Ethiopia’s Diplomatic Victory on the Disputed GERD Is beyond Economical Value … It Is A Pan-African Victory

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Ethiopia's Disputed GERD after the first round filling

The decade long dispute over how to share the water of the Nile between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan has pulled United States, World Bank, United Nations Security Council, European Union, and African Union to the observation/negotiation pool. While the negotiation led by the latter will continue, the formers who tried to mediate have failed to produce a solution.

Egypt and Sudan have been adamant and persistently telling that Ethiopia should not start filling the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) before the agreement.  However, the gods and goddesses of Abbay known as the Nile outside of Ethiopia seem to align with the upper stream country as heavy rain showers the highlands of Ethiopia and rushed to attain the filling of the first phase, 4.9 BCM in this year. Ethiopians are rejoicing over this news since the PM Abiy Ahmed hailed the nation on Tuesday night. This victory is not only for Ethiopia, in fact, but it is also at large Africa’s victory.   

PM Abiy Ahmed hailed the first filling of the disputed dam following the Bureau of the African Union Assembly, convened by the South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, on 21 July. The PM office press release reads that “It has become evident over the past two weeks in the rainy season that the #GERD first year filling is achieved and the dam under construction is already overtopping.”  This is also accompanied by a congratulation message from the PM to the nation where he underlines the technical negotiation will resume and for Ethiopians to continue their support for the completion of the construction and dam filling and to plant trees for the sustainability of the development project. 

Following the Prime Minister’s congratulatory message, Ethiopians are rejoicing and expressing their happiness on social media and feasting where they are. Although Ethiopia has been committed to filling its dam this year, with or without an agreement the news came as a surprise as no one expected 4.9 BCM could be achieved in two weeks span of time. 

For Ethiopians, this is a victory beyond its economical value.  It reaffirms that Ethiopia is the powerhouse of the region; it is a win in the diplomacy arena, and Ethiopia gets the upper hand for subsequent technical and legal negotiations over the dam in the future. Continentally, the negotiation has been an event for Ethiopia to prove its commitment to the value of Pan-Africanism and believing in the institution that it founded 57 years ago demonstrating African solutions to African problems. Internationally Ethiopia once again sticks to its motto “good over evil” and by committing to its right and truth it has shown the world that victory is by its side. But, mainly the triumph brings multi-fold benefits to the continent.

What does it mean to Ethiopia

The achievement of the first phase of filling GERD will allow Ethiopia to test its two power turbines soon. This brings hope to around 60 percent of Ethiopians who live in darkness to light their lives through the power generated by the dam. Furthermore, this transforms Ethiopia to be a powerhouse of the region in its full terms as it becomes a major regional exporter of energy and will stand strong economically.  

The AU-led meeting that involved the leaders agreed on Ethiopia’s right to build additional reservoirs and other projects on Abbay (Nile) river as long as it notifies the downstream countries and in line with international law. This is a huge diplomatic win for Ethiopia. 

At the beginning of the month protests sparked inside and outside of Ethiopia following the murder of the iconic singer Hachalu Hundessa who is a member of the Oromo ethnic group, the largest in the country. The ethnic violence caused by the murder of the singer killed more than 200 people and resulted in the destruction of business centers, residential houses, schools, and others. This has raised criticisms against PM Abiy of failing to control the ethnic violence in the country. 

The dam project is a national flag project fully funded by the Ethiopian public. In the midst of ethnic violence, the dam project becomes a source of national pride that restores national unity.

In 2018, in his inaugural speech, PM Abiy told his vision of uniting the Eastern Africa bloc. This is demonstrated in his follow up travels to the region and remarkably his restoration of peace with Eritrea that got him a Nobel Prize in 2019. If he is able to mend the country’s fracture caused by ethnicity and meet his visions, there is no doubt that he will bring prosperity to his country and regional integration for the continent.  

What does it mean to Nile Basin Countries

The decade long negotiation over GERD and Ethiopia’s commitment for an equitable share of water between Nile riparian states despite Egypt’s rigidity on the colonial agreement is commendable since this paves the way for riparian states which plans to have hydropower generation project using the Nile. It worthy for Ethiopia to sacrifice its time and money in this long dispute as the result will set a guideline for Nile riparian states. 

