Ethiopia's Abiy Ahmed has to walk a diplomatic tightrope

The Prime Minister must convince his neighbours of the potential for transformation that the Renaissance Dam represents

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Like many speakers at this year's United Nations General Assembly, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addressed the unusual circumstances of the 75th session of the General Debate and the impact of the pandemic.

Mr Abiy talked of the collective need to recover from this moment of crisis and to build “a better tomorrow”, but he cautioned that there were no guarantees to being able to stop another global catastrophe without developing resilient and inclusive societies.

He went on to specifically address the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project, which has been the source of tension between his country and Egypt and Sudan. Talks over the project have stalled, in part because Egypt is dependent on the Nile for the majority of its fresh water and says the dam could severely damage its economy once opened. Similarly, Sudan has expressed concern over the project's long-term environmental impact. Water scarcity and supply are key flashpoints for global acrimony and instability, especially so when they are shared resources.

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah El Sisi used his UN address to describe the issue of access to fresh water as an "existential matter" and said that negotiations over the project could not continue indefinitely, especially with "the realities on the ground" changing with every passing day. Around three quarters of Ethiopia's GERD project is complete and a first phase of filling it was undertaken this summer. A second phase is scheduled next year and the facility is due to be fully commissioned in 2023. The clock is ticking ever louder, resolution is required.

Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia's prime minister, speaks during the United Nations General Assembly seen on a laptop computer in Hastings on the Hudson, New York, U.S., on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020. The United Nations General Assembly met in a virtual environment for the first time in its 75-year history due to the pandemic. Photographer: Tiffany Hagler-Geard/Bloomberg
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks during the United Nations General Assembly on Friday. Bloomberg

Mr Abiy picked up the point this week, framing the dam as the country’s largest infrastructure project and as one that will deliver a number of benefits to Ethiopians and others. Built with local resources, he said, it would contribute to the conservation of water resources that would otherwise be “lost to evaporation” in downstream countries.

If that comment was a rebuke to his country’s critics, he followed it with some conciliation, saying that Ethiopia intends no harm towards its neighbours but that the dam was vital to meeting energy demands in a clean and sustainable way. “We cannot afford to continue keeping more than 65 million of our people in the dark,” he said starkly.

A peacemaker and a mediator – he found a solution to the longstanding dispute with Eritrea shortly after becoming his country’s Prime Minister in 2018, for which he won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize – Mr Abiy also noted that “our stability and development is closely interlinked with the peace and security” of the region.

So, Ethiopia must attempt to do no harm while commissioning the largest hydropower dam in Africa. Egypt is well aware, of course, of the transformative power of such great works, but questions how Ethiopia can solve this complex puzzle.

It is five years since the Suez Canal extension was delivered in Egypt in record time and 50 years since the Aswan High Dam was completed in the country. Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's charismatic leader and the political architect of this megaproject, died in September 1970, a few months before it was commissioned. The Aswan High Dam is credited with helping to modernise the country, with its turbines generating vast quantities of power, just as GERD seeks to do in Ethiopia.

Gamal Abdel Nasser announced the nationalisation of the Suez Canal to a crowd of 250,000 people during a celebration of the fourth anniversary of the July 26, 1956 revolution. Getty Images
Gamal Abdel Nasser announced the nationalisation of the Suez Canal to a crowd of 250,000 people during a celebration of the fourth anniversary of the July 26, 1956 revolution. Getty Images

More recently, Mr El Sisi pressed ahead with the widening of a 37 kilometres stretch of the Suez Canal soon after becoming President. The project has helped to significantly grow revenues from transit fees. When it was inaugurated in August 2015, Mr El Sisi described the extension as a "symbol of the new Egypt and a demonstration of the determination and commitment of the people". Earlier this year, officials said the expansion costs had already been covered.

Both of those projects brought criticism and risk. Observers claimed the canal extension was a rash economic gamble, while the high dam required the extraordinary engineering feat of moving the majestic Abu Simbel Temples before they were submerged by the gathering reservoir of Lake Nasser 50 years ago, as well as the complex relocation of thousands of residents of the area. Both are now seen as key markers in Egypt's nation-building story, just as in the Great Depression of 1930s America, the Hoover Dam helped create jobs and wealth, even as it changed environmental fortunes negatively.

When Mr Abiy accepted his Nobel prize in Oslo last year, he spoke about the decades-long dispute with Eritrea that he was able to find a resolution for. "We understood our nations are not enemies," he said. "We recognised that while out two nations were stuck on old grievances, the world was shifting rapidly and leaving us behind."

The Ethiopian Prime Minister must now walk the tightrope of mediation in an alternative theatre. He must convince his neighbours that the potential for transformation that the Renaissance Dam represents is as vast as Lake Nasser itself, but that it will not be delivered at the expense of Egypt or Sudan.

Mr Abiy will need to summon the spirit of Oslo to move towards an equitable resolution. That will require skilled leadership, commitment and a willingness to negotiate. He has deep reserves of all of those qualities. He will need to draw on them to chart the right course.

Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National