Ethiopia’s internal conflicts are worsening at a time it needs unity for its tense relations with Egypt and Sudan resulting from the GERD infrastructure project. Donald Trump’s interjection into the controversy has only exacerbated the issue, with little regard for complexity in the region. Given the emerging conflict, asks Yohannes Woldemariam, will the countries affected by the dam use Ethiopia’s worsening situation to push through their agenda?
The relationship between Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) political party has now deteriorated into a military confrontation, which is escalating into a civil war with potentially regional implications and the fragmentation of Ethiopia. These developments come as international negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), engineered to produce electricity from the Blue Nile River, have reached a critical stage. Given the emerging conflict, are the Eastern Nile riparian states (specifically Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia) most affected by the dam’s construction likely to go to war to resolve their disputes, or ultimately cooperate?
‘Water wars’ and international involvement
Echoed by concerns in international media, Professor Michael Klare has argued that transboundary rivers can be causes of ‘water wars’ over control for their crucial resource. In contrast, Professor Aaron Wolf has documented transboundary rivers as a catalyst for cooperation, in which the existential significance of water has historically prompted cooperation.
Yet, Ethiopia and Egypt are waging a fierce diplomatic campaign over the GERD project. Ethiopia has long distrusted Egyptian hegemony over the Nile but practically little was done to challenge it until 2011, when it initiated nationwide and diaspora fundraising for the dam’s construction through ‘local taxes, donations and government bonds’. The late Prime Minister of Ethiopia at the time, Meles Zenawi, worked to outmaneuver Egypt’s dominance through colonial treaties designed to allow it a larger share of the river’s flow, cosying up to six Nile riparian states even further back with the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in 1999.
Egypt for its part was mobilising support from US President Donald Trump to retain its control over the river, who raised the issue of Ethiopia’s GERD while on the phone with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdela Hamdock and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in October 2020, blaming Ethiopia for breaking ‘the deal’ and prompting the US President to cut aid to Ethiopia worth $130 million. Third party mediation by the United States and the World Bank is not Ethiopia’s choice, as from a geopolitical standpoint Egypt is perceived as more important to the US than Ethiopia. The US National Security Council went as far as tweeting and urging Ethiopia ‘to show leadership’ for the ‘257 million people in East Africa’. Egypt also lobbied the Arab League, which issued a statement supporting their position.
Trump’s brazen meddling in African affairs is consistent with his documented contempt for sub-Saharan Africa. By taking Egypt’s position, he even appeared to entice the country to bomb the GERD, should Ethiopia refuse to relent. Perhaps sensing danger, Ethiopia suspended all flights to the area where the dam is located, two weeks before Trump made his threatening statements.
For the most part, leaders in the eastern Nile basin (Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea) lack internal legitimacy, are in deep debt and look for short-term survival strategies. El Sisi in Egypt overthrew a democratically elected (albeit unpopular) government and established a dictatorship. Egypt is preoccupied with its own regional concerns in Libya where it is engaged in a geopolitical game with Turkey, as well as a chronic internal insurgency in the Sinai.
Abiy Ahmed came into office promising to be a transitional agent, but the military standoff with the TPLF in the Tigray region means he himself now clings to power.
The evolution of the GERD
The US Bureau of Reclamation completed a feasibility study in the Ethiopian side of the Blue Nile from 1956-64 and proposed four major dams, amounting to nothing. It is suggested Haile Selassie was too busy with internal dissent and trying to put down the fledgling armed struggle for self-determination in Eritrea – that is, until the Meles Zenawi entered office determined to make the GERD a reality. He took advantage of the Arab Spring which engulfed Egypt to begin construction. When asked about Egyptian threats of war in 2010, at a time of comparative national strength and unification, his reply was:
‘I am not worried that the Egyptians will suddenly invade Ethiopia, nobody who has tried that has lived to tell the story. I don’t think the Egyptians will be any different and I think they know that.’
The GERD subsequently became a symbol of nationalism in Ethiopia, similar to what the Aswan Dam has meant for Egypt. That the source of funding for the Aswan Dam propelled Egypt’s alliance with the Soviet Union during the Cold War exemplifies the political international alliances such major infrastructure projects can forge.
