With the initial filling of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) scheduled to take place sometime in July, there is so much to unpack from the decade-long history of the building of the dam. From the lack of international funding and support that prompted the country to self-fund the project using local resources to the political drama that surrounded the negotiations surrounding Ethiopia’s right to build the dam, the building process of the GERD has been an interesting journey filled with numerous twists to anyone that has followed it closely.
However, one of the most peculiar threats of the dam is the national consensus and support that it has managed to attract contrary to the vast political and ethnic tensions that have been the theme of the country for the past decade. Irrespective of political views, religious ideologies, or the infamous ethnic tension we can’t seem to shake off when it comes to the project to harness the untapped potential of the Nile for the benefit of the country; there has always been a unique national backing at every level of the construction of the dam.
The construction of the dam was officially announced on 30 March 2011 under the administration of the late and former leader of the country, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Since then the nation has gone through the administration of two more national leaders, namely former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. However, the determination by the government to build the dam despite continued threats of war and international pressure to deter the nation from completing the project goes to show the great national value the GERD possesses. These three administrations were quite different from one another in terms of policy; especially the Abiy administration, but not when it comes to GERD.
In an interview with Talk to Al Jazeera in 2010, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi responded to a question from journalist Andrew Simmons which concerned the Nile River disagreement and the allegations of the illegitimacy of the plans to build the dam by defending the plan to erect the dam on the Nile in order to have the river contribute to the economic development of Ethiopia. The former prime minister stressed during the interview that Ethiopia is only exercising its legitimate right to use the Nile.
Let us fast forward to former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s interview with CNBC’s Yousef Gamal El-Din. Among several questions the former prime minister responded to one of them was focused on the dam. When asked “So you’re going to proceed with construction even though Egypt is concerned that the dam will affect the flow of the river Nile and its share?” the former leader of the nation responded with the words “I have said time and again that the construction of the dam will not be stopped for a second!”. It was a direct response affirming the nation's determination to complete the project irrespective of external pressure.
The October 2019 speech to the House of Parliament by the current Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed is also reflective of the continued adamance by the leadership in the country to make sure Ethiopia uses the fruits of the Nile as its major contributor. He stressed that “…no force that could stop Ethiopia from building the dam” as he reassured the public of the commitment his administration has to the completion of the project in time. Even political oppositions agree with the position taken by the Ethiopian government when it comes to issues related to the dam and its completion despite international pressure.
In a recent tweet, one of Ethiopia’s most vocal opposition leaders Jawar Mohammed showed support to the dam and the current administration’s decision to start filling the dam in July 2020. The tweet read “Egypt & its backers should know Ethiopia will start filling #GERD in July, agreement or no agreement. There is no backing down from that. If an agreement is reached before July, great. If not, negotiation has to continue as the dam fills. It cannot be hostage to unreasonable demands”, while a political analysis of the tweet could lead to numerous conclusions, the supportive tone of the tweet shows that even in the opposition camp there is a desire to see the completion of the project.
Although, why has the GERD been able to salvage such unanimous support throughout the nation? There are numerous reasons behind this. The aesthetic value attached to the Nile River may be the first thing worth giving attention to in answering this question. The century-long love relationship between the Nile River known by its local name “Abay” and the people of Ethiopia is reflected in numerous works of art surrounding the river throughout the years.
Songs by artists such as Ejigayew Shibabaw (Gigi) have romanticized the river in the hearts of Ethiopians in all parts of the country. It has a tremendous amount of cultural relevance contributing to the unified position taken by the leaders and citizens of the country.
The strong sense of national ownership attached to the dam is another important driver behind the strong consensus over the issues concerning GERD. Due to the lack of international support – especially financially – the government resorted to local funding to raise the necessary resources for the completion of the project. Everyone that wanted to participate in the funding of the $4.8 Billion projects participated. Students, government employees, private businesses, and people from different disciplines supported the project by contributing to its funding. This has made the project a nationally owned endeavor.
Another reason for the unique national consensus over the construction of the GERD on the Nile is the important economic contribution it is expected to provide the country upon its completion. The GERD is expected to solve Ethiopia’s electricity problems and even contribute to the needs of the country’s regional neighbors.
Reports released in 2017 show that only 44.3% of the country has electricity leaving more than half of the population in the dark. This is expected to change following the completion of the project which will take the country closer to its ambition for development and prosperity.
The final issue worth discussing in this section is the historical value of the GERD to the country. Initially conceived under the auspices of Emperor Haile Selassie I, the historical background of the GERD brings with it a sense of national responsibility to see the project through. While there is no denying the publicity potential the project possesses upon completion, it cannot be dubbed as the work of this or that administration.
Envisioned and designed under the Emperor, started by former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s administration and reaching completion under the current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the GERD belongs to the people of Ethiopia rather than the political parties that led it before or lead it today.
Watch the panel discussion on the talks of GRED👇🏽