Dam! White Elephants in Ethiopia?


unnamedAlemayehu G Mariam

Last week, in a bizarre display of faux outrage and indignation, the regime in Ethiopia unleashed its big “experts” to go after International Rivers, an organization that has been leading the global struggle to protect rivers and the rights of indigenous communities that depend on them for nearly three decades. International Rivers, headquartered in Berkeley, CA.,  is committed to promoting sustainable use of water and rivers throughout the world. The organization has done extraordinary work in Africa, Asia and Latin America to “prevent destructive dam development, promote effective flood management practices, reform the policies and practices of international financial institutions, and advocate water and energy solutions that are sensitive to human rights and environmental sustainability.”

The regime’s nameless, faceless and conscienceless “experts”, hiding behind the anonymity of  “professional Ethiopians well versed with and advising on GERD Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam related issues”, unloaded a torrent vituperative diatribe against International Rivers in the vintage style of their late hate master of name-calling, cheap shots and put-downs, Meles Zenawi. In a hatchet job polemic entitled, “A Proxy Campaign against Ethiopia?”, the “GERD national panel of experts” (“GERD experts”) jumped on International Rivers like a pack of hungry junkyard dogs on a squirrel.

The “GERD experts” took no prisoners in demonizing and hyperbolizing International Rivers. They moaned that International Rivers is “ this self- appointed ‘guardian’ of all rivers of the world, [and] has been leaving no stone unturned in its effort to subvert Ethiopia’s efforts to develop its water resources and lift its vast and growing population out of poverty.”  Whoa! IRN, the Poseidon (the mythical Greek god of seas and waters)!

The GERD experts came out swinging. No more kid gloves. It’s going to be all bare knuckles. “Apart from being amused, the NPOE [National Panel of Experts] so far had chosen to ignore IRN’s anti- Ethiopia lobbying which is driven by an ideological, if not fanatical-messianic mission to ‘protect [the world’s] rivers and … to stop destructive dams’. IRN is accuser, police, judge and jury all rolled into one. IRN determines for countries, particularly for developing and poor countries like Ethiopia, how to do water resources development projects the ‘right’ way.” Dam! Can “IRN” do all that? Who could have suspected “IRN” was the world’s “riverine policeman”?

“GERD experts” proclaimed, “IRN is the high priest that communes with God the Almighty and determines what is the most environmentally appropriate, most efficient and economical, and most beneficial for local, national and regional not only flora and fauna but also human communities too. What paternalism!!… IRN, the all-knowing God of water resources development, is angry that Ethiopia did not observe its commandment of good water resources planning…” Hot diggity dog! IRN, the Divine! IRN the “Omni Potens”. IRN, the Godhead!

“GERD experts” declared a “water war” on International Rivers: “It would be unconscionable for us as professional Ethiopians well versed with and advising on GERD related issues to keep on looking at these people with bemusement and indifference when they peddle, clearly siding with Egypt, distorted, unsubstantiated and hostile mercenary propaganda against GERD and the Ethiopian people…. In all its ranting does IRN feel obliged, even if to feign decency, neutrality and disinterest, to mention Ethiopia’s need and desperation. By the way, is not Sudan a downstream country? Why does IRN shut up about Sudan’s identification with and support for GERD?!!!!!!!!! Why does IRN dwell and fight exclusively for Egyptian interests.” How deflating to learn that “IRN”, “the high priest that communes with God the Almighty”, is actually nothing more than an  Egyptian stooge and puppet?

Who (what) is this divine, police, judge and jury all rolled into one, superpower and Egyptian stooge called “IRN”?

Why is “IRN, the all-knowing God of water and the high priest that communes with God the Almighty” angry at the regime in Ethiopia? How is the wrath of  “IRN, the all-knowing God of water” being visited on the regime in Ethiopia?

