A dam on the Nile roils democratic relations in the Horn of Africa.
There's an Ethiopian restaurant in the neighborhood of Ard el Lewa in Cairo, Egypt. Fake grass is arranged across a stretch of the unfinished concrete floor where a service for traditional coffee awaits the end of the meal. When Ninitz, the proprietor, is cooking, young men in a steady stream pull up plastic chairs and eat communally with their hands from large round trays: injera, the fluffy, fermented flatbread of the Horn of Africa, with dollops of beets, cabbage, and lentils spiced with berbere.
When you step into this restaurant, it’s like leaving Cairo for Addis Ababa. The walls are covered with vinyl banners depicting the famous castles of Gondar, a city in northeast Ethiopia. Photos show a younger Ninitz, smiling, wearing a white traditional dress. There are, by conservative estimates, more than forty thousand Ethiopians and Eritreans living in Cairo, and Ninitz offers them a taste of home.
Refugees from Ethiopia and its northern neighbor, Eritrea, have been coming in significant numbers to the sprawling Egyptian capital for decades. Whether escaping poverty, violence, or both, many were misled by rumors that traveling up the Nile to Cairo was an easier path off the continent than other popular refugee routes, such as traveling through Libya. But it is not easier. Many find themselves in a hostile city, unable to leave. I would soon learn how vulnerable and unsafe Ethiopians feel in the streets of Cairo these days.
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I traveled to Cairo in the spring of 2022 on my way to a reporting trip in Ethiopia, which is how I found myself on the unmarked streets of Ard el Lewa, looking for an Ethiopian restaurant. Nahom Solomon, a young Eritrean who was on a corner talking with friends, spotted me and offered to escort me to Ninitz’s place. He was twenty-four, gregarious, and had been living in Cairo for nearly five years. He led me to a nearby Sudanese café for tea as we waited for Ninitz to open her doors.
Nahom was a passable interpreter and a boon companion. He introduced me to many Ethiopians and Eritreans (often Egyptians are unable to distinguish between the two) who have settled in the neighborhood. When I asked him about life in Cairo, he told me that he couldn’t find work, that he lived on the money his family and friends sent him. He felt discriminated against. I kept hearing similar stories, with a similar explanation: Egyptians look at their neighbors from the south as a threat to their future—not because they come looking for jobs, but because they come from Ethiopia, a country that, in their eyes, has control over the waters of the Nile. Ethiopia is well into a multiyear plan to fill a massive reservoir behind their Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, and Egypt is bitterly suspicious. Nahom and others told me that they are often stopped by Egyptians who harass them with questions about water. At Ninitz’s, I met Tesfahun Assefa, who spoke about facing discrimination while trying to find work. “I am Ethiopian,” he told me. “When I show them my work ID [issued by the UN to refugees], they reject me and order me to leave.” Once, he was fired from a job after only three days; the boss told him, “You take our water.”
From the Ethiopian point of view, a modern dam is what will make their country a modern state. According to the World Bank, as of 2021, Ethiopia had “the third largest energy access deficit in Sub-Saharan Africa with more than half the population still without access to reliable electricity especially in deep-rural areas.” A vast majority of Ethiopians survive as subsistence farmers, and famine has been a recurring feature of Ethiopian life for centuries. Electricity, it is hoped, will make their work more efficient and their lives more livable. As well, the dam is expected to attract vital new investment to Ethiopia. It is impossible to look at Nahom and Tesfahun and not wonder how their lives would be different had a renaissance taken place in their countries: electricity, education, jobs with purpose and meaning, security, and a political structure that could tackle the challenges of a changing globe.
Egypt might even recognize that such development could lead to fewer refugees streaming north. But the vexing problem the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam presents is: Who will control the Nile?
Bread and Water
At more than four thousand miles long, the Nile is the longest river in the world. It flows north from the highlands of Ethiopia through Sudan and then to the plains of Egypt. The river is sourced from two major tributaries. The White Nile begins near the north shore of Lake Victoria, where the borders of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda meet. The quest for the source of the White Nile became a nineteenth-century European obsession and is often credited with spurring colonial interest in the continent. It is also the White Nile that gives the famed river its length. But it is the Blue Nile, which begins with the springs that feed Lake Tana in northern Ethiopia, that provides the river with about 85 percent of its water. Lake Tana is sacred to Ethiopians, many of whom believe that the Ark of the Covenant was kept on the island of Tana Qirqos, until its relocation to Axum, the seat of an ancient kingdom in the northern Ethiopian state of Tigray.
