Ethiopian-American activists are claiming a win this week after US lawmakers challenged the Donald Trump administration’s handling of the tense dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the latter’s new hydropower dam on the Nile river.
The Congressional Black Caucus on Tuesday released a statement praising the Ethiopian dam as having a “positive impact in the region” and noting that US-backed negotiations have “stalled.” The statement seeking a greater role for the African Union comes after this February’s breakdown of US-sponsored talks on filling the dam that were convened at the request of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
“The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) urges the United States and all other international actors to respect the 2015 Declaration of Principles trilateral agreement signed between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, and to continue to play an impartial role, only seeking the counsel of the African Union and diplomats on the ground in the region,” the group said. “In particular, the African Union has a pivotal role to play by expressing to all parties that a peaceful negotiated deal benefits all and not just some on the continent.”
As is usually the case with such congressional efforts, the letter did not appear out of thin air.
For months, two organizations, the Ethiopian American Civic Council and the Ethiopian Advocacy Network, have been painting Egypt’s demands for more control over the dam as a colonial-era legacy that Ethiopia rejects. Their efforts notably caught the attention of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who wrote to CBC Chairwoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.) in March to urge the CBC to censure Cairo.
“No matter how much I tried, I found it harder to rule out race as a factor in the international play,” Jackson wrote to Bass on May 19. “As African Americans, we have moral responsibility to ensure that our government … stand[s] on the side of justice.”
A month later, on June 17, the two groups sent their own letter to Bass accusing Trump of being biased in favor of Egypt.
“No matter how much I tried, I found it harder to rule out race as a factor in the international play.”The Rev. Jesse Jackson
“The Trump administration’s partisan positions … [are] tipping the scale unfairly in Egypt’s favor disregarding the rights of the 110 million Ethiopian people to use the Nile water, that emanates in their land, to pull out of abject poverty,” the letter said. “As time is of the essence, we seek your invaluable voice in addressing these concerns to mitigate potential conflict that may destabilize the region inhabited by 300 million people.”
Three days later, on June 20, they followed up with a letter to National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien denouncing a tweet by the National Security Council calling on Ethiopia to “show strong leadership” and “strike a fair deal.” The tweet, they wrote, “further erodes the impartial role the United States ought to play as an observer of current negotiation.”
After the CBC released its statement, the Ethiopian American Civic Council and the Ethiopian Advocacy Network praised it on Twitter and Facebook. “We sincerely appreciate your collective leadership in providing a balanced and fair statement,” they wrote.
The campaign is an unusual move for the Ethiopian American Civic Council, a Colorado-based nonprofit group that first worked with Bass on passage of a resolution condemning Ethiopian human rights abuses in 2018. On the dam issue, the group now finds itself aligned with the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed but insists it is not advocating on its behalf.
“We were able to see eye-to-eye on this particular case,” council Chairman Yoseph Tafari told Foreign Lobby Report. He added however that members of the council have sought technical information from Ethiopian negotiators to better understand the issue.
At its heart the conflict is over who has control over the region’s most important water resource.
With 97% of its population living along a Nile river that is already drying out, Egypt is worried that the dam will make things even worse. Ethiopia meanwhile seeks to provide electricity to the 50 % of the population that still lives without it while insisting that the dam will have minimal impact downstream.
Beyond that, the Ethiopian government and the US-backed activists agree, is the matter of national sovereignty. Tafari said Ethiopia has been left to hold the bag as Trump seeks to deliver a deal for Egypt because he needs Sisi’s support his Middle East peace plan.
“We really strongly feel that the reason [Trump] got interested in this has everything to do with the Middle East peace proposal,” Tafari. “This is a quid pro quo all over again.”