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[Research Reports] New Dynamics over the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD) and Changing Political Systems in the Horn of Africa Region

Mitsugi Endo (Professor, The University of Tokyo)
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‘Middle East and Africa’ Research Group #3
The "Research Reports" are compiled by participants of research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate in timely fashion the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The Research Reports represent their authors’ views. In addition to these Research Reports, individual research groups will publish “Research Bulletins” covering the full range of the group’s research themes.

Talks have been underway to forge a new agreement on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which has strained relations between downstream Sudan and Ethiopia since Ethiopia started its construction in 2011,. However, such consensus building has been facing tremendous challenges; it is difficult to predict what kind of landing will be achieved due to the impact of changes in domestic political systems in the Horn of Africa region. Hereafter, I will examine the attempts made to build consensus on the GERD since the beginning of 2020, and analyze the changes in the domestic political systems of Sudan and Ethiopia behind these attempts.

When completed, the GERD will be the largest hydroelectric power station in Africa. For Ethiopia, which will build the facility, the GERD will serve as a "trump card" to increase domestic power supply and realize economic growth. Much of the key work on the GERD, which is being constructed at a total cost of $4.2 billion, has been completed, despite delays in power generation components. It has been reported that Ethiopia started to store water in the dam in July 2020. It has been pointed out that downstream Sudan will also benefit from improved flood control, enhanced agricultural productivity, and cheaper electricity. On the other hand, for Egypt, which depends on the Nile for 90% of its water resources, the completed reservoir scheme will greatly affect the future quantity of water resources previously available downstream, depending on how long and how much of the dam is filled. This has therefore long been recognized as the Nile basin hydro politics issue.The current issues facing the GERD consist of developing a dispute resolution mechanism for potential problems in addition to formulating a water storage plan. The international community has been involved in drawing up agreements on these issues.

In November 2019, the foreign ministers of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan held talks in Washington through the mediation of the United States. On November 6, when these consultations were concluded, a joint statement was issued by the ministers of the three countries, which confirmed that they would continue working toward an agreement on water storage and dam operation. Following this joint statement, the United States prepared an agreement together with the World Bank, the draft of which was completed in February 2020. However, Ethiopia refused to sign the agreement, indicating that the content still favored Egypt. In response, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed submitted a tentative agreement on April 10, 2020 suggesting that the dam be filled up in the first two years. However, the talks failed to materialize as Egypt refused to accept the agreement insisting that it was a fragmentary list of items to be agreed upon. Subsequent mediation talks started by Sudan were suspended on June 17. On June 19, it was reported that Egypt had requested the UN Security Council to intervene in the consultations, leading to mutual criticism in the form of letters to the UN Security Council from both Egypt and Ethiopia.

On June 26, an online ad hoc summit meeting was held under the auspices of the African Union (AU) Chair, South African President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa, to launch AU-mediated talks on resolving the GERD issue in the spirit of Africa solving African problems. However, negotiations on AU intermediation were suspended on August 10. Amidst these circumstances, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok of Sudan's interim government held a meeting on August 15 with Prime Minister Mostafa Kemal Madbouly of Egypt. In addition, US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo mentioned resolution of the GERD issue when he visited Khartoum on August 25. On that same day, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali visited Khartoum, and active diplomacy seemingly related to the GERD issue is being pursued. However, the path to a final resolution remains unclear.

The domestic situations in Sudan and Ethiopia, two countries in the Horn of Africa, are closely linked to the recent developments of the GERD issue.

In Sudan, the government of Omar al-Bashir, who had been president for 30 years, collapsed in a military-led coup on April 11, 2019. The domestic background of this coup was the development of a nationwide movement to overthrow the regime that began in December 2018. This popular revolution began on December 19 in southeastern Sudan - in the states of Blue Nile (Damazin) and Sennar -- away from the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, triggered by economic factors such as the rapid increase in food prices and the extreme shortage of medicines and fuel.

As a result of a sit-in strike in front of the military headquarters on April 6, 2019, the Bashir regime collapsed on April 11 due to a coup led by Awad Ibn Auf, the First Vice President and Minister of Defense, and immediately the Transitional Military Council (TMC) was inaugurated with Auf as its chairman. However, due to strong opposition from the demonstrators, Lieutenant General Abdul Fattah al-Burhan was appointed as the chairman, and Mohamed Hamdan Dagaro, generally referred to as 'Hemetti', the commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) responsible for protecting the president from a military coup, was appointed as the vice-chairman.

