My Takes on the Ethiopian Dam and the Addis Ababa Master Plan Messay Kebede

May 8th, 2014 Print Print Email Email

The issue of the so-called “Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam” has proven very tricky for all those Ethiopians who oppose the present regime. On the one hand, no Ethiopian wants to see Ethiopia’s right to use the waters of Nile for its own development contested so that any interference from external countries appears as an unacceptable assault on its sovereignty. On the other hand, many Ethiopians are understandably apprehensive of the detrimental ecological and social impacts of such a huge project and are skeptical about its economic benefits, a skepticism based on the failures of the experience of huge dams in other African and non-African countries.

Recently, three eminent Ethiopian scholars, namely, Minga Negash, Mammo Muchie, and my dear friend Seid Hassan wrote an article in which they argue that Ethiopians must engage in a cost-benefit analysis instead of opposing the project based solely on its alleged negative consequences. They find that the dam will provide “valuable economic benefits,” but they also admit that it will have several negative “side-effects.” This admission led them to say that “Ethiopians may legitimately ask questions and raise concerns about the manner in which the Government of Ethiopia is handling the project.” Accordingly, while concerns are legitimate, a simple one-sided opposition is not.

Since the article was obviously written to help Ethiopians resolve the dilemma in which they find themselves, I must confess that I remain as perplex as before. After reading the article, I still wonder whether the opposition to the dam project is really misplaced. Precisely, the cost-benefit analysis that they advocate seems to show an imbalance in favor of cost because even if we concede that the dam will be economically beneficial, the question remains as to who will benefit from the project and at what costs. The three scholars are right when, dismissing the validity of colonial treaties, they defend the sovereign right of Ethiopia to use the waters of the Nile. Unfortunately, the question is not only about sovereignty, it is also about the misuse of the right by a ruling clique whose records in the defense of Ethiopian interests have been so far nil.

It is fair to say that people should not expect anything good coming from a ruling elite that so wholehearted landlocked Ethiopia. Moreover, the fragmented nature of Ethiopian society thanks to the ethnic divisions implemented by the TPLF puts us in no position to antagonize further our enemies. There is no doubt that Egypt will engage in destabilizing policy, short of a military attack, to either stop the construction or makes it very costly for Ethiopia. True, as concerns ecological consequences and social adversities, such as displacements of people, palliatives can be found to mitigate the damages. Nonetheless, can one seriously expect that the ruling elite, assuming that it is capable of such concerns, will take the necessary measures to alleviate the harmful downsides of the dam?

It is also true, as noted by another dear friend, Tecola Hagos, in a recent article, that the existing government was successful in removing the traditional opposition of Sudan. The question is, at what cost? Is the seceding of Ethiopian territories, which happen to be in the Amhara region, the price for the Sudanese support? Who has any idea of the secret deals between the Sudanese and the Ethiopian governments? Clearly, to change the dam into a project in which benefits would outweigh costs, the condition is to have in place a nationalist and democratic, that is, accountable, government.

Last but not least, is the project really economically viable? I am no expert in this matter, but plenty documented studies on the real benefits of grand dams exist that invite caution, if not outright skepticism. Caution is all the more advised since the project originated from the former prime minister whose dictatorial ethos and aspiration to personal grandeur have left Ethiopia in a state of shamble. As pointed out by Alemayehu G. Mariam’s article, dictators are consumed by vanity and the need to justify their rule. As a result, they launch grandiose projects whose purpose is both to flatter their aspiration to grandeur and hide the misery and pettiness of their rule. It is important that we resist the temptation of separating the dam from Meles’s megalomania if only because it gives the reason why alternative proposals that would be less costly and more in tune with the environment and the interests of surrounding people were discarded in favor of the Grand Renaissance Dam. I am not convinced by the argument that economic benefits are dependent on the size of the dam, and not on a smart, efficient, more manageable use of the water.

To the argument of economic benefits, Tecola adds that projects like the grand dam can work as antidotes to the ethnic division of Ethiopia. Projects with a national dimension counter the fragmentation of the country and serve as achievements around which people can rally and repair their torn unity and national identity. As a harsh critic of Meles and his regime, Tecola knows that national projects are not enough to patch up Ethiopian unity. Centuries of common existence did not deter the Tigrean TPLF from advocating and implementing an ethnonationalist agenda. To counter the trend, we need a government that expressly dismantles the institutions created to divide Ethiopia and promotes a national culture that permeates ethnic identities.

