The site of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in Guba, Ethiopia. (Photo: AFP)
In an inaugural ceremony attended by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Sunday, Ethiopia launched electricity production through its mega-dam on the Blue Nile. Ahmed stressed that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) was not meant to harm the downstream nations, Sudan and Egypt, in any way. Construction is still in progress, but according to official sources the project is over 83 per cent complete.
The launch is no surprise. The Ethiopian cabinet convened its first meeting on GERD this year. Shortly afterwards, the prime minister’s office released a statement saying that it was time for Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan to build peace, cooperation and coexistence, aiming at development without harming one another. The statement stressed that the management and utilisation of Nile waters can be developed in a rational and equitable manner that benefits all countries in its basin.
Only one of the 375 megawatt (MW) turbines went into operation on Sunday. A previous official announcement had said that two 375 MW turbines would go into operation simultaneously, delivering 350 MW to the national power grid. The second turbine has not been mentioned since Sunday. According to the government’s declared plans, the eventual target generation capacity is 6,000 MW. This puts the single generator that went into operation so far into clearer perspective. It reduces the chances of a rapid rise in the country’s overall power production and, hence, the prospect of quick and extensive improvement in the people’s economic and living standards. This is something the government urgently needs to show in order to rebuild its eroding political capital at a time when it is beleaguered by several intractable crises. It seems Sunday’s high-profile power launch was calculated to accomplish symbolically what could not be done tangibly.
In late January, the government lifted the state of emergency that had been in effect since November 2021 when the Tigray conflict erupted. An extraordinary cabinet session had been held to discuss ending the state of emergency and the resultant decision was sent to parliament for approval. The purpose of this move was to project the impression that the threat posed by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had passed. A new military operation the TPLF in the Afar region at the end of January put paid to that impression and recalled the Tigray Defence Forces’ offensives of June and December 2021, during which the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) sustained severe losses.
On 7 January, Ahmed called for a national reconciliation, announcing the release of several high profile political prisoners, and launched a “national dialogue” in order to “pave the way for a lasting solution to Ethiopia’s problems in a peaceful, non-violent way.” Three of the country’s main opposition parties boycotted the preparatory sessions for the dialogue, casting a shadow over its prospects for success. Hopes for the dialogue dimmed further when the Prosperity Party, which Abiy Ahmed heads, decided to exclude the TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Army, a breakaway faction from the Oromo Liberation Front. The absence of these two major opposition groups will effectively void the reconciliation drive of substance, limiting dialogue to the government and a token opposition that agreed to participate in the general elections held in 2021, after being delayed several times because of the Tigray conflict.
At the end of December 2021, the Somali Region in eastern Ethiopia announced that 3.4 million people were in urgent need of humanitarian relief due to the severe draught which by now has already displaced large numbers of people into the regional capital, Jijiga. Prime Minister Ahmed visited the region to assess the situation and show the central government’s support for the Somali Regional President Mustafa Mohamed Omar, who is one of Ahmed’s most important allies. The worsening humanitarian and economic situation has increased political tensions in the region and stirred mounting criticism of the performance of Omar’s regional government. In February, the regional chapter of the Prosperity Party split into two factions, one still supporting Omar, the other now opposing him. Soon afterwards, other opposition forces, such as the Ogaden National Liberation Front and the Congress for the Somali Cause notched up the pressure they had been exerting on the government.
Abiy Ahmed’s policy shift towards Somaliland, to the north of the Ethiopian Somali Region, threatens to aggravate the crisis in the Somali Region. Following a visit by Somaliland President Musa Bibi Abdi to Addis Ababa in January, Ethiopia appointed its first ambassador to Hargeisa, thereby raising its level of diplomatic representation with Somaliland. Although the Somalian government of Mogadishu has been relatively silent on the matter because of the strained relationship with Addis Ababa, it nevertheless lifted the terrorist designation it had given the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) in 2017. With avenues open for support, the ONLF stands to gain a more prominent role in the Somali Region, which will inherently come at the expense of Ahmed and his allies in the second largest Ethiopian national region.
Against the backdrop of developments in the Tigray and Somali regions, the government turned once again to GERD as a means to boost its popularity. But developments on the ground cast doubts on the success of this strategy. The recurrent bouts of violence targeting Amhara groups in the Benishangul-Gumuz Region have displaced more than 20,000 people from refugee camps and rural areas towards the regional capital, Assosa.
Under such turbulent conditions, the government clearly needs more concrete solutions. It will take more than fanfare over GERD or token political gestures to restore stability. The government will eventually have to make some essential and genuine concessions, however costly for the Prosperity Party.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.