Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1404, (2 - 8 August 2018)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1404, (2 - 8 August 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Ethiopia reels in shock

The death of GERD’s chief engineer Semegnew Bekele raises questions over Ethiopia’s mega dam project, writes Haitham Nouri


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Ethiopia reels in shock

The funeral of Semegnew Bekele, the project manager of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), was held Sunday. Bekele was found shot dead in his car in Addis Ababa’s Meskel Square on Thursday. The news was received with sorrow that “shook the nation”, according to the official Ethiopian News Agency (ENA).

In honour of his role in managing the construction of a number of Ethiopian dams, Bekele was buried next to emperor Haile Selassie and prime minister Meles Zenawi. Police cordoned off the streets leading to Meskel Square where Bekele was scheduled to be buried at the Holy Trinity Church, around which thousands of Ethiopians gathered to pay their final respects.

Ethiopia’s Federal Police commissioner Zeinu Jemal said Bekele, 53, was found dead in his Toyota Land Cruiser at 8.30am Thursday, with a bullet beneath his right ear and holding a gun in his right hand. He added he was “not sure” whether the gun was Bekele’s. Police sources exclude the scenario that Bekele killed himself.

Thirty people were arrested pending investigations into Bekele’s death. Jemal declined the involvement of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation in the inquiry. No one has yet been officially charged.

Hundreds of Ethiopians gathered at Meskel Square to place flowers where Bekele’s body was found, while protests erupted in a number of Ethiopian cities demanding quick and swift justice for Bekele’s murder.

Bekele was killed a few hours before a scheduled press conference where he was supposed to explain the reasons of delay in the construction of GERD and to refute rumours circulating on social media about corruption and mismanagement of the dam, according to The New York Times.

When completed, say many observers, GERD will be Africa’s largest electricity-generating dam with a production capacity of 6,000 megawatts, which is more than double the country’s current production.

Bekele had earlier said, continued the Times, that the goal of GERD is generating electricity, not arrigation. Addis Ababa, he had stated, is expected to make billions of dollars in revenues from exporting energy to its neighbouring countries.

Government estimates put the cost of constructing GERD at $5 billion, 20 per cent of which is supplied by bonds bought by Ethiopian expats, and the rest funded from the treasury. In addition, China gave Ethiopia $1 billion for the project’s infrastructure.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed expressed fears last week on the delay in GERD’s construction. If the work continues at the same pace, the dam will be finished only after 10 years, the BBC reported him as saying. According to Matina Stevis-Gridneff, reporter of the Wall Street Journal for African affairs, the dollar crunch contributed to the delay in GERD construction. Ahmed also said that the country’s liquidity problem will take a long time to be resolved.

Ethiopian Minister of Water, Irrigation and Electricity Sileshi Bekele said, “work on GERD continues around the clock, but we are facing some delays in electromechanical operations.” He added, according to ENA, that Ethiopia “bought 16 turbines that have already arrived to the construction site, but the electromechanical operations are complicated and need a long time to be fixed.”

According to the Times, “those delays, and the dam’s generally opaque finances, have become matters of considerable speculation in Ethiopia in recent weeks. Some people who posted messages on social media sites suggested that Mr Semegnew was killed because he was planning to name corrupt officials who were making money from the project or that Egypt had somehow played a role in his death.”

The article continued, “none of the commentators offered evidence to support those conspiracy theories, but they did appear to reflect growing public disquiet about a project that is behind schedule, has consumed huge amounts of taxpayers’ money and has increased tensions with Egypt.”

Before Bekele was contracted as GERD chief engineer in 2011, he had led the projects of Gilgel Gibe I dam and Gilgel Gibe II power station. He obtained his engineering degree from Addis Ababa University.

During recent years Bekele became an icon of the dam, conducting numerous press interviews about the project and considered a national hero with integrity “who gave his life to the dam”, in the words of Tebebselesy Tegabu, an Ethiopian journalist with the BBC produced in the Amharic language.

Many in Ethiopia fear for the future of GERD, knowing that Bekele’s death is the second of a high-profile GERD official in the past few months. In May, Deep Kamra, the owner of Nigeria’s Dangote Cement factory, the main supplier of cement for GERD operations, and two of his aides, were killed in Oromia, outside Addis Ababa. Police didn’t announce the identity of the murderers.

On 23 June, there was a failed assassination attempt on the life of the prime minister when a hand grenade was thrown at a platform where Ahmed was addressing his supporters. Without accusing anyone, Ahmed later said on TV the incident was “a failed attempt by a force that doesn’t want to see Ethiopia united”.

Ahmed has been adopting a reform strategy that drew the attention of regional powers. His political reform measures started with releasing opposition figures from prison and establishing dialogue with anti-government groups.

Ethiopia’s prime minister embarked on a conciliatory path with neighbouring Eritrea after 20 years of war that claimed the lives of thousands. Thanks to his efforts Asmara has responded positively.

In Washington, Ahmed oversaw the reunification of the two feuding wings of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, restoring in the process as head of the church the banished Patriarch Macarius. The church split in 1991 after the removal of the Derg military, headed by Mengistu Haile Mariam, from power. Macarius was forced to leave the patriarchy and travel to the US.

Affiliated in the past to the Egyptian Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s roots are traced back to the fourth century, gathering approximately 40 million people, according to the World Council of Churches. The country has a large Muslim minority and a growing Protestant population that includes former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

Ahmed’s economic reform steps give the chance to the private sector to partner with government companies such as airlines, mobile companies and a number of banks.

The prime minister flew to Cairo to calm official and public fears concerning Egypt’s share in Nile water after the construction of GERD.

Bekele’s death will not affect the GERD project, said the minister of water, irrigation and electricity. However, sadness looms over Africa’s fastest growing economy as Ethiopians feel the project that has united them despite their differences is being threatened.

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