Henry Kissinger encouraged Iran, Egypt, Morocco, France, and Saudi Arabia to charter a covert pool of intelligence services, the Safari Club, to identify communist movements and support the anti-communist agenda.
The cornerstone of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam was laid in early 2011 by Meles Zenawi, who had served as prime minster of Ethiopia since 1995 (and as president for the four years prior). He died in August of 2012; his successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, spent the next six years fighting his peoples' protests for greater democracy. Throughout these upheavals, and into the political ascendance in 2018 of current prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, the GERD has been a central feature of Ethiopia’s aspirations for the future. It will generate a projected 6,500 megawatts of power (about three times the capacity of the Hoover Dam), enough to bring light to those Ethiopians who still don’t have it and to produce a surplus for sale to other countries, which could generate up to $1 billion in badly needed revenue. It will be the largest dam on the continent at more than a mile wide. According to the journal Nature Communications, the reservoir will hold “nearly 1.2 times the average annual flow of the Blue Nile at the dam site.”
The project has many international naysayers. The GERD’s scale, and its use of Nile water, will engulf Egyptians in “a slow motion catastrophe brought on by grand-scale environmental mismanagement,” Richard Conniff wrote in a piece for Yale Environment 360 in 2017. A 2021 study by the University of Southern California predicted the GERD will deplete Nile waters by more than one-third during filling. “A water deficit of that magnitude, if unmitigated, could potentially destabilize a politically volatile part of the world by reducing arable land in Egypt by up to 72 percent,” Science Daily wrote about the USC study, which also predicted the decrease would lead to $51 billion in lost agricultural revenue. These grim projections have gone unheeded by Ethiopia’s government and people, who focus on the possibility of lifting themselves out of destitution. This makes the warnings fodder for the politically resourceful Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
El-Sisi has used the Ethiopian dam to unify his countrymen, rather than to address his country’s looming water crisis, which has been caused by decades of population growth, mismanaged water use in agriculture, and climate change. Sudan has been forced to choose a side between these two bordering powerhouses while domestic unrest mounts. Since President Omar al-Bashir was overthrown by the military in 2019 after almost thirty years of rule, Sudan has been in upheaval. In June of last year, dozens of protesters calling for democratic leadership were killed on the streets. Mass protests have continued to denounce the country’s current military dictatorship, and have objected to the terms of a settlement reached in December 2021 between the military and pro-democracy groups.
Ethiopia, meanwhile, underwent a rare peaceful transition of government in 2018. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed vowed to pivot his country to democracy and made peace with his northern neighbor, Eritrea, after fifty years of conflict, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize. For a moment, the country’s future looked brighter under the forty-four-year-old’s leadership. But his tenure has been marred by a brutal internal war with the northern state of Tigray, along with hollow promises and ethnonationalist rhetoric that hides the government’s antidemocratic machinations. “Nile River nationalism . . . has undermined two of the most promising democratic transitions in the Horn of Africa,” Michael Woldermariam wrote at Foreign Affairs in the fall of 2020 about Sudan and Ethiopia.
The Abiy administration has used the same tactic they used in the war with Tigray to quash dissent regarding their management of the GERD: by silencing media and spreading misinformation. A local Ethiopian journalist was arrested for reporting on the communities being evicted from the dam site due to the GERD’s construction. For this and other reasons—including the carnage in and around Tigray, and resurgent unrest in another state, Oromo—hope for Ethiopia’s democracy under Abiy has long since dissipated.
Damming the Same River Twice
The GERD is not the first dam on the Nile to promise modernization, to divide nations, or to threaten a shift in geopolitical order: there is a history of conflict carved into the banks of the world’s waterways. When the first Aswan Dam was built on the Nile around the turn of the last century, Egypt’s leaders sought a renaissance of their country’s health and wealth. But it was the High Aswan Dam, completed in 1970, that modernized the Nile—and changed the global power dynamic forever. “Transboundary water disputes implicate core national interests. . . . In many cases, disputed waters are also powerful symbols that loom large in the national consciousness,” Steve Floyd wrote last spring at Lawfare. “Such sentiments constrain policy options, calcify hardline positions and increase the chance of diplomatic failure. In these situations, armed conflict becomes a distinct possibility.”
