Ethiopia, Egypt and the Millennium Dam By Eskinder Nega

May 13th, 2011 Print Print Email Email

The Egyptian Prime Minister, Dr. Essam Sharaf, is in Addis for a two days working visit. He is leading a large Ministerial delegation to Ethiopia and Uganda, where he attended, on Thursday, the controversial inaugural ceremony of President Museveni, who has been in power since the mid-1980s and has just been brazenly “elected” yet to another term by a “whooping majority.”

Under normal circumstances, Sharaf’s visit to Addis would only generate long yawns from journalists. No respectable editor would run it as a story in independent media. The state media would have their exclusives. The multitude of MOUs to be signed, the generous promises to be made, the lofty goals to be declared, and the champagne glasses to be raised “to the long friendship between the two sisterly countries” would make ideal headlines for government newspapers and leading prime time news for their electronics counterparts. The delegation would then wearily make its way back home. And all of course will be swiftly forgotten. It’s an established ritual.

But there is undeniably more to the rite this time. The international media are seriously asking if the world’s first water war is in the making after Meles’ dramatic announcement of plans to build Africa’s largest dam on the Blue Nile. Most expect the answer to depend on the outcome of Sharaf’s visit.

US-educated Sharaf is a man of contradictions. He resigned from Mubarak’s cabinet in protest but still refuses to disclose his specific reasons. He was a leading member of the ruling National Democratic Party (even after the resignation) but joined the revolutionaries in Tharir square. On Israel he is proudly unlike Mubarak. “I am against normalization of relations with Israel in any area,” he told a newspaper last year. His views on the Nile issue are
less clear, but his Irrigation Minister, Hussein al-Atfy, has threatened war against Ethiopia.

The proposed dam, dubbed as the Millennium Dam, will have the capacity
to produce 5,250 MW of electricity. This will make it the largest in Africa. But maybe not for long. If the Grand Inga Dam is ever built on the Congo River with the proposed 52 generator units and 39,000 MW capacity, the grandiosity of the Millennium Dam will be greatly diminished. Unlike Ethiopia’s dam, the international community is earnestly pondering ways to finance the Congolese dam. And even now, China’s Three Gorges Dam in Hubei, the world’s largest, has a generating capacity of 22,500 MW, dwarfing the Millennium Dam’s projected power. The Itipu Dam at the border of Brazil and Paraguay is second with 14,000 MW.

But whatever the strides in other parts of the world, the implications of the proposed Millennium Dam are indeed significant to Ethiopia. 5250 MW may be peanuts to the Chinese, but it is huge by African standards. This is enough power to sustain half a decade of double digit economic growth for Ethiopia’s tiny economy with extra for electricity export. The dam’s estimated reservoir of 67 billion cubic meters of water is twice as large as Lake Tana , the nation’s largest.The potential for the kind of large-scale commercial farming the nation really needs could hardly be underestimated.

Naturally, the instinct of patriotic Ethiopians is to greet news of such a dam with enthusiasm. And this was exactly how they reacted, their intense antipathy towards autocratic EPRDF notwithstanding. But there was also concomitant suspicion about the timing of the announcement.

The announcement came in the immediate aftermath of the Eritrean fiasco for Meles Zenawi, who had desperately tried to steal the thunder from the Arab uprisings by bluffing war against Ethiopia’s former province. It was hard not to suspect a new ploy considering what was at stake for Meles if protests were to break out.

But for the Egyptians, the timing raised a thoroughly dissimilar —and alarming— possibility. Here they are in the midst of an exciting but difficult transition to democracy, where the weakening of the state was recently amply exemplified by sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims, and Ethiopia, source of 85 percent of Egypt’s fresh water, suddenly unveils a plan to build a gigantic dam on the Nile River. It was hard for them not to suspect that Ethiopia was trying to take advantage of their momentary weakness.

Indeed, whatever the original motive of Meles (I personally suspect the former rather than the later as the primary impetus) now is the best time for Ethiopia to negotiate with Egypt. And not because of the ephemeral weakness the Egyptians suspect but rather because of the dominance of moderates in the transitional government. If any deal is possible between the two nations, this is the opportune moment.

But for some fantastic reason, Meles acceded to a request by a visiting 47-member Egyptian delegation to defer real negotiation over the Nile until a new government is elected in December. Ethiopia will thus not ratify the Cooperative Framework Agreement, which was hammered out over eleven years of negotiations between nine Nile basin countries to ensure equitable distribution of water.

