When the water ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan rose from their chairs inside the United States Treasury on January 31 after four days of grueling talks, it felt like their decade-long dispute over a giant Blue Nile hydropower dam had come to an end.
Negotiators from the three countries and officials from the US and the World Bank there to help broker a deal hugged each other, according to a diplomatic official briefed on the meeting. Ethiopia’s Water Minister Sileshi Bekele declared the final accord would be signed by the beginning of March.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize just four months prior for ending his country’s long-running war with Eritrea, was busy planning summer elections. Ethiopia was still six weeks away from announcing its first case of the coronavirus. And growth estimates showed the country’s GDP steadily ticking upward from 6.2 percent.
With the number of coronavirus cases in Ethiopia having surpassed the 700 mark on May 26, Abiy’s world looks very different.
Talks with Egypt and Sudan on how to fill the US$4 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) situated 20 kilometers from the Sudanese border have all but come to a standstill. Growth estimates have been slashed due to the coronavirus and national elections indefinitely postponed.
Adding to Abiy’s vicissitudes, Ethiopia’s patchwork of opposition parties — many of which are formed along ethnic lines — have accused the prime minister of flouting the country’s constitution and opportunistically using the coronavirus as a means of holding onto power. They also say Abiy’s decision to bring the US into talks over the GERD were short-sighted and accuse him of using the spat over the hydropower project for his own political gain.
“Ethiopia is a very divided society and the GERD is one of the very few things that Ethiopians from all walks of life can agree on,” says Addisu Lashitew, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. “By letting negotiations fester, Abiy might have an advantage in mobilizing people.”
For Ethiopia, the dam is a point of national pride. Many in the landlocked country — beset by widespread poverty and currently home to one of the highest number of displaced people in the world — never thought Ethiopia would be capable of building Africa’s largest dam, the brainchild of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Its success is a way to provide 65 million people that still have no access to electricity with power. It would also mark a definitive split from colonial-era treaties to which Ethiopia was never a party that dictated how the Nile’s waters should be managed.
Ethiopia has sworn to start filling the dam by July, with or without an agreement from Egypt and Sudan. Confronted with that prospect, Cairo has sought to escalate the matter on the international stage using both the US and United Nations Security Council as mediators.
Egyptian officials are adamant that any accord should include legally binding rules on how the dam should be filled in times of drought and put restrictions on future upstream developments. Egypt also sees the dam as an existential threat due to the country’s water deficit of 25 billion cubic meters.
The current situation “potentially poses a serious threat to peace and security throughout the region,” Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry wrote in a letter to Sven Jurgenson, the president of the UN Security Council, on May 1, adding that Ethiopia had employed a “policy of obstructionism and prevarication.”
Ethiopia’s foreign minister responded on May 14 by saying Egypt should “halt its relentless obstruction” to the GERD. He also underlined that the GERD’s total capacity of 74 billion cubic meters is less than half that of Egypt’s High Aswan Dam.
Two diplomatic officials close to the talks tell Mada Masr they had been surprised by Ethiopia’s decision to walk away from the table in late February after having expressed optimism a deal could be reached by the beginning of March.
On February 12, the three countries again convened in Washington. Still, no white smoke emerged from the US Treasury building, though all three parties agreed for the US to draft a final agreement by the end of the month. In the following two weeks, Abiy held closed-door consultations with senior advisors and members of his government, according to an Ethiopian official briefed on the proceedings who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Ethiopia then pulled out of what was supposed to be the final meeting for an agreement on February 28. The following day, the Ethiopian foreign affairs ministry slammed the US for going ahead with the meeting without its presence and claimed the text put forward didn’t reflect prior talks.
The international sources say both Egypt and Sudan now question whether Ethiopia still has a genuine interest in reaching an agreement. One official says the sudden change in heart raised questions over whether Abiy had been advised that an ongoing spat with Cairo could act as “good electoral material for domestic consumption purposes.”
“He wants to use this to ratchet up public support,” said Getachew Reda, an executive council member of the opposition Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), referring to the GERD.