Ethiopians are left wondering: Where is the infrastructure, domestic and international, to deliver on the dam’s promises?
In December 1955, the United States and Britain committed to providing $70 million to the Egyptian government for the construction of the High Aswan Dam. The rising global empire and the fading colonial power hoped these funds would keep Egypt out of Russia’s growing sphere of influence. U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was no fan of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s second postcolonial president. Dulles considered Nasser to be an unreliable collaborator and reneged on the financial offer in July 1956. Nasser then approached the Soviet Union, which was happy to fund the dam, at least in part. The rest of the money, Nassar decided, would come from nationalizing the Suez Canal. One can almost imagine the Egyptian president’s glee at the poetry of the move. Global shipping had been revolutionized by the creation of a passage between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, with primary shareholders Britain and France royally benefiting. Now, the bounty from the canal would come to Egypt alone. At the time, about two-thirds of Europe’s oil supply traveled through the Suez.
Nasser’s flex enraged France and Britain; they formed a secret alliance with Israel, which attacked Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in October 1956. The Eisenhower administration, incensed by the secrecy, intervened. Ultimately the Europeans retreated. France and Britain were disgraced and diminished by the conflict, their colonial influence sent into permanent decline. The United States, its role on the continent now heightened, flourished; it took the lead on countering Soviet expansion and securing the West’s oil supplies. As for Nasser, he consolidated his power and became a hero in the Arab world for his victory over colonial Europe.
The Suez Crisis and the building of the High Aswan Dam highlighted the internationally influenced, conflict-prone endeavor of infrastructure-building in East Africa, where water and power are in increasingly higher demand. It also illustrated how such conflicts have the ability to permanently alter geopolitical alliances and influence. Many outsiders have taken this lesson of history seriously. “Two large dams—the GERD and the High Aswan Dam (HAD)—in two countries, Ethiopia and Egypt, will coexist on a single river—the Nile—with no specific agreement yet on water sharing or reservoir operations,” a paper in the journal Nature Communications reads. “The GERD operations will change downstream flow patterns significantly. This alteration is raising concern about risks of water shortage, which underlines the importance of reaching an agreement on the river’s management.” The GERD and the Aswan Dam will both generate power from the waters of the Nile, and, according to experts, coordinated operation will be required to properly manage the great river.
Enemies by Proxy
Tensions between Addis Ababa and Cairo did not begin with the massive infrastructure projects of the last two centuries. The capitals have an ancient relationship that, more often than not, has been characterized by rivalry, distrust, and power struggles. From the fourth century on, leaders of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church were Egyptian, appointed in the Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria. But in 1959, with Emperor Haile Selassie looking on, the patriarch of the Egyptian church appointed an Ethiopian to head the Ethiopian church for the first time. “This separation of the churches was perhaps the single most important event in the long, multifaceted, mutually meaningful history of Ethiopian-Egyptian relations,” Haggai Erlich wrote in The International Journal of Middle East Studies in 2000. The independent Ethiopian church, which employed an elaborate national story about the origin of the Christian nation, ordained not only the religious leaders in Ethiopia but also the political leaders. Without Alexandria’s oversight, Ethiopia was no longer beholden to Egypt’s political will. (Today, Abiy Ahmed is a Pentecostal who believes in a form of “prosperity gospel” and has stated, like Emperor Haile Selassie before him, that he was appointed by God.)
Abiy has used the civil war with Tigray to centralize his control and create an environment of vulnerability justifying his indiscriminate exercise of power, and he has whipped up a cult of personality that has fused with a latent, nostalgic ethnonationalism.
A little more than a decade later, another event ruptured Ethiopia-Egypt relations. As the Soviet Union gained power in the 1970s, anti-communist concerns in the West were focused on government leaders in the Middle East and Africa. When the CIA’s reach was limited by the U.S. government as a result of prior abuses in the organization, Henry Kissinger encouraged Iran, Egypt, Morocco, France, and Saudi Arabia to charter a covert pool of intelligence services, the Safari Club, to identify communist movements and support the anti-communist agenda. The club was formed in 1976, when Ethiopia was ruled by the Derg, a communist regime. This put Egypt and Ethiopia on opposite sides of a global power struggle. When the club provided arms to Somalia during its war with Ethiopia in 1977, it was clear that the two countries were in open contention.
