My Life and Ethiopia’s Progress Vol 1 (Ch 22 pt1)

About the convention for mutual assistance between the British Government, as regards the barrage at Lake Tana, and the Italian Government, as regards the construction of a railway from the border of Eritrea, cutting through the middle of Ethiopia, to Italian Somaliland

The British Government, in 1895 (= 1902) despatched Lt. Col. John Lane Harrington as special envoy, and, in an accord between the British Sudan Government and Emperor Menelik, it was agreed that the Ethiopian Government would not permit obstructing the flow of the Sobat river and other small rivers entering the Abbay, i.e. Blue Nile.

Because Emperor Menelik had approved this accord, the envoy had given written assurances (by letter only) to the effect that the British Sudan Government would pay the Ethiopian Government annually 10,000 guineas. And subsequently they said: ‘May permission be granted to us to regulate the flow of the waters by building a barrage at Lake Tana, for the waters of the Nile are low in the summer and plentiful in the winter.’ Once permission had been granted to them they promised to send engineers, lest the waters-having increased with the building of the Lake Tana barrage-should perhaps drown the islands and the churches situated in Lake Tana; they would then present a report to the Ethiopian Govern­ment; and the engineers were indeed sent in 1899 (= 1906).

 

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Subsequently, after the Great War in 1912 (= 1919), the Italian Government despatched envoys to London and presented a proposal for mutual assistance in connexion with the British Government’s Lake Tana dam and the Italian Government’s construction of a railway from the border of Eritrea and cutting through the centre of Ethiopia. But as the British Government had begun to negotiate direct with the Ethiopian Government, the proposals which the Italian Government had presented to it remained for the time being unacceptable.

Later on, in 1916 (= 1924), when We came to London as guest of H.M. King George V, We had discussions at an interview with Mr. MacDonald, the Prime Minister, in order to conclude negotiations over some matters of concern to both governments. When the Prime Minister presented to Us a request to the effect that he would welcome it if We allowed the Lake Tana dam scheme to be carried out (which the British Sudan Government had previously initiated), We explained to him Our proposal that, once we had ourselves caused the Lake Tana dam to be constructed by well-known engineers, it seemed to Us a good thing if we were to lease it to Britain, embodying it in a treaty in which the interests of both governments would be firmly safeguarded.

 

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When Mr. MacDonald said ‘It is our pleasure to accept this proposal of yours, provided you inform us in advance from which country you will appoint the engineers and allow us to make the choice’-adding at once ‘won’t you appoint engineers from the United States of America?’; We accepted with pleasure and agreed orally on the main matters; and a few weeks later We confirmed this to him in writing.

But when the Italian Govern­ment heard of the decision as regards the Lake Tana dam, after direct discussions between the British Government and Ourselves, it pressed the British Government once again in 1918 (= 1925) not to lose sight of the proposal that the British Government should assist the Italians to build the railway from the border of Eritrea, cutting through the middle of Ethiopia, up to Italian Somaliland; and as a result the Italian Government negotiated and agreed with the British Government, at Rome, that the proposal which it had previously initiated in 1912 (= 1919) be implemented; an ex­change of correspondence ensued which embodied the text of the agreement. The two governments arranged for the text of the agreement, though allegedly only an exchange of correspondence, to be registered with the League of Nations at Geneva. While they did this, they did not inform, even by a single word, the sovereign Ethiopian Government. The following is the text of the letters of agreement which were exchanged.

 

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Sir Ronald Graham to M. Mussolini.
Rome, 20th December 1925.

Your Excellency cannot fail to be aware of the very great benefit for Egypt and the Sudan in preventing an interruption in the flow of the water, and indeed in bringing about an increase in the flow as far as possible, because the water from the White and Blue Niles and their tributary streams is necessary for irrigation. Various proposals which had previously been decided upon with this end in view are now being carried out; and others are being given consideration.

