The “Millennium Project”? Or the Deception of the Millennium? by Abebech Belachew

April 25th, 2011 Print Print Email Email

Meles Zenawi’s strategy of deception in the aftermath of the 2010 selections was the so called “transformation” proclaimed in August 2010. The election “victory” claim by a “99.6%” margin was immediately followed by a strategy of “transformation”. (more…)

Meles Zenawi’s strategy of deception in the aftermath of the 2010 selections was the so called “transformation” proclaimed in August 2010. The election “victory” claim by a “99.6%” margin was immediately followed by a strategy of “transformation”. There was no “wind of revolution” then, no Tunisia, no Egypt. The “crafty” Meles only thought of fooling donors by his venture of “transformation”. In the 1960s the slogan of revolutionaries was “dare to struggle, dare to win!” In 2010, Meles came up with a new slogan, “dare to deceive!” Indeed, the “transformation” is the boldest and most daring attempt to deceive donors. [But, Meles had to first silence the private press and advocacy NGOs by banning them altogether.]

Now, come December 2010 and Jan-February 2011, the wind of the revolt of the heretofore silent and suppressed plebeian in Tunisia and Egypt swept away the dictators who ruled these countries with iron fist and massive spy/police network. Meles knew perfectly well that his godfather in Albania, Enver Hoxha, had earlier claimed an election victory by 99.9% in 1986 (5 years before his regime was swept away), Ben Ali (whose one party-state Meles was studying to imitate) claimed an election victory by a huge margin months before he was overthrown and Mubarak also claimed victory by a huge margin in the 2010 elections. Meles now knows that empty claims of election victories by ‘landslides’ can even be counterproductive. Thus, for Meles, the principal strategy now constitutes how to stay in power by averting a people’s revolt. No donor can help him from being swept away by a storm of people’s uprising. Not even Obama who once promised Africa that he would deal with those governments who steal elections, those who he categorized as to have “stood on the wrong side of history”. The US could not do anything when their grand puppet in the Arab World, Hosni Mubarak, was overthrown. Thus, the panic on the part of Meles.

Why the panic? Meles knows too well that his regime is the most hated in the country’s history, has no mass social base at all, that his power rests on the bayonets of the Gestapo, his police/army. The people of Ethiopia are the most impoverished in the world, hit by sporadic famine and food insecurity, all sorts of diseases are rampant and easily-controllable diseases kill hundreds of thousands. In face of such colossal poverty, Meles’ regime could not reduce it (and under-development) for the last 20 years, an uprising can be anybody’s guess. On the contrary, poverty is exacerbated and the people are still subjected to the most repressive police state. No end to poverty and no end to unfreedom. These are factors for revolt and they are by far more down-to-earth and serious than the factors that gave rise to the revolts in Tunisia or Egypt. [One can recall what Meles said about the impossibility of a revolt in Ethiopia.] Now, the big question for Meles is how to divert the attention of the people at large and the youth in particular.

Yes! Eritrea can be one big factor! Declare war on Eritrea and even if it requires skirmishes, so be it so long as it diverts attention. Meles Zenawi came out one morning and, to the surprise of anybody, vowed to overthrow the regime in Eritrea. What happened? Is there a new situation that warrants a declaration of war? Nothing whatsoever; everything was “normal” under the circumstances that described the relationship between the two regimes. Shortly after, Meles downplayed the hostility towards the Eritrean regime and came up with a new issue that he thinks can really do the job: divert attention from a possible revolt! Yes! The Nile question! And relate that to Egypt: perfect! The Millennium Project!
One simple question to ask is “why now”? If this is the project of the millennium, one can assume that this is indeed a huge project which the regime has been thinking and planning for years. We all know that Meles’ claims that his regime is a “developmental state” [with the blessings of Joseph Stiglitz and others] and does things with meticulous planning. Now, where is the meticulous planning about this millennium project? Why was it proclaimed all of a sudden? Building a dam on the Blue Nile, apart from being highly controversial, perhaps constitutes the project of the century both in terms of its crucial contribution in generating power but also in terms of its expenditure. In Meles’ own admission, this proposed dam constitutes the project of the millennium. [If it is a real project, it can indeed be the project of the millennium.] Now, just imagine this is a project of the millennium for the regime and it is conspicuously absent from the strategy of transformation declared last August. If one looks at the section on the plans of the Ethiopian Electric and Power Authority (EELPA) in the transformation strategy document, the celebrated “millennium project” of building a dam on the Blue Nile simply does not exist. This proves the fact that Meles did not have any plan to build a dam on the Blue Nile as early as last August. Then, why now? Why after the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt? It is extremely important to underline the fact that the current euphoria about the “millennium project” is a propaganda ploy invented after the peoples’ revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