Other pressures in the region were coming to the surface as well. Starting in the 1980s, the water issue in Egypt could no longer be ignored, Ezzedine Fishere, a former diplomat in the Egyptian government and a senior lecturer at Dartmouth University, told me. Now that other countries on the Nile were developing the ability to divert water, Egypt’s undiluted share of the river was at risk. The country was also forced to acknowledge that even its full share of the Nile was not enough. They would have to restructure domestic water use. “Of course, diplomats bought time, but then Egypt didn’t restructure its use,” Fishere said. The tension of these water pressures, alongside the government’s inability to address them, had long been a political and psychological burden in Egypt. Over the following decades, it only grew worse.
Yet another blow to Egypt-Ethiopia relations came in 1995, when the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, traveled to Addis Ababa for a meeting of the Organization of African Unity. Mubarak’s security guards convinced him to travel in his own car, which was fit onto the plane. Once on the street in Addis, Mubarak’s car was surrounded by men with machine guns, his car pocked with bullet holes. The driver turned the car around, drove back onto the plane, and the president’s entourage returned immediately to Cairo. Mubarak never went back to Addis Ababa. Immediately, Sudanese terrorists were implicated in the assassination attempt, but Egypt felt Ethiopian leaders were accountable.
“If you talk to Ethiopian diplomats, they will tell you a mirror image of the story. And also stories about Ethiopian prime ministers not being treated well enough in Egypt by Mubarak,” Fishere said, “It was a very cold relationship.” He explained that Ethiopia is “sensitive to any move by Egypt,” and that Egypt, too, is sensitive because “it sees every move by Ethiopia as an attempt to undermine it.” When it came time for the two countries to address the GERD, there was little to no good will at the table.
“It’s been simmering for decades,” Fishere told me. “The two countries never managed, or maybe never wanted—I’m not entirely sure—to go beyond their mutual distrust to find a common approach to the water.” Because the contention over Nile water is old, Fishere said, it predates the current regimes in Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. But rather than find new compromises in new administrations, the general dynamic among the countries remains sadly unchanged. “It’s like the High [Aswan] Dam in Egypt back in the 1950s,” he told me.
“Many Ethiopians see GERD as a way to overcome the country’s entrenched poverty,” William Davison told me over the phone last February. “It is a non-negotiable priority to try and capitalize on their own hydro resources to power development. Ethiopians are simply not content for tens of millions of them to continue scratching out a living as subsistence farmers in the same manner that Europeans did hundreds of years ago.” Davison is a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. It is challenging to be an expert or journalist in Ethiopia. He was deported from Addis in November 2020, a few weeks after the new government began its military campaign against Tigray. This was his second deportation; the prior administration had deported Davison in 2018 when he was a reporter for Bloomberg and the Guardian. But the GERD, Davison told me, “was also part of a struggle with Egypt over its control of the Nile, which many Ethiopians see as a historic injustice.”
Unfounded rumors have spread online that Egypt was supporting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the former rulers of the country and Abiy’s opponents in the civil war.
For nearly a century, Egypt prevented Ethiopia’s development of the river. “Egypt claims it has a historic right to the Nile and that its share is guaranteed by international treaties, but this is not accepted by Ethiopia and others who were not party to those agreements or have their own claims on the river,” Davison said. “Egypt’s proprietary stance on the Nile can create the impression upstream that it is not concerned about the rights and livelihoods of other riparians.” In the Treaty of 1929, the British granted—as if it was theirs to give—the “natural and historical right of Egypt to the waters of the Nile.” The only mention of countries other than Egypt was the assertion that they “observe” these rights, which meant that Egypt could veto any project on the Nile it wished. Thirty years later, Egypt and Sudan bilaterally agreed that all of the Nile’s water belonged to them, each determining their percentage share. As Lisa Klaassen wrote in 2021 for the London School of Economics and Political Science’s website, “For most of the twentieth century, the Blue Nile was dominated by Cairo, and, to a lesser extent, Khartoum.”
In 1999, when the need for all of the riparian states to cooperate on the development of the Nile became evident, the Nile Basin Initiative was formed. But Egypt bailed out in 2010 when Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Burundi—six of the ten NBI members—signed what’s known as the Entebbe agreement, which determined that no approval for projects on the Nile is needed from Egypt. The next year, in 2011, while the Egyptian government was busy stifling protests in Tahrir Square, Ethiopia surprised them by announcing that construction on the GERD had begun. Relations between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia have been marked by missed opportunities for cooperation ever since.
