Governing the Nile

A Thesis Exploring International Water Negotiations in Northeast Africa


Case Studies and Outcomes to be Explained

The case studies that I explore are periods of international bargaining in which the subject of debate is almost exclusively related to the Nile (e.g. distribution of water, infrastructure, flooding and drought). Figure 1 summarizes these cases.

There are several steps in a negotiation. First, mediations commence under one of these conditions: (1) a state expresses dissatisfaction with the status quo, (2) a state commits an act that impedes on the water rights of another riparian, or (3) a state wants to ask permission to divert waters.31 Then, during a lengthy period of aggressive bargaining, each state tries to obtain an outcome with more favorable benefits than before.32 Benefits can include rights to build dams, a higher allocation of total Nile water, or financial compensation. Finally, after a deal is struck, states can observe compliance relatively easily, thwarting a state’s ability to defect.33

As Figure 1 shows, the outcome is either cooperation or not cooperation. I want to explain what causes cooperation, the dependent variable, to be present. When two states agree to a set of conditions according to a formal treaty or agreement, then cooperation exists. For each case study, the periods of negotiation span many years, and cooperation can fail and succeed several times for one treaty. Determining a causal relationship with the outcome requires a focus on what happens during these negotiations across time.

Independent Variable #1: State Strength

My central question is what leads the Nile countries to voluntarily cooperate, given the economic incentive to harness waters unilaterally. Based on my research, two independent variables affect the likelihood of cooperation. The first is state strength, which is a comprehensive gauge of a country’s economic and military power.34 I hypothesize that cooperation is more likely when two negotiating states have different levels of strength.

Definition and Measurement. By using standard benchmarks, such as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), military expenditures, and total irrigable landmass, I can roughly quantify a state’s strength. These statistics focus on a conglomerate of economic and military factors. Many distinguished scholars, including Singer, Cline, and Beckman, employ these kinds of measures for calculating national power, a similar term to state strength.35

For this thesis, I consider quantitative data relevant to state strength, but I also measure the concept more qualitatively. While economic data is important for gauging strength, computing them in a specified equation can distort the overall independent variable. Since African economies are immensely different (i.e. Ethiopia depends on foreign aid, Egypt, cash crops, and Sudan, oil exports), comparing them along a rigid mathematical formula with only a few variables can arguably skew results. Therefore, I intend on first presenting each state’s general economic condition based on comprehensive indicators, such as GDP, agricultural production, and commercial activity. But, instead of plugging those figures into an equation, I qualitatively compare the overall strength among the states for all case studies.

Independent Variable #2: Government Orientation

The second independent variable is government orientation, or the type of political disposition articulated by one state toward another state. Nile governments, especially during periods of treaty negotiations, tend to be either politically assertive or politically timid. I hypothesize that cooperation is especially likely when there is variation in the government orientation between negotiating powers. That is, I hypothesize that the presence of a hardliner orientation in one government and a softliner orientation in the other is more likely to yield cooperation than either the combination of hardliners meeting other hardliners, or softliners meeting other softliners.

Definition and Measurement. There are two types of governments in the Nile Basin: hardliners and softliners.39 Hardliner governments can be identified in case studies by their hawkish temperament vis-à-vis other states.40 Their leadership is risk-prone, competitive, and intransigent.41 Several constitutive dimensions include: (1) expression of distrust, (2) emphasis on coercion, (3) desire to “impugn the motives and policies of others,” and (4) negligence of “prudence.”42 First, assertive regimes are fiercely competitive, which causes them to be suspicious of neighbor states and third-party actors (e.g. World Bank, United Nations). Second, hardliners rely on the “efficacy of force” to solve disputes.43 War is always an option. Lastly, most hawkish states participate in a “politics of exclusion.” This term refers to how the effusion of unfamiliar religion, ideology, or policy into a state can marginalize citizens, isolate political parties, and estrange nearby states. For example, Sudan’s surprising turn toward Islamism in the late 1980s segmented the traditionally Christian population in the north and irked the ruling elites in Egypt.

Softliner governments, however, are timid, risk-averse, and submissive. These “dove” regimes are identified by (1) diplomatic engagement and (2) propensity for nonviolence. Softliners “advocate a foreign policy that will avoid war through compromise, negotiation, and the creation of rules and norms for non-violent conflict resolution.”44 Although softliners can be as authoritarian as hardliners, their political attitude towards other states is significantly more mild-tempered and conciliatory.


Filed under: Case Methods