The situation can be contrasted with the Tigris River in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. Turkey is forging ahead with its plans for dams that will deprive Syria and Iraq of much water to which they feel entitled. Its prevailing balance of power and clear regional hegemony mean Turkey can be hardly challenged. Conversely, the military balance between Ethiopia and Egypt probably favours Egypt, but conventional war is almost unthinkable because these two countries are not contiguous. More likely is a proxy war. Egypt has plenty of opportunities in light of the latest conflict and the many intractable domestic issues Ethiopia is facing.
The potential for proxy war
Egypt is wooing neighbouring countries trying to establish a military presence in Somaliland, as well as an undetermined relation with South Sudan, which is worrisome for Ethiopia. Both countries are contiguous to Ethiopia, wary that Egypt can simply utilise non-state actors, providing weapons, training and funding to further its strategic goals, avoiding engagement in direct confrontation. With the recent outbreak of war between the TPLF and Abiy Ahmed, the equation may have changed dramatically in favour of Egypt, which can pick and choose from dissident groups to destabilise Ethiopia.
Even before the outbreak of the ongoing war, the TPLF and Abiy Ahmed were accusing each other of treason in their dealings with Egypt. Revealing deep fissures, TPLF Executive Committee member and TPLF spokesperson Getachew Reda tweeted:
Tigray won’t recognize any deal on the #GERD which we have reason to believe is in the pipeline. Blaming @realDonaldTrump for disclosing Egypt’s threat to blow up the dam and @AbiyAhmedAli‘s treasonous deal on the GERD- is totally uncalled for.@AbiyAhmed is a traitor.
Egypt can also count on Arab support, which it has successfully lobbied through the Arab League to issue a statement asking Ethiopia to delay the filling of the GERD. Ethiopia has ignored these pressures and continued with the dam’s construction.
Among the Nile Riparian countries, the alignment has changed according to shifting geopolitical calculations. For example, Sudan and Egypt were aligned firmly for most of the 20th century, except during the Al Bashir years. Ethiopia was actively wooing Sudan through land concessions in disputed territories and giving political support to the internationally beleaguered regime. In contrast, Sudan’s border (the mineral rich Halayeb Triangle) and political disputes with Egypt were growing. This continues to be a thorn in the side of Egyptian-Sudanese relations, but it is unlikely to serve Ethiopia as an opening it can exploit.
The potential for international mediation
Egypt chooses to internationalise the issue while Ethiopia prefers mediation by the African Union (AU), where it has managed to bring South African President Cyril Ramaposa to mediate. Egypt and Sudan seek a legally binding agreement on the filling of the dam in times of drought which Ethiopia finds unacceptable.
The unstated presumption is that ‘sub-Saharan Africa’ supports the Ethiopian position (not always true) and Northern Africa will be more sympathetic to Egypt (again, not always true). For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) under Félix Tshisekedi has expressed solidarity with Egypt on the issue. The DRC will soon chair the African Union thereby improving Egypt’s diplomatic clout.
Some African American politicians like the Reverend Jesse Jackson are taking the Ethiopian side. Reverend Jackson called existing historical treaties on the Nile neocolonial. This block might be strengthened by a Joe Biden administration in the US, but it is too early to even tell whether it wants to be actively involved. Biden is not expected to perform the recklessness of Trump, but the American appetite for intervention in international disputes is not top of the agenda, especially now that Ethiopia is sabotaging itself by declaring war within its borders. Biden might simply encourage mediation through multilateralism.
Pope Francis has also weighed in with his concern, urging all parties to:
‘continue on the path of dialogue so that the Eternal River might continue to be a source of life … Let dialogue … be your only choice, for the good of your dear populations and of the entire world.’
It is a testament to the politicisation of the GERD that the Congressional Black Caucus and even Pope Francis are making statements on the issue. While Pope Francis’s statement is without the agenda of the politicians seeking short-term survival on shaky political ground, his response was measured: Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia will do well to heed his words. Enlightened cooperation while protecting the Nile watershed is the only way forward.
Trump is the most stupid president America has ever had, and the weakest in international relationship interms of his biased view against foreign countries.
I considered him as a Rabid dog. He might have some disorder for sure.
This is a public review site , use your language as measured. We are civilized community.
Thank you Mr. Yohanes for the depth of your knowledge and research on the overall situation and complex analysis
Egypt and Sudan want to internationalize the Nile dispute, further proof confirming the argument in this blog piece.