Undoubtedly, given the topography of the Blue Nile valley, constructing a hydroelectric dam on it requires a high-level engineering technology not to speak of the billions of Birr it requires. Has Meles acquired donor funding for it? We know he hasn’t and in the deputy prime minister’s own admission they have not secured any funding; and it is highly unlikely that donors will ever fund it because of political reasons that can trigger the wrath of Egypt thereby affecting the Middle East peace process. Why choosing this risky business at this time? No funding, political risks: why risk it now? Is it really possible to build a dam of such scale without donors’ grants or loans from them but with contributions from the most impoverished people in the world and by selling bonds to them? We can discern from this that the purpose of the millennium project rhetoric is not development as it is neither serious nor feasible. By now, we can see the dominant feature of the political aspect in this project. It is indeed a political project aimed at deceiving the public and diverting their attention from a possible uprising.

Then, what is Meles up to? The first idea of declaring war on Eritrea doesn’t seem to do the job because in this case, the EPRDF as being proactive in this project can be considered as the offender and Eritrea can appear the victim. That won’t really raise the level of “patriotism” that he wants to fan. The best way to fan “patriotism” is to make the victim appear as the under-dog vis a vis the imagined enemy. The ideal country that qualifies for this “job” is Egypt; not Sudan, definitely not Somalia. But, what can be the issue? Yes! The Nile issue! The erstwhile issue that categorizes Egypt as the “historical enemy”. Perfect! Egypt is in turmoil and it is very sensitive about the use of the waters of the Blue Nile. For Meles, it is more ‘appropriate’ to ride roughshod over an old myth and fallacy that was used by the reactionary regime of Haile Selassie that portrayed Egypt as the ‘historical enemy’. When a despot gets desperate, he sometimes forgets the image he tried to portray. [Meles portrays himself as ‘intelligent and ‘progressive’.]

All of a sudden, Meles appears to be an Ethiopian patriot. How come he has never spoken in terms of Ethiopian unity and promoted it for the last 20 years? Everybody in Ethiopia knows that Meles and his regime are not patriotic at all. Why now, on the eve of a possible uprising? We will continue our discussion at two levels: Discussion 1 deals with the Nile question in general, the controversies between countries of the Nile basin and Discussion 2 will discuss the Meles’ millennium project campaign.

Discussion one: the Nile Question

The Nile question has been controversial for some time now. Like all river basins in the rest of the world (Amazon, Mekong, Zambezi, Niger, etc…) the misunderstanding between up-stream versus down-stream countries has been an issue in the Nile basin as well. The problem with the controversy in the Nile basin is the degree of the politicization of the issue. The governments of some of the countries in the basin [such as Ethiopia, Egypt and Eritrea] are also belligerent to each other. The rest of the countries of the Nile basin, i.e. Burundi, D. R. Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda are in a much friendlier relations. In fact, five of these countries, i.e. Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda have formed the East African Federation. Now, Southern Sudan, through which the White Nile passes and a number of tributaries to the Nile from Ethiopia are flowing to, will be added to the political map of the basin. What counts in the political alignment for most of these countries is the behavior of each government towards opposition groups in the neighbouring countries which in turn is determined by external forces such as the US. Egypt is an exception.