The “GERD experts” claim that “IRN” is angry at them because they have rejected “IRN’s discouragement of the idea of dam building in Ethiopia”. The regime refuses to accept “IRN’s message that Ethiopia should stop being ‘provocative.” “IRN” is angry because “Ethiopia will not change the parameters of the project!” “IRN” is angry because it has failed as a “lobbyist for its Egyptian paymasters.” “IRN”, the “all knowing God of water and the high priest that communes with God the Almighty” is angry because its “concern is Egypt’s water security, not Ethiopia’s poverty, water, energy and food insecurity!”

The “GERD experts” claim to have exposed “IRN’s” diabolical strategy to destroy the regime’s plans to build dams in Ethiopia: “Stage 1: Dissuade them! True to its anti-dam creed, IRN did its best to discourage the idea of dam building in Ethiopia in the first place… IRN never loses opportunity to lobby for its Egyptian paymasters… Stage 2: Smear campaign. When its dissuasion tactic failed and GERD implementation proceeded on with earnest, IRN had to embark on … a smear campaign… IRN, the all-knowing God of water resources development, is angry that Ethiopia did not observe its commandment of good water resources planning… Stage 3: Create Alarm! IRN, noticing that its dissuasion and smear campaigns did not achieve its goals of stopping GERD at its inception or planning stages, embarked desperately to create alarm among the international community and downstream countries the fervor of which the Egyptians might envy. Stage 4: Conduct a Stop Them Campaign! IRN, realizing its preceding three maneuvers did not yield any meaningful result, had to come to the open, reveal itself and launch its outright and blatant campaign against the GERD…”

“Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of water wars…”

In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare wrote, “Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war”.  The regime in Ethiopia is crying “Havoc!” and letting slip its dogs of dam wars on “International Rivers Network”. I am very familiar with the work of International Rivers and the extraordinary accomplishments of that organization in protecting rivers and indigenous people throughout the world. I am not only awed but also humbled by the tenacity and unrelenting efforts of International Rivers to call international attention to the plight of the indigenous people of the Omo River Basin (ORB) in southwest Ethiopia. A few weeks ago, I expressed my deep gratitude (and confessed my own shame) to International Rivers and the other human rights organizations who have spoken up in defense of the defenseless people of the ORB. When I and millions of other Ethiopians kept silence in the face of the regime’s crimes against humanity inflicted on the people of the ORB, it was International Rivers, among others, which stood up and spoke for them and suffered the slings and arrows of that ruthless regime, as they are doing right now.  I publicly confessed in my commentary, “The Race to Save Ethiopians Damned by the Dam”.

It is painful for me (frankly, I am ashamed) to admit that two years after I wrote that [a previous commentary], we [Ethiopians] are still on the sidelines watching while the international human rights and environmental organizations are still doing all of the heavy lifting for us and keeping up the race to save our people. I find myself asking the same questions over and over, without answers: Is it fair to have the international human rights and environmental organizations doing all of the heavy lifting for us in the ORB? When these organizations show so much care and concern for our people and our country, why are we so manifestly unconcerned? Why is that we do not join and support the organizations speaking up for our people? Why is it that we do not come to the aid of these organizations and defend them against the slings and arrows of a vicious regime that slanders them and scandalizes their good works? …How can we justify to future generations that they owe their legacy of environmental conservation and protection of the indigenous peoples of the ORB to the tireless efforts of international organizations [such as International Rivers]? I ask my readers to think about these questions.

Now the regime has loosed its cackle of hyenas on International Rivers, but International Rivers is not intimidated. They struck back at the “GERD experts”. “Ethiopia’s government turned its sights on International Rivers after we published a leaked report by the international panel of experts charged with reviewing project documents for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Our summary of their report describes a number of outstanding concerns raised by the non-binding panel, including the inadequacy of the hydrological-impacts study (a key document for understanding how the dam will affect people and ecosystems downstream).”

