Tacitly Stretching the Truth: The Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Attack Plot

Wednesday May 10th 2017

By Zecharias Zelalem

In captivity, they look defeated, forlorn and downtrodden. The fifteen or so men, several of them wearing what appear to be beige coloured uniforms, while others are in casual civilian attire, jeans and dress shirts, sit on the ground surrounded by grassland plains somewhere in western Ethiopia. They are being paraded as captured combatants and foreign entity sponsored terrorists by Ethiopian state television. The men are careful not to surrender tears or a look of fear in their eyes as they shift their gazes away from the merciless cameras of the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC) who are beaming close up images of each of the doomed men across the country and the web. With this footage, EBC journalists aspired to give the world a good look at the men who the government claims conspired to commits acts of sabotage and murder in Ethiopia. With nowhere to run or hide, the captured men sit in silence. They all apparently hail from Ethiopia’s Benishangul Gumuz region. A short distance away from them, caches of weapons, including rocket launchers, automatic rifles, ammunition and grenades are laid out on burlap sacks for viewing. Piles of cash are also visible.

Thursday, March 2nd 2017. At a hastily organized press conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s new State Minister for Government Communications Affairs, Zadig Abraha, announced that Ethiopian security forces thwarted an attempt to attack the country’s Grand Renaissance Dam project construction site. According to the minister, twenty heavily armed members of the Benishangul Peoples’ Liberation Front (BPLM), an armed rebel group that had been waging an on and off low scale insurgency in the country, were in detention after having crossed into Ethiopia from Sudan, an unspecified period of time after having departed from Eritrea with their mission orders.

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Map showing the location of the dam in Ethiopia

State media outlets would spend the whole day providing detailed accounts as to what had actually transpired. It would later be said that the rebels crossed into Ethiopia from Sudan and had congregated on foot near the town of Menge, in Ethiopia’s Benishangul Gumuz state, about a hundred kilometers south of the dam construction site. There they were confronted by regional security forces who exchanged fire with them. 13 members of the group were killed in the firefight, seven were detained, while eight others who had made a run for the Sudanese border were disarmed and arrested by Sudanese troops upon their entering of Sudanese territory. They were then immediately handed over to Ethiopia. With the killing and capturing of the nearly thirty men said to be BPLM members who took part in the alleged plot, Ethiopia successfully fended off the threat, a reason to congratulate the nation’s intelligence and security forces whose due diligence and alertness prevented a potential catastrophe from plunging the country into chaos…we are told.

Days later, after Ethiopian government officials repeatedly accused Eritrea of being the architect behind the plot, Eritrean officials denied knowing the group or having any involvement in a plot to sabotage the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). “This whole accusation is preposterous and peddled for some sinister reason,” Eritrea’s Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel told Bloomberg. He later went on to say that he had never heard of the BPLM rebel group.

The news of the plot being thwarted has been covered extensively by international media, although no accredited journalists have made additional efforts to investigate the claims. Understandably so, as Ethiopia tends to be rigid when it comes to allowing foreign media outlets access to the country if they are there solely to nitpick at official state narratives. Because of this, the observer is left with nothing but the polarizing Ethiopian and Eritrean government viewpoints both of which are unverifiable and come from less than trustworthy leaderships with a history of manipulating facts to adhere to a sequence of events that suits their interests best.

So what is believable in this story? How much of it is true and how much of it borders total fabrication? It’s impossible to determine exactly what happened without access to key personalities and the alleged treasure trove of evidence the government claims to be in possession of. Nevertheless in this article, I’ll elaborate as to why the Ethiopian government’s version of events somewhat struggles to hold water. There are a multitude of reasons for why Addis Ababa would be desperate to sell this story to international observers. I’ll be trying to dissect several of those which are related to the region’s geopolitical doings of recent times.