In May 2013, a coalition of experts from Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan determined that additional impact studies were necessary to assess the $5 billion GERD. But the studies were never completed, and with little international notice, Ethiopia began diverting the massive river around its intended construction site anyway. Once again, the Egyptians were largely caught unawares. When Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian president at the time, called a meeting of domestic legislators, some participants were captured on tape talking about “sabotaging the dam, interfering in internal political disputes in Ethiopia, or bribing local tribes,” Ahram Online reported at the time. Ethiopia announced that it would not be intimidated by Egypt’s “psychological warfare.” Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom said in a statement that “Ethiopia cannot remain poor. It must utilize its resources to lift its people out of poverty.”
The three countries signed the Agreement of Declaration of Principles in 2015, in which they committed to “cooperation” and “equitable and reasonable” water use. Many in Egypt and Sudan now regret this action because Ethiopia has interpreted it as tacit approval of the GERD, exempting them from giving Egypt or Sudan any concessions. By 2019, the World Bank and the U.S. Treasury, then under the direction of the Trump administration, intervened in the conflict, overseeing talks among the three countries. The effort turned into yet another embarrassment for Trump. After taking four months to produce an agreement, the mediators failed to get Ethiopia, which resented external, non-African involvement, to sign. Meanwhile, Ethiopia claimed that the World Bank and the U.S. Treasury overstepped their bounds and favored Egypt by demanding drought mitigation plans. Abiy’s government said the agreement was “against the sovereignty of Ethiopia.”
In April 2020, when Abiy proposed his own agreement for the filling of the reservoir, Cairo and Sudan refused to sign. Nonetheless, Ethiopia completed the first filling of the dam during the summer rainy season that year. The move “has shown to the rest of the world that our country could stand firm with its two legs from now onwards,” the administration stated. Last August, Ethiopia went forward with its third filling of the reservoir and activated a second turbine for energy generation. At a ceremony at the dam, Abiy declared, “The Nile is a gift that God has given us for Ethiopians to use. Those who do not assume the responsibilities entrusted to them are open to criticism.”
Egypt protested the filling to the UN Security Council. The filling also coincided with tensions with Sudan, when seven Sudanese soldiers and one civilian were killed in Al Fashaga, a fertile farm area along the border with Ethiopia that has been claimed by both countries. The African Union, which at the time was attempting to negotiate peace in the civil war between Addis and Tigray, expressed concern for “escalating military tension” between Ethiopia and Sudan. Sudan claimed the men were captured on Sudanese territory and used military air strikes and artillery to gain the territory back.
Even if filling of the GERD continues without interruption, there are still huge hurdles for implementation. “To pull it off, Ethiopia needs internal cohesion,” Davison told me on a call last June. “It also needs a strong economy, good international standing, and solid relations with its neighbors. And there needs to be security around the site of the GERD itself. In recent years, Ethiopia has enjoyed none of these.” That is largely thanks to Abiy’s war with Tigray, which has destabilized the country and distracted the government from most everything else, including development. The violence in Tigray began to spread from state to state, and this violence now characterizes Abiy’s rule. More than half a million civilians are estimated to have been killed in the war; likely thousands of women and girls have been systematically raped; and an estimated 3.5 million have been internally displaced. Another nine million are living in famine-like conditions.
Abiy has used the civil war with Tigray to centralize his control and create an environment of vulnerability justifying his indiscriminate exercise of power, and he has whipped up a cult of personality that has fused with a latent, nostalgic ethnonationalism. But his inability to impose his particular form of unity on Ethiopia has also led to unexpected divisions. In January, three archbishops in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church created a schism in the ancient organization by appointing their own bishops, predominantly in the Oromia and southern region. His Holiness Abune Sawiros, who led the group, explained to the Addis Standard that the changes were made to “resolve long lasting problems within the church for failing to serve believers in their native languages and detached of their culture.”
Even though the GERD has rallied massive numbers of Ethiopians behind Abiy, they are left wondering: Where is the infrastructure, domestic and international, to deliver on the dam’s promises? Davison listed what is needed: the transmission lines, the power purchase deals, the investment in manufacturing, the urbanization that will move 80 percent of Ethiopians from the countryside where they currently live. Without that, Davison said, “it’s a pretty massive cost that you’ve paid, in financial and political diplomatic terms, for something which isn’t necessarily going to work.”
