JOHANNESBURG (AP) — On the guidance of President Donald Trump, the State Department said Wednesday the U.S. is suspending some aid to Ethiopia over the “lack of progress” in the country’s talks with Egypt and Sudan over a massive, disputed dam project it is completing on the Nile River.
It was an unusual example of Trump’s direct intervention on an issue in Africa, a continent he hasn’t visited as president and rarely mentions publicly. The dam dispute centers on two of Africa’s most populous and powerful nations, Ethiopia and Egypt, and some have feared it could lead to military conflict.
A State Department spokesperson told The Associated Press the decision to “temporarily pause” some aid to a key regional security ally “reflects our concern about Ethiopia’s unilateral decision to begin to fill the dam before an agreement and all necessary dam safety measures were in place.”
It is not clear how many millions of dollars in aid are being affected, or for how long. The decision was taken by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “based on guidance from the president,” the spokesperson said.
Ethiopia this week said it was asking the U.S. for clarification after a media report said Pompeo had approved cutting up to $130 million in aid because of the dam dispute. The report by Foreign Policy last week set off an uproar among some in Ethiopia, which sees the dam as a source of national pride.
There was no immediate comment from Ethiopia’s government. Ethiopia’s ambassador to the U.S., Fitsum Arega, this week tweeted that his country is determined to complete the dam, saying that “we will pull Ethiopia out of darkness.”
Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam has caused severe tensions with Egypt, which has called it an existential threat and worries that it will reduce the country’s share of Nile waters. Ethiopia says the $4.6 billion dam will be an engine of development that will pull millions of people out of poverty. Sudan, in the middle, worries about the effects on its own dams though it stands to benefit from access to cheap electricity.
Years of talks among the countries have failed to come to an agreement. Key remaining issues include how to handle releases of water from the dam during multi-year droughts and how to resolve future disputes.
Pope Francis recently urged Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to continue talks amid regional concerns about a potential military conflict.
The U.S. earlier this year tried to mediate the discussions, but Ethiopia walked away amid accusations that Washington was siding with Egypt. Now the three countries are reporting any progress to the African Union, which is leading negotiations.
Ethiopia had said it would fill the dam with or without a deal with Egypt and Sudan. The dam’s 74 billion-cubic-meter reservoir saw its first filling in July, which Ethiopia’s government celebrated and attributed to heavy rains, while a startled Egypt and Sudan hurriedly sought clarification and expressed skepticism.
“The United States previously and repeatedly expressed its concern that commencing the filling of the GERD before all necessary dam safety measures were implemented created serious risks for the populations of the downstream countries,” the State Department spokesperson said. “In addition, filling while negotiations were underway undermines the other parties’ confidence in the negotiations.”
The spokesperson also said “the United States has been increasingly concerned by the lack of progress in the negotiations of a trilateral agreement” on the dam’s filling and operation, but said the U.S. continues to work with all three countries on the issue.
The spokesperson said aid will continue for Ethiopia’s response to COVID-19 and HIV and “certain humanitarian assistance to aid those affected by conflict, drought, displacement, and other humanitarian challenges.”
Ethiopia in recent weeks has seen a rapid rise in confirmed COVID-19 cases and now has more than 50,000, another challenge for a country already facing outbursts of deadly ethnic violence and growing economic pain.
A former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn, had warned against an aid cut, writing that “playing political hardball with Ethiopia will not only fail to obtain Washington’s desired result but will probably ensure that the Ethiopian diaspora in the United States rallies against Trump. There are sizeable Ethiopian-American communities in key states such as Georgia, Texas, and Virginia.”