The Politics of Ethiopian Grand Millennium Dam

Filed under: News |


By Messele Zewdie Ejeta

Several days ago, an acquaintance called to invite me to participate the next day in a panel discussion prepared by Deutsche Welle’s Amharic service program. The panel was to discuss about the Ethiopian Grand Millennium Dam (GMD). I was told that I was approached because of my training and practice in Water Resources Engineering.

I politely declined the invitation because despite my training and practice in a related field to this specific project, I did not have enough information about its details. My only information about it is from what I have been hearing through and reading in various media.

While a plan to build any sound and useful infrastructure anywhere in the world, let alone a large dam in Ethiopia that will produce a meaningful amount of power for the country and region, should be supported, its politicization from the get go is unfortunate.
No individual or party, including Meles Zenawi who has been muscling his way to lead Ethiopia since his political circles assumed power using the force of arms close to twenty years ago, is in a position to deny the prevalent political, judicial, and human rights problems in the country.

In the aftermath of Ethiopia’s 2005 legislative elections that caused the death of many civilians, his own staunch supporters admitted that the country was saved miraculously.
Under his leadership and the hypocrisy of his supporters, the country was driven to a point of destabilization with unfathomable consequences for all its citizens, the region, and the world due to the country’s geopolitical significance. Time proved them wrong; their admission that the stability of the country and region was guarded miraculously is history already. What hasn’t been publicly accounted for so far is the role of members of the Ethiopian Diaspora in this history of swaying the country and region towards stability and other developments since then, including the business to build this dam and the highly publicized Growth and Transformation Plan.

That swaying may well have contributed to paving the way for the current discussion about the GMD. As diverse as the current Ethiopian Diaspora is politically, generationally, geographically, as well as in training and experience, it is in a position to generate rich ideas, all of which can be looked at as contributory to the desire to take the country and its people out of its current economic situation.

Presumably under the oversight of Hailemariam Desalegn, the country’s current official Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, delegations of Ethiopia’s government recently visited the Ethiopian Diaspora to garner support for its development plans and the construction of the GMD.

Whatever political expressions the Ethiopian Diaspora may have imparted on these delegations during their visits, the government’s hypocritical supporters are again conveniently blaming members of the Ethiopian Diaspora as extremists that have ill-will against the construction of this dam. The fact that effort was made to visit the Ethiopian Diaspora by officials of the current Ethiopian government amounts to recognizing the significance of the potential of its contributions, which could be immense given a solution to the political impasse and a genuine channeling of the material and intellectual resources of this indispensible segment of Ethiopians. What is perplexing is reading on the same page that admitted a few years ago that the country was miraculously saved turn around now to conveniently call extremists those who contributed to making their “miracle” a reality.

In fact, it is simply preposterous for any self to claim to be more concerned or insightful than another self about the country and people all Ethiopians come from.
As a former student of Hailemariam Desalegn, I don’t consider myself to be less concerned about our country and people than him even if he is currently the country’s official Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister.

At a personal level, I made meaningful connections with my former teacher on at least two occasions. One was the day he gave back the results of the first test that I took in his class in the 1989/90 academic year at the Arbaminch Water Technology Institute (AWTI), now Arbaminch University, Ethiopia. Before giving back the tests, he went out of his way, we learned later, to order the students’ test scores; I was the last in the class to get my test results back.

The second occasion was when I went back with friends to the institute to get my official Bachelor of Science degree sometime after my graduation from the institute in 1992. He was then the registrar of the institute. He again went out of his way to work overtime to complete the processing of our degrees. After receiving my official degree, I approached him to thank him for working overtime to complete the paper work. His response was that it is the responsibility of his office to have the paper work done on time. My appreciation of his meaningful understanding of the responsibility of appointees in Ethiopia’s bureaucracy, including at higher learning institutions, was instant.

The respect he has earned from me as my teacher and due to these connections will be undiminished because of differences of political opinions we have regarding the current political establishment in Ethiopia or our places of residence under the circumstances.
I came to the U.S. in 1996 to study for my Master of Science degree after competing for and getting a Fulbright scholarship, graduated in 1998, continued to study while working as a Teaching Assistant and earned a Ph.D. degree in 2000. I became a registered Professional Engineer (P.E.) in 2002. As far as I know, from those who graduated from AWTI, I was the first to come to the U.S. for a graduate study and earn a Ph.D. degree. My class of 1992 was the second batch to graduate with B.Sc. degrees from the then new institute, which was built and started functioning under the previous Ethiopian government of Menghistu Hailemariam.