From West to East
More recently, Egypt has expressed the need for a solution to the GERD crisis—and gently swiped at Ethiopia for going it alone. At an environmental event last fall, El-Sisi said, “We dream of a common endeavor to maximize the wealth of the Nile Basin that its nations shall all enjoy, instead of acting individually and competing in an uncooperative way.” But several points continue to hinder negotiations for cooperation and planning between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. By filling during the rainy season, Ethiopia has taken advantage of the Nile’s seasonal highs. The rate at which the dam will be filled determines how much water will be allowed to continue on to Sudan and Egypt. Ethiopia has proposed a schedule of seven years, and Egypt has suggested up to twenty-one. But currently, there is no regional plan in place for filling the reservoir, and Ethiopia is making the fill rate decisions unilaterally.
Sudan has been forced to choose a side between these two bordering powerhouses while domestic unrest mounts.
Electricity is generated by pressure on a dam’s turbines, which means that the fuller the dam, the greater the pressure, and the more electricity the dam will generate. This is why Ethiopia is in a hurry to fill the reservoir. But fillings of the GERD decrease the volume in the reservoir behind the Aswan Dam in Egypt, which releases a steady and predictable amount of water into the Nile regardless of how high or low the river’s flow is at any given time.
Another contention between the three countries is about who should lead the negotiations over the dam. Many outside parties have tried and failed, including the United States. After the disastrous attempt by Trump’s U.S. Treasury department, his administration cut $100 million from the United States’ annual funding for Ethiopia because the country did not go along with their negotiations. Trump’s understanding of the situation was so confused that in January 2020, at a rally in Ohio, he stated, “I made a deal, I saved a country, and I just heard the head of that country is now getting the Nobel Peace Prize for saving the country. Did I have something to do with it? Yeah. But that’s the way it is.” An Ethiopian official told the Associated Press that the president was indeed referring to Ethiopia’s president Abiy and the unsuccessful World Bank and U.S. Treasury-led talks the year before. “President Trump really believes he avoided a war as such . . . but that was not the case,” the official said.
Still, nine months later, Trump again interjected discord into the negotiations. During a press-attended call in October 2020, Trump announced the normalization of relations between Sudan and Israel—and added some unrelated shade so El-Sisi wouldn’t have to. “It’s a very dangerous situation,” Trump said on the call, referring to the GERD, “because [Egypt] is not going to be able to live that way. And they’ll end up blowing up the dam, and I said it, and I say it loud and clear. They’ll blow up that dam.” Ethiopia summoned the U.S. ambassador for clarification, and the Ethiopian foreign minister tweeted, “The man doesn’t have a clue on what he is talking about.” As a post by the Council on Foreign Relations put it, “The president of the United States took it upon himself to casually issue a bellicose threat to Ethiopia on behalf of Egypt and its president . . . a man Trump has referred to as ‘my favorite dictator.’”
Since 2010, annual U.S. aid to Ethiopia has hovered between $700 million and $1 billion. The Biden administration restored the aid in February 2021, but a few months after the atrocities in Tigray came to light, placed sanctions on the country. (In 2021, Egypt received $1.38 billion in aid from the United States.) The sanctions were greeted with anti-American protests in the streets of Addis. Abiy has been increasingly unwilling to tolerate Western interference, preferring to look east for construction expertise. Chinese companies are building the GERD and have financed the purchase of turbines and other equipment. Across the African continent, China has been instrumental in building infrastructure, stepping in to finance and construct dams after the World Bank paused most funding for dam construction in the late 1980s for environmental reasons. China’s appeal to authoritarian African leaders is, in part, due to the country’s lack of humanitarian strings on financing; dictators mustn’t fluff their latent democratic principles to qualify for Chinese funding. China’s involvement in the GERD, according to Lisa Klaassen, has changed “the historical balance of forces between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.” But it has also signaled that China may be ready to move beyond its longstanding non-interference policy.
Despite some detractors, most everyone agrees that Ethiopians will greatly benefit from both the power and the sellable surplus the GERD could generate. The Renaissance in Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam does a lot of work; the country, and its new leadership, have placed all their bets on this particular future. According to Zemedeneh Negatu, the managing partner at Ernst & Young Ethiopia, Ethiopians at home and abroad raised $450 million for the project themselves (this number is unconfirmed). They held sporting events and lotteries, they crowdfunded, and government employees gave up a portion of their salaries. The desperate need for something to look forward to, for a better life for future generations, has made tempering the GERD’s unilateral path forward unthinkable.
