- Abiy’s government commits to the second filling of the controversial Renaissance Dam
- As a response, Sudan, Egypt and the Arab League call on the UNSC’s intervention in the dispute
- The dam is a way out for Abiy’s recent pitfalls, but it can bring a serious security dilemma
Why is Abiy Ahmed’s Temperature Hot?
Answer: Abiy is fiercely rejecting international calls to pause the filling of the GERD.
For Ethiopians, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is one of the most important symbols of the country’s hopeful future. If filled, the monstrous dam would allow the country to become one of the largest energy producers in Africa, yielding at a rate of 6450 megawatts per year and allowing Ethiopia to consume and sell the dam’s electricity. The project also has the potential to connect some of the country’s most impoverished citizens in a country where almost 7/10 people go without electricity.
But the filling of the dam remains severely controversial in Africa, given that the flow of water from the Nile river would be decreased in neighboring Egypt and Sudan. Despite international pressures to relent the filling of the dam, Abiy Ahmed has been one of the main pushers of this project, and he allowed it to fill 4.9 billion cubic meters in 2020.
Today, a year after the filling project began, more calls from the international community are demanding its halt until a tripartite deal has been signed between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. Nonetheless, Abiy Ahmed and the Ethiopian government have heated up the preparations and established a goal of filling it with 13.5 billion additional cubic meters of water by July, which belligerently defies international requests.
In May of 2021, the Sudanese government accused Ethiopia of surpassing consensus on the Grand Renaissance Dam by unilaterally committing to its filling. This came after repeated failed efforts by Sudan, Egypt, and international mediators to bring the Ethiopian government to agree on of how the dam would be filled.
Additionally, the Arab League states met in Doha, Qatar, where they expressed their support for Egypt’s and Sudan’s right to water security in the face of Ethiopia’s insurrection. As a response to these international accusations, the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a memo on June 15 criticizing the League of Arab States for their request for the intervention of the United Nations Security Council on the matter. Overall, Abiy seems to be entangled in a torrid and unilateral battle against external actors.
The filling of the dam has been one of the soft spots for Abiy Ahmed and the Ethiopian government. Therefore, even though each attempt at a tripartite agreement has fallen short of reaching a substantive deal between the three countries, he has persistently pushed for its filling. Thus, Khartoum and Cairo’s recent calls for UNSC intervention are not the first of their kind.
In 2019 -during the United Nations General Assembly’s 74th session- the Egyptian President Abdel Fatteh El-Sisi called for the international community to address the negotiation of the GERD saying that “[the] Nile water is a matter of life and an issue of existence for Egypt”. The United States, responding to the call, offered to act as a mediator in the dilemma and hold talks in Washington, but the Ethiopians bluntly rejected it when they saw that Trump’s administration was biased in favor of the Egyptians’ argument. A few months later, the African Union encouraged the talks between the three states to resume, but the negotiations broke down once again without an agreement.
And so, Abiy Ahmed and his administration have ignored all international calls to delay the filling. The first decision to start the filling of the GERD, in the rainy season (July-August) of 2020, was regarded by the Sudanese Foreign Minister -Mariam Al-Sadiq- as a “[stab] in the back”. Now, the dam is projected to fill during the next rainy season without a tripartite deal being negotiated -let alone agreed to-, which shows Abiy’s clear repudiation for international pressures.
Furthermore, given that he faces no extreme military threats by Sudan or Egypt, Abiy likely understands that he is ‘in the clear’ to continue the dam’s filling with minimal risk of a backlash. His refusal to give in to international pressures shows Abiy’s heating temperature as the dam issue remains unresolved and the second fill is scheduled to start soon.
What is changing Abiy Ahmed’s Temperature?
Answer: Abiy is re-surging from recent downfalls.
Prior to the dam’s crisis, Abiy Ahmed and the Ethiopian government had been under fire from international organizations and individual states for their armed involvement in the Tigray region. The conflict gained much international attention as it was reported that Eritrean soldiers were in the Tigray region and allegedly taking part in “sexual violence, ethnic-based attacks, and large-scale looting” alongside the Ethiopian forces.
In May of 2021, United States Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, announced in a statement that Abiy and Isaias Afwerki (President of Eritrea) needed to work together to end the conflict and hold war criminals accountable. Blinken also announced sanctions against members of the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments, members of the military, and members from the largest Tigrayan party (TPLF).
Of course, these actions taken against Abiy’s government are clear indications of how the Prime Minister had lost his popularity in the West. Even though the government recently announced a unilateral ceasefire as the TPLF retook the capital city of the Tigray region, the physical and psychological damage from the conflict will be an obvious road bump for Abiy. Additionally, though announcement of the unilateral ceasefire is welcomed, the conflict is likely to remain under watch as it has been previously -and erroneously- denominated ‘over’ in the past. It is because of these losses that Abiy truly needs a domestic win, which he hopes to attain through the filling of the GERD.
