Internal war, Egypt’s Nile demands may bring end to Ethiopian miracle economy

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Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Africa’s largest electric power facility, scheduled for full operation in 2023

By Earnest McBride
JA Contributing Editor

Two years ago, Ethiopia’s bustling economy was doing so well that it earned the nickname “the China of Africa” from Bloomberg and other business media.

Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister in April 2018. He worked out a peace agreement with neighboring Eritrea, made crucial government reforms, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2019.

With its new 470-mile electric rail system running from Addis Ababa to the port of Djibouti, its new hospitals, high tech schools, and a brand-new African Union Headquarters built in 2013, Ethiopia was in fact doing a lot better than China in 2018. Ethiopia showed an annual growth rate of 8.5 percent while China’s growth held at a steady, but healthy, 6.5 percent.

Ethiopia’s real promise of a breakthrough prosperity, however, is in its nearly completed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Africa’s largest hydroelectric system, and the eighth largest in the world. With a production capacity of 6,000 megawatts of electric power, this massive power system on the Blue Nile, just south of the border with Sudan, promises to bring electric power to 60 percent of Ethiopia’s households while also guaranteeing to supply the power needs of the lesser-developed Sudan.

There were two major hitches in this wonderful story, though.

Egypt said no to the completion of the dam. And the leaders of the Tigray region revolted against Abiy Ahmed’s national government and opted for war.

EGYPT ON THE NILE
Under the able leadership of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who died in 2012, the work on the dam began. From the very beginning, Egypt said that Ethiopia’s damming of the Nile posed an “existential threat” to Egypt and that it would go to war, if necessary, to stop Ethiopia’s “unilateral” decision.

Egypt has coerced Sudan to take its side in the call for a binding guarantee from Ethiopia that their shares of the Blue Nile’s waters won’t be reduced in any significant way.

Abiy Ahmed wants the African Union to act as the referee in the dispute and doesn’t want any European countries to interfere.

“Ethiopia does not intend to harm other countries,” Ahmed said. “Our intention is to work with other countries and improve our status.” Regardless of the direction the continuing dispute might go, Ethiopia says it will finish and use GERD.

At one stage of the dispute, Egypt had sought the counsel of then-President Donald Trump, who, like the useful King Lear-type that he tends to be in a bad situation, practically encouraged Egypt to destroy the dam if Ethiopia persists.

During his last year in office, Trump was heard encouraging Sudan to follow Egypt’s example and recognize Israel. He coddled Sudan and Egypt and berated Ethiopia on the dam issue. Trump ordered the State Department to suspend all aid to Ethiopia and predicted a possible assault on the new dam.

“They will end up blowing up the dam,” Trump said. “And I say it loud and clear, they’ll blow up that dam. And they have to do something.”

In early July, Ethiopia had begun the second stage of filling up the dam, which is about 80 percent complete. July and August are the peak of the rainy season in the Nile Valley and so the normal water table won’t be affected.

The dam is expected to be completed and in full operational mode in 2023, according to Al Jazeera TV.

POLITICAL CLASHES
“In Ethiopia, even if much work remains, Abiy Ahmed has initiated important reforms that give many citizens hope for a better life and a brighter future,” the Nobel Prize committee announced. “He spent his first 100 days as Prime Minister lifting the country’s state of emergency, granting amnesty to thousands of political prisoners, discontinuing media censorship, legalizing outlawed opposition groups, dismissing military and civilian leaders who were suspected of corruption, and significantly increasing the influence of women in Ethiopian political and community life. He has also pledged to strengthen democracy by holding free and fair elections.”

On April 13, 2018 Abiy was elected chair of the EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front), Ethiopia’s then ruling coalition. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had held power since 1991. Delegates from the four party factions that made up EPRDF met and selected Abiy prime minister.

National elections were supposed to take place in August 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic caused the elections to be delayed for 10 months. A new national party, the Prosperity Party, was going to replace the EPRDF. The new party was to provide a United Democratic Party that would be a welcome home for parties and progressive political factions from all 9 of Ethiopia’s regional states and all 80 of its recognized tribal and national groups that outsiders rarely hear of.

When the national elections were put on hold, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) cried foul. It insisted on holding its own elections in Tigray in November 2020.

“The northern region’s leaders are forming alliances with groups including a rebel army from the Oromo, the country’s biggest ethnic group – an ominous historical sign for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed,” Bloomberg’s Next Africa Newsletter reports in the Aug. 20, 2021 edition. “This wasn’t what Abiy envisaged when he sent his army into Tigray 10 months ago. He promised a swift conflict in retaliation for an assault on an army base. But the TPLF has since regained control of the province and its forces are pushing into neighboring Amhara and Afar.”

Why has this war in Ethiopia suddenly gone beyond the limited conflict that was localized to a small region in Tigray? Some human rights groups are worried that the U.S. and European spy agencies are involved in the conflict in some way. There is a growing suspicion that the ex-colonial rulers of Africa feel a need to disrupt and destabilize Ethiopia’s healthy economic.

Ann Garrison’s Black Agenda Report blog takes a swipe at the issue of destabilization.

“I hope that the Ethiopian people will continue to resist U.S. efforts to destabilize and balkanize their country,” she says.