I have been working since as a water resources engineer and researcher, including on the impact of climate change on water projects as well as about the uncertainty in the science of climate change where I am making headway in tackling the latter even if this effort doesn’t seem to rest well with its committed proponents.

This is not to recount or publicize my humble achievements but to present my case as an example to show the hypocritical and lump sum criticism against the Ethiopian Diaspora that doesn’t and shouldn’t be expected to blindly support the activities of the inner political establishment that has been leading Ethiopia for the last nearly twenty years and attempts to continue to do so through wanton deceptions.

Since becoming a member of the Ethiopian Diaspora, one of my virtual exposures to my former teacher was through a video posted on the internet after the 2010 legislative elections, which showed when he gave inaccurate credentials to Meles Zenawi and nominated him for premiership. After these elections, the ruling party in Ethiopia that my former teacher became a member and now leader of claimed to have won 99.6% of the seats; we have been told that the strongest alternative political party in the country won only one seat in a close to 550 member parliament of the country. One of the credentials that Hailemariam Desalegn attributed to Meles Zenawi in nominating him for the position is that the latter came up with the Ethiopian Renaissance Agenda from his fertile imagination.
As someone with a meaningful and personal familiarity with the issue that gave birth to the Ethiopian Renaissance Agenda, which was sparked outside the circle of the current ruling party in Ethiopia before Meles Zenawi’s Ethiopian Millennium speech in 2007 where he spoke about it, this attribution of my former teacher to the leader of his party didn’t and will not sell well.

It suffices to say here that the understanding of such a meaningful and historical agenda as the Ethiopian Renaissance is likely to come from the fertile imaginations in the libraries of higher learning institutions, such as Arbamich University where Hailemariam Desalegn was a faculty member and official, and continuous learning among the civil society, instead of from the active adult life spent as a rebel fighter and leader. In passant though, I would like to call on both Meles Zenawi and Hailemariam Desalegn, who have publicly subscribed to the Ethiopian Renaissance Agenda, to write one to two page independent narratives of what Ethiopian Renaissance means to them at personal and national levels and publish them for the public before the next Ethiopian New Year in early September 2011, which will be the fourth anniversary of Meles Zenawi’s Ethiopian Millennium speech.

So far, it has become evident in the latest discussions about building the GMD that the deliberative processes show deficiencies and that they are mired with the intent for domestic political consumption. It would be unfortunate to have likely long lasting controversies surrounding this dam project.

For example, take the term Millennium in the GMD. What is the significance of this term to the Ethiopian citizenry and the other states downstream along the Abay River? Why borrow such a term at a time when the government itself is supposed to have officially subscribed to the Ethiopian Renaissance Agenda?

Egypt that built the Aswan dam along the Nile River named it after an ancient Egyptian city of Aswan. The Sudan that built another dam on the Nile River named it the Roseires Dam, after the name of the town of Er Roseires. California, which has world class water infrastructure projects, has its two largest dams named after the localities where these dams were built. The Three Gorges Dam that China built signifies the natural formation of the place where the dam was built.

As information posted on the internet shows, the Ethiopian GMD will be constructed in the western part of Ethiopia at a place locally called Bombadi.
Would it be inappropriate then to call it the Bombadi Dam, or use any local name that would be befitting, at a time when Ethiopia is talking about its renaissance? What would be wrong about putting Bombadi on the world map since it is already on the ground physically? (After I started writing this article, the name of the Grand Millennium Dam was changed to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry even wrote on April 22, 2011, an article in this regard under the title “The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: what’s in a name?” Although I read in a forum in the past that I am under the spell of horses and buggies of the government’s turncoat, I have no objection in this name change and would give the benefit of the doubt that this criticism and name changes are a coincidence unless I am proven wrong).

As one of the Diaspora Ethiopians, I can expect criticisms against raising these questions from the hypocritical supporters of the current partisan inner political establishment in Ethiopia. I raised these questions with no less interest than any other individual or official Ethiopian in seeing the construction of this dam progress smoothly, its completion realized, and its utilization become fruitful.

This is not to say my indignation about the political deeds of Meles Zenawi and his inner circles over the last two decades and counting have been diminished. I can even fairly imagine that my former teacher may not be fully aware of these deeds even after he is charged with the double duty of Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, which in and of itself appears a setup than a genuine and deeply meaningful working relationship with his commanding leader. Time is bound to tell this again.

The writer can be reached at MZEjeta@aol.com.