Governing the Nile

A Thesis Exploring International Water Negotiations in Northeast Africa

1902 Treaty


In 1880, Britain became highly interested in Lake Tana, a sixty-mile long natural reservoir that flows from the Blue Nile into Sudan.80 Tana, replenished continuously by Ethiopia’s tropical rivulets, was an ideal site to control the amount and duration of water that reaches Egypt. Shortly after dispatching a team of engineers on a fact-finding expedition to Tana, England mapped an ambitious plan to rig a dam system that would improve the quantity of water toward their colony in Egypt.81 After early negotiations with Ethiopian Emperor Menelek II, the Tana project was approved under the 1902 Treaty, which stipulated restrictions against Ethiopia from tampering with the Blue Nile. Despite this early success, predecessors to the Ethiopian throne derailed British efforts and bewildered the powerful state in the process.

In total, there were three rounds of negotiations. The first round began in April 1899. Menelek argued that he had historical claims to the western region near Gera. Harrington swiftly denied him. The second round also failed because both countries sought to control the Beni Shangul area. Menelek believed Beni Shangul held immense gold reserves and was located near the Blue Nile. Despite these hiccups, Harrington and Menelek considered it their best interest to restart working on a treaty, making concessions along the way.96 After more weeks of negotiations, Harrington received a revised draft. In it, Menelek “altered the frontier south of Melile to his advantage [and] he had inserted a clause about Tsana and the Blue Nile which absolutely knocks the bottom out of the exchange of notes on this subject…”97 Displeased that Menelek was a “slippery customer,” Harrington commented to Ilg, “if he does not settle the frontier within [a short time]…it will be a matter for serious consideration whether we ought not to consider the question of delivering an ultimatum as to what we consider Egyptian territory, and then settle the question once for all.”98 Menelek must have “realized he had reached the limits of Harrington’s patience,” because a week later he conceded his jurisdiction over the Blue Nile.99 In May of 1902, treaty papers were drawn up and signed. While Menelek received expanded territory that included Beni Shangul, England “protected her interests in the Nile Valley and received guarantees concerning the Blue Nile and Lake Tana.”100

Independent Variable Analysis 

From 1870-1902, there were two distinct shifts in government orientation and zero changes in state strength between England and Ethiopia. Therefore, measuring the joint effect of the independent variables can be broken down into two periods, 1875-1889, and 1889- 1902, during which the changes in government orientation occurred. In the first period, cooperation failed, largely due to similar government orientation. Cooperation did succeed in the second period.

In the first period, England was classified as a strong hardliner. It’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-strong hardliner. It’s preferences were: (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. When these preferences are compared, there is no differentiation in government orientation and only a slight variance in state strength. Consequently, the first preference that is possible for both states is war. Although weak hardliners would prefer not to go to war against strong hardliners, Ethiopia at this time was a “semi-strong” state, which means its economy was extremely fragile, but its military was superb. Therefore, Ethiopia would prefer war to concessions.

In the second term, England’s status as a strong hardliner remained. Its preferences also were the same. Ethiopia, however, changed from a semi-strong hardliner to a semi-weak softliner. While its military strength had remained relatively strong, the leadership altered from the hawkish Yohannes regime to the pragmatic, cautious Menelek government. As a result, its preferences were: (1) receive many perks, concede little in return; (2a) concede most issues; (2b) return to the status quo; and (3) assume hostile relations. Because Ethiopia was a “semi-weak” state, it wavered from 2a to 2b as its most outspoken preference. Since they could possibly defend against another English invasion, Ethiopia decided to push against England until the threat of war was imminent. In the end, both states followed England’s first preference and Ethiopia’s 2a preference. The treaty was signed and England received most of the proposed benefits. While England forfeited small tracts of land, Ethiopia lost an extremely valuable resource, the Nile. From this second interval, the variation in the government orientation changed Ethiopia’s preferences, which allowed both states to come to an agreement.


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