International Rivers expressed dismay over “Ethiopia’s wild allegations.” It declared that “International Rivers does not take funding from any government institution, including Egypt. We are not ‘taking sides’ – we are impartial when it comes to critiquing destructive river projects and poor river management around the globe…”

International Rivers almost fell for the regime’s old tricks of putting their opponents on the defensive with bogus and outrageous accusations. The regime leaders perfected their art of war by demonization, labelling and slander when they practiced their infantile Marxism in the bush.  Their style is to pump out a bunch of cockamamie, baseless and preposterous allegations and watch their opponents scamper to defend against them. They would label, tar and feather and tattoo their opponents and critics in their organization with outrageous accusations and lies to shut them up. Predictably, International Rivers did not take the regime’s bait to engage in pissing and mudslinging contests. International Rivers did not lower itself to the gutter. They are well aware of the old adage about “never wrestling with a pig in the mud. You get dirty and the pig loves it.”

Who are the “GERD experts”? What makes them “experts”?

If “A Proxy Campaign against Ethiopia?” is the proof  of the expertise of the “GERD experts”, they have proven beyond a shadow of doubt that they are experts at insults, cheap shots, insolence, fear and smear, sneering and jeering and calumny. They have certainly not proven that they are experts in a field of knowledge or subject matter. Not only are the self-proclaimed “GERD experts” not experts, they do not even know what an expert is! An expert is someone who is “widely recognized as a reliable source of technique or skill whose faculty for judging or deciding rightly, justly, or wisely is accorded authority and status by their peers or the public in a specific well-distinguished domain.” Who are these nameless and faceless  “professional Ethiopians well versed with and advising on GERD related issues”? Why do they not identify themselves by name, subject matter of expertise and institutional affiliation? What are their academic and professional credentials? What is their training, education, publication or work experience to buttress their claim of expertise?

Experts do not wear a veil on their faces, sit in the shadows sniping and broadcast to the world that they are “experts” and “professional Ethiopians”. Real experts do not challenge their opponents to pissing contests.  Real experts step out into the open and debate the issues with other experts in public forums.  Real expert have no problems presenting their credentials for scrutiny and challenge. Real experts deal with facts, evidence and logic, not emotions, fantasy and defamation campaigns. Real experts overwhelm their opponents with carefully conducted research and  analysis, not insults and mud laden innuendos.

What self-respecting “panel of experts” would issue a public statement and say the following about an organization that is widely and internationally recognized for its riverine experts:

IRN is the high priest that communes with God the Almighty and determines what is the most environmentally appropriate…

IRN, the all-knowing God of water resources development, is angry that Ethiopia did not observe its commandment of good water resources planning…

IRN’s concern is Egypt’s water security, not Ethiopia’s poverty, water, energy and food insecurity!…  Oh, international financiers beware! Do not put your money there. What shameless partisanship of IRN. Should we be accused if we suspect payment under the table?

It is obvious that in its desperation the IRN has been forced to come out and show its true color: a proxy for Egypt masquerading as an international environmental group fighting for the health of rivers!!

In all its ranting does IRN feel obliged, even if to feign decency, neutrality and disinterest, to mention Ethiopia’s need and desperation. By the way, is not Sudan a downstream country? Why does IRN shut up about Sudan’s identification with and support for GERD?!!!!!!!!!

Why does IRN dwell and fight exclusively for Egyptian interests, harps on their real or imagined and fabricated fears, while not uttering a single word about the waste incurred via the High Aswan Dam…

IRN never feels obliged to mention a single merit of GERD. It is a taboo!

IRN has no boundaries of shame. It accuses the IPOE members of ‘keeping silent”! Should every sensible human being on the face of the earth turn into a corrupt IRN partisan activist?

The foregoing statements sound like the “thugspeak” we have heard for nearly a quarter of a century, not expert testimony. Those statements originated in the minds of whack bush cadres, not self-respecting experts.

Temper tantrums and name calling are a poor substitute for a rigorous fact-based refutation of another expert’s opinions. Experts do not prove their cases by moaning and groaning, bellyaching, griping,  grousing and whining.  Experts do not engage in teeth gnashing, mudslinging and finger wagging. Could it be that the “GERD experts” are really “no experts” but mindless apparatchiks and cadres who will say and do anything to earn their daily bread from their paymasters?