Recent developments with Egypt

Let’s take a break to better understand the current diplomatic situation between Ethiopia and Egypt. It will help us gain a better understanding of the events set in motion that finally led to the above mentioned press conference taking place. The origins of Ethiopia’s claims appear to me, to lie with the recent breaking down of communication between Ethiopia and Egypt after a diplomatic spat. Since sometime in the latter half of 2016, Ethiopia and Egypt have seen the deterioration of their rather brittle diplomatic relations. Ethiopia was rocked by domestic uprisings in the Oromia and Amhara regions of the country, the country’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn repeatedly accused Egyptian elements of exacerbating the unrest by funneling resources to banned local groups. In November of last year, Ethiopia detained three Egyptian men in Addis Ababa it said were spying for the Egyptian government. The men later identified as Taha Mansour, Hany Al-Akkad and Hasan Ramadan Sweilam would spend the next three months in an Ethiopian prison before being deported to Egypt in January. Frustrated with Egypt’s alleged clandestine operations against Ethiopia, Addis Ababa decided to up the ante and get warm and cozy with the likes of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The two countries are known for their diplomatic hostility towards Cairo and the move appeared to be Addis Ababa’s attempt at hitting back at Egypt. It would become even more evident when on December 18, a high level Saudi government delegation was given a tour of Ethiopia’s GERD construction site. The Saudi tour of the dam site created shockwaves in Cairo, with Egyptian media portraying it as an open act of war. Tensions remain high as Egypt now frantically attempts to prevent the Gulf States from turning the region against Egypt and thus diplomatically isolating Cairo, which could result in the turning of world opinion in favour of Ethiopia’s dam aspirations.

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Image of the 2016 Oromo Protests. The Ethiopian government accuses Egypt of having played a role in stoking tension in the country (Image: Reuters)

Before the diplomatic falling out of Ethiopia and Egypt, Egypt had tried to avoid political hostilities from breaking out. In a speech to his country’s military officials in October, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi denied his government’s participation in any covert operations in Ethiopia and even went on to say that his country “had never offered support to the (Ethiopian) opposition.” The Ethiopian government’s accusations of Egyptian involvement in last year’s unrest are unverifiable for the most part, hence Al-Sisi’s denial encountering no robust rebuttals. But the Egyptian President’s claim that Egypt had never worked with proxy elements to bring down the Ethiopian state is false and there’s ample evidence of this. This put the veracity of Al-Sisi’s denial in doubt.

To ensure Egyptian dominance of the Nile River, Egypt has long sought the destabilizing of upper riparian states which refused to recognize Egypt’s rights to a total monopoly of the waters, in principle Ethiopia. Throughout the seventies, when Ethiopia and Somalia were on the brink of the Ogaden war, Egypt had aided Somalia with overseeing the training and funding of Ethiopia’s Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) rebel group. The WSLF’s saboteur activities in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region would be the precursor of the main Somalia national army’s all out invasion of Ethiopia in 1977. After an Ethiopian-Cuban coalition liberated occupied territory, ending the war in defeat for Somalia, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was blunt in his assessment of Ethiopian desires to use Nile River resources. He openly threatened Ethiopia with military action saying “the only matter than can take Egypt to war again is water.” Afterwards, Egypt spent most of the eighties arming and funding the players in the Ethiopian civil war that would later bring about the downfall of Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam’s communist government in 1991.

So with Egypt’s widely known history of proxy aggression towards Ethiopia, for an Egyptian leader to openly state that his country has never taken such an approach against Ethiopia would be either totally dishonest, or forgivable if we can assume the leader has a poor grasp of his own country’s history. But when that leader is Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, a man who spent nearly four decades serving in the Egyptian military and intelligence in various capacities, you can safely assume he knows more than others about his country’s anti state activities. Hence one would be correct in saying that he lied about that, which gives weight to the claims that he may have been lying when he attempted to assure the Ethiopian government that he was in no way, shape or form supporting illegal activities in Ethiopia.