Egypt is overwhelmingly desert except its Nile basin where 96% of its 74 million population lives. Egypt without the Nile cannot exist. That is indeed why Egypt is so sensitive on issues of the use of the Nile water. This concern is completely understandable and undoubtedly Egypt must get the amount of water that it needs for its use. The problem with Egypt is that it has mystified the issue so much so that it even went to the extent of following a policy of arresting the development of countries such as Ethiopia so that these countries won’t be able to construct anything on the Nile that it thinks can reduce the amount of water flowing into Egypt. This is an extremely narrow view that led Egypt to support any political movement opposed to any regime in Ethiopia. No wonder why Egypt has supported practically all opposition movements, except the Leftwing, that appeared on the scene from the old Eritrean Liberation Front to today’s Al Shabab. This has been a policy constructed with a parochial lens from the days of Jamal Abdel Nasser. As we will see below, this is a wrong and dangerous policy that threatens not only the possibility for regional and river basin-wide cooperation but also peace. Meles’ parochial policy of disregarding regional cooperation is also dangerous that may instigate a regional conflict. The potential for a regional war over water hinges on these two extreme positions of Egypt and Meles’ EPRDF regime.

In the 80s, when the possibility of regional war on water between Egypt (and perhaps Sudan) and the Derg regime in Ethiopia was thought to be a possibility, the World Bank came up with the idea of a regional cooperation on the basis of development to ward off any conflict between the basin countries. In 1999, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) was established with the help of the Bank by the ten countries of the Nile basin. According to the World Bank, if these countries go in cooperation having a development project between them, it is possible to ward off conflict. To the dismay of its impoverished peoples, the dilemma in Africa is the mismatch between a grand idea and its implementation. The NBI is a highly bureaucratized institution that failed to undertake and implement any serious project in the 12 years of its existence except planning and discussing millions of initiatives. The many hydropower dams involving countries such as Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo, irrigation dams involving Ethiopia and Sudan, prospective cooperation in the Tekezze-Atbara sub-basin involving Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt never took off the ground. The Nile Basin Discourse, a regional civil society variant of the NBI, supposedly to monitor the NBI was badly organized that it did not manage to accomplish anything substantial. From the donors’ perspective, the NBI is a conflict prevention ploy in the main and a regional cooperation for development.

Donors try to generate cooperation among the countries of the basin at large and between the hawks (Egypt and Ethiopia) in particular. The West’s assurance of the availability of the Nile waters for Egypt constitutes an important component part of the Middle East peace process at large. One main factor for the switch in alliance for Egypt from the ex-Soviet Union to USA is possibly the Nile factor as well. It is for this reason that Western donors will never fund Meles’ project as they see it as belligerent and provocative as far as Egypt is concerned. It goes contrary to the rationale for what they have been pouring in millions and millions of dollars through the NBI for achieving peace and cooperation. They will never fund any project that they think is provocative to one party of the NBI countries. [That is why he turned to Ethiopia’s poor for fund! Can you imagine, the poorest people on earth contributing to one of the most expensive projects in the continent! It is unlikely it will materialize, we presume.]

