Explaining the Brewing Tensions in Ethiopia


SEATTLE, Washington — Many often refer to Ethiopia as a powerhouse and a rising star in Africa. The international community widely views it as a stabilizing force in Eastern Africa, as well. Over the past few years, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been credited with leading the nation into a newly liberalized economy, while building on 17 years of some of the fastest growth in GDP in the world. He has ushered in numerous infrastructure projects, particularly in energy, aimed at further lifting the country out of poverty. He even managed to broker a peace deal with Eritrea in 2018, reopening diplomatic ties with its coastal neighbor after decades of conflict and outright war in 1998-2000. Yet, despite a long list of achievements and progress, tensions in Ethiopia continue to escalate.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Ethiopia is currently dealing with a diplomatic stalemate between Egypt and Sudan. Since 2011, the countries have been walking a political tightrope as Ethiopia constructed the biggest and most expensive hydroelectric project in the continent: The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (G.E.R.D.). The dam represents a nearly $5 billion investment purely from Ethiopian taxpayers and hopes to provide electricity to the nearly 73% of Ethiopians who currently live without it. Both Egypt and Sudan, conversely, enjoy upstream access to the Nile River, which the G.E.R.D. will negatively impact. Both have opposed this project since its inception.

The geopolitical problems surrounding the G.E.R.D. are far too complex to fully unpack in one article. One thing is certain, however: their resolution will set an important precedent in East Africa as water supply problems worsen due to climate change. Essentially, Egypt fears a water shortage crisis as roughly 90% of its water supply comes from the Nile River. 85% of that water comes from the Blue Nile River, which has its headwaters in the highlands of Ethiopia.

Therefore, the G.E.R.D.’s fill rate will largely determine the severity of these projected water shortages. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, has heavily relied on the U.S. for support in slowing the G.E.R.D.’s progress. He has also demanded a slower dam fill rate while Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia work towards a rocky diplomatic resolution.

Washington, Addis Ababa and Al-Sisi

Al Sisi’s turn to the U.S. plays a crucial role in the intricacy of the issue. Ethiopia is the fourth-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in Africa, with as much as $923 million being appropriated for the country in 2019. When the U.S. was unable to pressure the government in Addis Ababa to stop the dam project, it turned to this aid as leverage.

In August 2020, the U.S. State Department reportedly suspended roughly $130 million in aid. The department’s leader, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, made the decision on the advice of former President Donald Trump, who has a favorable personal relationship with Al-Sisi. The situation worsened in October when Trump said, “They [Egypt] will end up blowing up the dam. And I said it and I say it loud and clear… They’ll blow up that dam. And they have to do something.” This will not be the last hydroelectric project undertaken by Ethiopia, but its resolution, whether violent or peaceful, will set a precedent for the many projects to come.

Problems Within

Unfortunately, tensions in Ethiopia are worsening within its borders as well. In the north, Ethiopia’s military has been fighting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (T.P.L.F.) since November 4, 2020. The T.P.L.F. effectively rules the autonomous state of Tigray and dominated political discourse in Ethiopia for roughly 30 years. Both sides have rejected the possibility of a truce, and airstrikes have already killed hundreds. As of November 12, 2020, the government reported it had gained ground in securing the western region of the state and Abiy tweeted, “The army is now providing humanitarian assistance.” Communications and media were cut off in the region making the Ethiopian government the only source for updates.

Unfortunately, Ethiopia is no stranger to regional violence. Under Abiy’s leadership, however, the country had taken meaningful strides towards unification. Abiy himself represents an element of unity through his background alone. He comes from an Amhara mother and an Oromo father, the two main ethnic groups in the country. Additionally, he grew up with religious plurality in the household and speaks several of Ethiopia’s languages. Abiy is famous for saying, “There is neither center nor periphery to the Ethiopian identity. Together we form the nucleus of our national story.” This idea of a shared national identity, or Ethiopiawinet, has been central to his rhetoric and policymaking considering he inherited a country steeped in ethnic tension with multiple regions threatening secession.

A Fractured State

Internal tensions in Ethiopia appeared to boil over when Abiy’s administration postponed local elections due to the coronavirus and officials in the Tigray region held them anyway. Addis Ababa denounced the move as illegal. The Tigrayan government responded by accusing Abiy of using the pandemic to increase his own power in Ethiopia. In October, the two governments officially cut ties and began a precipitous drop towards open conflict.

The conflict has already killed hundreds, sparked mass migration and has the potential to draw in foreign actors. This is all taking place while the nation grapples with a project that could simultaneously lift millions out of poverty and incite violence with Egypt if no agreement is reached diplomatically. There are no easy solutions to the rising tensions in Ethiopia. There is only a dire need to save the lives of millions of people affected by them.

Scott Mistler-Ferguson
Photo: Wikimedia Commons


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