Whenever the regime is confronted with the truth, its natural and predictable response is to squirm, fidget, squiggle and “Cry Havoc!” That is what the regime is doing now. The “GERD experts” said, “the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak, happened on March 31, 2014 when IRN posted on its website a piece entitled “ GERD panel of Experts Report: Big Questions Remain”. Manifestly, the regime must have been stung by International Rivers’ analysis of the so-called “leaked Experts Report”. That is why they are squealing like a stuck pig. They are shadowboxing and swinging (in the shadows), but no one can fight the truth. Correction. Only Meles could do that.  When the European Union Election Observer Group in May 2010 caught Meles Zenawi with his hands in the ballot cookie jar, he attacked the Group with a torrent of insults straight from the gutter describing the months-long work of that Group as  “trash report that deserves to be thrown in the garbage.” In August 2005, Meles, following the electoral drubbing of his party by a coalition of opposition parties in May, unleashed his wrath on European Union parliamentarian Ana Gomes and her election observer group. “We shall, in the coming days and weeks, see what we can do to expose the pack of lies and innuendoes that characterise the garbage in this report.”

The “GERD experts” are taking a page out of the Meles Zenawi “Book of Fear and Smear” to smear and create fear about International Rivers. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Not so for the regime in Ethiopia. “When the going gets tough, the regime gets in gear to jeer, sneer and smear.”

The “GERD experts” are “experts” just like their spiritual master Meles Zenawi. Everybody knows Meles was an expert on everything. He was an expert on the economy, politics, society, federalism, military strategy, international relations, whatever. Meles, the “expert”, was a “graduate” of a distance learning program called “Open University (OU)” in England. OU has an “open entry policy” where traditional admissions requirements are suspended for students to take undergraduate and graduate courses. What are the credentials of the “GERD experts”? Will they ever step out of the shadows and step into the public forums so we can see them and “learn” from their expertise? So here is the challenge to the “GERD experts”: Step up, show your faces, put your credentials on the table and openly join the debate, or shut the hell up!

Being called “alarmist”, “in the pay of Egyptian paymasters, “smear”-mongers, “anti-Ethiopian lobbyists”, “mercenary propagandists against GERD and the Ethiopian people”, “shameless partisans”,  etc. by the regime’s “GERD experts” is like being called ugly by a frog

The regime called International Rivers all the names in the book. It is obvious that International Rivers’ analysis of the leaked report has made the regime madder than a nest of hornets. They accused International Rivers of being called “alarmists”, “in the pay of Egyptian paymasters”, “smear”-mongers, “anti-Ethiopian lobbyists”, “mercenary propagandists] against GERD and the Ethiopian people, shameless partisans, “a proxy for Egypt masquerading as an international environmental group fighting for the health of rivers”, etc. Being called these names by the faceless, nameless and conscienceless “GERD experts” is like being called ugly by a frog. International Rivers should not be surprised by all of the name-calling and mudslinging. The paymasters of the “GERD experts” are supreme experts in mudslinging and name-calling. They call Diaspora Ethiopians who disagree with them “extremist Diaspora”. “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!”, proclaimed Barry Goldwater.

Shameless partisanship? The “GERD experts” bemoan International Rivers. “What shameless partisanship of IRN. Should we be accused if we suspect payment under the table?” I was thinking the same thing about Clare Short, Chairwoman of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative a few weeks ago. A few weeks ago, Short fell on the sword for the regime in Ethiopia trying to get it admitted into her “Club”. Her lobbying on behalf of the regime was so outrageous and offensive that she caused severe internal strife and a major rift in that organization. Truth be told, I had similar doubts. Had “there been payment under the table” for Clare Short for her to fall on the sword for the regime? I am just askin’.

Smear campaigns?  The “GERD experts” accuse International Rivers of smear-mongering. Who put out those two fear and smear docutrash dramas called “Akeldama” and “Jihadawi Harekat” scandalizing  Ethiopian Muslims?  “Akeldama” began with a somber proclamation on the arrival of a bloodbath doomsday in Ethiopia: “Terrorism is destroying the world. Terrorism is wrecking our daily lives, obstructing it. What I am telling you now is not about international terrorism. It is about a scheme that has been hatched against our country Ethiopia to turn her into Akeldama or land of blood. For us Ethiopians, terrorism has become a bitter problem….”