That is why Tecola supplements his support to the dam with the argument that “the current Government of Hailemariam Desalegn seems to be engaged in a subtle fight to reverse such disastrous course of national disintegration.” In thus making his support conditional, Tecola joins all those Ethiopians who have serious concerns about the good use of the dam, the only but important difference being that concerned Ethiopians, in which I include myself, are not as optimistic as Tecola in the belief that the actual prime minster has the necessary power to reform the regime. In light of this uncertainty about the reformist agenda of the prime minister, I maintain that it is still reasonable to oppose the construction of the dam.

The upshot of all this is that the mentioned articles, despite their good intention and estimable arguments, do not do the job of appeasing my original concerns. To support the construction of the dam, I require an open debate about the pros and cons and the release of all relevant official and secret documents. By debate I do not mean the defense of the project by the officials of the government, but the presentation of alternative projects. The goal must not be to obtain endorsement, but to allow people to exercise their free and enlightened judgments with no attachment of political significance that would be construed as supporting or opposing the regime. Of course, some such condition amounts to nothing else but a change of government, given that the present regime will never subscribe to an open debate. Anyway, the construction of the dam is on its way so that the time for open debate has already passed. Even so, I reserve the right to oppose a fait accompli if only to show that the dictatorial regime did not fool me a bit.

The second issue I want to deal with is the riots caused by the expansion plan of Addis Ababa into Oromo territory. University students from various towns located in Oromia have expressed their opposition to the expansion plan by engaging in peaceful demonstrations. Undoubtedly, a number of legitimate questions can be raised against the plan, the most important being the utility of such an expansion. Why expand Addis Abba further when already its disparity with other towns is only too wide? Why not use the available resources to expand other towns that badly need to grow? This focus on Addis Ababa seems to be a continuation of the policy of make-believe, so dear to dictatorial regimes. It is more about impressing tourists, foreign visitors, and supporters than implementing a policy of development that really benefits the country as a whole. More importantly, the plan does no more than expand what Addis Ababa has effectively become, namely, the secluded island of exclusive enrichment for the cronies of the regime.

Another legitimate concern has to do with the fate of the Oromo peasants who surround the town. Unsurprisingly, the government insists that the plan promotes the integrated development of Addis Ababa and its surroundings. But seeing the government’s previous records of forced displacement of peasants with no or inadequate compensation in other regions of Ethiopia, there is no reason to suppose that a different fate awaits Oromo peasants. One more time, what matters is not the declared good intention, but the reality of an implementation devoid of established process of accountability. Any more than in the case of the dam, Oromo students have little reason to take at face value what the government is saying or promising.

The irony of the whole case is that the regime is reaping what it has sown. The creation of ethnic regions and their definition as sovereign nations could only backfire at the plan to expand Addis Ababa into a territory considered as the exclusive property of the Oromo. In principle, the invention of nations within the Ethiopian state considerably limits the authority of the central government so that Oromo students are within their rights accorded by the ethnonationalist constitution of the TPLF. The crackdown on the students is just another proof that the TPLF has done nothing but trample its own constitution since it came to power. Accordingly, what is absolutely unacceptable is the violent repression of the students who did nothing but use their recognized right to express their demands in a peaceful way. This savage repression, which caused many deaths, should be emphatically denounced by all Ethiopians.
That said, it must be at the same time clear that the condemnation of repression does not mean the endorsement of ethnic politics and borders. Indeed, from what I have read so far, Oromo students oppose the expansion because it violates the sovereignty of Oromia. For unionists, this is not the right reason and they should say so openly. They must condemn the violation of Oromo students’ right to protest peacefully, but they also must make quite clear that the condemnation is not an approval of killil politics.

