They are disgusted. Muslim Brotherhood apologists are mocked. By every measure the government has failed. Morsi says: We stand together to face threats to the country. Against what?

Ethiopia’s last successful sabre rattle was more than 100 years ago – the Battle of Adowa in 1896 against Italy – a force to fear faintly. Ethiopia’s most ignominious skirmish was its involvement in the Battle for Pork Chop Hill in Korea three weeks before the armistice in 1953.

Xenophobia isn’t new. It reigned supreme at the zenith of Britain’s colonialism. The Ottoman Empire wobbled. Queen Victoria craved the Upper Nile, goaded by tales of immense treasure troves in the hills. Romance flourished. Stanley found Livingstone. The Scramble for Africa was underway.

Victoria’s imperialist Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli encouraged her. Dizzy borrowed a bob or two from Lionel de Rothschild for 44% of the Suez Canal, reversing the Conservatives’ fortunes.

Advocating imperial adventurism cheered them up no end. . On the hustings, they urged kicking the blighters senseless, so to speak.

A new Ottoman khedive dreamt of an Egyptian empire swallowing up Sudan and Ethiopia. An army of Egyptian troops led by Brits, European and American Civil War Confederate officers was dispatched to where the new dam is to be built.

The armies were devastated at the battles of Gundet (1875) and Gura the following year.

It’s not surprising Ethiopia is reviewing its waterworks. No less than 14 major rivers including the Nile pour off the high tableland. Just 1% produces power and 1.5% produces irrigation. Not that you’ll read the story in Addis; 50 journalists have been jailed alongside other critics and 72 newspapers shut down. Addis Ababa’s lede story is Ethiopia hosting South Africa in the World Cup.

For an enlightening take on what Ethiopians believe turn to Dr. Memar Ayalew Demeke a lecturer in political science and international relations at Addis Ababa University. The gist of his argument is Egypt’s arming Ethiopia’s enemies.

Without providing a shred of evidence, Demeke raises the spectre of rebel movements attacking Ethiopia. He quotes the Wasat Party leader Abu Al-Ela Madi saying Egypt is planning to scare Ethiopians into cooperating with Egypt, and Ayman Nour claiming Egypt plans an airstrike to destroy the dam.

Egypt’s foreign minister is flying into Addis this week to try to patch things up. Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood are treading on quicksand. Egyptian slave traders were among the worst even after Europeans and Americans abandoned the practice.

There’s no love for Egypt in Ethiopia’s highlands. Their ambassador in Cairo has a thick dossier of his kinfolk’s intimidation downtown.

In trying to smooth over the row, Egypt’s apple polishers say, Morsi is underlining Egypt’s commitment to support Ethiopian development. The Egyptian ambassador to Ethiopia says the foreign minister’s visit is a show of goodwill – a commitment to work together “with our Ethiopian friends” in a positive atmosphere.

That’s stretching it. Morsi’s rhetoric sounds like Teddy Roosevelt’s diplomacy: speak softly, and carry a big stick. What’s more, Morsi’s taking on Saudi Arabia, Qatar, India and China who are funding this dam and reviewing PowerPoint presentations for others in Kenya and Uganda.

Unless Egypt dreams up a new strategy, the Nile will be the world’s longest dribble.

Morsi’s a perishable liability. He changes more often than a whore’s drawers.

“In war, the strong make slaves of the weak and in peace the rich make slaves of the poor” – Oscar Wilde.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator

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