Demonization and vilification campaigns? “The “GERD experts” accuse International Rivers for undertaking a “fanatical-messianic mission” to vilify the regime in the name of protecting the world’s rivers. How about the regime’s fanatical and diabolical orchestration of a full-court press demonization and vilification campaign against Atse Menelik II, the Nineteenth Century Ethiopian emperor whose centennial is being celebrated this year (Ethiopian calendar). By demonizing Menelik and smearing his name, the regime tried to re-write, miswrite, overwrite and un-write Ethiopian history and replace it with the hagiography (tale of sainthood) of Meles Zenawi.

Mercenary propaganda? The “GERD experts” accuse International Rivers of fabricating “unsubstantiated and hostile mercenary propaganda against GERD and the Ethiopian people.” Which mercenary propagandist made the following statement in 1990 when asked about Ethiopian unity: “We look at this from the viewpoints of the interests of Tigray first, and then Ethiopia as a whole. We would like to see Eritrea continuing to have a relationship with Ethiopia. We know that Tigray needs access to the sea, and the only way is through Eritrea. Whether Eritrea is part of Ethiopia or independent, we need this access and, therefore, must have close ties. There are many Tigrayans in Eritrea. They are concerned. They don’t want to be treated as foreigners there…” Which mercenary gave away (and steadfastly refused to accept) Ethiopia’s outlet to the sea? Without an outlet to the sea, the much vaunted “Growth and Transformation Plan”, the brain child of Meles Zenawi, is today stuck in first gear and spinning its wheels in a quagmire of corruption and mismanagement.

Egyptian proxy? The “GERD experts” accuse International Rivers of being “A proxy for Egypt masquerading as an international environmental group fighting for the health of rivers!!” Who unleashed the proxy war in Somalia in 2006 causing the deaths of tens of thousands of Somalis and displacement of hundreds of thousands? In May, 2007, Meles told Al Jazeera, “We did not fight a proxy war on behalf of the United States. Indeed, the United States was very ambivalent about our intervention, once we intervened of course the United States and much of the international community was supportive….”However, a Wikileaks cable from June 2006  contradicts these statements.

White elephants in Ethiopia!

The problem in the dam debate is not the drivel and jabber of faceless, nameless and conscienceless “experts”. It is not even the machinations of “leaders” who have the ethics of hyenas and leadership qualities of snakes (in suits). The problem in Ethiopia is what to do about white elephants. A “white elephant” is an idiom for wasteful vanity projects that are “valuable but burdensome possession of which its owner cannot dispose and whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) is out of proportion to its usefulness or worth.”

Dam ventures in Africa have largely proven themselves to be “white elephants”. Africa’s “Big Men” love big projects. Kwame Nkrumah built the Akosombo Dam on the Volta River, at the time dubbed the “largest single investment in the economic development plans of Ghana”. The adverse environmental consequences over the past several decades have been documented. Mobutu sought to outdo Nkrumah by building the largest dam in Africa on the Inga Dams in western Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire) on Inga Falls, the largest waterfalls in the world. In 2011, the entire board of DRC’s national electricity company was fired over frequent and recurrent power disruptions! Last month, the World Bank approved a $73 million grant to help the DRC develop an expansion of the Inga hydroelectric dam.

In the Ivory Coast, Félix Houphouët-Boigny built the largest church in the world, The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro, at a cost of USD$300 million. It stands empty today. Self-appointed Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic (CAR) built a 500-room Hotel Intercontinental at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars while millions of his people starved. Today, exactly 20 years after the Rwandan Genocide, CAR is in the throes of communal and sectarian warfare described as mass “ethno-religious cleaning.” Moamar Gadhafi launched the Great Man-Made River in Libya, dubbed the world’s largest irrigation project, and proclaimed it the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”  Ugandan dictator Yuweri Museveni built the Bujagali dam which was completed in 2012. The backflow from that dam has submerged a huge area of cultivable and settled land forcing migration and resettlement of large numbers of people.