I take this opportunity to ask unionists to become more aggressively engaged in favor of Ethiopian unity. It is high time that unionists drop their timid approach to unity in the hope that their timidity will decrease the secessionist tendency of Oromo nationalists. Especially, the Amhara elite must shake off their sense of guilt over the marginalization and mistreatment of Oromo under the previous Amhara dominated regimes. The fall of these regimes, which would not have been possible without the active and multifarious participation of Amhara elites and people, exonerates, so to speak, the Amhara and celebrates their decisive input in the rise of a new Ethiopia in which ethnic groups with their language and characteristics will flourish in conjunction with their Ethiopianness. EPRDF and other ethnonationalist groups present the new Ethiopia as a political reality born against the will of the Amhara when we all know that nothing would have been possible without the primary rise of Amhara students and elites against the imperial regime. Indeed, the time has come to raise the mere defense of Ethiopian unity to the offensive level and this change begins with the work of unifying the unionist base and laying out a clear vision of what the new Ethiopia will be. Our rallying motto should be: unity in diversity versus diversity in disintegration!
Wake Up Unionists!

  1. Alem
    | #1

    I don’t know if honor matters much to Tecola but his is on the line. The first thing he should do is to allow the public to have access to a website bearing his name. There the public would be able to read his writings and come to its own conclusion. Having read almost all articles written especially by Tecola and Ghelawdewos I can assuredly declare that both stand for Tigrayan rule [that is another way of saying they look down upon non-Tigrayans]; both write essentially to distract rather than enlighten to uphold human dignity and unity in diversity. Tecola injected, among others, the deliberately divisive term Naftanya [emptied of its historical context and implications for today] to erect a wall of hatred between the Amhara and the Oromo [and thus create space for Tigrayan leaders to further entrench themselves]. It was the same Tecola who advised Eskinder Nega be released [to make it appear he cared for human dignity and freedom of expression] only to be exiled. Think about the cruelty of such a statement for a moment. Time will not allow to go into every detail. Someone in a comment to a previous article has said Tecola is mellowing. Not really. He has used different tactics at different times to advance a cause and then retreated to give the appearance of a changed outlook. In his article on the Dam project he knows full well the Tigrayan party is not for the unity and territorial integrity of Ethiopia. By pointing to a Nile we share he is simply trying to dilute the resurgent united front against incumbents. By referring to water boy Hailemariam as PM he is defending the lie that Tigrayans are allowing others to share power. It was Tecola who defended Tigrayan incursion into Somalia by invoking Ethiopian patriotism. Tecola was against Hailemariam becoming PM following Meles’s death. I could go on. I don’t want to waste your time but Ghelawdewos was advising against peaceful demonstrations. Go back and read that both Tecola and Ghelawdewos have tried to repackage Seye Abraha the quintessential and unrepentant weyane. Nothing personal here. Simply talking about articles the two have written and for which they seem to show no remorse. I would not be surprised if the two are retained by the ruling minority in Addis/the embassy in DC for raising non-issues or issues that are solely important for extending Tigrayan rule and presently need to be sold to a wider public [the Dam project falling in this category]. Watch also the silences where a statement is called for and the coordinated onslaught, at times with Tedros in tow [the latter generally aggrandizing the two as super heroes]! When these write against Eritrea it is to deflect the rejection towards Tigrayan rulers within. Ironically, these could also turn around when called for to talk about a Ethiopia that “reclaimed” Eritrea into the fold! Please don’t take my word, go back and read those articles. In short, I have found the two not particularly transparent or honest.

  2. Garo
    | #2

    The good professor thinks the displacement of Oromos is the latest act of one of many displacement by other groups. That is how an informed he is. Displacement is not new to Oromos. In the last decade over 150.000 Oromo farmers have been displaced just around Addis Ababa. The fact that some groups did not say anything when they knew what was going on speaks volume about Ethiopian politics. Some of those so called opposition personalities were rushing to Addis to be part of the hungry vulture.

    We keep hearing unionist just because next to their political names the have the name Ethiopia. In reality they are as ethnic as any of those ethnic groups. Their agenda by all account is how to bring the dominance of another group that still believe Ethiopia is theirs to rule. They huff and puff how the old system was better than what we have today. In other word let us go back to the old Teqlai gezat where they hope to be the teqlai geje. We say no to that. We also maintain the current regime is just the continuation of the old Abyssinian system that refuses
    to change. No change means no survival as a system.