The Nile water is shared by Egypt and Sudan in the downstream and Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, DR Congo, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, Eritrea, and Ethiopia in the upper stream. So far, Uganda, Sudan, and DR Congo have built dams that Egypt has the power to control. Whereas, Ethiopia has been loud and clear from the beginning that its dam will only be operated and controlled by its own as it is a sovereign country. In fact, this is what led Eng. Seleshi Bekele to answer “it’s my dam” during a press conference when he is asked if foreign people are allowed in the operation of the dam. Ever since #Itsmydam has bombarded twitter. 

What does it mean to AU

Ethiopia’s current achievement on the first phase filling of the GERD and its selection of the African Union to be a mediator and the country’s commitment to the AU-led negotiation conveys a lot.  

For long the African Union Commission (AU) is known by its citizens as a toothless Pan-African organization in which it is considered nothing but a bystander when it comes to solving conflicts and other issues in the continent. It is a common practice for foreign states and organizations to interfere in the affairs of the continent. In addition, the AU has no experience in solving conflicts arising from water. 

The 2015 Declaration of Principles states that related to GERD only the tripartite countries namely Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan will hold discussions and negotiations. In October 2019 Egypt breached this agreement and brought in the U.S. and World Bank. Towards the end, Ethiopia stepped out of the negotiation because of U.S. and World Bank’s pressure and they changed from their supposed observer status to a mediator. This is where Ethiopia resorted to the South African president Ramaphosa to mediate the negotiation. Ethiopia believed in African solutions to African problems, thus if a third party has to mediate then it should be the African Union. This demonstrates Ethiopia’s commitment to Pan-African principles and its belief in the organization of which it was one of the main founders in 1963 where subsequently its capital became the seat of the commission, the then Organization of African Unity. Furthermore, the experience that the African Union gets in leading this negotiation will be a pilot for future similar conflicts caused by shared waters. 

Nature has aligned with Ethiopia 

One can say that even Mother Nature has given her blessing when heavy rainfall showered both the Blue Nile of Ethiopia and the White Nile fall of Uganda. The heavy rain in the highlands of Ethiopia has enabled to fill the dam in a short span of time. On the second source of Nile, an unprecedented water level is discharged to White Nile running at an average of 4.15BCM per month which is historical. 

Currently, the GERD construction has reached a level of 560m and yet has to reach 640m in the following years of construction. At its current construction level, it’s inevitable and simple engineering science to fill the dam and this is what Ethiopia has been doing in the past two weeks. The achievement is that to be able to acquire the target amount in such a short period of time and the inflow in the reservoir that has already reached its goal for this year and triggered the needed overflow.

Conclusion

Minister Seleshi, who created the hashtag #Itsmydam, said on his twitter page, “the first phase of filling of the dam is the main chapter…and agreements have made to resume discussion on the technical and legal framework.” Accordingly, agreements have been made to finalize the remaining matters in a short time, such as to agree on the filling of GERD in the next phases and a sustainable and inclusive agreement including water sharing and usage to be achieved in future negotiations, he added. 

Substantial agreements are still missing. Since AU took the matter in its hand, the only ‘developments’ we hear reportedly is that agreements have been made to agree on the outstanding issues. Particularly, filling the dam with no significant harm and when there is drought on how to share the water are still concerns of the downstream countries and remain unsolved. 

Ethiopia says it doesn’t want to mortgage its future generation- meaning it wants to make sure that the binding agreement will not deny its people’s right on the Nile in the future. The detail of agreements is not yet out for the public.  Nevertheless, as long as Ethiopia is pursuing what it promised to its people and continues the construction of the dam and finalizes the filling of the 74 BCM in the planned three to seven years or less, it is a winner. Not only for Ethiopia but also a winner for the Nile Basin countries and Africa at large.

About the Author

Mahlet Ayele Beyecha is an independent Pan-African researcher. She holds an MA in a Research Masters in African Studies from Leiden University and Middle Eastern Studies from Ben Gurion University. She can be reached at [email protected]