Your Excellency is aware of the talks which the British Govern­ment has initiated at Addis Ababa, in view of its fiduciary re­sponsibility for Egypt and the Sudan and mindful in this respect of the value to Egypt. The basis of the discussions is to collect the waters by building a dam, under concession from the Ethiopian Government, at Lake Tana and its shore and to supply this water to the White Nile. Up to now these talks have remained without any result.

In November 1919 (= Hedar 1912), when Italian envoys were in London, they had presented an offer of help, which the Italian Government would extend in regard to this matter, in the follow­ing terms:

 

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‘When the British Government, mindful of the great value of the waters of Lake Tana, requests a concession from the Ethiopian Government for the construction of a barrage at Lake Tana, in the part given over to Italian interests, the Italian Government will support Great Britain. This is pending the delimitation of the zone given over to British interests and pending a full investigation of the reservation which Italy requires under the terms of the Tripartite Agreement.

When the British Government asks the Ethiopian Government for a concession to construct a motor road from Lake Tana to the Sudan, it may request the Italian Government to support it. This railway, according to the Tripartite Agreement, will pass to the west (sic) of Addis Ababa. All the works necessary for the construction of this railway shall have a free passage across the above-mentioned motor road.

Italy requests Britain to support with the Ethiopian Govern­ment all requests which she may submit for exclusive economic rights in the west of Ethiopia and in the territory through which the aforementioned railway will pass and for obtaining economic concessions in the Italian zone. She reserves the right to present the identical request to France.’

 

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The above proposal was not found acceptable at that time. The chief reason was that a strong objection arose against any one foreign government whatsoever controlling the source of rivers so vital to the prosperity of Egypt and the Sudan and in­deed to their very life. But by virtue of the fortunate existence of mutual trust between our two governments, H.M.’s Govern­ment desire to apply this to other matters as well. Therefore H.B.M.’s Government have examined the problem once more.

The British Government is convinced that the proposal which Italy has submitted does not conflict with the provisions of the agreement concluded in London on 13th December 1906 (= 4 Tahsas 1899), since its object was to maintain the status quo in Ethiopia on the basis of the international treaties noted in article I of the agreement as well as to protect the respective interests of the signatory governments, lest they should suffer damage on their part.

Consequently, H.B.M.’s Government would welcome the offer of support made by Italy, provided there remain unaffected the waters in which Egypt and the Sudan have such an interest and which the Ethiopian Government has long recognized.

 

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Therefore, I have the honour to request Your Excellency, on behalf of His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, to support and to assist the request with the Ethiopian Government at Addis Ababa to grant a concession and to permit H.B.M.’s Government to construct and to maintain a motor road on which to transport equipment and personnel and the like from the Sudan border up to the barrage.

In return for this, H.B.M.’s Government are prepared to sup­port the request which the Italian Government will submit to the Ethiopian Government to obtain a concession to build and to extend a railway from Eritrea to the frontier of Italian Somaliland. This railway, as well as all the operations necessary to construct and to extend it, may cross freely the above-mentioned motor road.

Therefore, in order that both the British and the Italian Governments should simultaneously obtain the concessions which they are seeking as regards Lake Tana and the railway link from Eritrea to Italian Somaliland, it is necessary that identical in­structions be despatched to the British and Italian representatives in Ethiopia that they should collaborate and consult together. If one of the two governments obtains the concession it seeks and the other remains unsuccessful, the government which has obtained its aims would unceasingly strive with all vigour that the other should likewise succeed.

 

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If H.B.M.’s Government, with the valued assistance of the Italian Government, obtain the desired Lake Tana concession, then they are prepared to recognize that Italy shall be the economic beneficiary in western Ethiopia and the aforementioned area. Furthermore, since H.B.M.’s Government undertake to support all Italian requests to obtain economic concessions in the above mentioned zone, the Italian Government on its part, while recognizing the hydraulic rights which Egypt and the Sudan possess, enters into an obligation not to construct a dam upon the sources of the White and Blue Niles or on the sources of their tributaries, nor to carry out any work that would impede or diminish the flow of the waters into the main river. Notwith­standing this, the inhabitants in those regions may utilize the water, construct pools to collect the water, receive anything for drinking or agriculture or foodcrops for the local inhabitants, construct dams for hydroelectric power or utilize the waters in minor tributaries.

