The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is now a fait accompli. Last month, Ethiopia began filling an enormous reservoir behind the $4.5 billion hydroelectric project, which promises to make the country an energy powerhouse. The megadam will bring cheap electricity to millions of households, power Ethiopia’s developing industrial sector, and enable the government to earn much-needed foreign exchange by exporting electricity to neighboring countries. The two countries that lie downstream from Ethiopia on the Nile River, Sudan and Egypt, could also benefit from the dam through access to power, improved flood control, and more efficient water storage that reduces the volume of Nile water lost to evaporation.

But ever since Ethiopia began construction in 2011, the dam has strained relations in the Nile River basin. Egypt considers the GERD an existential threat: the country depends on the Nile for nearly all of its fresh water and has enjoyed hegemony over the Nile basin for more than 60 years. A 1959 treaty with Sudan grants Egypt an overwhelming share of the river’s water. Ethiopia wasn’t party to that agreement, but Egypt has opposed any upstream dams that could constrict its water supply—even contemplating the use of military force to halt the GERD’s construction in 2013.

Cairo has softened its position somewhat in recent years and sought to reach a negotiated settlement with Ethiopia, but it continues to regard the dam as a threat to its national interests. Sudan is caught in the middle of this dispute, both literally and figuratively: situated between the two regional powers on the Nile, it is well placed to capture the GERD’s benefits but wants to mitigate the project’s potential negative social and environmental impacts.

Negotiations between the three countries have made some progress, but they have failed to resolve critical issues, such as the appropriate mechanism for dispute resolution or rules for operating the GERD in periods of protracted drought. Egypt and Sudan had demanded that the parties reach an agreement before Ethiopia could begin filling the reservoir, but Addis Ababa pushed ahead anyway—using raw engineering and construction might to upend what it saw as an unfair distribution of natural resources. Negotiations will likely continue—both over the GERD and over broader basinwide water-sharing issuesbut so, too, will tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa as they wrangle for influence in their immediate neighborhood and just beyond.

But perhaps the most troubling effect of the water dispute will be within rather than between the countries of the Nile River basin. Toxic Nile politics have complicated the fragile democratic transition in Ethiopia by widening the political chasm between the government and its opponents. They have also entrenched Egyptian patterns of engagement with Sudan that elevate the Sudanese military and security services at the expense of the country’s civilian leaders. Nile River nationalism, in other words, has undermined two of the most promising democratic transitions in the Horn of Africa.

REGIONAL BALANCING ACT

Egypt has traditionally been an important player in the Horn of Africa region, but its influence has waned since the Arab Spring, while Ethiopia’s has grown. Having failed to halt the construction of the GERD, Cairo believes that it must rebuild its standing in the Horn in order to more effectively balance Ethiopia, both as a regional power and at the negotiating table in future Nile water talks. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a strongman whose rule is grounded in narratives of national security and Egyptian renewal, is under immense pressure to avoid losing Egypt’s preferential claim to the Nile. As a result, his government has sought to curry favor with other states in the Horn and to drive a wedge between Ethiopia and its neighbors.

One pillar of this strategy has been to leverage diplomatic momentum around Red Sea cooperation to Egypt’s advantage. A new Arab-African council, driven by Saudi Arabia and aimed at improving cooperation in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, emerged in January. Cairo initially had serious reservations about the initiative but joined it anyway in order to achieve an important goal: a regional alliance that includes Egypt and the Horn’s littoral states but excludes Ethiopia.

Another pillar of Cairo’s strategy has been enhanced bilateral diplomatic and security cooperation with regional states. It has deepened ties with Sudan, creating at least the appearance of alignment between Cairo and Khartoum on the GERD. It has also sought to upgrade diplomatic ties with Somaliland, an autonomous region of Somalia that claims independence from Mogadishu; pursued (at least briefly) a free-trade zone in Djibouti; and reportedly sold arms to Somalia in violation of a UN arms embargo. Egyptian security forces are rumored to have been granted a military base in South Sudan as well. Juba has denied the reports, but they are consistent with Egypt’s pattern of engagement in South Sudan over the last several years. Finally, there is Eritrea, which Egypt has cultivated diplomatically for years and which shares Cairo’s views on some regional issues, such as Sudan’s ongoing political transition.

Having failed to halt the construction of the GERD, Cairo believes that it must rebuild its standing in the Horn in order to more effectively balance Ethiopia.

Ethiopia has countered with an ambitious plan to build a navy, which the landlocked state hopes will allow it to project power into the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden and to balance against Egypt’s maritime power there. While Addis Ababa already enjoyed deep political and economic partnerships throughout the Horn, it has also sought to shore up its vulnerabilities with its neighbors. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who came to power in 2018, Ethiopia began a historic rapprochement with archenemy Eritrea and forged a new “tripartite alliance” with that country and Somalia. Abiy intended the alliance to spawn a new era of regional peace and integration in the Horn, with Ethiopia as the region’s center of gravity. But that vision has proved difficult to achieve. While Abiy enjoys warm personal relations with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, bilateral ties between the two countries remain underinstitutionalized and depend in part on the Ethiopian prime minister’s willingness to marginalize perceived enemies of Eritrea within Ethiopia. Even more troubling, the tripartite alliance has undermined Ethiopia’s relations with historic allies Djibouti, Somaliland, and Kenya: Djibouti worries about the Eritrea-Ethiopia rapprochement owing to its rivalry with Asmara, while Somaliland and Kenya are both wary of Abiy’s ties to Mogadishu.

