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Deconstruction Ethiopia’s media discourse over GERD: Picking a fight

One of the distinguishing traits of the Ethiopian discourse on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), particularly during the latest stage that began in 2019, is the irrational pursuit of a confrontation with Egypt, to the extent of pushing the military tool into the Ethiopian official discourse without justification. Such behavior doesn’t help reaching an agreement between the two countries that have been engaged in continuous negotiations for years.

This distinctive feature gives rise to multiple questions about the real purpose of this approach, especially with the possibility of distinguishing between two separate “fake” battles that Ethiopia seeks to promote in its media discourse. The first is a large-scale battle between Egypt, that is backed by international colonial powers, and Ethiopia, that leads the African liberation struggle. The other is narrower in scope, taking the shape of direct military confrontation between Egypt and Ethiopia.

The fake battle against “colonialism”

Throughout the era of African national liberation since the end of World War II until the early 1960s, Ethiopia had a little role on the ground in supporting the battle of African liberation against colonialism, with the exception of speeches made by Emperor Haile Selassie. During his reign, Ethiopia was colonizing all of Eritrea’s lands. The emperor, furthermore, had discriminated against the Ethiopians – save for the Amhara – on the basis of descent and race

This happened at a time Egypt was hosting African liberation movements, providing them with all means of support. Against these historical facts, the Ethiopian government is seeking to market the GERD, on the domestic and African fronts, as one form of “battling against the colonialism” that gave Egypt utter control over the Nile and deprived Ethiopia and other upstream countries of its water.

One of the focal points Ethiopian statements repeatedly insist on is the fake allegation that Egypt bases its right to Blue Nile water on agreements international powers imposed during the colonial era and that should end with the termination of colonization.

On 1 October 2019, an Ethiopian Foreign Ministry press release that was published by international media pointed out that Egypt’s proposals to solve the GERD crisis seek to preserve its water shares based on colonial-era accords that give Egypt the right to oppose constructing any projects on the River Nile.

The same message was repeated in the letter of the Office of the Speaker of the House of Peoples’ Representative (the lower chamber of the Ethiopian Federal Parliamentary Assembly). The letter directed to the Arab Parliament a formal protestation against its decision issued on 31 October 2019 in solidarity with Egypt in protecting its historical rights in Nile water. The letter repeated the Ethiopian allegations that Egypt’s water rights are based on colonial agreements, to which independent African states were not signatory.

Another Ethiopian fallacy has to do with denying international agreements that guarantee Egypt’s right to Nile water. Ethiopia repeatedly announced its rejection of the principle of historical rights, and its media reiterated that the principle allows Egypt to monopolize the Blue Nile’s annual share.

These Ethiopian allegations contradict established historical facts. Egypt has never asked Ethiopia to abide by the provisions of the 1929 agreement on the White Nile, nor the 1959 agreement signed between the governments of Egypt and Sudan after the end of colonialism in the two countries. However, Ethiopia remains bound before international law by the 1902 agreement its independent government, that was not subject to any form of colonialism, signed. According to Article III of this accord, emperor Menelik II committed not to build and not to authorize the building of any construction on the Blue Nile, Lake Tana, and the Sobat River that would block the water from flowing into Sudan and Egypt.

These principles were stressed 90 years later in the 1993 agreement signed to lay out a general cooperation framework between Egypt and Ethiopia. Article V of the 1993 agreement states that the two parties are prohibited from practicing any activities related to Nile water that may harm the interests of the other party. However, in violation of the provisions of the agreement, which was signed by Ethiopia, the Ethiopian official position, reinforced by countless media articles, still denies there is a legal obligation for Ethiopia to protect Egypt’s water rights.

Ethiopia’s insistence to deny its previous legal obligations, that limit its freedom to deal with Blue Nile water as an international waterway shared by three states and that may preserve the minimum of Egypt’s rights to Nile water, is built on the allegation that Egypt refers to “colonial” agreements to secure its water rights. These allegations are simply unfounded. When Ethiopia signed the 1902 agreement, during the reign of Menelik, it was not colonized, and it willingly signed the accord. Moreover, Ethiopia was not under occupation when its former prime minister Meles Zenawi signed the cooperation protocol in Cairo in 1993.

