Benishangul-Gumuz (Benishangul) regional state has become one of the most significant strategic places in Ethiopia especially since Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is being built over Blue Nile Basin in the regional state.
Benishangul is the second smallest regional state covering almost 20,000 square kilometers located in western Ethiopia along the Sudanese border. GRED covers one tenth of the total regional state’s size, it lies just 15 KM east of Sudan.
800, 000 people live in the regional state according to the Ethiopian National Statistics bureau, a multi-ethnic society from almost all parts of Ethiopia.
The area where GRED lays is a highly protected place by Ethiopian government National Defense Force (ENDF). Just recently in October 2020, the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority banned flight over the dam for security reasons. The ban comes following President Trump’s abrupt comment saying ‘Egypt would not be able to live with the dam and might blow it up’.
The international pressure on the Dam is a developing issue. The two lower stream countries namely Egypt and Sudan preferred to pursue diplomatic measures, but the future holds a mixed picture. The standoff could escalate to undesired conditions.
Egypt’s and Sudan’s displeasure on the construction of the Dam has been expressed in many occasions for many years to this day. The two countries fear Ethiopia would ultimately have control on the flow of Blue Nile basin, and would decrease the amount of water they would get once the dam is complete. Negotiations mainly between the three countries have been underway in different formats for about eight years with no major outcome so far. Meanwhile, the dam is being built and the first round of filling 4.9 billion cubic meter water was completed in July 2020 according to government sources.
On the other hand, Ethiopia’s ability to finance the $4.8 Billion project by itself and about to realise this ambitious project attracts negative emotion from the Western countries.
President Trump’s recent blunt comment is an official one expressed openly for now.
It is believed that almost none of the western nations including the UK and USA wants to see such a ‘ poor country’ build such a huge project by itself. It would rather inspire other developing nations and could reduce aid dependability in the meantime which is considered ‘a bad lesson’. Economic independence of these nations would make it difficult to exploit their natural resources. Hence, suppressing this development is ‘ideal’ to these powerful countries. Ethiopia could face tougher pressure from the international community with this regard in the near future.
The US Department of Treasury’s pressure on Ethiopia to agree on Egypt’s and Sudan’s terms was notable in February 2020 when the department and International Monetary Fund (IMF) served as negotiators between the three countries. The department was supposed to be a mediator among the three negotiating nations. However, it openly demonstrated bias against Ethiopia during the month and a half long negotiation period from January 15 to February 29, 2020.
In addition to the international implication, the Dam creates, internal instability within Benishangul-Gumuz regional state makes the region the next hot spot boiling to a major crisis in Ethiopia to Tigray Regional state where the military operation is underway to outset Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
On December 8, 2020, local media reported ten individuals were killed by ‘unidentified gunmen’ in Debate district of the regional state. Three weeks before this incident on November 14, 2020 government-affiliated Ethiopian Human Rights Commission had also announced 34 civilians were killed in the same district.
These are just the recent incidents that occurred in the regional state. Hundreds of civilians, mostly ethnic Amhara’s and Agew-Awi have been killed since April 2020. According to the Ethiopian Statistics Bureau, 29% per cent of the total population in Benishagul is Amhara and Agaw-Awi ethnic background who are now targeted on the ongoing ethnic cleansing.
Following the December 8, 2020, civilian casualties, Amhara Regional State’s Police Commissioner Abere Adamu told local media his intention to cross the regional border into Benishangul and establish ‘rule of law’ by force if the federal government is reluctant.
The call for a serious measure in Benishangul comes not just from the Amhara Regional state, it is also coming from different directions including from within Benshangul itself. On December 15, 2020, Members of the ruling Prosperity Party’s Women’s league in Benishangul urged the government to take military action in the regional state similar to what has happened in Tigray. On the same day, the regional state’s President Ashadli Hassan issued a one-week ultimatum to ‘anti-peace’ armed groups to surrender, as well.
However, the developing crisis in Benishangul is not going to be resolved just by the regional state’s forces and/or the neighboring Amhara regional state police force. Benishangul is a strategic place in Ethiopia and should be given the right amount of attention by the government.
The Federal Government is rather busy on the military operation in the northern Ethiopia Tigray regional state along the Eritrean border. The country’s Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed Ali believes the instability in Benishangul-Gumuz regional state is caused by the in-combat TPLF.
Now that TPLF is almost gone, the killings directed to specific ethnic groups mainly Amhara should have been decreased if not stopped for once and for all. However, casualties of civilians in the region’s Metekel zone was reported on December 15, 2020 according to local media reports.
The regional state blames Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and ‘some’ insiders within the regional state administration and members of the opposition Gumuz People Democratic Movement (GPDM) for the atrocities against innocent civilians, a clear disparity with the Federal Government’s belief. These shows either the government does not have a clear picture on who is causing the instability in the regional state or does not want to openly name the group/s responsible for the atrocities. No one takes the responsibility either.
In addition, the federal government failed to take serious and aggressive measures to solve the problem yet. It sticks to the old belief that once TPLF is eradicated all other instability problems in the country will vanish including the Benishangul one.
However, If the federal government is reluctant to secure rule of law in the Benishangul-Gumuz regional state, then it would also affect neighbouring Sudan. The Federal Government should give priority to this problem because of its significant strategic place which would affect the country’s national interest.
For the country in order to effectively protect Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the regional state should be stable and safe. Otherwise, the implication it would cause could be much more significant than to that of the military operation in Tigray Regional State