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Trump gaffe as Ethiopia turns to South Africa as Nile mediator

By Morris Kiruga
Posted on Monday, 13 January 2020 11:45

U.S. President Donald Trump holds a campaign rally in Toledo, Ohio, U.S., January 9, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

US President Donald Trump’s claims that he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize may have pushed Ethiopia to seek another international mediator in its Nile dispute with Egypt.

On 12 January – a few days ahead of a Washington DC meeting on the Nile – Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy asked for South African help to mediate the Nile crisis.

Abiy said that South African president Ramaphosa was “…good friend for both Ethiopia and Egypt and is the upcoming president of the African Union. He can make a discussion between both parties to solve the issue peacefully”.

READ: Ethiopia/Egypt: Calming the choppy Nile dam talks

But he also addressed comments that US President Trump had made about allegedly being the one to have brought peace to Ethiopia.

  • “I’m not working for the [Nobel Peace] prize,” PM Abiy told a press conference in Pretoria, “if President Trump [has complaints] it must go to Oslo and not Ethiopia.”

The Ethiopian leader was responding to a question about comments Trump had made three days earlier, where he [Trump] said he was the one who deserved the prestigious prize.

Trump claimed he was the one who brought peace to Ethiopia at a campaign rally in Ohio on January 9th.

  • “I made a deal, I saved a country, and I just heard that the head of that country is now getting the Nobel Peace Prize for saving the country. I said, ‘what, did I have something do with it?’ Trump told the campaign rally.
  • Although he did not mention Abiy Ahmed or Ethiopia by name, the Ethiopian Prime Minister is the first head of state to be awarded the Nobel Prize since Trump was elected four years ago.
  • PM Abiy was awarded the prize in October 2019 for his peace efforts to end a long-running conflict with Eritrea, which included resuming flights between their two capitals, and reopening land borders (which have since been closed).

To get Asmara’s buy-in, Ethiopia promised to hand over the disputed region of Badme, and flights between the two countries resumed. The initial excitement over the deal somewhat faltered after the border crossings were opened and then closed.

The precise details of the backroom channels that led to the detente between Asmara and Addis Ababa are still not public, although some details are known.

The US, a close ally of Ethiopia in the war on terror, only had minimal influence on the deal, according to former BBC correspondent for Ethiopia, Emmanuel Igunza.

Gulf oil giants UAE and Saudi Arabia, whose influence in the Horn has grown significantly, played key roles in the peace deal.

Every time Trump speaks

Many observers, including the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, view Trump’s assertions as “confused.” On Egypt’s insistence, the Nile Dam dispute is being mediated by Washington. Officials from the three countries [Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt] are due to meet in Washington next week to discuss the long-running impasse-which centres around how fast Ethiopia can fill up its dam.

“Trump is confused,” the US House Foreign Affairs Committee said in a tweet, “PM Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Prize for his efforts to bring peace to the Horn of Africa, not stalled negotiations about a new dam on the Nile.”

  • In what has become a common occurrence when President Trump speaks, US diplomats were left scrambling to clean up any fallout; with The Washington Post reporting that the US Embassy in Ethiopia “referred reporters to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s remarks in October…”
  • During the October 31st call, Secretary Pompeo “congratulated Dr. Abiy on the prestigious honor of being the 100th recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.” [Call read out here:]
  • Donald Trump’s daughter and senior advisor, Ivanka Trump, also congratulated PM Abiy on the award on her Instagram stories-and seemed to understand the geopolitical reasons behind it more than her father.
  • “Congratulations Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on being awarded the Noble* Peace Prize for your work on peace and reconciliation with your neighbour Eritrea!” Ivanka, who had visited Ethiopia months before, wrote after the Oslo announcement.

Ethiopia now prefers South Africa as mediator

On October 3rd, just days before Abiy was named the 100th Nobel Peace Prize winner, the US White House released a statement saying it supported “Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan’s ongoing negotiations to reach a cooperative, sustainable, and mutually beneficial agreement on filling and operating the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.”

At the same press conference in Pretoria where he responded to Trump’s comments, Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed said he had invited South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa to mediate in the Nile dispute.

  • In addition to being one of the continent’s biggest economies, South Africa will be charing the African Union as well as serving its third two-year membership on the United Nations Security Council.
  • Addis Ababa, which hosts the AU headquarters, has close historical ties with South Africa’s liberation party. In 1962, Nelson Mandela travelled to the East African country for military training.
  • In his speech at the 108th anniversary of the ANC, the Ethiopian PM asked President Ramaphosa to work with him to make the house Mandela lived in a heritage site.

