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Miscalculation syndrome: Considering Ethiopia’s attitude on the Renaissance Dam

The Ethiopian government has clearly fallen into the trap of excessive exploitation of the Renaissance Dam to political ends. As it reels beneath mounting pressures both at home and abroad, due to both the cumulative effects of erroneous policies from previous governments and its own poor decisions, it is weighing what appears to be a certain loss against a possible one.

Domestically it fears that if it is seen to back down in any way in the dispute over the dam, it will suffer an unsustainable decline in its already eroding popularity because of its inability to meet the pledges it made to the public on coming to power.

On the other hand, it believes that the deterioration in Ethiopia’s relations with Egypt and Sudan because of the impasse in negotiations over the dam and its insistence on proceeding with the second filling will be repairable at a later stage. It has therefore opted to escalate politically as a means to shore up support at home, banking on an improvement in domestic circumstances after the 5 June election and on last-minute interventions by international powers to pull the three countries away from the brink.

Ethiopia’s calculations both miss the mark. First, a policy of intransigence cannot guarantee the political and economic gains the government needs in order to rescue itself from the current domestic crisis. Secondly, the high costs Ethiopia is incurring as a result of worsening relations with Egypt and Sudan are already beginning to manifest in the volatile situation throughout the Horn of Africa. The following are three main areas where Ethiopia has miscalculated.

Ethiopia has been in the grip of a severe leadership crisis since the sudden death of former prime minister Meles Zenawi, something that has been evident in the mounting scope and rate of civil violence which culminated in the outbreak of the Tigray War in November 2020.

Since coming to power in 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been caught between two conflicting desires, one pushing him to cast himself as a reformist eager to build his legitimacy on a broad base of multi-ethnic and cross-regional affiliations, the other driving him to avoid risking his political future through a real test of his popularity. The latter eventually led to him postponing the elections first from May to August 2020, then again to June 2021.

But Ahmed’s wager on elections as a means to shore up legitimacy is misplaced. The process itself needs to surmount major challenges before it can begin. The gravest is the ongoing conflict in the Tigray Region between federal forces backed by Amhara militias and Eritrean forces, and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

The National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) has already announced that the Tigray Region will not be included in the polls because of the state of emergency there, which means that the forthcoming parliament will not represent all Ethiopian ethnicities and regions, unlike the five last parliaments elected since 1995. 

The impending elections have also triggered a resurgence of tensions between the Somali and the Afar peoples in some districts where sovereignty is contested. Over a hundred people have died in the clashes. In the run up to elections, what is more, declarations by opposition parties, especially in the most populous Oromo Region which has the highest portion of representation in parliament, have cast a shadow over the integrity of the election results.

Observers predict that, at best, the polls will yield a repetition of the 2010 and 2015 elections which handed the Revolutionary Democratic Front and its coalition parties all the seats in parliament. On top of this come the procedural glitches that have caused a month’s delay in voter registration. 

To offset these problems and secure an electoral victory, the current government is willing to take highly costly risks, the most important of which is its escalatory tactics in the Renaissance Dam dispute. Even if they succeeded, these risks would have very low payback. The topic of the dam can have only a marginal impact on voting trends in the tense Tigray, Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz regions, let alone in the western regions that have nothing to gain from the dam project because it is so far away. In fact, against this backdrop, the dam may ultimately emerge as a symbol of the inequality in the distribution of development allocations. 

The economic and developmental feasibility of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is still a matter of speculation for a number of reasons. But experts believe that, even when it reaches full operation (or what the government has claimed will be its full operational level), it will not make a qualitative dent in the country’s general state of underdevelopment.

This suggests that the government is not counting on the project as a means to convince the political opposition to change its views but rather as a means to divert public attention from the disastrous mistakes the Abiy Ahmed government has made since coming to power. Perhaps, too, it believes that its media campaign on the controversy over the dam will mobilise Ethiopian communities abroad into lobbying Western governments to alleviate pressure on Addis Ababa. 

More dangerous in terms of Ethiopian domestic cohesion is how the politicisation of development, and hydraulic construction policies above all, has been used in the competition between rival ethnic groups. Developments in dam construction policy have come to epitomise the ascendency of the Amhara at the expense of the Tigrayan people. The GERD project, in particular, was used to exclude the Tigray from the management of the Metals and Engineering Corporation (METEC), on grounds of alleged corruption.

More recently, the Tekezé Dam was deliberately targeted during the Tigray war in order to cut off electricity in the Tigray Region and weaken the TPLF. Then, in January, the unveiling of plans to construct a new dam, the Ajima-Chacha, in the Amhara Region was tantamount to a declaration of the Amhara elites’ bid to assert their hegemony over crucial national decisions, especially development spending, a large portion of which had once been pumped into the Tigray Region. 

It was inevitable that Ethiopia’s persistent intransigence in the GERD negotiations would lead to a collision course with Egypt and Sudan, what is more. This was recently aggravated by the resurgent border conflict resulting from Amhara militia activities in the Sudanese Al-Fashqa triangle. Seeing its margin of manoeuvrability shrink on one side, Addis accelerated the development of its relations with Eritrea, the value of which would be seen in the war in the Tigray Region. Eritrean forces played a critical role in the battle to control Mekelle and other Tigrayan cities.

However, for Addis, this proved to be a pyrrhic victory because of how the conduct of that war turned Ethiopia into yet another Horn of Africa pariah state in the making. Addis Ababa and Asmara are now the object of international condemnation for gross human rights violations and abuses, which US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described as “ethnic cleansing”. 

Abiy Ahmed’s losing gambles have stripped Addis of its ability to exercise its traditional role as a regional power in the Horn of Africa. This, in turn, has led it to invent new regional arrangements such as the alliance with the Eritrean and Somali regimes, an arraignment that has no prospects of sustainability because of instability in all three countries. Moreover, structural transformations in the nature of Ethiopia’s regional role has opened a window to other powers to fill the emergent vacuum in the region. Sudan, in particular, may be poised for the role now that it has rejoined the international fold. Kenya, too, has been gaining in strategic importance in recent years.

The sum total of Ethiopia’s miscalculations on all fronts appears to add up in favour of parties other than the government in Addis Ababa. For Ethiopia itself, the cost of the losses is proving extremely high. Whether it can avert some of these costs depends on the extent to which it appreciates how developments in the joint stance of Egypt and Sudan have rectified the imbalance in GERD negotiations and how much this can impact the domestic equation, precisely because of Abiy Ahmed’s mistaken over-linkage between the negotiations and the government’s domestic battles. 

Dr. Ahmed Amal
Chief of African studies unit

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