Abiy Ahmed (LaPresse)

“Nobel to Abiy could have a negative impact on the peace process”

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance is not the slogan or the appellation given to the policy of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, awarded in spite of the predictions last week of the Nobel Peace Prize, but is the name of one of the projects most controversial and, at the same time, crucial of the whole geopolitical panorama of Africa. It is, in fact, the dam on the Nile, known with the acronym of GERD, whose realization the government of Addis Ababa has commissioned in 2011 to the Italian company salini impregilo, which should represent a real turning point for the whole economy of Ethiopia and its role in the Horn of Africa. However, it is at the centre of long-standing disputes with Egypt which, in the area, plays the part of dominant power.

The project area is located about 500 km northwest of the capital Addis Ababa, in the region of Benishangul–Gumaz along the Blue Nile. At the end of the works, as the website of the construction company says, Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will be the largest dam of Africa: 1800m long, 155m high and the total volume of 10.4 million cubic meters. The initial cost of the artwork, borne by the Ethiopian Electric Power customer, is estimated at 3.4 million euro.

The project is in its final phase, with the entry into production planned for 2020 and full operation for 2022; with the construction of the dam, capable of producing a power of 6,000 megawatts, Ethiopia would become the largest exporter of electricity of the African continent as a whole, and the government relies on high revenues to develop the rail network and, above all, to achieve a large number of new industrial areas.

The dispute with Egypt

But Egypt fears strongly that the dam will reduce the flow of water received from the River Nile, which provides real vital sap to three countries, starting from the springs on the highlands of Ethiopia, crossing the deserts of Sudan and then reaching the cultivated fields and the reservoirs of the Pyramids Country. Egypt depends 90% of its fresh water on the Nile and expects the water received from the GERD basin to be 40 billion cubic meters, while Ethiopia guarantees the continuation of 35.

“Egypt is dependent on the Nile for its water supply – has explained us in exclusive William Davison, Senior Analyst for Ethiopia of the International Crisis Group – and worries GERD will reduce it, but it is relying on outdated treaties that upstream countries like Ethiopia were not party to. Ethiopia claims the right to use its water resources and doesn’t acknowledge the legitimacy of treaties it did not sign. It sees GERD as a vital project that marks a new era of Nile politics and that can significantly boost domestic and regional power supply and water storage”.

Regarding a possible resolution of the dispute, Davison brings his own and the International Crisis Group’s position: “The solution is, for the two nations and all Nile countries, to sign the Cooperative Framework Agreement and institutionalise cooperation, so they share information on rainfall, river flows, reservoir levels, and planned projects. This will allow them to design mutually beneficial development strategies and synchronise operations of their hydropower dams and other schemes.”

The internal political situation

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali took over the government of Ethiopia on 2 April 2018, after two years of fighting with hundreds of dead and a political stalemate that led to the resignation of Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalegn, sign of the weakening of the Tigrayan ethnic group, ruling class in the country until that moment. Eighteen months after the installation of Abiy, the situation in Ethiopia is still far from being stable or, at least, under control, as William Davison explains: “The political situation is difficult. Liberalisation promises meaningful lasting change, but it has opened the political sphere to many different actors, some of whom have fundamental disagreements, such as over the ethnic-based federal system. While some political groups such as the Sidama and Oromo highly value the ethnic-regional autonomy it offers, others think the system is driving Ethiopian apart from each other and creating conflict. There are also many grievances, such as those from the Amhara, who believe they have been the victims under the federal system, even though others perceive the Amhara as a formerly privileged power. The resulting rise in Amhara nationalism led to extreme high-level political violence in June and there are considerable tensions between Amhara and Tigray, nominally over Tigrayan territory that’s claimed by some Amhara factions”.

Peace with Eritrea

One year after the peace treaties signed with Eritrea, for which Abiy Ahmed received the prestigious prize, awarded by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, we tried to draw a balance with the analyst Davison. The clamour and optimism for the reopening of borders and the resumption of bilateral relations, in fact, was followed by a new closure of borders: “The situation is still positive – he explains -, but progress is slow and there are major obstacles. The ruling party of Tigray is a crucial actor and its full cooperation is needed to fully normalise relations and settled border issues with Eritrea, but its relations with the rest of the ruling coalition and the federal authorities in Ethiopia are very bad. There is also a question mark over whether President Isaias is keen to quickly move to full normalisation with Ethiopia, as then there will no longer be a justification for suspending the Eritrean constitution, which means his rule will face challengers that it does not under the current situation”.

The Nobel Prize and the possible negative impact

As soon as we heard the news of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, we contacted Norwegian Kjetil Tronvoll, Professor of Conflict and Peace Studies at Bjąrknes University College and Director of Oslo Analytica, one of the world’s leading experts on Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa in general: “The prize legitimizes the efforts of Abiy, but I don’t think it will necessarily give impetus to the peace process” he told us. A process that, after the trumpets and handshakes of 9 July 2018, with the opening of the borders between Ethiopia and Eritrea two months later, ran aground. The borders have been closed again, to put a stop to the impressive flow of refugees who are pushing to flee the Isaias regime. It is not by chance that the Nobel Prize was awarded only to one of the two contenders in the conflict, Abiy precisely, without Isaias even being mentioned in the Norwegian Committee’s explanatory statement: “For his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea”.

“To move forward with the peace process– explains Tronvoll– both sides need to work in the same direction”, which is not happening right now.

The question also involves the peculiar constitutional order of Ethiopia, with the strong federalism to which we have already referred, for which “Eritrea– explains the Norwegian professor– is not in conflict with Ethiopia, but with the Tigay region”, involved in territorial disputes with Asmara. Abiy has no interest in antagonizing the Tigray Liberation Front (TPLF) and, furthermore, has also had to face an attempted coup in the state of Amhara, another warm area, with Sidama that will vote a referendum for autonomy on 13 November. From this situation, is clear the phrase that William Davison told us: “Before thinking about foreign policy and the idea of reaching an important role in the Horn of Africa, Abiy’s goal should be to internally stabilise Ethiopia. Unify the country, before looking out”.

The Nobel Prize awarded to Abiy, as Professor Tornvoll clearly explains, may even harm the peace process and the internal situation of Eritrea: “Isaias might be insulted since he was not awarded too. Hence, he may become more negative towards Abiy, as he may perceive Abiy has stolen his glory too. Furthermore, the prize gives legitimacy to those who want democratic reforms and change in Eritrea too; hence Isaias has to rule even harder to crack down upon anyone who may use the prize against his policy and arguing for change”. In short, peace is still far away, even if the Nobel Prize has already arrived.