H.B.M.’s Government take this opportunity of assuring the Italian Government that the Lake Tana barrage and the hydraulic work will be carried out, as far as possible, with locally recruited labour and that the collection of water by the barrage will not exceed the amount collected hitherto [in the lake] during the rainy season. H.B.M.’s Government are, therefore, convinced that the construction of this dam, quite apart from being of benefit to Egypt and the Sudan, will also increase the prosperity of the region and will progressively help to enrich economically the local inhabitants.

(signed) R. Graham.

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Rome, 20th December 1925 (= 11th Tahsas 1918)
To H.E. the Special Envoy, Sir R. Graham.

I have received and attentively studied the letter which Your Excellency, under instructions from your government, wrote to me on 5th Tahsas (= 14th December 1925) concerning the irri­gation of Egypt and the Sudan as well as the matter which has remained hitherto unaccomplished owing to inertia on the part of the Ethiopian Government, i.e. to cause a fuller flow of the Blue Nile by the construction of a barrage on Lake Tana.

Your Excellency is not unaware of the proposals which the Italian envoys presented in London in November 1919 (= Hedar 1912) for a friendly Anglo-Italian co-operation in regard to this, but these remained unacceptable at that time because they raised concern over permitting a foreign power to exercise control over rivers and sources so very essential to the prosperity of Egypt and the Sudan and indeed even to their very existence.

Your Excellency further informs me that H.B.M.’s Govern­ment, after studying this request more profoundly, accept that there is nothing in the Italian proposals which contradicts the agreement concluded in London on 13th December 1906 (= 4th Tahsas 1899) under which the signatory governments are agreed to maintain the status quo in Ethiopia, without abandoning the basis of international law as indicated in article 1 of the accord, and to protect their respective interests. For this reason the British Government, adhering to the Italian proposals, accept Italian support with pleasure. This support in no way affects the existing principal hydraulic interests of Egypt and the Sudan which the Italian Government itself has recognized. Thus Your Excellency, upon instructions from your government, requests that the Italian Government should assist and support the British Govern­ment in its demand of the Ethiopian Government to construct a barrage upon Lake Tana and a motor road from the Sudan border to the dam for the transport of food, equipment, workmen, and all similar things. Your Excellency informs me that, in exchange for this action by the Italian Government, the British Govern­ment in its turn will assist the Italian Government when it requests the Ethiopian Government for an extension, for its own benefit, of the railway from the frontier of Eritrea to that of Italian Somali­land as well as for a treaty which provides for free transit, across the aforementioned motor road, for everything needed for the construction of the railway and its proper use. With this end in view, the necessary identical instructions have been transmitted to the British and Italian representatives in Ethiopia.

 

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Your Excellency informs me that it is essential that the British and Italian Governments should undertake to request the Ethiopian Government upon the matter on which they are both agreed, i.e. as regards Lake Tana and the railway linking Eritrea and Italian Somaliland.

In case one government obtains the concession it seeks, while the other fails to do so, the successful government shall extend all possible help, without relaxing its efforts, to the unsuccessful one until it likewise achieves its purpose.

Furthermore, Your Excellency informs me that, if H.B.M.’s Government is able to obtain, with the assistance of the Italian Government, the concession which it seeks from the Ethiopian Government as regards Lake Tana, the British Government, on its part, will then recognize Italy’s special economic influence in western Ethiopia and in the entire area which the aforementioned railway traverses. In addition the British Government will support every request which the Italian Government makes in the aforementioned zone as regards economic concessions. None­theless, this agreement and negotiation will come into force only on the understanding that the Italian Government, while recog­nizing the longstanding assignment of waters to the Sudan, will enter into an obligation not to construct on the sources of the Blue and White Niles and their tributaries any kind of work that might impede their flow into the main river. Your Excellency informs me that, notwithstanding any of the conditions outlined above, the local inhabitants may make use of the waters to a reasonable extent for anything required for drinking, domestic needs, or agriculture as well as storing waters for harnessing electric power or similar essential purposes.