Sudan’s position is particularly interesting, because it has changed radically from the Al Bashir years.
El Sissi smells vulnerabilities and is moving to exploit it. Sudan’s action in Ethiopia is unprecedented. The TPLF is now finding a breathing room to re-emerge with the situation in Sudan. The war in Ethiopia is already regional but the actors are digging in deeper. Even Kenya is weighing in to exploit the situation to its advantage.
Abiy might use this “external” threat to cancel elections. The coming months will reveal much about the future of the region.
“Years of diplomatic talks over the project have repeatedly stalled. Egypt and Sudan’s positions have drawn closer as Cairo has engaged in a flurry of diplomacy over the issue in the past two years.
This week Egypt’s chief of staff signed a military cooperation agreement with his Sudanese counterpart during a visit to Sudan.”
An important detail that the Sudanese panelist was trying to emphasize that Benishangul where the GERD is being constructed is actually Sudanese territory.
Could this mean the possibility of an actual water war?
“ Egypt on Wednesday said units of its Air Force and commandos held war games with Sudanese troops, a day after Cairo gave Ethiopia a stern warning over its Nile dam project.
The Egyptian military said the war games, Nile Eagles-2, were held in northern Sudan and had finished.
“The exercise aimed at achieving the maximum use of participating assets in planning and executing air operations and testing the readiness of the forces in carrying out joint operations against targets,” the military said.”
No progress in the DRC talks between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. Sudan is also asking the removal of Ethiopian Peacekeeping forces from Abey- a disputed region between Sudan and South Sudan. The rhetoric from Egypt is increasingly jingoistic. Ethiopia is not backing off. Could this be a water war?
If so, the implications will be catastrophic for a region already in deep turmoil.
“The Egyptian presidential statement accompanying the Sisi visit expressed full support for Sudan’s efforts to extend “its sovereignty over its borders with Ethiopia.” This was apparently a reference to the disputed al-Fashqa region on the Sudanese-Ethiopian border.
There has also been speculation that Egypt may take direct military action against GERD: President Donald Trump himself suggested the Egyptians might “blow up that dam.” But Cairo needn’t go quite that far to make things very difficult for Ethiopia. Egyptian military assistance for Sudan in al-Fashqa would raise anxieties in Addis Ababa. The Ethiopians are also wary of possible outside intervention in a separate insurrection in the Benishangul-Gumuz region, where GERD is located.
Egypt and Sudan are counting on Abiy to read the writing on the wall: The last thing an internationally isolated, internally divided Ethiopia needs right now is a hostile neighbor to its north, supported by a regional power with its own animus against Addis Ababa. This may be their best hope yet for water security.”
Climate Change discourse is mostly missing from the GERD debate.
To my knowledge, neither Ethiopia, Egypt nor Sudan are invited to Biden’s climate summit.
“An armed group has taken control of a county in western Ethiopia, the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said, citing reports that civilians had been killed and public servants kidnapped.
The commission said it had received reports that Sedal Woreda, in the Kamashi Zone of the western Benishangul-Gumuz Region, was “under near full control of an armed group as of April 19″. It did not say which armed group it was referring to.”
“The region is home to the strategically important Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a $4 billion project that Ethiopia says is key to its economic development and power generation but has caused fears in Egypt and Sudan over disruptions in supplies of water from the Nile.
Benishangul-Gumuz has seen a surge of ethnic violence in recent months, including an attack in December that killed more than 200 civilians. The region is home to many ethnic groups, including the Gumuz, Agaws and Shinasas and the Amhara, and has seen increasingly bloody attacks on civilians.”
GERD workers have stopped working due to safety issues from Oromo and Gumuz insurgents. Is Egypt perhaps using the insurgents as a proxy force to destabilize Abiy’s regime?
Strong possibility in my view!
It’s a form of water war.
“Ethiopia plans to hold 13.5 billion cubic meters of water during the second filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’s reservoir in July, despite the objections of downstream countries Egypt and Sudan over the move in the absence of a legally binding agreement.”
Egypt is concluding military agreements with neighboring countries creating a ring around Ethiopia. Could this be a water war?
“Tensions between the Khartoum and Addis Ababa governments area already high over the impact of Ethiopia’s civil war, the management of water resources and control over a disputed territory, Al-Fashaga (also known as Al-Fushqa).”