Billene Seyoum, a spokesperson for Abiy, says such claims “are baseless” and fail to consider the responsibility of the government to “heed the needs and calls of its citizens and ensure economic development.” She also says that Ethiopia will continue to seek solutions to the dam with both Egypt and Sudan.
Getachew’s party, which ran the country for nearly three decades as part of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition prior to Abiy’s ascension, represents one of the prime minister’s biggest headaches.
In order for Abiy to win the elections he needs to win enough seats in Parliament with his newly formed Prosperity Party, a coalition of parties from the Oromia, Amhara, Somali, Afar and Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s regions. The Prosperity Party was created last year out of the former Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front in a push to distance the country’s politics from ethnic issues.
The TPLF, which governed Ethiopia with an iron fist and imprisoned tens of thousands of activists and opposition members during its time in power, split from the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front due to strong disagreements over Abiy’s vision. Several other opposition groups in the country are also now trying to raise support among those who want to see more autonomy go to the country’s ethnically divided regions.
The TPLF has threatened to hold its own regional election this year if a national vote does not go ahead and believes Abiy’s push to extend the government’s mandate beyond September would flout the constitution’s strict limits on his term.
“It’s absolutely unacceptable. We don’t see any inkling of legitimacy in Abiy’s government whatsoever,” Getachew says. “The ideal situation is to hold elections in August and take the necessary measures to address the challenges [posed] by COVID-19.”
Jawar Mohammed, a media baron and one of Ethiopia’s most prominent threats to Abiy’s short reign, says the fact that parliament, which is almost entirely made up of lawmakers belonging to Abiy’s own Prosperity Party, was deciding on how to interpret the constitution undermined Ethiopia’s democratic process.
“It’s going to kill optimism, hope and faith in the system’s preparation for free and fair elections,” said Jawar, who used to support Abiy by deploying his social media power to help him get elected in 2018. “We are back to the old system of tensions between the government and the population.”
In October, 86 people died in two days after security forces allegedly tried to arrest Jawar and his supporters came out to protest. The public outcry resulted in deadly clashes between ethnic groups in several Ethiopian towns and cities, with the violence escalating when federal police forces opened fire and killed several people.
There are other opponents of Abiy who want to see him relinquish power at the end of September.
Dawud Ibsa, the leader of the opposition Oromo Liberation Front, says that sour relations between the TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Army, a militia group which is embroiled in a deadly battle with the government in western Oromia, risks boiling over into further violence if not properly managed.
“This, by itself, is a risk for a bigger conflict,” says Dawud, whose party spent years in armed conflict against the TPLF before being formally recognized by Abiy last year. “After September 30, this is going to be a bigger worry and a bigger feature of a very complex security question.”
His party is in favor of the government extending its mandate as long as it cedes powers over national security, foreign affairs and democratic institutions, where the opposition would play a role until new elections are held.
The government denies attempting to break the constitution and says it has held transparent consultations with over 50 legal experts and researchers for constitutionally sound options to hold elections in light of the COVID-19 health crisis.
Billene, the government spokesperson, says discussions were held with both civil society groups and competing political parties before options were presented to Ethiopia’s House of People’s Representatives to decide on a way forward. A final decision is expected in the coming weeks.
“A global pandemic which has taken thousands of lives and altered our way of life all over the world and which has the potential to wreak havoc in the country unless contained and managed is the factor that has delayed an electoral process,” she says. “The response to the disruption of planned elections will be adequately addressed through constitutional processes and nothing else.”
Analysts say Abiy’s next moves, both regarding the GERD and his own domestic situation, are critical to ensure peace in the country. Filling the dam in July without a deal and the threat of the Tigray region holding its own election could result in upheaval, they say.
“There is a risk for a clash if the TPLF goes ahead with the election and federal bodies decide to postpone the election,” says Addisu of the Brookings Institute.
Should Sudan align with Egypt and Ethiopia refuse to meet Cairo halfway, he adds, military force to halt the dam’s filling could not be discounted.
“It’s a very tricky situation,” Addisu says. “And it could get a lot worse before it gets better.”