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Libyans have responded to COVID-19 measures in creative ways
Libyans have responded to COVID-19 measures in creative ways. In this photo, one man wears a surgical mask and another wears a Salvador Dalí mask as depicted in the Spanish television series La Casa de Papel.

According to official statistics COVID-19 has barely affected Libya, but the true number of cases is likely underreported. An ongoing civil war, a large refugee and migrant population, and a deficient healthcare system threaten to exacerbate the spread of the disease, further destabilizing a country already devastated by years of conflict.

To date, the Libyan National Center for Disease Control has reported sixty-four COVID-19 infections and three deaths. The country’s ability to monitor the outbreak is very limited; as of May 7, the country has performed only 2,338 tests. To forestall further infections, the Government of National Accord imposed a ten-day, 24-hour curfew in areas under its control from April 17, forbade intercity travel, banned driving, and closed the country’s borders and airspace.

“Now is not the time to reduce caution,” says Elizabeth Hoff, head of mission for the World Health Organization in Libya. “The low numbers reported should not fool us into a false sense of security. Libya is in the early stages of the epidemic and has not yet reached the height of infection. Until the test becomes more widespread, it will be impossible to ascertain the extent of the disease and its geographical spread.”


Hospitals Under Attack

The pandemic comes amid the long-running civil war between the Tripoli-based, UN-backed government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, known as the Government of National Accord (GNA), and the eastern-based government backed by the House of Representatives, which has aligned itself with Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). As Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has noted, the latest stage of the conflict, which began in April 2019 when Haftar’s forces launched an attack on Tripoli, has further compounded the damage to Libya’s already weak health system.

The International Rescue Committee reported in March that there had been sixty-two attacks on hospitals and other health facilities in the previous year, and in April rockets fired by the LNA struck Al-Khadra General Hospital in Tripoli, where COVID-19 patients are treated. “This is a health system that was close to collapse before you got COVID-19,” Hoff says.


The Pandemic Could Be Catastrophic for Migrants

The country’s sizable population of refugees and migrants—an estimated 700,000 in total—further intensifies the crisis. Many of them reside in densely populated, unhygienic detention centers where other diseases, rape, extortion, and abuse are prevalent. A spokesman for the UN International Organization for Migration has warned that an outbreak of COVID-19 would be “truly catastrophic” for this population.

“International intervention has also continued unabated” in the civil war, writes Wehrey, “with thousands of mercenaries, including Syrians, Russians, and Sudanese, flowing into both sides and acting as potential pathogen vectors.”


Two Libyan horse owners cool their horses in the sea in the Tripoli area on May 5th. Adherence to a COVID-19 lockdown has been sporadic.
Two men cool off their horses in the sea near Tripoli on May 5, despite concerns over COVID-19.


The Conflict Has to End

A UN official has warned that failure to end the civil war would likely lead to further infections. “If Libya is to have any chance against COVID-19, the ongoing conflict must come to an immediate halt,” said Yacoub El Hillo, the UN secretary-general’s deputy special representative in Libya as he condemned the latest attack on the Tripoli hospital.

An immediate end to the war, however, remains unlikely. On April 20, the UN Support Mission in Libya issued a statement expressing “grave concern” about “the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Tripoli and its surroundings as a result of the intensification of fighting in the past few days”. This fighting, the statement continued, had resulted in the wounding of at least twenty-eight civilians and five deaths. “Indiscriminate attacks,” the statement added, could “amount to war crimes.” Four days later, shelling of Tripoli by Haftar’s forces killed another three civilians.


The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court warned of potential war crimes in Libya.


For now, though, pro-GNA forces appear to have the upper hand. The GNA has said it was close to breaking Haftar’s siege of Tripoli after pro-GNA forces had seized several key towns in the west. Those forces have begun a siege on the town of Tarhouna, Haftar’s key western stronghold.

On April 27, Haftar declared in a televised speech that the 2015 UN-brokered agreement to unite the country was a “thing of the past”, and that he would form a new government for the entire country. This statement further inflamed tensions between the east and the west. Two days later, Haftar’s forces declared a unilateral ceasefire, noting that it was responding to international calls for a humanitarian pause during the holy month of Ramadan, but the GNA rejected the truce, suspecting Haftar was using it merely to resupply his forces.