In the international backdrop to this coup d'état were relations among Middle Eastern countries over the Horn of Africa region. Since around 2017, the Bashir government had been taking steps to strengthen its relations with Qatar and Turkey. However, these Sudanese moves were being watched by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In fact, shadows of these two countries can be discerned in the instigation of the coup. At the very end, Bashir himself took a stand against Saudi Arabia and the UAE for their involvement in the regime's "collapse". After the regime change, Saudi Arabia and the UAE provided active support to the TMC such as $3 billion in aid.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was the president of the African Union at the time of the coup d'état, successfully persuaded the AU's Peace and Security Council (PSC) to extend the initial request of two weeks to three months in order to complete the transition of the TMC to civilian rule. Several calculations can be observed in this regard. Egypt, which has a close relationship with Sudan, wanted a transition led by the Sudanese armed forces, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE favored the RSF, based on their deployment of troops to Yemen.

However, on June 3, 2019, an RSF attack on civilians staging a sit-in before the army headquarters in Khartoum killed more than 100 people, destroying the relation of trust between the TMC and the pro-democracy movement. Given the situation, Ethiopia indicated its willingness to participate in negotiations to establish a post-Bashir framework. On June 7, Prime Minister Abiy visited Khartoum without prior notice and acted as an intermediary. It is thought that underlying Ethiopia's keen interest in the situation in Sudan were the country's concerns about a spillover of the political situation in Sudan into Ethiopia, as well as concerns over relations concerning the GERD that might be 'reorganized' by a change in the stance of Sudan, which had been relatively pro-Ethiopia under the Bashir administration. In Sudan, an agreement was reached on August 17 and the Sovereign Council was established. The Sovereign Council consists of 11 members, including five military personnel and six civilians, together with Prime Minister Hamdok at the head of the administration. During the 39-month rule of this "collective head of state" starting from August 20, 2019, a military member is to chair the Council for the first 21 months and a civilian for the remaining 18 months. It is necessary to closely watch whether the transition to civilian rule will proceed as planned.

In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn Boshe announced his resignation in February 2018, in response to the destabilization of the country. In March 2018, Abiy was elected the chairman of the Central Executive Committee of the ruling EPRDF and became prime minister on April 2. This was a turning point. After becoming prime minister, Abiy launched a series of reforms at home and abroad. In addition to the release of some thousands of political prisoners, Prime Minister Abiy on July 9 visited Eritrea, which had been in serious confrontation with Ethiopia since May 1998, and signed a peace and friendship treaty with Eritrea's President Isaias. Noticeably, the UAE and Saudi Arabia were deeply involved in mediating this improvement. As shown by the Nobel Peace Prize awarded in 2019 in recognition of his achievements, Abiy's policy response at first glance appears to be favorable from an international perspective, but it has created new problems in Ethiopia which is plagued by a complex ethnic conflict.

The core of the ruling coalition EPRDF had been the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), led by Meles Zenawi, who died in 2012. The TPLF, whose main base is in the region bordering Eritrea, has had adversarial relations with Eritrea. Therefore, the restoration of Ethiopia's diplomatic relations with Eritrea by Prime Minister Abiy, who is an Oromo, the largest ethnic group in the country, did not receive a positive response. As a result, Prime Minister Abiy's reform policies weakened the solidarity of the EPRDF.

This trend led to the dissolution of the EPRDF in a very short time and the establishment of the Prosperity Party as a successor party on December 1, 2019, with the general elections scheduled for 2020 in mind. This political party was reportedly established on a philosophy of "Medemel", the Amharic word for synergy, concentration, and teamwork for common destiny. However, the TPLF did not participate in this new gathering, and some members of the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) who became members of the Prosperity Party expressed critical opinions.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the elections, originally scheduled in May 2020, were postponed to August and then again to sometime "after the coronavirus pandemic settles down". However, there is strong tension between the Ethiopian Federal Government and Tigray. This tension is apparent in Tigray, the only state where elections for the state parliament were held "illegally" on September 9 in defiance of the federal government.

For Prime Minister Abiy, GERD-related efforts are considered to be a very important policy issue in guiding and stabilizing the domestic situation toward greater unity.

(This paper was originally written in Japanese as of October 17, 2020.)