Nearly Completed Mega Dam Enhances Ethiopia’s Diplomacy

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Energy Export to Kenya Improves the Relationship

Electric power imports from Ethiopia’s mega dam by Kenya is an endorsement of Ethiopia, after a rocky patch in the relationship between the two countries. Despite initial staunch opposition to Addis Ababa from factions within the Kenyan state, who viewed Ethiopia’s reengagement with Somalia and Eritrea negatively, newly elected President William Ruto’s government has seen an improvement in the relationship with Prime Minister Abiy. Kenya’s Safaricom is the biggest greenfield FDI in Ethiopia. The two countries also plan to cooperate on building a rail-link that will tie Kenyan ports to Ethiopia and South Sudan.

Perhaps these new developments disprove assertions of anti-Ethiopian elements within Kenya’s government, who previously dismissed the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) as an extravagant illusion, marketed through the nationalist hashtags #ItsMyDam and #FillTheDam. Nevertheless, President Ruto and his predecessor Kenyatta have consistently maintained that this regional partnership benefits both Kenya and Ethiopia.

GERD’s recent progress reflects Ethiopia’s doggedness in the face of domestic political, security challenges, as well as international pressure of the past three years.This resilience allows friends of Ethiopia in the Kenyan establishment to dismiss objections raised against the Ethiopia-Kenya partnership. President Ruto can now demonstrate to critics that Ethiopians have proven their full ownership of GERD by successfully filling it, despite the challenges they encountered. Additionally, this can weaken the influence of hardliners within Kenya, driven by disloyalty to the presidency and a desire to undermine Ruto’s administration, advocated for souring relations with Ethiopia in favor of collaborating with rebels and insurgents opposing Addis Ababa.

Furthermore, Ethiopia relies on Kenya to purchase electricity from GERD to acquire much-needed hard currency, especially as complex set of circumstance have strained its sources of foreign currency income. This situation also places the anti-Ethiopia group in Kenya, including its publicly known private intelligence firms, as well as hostile think-tanks such as the British Sahan Group in discord with the Kenyan government. A former Kenyan Ambassador who declined to be identified stated “the complicated set of security challenges and geopolitical interests in the Horn of Africa forces all parties to hedge more than ever…..and that’s why factions within the Kenyan government supported armed rebels in Ethiopia initially”.

Nevertheless, Ethiopia’s recent clashes and its shift away from the EPRDF-led government has been discomforting to many regional players in the Horn of Africa and beyond. Moreover, the Tripartite alliance between Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea made Kenya and Uganda nervous, as it precluded IGAD’s clout as well as the East African Community (EAC). The new alliance also took away from the Kenya-Ethiopia partnership that the Western powers had relied on to anchor the Horn of Africa security pact, especially in countering Al Shabab and other Islamist insurgent groups. However, after years of counter terrorism by AMESOM and an Ethiopian and Kenyan military involvement in Somalia, things did not improve much.Thus, a paradigm shift on Somalia always seemed to be on the horizon. This was the path Addis Ababa embarked on when Prime Minister Abiy came to power, but one it miscalculated for its potential to be destabilizing, at least in the medium term.

Ethiopia’s increasingly independent policy orientation, exemplified in its BRICS application is partly driven by recent perceived betrayals from the country’s traditional backer in the West, but it also belies a deeper historical undercurrent within Ethiopia’s body-politic that has found expression in the new leadership. Ethiopia’s fiercely independent outlook is cultural and deeply intertwined with its historical development. For this reason Kenya continues to be courted by geopolitical actors afar and near, seeking to balance Ethiopia’s rising aspirations. Wether this trend precipitates another decline in relations is yet to be seen.

To avoid isolation from the West, Addis Ababa has sought to strengthen ties with friendly European countries such as Italy, which has recently received pressure from Washington for its role. For Addis Ababa, Italy is increasingly becoming the most reliable development partner from the Western block of countries.

The Near Completion of GERD Vis-à-vis Egypt

The process of filling of GERD poses a reduction in the water flow towards the Aswan High Dam and the downstream Nile Valley basin, potentially leading to repercussions for the Egypt’s political economy. This is because Egypt has thus far been unsuccessful in persuading the Ethiopian government to engage in a legally binding agreement regarding the management of shared transnational water resources. Ethiopia has not shown deference to Egyptian leadership, undermining the influence of the dominant Egyptian military in the government.

Consequently, Egyptians may start questioning the government’s narrative that Egypt is the most powerful nation capable of projecting its influence in the region. Hardliners in the Egyptian media regularly refer to Egypt’s military government’s softness not to demonstrate its capability to protect Egypt’s vital interests. As recently as 2021, Taha Sakr of Daily News Egypt raised the question of Egypt’s future strategy concerning GERD, wondering whether it would rely on diplomacy or military action, emphasizing the absence of a clear strategy for securing Egypt’s share of the Nile water.

According to a report in 2021, ‘In an unverified audio recording posted on the Ana Asef Ya Rais Facebook page, an individual claiming to be former President Hosni Mubarak expressed regret over Egypt’s diminished status as a powerful nation.’ He mentioned that during his tenure, Ethiopia did not dare to construct GERD because he could have ordered Tupolev Tu-160 warplanes to destroy the dam in its early stages of construction. Throughout Ethiopia’s northern conflict with insurgents of the Tigray Liberation Front (TPLF) from November 2020 to November 2023, Egyptian media in Arabic regularly discussed the military option, in addition to supporting armed rebel groups in Ethiopia. From 2021 to 2022 secret foreign flights originating in Sudan, to supply the rebels in the Tigray region were likely facilitated by Cairo.

Once there was even talk of medium-range ballistic missiles, including the aged Condor missiles with a range of 1000 kilometers. While these missiles could reach GERD if launched from Sudan, the air defense system around GERD is capable of intercepting most incoming missiles. This suggests that any attempt to incapacitate GERD through purely military means was unfeasible as late as 2021. It is certainly out of the question now.

With the near completion of the dam, brought about Ethiopia’s determination, it seems such rhetoric has subsided for a relatively more pragmatic outlook. It is testament to the Dam’s potential for shifting regional discourse on Ethiopia in a significant way, one that demonstrates Addis Ababa’s ability to change the facts on the ground while withstanding extreme pressures and barrage of external narrative manipulation.

The dam’s progress gives Ethiopia’s diplomacy a relative boost vis-a-vis interlocutors. Closing this gap in power-politics maybe essential to garners a lasting win-win solution based on cooperation. It also highlights a bigger lesson, that changing facts on the ground changes geopolitical calculations. Food independence will be another policy goal the country would want to push in similar zeal. It too will have great import in the country’s international relations.

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