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GERD Back to The Fore: Contradictory Messages and Political Employment

After being away from the limelight for several weeks, Ethiopia has brought back to the fore the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) as a political card on the domestic and foreign fronts through a series of consecutive statements by Ethiopia’s Air Force commander who announced his forces are prepared to the protect the GERD site. Shortly after, the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority banned air traffic over the dam. 

Besides statements by faces familiar to the media in the GERD issue, such as the prime minister and the ministers of foreign affairs and irrigation, President Sahle-Work Zewde said Ethiopia will be ready to generate electricity from the GERD within the following 12 months using the first two turbines that were installed in the dam structure.

Political indications

The sudden return of the GERD to top the Ethiopian government’s interest begs questions about the political motives behind the new batch statements with their military and technical aspects. As has always been the case since Abiy Ahmed rose to the helm in April 2018, releasing the statements is meant to achieve political targets. The following points highlight the most significant political dimensions of the latest Ethiopian statements about the GERD:

– There is no objective justification for the latest statements and official resolutions regarding the GERD, particularly after the deadlock in negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. The African Union also failed to mediate between the three countries to prepare a draft of the agreed-upon technical and legal items, which was scheduled for the end of August. Since then, negotiations came to a near halt, especially with the three countries focusing on more important regional issues, such as the repercussions of the floods and peace developments in Sudan.

– Abiy Ahmed’s consecutive attempts to exploit the GERD issue to face domestic crises cannot be ignored. He renewed his promises of achieving economic prosperity after operating the GERD with its full capacity and reflected images of foreign threats to development in Ethiopia. As much as Ahmed’s attempts to restore his eroding popularity in the past two years have failed, the latest statements are not forecast to leave a tangible political effect.

– Ethiopia’s latest statements about the GERD come at a time domestic crisis are reaching the peak and the gap is widening between the federal government and the government of Tigray. On 9 September, Tigray conducted regional elections, proving the inability of the federal government to affirm its sovereignty and showing Abiy Ahmed as one in a set of significant players who can immensely affect the Ethiopian political process. 

In addition, the federal government’s manoeuvre to imply it will hold general elections in the near future did not succeed after parliament, dominated by Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party, lifted the obligation to hold elections due to the spread of the coronavirus based on a Ministry of Health report. The referral of the file setting the date of elections to the Ethiopian Electoral Commission cast doubts about the true intentions behind that step.  

– On the security level, Benishangul Region, where the GERD is located on the far west of Ethiopia, suffered from instability following several armed attacks on many villages in the region. This incited the federal government to take corrective measures and lay off a large number of political and security officials in the region amid the mystery that shrouded the attacks. Moreover, during the last few weeks, Ethiopian courts directed terrorism charges against many opposition figures arrested in the July demonstrations, prime among whom is Jawar Mohamed, one of the most prominent activists in the Oromia region. The accusations will compound Ahmed’s chances of striking political deals with the opposition, which in turn boosts the probability of a new wave of violent protests that may be bloodier than the demonstrations that swept Ethiopia three months ago.

  • Figuratively, Abiy Ahmed was absent from the statements on the GERD during the last wave of announcements aimed at raising expectations about an imminent operation of the dam and showing the ability to protect it. Ahmed sufficed with his latest speech before the United Nations General Assembly, in which he addressed the GERD issue through assuring the two downstream countries and clearing Ethiopia of being a regional threat before the international community. President Sahle-Work Zewde made the ambiguous statement about generating electricity from the GERD in a year without mentioning the quantity of generated electricity nor a specific date. These unusual media statements regarding the GERD could be the result of Ahmed’s desire not to give more unrealistic promises. According to the parliamentary system, approved by the Ethiopian constitution in 1995, the prime minister is the chief executive official, and the post of the president of the republic is largely ceremonial. 

Security concerns

Ethiopia has been promoting its security concerns about the GERD despite the absence of threats. This was evident in Addis Ababa’s ban of air traffic over the dam. The same conduct is adopted by countries that want to show they fear for their sovereign instalments from threats or emergencies, even if they are unlikely to occur.

In general, countries can adjust flight tracks on a monthly basis. Since the adjustment includes civil aviation airlines, the countries issue military transit permits according to the adjustments. Radars and conventional land monitoring devices can read via transponders the data of planes while flying. It is likely that these countries deploy missile battalions or defence systems in the vicinity of these areas. Other countries may adopt an alternative or additional method, that is to have a special plane that can carry out an interception operation in the case of violating the new tracks.

In this context, Ethiopia deployed the Russian air defence system, Pantsir-S1, and S-125 (SA-3) missiles in the GERD area. The announcement was made by the Ethiopian official media, that stressed the role of the armed forces in protecting the GERD. Military reports indicated that Ethiopia is modernizing its air defences as part of a 2016 national modernization program. The program included the installation of S-75 (SA-2) long-range surface-to-air missiles on T-55 tank chassis to convert them into mobile missile launchers.

The countries that adopt the theory of security concerns usually identify the potential sources of threat, then study the military offensive capabilities of those sources, that are not necessarily aerial only. It is important to note that Ethiopia’s capabilities render it able to deal with limited threats, amid the lack of operating system dependencies and security, particularly if the reports that stated that the malfunction of the Pantsir-S1 due to thunder were true.

Ethiopia had the intention to reveal its security concerns to show it has a national project that is being threatened and to justify its unannounced military defense program. For instance, it is unknown when Ethiopia had acquired the Pantsir-S1 and how many of them it owns. Moreover, the reason for adjusting flight tracks can be not only out of fear of an attack, but to avoid aerial photography and shroud the dam in more secrecy.

In light of the latest Ethiopian political and security statements about the GERD, it is clear the Ethiopian government wants to deliver a domestic message that there is a massive development project underway and others have ill intentions about the dam but the “strong” Ethiopian government is capable of securing it. The complex message reveals the traditional traits of the Ethiopian discourse regarding the GERD in sending mixed messages, spreading fallacies and employing announcements to serve the government domestically.

The status quo reflects Ethiopia’s rigid handling of the GERD issue and its continuing inability to keep up with the fast developments on the domestic political front, which raises doubts about the effectiveness of the latest statements.

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