Will China lend funds to Meles? This is also unlikely as China does not want to antagonize neither Sudan nor Egypt by funding a project they never want to see. China’s eyes are on the oil fields of Darfur and their interest on Ethiopia is not really economic but geo-political just like what the interest of the US was on Ethiopia in the decades beginning the 60s.
In the meantime, the NBI was also engaged in a marathon discussion and debate regarding a regional cooperation document called the Framework Agreement. After years of debate and discussion, the draft was almost ready for signature in 2007 in Kigali when Egypt and Sudan raised serious objection to article 14 that defines water security. The discussion continued but to no avail. In 2009, some NBI countries signed the Framework Agreement that resulted in a stalemate on the discussion. The sticking point on article 14 resulted from the erstwhile mysticism reigned among the Egyptian ruling circles on the amount of water that Egypt needs. Egypt is opposed to projects such as dams, power or irrigation, because of the fear that they will reduce the flow of water to Egypt. Thus, it clings to colonial agreements it signed with the British that guarantees Egypt unrestricted rights to sue the Nile waters. On the other hand, the rest of the countries argue back that they don’t need to be abided by colonial agreements and that they do not recognize agreements signed by the British on their behalf. In actual fact, this is not an insurmountable disagreement. The Egyptians only have to abandon their parochial attitude and develop a regional perspective to the whole issue, and the up-stream countries have to acknowledge the rights of down-stream countries. Instead, Egypt has to adopt a developmental policy and, most important, it has to adopt a strict policy of population control granting reproductive rights to its women, etc… This in turn involves changes in attitude that are strongly prescribed by religion. This is an internal problem that Egypt alone has to resolve. The recent revolution can possibly extend its dimension into looking at these problems. The second change required by Egyptians is to adopt a regional perspective to the entire Nile basin and abandon its erstwhile primitive policy of keeping upstream countries such as Ethiopia weak and undeveloped.

Then what is the solution to the problems in the Nile basin? From the outset, let’s establish the fact that the Nile basin is one ecosystem whose conservation is critical to all the countries, both downstream and upstream. This is extremely important to realize. There will be no Nile as a river if the catchments surrounding the lake that still retains its colonial name, Lake Victoria and that of Lake Tana, the marshes of Southern Sudan and the natural environment and ecosystem of the basin are not conserved and preserved. In the contemporary world where climate change has already destabilized the natural resources of so many countries everywhere, it is crucially important to realize this fact. If the natural environment surrounding and feeding into the Nile basin as a whole continues to be depleted, the survival of the river as a whole will be in doubt. As a matter of fact, the deterioration of the environment and ecosystem surrounding the Nile basin has already began. The level of Lake ‘Victoria’ continues to decrease by an alarming rate and it is indeed more alarming that the three East African countries that share the lake (Tanzania and Uganda 47% of the lake’s area each and Kenya owns 6%) have not yet taken any substantial measure to mitigate the shrinking of the lake. The fate of the Rift Valley lakes in Ethiopia is also alarming as they are drying up one after another. Already three lakes, namely Adele, Alemaya and Lange have completely dried up and the level of Lake Tana is decreasing. Undoubtedly, climate change and human activity have depleted the ecosystem and environment so much that a substantial part of the ecosystem in the basin has been seriously affected that in turn affects the flow of water from the thousands of rivers that are tributaries to the Nile. Massive deforestation dries up highlands or the higher ground thereby affecting the streams and then rivers running into the Nile. This is a huge problem that requires serious attention and focus on the part of the governments.

What the DR Congo faces as environmental problem in its Nile basin, for instance, is no longer a problem of DR Congo alone. It affects the entire basin; therefore it should constitute a problem of the region as a whole. It is difficult to discern whether the governments concerned are really aware of this because a regional perspective simply does not exist. A “go it alone” parochial approach is a thing of the past when people were not aware of their regional responsibilities and the interdependence between countries. Lacking such regional perspective remains to be a problem. Egypt for instance, instead of crying out for a much more share of the waters of the Nile should adopt a regional approach and consider the environmental problems of the upstream countries as its own (indeed it is) and try to do something about it. There is no use for an Egyptian diplomat to go down to the shores of lake ‘Victoria’ and measure the lake’s level almost every week and cry out when the level goes down. Egypt has to do something about it. By the same token, worrying about whether or not the level of Laka Tana has gone down doesn’t help, but supporting efforts inside Ethiopia to conserve the environment and ecosystem in the Lake Tana catchment will. The countries of the basin as a whole should consider the problems as their own and try to do something about it. In such endeavours, donors will definitely help them as they have invariably displayed.