Truth be told, all of Ethiopia’s desperate attempts to renounce its previous international agreements reflect the troubled vision of the current Ethiopian ruler regarding his country’s history. If Ethiopia’s signing of the 1902 and 1993 agreements came to represent a “concession”, it in turn enabled Ethiopia to obtain important gains that were necessary for the survival and prosperity of the state at the time of signing the accords. Nonetheless, as is the case every time, Ethiopia shirks its obligations after it yields the returns from signing international agreements.

Article I of the 1902 agreement gave Ethiopia additional lands at the expense of Sudan. Ethiopia relies on this agreement to define its borders with its western neighbor. In dealing with the text of the international agreement, Ethiopia shows a contradictory behavior, as it picks some articles to accept and others to reject. Surprisingly, it is the Amhara, who are recently in control of the Ethiopian diplomacy, that are leading the attempts to renounce the internationally binding agreement signed by emperor Menelik II, one of the group’s historical symbols.

Likewise, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front that rose to the helm was in dire need to open up to all sources of regional and international support after it came to power in 1991. The front needed to present itself as a system that seeks to break with the policies of Mengistu Haile Mariam, who was merely a tool for the implementation of the Soviet project in Africa. It is against this background that Zenawi visited Egypt – the regional and international star of which was rising following its successful intervention in the Kuwait Liberation War – to avoid the entrance of his emerging, unstable regime into an uncalculated rivalry with Egypt.

Indeed, Zenawi achieved his main aim of the visit. Cairo maintained balanced relations with Addis Ababa, even following the failed assassination attempt on the life of former Egyptian president Mohamed Hosni Mubarak in the Ethiopian capital in 1995.

Zenawi enjoyed a good relationship with Egypt to avoid any form of confrontation or rivalry for the 20 years he spent in power. During his rule, Zenawi strengthened the pillars of his political project, before he seized the opportunity of the exceptional conditions Egypt endured in 2011 to initiate animosity, pose a fait accompli regarding Nile water, and announce the beginning of GERD’s construction without prior consultation or notice.

The rhetoric of military confrontation with Egypt

There is no logical comparison between the damages Egypt will have to endure upon the completion of the GERD without agreement, and the damages Ethiopia will face if the dam’s construction is brought to a halt. Egypt will lose its only source of water, while Ethiopia will lose the amount one branch generates of limited electricity the majority of which is exported.

Despite this blatant contradiction in the two countries’ political stance towards the crisis, in addition to the huge difference in military capabilities between them, Egypt has never explicitly or implicitly threatened the use of the military tool, committing itself to the negotiating track as a first choice besides the political and legal alternatives offered by international law, which it began to activate since it addressed the international community in September 2019 and the United Nations Security Council in May 2020.

In return, the past few months witnessed Ethiopia’s intention to recall the military option into the crisis. This began on 22 October 2019, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed “warned” during his speech before the Ethiopian parliament that his country may mobilize millions of Ethiopians in case there is a need to go to war over the GERD. It is wondrous these unjustified statements were released hours before Ahmed went to Sochi to participate in the first Russian-African summit, which saw a bilateral meeting between Ahmed and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. It was then that Ahmed backtracked, saying during the meeting that his statements regarding the military option were taken out of context by the media.

Despite the fact Ethiopia quickly backtracked on this position, there were other similar instances that saw the Ethiopian government deliberately walking the same path that threatens regional stability.

After Ethiopia withdrew unannounced from the Washington talks at the end of February 2020, a delegation comprising Ethiopian security and military leaders visited the GERD site on 12 March. The delegation was headed by Chief of Staff of the Ethiopian Armed Forces General Adem Mohammed, who stated that the Ethiopian forces are ready to fend off any attack on the dam and that they are working to defend the Ethiopian people’s gains, rights, and properties.