“The Nile river is important to both countries and there must be a way in which both their interests can be addressed. There must be a way in which a solution can be found,” President Ramaphosa said at the press conference.

The Nile Dispute was just one of many things the two leaders talked about. A joint communique from the South African presidency said that the two leaders had also “discussed South Africa’s upcoming chairmanship of the African Union under the approved theme: “Silencing the Guns: Creating Conducive Conditions for Africa’s Development.”

Why would Trump do this?

By confusing just which of Ethiopia’s issues the US is mediating, President Trump may have made Addis Ababa cynical that Washington will be a neutral arbiter in the Nile dispute.

  • Talks between the three countries collapsed (yet again) last week, after Egypt asked for the filling schedule to be extended to 21 years, from 12 years, which the Ethiopia said was “not acceptable.”
  • With the Washington meeting due in just a few days, Trump has made it harder for his diplomats involved in the negotiations to convince Addis that it [the US] has no skin in the game.
  • If not for Washington’s historical support for Cairo, which all but demanded an international arbiter and specifically the US, then for the real probability that Trump would use a potential deal to shore up his own credentials.

But there’s often a method to Trump’s apparent rants.

The US President made the claims of bringing peace to the Horn of Africa just days after he threatened to commit war crimes in Iran if their ongoing conflict escalates. Saying he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize (which his predecessor was awarded in 2009 in a scenario with many parallels to Abbey Ahmed’s), introduces the narrative to his supporters that he has also been a peacemaker.

  • “As long as we know [that he brought peace to Ethiopia], that’s all that matters. I saved a big war, saved a couple of ‘em,” he told the campaign rally.

In a real-life series of unintended consequences, President Trump’s comments will undoubtedly be used by PM Abiy’s opponents at home to build a counter-narrative to how the youngest head of state came to power.

  • Within hours of the video of the US President saying he deserved the prize, an Ethiopian media channel called Tigrai Online released a YouTube video to its 30, 000 plus subscribers saying Abiy Ahmed is a “100% stooge” and that “President Trump inadvertently disclosed Abiy Ahmed was installed by the U.S.A.”
  • The video, which has almost 19, 000 views at the time of writing, now forms part of ongoing efforts by the TPLF to scuttle Abiy Ahmed’s reform process. Tigrayan leaders, who were in power throughout the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict, and whose sphere of influence borders Eritrea, are also opposed to the peace process, and even protested planned demilitarisation of the border.

Polar Opposites

Both PM Abiy Ahmed and President Trump are due for elections this year, but they have gone about their time in power and campaigns as polar opposites.

Both have dominated global headlines during their time in power, perhaps more than any other head of state in the world.

  • Abiy Ahmed, who is still the youngest head of state on the continent, has built his reelection credentials on wide-ranging reforms meant to spur Ethiopia’s economic growth and political environment.
  • Donald Trump, on the other hand, has built his international profile on conflict, both with his rivals at home and abroad. He, for example, called African countries (and Haiti and El Salvador) “shithole countries” in early 2018.

Trump is popular in some African countries. A recent poll found that Trump is immensely popular in Nigeria and Kenya, Obama’s paternal homeland.

  • The Pew Research study only covered four countries on the continent: Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa, Tunisia. Trump’s popularity in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, stands at 62 percent, and 60 percent in Kenya. The lowest among the polled countries was Tunisia, at 33 percent.
  • After Trump’s “shithole countries” comment became public, Nigeria said the comments were “deeply hurtful, offensive and unacceptable” and summoned a US diplomat to clear the issue.
  • After a meeting with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari a few months later, Trump said: “But we didn’t discuss it because the president knows me and he knows where I’m coming from and I appreciate that. We did not discuss it.”

Where to next:

The main victim of President Trump’s confusion over which of Ethiopia’s conflicts his diplomats are involved in will undoubtedly be Egypt, which demanded Washington’s involvement. Ethiopian PM Abiy’s similar request to South Africa makes the dispute what it should have been from the start, a regional issue.

While it is too early to tell how the Washington round of negotiations between the three main Nile countries will go, it is likely that Addis Ababa will stick to its plans to fill up the dam fast, at Egypt’s expense.

There is also a risk, from a US diplomatic perspective, that Ethiopia is nudged further into the orbit of Chinese and Russian influence, given South Africa’s own positions.

South Africa was the only African country to publicly condemn the US for the murder of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.

Bottom line: If the talks fail (again), South Africa will have to help the three countries find a workable solution before the dispute escalates into armed conflict, a prospect which has been discussed severally by both Ethiopian and Egyptian leaders.

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