By the same token, what Ethiopia as a country should do is [if it has a government accountable to its people] to adopt a regional perspective and take the lead in this to conserve the Nile basin as a whole. It has capable environmentalists to perform the job. The head of the environment department of NBI (NTEAP) is an Ethiopian, for instance. Ethiopia has no shortage of water at all. It is all a matter of how to harvest water in various ways. The problem is that Meles’ regime has literally no idea of the importance of conserving the environment and the relationship between the environment and social development as a whole. It has not lifted a finger when the Rift Valley lakes dried up and the when the rest, including Lake Awassa, are still threatened. Such a regime cannot really adopt a regional perspective; it is too parochial and too primitive just like its Egyptian counterpart.

Now, it is indeed clear that the governments in the region with all their current orientation cannot develop a regional perspective and a regional strategy to conserve the Nile basin as a whole. This historical responsibility lies on the shoulders of the “civil societies” of the region. Unfortunately, the civil society is suppressed in most of these countries such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi, DR Congo, Egypt and Sudan. The absence of civil societies to engage the states is a structural problem affecting most of the countries as mentioned. Unless, civil societies take up their natural role in engaging the states, it is unlikely that the governments all by themselves develop a regional perspective and solve the problems of the basin. Now, this has been a discussion on the structural problems and the conventional approaches to solve the basin’s problems. Now, let’s proceed to the second level of the discussion.

Discussion two: the Deception of the Millennium

One Sudanese expert of the Nile once put it once that Ethiopia, with all its runny rivers, can be a power house of the entire region while Sudan can become the bread basket if only these regimes of the basin share a common view and common approach to the region’s problems. Does Ethiopia have a problem of rivers, other than the Blue Nile, to generate power? Not at all. On the contrary, Ethiopia has plenty of water resources and could utilize it to generate power and construct irrigation dams for agriculture without touching the waters of the Blue Nile if only it has an integrated water resources management. With much less funds, and probably with the assistance or loan of donor funds, it can meet its water requirements by adopting an integrated water resources management. This is indeed a huge task that requires vision and tactfulness, two indispensable development qualifications that Woyane doesn’t meet. Then, it should not come as a surprise that Woyane, like the Derg, has completely failed even to maintain the hydro power dams such as Koka. For instance, much of the problems of power cuts including in the capital Addis Ababa is caused by not by “lack of rain and shortage of water” in the dam, but because the siltation of the dam has not been cleaned for decades. Meles’ regime proved to be incapable of even maintaining and properly running the infrastructure it has inherited from previous regimes such as the Koka dam.

We have seen that Meles’ millennium project was not planned at all and received no funds from donors. In addition, this is a megaproject that requires a great deal of funds and that amount of funds cannot be raised from the poor in Ethiopia. These hard facts compel us once again to question the motive of this phantom “project”. What could be the motive and why?

By all indicators both by the UN Human Development Index and other credible international as well as academic institutions, Ethiopia has been one of the six poorest countries in the world since the beginning of the Human Development Indicators in early 80s. The 20 years of Meles’ rule has not changed an iota of this record. And we can also confidently say that the so called “transformation” strategy won’t change this state of poverty at all. On the contrary, perhaps, as the land grab of pastoral areas will definitely ruin the livelihood of millions of pastoral families. Whether Meles likes it or not this state of grinding poverty is much worse than the level of poverty that led Tunisia and Egypt to revolution. Secondly, the level of political repression is also much worse than it was in Tunisia under Ben Ali and in Egypt under Mubarak. By all indications, the situation in Ethiopia is much worse. On top of that, Meles’ regime is also hated due to its policy of ethnicity and favouring Tigreans over the rest thereby creating animosity among ethnic groups perhaps as a deliberate policy of staying in power by dividing people. Thirdly, Meles has seen how his regime is opposed and hated in 2005 during the elections and the revamped security apparatus and the clamp down as well as the suppression of civil liberties and the private media in post-2005 Ethiopia have all embittered the people of Ethiopia. Definitely, it has been paranoid of a possible uprising well before the revolutions in North Africa.