Since then, hostilities have resumed. On May 5, Fatou Bensouda, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, warned of potential war crimes in Libya. Meanwhile, Prime Minister al-Sarraj called for a resumption of UN-brokered talks.

Should the two sides lay down their arms, they may be able to refocus their attention on combatting COVID-19. In the meantime, the civilian population caught in the middle will continue to pay a heavy price.


Tzvi Kahn is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Follow Tzvi on Twitter @TzviKahn. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. Based in Washington, D.C., FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Abiy Ahmed Prime Minister of Ethiopia
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia has called for debt relief for African nations in light of COVID-19.


Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed has made a bold call for debt cancellation for low-income countries. Abiy is correct, debt cancellation is absolutely necessary to save lives and for developing nations to survive the COVID-19 pandemic. To compel a nation like Ethiopia to spend almost half of its revenue on debt service while its people are suffering from a perfect storm of desert locust swarms, food insufficiency, and a weak healthcare infrastructure is immoral.

Abiy laid out a compelling case for debt relief in a recent opinion piece published in The New York Times, “Why the Global Debt of Poor Nations Must Be Canceled”.

“At the very least,” he writes, “the suspension of debt payments should last not just until the end of 2020 but rather until well after the pandemic is truly over. It should involve not just debt suspension but [also] debt cancellation [...] These steps need to be taken with a sense of urgency. The resources freed up will save lives and livelihoods in the short term, bring back hope and dynamism to low-income economies in the medium term, and enable them to continue as the engines of sustainable global prosperity in the long term.

“In 2019, sixty-four countries, nearly half of them in sub-Saharan Africa, spent more on servicing external debt than on health. Ethiopia spends twice as much on paying off external debt as on health. We spend 47 percent of our merchandise export revenue on debt servicing. [...] The dilemma Ethiopia faces is stark: Do we continue to pay toward debt, or redirect resources to save lives and livelihoods?”

Abiy’s analysis of the urgent need for the cancellation of debt service is relevant to the exacerbating effect of COVID-19 on Africa’s rising food insecurity.


COVID-19 Worsens Food Crisis

From March 30 to April 30, COVID-19 cases in Africa rose from 4,760 to 37,296, an 800 percent increase, and the total number of deaths from 146 to 1,619, a 1,100 percent increase. Experts are legitimately concerned that millions more may die from hunger and poverty as a result of the efforts needed to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Closing borders, stay-at-home orders, loss of income, interruption of supply chains, and disruption of traditional animal migration cycles contribute to food insecurity.

The World Food Programme (WFP) projects that the number of people facing acute food insecurity could rise from 135 million to 265 million in 2020 as a result of COVID-19. According to the WFP, five of the countries that had the worst food crises in 2019 were located in Africa: Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


People queue to receive food during a distribution organised by the local Muslim organisation Ghous-e-aazam Welfare, in the Kwa Mai Mai area of the Johannesburg CBD, on May 5, 2020 as the country fight against the spread of the COVID-19, t
People queue to receive food during a distribution organised by the local Muslim organisation Ghous-e-aazam Welfare, in the Kwa Mai Mai area of the Johannesburg CBD, on May 5, 2020 as the country fight against the spread of the COVID-19.


A New Financial Architecture Required

While debt cancellation is essential, international and federal mechanisms are required to create new lines of credit to build up countrywide advanced healthcare infrastructure, which all African nations lack. This endeavor should be part of a much larger undertaking to place African nations on a path to become developed industrialized economies. Trillions of dollars of new credit must become accessible for African nations to address the dearth of infrastructure in energy, transport, and healthcare that is killing Africans every day. Successful transformation of African nations requires an urgent focus on nurturing combined manufacturing-agricultural processing industries.

Speaking at a Johns Hopkins webinar on April 22, Gyude Moore, former Liberian minister of public works (2014–2018), emphasized that creating manufacturing jobs is essential to transitioning to a more developed economy.

