Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Sunday asked South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa to intervene in a long-running dispute with Egypt over a massive dam being built on the Blue Nile River.
Ethiopia’s ties to Egypt have soured since the east African country launched the construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam in 2011.
Set to become the largest hydropower plant in Africa, the project has fuelled tensions because Egypt depends on the river for 90 percent of its water supply.
Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan — where the Blue Nile converges with the White Nile before flowing north — started discussions under US mediation in November that are meant to yield an agreement next week.
But major sticking points remained in the latest round of talks on Thursday and the parties have yet to clinch a deal.
Abiy, who visited South Africa this weekend, called on Ramaphosa to intervene in the negotiations as the next chairperson of the African Union (AU), which he will take over from Egypt this month.
“As he (Ramaphosa) is a good friend for both Ethiopia and Egypt and also as incoming AU chair, he can make a discussion between both parties to solve the issue peacefully,” Abiy told reporters at a news conference in South Africa’s political capital Pretoria.
Ramaphosa said South Africa was open to playing a role in facilitating “whatever agreement can be crafted”.
“What is pleasing, as far as I’m concerned, is that both countries are willing to discuss this matter and find solutions,” he said.
The president said he had already brought up the issue with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was “willing to have discussions with Ethiopia”.
Egypt’s irrigation ministry did not wish to comment on whether they would accept South Africa as a mediator.
– Ethiopian elections –
The $ 4.2 billion (3.8 billion euros) Grand Renaissance Dam is expected to begin generating power by the end of 2020 and be fully operational by 2022.
Ethiopia — one of Africa’s fastest growing economies and most populous countries — says the project is essential for its development.
But Egypt is concerned Ethiopia will reduce water flow by filling the dam’s reservoir too quickly.
“Ethiopia always believes in a win-win approach with Egypt and Sudan,” said Abiy, adding that “peace” was essential to “realise our vision of development and growth”.
As Africa’s youngest leader at just 43, Abiy has been lauded for rolling out a series of democracy-boosting measures after he took office in April 2018 — marking a stark contrast to his authoritarian predecessors.
He took on a series of political and economic reforms, and vowed to hold Ethiopia’s first “free, fair and democratic” elections since 2005 in May.
His rule, however, has stoked ethnic tensions and fuelled violent protests which the electoral commission says could delay the poll.
Abiy on Sunday reiterated his promise to hold elections this year despite “logistics” and “security” challenges.
“I am not sure whether it is May or June because the schedule will be declared by the election board,” he added.
“But I think we will conduct the election this year because it is a constitutional mandate.”
– Trump’s remarks –
Abiy received the Nobel Peace Prize last month for his efforts to resolve a long-running conflict between Ethiopia and its neighbouring foe Eritrea.
Just three months after Abiy took office in 2018, he ended a 20-year-old stalemate between the countries over a 1998-2000 border conflict.
US President Donald Trump made a controversial statement earlier this week in which he complained about Abiy receiving the prestigious award.
Trump, who claimed it was he that “made a deal” and “saved a country”, appeared to be confusing the 2018 peace accord with the current dam dispute.
“To be honest, I don’t have any clue about… how the Nobel committee selects an individual for the prize,” said Abiy, struggling to contain a smile at the mention.
“If President Trump complained it must go to Oslo, not to Ethiopia.”
Abiy and Ramaphosa pledged to increase cooperation between their countries and signed bilateral agreements on health and tourism.