“Ethiopia, having seen the current situation in Egypt, where they need to establish their own government and go through a democratic process of electing their president, sees that it is sane and wise to wait for Egypt and give her time,” said Ethiopia’s Ambassador to Egypt,Mohamoud Dirir Gheddi. (By contrast, Meles endorsed Eritrea’s secession when Ethiopia still had a transitional government in the 1990s.) “Six months or a year because we need to stabilize, we need to finalize our revolution,” delegation leader Mustafa el Gindy told the media.

What prospects do the elections hold?

A Pew (an American firm) poll conducted between March and April of this year (after Mubarak’s fall) shows that 62 percent of Egyptians believe that Egyptian laws should follow the teachings of the Quran. 71 percent of Egyptians also have no misgivings about Islamic fundamentalists, Pew’s survey reveals. (This of course doesn’t mean they are for terrorism,though.) The implications are obvious. I will not detail them here. The only hope is in the military blocking the accession to power of extremists, which is uncertain at this point.

None of this is of course lost to Meles Zenawi. He is capable of calculating at a higher level. And thus the question: why is he doing what he is doing? Is he setting up this nation once more?


The writer could be reached at

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  1. Sam
    | #1

    “The only hope [in Egypt] is in the military blocking the acession to power of extremists” penned Eskinder. Eskinder is getting better and better. In fact, fundamentalists taking over is a real concern. Despite the diaspora Ethiopians wish to imitate the Egyptian uprising as a model, I personally think, it should not be. What united Egyptians was the fear of the future. Especially, the young saw diminished hope in the future under the leadership of Mubarak. No one had a clue how to change hoplessness to hope though. There is no a unified ideology in which all who participated in the uprising agreed upon. To spice up the uprising the Western media invariably mentioned the uprising brought upon because people wanted to have democracy. There is no a shred of evidence to bolster that claim. So if the fundemantalists rob the public anger to implement their dogma, which seems very likely, will EPDRF be gotten a friendly government to deal with the propsed Dam? I think not. Egyptians might have a hard time ahead in creating a visionary, democratically inclined government. That does mean the populace likely will be victim of Koran-thumbing preachers. That is not a good news to EPDRF. In fact, if the EPDRF go forward in building the Dam, the chances that the fundemantalists will make Friday prayer a means to rally the populace against Ethiopia is a given. Eskinder wondered why EPDRF granted Eritrean scession when there was transational government in Ethiopia but desires the Egyptian to have a stable government before starting the job on the Dam. A very wise observation. But still it is wise to wait. If the Dam’s plan seemed to have concoted to veer Ethiopians attention from politics and manfacture a few-months-long nationalism, I do not think EPDRF has done a bad job on that.

  2. Fasil
    | #2

    Meles is trying to prolong the anticipation of a prospect putting a dam on Abay just ot prevent the expected and unprecedented peoples unrising in Ethiopia. That is why he boased about going to war with Eritrea, talking day and night about Abay dam, and now unilaterally postponing the Nile Treaty by betraying other countries that have already signed to ratify a new treaty.

  3. Oda Tulu
    | #3

    This writer knows nothing about the immense contribution of Museveni. Uganada today is by far more united,democratic and prosperous than Ethiopia.

    | #4

    Ethiopia is postponing the finalizing of the “Entebbe agreement”; The Dam will continue to be built as planned according to Meles.

    It is a good gesture by Ethiopia to postpone the Entebbe agreement until Egypt forms a government. Dr. Essam Sharaf has said he won’t oppose the Millennium Dam. His delegation is also supposed to stop black mailing world financial institutions from giving Loans to Ethiopia.

    If that is true, get it in writing and send it to Exim Bank via express mail. ;-)

  5. Mathias Negassu
    | #5

    I usually like Eskinder Nega’s articles but I find this article to be too speculative. Not to be left out let me also make wild speculation. Let me begin by saying there are too many things Meles can’t say aloud regarding this project. The first study about how to locate a dam on the Blue Nile came out right after the 80′s famine by two researchers from the University of Turin. It actually made it to the news. It claimed a lake created by building a dam on the deserts west of Northern mountains will result in lake effect rain to the east of the Northern plateau in Tigray and Afar because of the direction of the earth’s rotation and moutain range lifting the air up. When you hear the choice of location of the lake on the warm lowlands with such large surface area it makes you wonder if Meles is just trying to solve the desertification problem in home province Tigray. He also built Tekeze Dam didn’t he. Such a system was built by the same Italian company Salini in Libya by pumping ground aquafier water to the surface. The article LAKES, EFFECTS ON CLIMATE from explains studies done in Africa including the Nile. So there is no end to speculation. The bottom line is there are Babylonian dams in service on Efratus still in service. Meles’s reason for the dam is irrelevant. What ever the reason just cough up what ever you can afford to use this fleeting strength of the present Ethiopian government to alleviate the chronic poverty just a bit. That is very much what I am doing, ‘see the bigger picture and don’t demoralize people into not buying the bond’. I wish Eskinder Nega would do the same.

