The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the Game Changer
By Dade Desta / Ermine Media
Tigrai Online November 11, 2014
What a work of magic was it to plan and build this project called GERD which is now emerging as the best geopolitical peace maker between Ethiopia and Egypt! What Gerd is doing now, no height of diplomatic dispatch, no density of public awareness campaign, no amount of global support mobilization would ever do. Let’s go back and revisit how that very idea might have been conceived and put on hold until the right time comes.
Nearly two-and-half decades ago, shortly after EPRDF took power, the new Ethiopian leaders were being given a crash course on diplomatic etiquette to help them with standard manners. A certain western professor was giving the course to the new Ethiopian leaders who had been away for most part of their adult life in the bushes. And now that they have had the whole Ethiopia with all its complex problems to lead, they must interact and communicate with the world; hence, the need for such a training. But that was not the only story. The professor was put for a double task as he later confessed himself. Some of the embassies representing powerful western nations in Addis were very curious (or may be “anxious” is the right word) to know the real intentions of the new leaders and how they would be different from their predecessors. They urgently wanted to know what their priorities are and how they see themselves and Ethiopia’s space in the immediate time and region, in the long run and in the wider world. That was the professor’s assignment.
Learning the views of incoming new leaders had never been a difficult matter for such powerful embassies elsewhere and at other times. Throwing welcoming and warming cocktail parties and inviting the leaders and making them talk would do the trick. Whatever is not harvested in such parties, there are so many formal and informal intelligence tools employed as a supplement. But there was something different about these fighters who now turned rulers. In those initial months, EPRDFites were too shy and never at ease to go out and mix with mission officials and foreign leaders. Whenever an opportunity of meeting presented itself, the Ethiopian leaders had not a habit of talking much and the foreigners had to do more talking to fill the silence.
So, this good professor was double tasked to read the hearts and minds of his students as a primary access link at the time. All he had to do was become friendly to them and throw seemingly innocent questions and take a mental note on whatever came out as an answer. One such question was, “where do you want to see Ethiopia after 20 years from now?” Siye was one of the top EPRDF leaders to meet that question, Meles was another among others. The professor was impressed by what he heard from Siye (then 2nd person in TPLF and a Defense Minister) while confused by the response he got from Meles (chairman of EPRDF and President of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia). Siye told him, in 20 years, we envisage Ethiopia to
enjoy a consolidated peace and overcome poverty, or something to that effect. It was three years ago the professor posted an article on the internet reflecting on those early interactions, also acknowledging the brilliance of Siye. But he literally gave his very telling confession on how he missed the depth of Meles’ point then: [not verbatim], “two decades later, Ethiopia should be able to overtake Egypt as a lead diplomatic and geopolitical actor in Africa and beyond.”
What forced the (trainer, spy) professor to unmask himself about his double tasks and recount his first impressions of the new leaders exactly after 20 years? This: after 20 years, Ethiopia announced about the plan to build a huge dam on the Nile basin, the Great Ethiopian Millennium Dam, later appropriately renamed The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD for short), and officially placed a foundation stone on the site. The good professor had to wait 20 years to have made any sense of the words he heard from Meles and forced an “aha moment” on himself upon hearing the announcement. The professor has now connected the two far apart dots: one dote here, another dot there and two decades between them.
Nearly 4 years into the project of building Gerd, and slightly over 40% of the construction work now completed, we are already witnessing the majestic effect of the Dam playing a peace maker’s mission. Nobody would dare to belittle the economic return to be gained from the energy production to be harvested up on going operational. However, there should be no confusion at all that Gerd is more of a political project than economic. Egypt’s security matrix with regard to the Nile has been all about sustaining the exclusivity of her control and fending off any suspicious move that might disturb the status quo. This is understandable as every rational theory would dictate that any country with the same situation, Ethiopia included, would be walking exactly along the same path. The same rational theory justifies the flipside of it, i.e., once Ethiopia achieved a capacity to change the status quo, Egypt could see the futility of deploying its unilateral resources to block or sabotage Ethiopia’s dam projects. That is now the magical moment heralding that the Ethio-Egypt history of relationship has turned the page into a completely new chapter.
If there has been a single peaceful national project bringing multiple benefits of historic magnitude in the history of Ethiopia, none comes to the mind of this blogger to compete with the Gerd. It is a single stroke of genius that is writing the first pages of its own history as we speak. After the expected threats advanced and maneuverings attempted, at times with scary surges and sensible retreats during the initial years of construction, the dusts of the Nile now appear to be descending and settling slowly but surely. The trend is unmistakable that as the Dam progresses towards completions, the relationship between Egypt and Ethiopia is maintaining an upward orientation. Just last week, we have seen unprecedented number of trade and business treaties signed by higher officials of the two countries. Ethiopia and Egypt
are knotted forever with a natural rope and destined to drink from the same well. Nile is one thread. History is another. And now Gerd is a newly added layer to bring the relation into its natural character by clearing all sources of mistrust and miscalculations off the way, and from there flourishing up and wide non-stop. Gerd would harvest peace for Ethiopia as imminently as it would energy. It is not too early to feel optimistic. Times seem to have passed when Egypt and Ethiopia compete in rivalry and a new time of complementarily seems to have filled the air in our region. Gerd is a real peace maker.
The Renaissance Dam has already started paying dividends. Some problems may deceive on the surface appearing as if they are permanent walls blocking you from going a step forward. Facing them with endured determination however, they actually are a door to amazing new opportunities. The entire Nile basin is almost double the mighty Mekong River in south East Asia in terms of length and the number of riparian countries it connects. Mekong riparian countries has pioneered in showing the whole world how a once contested and rivaled common resource can be transformed into a field of great partnership bringing together diverse stakeholders and best science to work toward sustainable management and development of the world’s most critical river systems. Nile River countries should copy that spirit and stand together not as different parts of the Nile but of the Nile.
What is trending now between Ethiopia and Egypt positively stimulated by Gerd is an eye opener to see the ramifications of such a regional cooperation on common trans-boundary resources (forests, valleys, green belts and minerals) at a continental level, particularly in forging common position on global issues and projecting strong bargaining power in political and economic dealings with other parts of the world. One imagines the powerful influence gravity that can emerge from a single-belted Nile Society standing shoulder to shoulder on strategic African and Near East issues and interests. Ethiopians have an Amharic saying that cuts across generations, ye wenzie lij. It literally means my river boy, or an expression to mean we belong to the same river or village, a profound message of emphasizing the belongingness to each other. It feels as if Emily Dickinson had in her mind ‘Ethiopia talking to Egypt’ when she wrote her mysterious poem: “My River runs to thee”.