  3. Dawi
    | #3

    Meles is known to be equally indifferent to praise and blame. “To those who acclaimed Ethiopia’s remarkable economic growth, he would ask, do they understand it contradicted the neo-liberal Washington Consensus? To those who condemned his measures against the political opposition he demanded to know how they define “democracy” & to show him the quickest path to it.”

    Having said that, I shall say only those who are fully sold to the “neo-liberal” paradigm or those that assume small hydropower systems have less of an impact on the environment than large-scale hydroelectric dams have difficulty in “separating the dam from Meles’s megalomania”.

    The fact is a recent Oregon University study showed in some cases the cumulative damage of many small dams can be far worse than the damage caused by one large dam. Large scale dams have a far smaller impact per megawatt than small installations. Therefore, Meles who was known for doing his homework always, had read such researches and it was for a good reason that he commenced the GERD.

    In light of that I will also say the assumption Tecola made on HD holds water. Meles was not the most threatening or the most charismatic out of the bunch of EPRDF/TPLF cadres from the start. He was known to be the “coward” in the military front by several of his colleagues including Dr. Aragawi however, he ended up becoming the top dog not only of Ethiopia but beyond.

    How come?

    The way he developed his package of qualities is not easy or that everyone would want to copy or do it but it was through grit. It required an ability to work hard, to overcome against odds and change circumstances into a source of personal superiority. Such kind of superiority is not ethnically or religiously exclusive. It is a pride an individual takes in his own strength of will.

    Meles was known to have “inverted Kissinger’s dictum that holding office consumes intellectual capital rather than creating it”. He was always learning, reading, debating, and writing…

    HD has all what it takes to do the same.


  4. Dawi
    | #4

    Prof. Messay said,

    [[..Indeed, from what I have read so far, Oromo students oppose the expansion because it violates the sovereignty of Oromia…]]


    At least this Professor is not the kind of guy who tests the wind before making decisions; he boldly said, to “.. take this opportunity to ask unionists to become more aggressively engaged in favor of Ethiopian unity…]]

    Good and well – but how do you do that?

    By “..go back to the old Teqlai gezat …….to be the teqlai geje”? NOT!

    The only way in my humble opinion is by embracing/stealing the developmental state economic system from the present regime if you will.

    And when you are doing that you are off course counting on the assumption of Prof. Tecola that is “.. Projects like the grand dam can work as antidotes to the ethnic division of Ethiopia. Projects with a national dimension counter the fragmentation of the country and serve as achievements around which people can rally and repair their torn unity and national identity…”

    The fact on the ground today is all other methods have failed thus far.

    | #5

    …..”the rise of a new Ethiopia in which ethnic groups with their language and characteristics will flourish in conjunction with their Ethiopianness”……

    …….”Our rallying motto should be: unity in diversity”…….

    voilà……! ትምህርት እድሜን ኣይወስንም እንዲሉት……………!

  6. Alemash
    | #6

    I am greatful that our Ethiopian government is proactive when it comes to the economic developement. the building of the hydro dam is one of many ample example.

  7. dodo
    | #7

    I fully concur with the views of Alem (#1 above). Can a leopard change its spots or Tecola his ultra tigrean fascist idea. Never!. What is most surprising if for Prof.Messay to be a close friend to the eminent scholar Prof. Siid Hassen as well as to the arch anti amara demagogue and pusedo-intellctual Ato Tecola, who is not even gainfully employed (unless as Alem. #1 above suggests, he works for the Weyane Embassy in DC.) As usual Messay tries to touch both sides of the argument and because he has no ideas to give,he leaves it in limbo – speaking from both sides of his mouth. he may as well had kept quite and not expose himself of ineptitude. I suspect that he may not even recognize how rediculous his conclusions are, otherwise why make similar mistakes over and over again?

