AFRICA: The Millennium Dam and Ethiopia-Egypt Ties

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By Eskinder Nega*

The Egyptian Prime Minister, Dr. Essam Sharaf, was in Addis for a two-day working visit. He was leading a large Ministerial delegation to Ethiopia and Uganda, where he attended, on May 12 the controversial inaugural ceremony of President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since the mid-1980s and has just been brazenly "elected" to yet 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 Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's 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.

U.S.-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 Tahrir 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 latter 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 2011 (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. 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?

*Eskinder Nega is an Ethiopian journalist, who was incarcerated several times for reporting fraud in parliamentary elections in Ethiopia in 2005. He contributes frequently also to and

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