Early this month, something horrific happened at an Oromo Irreechaa celebration/impromptu political protest in the central Ethiopian town of Bishoftu. The Ethiopian government says its police fired warning shots into the air in response to “troublemakers” in the 2 million-plus crowd attending the festival, and those shots triggered a stampede that killed more than 50 people. Others claim that the police fired straight into the crowd and killed well over 100 people and maybe as many as 300. As you try to decide which account to believe, it bears mention that the Ethiopian government has a long-established track record of vastly undercounting the death toll in situations like this. Regardless, the result of the Bishoftu event was a resumption of the widespread Oromian protests that have recurred in Ethiopia since last year, resulting in the declaration of a state of emergency a few days later.
The Oromian struggle for the protection of their basic human and civil rights has been going on for years, but it took the announcement that the government was appropriating traditional Oromian land for its planned expansion of Addis Ababa for the protests to strengthen and the situation to turn violent (the Amhara people, with similar grievances as the Oromo, have also started protesting against the government). That this has all come at a time when the country is facing its worst drought in a half century only increases the chances that the situation will spiral out of control. In the wake of what’s being called the “Irreechaa Massacre,” the Oromo situation may have escalated from protest movement to full-blown civil war, and while that obviously impacts Ethiopia first and foremost, it’s already also having ripple effects in northeastern Africa.
Take, for example, Somalia. Ethiopia has been a contributor to AMISOM, the African Union Mission in Somalia, since 2014, and had troops deployed in Somalia to counter al-Shabaab for several years before that. But with protests heating up back home and troops needed to quell them, Ethiopia has had to withdraw from many of the parts of Somalia that its troops were occupying, and unsurprisingly al-Shabaab has been taking advantage:
Al-Shabab was reduced to roaming around Somalia’s vast, arid scrubland and staging deadly suicide bombings in Mogadishu and other centers. In recent months there have been more attacks on hotels, and al-Shabab has directly attacked African Union bases.
But this month, Ethiopia – which has 2,000 troops in the African Union force and an unknown number operating independently in Somalia – pulled its forces out of the towns of Halgan, El-Ali and Mahas in the Hiran region of south-central Somalia. Al-Shabab wasted no time, and within hours its fighters had seized control of the towns and raised their black flags.
On Wednesday, Ethiopian troops withdrew from a fourth town, Tiyeglow, in the southwestern Bakool region, and al-Shabab retook it.
Al-Shabab’s swift seizures of the newly exposed towns are worrying for Somalia, which faces a presidential election in late November.
There are fears that Ethiopia’s withdrawal is only the first of a series that will effectively end AMISOM with al-Shabaab still, evidently, quite capable of filling the vacuum as those forces withdraw.
Now take Egypt. The Ethiopian government has been accusing Eritrea and Egypt–or, at least, elements within Egypt–of backing the protesters, for the purpose of destabilizing Ethiopia. It’s not out of the question for one country (or part of its deep state) to try to manipulate events in another country, and it’s also not out of the question for a country in the midst of trying to violently suppress an uprising to look to blame that uprising on foreign meddling (hey, it beats having to admit that your own policies have caused the unrest, right?), so this is pretty much par for the course. Except there’s a complicating factor, which is that Egypt and Ethiopia are locked in a dispute that has a small-but-not-small-enough chance of turning in to the world’s first (of many?) full-blown water war.
Ethiopia is currently building a massive dam on the Blue Nile, one of the two large rivers (along with the White Nile) that combine in Sudan to form–wait for it–the Nile. The dam will generate electricity and also control downriver flooding, and this is the problem. Controlling downriver flooding could help prevent the occasional disaster, but it could also interfere with the annual Nile flood, which is the thing that keeps Egypt from being little more than a desert with a river running through it. Without the annual flood feeding agricultural land along the river, Egypt’s agricultural production will suffer. The new dam, and corresponding reservoir, will also increase upstream evaporation, lowering the overall water level of the Nile and impacting Egypt’s own Aswan Dam, which will impact that dam’s ability to generate electricity. Negotiations between the two countries, related to how the dam will be built and how it will operate, have been ongoing, but tensions are still fairly high.
These new accusations from Ethiopia threaten to impact those negotiations, both by alienating Cairo and by playing into Ethiopian fears that Egypt really is meddling in their affairs in order to quash or at least control the dam project. And if those talks are impeded, the small-but-not-small-enough chance that Egypt and Ethiopia could go to war over the Nile becomes a little bit bigger.