Despite trying to maintain a sense of calm, Ethiopia’s catering to the likes of Qatar and Saudi Arabia meant that push had come to shove and they would have to act fast. Egypt has not taken too kindly to Ethiopia’s bringing in Egypt’s Arab rivals into the Nile River fray of sorts. Cairo has responded so far by attempting to strengthen its existing relations with regional allies, while also trying to forge new ones. The likes of Uganda and South Sudan appear to have taken up on offers to mend ties and support decisions that may serve Egypt strategically. While Eritrea, already a long time ally of Cairo due to its opposition to Ethiopia, is reportedly in negotiations to create a joint Eritrean-Egyptian Red Sea military command post within Eritrea. Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki travelled to Egypt to meet with his Egyptian counterpart Al-Sisi in November. Although the two leaders didn’t elaborate on the extent of such cooperation, Eritrean diaspora news portals have described the command post as being a joint military venture with aims to combat “terrorism.”

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Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki and his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in Cairo. The two were said to have discussed the opening of an Egyptian military base in Eritrea (Image: Daily Egypt News)

This development is a source of angst in Ethiopia and rightfully so. Addis Ababa has thrived under Eritrea’s international isolation. If their arch rivals in Eritrea gain an international standing, it could result in Eritrea coming back from the diplomatic cold. Between 1998 and 2000, Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a deadly border war that resulted in tens of thousands dying on both sides. Since that war, Eritrea’s military capacities have diminished and so have its abilities to pose a threat of any kind to Ethiopia. A combination of its poor diplomatic maneuvering as well as its support of terrorist groups such as Somalia’s Al Shabab saw the United Nations slap Eritrea with sanctions and an arms embargo. This is said to have severely curtailed the country’s development.

The biggest roadblock to Egypt and Eritrea holding joint military exercises or opening a base in Eritrea would be Egypt’s fear of the consequences of violating the arms embargo on Eritrea adopted with the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1907 in 2009. But it appears that with the Yemeni civil war, Eritrea had managed to circumvent the strict nature of the resolution. Capitalizing on the opportunity to create strategic partnerships and perhaps gain monetary and/or material compensation, Eritrea agreed to allow members states of the Saudi Arabia led coalition permission to use Eritrean seaports and airspace in their war efforts against the Yemen’s Iran backed Houthi militants. A report published in 2015 by the UN Security Council’s Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea goes into more detail. The report states that Eritrea has leased the Red Sea port of Assab located towards the country’s east and only sixty or so kilometer sail away from the Yemeni coast. Allowing foreign troops access to the country wouldn’t necessarily constitute a violation of Resolution 1907. But last year the UN reported that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were overseeing the construction of military bases and a new seaport that would facilitate the housing and transportation of heavy weaponry and military vehicles. The report added that Eritrea was a teeming with weapons and soldiers from the anti Houthi coalition, and even mentioned the UN team’s coming accounts of 400 Eritrean soldiers fighting in Yemen, embedded with the Emirati army.

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Billboard in streets of anti Houthi coalition controlled Aden Yemen thanking President Isaias Afeworki for his country’s contribution to the Yemeni war effort

While these are blatant violations of the arms embargo, it is said that the influence of the likes of Saudi Arabia (who made headlines for blackmailing the UN by threatening to remove the country from a list of children’s rights violators over atrocities committed in Yemen) will probably stave off potential diplomatic actions against Eritrea. Thus Eritrea has been allocated a certain degree of military maneuvering room it hasn’t been able to enjoy since 2009, thanks to the country’s alliance with the anti-Houthi coalition.

It is these developments with regards to Eritrea that appear to have Egypt feeling much easier about exploring the possibilities of installing a military presence in Eritrea. Egypt have realized that they are a lot less likely to be ostracized as being in cahoots with a terror sponsoring nation today than they were just three years ago. This possibility would be viewed as extremely menacing in Ethiopia. Not only would it be another step in bringing Eritrea back from the diplomatic cold and legitimatizing the political stance of what was widely depicted as a pariah state, it would mean the high tech military arsenal and baggage that comes with Egypt’s possessing of one of the strongest armies in Africa if not the world, would be next door, undoubtedly with Ethiopia in its cross-hairs. Despite the unlikelihood of war breaking out any time soon, two traditional foes potentially plotting from just across the yard would be a source of considerable anxiety for any player.