In Cairo, I followed Nahom up the steps of a multi-story residential building in Ard el Lewa. It was already dark outside when we left a Somali club with Yared, a musician we met at Ninitz’s café who had been the singer at Nahom’s sister’s wedding. Yared wanted to show us where he lived with his wife. She greeted us at the door with a bright-eyed toddler on her hip. She was young, about twenty-five, and dressed in jeans and a modest, long-sleeved shirt. She told me that she had been harassed by other Ethiopians in Cairo for posting criticism of the Ethiopian government on Facebook and assaulted on the streets for being Ethiopian. While walking home from work, an Egyptian man slapped her ass and stole her cell phone.
She and Yared’s modest home, which they shared with a friend, was a one-bedroom. A sofa in the tiny front room served as another bed. Yared’s wife was the only one in the household who worked regularly; she was a maid for an Egyptian family. This was not the life she and Yared had imagined, living poor among a hostile community. They missed their home, she told me, but there was nothing for them there. They had become refugees to escape poverty, to become more educated and financially stable than their parents, to escape violent politics. But after five years in Cairo without finding a way on to the West, they felt stuck. The dam gave them some hope; it had the potential to lift their country out of poverty, they thought. But the payoff was so far in the future, their current situation betrayed the dream. Yared’s wife leaned over to place her daughter in my lap.
After two weeks in Cairo, I flew to Addis Ababa. I hadn’t been there in three years; a lot had changed. Everywhere, wooden scaffolding heralded new buildings. Chinese characters were plastered onto plywood walls bordering construction sites: CHINA AID one read; FOR SHARED FUTURE, declared another. Flower urns now lined the streets with bright red geraniums. Banners praising Abiy’s new public works were ubiquitous, ostensibly for the benefit of the African leaders attending the African Union meeting in March 2022.
On Meskel Square, Addis’s governmental and civic center, #NOMORE was spelled out in four foot tall purple and yellow letters. The hashtag had been created early in the war with Tigray to support Prime Minister Abiy and decry any media or governmental “meddling” in Ethiopian politics. It proliferated online, along with #HANDSOFFETHIOPIA and #UNITYFORETHIOPIA, slogans that were the refrain of pro-Abiy protests around the world early in the war—part of expatriates’ efforts to support the prime minister when atrocities in Tigray were all over the news.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam was woven deeply into the fabric of this nationalist narrative. Banners and bumper stickers proclaimed support for its construction: IT’S MY DAM. AFRICA SHALL CHANGE NATURAL GIFTS TO CONCRETE BENEFITS AND ASSETS, read one banner with an image of the GERD. Abiy’s Pan-Africanism was reflected in another: AFRICA DESERVES A PERMANENT REPRESENTATION AT THE UNITED NATIONS SECURITY COUNCIL! The message was decidedly not anti-Egypt but pro-Ethiopia: a determined, proud Ethiopia. “Ethiopian officials repeat they do not intend to prevent the downstream countries from water,” the Sudan Tribune wrote in December 2022, “but they remain reluctant to ink any agreement with them over this sensitive issue fearing that it might be used to stop their ambition to be a regional hub for hydropower energy.”
Along with pride, there’s a palpable feeling of vulnerability in Addis. Unfounded rumors have spread online that Egypt was supporting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the former rulers of the country and Abiy’s opponents in the civil war. “His vision of the future feeds off of a disturbing infatuation with chauvinist imperial nationalism and a romanticization of a deeply problematic past that left intergenerational trauma for those who historically existed on the periphery of political life,” wrote Awol Allo, a senior lecturer in law at Keele University in the UK, about Abiy in a sharp op-ed for Al Jazeera weeks after the start of the civil war. Using ethnic division to stoke nationalism comes with a price. In Egypt, among the Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees I met who were living on the periphery, the price was displacement and harassment. Tesfahun Assefa, the refugee who lost his job for being Ethiopian, told me he could imagine a future where he returned to Ethiopia with his wife and four-year-old daughter, but the tone of his voice, the look in his eyes, signaled that he didn’t fully believe in that future. When I spoke with Awol by phone last fall, he had the same tone. His country, he said, seemed to be fighting the same war over and over again.
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