By Daniel K. KalinakiFor many years Ethiopia wanted to build a big dam on the River Nile. The country, once a poster-boy for famine and poverty in the 1980s, had been quietly working on transforming its economy from one based on subsistence agriculture to one that manufactures things.
To manufacture stuff you need cheap electricity. Ethiopia did not have enough of it. But to build a big dam on the Blue Nile, which supplies most of the water that flows on to Sudan and Egypt, meant facing obstacles and opposition from the two downstream countries.
What followed is something truly remarkable. First, the Ethiopians quietly drew up the plans for the dam they wanted to build, scouted for locations and started mobilising the people, resources and equipment needed.
With their ducks lined up, they waited for the opportune moment to shoot. It came with the Arab Spring. As crowds in Cairo were dragging the Mubarak regime out of office, Ethiopia suddenly announced that it was going to build a massive 6,000-megawatt dam on the Blue Nile.
In Uganda, such an announcement would be the cue for rent-seekers and tenderpreneurs to fly off to China to find firms to sell the deal to, followed by years of wrangling, bribery and eventually the start of a bloated and flawed construction process.
Not in Ethiopia. Just days after announcing the project, and with Egypt distracted and Sudan working to keep the Arab Spring from spreading south, Ethiopia announced the start of construction. Within weeks thousands of engineers and other workers were on the site, furiously digging away.
Eventually Egypt and Sudan got around to air their protests and demand for information about how the new dam would affect them. They demanded a halt in construction until a risk assessment had been conducted, and representations to this effect were put out to the usual funders of such projects.
But Ethiopia had anticipated this recourse to funders, many of whom would have been anxious to continue amidst such controversy. So instead of going to the traditional funders, Ethiopia had gone to China and had also sold bonds to Ethiopians all over the world to raise money for the dam. Talk about local content!
Thus while the back-and-forth continued over the impact, construction continued unabated. A few days before the first impact report was due to be discussed Ethiopia diverted the course of the river, in effect making the dam a fait accompli. The discussion would now have to shift away from whether to build a dam or not, to what kind of dam and how to minimise harm.
To cut a long story short, when the Grand Renaissance Dam is completed it will be the biggest hydropower project on the Nile. It won’t just give Ethiopia cheap electricity to support its manufacturing ambitions but it will create a regional market for electricity with Addis Ababa at the heart. Countries are scrambling to build power lines to Ethiopia to buy this cheap power and manufacturers are lining up for permits to set up in the country. When do we invite Ethiopia in the EAC?
What about Egypt and Sudan? Well, they cut their losses, real or imagined, and signed up as preferential clients for the cheap electricity. Interests almost invariably overtake principles.
Policy planners and implementers in Uganda are well-advised to sit at the feet of the Ethiopians and ask how to make fewer promises and deliver more projects. It is not jet propulsion theory.