With Ethiopia’s continued intransigence during the negotiations and its attempts to delude its domestic public opinion that there is a foreign military threat, the Deputy Chief of Staff of Ethiopian Armed Forces, General Birhanu Jula, announced on 12 June his country will defend itself with all its might and will not negotiate its sovereignty over the GERD. He claimed Egypt and the world know too well “how [Ethiopians] go to war when the time comes.”

In continuation of Ethiopia’s attempts to “militarize” the GERD crisis, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed held a surprise meeting on 21 June to discuss “the new defense strategy” with leaders of the Ethiopian Armed Forces. The meeting was held one day after the Egyptian president inspected the combat units in the western military zone. 

President El-Sisi’s inspection tour was the result of field developments in Libya’s battle arena. But Abiy Ahmed seized the opportunity to fake to his people that Egypt’s military preparations were basically directed against Ethiopia.

Ethiopia’s recall of the rhetoric of military confrontation with Egypt over the GERD doesn’t find any justification in the Egyptian discourse or approach for an entire decade. This consolidates the reality that Ethiopia’s hostile attitude is owed to purely political domestic reasons that have nothing to do with Egypt or its position concerning the GERD. The Ethiopian government’s adoption of a hostile approach can be interpreted as the result of two reasons. The first has to do with Abiy Ahmed’s relationship with the Ethiopian people, and the second is related to the military establishment.

Concerning the first reason, Abiy Ahmed attempted to spread public panic about the existence of a foreign military threat to mobilize public opinion to support him. This happened at a time Ahmed’s popularity was quickly eroding. It was no coincidence he started talking about an Egyptian military threat to the GERD at a time sweeping protests erupted in the Oromia region in October 2019 that rendered tens of Ethiopians dead.

Ethiopia’s escalating speech about a military alternative in spring 2020 came against the background of Ahmed’s attempt to prolong his rule without holding elections by creating unreal justifications that unfitting security conditions allowed him to postpone the general elections from May to August. That was before he used the coronavirus crisis to delay indefinitely the elections until the pandemic crisis was over, according to the decision of the House of Federation

The latest military meeting was held in June following the refusal of several opponents, prime among whom are the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Oromo Liberation Front, of the announcement of extending the rule of Abiy Ahmed. The opposition said they will consider the government illegitimate once its tenure ends in October.

The second reason that explains why Abiy Ahmed adopted a hostile approach is his attempt to fix the turmoil within the Ethiopian military institution, and which negatively affected his relationship with it in the two years he has spent at the helm. By speaking about an imminent Egyptian military threat, the prime minister is giving his armed forces a foreign target that may help the military institution restore cohesion amid the repetitive rebellious incidents within the Ethiopian Armed Forces.

In October 2018, a number of special units surrounded the headquarters of the prime minister armed with their private weapons. The events of June 2019 led to the assassination of the chief of staff of the Armed Forces in an event that is still shrouded in mystery. This escalating tension within the military institutions comes following a process of reformulating relationships between ethnic groups which Abiy Ahmed began by excluding the Tigray that held the largest representation in leading military posts. Against the background of these internal tensions in the military institution, Ahmed hopes the repeated talk about a possible Egyptian threat will contribute to containing the internal problems in the institution and the adjustment of his relationship with it.

***

Egypt’s position remains committed to reaching a peaceful settlement to the GERD crisis through the legal and political means provided by international law. Egypt still refuses any Ethiopian attempt to push the crisis towards “militarization”. This comes at a time the irresponsible Ethiopian media discourse pushes towards framing the current dispute as an ongoing war.

Ethiopia’s adoption of this negative and false media discourse shall minimize the chances of reaching a peaceful settlement for the crisis and may allow more room for other effective alternatives in a fertile environment and among several supporters in light of the extremely turbulent conditions that Ethiopia suffers on the domestic and regional fronts.

Dr. Ahmed Amal
Dr. Ahmed Amal
Chief of African studies unit

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