Doors opening for Eritrea via Yemen: A source of angst in Addis Ababa

Hence Ethiopia’s quickly pointing a finger at Eritrea whenever threats to Ethiopia unravel. With Egypt putting Ethiopia under pressure with its cozy-ing up to Eritrea, the thwarted “attack” became a great opportunity to potentially defame Eritrea and depict its diplomatic rapprochements as nothing more than a bad boy procuring the means to pursue sinister plots. It would serve Ethiopia well in the long run to maintain the image of Eritrea continuously scheming to create chaos and bloodshed across the Horn of Africa. This depiction of Eritrea will keep UN Security Council member states voting to renew the economic sanctions and arms embargo that had thus far severely crippled the Eritrean government’s economic and military capabilities, as well as its ability to efficiently wage proxy wars against Ethiopia. The likes of Ethiopia and Djibouti (another of Eritrea’s regional enemies) repeatedly remind the world of Eritrea’s ties to regional armed groups. By doing so they aspire to prevent a letup in the international community’s scowlish glare towards Eritrea and keep the nation of five million people in the diplomatic dark, while scaring off international investors, and the likes of Egypt from scouting the country for opportunities to pursue their interests.

The BPLM’s links to Eritrea

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BPLM fighters embedded with fighters of the EPPF, another Eritrea based armed group holding a rally somewhere in Eritrea

Of course Ethiopia’s understandable eagerness to place the blame on Eritrea for every security breach doesn’t by itself prove that the allegations of Eritrea sending thirty armed BPLM fighters on foot to attack targets in Ethiopia are completely false. The absence of evidence doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t a morsel of truth to Addis Ababa’s claims. After all, the BPLM have a history of being funded, trained and armed by the Eritrean government, this can be corroborated by UN Security Council Reports and accounts by former BPLM combatants. A 2012 UN report said that Eritrea housed some fighters of the group, but also mentioned that the group had been depleted of fighters and alone had little ability to mount any sort of struggle. The American armed group database and research institution Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC), has made a name for having one of the most comprehensive information databases on armed groups and extremists in the world. TRAC’s entry for the BPLM however, features an Eritrean flag as the group’s logo. A blunder, but perhaps a forgivable misconception when one considers the BPLM’s inability to establish a presence in Ethiopia and their working relationship with Eritrea. The group has been fragmented by defections and peace deals. In 2013, a faction of the group announced it had accepted an Ethiopian government offer to lay down arms and return home in return for amnesty from prosecution. It isn’t known how many members of the group still remain in Eritrea, but since the 2013 deal, subsequent UN Security Council reports have mentioned the BPLM fleetingly, a sign of the group’s drop in relevance. Nevertheless they do maintain a presence in Eritrea of some kind. Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel’s telling Bloomberg that he had never heard of the BPLM rebel group is most likely dishonest.

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Eritrean Minister of Information Yemane Gebremeskel denied even knowing of the existence of a group going by the acronym BPLM. This despite his government’s widely known housing of the group’s armed combatants in areas of the country

In 2015, Eritrea mediated the creation of a unified front for five such groups. The Peoples’ Alliance for Freedom and Democracy (PAFD) held its first assembly in March 2016 in Asmara. Present at the assembly was a BPLM representative named Mohammed Hassan. The assembly was videotaped and the entire gathering is available on the internet for viewing. There has been no word on a second annual assembly in 2017, and the PAFD website hasn’t been updated in nearly a year, which leads one to believe the alliance may have splintered or totally collapsed. The BPLM co-signed the alliance’s October 2015 communiqué announcing the merger. In the communiqué, contact information for the BPLM lists a number with an Eritrean area code, proof that at the time of publishing the communiqué, the BPLM was headquartered in Eritrea.

