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The obstacles to agreement over managing the Blue Nile dam are more about internal politics than technical issues
The positions of Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam seemed as far apart as their respective capital cities as officials began another round of video-conferencing under the auspices of the African Union on 4 July. Observers from the AU, the European Union, the United States and South Africa – President Cyril Ramaphosa is chair of the AU and mediating between the parties, which also include Sudan – are watching the latest chapter unfold. Conflict over the GERD has been growing ever since, seven years ago, the fact that the dam would happen dawned on Ethiopia's neighbours.
According to a cabinet minister in Sudan, whose political fragility as it emerges from a 36-year dictatorship ill-qualifies it for full participation in the talks, 90% of the technical issues over the dam had been solved.
But the 10% remaining concerns widely contrasting national pride and geopolitics in Egypt and Ethiopia. While Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el Sisi runs a military regime to which no serious challenge is foreseeable, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is at the centre of a political maelstrom which could destroy the fragile federation.
Addis's relations with Cairo were already tense when Oromo activist and singer Hachalu Hundessa was murdered on 29 June and Abiy raised the spectre of possible Egyptian involvement. He said on 3 July, 'Those external and internal forces who were not successful with the GERD issue have tried their utmost efforts to create chaos at this time,' in an obvious allusion to Egypt. Abiy also promised to find and punish 'those that are pulling the strings'. At least 166 people have been killed in the rioting that followed Hachalu's shooting.
Abiy's invocation of foreign plotters – no one not seized by populist fury really believes Egypt could have been involved – shows how serious his domestic political position is.
Abiy is creating a new ruling party, the Prosperity Party (PP), to replace the formerly ruling Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front and must forge a new national consensus (AC Vol 61 No 6, New party, old tactics).
Long-suppressed ethno-nationalist ambitions which the EPRDF could not contain have burst into the open since he became leader two years ago. His appointment was in part intended to help quell that turmoil but low-level skirmishes between the federal government and Ethiopia's constituent nations, and between them, have threatened to widen into more general and more violent conflict.
Free and fair elections originally set for August were supposed to confirm the dominance of the PP and channel separatist passions into parliament, but these polls, which were delayed in March at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, have now been postponed for at least another nine months.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Abiy, like the late EPRDF visionary Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, needs the dam as a rallying point. Its immense scale, and the more or less voluntary contribution of all Ethiopians towards the capital needed to build it provided a nationalistic focus free of ethnicity.
With little else to offer ferocious militants often careless of the consequences of confrontation, it suits Abiy politically to defy Egypt over the dam. A hostile foreign power apparently holding Ethiopia in contempt can usefully channel divisive internal energies.
Against such a background, drought mitigation protocols and dispute-resolution mechanisms over water-release when the dam reservoir is full look like small potatoes.
Egypt was angry with Addis's insistence that it will start filling the reservoir regardless of the views of others when the last round of talks ended inconclusively on 17 June. Its pride was affronted, and its view of itself in the region.
Egypt wants to influence events in Libya and has allied itself with conservative elements in the military in Sudan trying to hold the line against participatory democracy. Sisi needs to assert Egypt's sovereignty, as it sees it, over the Nile.
However, even if Ethiopia is ready to close the dam and start filling it, the issue of water flows will not become urgent for at least another two years. At the fastest rate, and assuming the most generous rains, the filling would take over five years.
Although the figures of 70% or 80% are often used to describe how close the dam is to completion, the final portion is the most expensive – turbines and distribution grids – and Ethiopia has no international finance to call on. (Because Addis never involved neighbouring countries in the planning, no international financial institution could offer finance.) Major delays have followed corruption in one of the parastatals in charge (AC Vol 59 No 23, Rounding up the suspects).
Nor is Egypt on the brink of the Nile being reduced to a trickle by a vengeful foe, whatever Sisi's propagandists may claim. The Aswan Dam only produces a small portion of Egypt's electricity, and its immense natural gas reserves supply a national superabundance of electricity, some of which is exported to Sudan. The 1.5 gigawatts of solar power which has been installed in the past three years to the north of Aswan is almost equivalent to the High Dam's entire hydroelectric capacity.
Egypt has long been ignoring its own rules on water conservation, and allows water-intensive agriculture projects, such as paddy rice, to proceed although restrictions are beginning to be applied. Faced with a lower flow of the Nile, Cairo has many options for economising on water use, most of which were supposed to have been enacted long ago. But nobody wants to adopt such measures under duress.
Nor has pride been a factor only on the African continent. The White House tried to prove that it could handle international diplomacy as well as the State Department, which it has spent so much time decrying, when it brokered talks in Washington between Cairo and Addis at the behest of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin in February. The ineptly conducted mediation looked very much like bullying from Addis's perspective and it refused to sign an agreement which angry Ethiopian officials called an ultimatum.
Like the now almost forgotten clumsy attempt to bring peace to Libya, this gambit was less about using the US's best offices to help solve a little local difficulty, than to present a neat image to the US electorate of a peace-making White House with global reach (AC Vol 60 No 24, Trump talks peace).
Against such a background, President Ramaphosa's best option may be to advise everybody to cool down, be patient and gather round their monitors in six months or so.
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