By rejecting the Arab League’s resolution that called for intervention by the UNSC, he also showed his determination to fulfill his policy goals. After the League of Arab States’ Secretary-General, Aboul Gheit (an Egyptian), denominated the issue as a dispute of Arab sovereignty and security, the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement:
“The League of Arab States has already squandered its opportunity to play a constructive role. It should be abundantly clear that futile attempts like this to internationalize and politicize the GERD will not lead to sustainable regional cooperation in the utilization of the Nile”.
Once again, Abiy’s government seems to be clearly rejecting potential mediators. The memo also rejected the League’s attempt at ethnicizing the conflict by calling it an “Arab issue”, given that it can severely increase ethnic tensions.
Fortunately, an Egyptian political analyst said that “Egypt is hesitant to jump into a war before fulfilling all the diplomatic channels…”, meaning that a war with Ethiopia is not in the interests of Egypt nor Sudan. Nonetheless, Egypt’s Foreign Minister -Sameh Shoukry- hinted at the possibility of an armed conflict with Ethiopia by appealing to a responsibility to protect their citizens. This same sentiment has been repeated by Egyptian President, El-Sisi, as he stated after failed negotiations in Kinshasa: “let’s not reach the point where you touch a drop of Egypt’s water, because all options are open”.
Ethiopia has strongly committed to the second round of filling of the GERD and is consistently ignoring the rising tensions between the three countries. This is a power play by Abiy Ahmed, but as the rising pressures from his disgruntled neighbors mounts, he also understands the potentially harmful security situation he may be stepping into. Ultimately, Abiy’s reluctance to give away any sovereignty over the functions of the GERD -despite rising international pressures- is a display of his temperature heating up on the international stage.
What is driving Abiy Ahmed?
Answer: Political and economic advantages from the GERD electricity production.
Abiy, who was elected by a parliamentary decree in April 2018, finds that he has to prove himself at the national level. In the upcoming elections of July 21st, 2021, Abiy faces his first electoral challenge as he has to prove worthy of continuing his Prime Ministerial role.
One of the biggest challenges he faces is to prove that his ideology of Medemer -which emphasizes Ethiopian patriotism while rejecting ethnic allegiances- is able to survive through successful electoral results for his Prosperity Party. One of the main tenets of Abiy’s Medemer ideology is economic strength for all Ethiopians, which can be brought along with the completion of the dam. Abiy also looks to cement his legacy in Ethiopian political history as the first Prime Minister to be elected through an entirely democratic process and the one to bring the country to its economic rebirth through the GERD.
The dam also holds important cultural and economic significance to the Ethiopian population as it represents a literal renaissance or “rebirth” by giving the Ethiopian public easier access to electricity. The dam’s financing also came in part from Ethiopian crowd-funding, given that they consider it a necessary investment in the country’s future. It is estimated that the dam can bring in an extra one billion dollars per year when it is running at full capacity. Due to this socio-cultural dynamic -and the need to redeem himself from previous pitfalls- Abiy has taken a hardline stance against the challengers of the revolutionary dam.
What does this mean for you?
Answer: A potential security dilemma brought by the failure of tripartite negotiations.
As the pressure mounts, the international community sees that the dispute between the three states may need to be more scrutinized. The new United States Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa, John Feltman, believes that the wishes of the Egyptian and Sudanese governments can be respected alongside Ethiopia’s commitment to fill the dam. The statement released by the United States State Department also offered the possibility of providing “political and technical support” to make an agreement a reality.
Biden -who seems to be taking a softer stance on Ethiopia than ex-President Trump- restored foreign aid inflow to Ethiopia that was previously cut by the Trump administration, a move that was seen negatively by the European Union. For the EU, negotiations should be led by the African Union and without external actors taking sides. Nonetheless, as the conflict arises, the Union understands that it may need to increase its level of intervention in the conflict, and an EU ambassador commented that the Union is “willing to raise its level of participation in the negotiations”.
For both Egypt and Sudan, it would be detrimental if a deal cannot be brokered. Egypt relies on the Nile for 95% of its freshwater -also significant for the country’s production of crops. This has prompted the Egyptians to build the country’s alliances in East Africa. Kenya and Egypt signed a defense cooperation agreement (similar Egyptian deals have been allegedly signed with Burundi and Uganda) as the GERD conflict seems to be a potential threat to regional stability. In the case of Sudan, the electricity production from the Merowe and Roseires Dams may also be impacted, and thus threaten the lives of 20 million Sudanese.
For Ethiopians, the dam seems to be one of the most important pieces of national pride and a hopeful future, but it comes with a high regional security risk. As the country has increased the dam’s security, it is clear that Ethiopia understands the dangers of filling the dam unilaterally. Regardless, the hopeful electricity production of the GERD would allow the Ethiopians to export electricity around the continent, cementing itself as a regional economic hegemon.
The completion of the dam would also fulfill Abiy Ahmed’s goal to find light amidst the Tigray crisis that has devastated Ethiopia’s reputation at the international scale. Nonetheless, failing to sign a deal and continuing to fill the dam may also cause a desperate security catastrophe in a country that already faces plenty of domestic security threats.