What has been glaringly brought to the surface by the combined COVID-19 pandemic and the malnourishment of Africa’s population is that the global economic-political system of the past five decades has failed. A new financial architecture is compulsory to save lives and put civilization on the trajectory of progress. This new financial architecture should encompass the following essential missions in Africa:

1- Cancellation of debt

2- New credit generation for physical economic growth

3- Massive investment in hard infrastructure

4- Urgent mobilization to establish modern health infrastructure

5- Significant upgrading of manufacturing and agricultural sectors


There is no equivalency between servicing debt and safeguarding human life. Money really has no intrinsic value.


It is unacceptable in the twenty-first century for every nation not to be equipped with advanced modern health infrastructure. One of the most egregious defects of globalization is that nations have become dependent on imported food because it is somehow construed to be cheaper than producing food at home.

Nations exist to foster the continuation of a human culture moored to the conception that human life is sacred. There is no equivalency between servicing debt and safeguarding human life. Money really has no intrinsic value. Banks are mere servicing bureaus of an economy. Governments legitimately create credit to generate future physical wealth to benefit their citizens. When borrowing or lending arrangements fail to benefit society, then they should be restructured or cancelled. Such financial reorganizations have been achieved many times throughout history.

Prime minister Abiy has brought to the attention of the world a profound underlying principle that should govern all national and international policy: the promotion of human life is supreme; monetary instruments are not.


Lawrence Freeman is a political-economic analyst for Africa who has been involved in economic development policy for thirty years and a former civilian advisor to U.S. Africa Command. He is the creator of the blog


Tema to Tangier: Policy vs Practice
The Port of Tema handles 80 percent of Tema’s annual container volume.


In 1995, both Ghana and Morocco introduced programs to develop free zones (FZ), also called special economic zones (SEZ), as a part of their industrial strategies. Nearly twenty-five years later, Morocco’s industrial success has become a model for other emerging economies, whereas Ghana’s efforts have produced unremarkable results.

Ghana embraced the free-zone model to bolster its economic performance in the mid-nineties. The Ghana Free Zone Programme (FZP), introduced with the purpose of making Ghana a “Gateway to West Africa”, was designed to promote the processing and manufacturing of goods. Located along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea with two seaports, Ghana is strategically placed to serve the landlocked Sahel countries and serve up to 300 million people in the ECOWAS market.

Ghana’s FZP offers a range of incentives, including tax holidays (ten years) and tax exemptions (withholding, income, and direct and indirect import taxes and levies), as well as relief from double taxation. The nature of the program is unique because, unlike many others, it uses both an enclave and single-factory approach, which earned it “one of the best designed, most flexible, and most innovative” FZPs in Africa, according to the World Bank.

Among many development projects, the Tema Export Processing Zone (EPZ), the 500-hectare multipurpose industrial park east of Accra, is the country’s only well-functioning free zone enclave. Located in the heart of Ghana’s industrial city, Tema hosts various companies in cocoa processing, prefabricated housing materials, and plastic household products. The enclave’s proximity to the largest port terminal and quality road links makes it an ideal location. Yet, after decades in operation, the Tema EPZ, like Ghana’s FZPs, has yet to develop world-class status or demonstrate exponential growth in promoting economic growth.


Tanger Med
An aerial view of Tanger Med Port Logistics Free Zone, a cargo port on the Strait of Gibraltar, 40 km east of Tangier, Morocco. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)


The program has no doubt contributed to the Ghanaian economy, but it hasn’t lived up to its regional aspirations.


In 2017, up to US$172 million capital was invested in Ghana’s FZP. In the same year, Ghana’s FZP accounted for nearly 30,000 in employment, and yielded a total production value of US$1.3 billion, some 2.5 percent of GDP. Exports from the zones contributed some US$1.5 billion, an estimated 2.9 percent of the country’s GDP. The program has no doubt contributed to the Ghanaian economy, but it hasn’t lived up to its regional aspirations.

Morocco introduced legislation governing special economic zones (SEZ) in the same year Ghana launched its FZP. Morocco’s program made the zones exempt from customs regulations and foreign trade and exchange control restrictions, and provided a range of fiscal incentives in line with international best practices.

Morocco has a number of free zones across the country, but the Tanger Med Zones (TMZ), established in 2003, is often viewed as the jewel in its crown of SEZ success. Occupying 3,000 hectares, TMZ comprises a number of individual zones, including Tanger Med Port Logistics Free Zone, Tanger Free Zone, Tanger Automotive City, Renault Tanger Med, Tetouan Shore and Tetouan Park, and the Findeq Commercial Free Zone. The growth of the TMZ has been supported by the rapid development of the port to world-class standards as well as a complementary strategic infrastructure network that includes a large-scale container terminal, and high-quality roads and rail links to the rest of the country.


The success of Tanger Med Zones can be attributed to five pillars, one of which is clear political leadership.


Thus far, TMZ has attracted 750 companies, and created 65,000 direct jobs and an additional 30,000 indirect jobs through Renault Tanger Med alone. In 2016, the zone generated nearly US$6 billion, 25 percent of Morocco’s total exports. Since its inception, the zone has attracted US$3.8 billion worth of investments, totaling 8 percent of Morocco’s FDI inflows since 2003, with the majority of that investment through Renault’s establishment of its Melloussa factory in 2012. The ability of TMZ to secure a long-term contract with Renault has had a significant impact on the success of not only the zone but also the national economy and the country’s image as a global player in the automotive industry.



By 2018, TMZ was processing 3.5 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEU) of cargo capacity, whereas Tema was only processing 836,000. Both Ghana and Morocco introduced policies that conformed to international best practice on free zones in 1995, so why is Tema not Tangier?

In 2017, a comparative study of special economic zones by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation provided an interesting analysis as to why TMZ has been so successful. According to the study, its success can be attributed to five pillars: one, clear political leadership; two, infrastructure investment; three, one-stop shop and the reduction of red tape for investors; four, market access, through its geographical location and strategic free trade agreements with the European Union and the United States; and five, a trained labor force with priority for technical skills geared to the specific needs of the various industries. In addition to these pillars, TMZ was able to benefit from a favorable macroeconomic enabling environment

The success of TMZ serves to highlight Tema’s inability, so far, to meet the criteria articulated by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in its assessment of the Moroccan port. Though both Tema EPZ and TMZ fall under the broad category of free zones, TMZ shows the modern trend of moving away from a single export processing zone toward a more multi-sectoral development approach.

In addition to differences in their policy thrust, Ghana faces a number of constraints to the successful implementation of its free zone program. The level of infrastructure to support the Tema EPZ is severely limited and part of the country’s larger infrastructure challenge. Ghana has experienced a prolonged energy crisis that has led to high energy tariffs and frequent power cuts, costing the nation an average of US$2.1 million in lost production daily. Even within the free zone, land rights and ownership remain an issue that has deterred investors and strained the development of industrial enclaves. Thus far, Ghana has been unable to create a competitive advantage, and many of the goods produced in Ghana face intense competition from less expensive imports. In addition to the more practical challenges of running a functional free zone program, there is little data on the specific EPZs’ operations, which makes it difficult to monitor and assess performance, and to present an updated source of information for potential investors.


“Investors are attracted by the integrity of government.” — Ngiam Tong Dow


As for the clear politics, Ghana’s FZPs have not always had the commitment of the highest level of political authority. As of late, things may be changing. The recent refocus on industrialization through the One District One Factory policy, which aims to generate some 350,000 jobs, for instance, presents a window of opportunity for Ghana to revamp its political will, and commitment, to ensuring the success of the FZPs as part of its industrialization efforts. Designating the Western region’s industrial park, The Westpark, to foreign investors for development and operation is likely an indication of more interest in this regard.

Similarly, the growing national consensus around the importance of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) may present opportunities for building a more trained and technically proficient labor force to serve the needs of FZPs.

Most importantly, as the renowned Singaporean top civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow noted, “Investors are attracted by the integrity of government.” Endemic corruption in Ghana at the state and private sector levels needs to be addressed. In addition, the cumbersome nature of state bureaucracies requires a major overhaul to allow for more efficient processes and procedures. Until addressed, the levels of investment needed to fill its enclaves and factories are unlikely to meet expectations.

Though initially lauded as an innovative policy, the Ghana experience shows that you need more than a sound plan to create large-scale change in the economic makeup of the economy. As seen in the Moroccan case, success is much more closely aligned with a coordinated effort to create a conducive environment that attracts and grows businesses, addressing the fundamentals of infrastructure, political leadership, and long-term strategy. With a solid implementation strategy, Ghana can narrow the gap between policy and practice, and clear the path from Tema to Tangier.


Marie-Noelle Nwokolo is a researcher at the Brenthurst Foundation. She writes in her capacity as an enthusiast and citizen of Ghana, a place she hopes to help create change for a better future.

Nchimunya Hamukoma is an Econonomist & Policy Strategist based in Johannesburg. She is passionate about African infrastructure investment and urban development and has worked in North, Southern and West Africa.



Not the Africa We Want

A memo drafted by the African Union Staff Association, and addressed to Moussa Faki Mahama, the chairperson of the African Union Commission, charges the leadership with serious allegations of cronyism and chaos. Leaked to the Mail and Guardian, a South African newspaper, it asserted that the appointment of  the head of Human Resources was "regarded by the staff as the manifestation of glaring cronyism and the total collapse of leadership.” It went further to state that "With you sitting at the helm of this organisation, the rules have been indiscriminately flouted and chaos prevails both at the headquarters and regional offices. The staff indicated that the moral fibre has decayed under your watch.” 

Chairman Faki's spokesperson, Ebba Kalondo, told the Mail and Guardian, without addressing the specific charges, that: “The chairperson has always engaged on organisational issues. In fact, he is the one who instituted the forensic audit currently under way in the organisation, amid other actions.”



Moussa Faki Mahama
Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, addressing the 33rd Ordinary session of the assembly of the African heads of States at the African Unioun headquarters in Addis Ababa on February 9, 2020. Michael Tewelde/AFP


Why It Matters 

The African Union Commission is responsible for running the day-to-day operations of all African Union initiatives. Employees come from member states, and disgruntled employees may very well represent disgruntled states. Chairman Faki, who is a  former Chadian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, will have to answer to this staff revolt at a time when President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who heads the union's institutional reform process, has appointed a committee of experts to review the system of governance. This review is supposed to introduce changes robust enough to address the challenges facing the continent, and to deliver on the vision of Agenda 2063, which seeks to transform Africa into a global powerhouse.


Construction workers work at night at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia, on December 26, 2019. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a 145-metre-high, 1.8-kilometre-long concrete colossus is set to become the largest hydropower plant in Africa. Across Ethiopia, poor farmers and rich businessmen alike eagerly await the more than 6,000 megawatts of electricity officials say it will ultimately provide. Yet, as thousands of workers toil day and night to finish the project, Ethiopian negotiators remain locked in talks over how the dam will affect downstream neighbours, principally Egypt. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP)


The so-called Arab Spring that took place throughout 2011 created unforeseen ripple effects well beyond the post-colonial Arab-majority nation-states where the uprisings took place. While Cairo was busy recovering from large-scale protests that deposed the late Hosni Mubarak and still drenched in the spirit of revolution, the Ethiopian government, led by its then prime minister, the late Meles Zenawi, quietly took advantage of the Cairene chaos.  A few short months after the tumult in Egypt, the Meles government began work on a grandiose, long-desired hydroelectric infrastructure project. It would be known as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD, as it is often referred to in the technocratic speak of negotiators and would become the largest hydroelectric dam on the continent.

Egypt’s ability to project power within the region was greatly weakened after the end of the Mubarak era. Less than six months after Mubarak's fall, Sudan, wedged between Egypt’s south and Ethiopia's west, was cleaved in two after the establishment of South Sudan as a sovereign republic in July 2011. These status quo disrupting shifts combined with the calcified policies of the continuous isolation of Eritrea and the deep reluctance of the international community to formally recognize Somaliland as an independent state all meant that Ethiopia’s position within the region was steadily strengthening. In light of these developments, its comparative stability in the East African context was being perceived as a valuable asset by extra-regional actors including China, Saudi Arabia and the United States. 


"The GERD is being heralded in Addis Ababa as a technological marvel that will saturate a power-deprived state with clean energy and make Ethiopia a profitable net power exporter"


The time had come for Ethiopia to make a massive leap in its modernization while its distracted neighbors were unable to forcefully act to stop it, if only by default. A great deal of Egypt’s negotiating leverage had relied upon dusty agreements from 1929 and 1959 that failed to include an independent, then dynastic Ethiopia. For this simple reason, the modern Ethiopian state claims it needn’t abide by either the 1929 or 1959 agreements. These antiquated pacts favored Egypt in terms of the Nile’s allocation, with Sudan as a junior partner, but as Egyptian negotiators have been citing them, Ethiopia has been busy creating unstoppable facts on the ground. In 1999 Ethiopia would finally be included in a much broader post-colonial pact called the Nile Basin Initiative, which was meant to be a cooperative framework for the 21st century that would benefit all of the signatory states. But in 2010 the Mubarak regime stalled its participation in the initiative over wording that it feared empowered upstream states and could reduce its own allocation which Cairo perceives as nothing short of a fundamental, national right. 

The GERD is being heralded in Addis Ababa as a technological marvel that will saturate a power-deprived state with clean energy and make Ethiopia a profitable net power exporter in the process. Ethiopia’s aspiration to become a renewable resource hydropower giant is a quite vulnerable prospect, however, as it must factor in consistent climatic variables in a wider region prone to drought and with massive variations in annual rainfall. The further it flows downstream from its source the more polluted the river becomes with ever-increasing wastewater generated by a booming Nile Basin population and rubbish often choking it in urban centers.


Opposing Interests


"Egyptian authorities have described the GERD project as a direct threat to the crucial water security of the Nile River Valley, the country’s agricultural heartland"


At the crux of the disagreement is how rapidly a massive reservoir will be filled, and the ways in which the speed of the filling will affect Egypt’s already strained agricultural sector and polluted drinking water source. In recent months, the White House has been attempting to mediate the deep riparian rift over the rate at which the GERD reservoir will be filled with little demonstrable success. While the US administration has inserted itself into the Blue Nile dispute partly because it has hard power security interests in both Egypt and Ethiopia, it also wants to undermine Chinese ambitions in Africa writ large when possible. 

Since 2011, a rotating cast of Egyptian authorities have described the GERD project as a direct threat to the crucial water security of the Nile River Valley, the country’s agricultural heartland. For years, Egyptian and Ethiopian leaders have been at loggerheads as the former’s need for water security has been portrayed as irreconcilable with the latter’s desire for energy security. Both nations are African population behemoths, with Egypt’s having reached 100 million earlier this month, and Ethiopia’s estimated at being between 109 million and 112 million. When the 1929 and 1959 agreements were signed, the Nile Basin was a far less populated region with relatively stable climactic conditions. Neither is true today.

The political leadership of both states must contend with a massive youth bulge in their surging demographics. Neither government wants a return to the mass protest movements that have shaken Cairo and the Oromia Region to their respective cores in recent years. Until now, Egypt’s protestors have been mostly a mix of urbane millennials and savvy Islamists confined largely to Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez. A major disruption in the irrigation of the Nile Valley risks further disenfranchising the fellaheen, the agrarian peasantry that power the country’s breadbasket economy. As the dire case with the Islamic State insurgency in the Sinai demonstrates, containing antigovernment activity in rural Egypt is a far more difficult task than quashing demonstrations in the center of a major city with heavy-handed security forces. This is not a scenario the government of Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi will risk or tolerate, as the Egyptian strongman brooks no dissent among his countrymen. Therefore the Sisi government views the GERD as an existential threat not just to Egypt’s agricultural economy, but also to its security from the very population it is meant to serve. 


A Different Approach



Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed


Meanwhile, Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed took a polar approach to his Egyptian counterpart by containing activism in Ethiopia more broadly by instituting democratic reforms with correlating promises of demonstrable progress, which rolled the country back from the brink of internal conflict. Therefore, Ethiopia is determined to complete the GERD as central tenet of its long-sought path to progress whose narrative is to gradually emancipate its people from severe poverty. 

Both leaders are cognizant of the fact that the protest movements brought about the regime changes in their societies, and can quickly be reconstituted should they fail to deliver on issues of national stability in the case of Egypt and a more open society in the case of Ethiopia. 

Often-fraught negotiations over the GERD have limited the debate to one of national sovereignty when the inherently intertwined nature of transborder riparian issues likely requires a supranational solution. The enormous cost of the project, estimated at between US$4 billion and 5 billion depending on sources, is being shouldered by the Ethiopian public at large, so the GERD’s completion is perceived as both a matter of national prestige and a necessary return on the nation’s collective investment. Addis Ababa has thus far funded the construction through selling bonds to citizens as well as foreign entities, including the Djiboutian government. Abiy’s government is therefore under internal and external pressure to deliver results on the immense dam which is said to be 70% complete at the time of this writing to which his country has tied its future. 


The Third Party


"Sudanese people have become pragmatically aware they could stand to gain from increased partnership with a rising power-exporting Ethiopia"

Starting at Lake Tana in Ethiopia’s Amhara Region in the northwest of the country, the river rises at the Blue Nile Falls just downstream and winds south and then west to the Benishangul–Gumuz Region along Sudan’s eastern border. Sudan has been a de facto pivot state in the tense talks between its neighbors, as it initially sided with Egypt in the dispute but later made a calculated move in line with the Ethiopian vision for power and progress in the greater Nile Basin. As Cairo and Addis Ababa have acted solely in their own interests, decision makers in Khartoum have been caught in the middle in terms of both physical geography and diplomacy. 

Despite Sudan’s long-standing cultural, linguistic, and political ties to regional hegemon Egypt, as the GERD has come closer to a finished reality the Sudanese people have become pragmatically aware they could stand to gain from increased partnership with a rising power-exporting Ethiopia. Much of the media coverage of the GERD project has framed it as a primarily bilateral dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia, with Sudan featuring almost as a downstream bystander transit country for the Nile Valley and Nile Delta’s agricultural irrigation supply. The pessimism over the GERD controversy has been in an almost exclusively Egyptian context in terms of media coverage, but there are in fact many questions with regard to Sudan’s fate and its own highly fissiparous internecine dynamics. 

As the GERD’s construction steams ahead, Sudan is undergoing a delicate political transition after the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir last year after having ruled the country for some thirty years.  Blue Nile State in the southeast of the country had been the scene of fighting between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) and the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) of the al-Bashir regime. The SPLM-N in particular rejected the top-down implementation of sharia law upon the multi-confessional populace of Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, which were not included in the secession of South Sudan in 2011. After years of battling the SAF, the SPLM-N split into two factions in 2017 after an internal leadership fragmentation over the idea of a right to self-determination for the two war torn states. This fissure has greatly complicated the creation of a formal peace settlement with Sudan’s transitional government, known as the Sovereign Council. In the wake of al-Bashir’s ouster, the fighters along the Blue Nile have far less reason to continue their armed struggle. Thus the Sovereign Council is involved in separate negotiations with the two SPLM-N factions while dealing with the transnational issues of Nile Basin water rights. For Sudan, the Blue Nile is not only a hydrological artery but also an eponymous region that is synonymous with internal strife where the Sovereign Council is in no position to manage more needless violence between the SAF and either of the SPLM-N factions. 


Toward a Balancing of Interests

A common reality for all three countries is that the GERD is now a hard reality. In all the years of often tense talks, Ethiopia has continued to build while Egypt has gone from threatened anger to today’s more resigned reality. Whatever the outcome of a future tripartite agreement, it will ultimately be about how the Egyptians and Sudanese cope with Ethiopia in control of the flow of the fabled waters that have shaped the course of Nilotic history and culture for millennia. 

Once the GERD project began, authorities in Cairo and Addis Ababa too often struck an adversarial tone that characterized the Nile’s future as a zero-sum game rather than abide by a cooperative mechanism that would work to the benefit of both of their vastly underserved populations. Today, power, in every sense of the word, lay with the upstream countries. Uganda has been cutting deals with China for it to build hydroelectric dams along the White Nile and its tributaries without much concern for downstream sensitivities.

From national pride in Ethiopia to concern in Sudan to dread and sabre-rattling in Egypt, the hydrological mega project has increasingly been seen as an inevitability by the three parties. Contrary to the bellicose rhetoric by Sisi and Abiy alluding to the potential for armed conflict, these larger-than-life leaders are more likely to move forward in the far blander name of state stability after so much sustained volatility that has swept across the entire region for close to a decade. 


Derek Henry Flood is a security correspondent focusing on transnational terrorism and geopolitical fault lines. Twitter: @DerekHenryFlood

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