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BPLM representative Mohammed Hassan speaking at the PAFD conference in Asmara over a year ago, in March of 2016

For Yemane Gebremeskel, a long time party stalwart, Presidential aid and the country’s Minister of Information to say he doesn’t know of the existence of the BPLM, an Ethiopian rebel group, actively attending summits in Asmara and forming alliances, brought into Eritrea in tandem with the country’s regional policy country…would certainly be a hard sell. It’s Yemane Gebremeskel’s own government that coordinates the BPLM’s movements. If Eritrea says “jump,” the BPLM answer “from how high?”

Why the Ethiopian version of events cannot be true

It is this working relationship between Eritrea and the BPLM that renders the claims of a plot to attack the GERD construction site a farfetched one. It is open knowledge that the area surrounding the dam site is a heavily secured area inaccessible by air or by vehicle. Inhabitants of nearby towns are encouraged to report suspicious looking individuals to authorities and foreigners approaching the dam have been arrested and accused of espionage, armed with nothing more than a camera. The arrests of Egyptian citizens Ismail Azizi and Hassan Garai in May of 2014 has been attributed to the alertness of locals who were quick to report the duo’s heading towards the dam site, unarmed, onboard public transportation. They were arrested, accused of espionage for the Egyptian government and are believed to have been released sometime later. The dam is said to cost over six billion US$, so it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to guess that Ethiopia would invest heavily in the construction site’s security. The Asosa area’s security may be even more prioritized than that of the contested border area with Eritrea. With this information widely known by anyone with a sprinkling of common sense, the idea that the Eritrean government would send a company of heavily armed easily distinguishable fighters to trek on foot from the Sudanese border, to the Benishangul-Gumuz state town of Menge and then about a hundred kilometers northwards to a heavily guarded location fraught with Ethiopian army units and ever alert locals ready to snitch at one’s slightest misstep, is borderline comic. No military intelligence institution in the world would be stupid enough to okay such a mission. The fighters would have most likely absconded the second they could, aborting what would be a suicidal mission.

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Map showing the route the alleged plotters were said to be planning to take, according to state reports. The government claiming that the group of heavily armed fighters sought to walk for 100 km, or nearly 24 hours to their destination, a well guarded, populated construction site, renders the entire story line baseless

The group of fighters may likely have gotten their training and weapons from Eritrea. As I mentioned beforehand, the group indeed has ties to the Eritrean government. But dam saboteurs? Reality says no. Highly unlikely. They may have entered the country to finally establish a presence on the ground for the group. Perhaps they were there to commit a guerrilla warfare style hit and run attack on a local police station or checkpoint before escaping into the bush or even back across the border into Sudan. The men may have even been nothing more than a ragtag group of bandits preparing to rob a bank.

Whatever the case, while most observers will be left unable to ascertain what thirty members of the Benishangul Peoples’ Liberation Movement had set off to do in Ethiopia on March 2 2017, one wouldn’t be off the mark in saying that by now the governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia both know exactly what the ill fated group had planned, although Eritrea will deny it and Ethiopia has twisted the story into something much grander.

Which leaves another question unanswered: if the story was partially concocted by elements of the Ethiopian government, why would they be so reckless in their storytelling? Why not bank on something slightly more realistic?

Why the Ethiopian government had no difficulty selling the story as truth

For one thing, let alone most foreigners, most Ethiopians don’t know the exact distance between the rural town of Menge, where the group of fighters are alleged to have gathered, and the site of the dam. Many have never even heard of such a town. A simply search on Google Maps would reveal to anyone able to use the global mapping tool that Menge is actually about a hundred kilometers away from the dam and thus wouldn’t realistically be an entry point for a rogue band of rebels planning an assault on the dam. Foreign media meanwhile, went with it, as the much talked about dam being a target would make a very reader attractive story. The international reports neglect to specify where exactly in Ethiopia the BPLM rebels were spotted before their ill fated flight back into Sudan. For the most part, the reports only mentioned that the men had crossed from Sudan. Add the fact that the dam construction site is itself near the Sudanese border, and you have a valid story-line on a clash dangerously close to the GERD, for anyone neglectful of the fact that Ethiopia and Sudan share a common borderline that runs for over 700 km. Had local journalists prodded Government Communications Affairs Minister Zadig Abraha for an explanation on these irregularities with the official narrative, the only available defense for their theory would be that the group had planned on procuring vehicles to travel northwards to the dam site. But even that would be debunked quickly. It’s difficult to see how thirty or so armed men with a heavy cargo on wheels would go unnoticed. Hijacking vehicles and driving past towns and checkpoints manned by national and regional security forces would be a recipe for disaster, with no one foolish enough to attempt something far more stupid than daring. It would sound like something out of a video game or action movie.