 

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Furthermore, Your Excellency, upon instructions received from your government, informs the Italian Government that for the construction of the barrage and the road the labour employed will as far as possible be locally recruited and that the level of the lake will not be allowed to exceed the previous maxi­mum attained during the rainy season. Finally, the British Government is convinced that the construction of this dam will be beneficial not only for Egypt and the Sudan but will bring pro­sperity and economic development to the people of the region.

In reply to the above clarifications and requests which Your Excellency has made to me, and since the British Government recognizes it now being opportune to extend to the aforemen­tioned question the principle of friendly co-operation which has become so precious in all other areas, I would inform Your Excellency that, while the Royal Government is very happy to accept the proposals, I consider that this agreement will be the more useful the more widely applied it is.

The Royal (Italian) Government considers it firmly established that H.B.M.’s Government is now convinced that the (Italian) proposals presented in November 1919 (= Hedar 1912) do not contradict the wording of the agreement reached in London on 13 December 1906 (= 4 Tahsas 1899)-as indeed Italy has always firmly maintained- it being the main aim of these proposals to maintain the status quo in Ethiopia on the basis of international instruments embodied in article I of the agreement, while the signatory governments were collaborating lest anything should adversely affect their respective interests.

 

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This being so, although the proposals presented in London in November 1919 and outlined above are reckoned to be part of a wider agreement of a colonial nature deriving from the treaties signed in London in December 1906 and although there were only a few points of this agreement that have been effectively carried out, the Royal Italian Government is willing to raise the matter once again, particularly since the British Government desires to apply the principle of friendly co-operation, a desire which Italy shares. Furthermore, we are hoping that the interests of Britain and Italy in Ethiopia will be properly developed and protected without transgressing the treaty concluded in London in December 1906, a treaty which forms the basis of this agreement. To this end the Italian Government will assist the British Government when it requests a concession to construct a barrage at Lake Tana and a motor road from the Sudan frontier to the dam for the transport of food and equipment.

Furthermore, the Italian Government takes firm note of the offer of help by the British Government as regards the former’s request of the Ethiopian Government to extend the railway from the frontier of Eritrea to Italian Somaliland and to build stations (?) as well as to obtain free transit for everything required for the construction of this railway across the aforementioned motor road.

To this end the Italian Government will transmit the necessary instructions to its representative at Addis Ababa, coinciding with the instructions given to its representative by the British Govern­ment, so that the concessions which the British and Italian governments are seeking as regards Lake Tana and the rail link between Eritrea and Italian Somaliland be granted to them both together. In case one government obtains the concession it seeks, while the other fails to do so, the successful one shall press its assistance unceasingly until the other achieves satisfaction, so that both obtain their concessions together, if at all possible.

 

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If H.B.M.’s Government succeeds in obtaining, with the aid of the Italian Government, the concession regarding Lake Tana which it seeks from the Ethiopian Government, Britain will likewise recognize Italian economic preponderance in western Ethiopia and in the above-mentioned area which the railway traverses; she will also support the Italian Government in all its requests of the Ethiopian Government as regards concessions in the aforementioned zone.

The Italian Government, on its part, recognizing the long-established hydraulic rights of Egypt and the Sudan, enters into an obligation not to construct any work on the sources of the White and Blue Niles and their tributaries that might impede the flow into the main river.

As regards hydraulic interests, I am confident that the British Government has the firm intention to respect the long-established state of affairs of the people resident in the adjacent territories reckoned to be within the sphere of special Italian influence. This project, to the utmost possible extent and as far as can be reconciled with the principal interests of Egypt and the Sudan, shall be carried out on the basis of the utmost possible satisfaction of the economic requirements of these local populations.

Please accept my respectful greetings.

(signed) Mussolini.

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