When the revolutions in N. Africa occurred, it is now time for Meles to really get prepared and do something to prevent it. Perhaps, the best way of prevention is diverting the attention of the public to something else. And that is how the whole idea of the ‘millennium project’ came about. It is diversionary manufactured on the morrow of the revolutions in N. Africa and that is why Meles Zenawi’s ‘millennium project’ is indeed the deception of the millennium.

We cannot close this paper without commenting on the positions taken by the opposition and some private newspapers in Addis Ababa. When it comes to the Nile, the opposition and the private media also seem to be victims of the propaganda of previous regimes that consider Egypt as the ‘historical enemy’. In fact, the opposition granted its generous support to Meles on the dispute over the Nile sometime last year. Some private newspapers also granted their endorsement of the current government propaganda on the millennium project. Amazing indeed! What kind of opposition do we have that hasn’t yet liberated itself from fallacies created by the old regimes and repeated by Meles? And how independent is the private media that is supposed to reflect the interests of the poor? Political leaders and leaders of public opinion should understand that sometimes they need to go against the tide if the tide is moving in the wrong direction. The current campaign for the ‘millennium project’ is sheer rhetoric and propaganda ploy aimed at diverting the attention of the public from a possible uprising.

1. What the opposition and other public opinion leaders should do in this respect is really study the Nile question, the interests of the riparian countries and develop a regional perspective as a progressive idea and solution as

  1. gragn Ahmed
    | #1

    it is goodanalysis. The point is China wants influence an may finance this project to get hold of political influence. Time will tell.

  2. decency
    | #2

    Its interesting pieces but the writer seemed to be more patriotic than the opposition and the media backhome who are commenting the fictious project while being really under fire!!
    If has the determination, he/they better go back home and show us ciuragesity…otherwise it would be rather pompous!!

  3. decency
    | #3


  4. A. ZEWEDE
    | #4


  5. David
    | #5

    ‘Enver Hoxha, had earlier claimed an election victory by 99.9% in 1986 (5 years before his regime was swept away) . . .’ That was very clever of Enver considering that he died in 1985.

  6. Gere
    | #6

    Dear Abebech
    We are very poor but we can fund the Grand millinum dam. We are very poor but we will transporm and grow. we can hate some of political ideas of EPRDP but denying that the economic policies of the gov’t are bringing good things for our poor contry is not acceptable. From your name – Abebech it looks like that you are Ethiopian. But I doubt that you are Ethiopian and I donot like your -ve atitude

  7. rezene kadissaba
    | #7

    Just to comment the why now issue – the design have been made the last 7 year – as of september it has been known as project X ( read Fortune news paper). About alternative rivers – yes Ethiopia has plenty but all the other once are not helping the geopolitics. The Nile river has been politicized very much. And its affecting the geo politics. Egypt may find it irrelevant to irritate Eth once the Hidase dam is done. So Eprdf may use it to politics but may be for constructive reasons. Imagine – what Aswan did to Egypt even during dictators like Mubarak.

    | #8

    Good analytical oversight on the issue of diversion. When we look at the many disheartening development failures, we often forget to also glance from the outside to discover that they are political ploys. Accusing the author of lack of couragiousity proves lack of political insight on the repression and oppression by the regime. At least the author shows patriotism in her detailed analysis, something missing from the country’s educated!
    The environment is eroding at a rapid scale while the population is rising alarmingly. The link between population explosion and environment deterioration is very glaring. Instead we are only patching the environment. Planting more trees and building more dams will not solve future looming disasters. It is unfortunate that we lack visionary leaders.

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