Governing the Nile

A Thesis Exploring International Water Negotiations in Northeast Africa

Jonglei Project


Shortly after the 1959 Nile Waters Treaty, Egyptian political advisors met with hydrological engineers in Sudan to discuss a new infrastructure project along the Blue Nile. The vessel for their negotiations, the Permanent Joint Technical Commission (PJTC), held ongoing meetings on building a canal in northern Sudan. The suggested enterprise, called the Jonglei Canal, was designed to regulate water flow to Egypt, limit groundwater seepage, and prevent evaporation.132 During early negotiations in the 1960s, both states agreed to share the construction costs and any projected water increases. Multiple problems, however, have stunted progress, and the canal remains unfinished as of 2010. 

There are two reasons why cooperation failed. The first results from similar government orientation during a crucial part of the negotiation process. While the political relations between Egypt and Sudan were rather affable from 1958 to 1985, the inundation of Islamic hardliners into Khartoum politics derailed the positive orientation each government conveyed.133 The second reason is due to an increase in Sudan’s state strength in the 1970s and 1980s. Egypt, a military powerhouse during Gamal Nasser’s tenure, did vary in strength from Sudan, whose oil-rich economy tanked by the late 1970s. The differentiation would theoretically equip Egypt with the requisite influence to coerce Sudan, but the emergence of the Southern Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) in Sudan splintered the political power in Khartoum.134 As the central government’s defense resources were depleting, the south’s surging military power stymied efforts by German-made bulldozers to begin construction.

Independent Variable Analysis

From 1958-1990, there were three distinct shifts in government orientation and state strength between Egypt and Sudan. In the first period, negotiations were progressing successfully, largely due to a strong variance in government orientation. The following two periods experienced dramatic swings in Sudan’s state strength and orientation caused by Southern Sudan leaders and the rise in Islamic law. By 1990, cooperation remained unsuccessful.

In the first period, Egypt and Sudan’s variables were ideal for cooperation. As a strong hardliner, Egypt’s preferences were as follows (1 = first choice): (1) receive many perks, concede little in return; (2) assume hostile relations; (3) return to the status quo; and (4) concede most issues, receive little benefits. During the same period, Ethiopia was a semi- weak softliner. Its preferences were: (1) receive many perks, concede little in return; (2) concede most issues, receive little benefits, (3) return to the status quo; and (4) assume hostile relations. Juxtaposing these preferences, the strong differentiation in the variables would suggest that Egypt would receive most benefits while Ethiopia would get fewer rewards. During the negotiations, Egypt and Sudan agreed to these asymmetrical benefits, though Sudan’s perks amounted to slightly more than “few.” Despite a spike in Sudan’s military strength caused by southern resistance, the negotiations were too much in an early stage to be affected.

In the second and third periods, Egypt remained a strong hardliner and its preferences did not change. Sudan, however, underwent two major revisions in its government and strength. First, the increasing hostilities faced by Southern Sudan thwarted the central government’s ability to cooperate with Egypt. In the 1970s and 1980s, Nimeiri faced multiple coup attempts, a persistent civil war that highly discouraged canal efforts, and international pressure to alleviate fighting. Southern Sudan enhanced the government’s overall strength because of how pervasive and effective its military was in stopping Jonglei. Therefore, Sudan’s preferences shifted from the first period to: (1) receive many perks, concede little in return; (2) return to the status quo; (3) assume hostile relations; and (4) concede most issues, receive little benefits. Since Egypt had similar preferences, cooperation failed and both states returned to the status quo.65

In the third period, negotiations restarted, but Sudan’s government orientation radically changed after the emergence of Islamic hardliners in 1985. President Omar Bashir isolated Southern Sudan and surprised Egypt by instituting Islamic reforms, eliminating political parties, and verbally accosting Egyptian President Mubarak for not offering more support.170 Consequently, both Egypt and Sudan had hardliner governments and strong states. They both wanted to maximize their benefits. Conceding was not an option. The result was the status quo, because despite being a hardliner, Mubarak’s weak state could not win in a war with Egypt.

Filed under: The Jonglei Plan