  8. Damte
    | #8

    First I would like to say thank you to Dawi. I must admit he’s the main reason – perhaps the only reason – I come back to this website. His comments are enlightening regardless of my position on the subject on hand. He does it with such a grace and thought it makes it easy to read. If only our so-called ELITES can learn one or two things from that. Way to go Dawi.
    As to the Messay’s article, I must say it’s more of rehashing of deep held beliefs than entertaining new and thoughtful ideas. If this forum is a marketplace for new ideas, the offering which comes out of this article is lacking. As long as we cannot stop pretending that the social, political or other problems are the creation of the current government, I don’t think we can have an honest discussion about our current affairs. The tribal mentality was and is not the phenomena which just popped up with the emergence of EPRDF or TPLF as the author would like to call them. As our long history documents, we always identified ourselves first with out tribal origin before our “Ethiopianess”. This may not be obvious to many, especially the ones who were privileged enough to succeed on the social ladder, but to the masses this is the reality of our “union”. Once we start to see things for what they are, then we can have an open and constructive discussion about the merits of governmental actions on behalf of the people or lack of it. As long as we are unwilling to reconcile our differences, as the author at one time advocated, we are doomed to see things in the same prism regardless of the facts on the ground. If we are so hateful as I see on this article, how can we be taken seriously on the subject we are commenting? So, to be taken in earnest in such topics of national importance, we need to differentiate our political differences from our national interests – I believe it’s possible to be politically of different clothe and think the same when it comes to development of national importance which the GERD is one. If anything, Meles and Co. should be applauded for the audacity to dream big and challenge the status co. I’m sure it took guts, cruel diplomatic maneuvers and a charismatic and charming personality to even start this project. This achievement alone, against all odds, should be applauded. As to the peoples input or take over GERD, if my math is correct, this dam is being built to large part from individual contributions raised both at home and abroad. I think the author has made his statements clear by not participating in such endeavor – anything else becomes a drumbeat.

  9. aha!
    | #9

    I fully agree with your narratives to counter the article written by the three professors entitled “Misplaced opposition against the GERD”, the title of which I was critical, but appreciated the analysis of sharing the Blue Nile water by the down and upper stream countries. I also stated that the gravitational flow of water weighs in more towards the Down Stream countries for their lively hood in making arrangement for sharing the Nile water. I was criticizing the title, because the opposition was not about the building dam, but about the precedence of economic and political freedom coupled with humanitarian, economic, political and environmental crises perpetrated by the TPLF/eprdf regime simmering in the last twenty three years on the silent majority of Ethiopians. Before these issues are reversed, to create a national fervor over GERD against Egypt is untenable politically and economically, especially if the project is funded by Ethiopians, but not by IMF, which puts a strain on the current economic growth and yet benefitting the crony capitalism by TPLF/political, TPLF/EFFORT, TPLF affiliated enterprises in similar fashion as the Dutch Boers of ex-apartheid South Africa.

  10. Eskemeche
    | #10

    I applaud Dr. Messay Kebede for a wonderful and timely article. I have not been on his side in some of his stands before and did not agree with his on some of his views. Here I stand with him completely.
    Many think it is better to keep your eyes shut and your hands to yourself when this kind of issues surface. Well, when one puts oneself in political discourse, one has no choice but to fall into one of two categories; the gutless ones and those with guts. A situation like the one at hand is; damn if you support! damn if you don’t! If you do not stick out your neck in hot issues when no one wants to do so, you are gutless. Those who stand on the side of the unity of the country and the people should come out and make their statements on hot Ethiopian issues. I know this issue has lots of supporters on both sides of the fence. It is time to stand where you need to be counted. That is what the people want them to do. These are leaders and followers with guts.
    Dr. Messsay Kebede did so, and I applaud him. Yes we all should condemn the brut force of TPLF. TPLF knows only force. What it is doing day in and day out is a politically calculated risk which it controls hand and foot. The problem is, the dynamics of ethno nationalist politics. This is the result of TPLF politics growing to its full maturity.
    Thank you Dr Messay Kebede

  11. Anonymous
    | #11

    This must be the worst article ever from Dr. Mesay. He was boldly seen confused just to oppose the GERD and promote separatists. You seem to be worried who will be the beneficiary after successful completion of the dam. Let me be pessimist like you for this special issue and TPLF will loot, but you have to also figure out how long. It is a 300 year project. Don’t oppose everything just for sake of opposing. What about those delusional oromo nationalists? Come to your sense.

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