  6. Mathias Negassu
    | #6

    He is probably buying time. He would not give real concessions without bitter fight.

  7. DRAMA
    | #7

    WHO WILL BE OWNING IT??????????

  8. Behailu
    | #8


    You completley missed the big point. First, it is not the wish of the Diaspora to imitate the Egyptian type of popular revolution, it is the wish of the Ethiopian people. No Ethiopian wants its country to change hands yet to another dictator. When we wish the Egyptian type revolution, we are talking about the process, not the outcome. The outcome will be decided by the people. All we are imitating form Egypt is – the way they toppled Mobourek

  9. rezene kadissaba
    | #9

    Behailu -
    We voted for the opposition to work for us in 1997. They refused. They were looking for a power to terminate the existance of EPRDF. No body asked them revenge on EPRDF but to work on behalf of the mass. To the contrary EPRDF did well knowing it was not voted by the mass. EPRDF could have turned into an absolute dictator ( eg. Eritrea after G 15) but they opted to work hard. Why do you think people would go out on the street, risking their lives, knowing the opposition doesn’t want to work as a public servant? That’s what change is all about right? The people needs some group worth fighting or voting for. Let me know if you see one.

  10. Sam
    | #10

    Behailu : I completely agree with you the “outcome will be decided by the people.” What I have problem agreeing with you is your suggestion ” all we are imitating from Egypt is – the way they toppled Mobourek.” Get this: the people of Egypt and Syria both wished a change of government. The Egyptian succedded, but the Syrians were massacred, and still are, but the demise of the regime being uncertain. Could you think, Behailu, EPDRF be less barbaric than the regime in Syria? I believe not. The very factor you left out that the Egyptian military being impartial at the outset, supportive of the uprising in the end cannot be repeated by the Ethiopian military. The military in Ethiopia, I believe, will be a killing machine. It is one of the military in Africa which is so passoniate to defend the regime because the military is doctrainated with ethnic politics. The high ranking military personnel believe in ethnic politics. If not they would not be high ranking military officers. Meles will play the ethnic card to his advantage. Remember the day after KINIJIT won the Addis election overwhemingly, Meles started to remember Addis was Oromia after all. Do not get me wrong: I am not suggesting in any way anybody controls spontaneous uprising. When the people had had it, they might rise as one.When Ethiopians come to that point, they should not expect a smooth sailing like Egypt. So any opposition party should aware events beyond its control might haappen, and be ready to guide such an event. Maybe then the doomsday I envision happening might be mitigated.

  11. rezene kadissaba
    | #11

    Sam – I appreciate your sensitivity – but the egyptians knows there are groups and individuals out there who are competent and wise politiicians to replace Mubarak. In Ethiopia – we have extreme opposition who can’t even give a consistent and peaceful press conference to the media. My question is:
    Why do you think people would go out on the street, risking their lives, knowing the opposition doesn’t want to work as a public servant? We failed once – do you think its worth trying?

  12. Beware of undercover woyane
    | #12

    rezene Kadissaba,
    You asked: “do you think its worth trying?” My God! buddy! come on! I assume you are a woyane using once again using Oromo names. Just because the bloody hand Meles runs his mouth like a machine with full of lies and deceptions, and on the other hand loot and kill Ethiopians is not a sign of good leadership. Haven’t you seen and heard enough of Meles and his cronies awful crimes? Haven’t you heard and seen enough proof about all the looting Meles, his wife Azeb and their TPLF thugs have done? Wake up!
    No one my friend, no one will be worse than Meles! Even the other evil Mengestu was much better in someways than the current evil Meles!

  13. Sam
    | #13

    Rezene: A very relevant question. I wish I know the answer, but do not.

  14. rezene kadissaba
    | #14

    Beware etc..- See, when you mention Mengistu ( you are not the only one even the oppositions mention him at times ) – you turn your audience off. Dont do that in the future – specialy to those living in Eth. Dergue was a gov obsessed by the land and its ideology but not its people. Plus, Dergue is localy/ currently irrelevant.Dead.
    We dont need a reminder what goes wrong with the current gov – we are living in it. We want to hear from the oppositions ( the cyber ones can help but not realy ) a way forward from where we are and an assurance they wont run away when elected. We were the one who voted for thier 99% sit of the major cities of Eth. We can do it again. But they have to take a different route than condemning EPRDF – people need to see a political result negotiated by the opposition. Not a stalmate. Again assurance of not running away.