Is GERD (a/k/a Meles Zenawi Memorial Dam) a white elephant?

Is GERD an Ethiopian white elephant? Dam right, it is! In my commentary, “Ethiopia: Rumors of Water War on the Nile?”, I argued that GERD/MZMD is  the white elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about openly and earnestly. Meles, like all of his predecessor African dictators suffered from delusions of grandeur. Like his brethren African dictators, Meles wanted to have a big project that could immortalize him as the little “Big Man” of Africa. By undertaking white elephant projects, Meles sought to attain greatness and amass great fortunes in life and immortality in death. He only managed to amass mass contempt in life and in death. To be sure, he had a “dry run” on immortality when he commissioned the construction of  Gilgel Gibe III Dam on the Omo River in southern Ethiopia which has been dubbed the “largest hydroelectric plant in Africa with a power output of about 1870 Megawatt.”

Like all of the African white elephants, the so-called GERD is a vanity make-believe project principally intended to glorify Meles posthumously, and magnify his international prestige while he was alive diverting attention from the endemic corruption that had consumed his regime as documented in the a 448-page World Bank report, “Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia”.  Meles sought to cover his bloody hands and clothe his naked dictatorship with megaprojects and veneers of progress and development.  Meles was the little “Big Man” of  Africa with a Napolenoic complex. He sought to overcome his complex by making outrageously bogus claims of 11-15 percent annual economic growth and launching big dam and infrastructure projects.

Amused by the mudslinging of the “GERD experts”    

It is amusing and fun to see the regime’s brain trust swinging wildly from the shadows. In all sincerity, I appreciate the fact that the “GERD experts” came out to defend their paymasters. They have every right to that. A dog must never bite the hand that feeds. Those who disagree with the regime also have every right to criticize it. It would be great to have open, civil and structured debates about a whole range of issues with the regime and its representatives. But the regime does not want earnest debates. It wants to engage its opponents and critics in pissing contests and mud wrestling matches. We will not lower ourselves into the gutter and they refuse to rise up to the surface and face public scrutiny. Such is the current stalemate!

No reasonable Ethiopian would disagree on the fact that Ethiopia’s hydrological resources should be put to proper use to serve the needs of the people. However, the regime must realize that it is not the only and exclusive stakeholder in determining the fate of Ethiopia or use of its natural resources. In as much as the regime accuses International Rivers of being the “high priest that communes with God the Almighty and determines what is the most environmentally appropriate”, it is doing exactly the same thing. They regime presents itself as the clergy of “high priests who commune with God Almighty”on the economic, social, political and cultural development of  Ethiopia. To slightly modify what I have always said, “Preaching the need for pluralism in determining the economic, social, political and cultural development of Ethiopia to the regime’s “high priests who commune with God Almighty” is like preaching Scripture to a gathering of blind and deaf-mute Heathen.

George Bernard Shaw said, “Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.” Though I am rather amused by the regime’s efforts to drag International Rivers into a mud wrestling match, I am glad to see International Rivers declining the invitation for a mud fest in the regime’s quagmire. International Rivers should be proud for its global achievements over the past three decades. They should keep doing what they have been doing – fighting for the rights of indigenous peoples, protecting international rivers and  winning the hearts and minds of ordinary people and policy makers alike the world over. International Rivers is no “high priest that communes with God the Almighty and determines what is the most environmentally appropriate” for the world; but thank God there is an International Rivers that will speak up and stand up for environmental justice in the eyes of man and God. There is no doubt the regime and its dogs of dam water wars will continue their efforts to drag International Rivers into their quagmire for another round of mud wrestling, a re-match, in the foreseeable future. My only advice to International Rivers is: “Stick to the rivers; leave the gutter to the experts!”

Thank you International Rivers for speaking up and standing up for Ethiopians in the Omo River Basin! 

To be continued…

Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.

Previous commentaries by the author are available at:



Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:

http://www.ecadforum.com/Amharic/archives/category/al-mariam-amharic http://ethioforum.org/?cat=24



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