Ethiopia’s relationship with Sudan also suffered in the final year of President Omar al-Bashir’s regime. Ties between the two countries had been strong, particularly after Bashir endorsed the GERD in 2012. But like his counterpart in Djibouti, the Sudanese strongman was unsettled by the Eritrea-Ethiopia rapprochement. Relations appeared to have improved again since Bashir’s ouster in April 2019, but tensions with Sudan’s transitional government remain. A long-dormant border dispute led to serious military clashes between the two countries in May and June of this year and provoked uncharacteristically stern rhetoric from Sudan’s generals.

Trouble could also lie ahead in Somalia, where Ethiopia made a big political bet on President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, or Farmajo, providing him with political and military support vis-à-vis his domestic rivals. Farmajo, in turn, has made an ambitious gambit to grow the federal government’s power over the last two years, something that could cost him reelection in 2021 and leave Ethiopia without an ally in the presidential palace. The international relations of the Horn remain unstable, in other words, and Ethiopia’s and Egypt’s efforts to outflank each other diplomatically add to an already explosive mix.

TROUBLED TRANSITIONS

If the Nile dispute has served to further disrupt relations in the Horn, it has hardly been more soothing to the domestic politics of the countries involved. Ethiopia’s situation is particularly precarious. Abiy took office in 2018 and immediately began a series of much-heralded democratic reforms, including opening up space for independent media and welcoming exiled opposition groups back home. But even before the country could organize a national election, the democratic transition began to falter. Repeated bouts of ethnic violence, fueled by infighting among the country’s major political forces, constricted the space for democratic politics. In late June, the assassination of a popular singer sparked days of violent riots in the Oromia region. Abiy’s government responded by cracking down on its opponents, accusing them of leveraging the politically charged environment to incite violence and disorder. Many of the ruling party’s most prominent critics have now been arrested, their media operations curtailed.

Under the circumstances, the GERD both unifies and divides Ethiopians. The dam has become a national symbol of progress, and nearly all Ethiopians support it. But political factions have also weaponized the project to delegitimize their adversaries in a manner that impedes dialogue. Abiy’s detractors have repeatedly accused him of undercutting the GERD and jeopardizing national interests, pointing to, among other things, a major corruption probe into the military contractor that played a leading role in the GERD’s construction. Abiy’s ruling Prosperity Party, for its part, has at times appeared to rehabilitate the playbook of its predecessors by portraying its ethnonationalist competitors as Egyptian agents engaged in a broad campaign of subversion. Although there are important forces that militate against it, including Abiy’s own sense of restraint, this campaign of reciprocal delegitimization is one of several factors pushing Ethiopia closer to civil conflict.

The GERD both unifies and divides Ethiopians.

Nile politics also complicate the democratic transition underway in neighboring Sudan. Egypt has long had an interest in bringing Khartoum onside on water issues, and it never regarded Bashir’s government as a reliable partner—a view vindicated by Bashir’s endorsement of the GERD. When Bashir’s regime approached its terminal phase in early 2019, Egypt’s security services, along with their Gulf partners, greenlighted the military coup that brought his 30-year rule to an end. From April to July 2019, Egypt then used its perch as president of the African Union to protect the Transitional Military Council—the cabal of Sudanese generals that filled the power vacuum left by Bashir’s ouster. The ties between Egypt’s and Sudan’s militaries run deep. Many Sudanese army officers have trained in Egyptian academies and maintain personal relationships with their Egyptian counterparts. As a result, Egypt’s partner of first resort in Sudan remains the military, even as the international community has sought to empower civilian leaders within the new transitional government led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.

For its part, Addis Ababa has generally supported Hamdok and a civilian-led transition in Sudan but needs to avoid distancing itself too far from the military—lest the political winds in Sudan shift and Ethiopia finds itself out in the cold in a Khartoum controlled by men in uniform. The politics of regional rivalry thus enable Sudan’s securocrats to retain a partial grip on power; the generals are weaker than they were in Bashir’s heyday, but they remain a formidable impediment to democratic reform.

LINGERING TENSIONS

Even once the GERD becomes fully operational and a settlement is reached, Egypt and Ethiopia will likely remain at odds. Extraregional players with influence in the Nile River basin should therefore focus not just on securing a deal on the dam but on managing the regional effects of long-term strategic competition over the Nile.

Yet there are few external powers capable of mediating this dispute. Ethiopia has come to regard the United States as favoring Egypt in negotiations over the GERD. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have strong ties to Cairo, Khartoum, and Addis Ababa, but they tend to privilege Egyptian stability on matters related to the Nile. Both have backed Egyptian resolutions at the Arab League that are critical of Ethiopia. China certainly has the stature to mediate, but it has shown no appetite for high-stakes diplomacy around contentious disputes in the Horn.

Stability in the Nile River basin and the Horn of Africa will therefore likely have to come from within the region itself—if it comes at all. Recent efforts by the African Union to mediate the GERD dispute appear to be a recognition of this fact. But as was the case in previous negotiations, diplomatic momentum is proving hard to sustain. And in the absence of a robust multilateral effort to resolve the region’s lingering water issues, the Nile will remain a source of political instability for years to come. 

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  • MICHAEL WOLDEMARIAM is Associate Professor of International Relations at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies.
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