As blogged here a couple of weeks ago, elections are due to take place in Ethiopia this Sunday, 23rd of May. And for the past few days things have also been heating up on the regionalcontext. As well as the continued border conflicts with Eritrea which Sahel Blog reported earlier this month, a dispute over resources – in this case the Nile’s water – has pitted Ethiopia against the other two main players on the region – Sudan and Egypt.
Children fish in the River Nile near the capital Khartoum on May 04, 2010. Egypt has described as non-binding a new agreement signed by four African countries on how to equitably manage resources of the river. Photo/FILE – Africa Review
Hostilites were triggered after Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania all signed in Entebbe (Uganda) a new framework for seeking a new distribution of rights to the Nile’s water. To this agreement signed by these four countries, three more (Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi) may be joining in the future. Upstream countries have been for years pressing to draw a new agreement that replaces those signed during the colonial era which grant Egypt and Sudan up to 94% of the water on the Nile. Ethiopia has promoved this arrangement as it seeks to secure sufficient supply to the new generation of hydro-electric plants it is building on the Nile basin. Thus, the agrrement at Entebbe was signed on the same day that the new Tana Beles hydro-electric plant (460 MW) was inaugurated.
This hydro-electric plant is one piece of the larger programme that wants Ethiopia to produce more than 5000 MW of power with dams along the Gibe River. With this goal in mind, Africa Review notes:
Gibe 2 with a capacity of 420 MW was inaugurated five months ago but stopped generation after only two weeks after a rock fall hit a tunnel.
According to government officials, repair work is ongoing and Gibe 2 is expected to resume power generation in July.
Ethiopia is also constructing Gibe 3, which has a capacity of 1,870 MW and would be the biggest hydro dam in sub-Saharan Africa.
Despite fierce opposition from environmental groups, Ethiopia has moved to build more dams on Gibe River which flows to Lake Turkana in Kenya.
Ethiopia has already signed an agreement with Chinese companies to build Gibe 4 and Gibe 5 within the next four years.
but also the Gibe riber, which flows southwards into lake Turkana. On this river, Gibe 2 has been built and plans are ready to build Gibe 3, 4 and 5 despite the controversy and with chinese support.
As a response, both Sudan and Egypt have criticised the deal, and, as this article notes:
Dr Mohamed El-Din Allam, the Egyptian minister for Water and Irrigation, sa(id) the deal, reached by Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Rwanda, in Entebbe last Friday, was illegal.
“Any unilateral agreement signed by the upstream Nile Basin countries is not abiding to downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan, and lacks legitimacy,” Dr Allam said.
Al Jazeera report on the water conflict (h/t Sahel Blog)
While we can not rule out the possibility that these tensions, centred around two extremely sensitive areas such as water and power supply, will in the future escalate into a more serious diplomatic row, these events could also be revealing that important changes may be taking place underneath the surface. Chinese support for the Gibe project may signal an increasing importance of China in Ethiopia, and this could be mirrored by a grater willingness on the Ethiopian side to align closer to the positions sustained by China. This is the question that Alex Thurston raises with his usual insightfulness:
…a win for Meles may prove more to China’s advantage than the United States.
In recent months, Meles has shown some frustration with the US and has spoken positively of China’s presence in Africa…
Washington is clearly interested in what happens in the elections. But will another term for Meles provide political returns on Washington’s investments of rhetorical and financial support for his regime?
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (Photograph: Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images)
If these changes do actually take place on a near future, and China and Ethiopia do indeed get closer, this could mean an important power shift on Horn – with an increased Chinese influence on the area, if both Sudan and Ethiopia stay close to their position. However long-term prospects look like, on the more immediate context – this is, regarding Sunday’s elections – the outcome of all this appears clear: there is one undeniable and serious casualty – the possibility of a free and fair election in Ethiopia. Indeed, the crackdown on opposition parties and democracy activists on the run-up to the election that had been announced by some commentators is gathering pace, with Ethiopia imposing:
a blanket restriction on international organisations and diplomatic staff during its upcoming poll.
The government said this was to avoid “unnecessary row and disorder” in the election process.
In a statement circulated to embassies and international organisations in Addis Ababa, the country’s Ministry of foreign Affairs says diplomats and others foreigners are not allowed to observe the election….
“Ethiopia only acknowledges the presence of African Union (AU) and European Union (EU) election observers who had been invited to do the job”, the statement read in part.
A diplomat contacted by the Africa Review said on condition of anonymity that the government move signalled clear mistrust between Ethiopia and the West.
If the West is not willing to raise its voice for fear of loosing a key ally on the Horn – and ally which has furthermore the potential of changing allegiances if the pressures for transparency, democracy and a clean human rights record become too great – it then falls back on the domestic constituency to fight for democracy. And seeing that this may indeed be the case, we can only celebrate some of the initiatives adopted by Ethiopian citizens who are making use of new technologies to monitor the elections, as Ndesanjo Macha reports for Global Voices today:
As Ethiopians are preparing themselves for parliamentary election scheduled for May 23, 2010, two organisations are using new media to ensure free and fair elections. Ethiopia CommonBorders, a community-based organisation, uses social networking site, Facebook, as part of its campaign while Ethiopia Vote Monitor, a pilot project by Ethiopian civil society organisations uses a web-based platform to collect and visualise election information on a map.
These can only be good news. Very often we criticise that powerful countries in the West do not support democracies abroad, or that national interests very often trump commitment to democratic values. And at the same time, we criticise those actions that seek to bring democracy (or development) to Africa without sufficiently taking into account the opinion of the people living in those countries. In order to strike a balance between these opposite positions then, we must support initiatives that come from those inolved, like the ones these organizations and citizens are having in wanting to monitor and demand that their country holds free and fair elections using Facebook discusions as Ethiopia CommonBorders does, or using other online tools like Ushahidi and Twitter, as Ethiopia Vote Monitor does.