No end to turmoil in Ethiopia: Obstacles to resolving the GERD dispute

Doaa El-Bey , Wednesday 1 Dec 2021

The escalating conflict in Ethiopia places another obstacle in the way of resolving the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

No end to the turmoil
No end to the turmoil

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which ruled Ethiopia from May 1991 until it was ousted amid mass protests in 2018, is poised to enter the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. A number of countries, including the US, have advised their citizens to leave Ethiopia immediately, and officials and commentators are voicing concerns that the country may be on the verge of collapse.

Though Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa discussed the “grave situation in Ethiopia” and agreed that there is an urgent need for all parties to commit to an immediate, indefinite and negotiated cease-fire — a statement to that effect was released at the start of the Kenyan leader’s two-day state visit to South Africa last week — African Union mediation has failed to bring the warring parties together.

The escalating conflict begs many questions, not least about the future of the unresolved dispute between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Will the Ethiopian government opt for a reasonable compromise in order to close the file, or will it adopt an even more intransigent stand in the hope it will garner popular support?

Judging from the latest official statements, the government appears inclined towards the latter, said a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The options that the government has at present —whether to fight the TPLF and Oromo Liberation Army [OLA] or reconcile with one or both of them — do not bode well for settling the file,” he explained.

The fate of the GERD negotiations is now hostage to the political conflict currently playing out in Ethiopia, and whoever emerges victorious will try to use the dam, which the Ethiopian government has always presented as a national project essential for development, to win public support.

Not that the dam dispute is the only thing at stake. “A more important issue is how the outcome of the war will affect peace and security of the countries neighbouring Ethiopia, especially those —Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia — which have border issues with Addis Ababa,” added the diplomat.

Embroiled in a ferocious battle with its opponents, the government of Ethiopia is desperate show construction of the dam is continuing. Ethiopia’s newly appointed Minister of Water and Energy Habtamu Itefa said earlier this week that the construction of GERD went hand-in-hand with “fighting terrorists” and said the soon to be completed second phase would allow the generation of electricity to begin.

Abbas Sharaki, professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University, discounts such statements as an attempt to raise public morale in the middle of a ferocious conflict and after the severely limited second filling of the GERD reservoir in July.

The first turbine, says Sharaki, was scheduled to begin operating in October but failed to do so and little has been done in the meantime that would change this. Meanwhile, of course, Addis Ababa appears on the verge of falling into rebel hands.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned that the war has placed Ethiopia on a “path to destruction” that could reverberate across east Africa.

Speaking to CNN in Abuja, Nigeria during his tour of Africa last month, Blinken urged Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed to fulfil his responsibilities and end the ongoing violence. The current conflict, he said, risks “ripping the country apart and spilling into other countries in the region”.

In November 2020, Ahmed ordered a military offensive in Tigray to oust the TPLF. He claimed the move was in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps, and promised a swift victory. That victory, however, proved elusive: instead, Ethiopia has been plunged into an identity-based civil war which pits the central government against an array of tribal groups fighting for greater autonomy. The Tigray Defence Force and OLA, both of which are rapidly closing in on the capital, are merely the best known of the many groups now doing battle.

During its time in government the TPLF maintained a tight grip on the country economically and politically and denied other groups any space to exercise their rights.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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