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Deconstructing Ethiopia’s Media Discourse on GERD: History and the Victim Mentality

It is no coincidence the Ethiopian political and media discourse on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is summoning chapters from history, bringing to the fore what it describes as the deprivation of the Ethiopian people’s right to Nile water. The ruling political class employs Ethiopians’ history in search of commonalities to unify the people’s ranks and make the Renaissance Dam a grand milestone in their history. This gives the political class made up of allied ethnicities a breath of fresh air in a country suffering from political, economic and social woes, regardless of the rights of others, which the Ethiopians themselves advocate in their speech to the world as they propagate “the fair sharing of water resources” with Nile Basin countries.

In an Opinion article published by Addis Standard, Yeshiwas Degu Belay wrote “In one of the most popular and timeless Ethiopian songs, ‘Adwa’, Artist Ejigayehu Shebabaw (Gigi) resonates the 19th Century heroic citizenship and the symbolic, cultural and political importance, not only to Ethiopians but also to the black people as a whole, of Africa’s great victory, Adwa. “On 2nd March 1896, Ethiopians had collectively defeated the heavily mechanized Italian colonial army at the battle of Adwa, in northern Ethiopia.”

Historical approaches in Ethiopia’s media discourse

“The victory safeguarded the independence of the state in the midst of European ‘scramble for Africa’ and constituted ideologically important force for the successive Pan-African struggles in the continent and abroad,” continued Belay.

In Ethiopia, it is being said that the village of Adwa is a historical landmark that embodies popular culture and identity despite divisions and historical interpretations. When Ethiopia celebrated the 124th anniversary of its victory over Italy, the local propaganda machine linked the historical incident with the country’s ability to complete the construction of the Renaissance Dam and the start of the first filling in a clear strategy to tie the historical victim mentality with the construction of the dam. Ethiopia’s political elite is promoting the GERD as the structure which will bring back Ethiopia’s historical rights after the downstream country had “dominated” Nile waters for hundreds of years.

This was evident in Belay’s article. “It is no exaggeration to say that no other development project has been incredibly linked to Ethiopia’s past than the GERD, which is the centerpiece of Ethiopia’s development. The Adwa Victory is an exemplary event that could be conveyed by the public proverb [which means] collaboration of spider webs can tie the lion. Though divided along multiple political lines, Ethiopians were united, and are still united when it comes to the core of national interest, and battered the colossal Italian mechanized army that aimed at controlling the sovereign and its interests. Culturally so powerful that after more than a century the unified stand against colonialism remains in the minds of today’s decision-makers, the national media, and the general public. Such historical consciousness is not only to reflect on the current affairs retrospectively, but also to realize contemporary development endeavors.”

Ethiopia has launched campaigns at home and abroad to promote the mega national project since it started building the GERD in April 2011 on the Blue Nile to generate 6,500 MW of electricity. The campaigns targeted stoking patriotism and exaggerating cultural and historical experiences that were milestones for the advancement of the country. 

“The victory of Adwa must be repeated in our struggle against poverty to create a prosperous Ethiopia,” said the country’s president, Sahle-Work Zewde. In order to complete the project, Ethiopia mobilized the public at home and abroad to donate to build the GERD and for 10 years it propagated the project and charged its people morally on social media to create the image of a nation that grabs its rights from the “state dominating” Nile water.

Numerous writings indicate that the GERD presents the changing face of Ethiopia, in contradiction to the stereotypes that have been spread on global media in which Ethiopia is a poor country that lacks the ability to implement mega projects.

Post-Washington shifts

The mobilization of Ethiopian public opinion at home and abroad picked up momentum following the February talks mediated by Washington. Ethiopia abstained from signing the agreement at the last minute, claiming Washington had sided with Egypt. Voices grew louder as they spoke of “national sovereignty” and not succumbing to any pressures, even if they came from friendly major powers. In order to continue the financial and moral mobilization among Ethiopians domestically and abroad, the Ethiopian strategy was to hold Egyptian and international media responsible for presenting Ethiopia in a way it deems to be different from the reality on the ground with regard to the bases on which it built the Renaissance Dam.

The Ethiopian media claims the Egyptian media is a “propaganda machine for the state” and the international media which should be unbiased (such as Bloomberg, the New York Times, the Independent, the Washington Post, and Voice of America) is, according to Ethiopian writers, in one way or another, saying Ethiopia is acting unilaterally when it announced it filled the dam’s reservoir without agreement. According to Ethiopia’s media, the international media is deliberately creating new facts on the ground and says Ethiopia intentionally skipped the last meeting in Washington and that it plans to dominate River Nile resources. The Ethiopian media claims this kind of journalism “distorts the facts” and works in the interest of Egypt and against Ethiopia. However, Ethiopia doesn’t pay attention to other views in this fateful issue for the downstream country.

Ethiopian diaspora

In tandem with the media campaigns on social media platforms in support of the Ethiopian position, the Ethiopian government is backing what can be called “partnership with the diaspora”. GERD promotional campaigns managed to collect $56 million, out of the total cost of constructing the dam estimated at $4.7 billion, from Ethiopian expats. Development Bank of Ethiopia figures indicate a hike in GERD bond sales as soon as the initial filling was announced.

The Ethiopian Diaspora Association encourages Ethiopian expats to participate in financing the dam and supporting it diplomatically through making contacts with decision-makers in the countries where they reside. The association’s Chief Executive Director Abraham Seyoum said “the River Nile should not be a political agenda. It is about benefiting from water resources in an equitable and reasonable way.”

The office of the National Council for the Coordination of Public Participation on the Construction of the GERD is coordinating efforts with an NGO, Lift Ethiopia, to hold international events to support the Ethiopian position on the GERD and address the world. One such event, One Voice for Our Dam, promoted “the fair use of water sources and fighting poverty.”

Many countries, particularly the US, saw the emergence of associations and organizations that promote the Ethiopian position. The presence of these groups, such as the Justice for Humanity, increased during the first quarter of 2020. Justice for Humanity launched campaigns in the US and Canada to pressure the Trump administration to rectify the “US biased position”, condemn the unfair pressure exercised by the US administration on Ethiopia, promote fair use and mutual benefit, and clarify the Ethiopian position on the international stage.

These new civil associations focus on the second generation of Ethiopian diaspora in the US, Canada, and Europe to deliver messages to decision-makers, particularly at the Congress, that big changes that are taking place in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa are worthy of support, especially in development and fighting poverty. The Ethiopian groups employ expatriate youth and direct them on social media platforms to address foreign decision-makers and advocate their version of the story. These associations also focus on countering the “fallacies” spread about Ethiopia and its GERD. Hewan Solomon, the Justice for Humanity coordinator, said “If they know the real story, friends, allies and citizen of other countries would fight along with us for this cause.”

Fifteen Ethiopian diaspora associations signed a declaration for civil organizations abroad on 27 June 2020. These organizations have branches in a number of US states, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Arizona, Oregon, southwest Washington, and Los Angeles.

Ethiopia’s focus on its media discourse serves a number of purposes, regardless how correct its approach is and no matter whether it sticks to the truth or not. Ethiopia’s media discourse secures financial support for the construction of the GERD through selling bonds to Ethiopian expats whose economic conditions are better than their peers at home.

This discourse also provides the moral support for the project advocated as a national cause that all the Ethiopians, at home and abroad, support. Moreover, it allows Ethiopia to apply increasing pressure on foreign policymakers in the US and Europe who are now playing key roles in negotiations. 

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