April 6, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 269

Time For Lowering The Heat, While The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) Waters Rise

April 6, 2021 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Africa | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 269

About two months from now, it will start raining in the highlands of Ethiopia. This is the longer rainy season in that country and will be the time that the second partial filling of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) takes place. If the GERD project and the first partial filling of the dam last summer raised tensions with downstream states Sudan and Egypt, this year the filling comes along two additional recent events that heighten them further: a brutal internal conflict inside Ethiopia in Tigray, and border tensions between Sudan and Ethiopia in the Fashaga region. The GERD should, in normal rainy years, bring benefits to all three countries in terms of regularizing waterflow, but in years of drought, Egypt would be at the mercy of a foreign power 2,000 miles away.[1]

The complete filling of the GERD's lake will take several years and there is no reason why this year should be decisive, but there is no doubt that the distrust and tension are rising. In addition to the conflict inside Ethiopia, both Sudan and Egypt are themselves facing a variety of internal challenges.[2] Seven other countries make up the ten riparian states of the Nile Basin,[3] and with Nile Basin countries tied to other regional states in the Middle East, Africa, and global powers elsewhere, the rising tensions about the GERD cast a long shadow.

As the African Union seeks to broker an agreement, Sudan and Egypt have called for expanding mediation to the UN, EU, and United States in addition to the AU. Ethiopia has not yet accepted while Egyptian President Al-Sisi recently made a stark warning that "Egypt's water is off limits." Both Egypt and Ethiopia have alternated between sounding conciliatory and bellicose, while Sudan – caught in the middle – leans toward Egypt now. Sudan and Egypt recently concluded joint wargames involving both aircraft and special forces.[4] The GERD is located only a tempting 28 miles from the Sudanese border.

Sensing, correctly, that an already volatile situation is deteriorating, the Biden Administration sent U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Connecticut) to Ethiopia in March 2021 and hinted at selecting veteran career diplomat Jeffrey Feltman as Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa. While these pieces are put in place and feverish efforts toward a mutually acceptable negotiating mechanism are contrived, what should be priority diplomatic steps in this multifaceted conflict?

Get The Guardrails Back Up – While AU diplomacy has been a constant and several countries, including the United States, have not been absent in their efforts, the military dimension of a possible conflict is closer to the surface than ever before. Parts of the Sudan-Ethiopian border now host not only regular Sudanese and Ethiopian armed forces, but irregular forces and ill-disciplined tribal militias. Sudan's former Janjaweed, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), face Amhara militias known for their brutality against local people.[5] With the chance of inadvertent, escalating clashes and public saber-rattling so prominent, a first step must be to ensure that a dangerous, volatile situation does not deteriorate even further into open military conflict before the rains come.

Getting Sudan Right – The rising regional conflict places Sudan's fragile transition toward democracy and national peace at great risk. Sudan's transitional government has inked peace agreements with almost of the country's rebel groups, bringing the possibility of real peace to long-suffering areas like the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile region closer than ever. Sudan has just taken in 70,000 Ethiopian refugees in the past few months.[6] The civilian government has also begun taking much needed political and economic steps to address the grim heritage of the three decades of the Bashir regime. But there is fierce ongoing competition not only between civilian and military parts of the government but also within military factions. The international community, led by the United States, must not lose focus in supporting Sudan's reform and political transformation. It would be a great tragedy that Sudan's transition would be lost in a rising conflict about Nile water driven particularly by the country's authoritarian Northern and Southeastern neighbors.

An Off-Ramp For Abiy Ahmed? – How the mighty have fallen! The 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is now credibly accused of riding the crest of Amhara nationalism in committing savage ethnic cleansing against Tigrayan rivals. Ethiopia called in (or allowed) Eritrea, the North Korea-like former enemy now ally of Ahmed to join in the carnage in Tigray.[7] A best-case scenario for the international community would seek to provide an off-ramp for the Ethiopian leader away from further deterioration in the internal political and security situation inside Ethiopia while seeking to decouple Ahmed from Eritrean dictator Isaias Afwerki; this is a very tall order. Ahmed described Ethiopia's military as "fighting on eight fronts" against its enemies, a description which seems to bode very poorly for the country's near-term stability and its international relations. And such instability in turn makes a GERD dividend even more of an urgent imperative for a messianic Ahmed to deliver some sort of tangible progress or hint at prosperity for his people,[8] further enraging an Egypt fearful of drought and a Sudan threatened by flooding.

Warning/Engaging The Neighbors – While Eritrea has played a key role in stoking instability inside Ethiopia in recent months, it is not the only regional wildcard that can make the situation worse. Sudan is assaulted by remnants of the Bashir regime broadcasting daily anti-government Islamist propaganda in Arabic from Istanbul (the Erdoğan government was very supportive of the brutal Bashir regime in its last years).[9] Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea all have a long decades-old history of arming rebel and insurgent groups against the other. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel can all play a role in making the situation better or worse and need to be in constant dialogue with international mediators to ensure they play, at least, a non-negative role.

Avoid Alienating Egypt – One of the problems with GERD negotiations in recent years was the Ethiopian concern that the Trump Administration favored Egypt. That will certainly not be a problem with a Biden Administration.[10] The danger now is that Egypt could be so alienated by the new administration that it could feel it has nothing to lose by a sharp military response to Ethiopia if provoked. The irony is that the United States, given human rights concerns about the Ahmed government, cannot swing too far toward the now bloodstained embrace of Ethiopia's leader and away from Egypt even if Biden wanted. The U.S. needs a working relationship with both Ahmed and President Trump's "favorite dictator" President Al-Sisi to keep the overall situation from deteriorating further, let alone in attempting forge some sort of face-saving solution.   

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.  


[1], October 16, 2020.

[2] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1525 Rising Tensions Over The Nile River Basin [Updated], July 16, 2020.

[3], accessed April 6, 2021.

[4], April 5, 2021.

[5], March 30, 2021.

[6], February 1, 2021.

[7], March 3, 2021.

[8], April 5, 2021.

[9], March 1, 2020.

[10], April 2, 2021.

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