Ethiopia's Nile dam: What next for Egypt and Sudan?

Ethiopia's Nile dam: What next for Egypt and Sudan?
6 min read
28 February, 2022
Analysis: Ethiopia has officially inaugurated electricity production from its controversial mega-dam, the largest in Africa, raising tensions with Addis Ababa's downstream neighbours.

In a festive atmosphere, last week the Ethiopian prime minister announced the start of electric power generation from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

The huge hydropower plant on the River Nile has been a source of regional contention – most notably with Egypt and Sudan - since construction began in 2011.

Abiy Ahmed said his country wanted to provide energy for 60% of its population "that have never seen a bulb", before adding in sentimental language, "as well as our mothers who carry firewood for energy".

"The importance of the Renaissance Dam for Ethiopia does not just stem from meeting local electricity needs but is also seen as a future source of precious hard currency and geopolitical hegemony"

Addis Ababa's message

Away from this protocolic atmosphere, the prime minister himself appears to be the biggest beneficiary of this landmark step, with symbolic messages for both internal and external audiences.

In the media, the inauguration of electricity production is being used to perpetuate an image of the prime minister as a national leader capable of accomplishing a project that all Ethiopians agree on, even while they disagree on everything else.

Furthermore, the announcement reflects the government's desire to revive hopes that the dam will transform the country’s economic development at a time of war, sanctions, and drought.

Politically, the celebrations that accompanied the announcement create an internal alignment behind Ahmed at a critical moment in which a new national environment is being formed in the context of reconciliation with the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

The National Dialogue – a commission established to create common ground - poses many challenges to the Ethiopian PM regarding its formation, as there are questions about the feasibility of a project in which major parties in the internal Ethiopian conflict are absent. 

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Meanwhile, the expected reconciliation with the TPLF raises the possibility of disintegration within Ahmed’s alliance with his closest allies, the Amharas, and the rearrangement of Ethiopia’s internal house, with all the confusion that this will cause.

While Ahmed called the GERD’s power generation good news for "the downstream countries", following a call to re-launch negotiations, the actual message was that Addis Ababa is continuing a policy based on imposing facts on the ground.

In addition, the timing of electricity generation from the dam coincided with an escalation in the Ukraine crisis, which has preoccupied the United States and its allies.

Ahmed likely felt this was an opportune moment to pressure the American envoy to the Horn of Africa, David Satterfield, who is working to mediate between Addis Ababa and the TPLF, while, on the other hand, attempting to reach a satisfactory solution for all parties to the Renaissance Dam crisis, the task of which is now increasingly difficult.

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam afp
The announcement reflects the government's desire to revive hopes that the dam will transform the country’s economic development at a time of war, sanctions, and drought. [Getty]

Domination through energy

The importance of the Renaissance Dam for Ethiopia does not just stem from meeting local electricity needs but is also seen as a future source of precious hard currency and geopolitical hegemony.

A 2021 study conducted by MDPI, the Center for Energy Affairs, based in Basel, Switzerland, states that "one of the government's ambitions is to develop international trade and become an electricity exporter in the region.”

The study adds that the government can use the hard currency revenue generated by electricity exports to "promote economic growth, support the development of its energy system, and finance renewable energy investments."

Given that Ethiopia is not the only regional country suffering from weak power networks, Addis Ababa hopes the power generated from the dam can be exported to neighbouring countries such as Kenya, Djibouti, Sudan, and South Sudan.

These exports will guarantee Addis Ababa's geopolitical influence in these countries, given that electricity will be a vital tool in the development process.

"In the long run, it seems the best Egyptian option is to continue with a multi-dimensional strategy of openness to the African continent, especially the countries neighbouring and close to Ethiopia"

Egypt faces tough choices

The Ethiopian move was received badly in Egypt, whose Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Addis Ababa was "violating its obligations under the 2015 Declaration of Principles Agreement signed by the Ethiopian Prime Minister."

On the other hand, Cairo does not have many cards left to play. Egypt is expected to call on the African Union (AU) to launch negotiations that have been stalled since last July after Ethiopia unilaterally filled the dam.

Perhaps there are those in Cairo who are counting on the new chairperson of the AU, Senegalese President Macky Sall, whom Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi met three times between May 2021 and February 2022.

The climate summit to be held in Cairo in November this year seems an appropriate international platform to present the Egyptian perception of the dangers of the Renaissance Dam to its water security.

Given the suffering of the Ethiopian economy as a result of war and drought, it is likely that Egypt will resort to diplomatic efforts based on pushing countries and international financial institutions to pressure Ethiopia to take “more flexible” positions in dam negotiations in exchange for aid.

In the long run, it seems the best Egyptian option is to continue with a multi-dimensional strategy of openness to the African continent, especially the countries neighbouring and close to Ethiopia.

Cairo recently signed military and security agreements with Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda. Egyptian institutions have also contributed to building renewable energy plants in Djibouti, Somalia, Uganda, Eritrea, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in addition to electrical connections between Egyptian and Sudanese networks.

This strategy aims to create a security and political environment that understands, and may later support, Cairo’s concerns related to the Renaissance Dam’s threat to its water security.

It also aims to reduce the dependence of concerned countries on Ethiopian energy expected to be produced from the Renaissance Dam, which will mean reducing both its profits and Ethiopia’s geopolitical influence.

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Sudan is the weakest link

Sudan’s initial reaction did not differ from that of Egypt, with the Sudanese negotiating delegation on the dam issuing a statement describing the Ethiopian move as a “fundamental breach of Ethiopia’s international legal obligations” and a violation of the “Declaration of Principles between the Three Countries, signed in Khartoum in March 2015”.

Despite this sharp statement, Sudan's position seems weak at the moment due to being plunged into a turbulent internal crisis, with the leaders of the 25 October coup yet to reach an agreement with the political opposition or the popular resistance committees leading demonstrations in the street.

The multiplicity of decision centres within the ruling authority and the division of opinions on the dam increase the uncertainty of any expected Sudanese position.

The Ethiopian move also came at a time when the Sudanese leadership is facing great challenges abroad, with the US pressuring it to reach a political settlement and calls mounting for individual sanctions against Sudanese military leaders.

"Sudan's position seems weak at the moment due to being plunged into a turbulent internal crisis"

Meanwhile, one of Sudan’s most important allies at the international level, Russia, has entered a major crisis following its invasion of Ukraine.

In view of all of this, resorting to a request to re-launch negotiations with Addis Ababa seems like the only option that Sudan has to ensure Egypt does not lose face whilst also not angering Ethiopia, which is engaged in a border dispute with Khartoum over the Al-Fashqa area.

The obstacle to this scenario is the African Union’s suspension of Sudan’s membership after the 25 October military coup.

In this context, the Egyptian-Sudanese manoeuvre will depend on separating the issue of membership from negotiations, which will open the door for Egypt to salvage what it can and provide Khartoum with a channel of communication with the African Union that could enable it to take further steps.

Abdolgader Mohamed Ali is an Eritrean journalist and researcher in the African Affairs

Follow him on Twitter: @AbdolgaderAli