  15. Beware of undercover woyane
    | #15

    Abraham Lincoln said once: “You may fool all of the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all of the time, but YOU CANNOT FOOL ALL OF THE PEOPLE ALL OF THE TIME.”
    Some of us can read between the lines when some disguised woyane try to shift all the blames on the oppositions in some clever way.
    Birtukan and many others who never left the country have been badly treated as the worst criminals in the Ethiopian history. The oppositions who won the election in various parts of Ethiopia have been intimidated, incarcerated, muzzled, beaten and killed by the vicious, looter, unlawful and murderer TPLF illegitimate government. Thank God for the few oppositions and journalists who have left the country and be able to speak freely, organize and inform Ethiopians through ESAT, VOA, INTERNET and other means. Please don’t twist my words, I never said DERG was a saint, but compare to TPLF, Derg is the lesser Evil. All the blames should always lay on Woyanes who have looted, killed Ethiopians and sold the precious land of Ethiopia for a dirt cheap price with no benefit to Ethiopia.

  16. rezene kadissaba
    | #16

    Beware -
    Good observation – the opposition are harassed. True. Lets take it to the next level. I resent the repression too. But have you ever asked why they are harassed and do you see any way out to a fair political play in the future? Where both parties struggle in a fair politics? As an ordinary Ethiopian: I say the ball is on the opposition side. Three simple steps.
    1. Guarantee EPRDF as a person & entity ( including Endowments ) to remian active beyond EPRDF
    2. Guaratnee major projects like roads, dams, education, health initiatives will continou
    3. Stop playing with Eritrea and ASSAB. If EPRDF feels like when he leave power the issue of assab will risk Tigray people security -Oppositions harrasment continues . Add here the need to denounce OLF, ONLF, G7 etc..

    My freind why do you expect EPRDF to play fair game when the opposition play safe until they have power to terminate EPRDF. Let alone in 2005, in 2010 election, one day before the election – Eng. Gizachew and Siye annuonce on ETV- “if MEDREK win EPRDF members; who are not criminals can remain working with us”. How do you find this statement if you are EPRDF? Do you think you will treat fairly the oppositions knowing they come to take your job, respect ….NO. You will kick ass my freind
    Oppositions should believe in making bald moves, decisive which can create a new perception: SPECIALLY BEFORE THE EYES OF THE RULLING PARTY.

  17. Anonymous
    | #17

    Typical woyane, I’ve heard you enough. After you armed yourselves to the teeth, now you are taunting Ethiopians to fight and take power. Only pathetic woyanes believe DEMOCRACY comes with bloodshed not by one man one vote. I relate this story I heard a couple of years ago to woyanes: how an armed eight year old little boy was able to corner and shoot and kill his father and his father’s friend because the little boy didn’t want to do chores. The grown unarmed men ended up dying by a spoiled undisciplined small child. I rest my case. Go find someone to fool.

  18. Beware of undercover woyane
    | #18

    Typical woyane, I’ve heard you enough. After you armed yourselves to the teeth, now you are taunting Ethiopians to fight and take power. Only pathetic woyanes believe DEMOCRACY comes with bloodshed not by one man one vote. I relate this story I heard a couple of years ago to woyanes: how an armed eight year old little boy was able to corner and shoot and kill his father and his father’s friend because the little boy didn’t want to do chores. The grown unarmed men ended up dying by a spoiled undisciplined small child. Ethiopians should have never allowed ruthless woyanes to be armed to their teeth and control the country and the people they despised the most.
    I rest my case. Go find another Solomon Tekalegne to believe you.

  19. Hailemicheal
    | #19

    Who are you to blameTHE GENERATION.the opposition party leaders?these are the patriotic ethiopians who have been tortured,imprisoned,detained,forced to flee the country,but still confronting the brutal regime bravely ,outside&inside.these were the people ,when they were young,ovethrown the monarc,fought for the butcher derg &now doing what they can to avoid these mafia groups.the now generation,you have no morals to blame our heros (opposition party leaders outside &inside ethiopia) but give sugestions or constructive critisisms.besides do your assignments,this is the time for you to prove patriotism,like the greate BERTUKAN,ESKINEDER,DAWIT,etc…to free the people from these killers.GOD BLESS MY MOTHER LAND,BELOVED ETHIOPIA!!!

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