International Policy Digest


The Nile Basin and the GERD in History and Culture: Ali Mazrui’s Perspective

As Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan deliberate on the operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), it may be helpful to understand the historical and cultural context of the Nile Basin. With that in mind, I wish to share a keynote address by the late great Kenyan Pan-Africanist and historian, Ali Mazrui. The speech, which is full of insights, was delivered on the 10th Anniversary of the Nile Basin Initiative in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in December 2009.

Pan-Nilotism – the Unity of the Nile Valley – goes back a long time. But in the earlier years, the doctrine of the Unity of the Nile Valley often served our conquerors.

The concept of the Nile Valley was concerned more with the countries through which the River Nile itself flowed.

On the other hand, the concept of the Nile Basin encompasses not just the countries through which the Nile flows, but also countries where lakes and streams feed the Nile and help to perpetuate it.

The Victorians in 19th century Britain were proudly conscious of the British Empire and active in expanding it. They were also sensitized to the interconnections of geography. After the building of the Suez Canal, British interest in controlling Egypt intensified – partly because of Egypt itself but also because the Suez Canal had now become a strategic route to British India.

If interest in India intensified, British focus on Egypt’s Nile also intensified. That is how the imperial concept of the Unity of the Nile Valley was developed. The British decided to try and control as much of the Nile Valley as possible.

They began by recognizing Egypt’s sovereign claim for Sudan. This second country became the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.

But the source of the White Nile was in Uganda. Therefore, British strategists began to consider the annexation of what came to be known as Uganda.

But Uganda was landlocked. The best way to the center of Uganda was through what was eventually called Kenya. So the British initiated the ambitious project of building a railway line from Mombasa on the Coast of Kenya to the interior of Uganda.

As for Ethiopia, the origin of the Blue Nile, the British sent spies and learned from their adventurers when they visited imperial Abyssinia.

London decided to help Ethiopia maintain its autonomy and territorial integrity – provided no other European power exerted too much influence on the Ethiopian Emperor.

In their terms, the British implemented the doctrine of the Unity of the Nile Valley. Egypt, Sudan, Uganda, and Kenya also fell under British rule.

And Ethiopia maintained its autonomy. Different African groups tried to resist British colonization but in the end, Pax Britannica prevailed.

Over the centuries there had been other forms of influence along the Nile Valley – some of them were part and parcel of indigenous history.

According to the New Testament, baby Jesus might have been killed by King Herod had Egypt not given asylum to the Virgin Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus.

The survival of baby Jesus eventually changed not only the Nile Valley, or the Nile Basin, but planet Earth as a whole.

Islam first arrived in the Nile Basin through Ethiopia. This was during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad. Islam was a new religion in Arabia and Muslims were being persecuted.

Ethiopia granted these earliest Muslims asylum. The political refugees in Ethiopia included Uthman bin Affan, who later became the Third Caliph of Islam.

Islam started spreading in Black Africa from Ethiopia. The Arabs from Saudi Arabia conquered Egypt a few years later. While in the southern Nile Basin in Abyssinia Islam arrived as a refugee, in the Northern Nile Basin near the shores of the Mediterranean Islam arrived as a conqueror.

Over time the people of the southern Nile Basin not only shared Abrahamic religions with millions in the northern Nile Basin, but their languages also began to intermingle with each other. Some of the languages of Ethiopia, especially Amharic and Tigrinya, have all along been Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew, but independently of them.

And in most of the countries of the Upper and Southern Nile Basin the Arabic language and indigenous African languages found a point of convergence in the Swahili language. It is arguable that a majority of the countries of the Nile Basin have been affected by the Swahili language. These include Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi. The degree of Swahilization has varied from country to country – ranging from Tanzania as the most Swahilized to Burundi as the least. But there is a Swahili presence in all six countries.

Between the Mediterranean and Victoria Nyanza

But the Nile Basin not only generates mutual cultural influences internally within the Nilotic region, but the region is also a cultural exporter to other parts of the world.

Ethiopia for a long time has ignited a form of Pan-Africanism which is sometimes called Black Ethiopianism. The most famous form of this version of black nationalism is the Rastafari movement among Jamaicans not only in Jamaica but also in North America and Great Britain. Some of these Ethiopic movements are focused on Ethiopia as a country; others on the late Emperor Haile Selassie as a sacred figure in human history.

Sudan was the largest African country on the continent, sharing borders with nine other countries. The referendum in the South cut down the size of Sudan. Sudan initiated a popular uprising against unwanted governments in the African continent. It has also had multiple dualities – Arabo-black duality, Arabophone-Anglophone duality, the Cross and the Crescent duality, the Saharan and Sub-Saharan duality. There are also Blue Nile-White Nile dualities.

Kenya’s cultural export to the world includes the novels of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, arguably the most successful literary figure from the southern countries of the Nile Basin.

Kenya also produced the author of a nine-part television series about Africa, which has been shown in dozens of countries and translated into several languages. This is by far the most international of all television series authored by a citizen of the Nile Basin. The television series paraphrases the Bible in the opening lines. “In the beginning was water, and the water was of God, and the water was God.” The words are uttered as the Nile flows past the screen.

In reality, the theme of the television series is that Africa is a convergence of three civilizations: Indigenous, Islamic, and Western. In the series, the convergence began on the Mediterranean end of the Nile Basin.

Kenya also produced the first African female winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace and the most famous female environmentalist from the Nile Basin. Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

In the twentieth century, western paleontologists traced the origins of the human species to the southern reaches of the Nile Basin. Some found signs of “Lucy” [Eve] in other parts of the Nile Basin. This discovery turned the Nile Basin into a strong contender for the title of “Garden of Eden” where Adam and Eve saw the light of day.

Followers of the Abrahamic religions equate the origins of the human species with the origins of human belief in one God. According to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Adam and Eve were monotheists from the start.

But secular scientists have often traced the origins of monotheism to the Northern end of the Nile Valley, regardless of whether or not the human species began in the southern end of the Nile Basin. According to secular history, Egypt was the mother of monotheism regardless of the location of the Garden of Eden.

What secular sciences have therefore taught us is that, while the origins of monotheism (belief in one god) were in the northern part of the Nile Basin, the origins of Homo sapiens (the human species) were in the southern part of the Nile Basin.

Eritrea must share some of the glories of Ethiopia in history because they were for so long the same people. But even brotherly relationships sour. Eritrea fought a 30-year war to attain self-determination (1962-1992). At least that goal was achieved but more problems arose. The struggle continues.


I must emphasize that this has not been primarily a lecture about the waters of the Nile or the energy it would generate, or the soil the Nile has tried to keep fertile.

This has been a lecture about the people of the Nile Basin – their place in the history and culture of the Nile Basin. We of the Nile Basin have had not only trials and tribulations but also genuine triumphs.

The Nile Basin is producing sons and daughters who are changing the world. This is all the more reason as to why the Nile Basin should transform itself. “Doctor, heal itself?”

The Nile Basin has been changing both Planet Earth and human history for centuries. Let us now turn our skills and resources more energetically on our own reconstruction. We hear a cry for change along the shores of the Nile. We hear a cry for unity along the lakes which feed the Nile. We have begun to respond to those cries, but the struggle needs to continue and intensify. Let us pull together when the Nile is turbulent and when it is calm. Let us learn to share when the waters are deep, and learn to conserve when the waters are shallow. Amen.

Seifudein Adem

Seifudein Adem teaches at Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan.