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A major geopolitical crisis is set to erupt over who controls the world’s longest river

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QUARTZ — When Ethiopia’s prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn visits Egypt this week to discuss bilateral cooperation in sectors like health, education, and agriculture one contentious issue will stand out: the completion of Africa’s largest dam.

It is no secret what Egypt thinks about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the centerpiece of the Horn of Africa nation’s bid to become Africa’s biggest exporter of electricity. From the get-go, Egypt was opposed to the idea of the dam, and politicians including former president Mohamed Morsi were caught on air proposing military action against Ethiopia.

Located in the headwaters of the Blue Nile and planned to produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity, the dam will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant and will boost the economic growth of Ethiopia. As a downstream, desert nation, Egypt says the dam will disrupt the flow of the Nile to its almost 100 million people, potentially crippling its agricultural sector and industries.

During the filling of the reservoir, experts say the Nile’s freshwater flow to Egypt may be cut by 25%. This will also compound the other problems threatening the Nile including climate change, population boom, urban sprawl, besides rising sea levels that lead to saltwater intrusion.

Based on international accords signed in 1929 and amended in 1959, Egypt has always asserted its right to the lion’s share of the Nile’s water. But under president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and as the dam has continued to take shape, Cairo seemed to have softened its stance, even signing a cooperation agreement in 2015 to study the potential impact of the dam.
But those talks are yet to bear any fruit, and to boost its position in the dispute, Sisi launched a charm offensive by visiting upstream Nile Basin nations including Sudan, Tanzania, Rwanda—and even Ethiopia.

And now, geopolitical strains between Sudan and Egypt are threatening to undermine any progress and unravel a regional crisis. Tensions over who owns the Hala’ib Triangle on the Red Sea has flared again, leading Khartoum to recall its ambassador from Cairo in early January. In retaliation, Egypt sent hundreds of its troops to a United Arab Emirates military base in Eritrea, and Sudan responded by closing its border with Eritrea and sending more troops there.

The current tensions are also being exacerbated by what Cairo sees as Turkish meddling in the region. In December, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey visited Sudan, with president Omar al-Bashir agreeing to temporarily hand over the Red Sea port city of Suakin to Turkey to increase tourism—a move Cairo saw as Turkey’s attempt to build it third base abroad after the ones in Qatar and Somalia. Cairo also accuses both Khartoum and Ankara of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned Islamist outfit that was once the country’s most powerful political group.

On the Nile issue, Egypt also believes al-Bashir is on Ethiopia’s side and recently proposed excluding Sudan from the negotiations. Issandr El Amrani, the North Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, says Sudan’s shift is in part because of what it stands to gain including electricity supply and the prevention of flooding during rainy seasons.

The spat over the Nile also takes on a new significance as Egypt heads to the polls in March. President Sisi has said Egypt doesn’t want a war with its neighbors and warned Egyptian media from using “offensive language” against them. But with no “trusted mechanism” for negotiations now, El Amrani says the dust-up will only intensify.

“The Nile issue is really important in Egypt,” he said. And “the larger question that we have to ask ourselves now is ‘Where is this headed?’”

Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s Web Blackout Ends, Raising Hopes of Reforms Under New PM

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REUTERS — ADDIS ABABA — Internet users in Ethiopia said on Monday the government appeared to have ended a three-month online blackout, raising hopes of a relaxation of restrictions after the arrival of a new prime minister who promised reforms.

Mobile and broadband internet services shut down in December in many regions outside the capital that were hit by unrest that threatened the ruling coalition’s tight hold on country.

Rights groups accused the government of trying to stop them spreading news online and organizing rallies calling for land rights and other freedoms – charges the government denied. But internet users said they had noticed services returning following the April 2 inauguration of Abiy Ahmed.

The communications minister and the state-run telecoms monopoly did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

“We are very happy that it is back to normal,” said Hassan Bulcha, who runs an internet cafe in Shashemene, a town in the state of Oromiya which has seen some of the worst violence since protests erupted in 2015.
Groups that monitor internet usage in Ethiopia – one of the last countries on the continent with a state telecoms monopoly – gave the news a guarded welcome.

“Restoration of Ethiopia’s internet is a short-term win in a long-term struggle,” said Peter Micek of Access Now, a group that said it recorded two large-scale internet shutdowns in Ethiopia in 2017 and three in 2016.
The move was a step forward, but worries remained about the government’s wider commitment to freedoms, said CIPESA (Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa), a Uganda-based body that lists Britain among itsfunders.

“Too optimistic”

“It would be too optimistic to expect that the new prime minister’s government will overnight dismantle all the layers of authoritarian control that have for decades been at the center of state power in Ethiopia,” said Juliet Nanfuka from CIPESA.

The government has denied accusations that it abuses protesters’ rights and said it has only acted to keep order.

The new prime minister, a 42-year-old former army officer from Oromiya, has travelled to several areas of the country, promising to address grievances strengthen a range of political and civil rights.

But the country remains under a state of emergency imposed a day after Abiy Ahmed’s predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn resigned in February.

Since 2015, hundreds have died in violence triggered by demonstrations over land rights in Ethiopia’s Oromiya region.

The protests broadened into rallies over freedoms that spread to other regions.

Unlike in other African countries where the majority of internet users access the web through mobile phones, internet cafes are still widely used in Ethiopia because smartphones remain expensive and mobile data costs are high.

Africa’s second-most populous nation has clocked the region’s fastest economic growth rates over the past decade but it has among the region’s lowest internet penetration rates.

People in Oromiya, which surrounds the capital, in the Amhara region, and in the eastern city of Harar and nearby Dire Dawa, told Reuters internet access and mobile 3G servicesresumed about a week ago.

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Ethiopia’s Abiy strikes conciliatory tone in oath speech

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DAILY NATION — Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, apologised to people harmed in recent political unrest and reached out both to the political opposition and long-time rival Eritrea at his swearing-in on Monday.

Abiy is the first ethnic Oromo to be selected by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) as prime minister in its 27 years of rule.

In a parliamentary session, Abiy formally replaced Hailemariam Desalegn, whose surprise resignation in February came after more than two years of anti-government protests led by the Oromo.

“Ethiopians living abroad and Ethiopians living here, we need to forgive each other from the bottom of our hearts,” Abiy said in a speech after he was sworn in.

PRISON AMNESTY

Abiy, 42, a former minister of science and technology, takes the reins of one of Africa’s fastest-growing and most-populous economies amid hopes that he will change the EPRDF’s authoritarian style of governing.

More than 1,100 people are being held without trial under a state of emergency declared after Hailemariam’s resignation.

They include dissidents who had been freed just months earlier in a mass prisoner amnesty ordered by Hailemariam.

While he made no mention of the emergency decree in his speech, Abiy reached out to the country’s opposition politicians, many of whom were incarcerated during Hailemariam’s time.

“We will not be seeing you as enemies, but be seeing you as brothers,” Abiy said.

EMERGENCY RULE

Unrest among the Oromos started in late 2015 over a government development plan they decried as unfair, and soon spread to the country’s second-largest ethnicity, the Amhara.

The protests resulted in hundreds of deaths and tens of thousands of arrests and only stopped after Ethiopia was placed under emergency rule for 10 months from October 2016.

Referring to people who were hurt or jailed in the protests, Abiy said “I apologise from the bottom of my heart”.

He also extended an olive branch to Eritrea, Ethiopia’s one-time province turned arch-enemy, after a two-year war that started in 1998.

“For the common good of the two countries, not only for our benefit but for the two nations which are tied by blood, we are ready to solve our differences with discussion,” Abiy said.

“We invite the Eritrean government to show the same sentiment.”

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Can Ethiopia’s new leader bridge ethnic divides?

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A young reformer or an entrenched military man? Ethiopia’s prime minister-elect is the first from the Oromo ethnic group that’s been at the forefront of anti-government protests.

Community activists say the group has been marginalised and excluded from political and economic power.

Ahmed has a doctorate in peace and security, as well as long-standing military and intelligence ties.

Many hope his rise is an opportunity to turn the page on a difficult chapter in Ethiopian history.

Can he unite a country riven by ethnic tensions?

Presenter: Elizabeth Puranam

Guests:

Negeri Lencho – Ethiopia’s communications minister

Tsedale Lemma – editor in chief of the Addis Standard

Mohammed Ademo – an Ethiopian journalist and founder of OPride.com, an independent news website about the Oromo and Ethiopia

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