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Workers push on with construction of the GERD. This guarded facility with countless workers toiling day and night to see the completion of the project was allegedly threatened by a group of twenty armed rebels making a cross country journey on foot to sabotage their efforts (Image: Ethiopian Herald)

Egypt’s “nosy” maneuvering in the region could have hastened Ethiopia’s going to press 

Other factors may have pushed Addis Ababa to go to press with this without thinking it through. Besides the panic over the pace of Eritrea’s recent upgrades to the country’s military establishment, the Egyptian government’s charm offensive in the region in response to Ethiopia’s hosting the Saudis at the GERD site appears to have recently won them some new partnerships that don’t bode well for Addis Ababa. In February of this year, neighbouring Somalia’s Presidential election saw Mohammed Abdullahi “Farmaajo,” a man who has previously made his opposition to Ethiopia’s regional hegemony known, elected as the country’s new leader. On February 22nd Farmaajo was officially inaugurated in a ceremony attended by many delegations and leaders from all over the continent. It was at that ceremony that Farmaajo was introduced to much of the African political elite, including Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and Foreign Minister Workneh Gebeyehu. But a week earlier, in what may be a sign of things to come, Farmaajo and his Foreign Minister Abdusalam Omer had a sit down in Mogadishu with an Egyptian delegation to discuss “bilateral ties.” President Farmaajo’s getting acquainted with Egyptian politicians before meeting those of neighbouring Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti may have sent alarms blaring in Addis Ababa. Egypt’s getting cosy with Eritrea was enough reason to worry, but Somalia, a country that Ethiopia had somewhat monopolized for much of the past decade, finally putting its bureaucratic house back in place and electing to accommodate Egyptian interests, would no doubt be a source of malaise in Ethiopia. It may have been another reason to go with the story of Egyptian ally Eritrea’s deployment of GERD bound BPLM rebels, without actually thinking it through. The story making international headlines means that the world’s game changers may momentarily turn heads towards not only Eritrea and its government, but also Egypt. Despite Ethiopian state media mentioning nothing about any possible Egyptian involvement, with Egypt’s opposition to the dam well known, it would be only natural for observers to look towards Egypt as a likely suspect in any anti GERD plot. With eyes on Eritrea and Egypt, it may make Egypt feel uneasy about doing what many be perceived as dirty business with Eritrea and perhaps postpone anything in the works until sometime in the near future.

The extent of Ethiopia’s concerns over an Egyptian presence in the Horn of Africa could perhaps be best highlighted by their reaction to as of yet baseless rumours of Egypt’s involvement in a deal that saw the self declared independent republic of Somaliland agree to the establishment of a United Arab Emirates military base in Somaliland. Rumours were circulated that Emirati base in the breakaway republic’s territory could be used by members of the Saudi coalition and perhaps the Egyptian military. The reports left Ethiopian leaders astounded, and demanding an explanation from Somaliland’s President Ahmed Silanyo. In February, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn met with a Somaliland delegation in Addis Ababa to get some answers. What was said behind closed doors wasn’t reported, but Ethiopia appears to have been satisfied by the explanation given to them. Ethiopia’s envoy to Somaliland Berhe Tesfaye was later quoted as saying his government had no qualms with the UAE base, although an Africa Intelligence report later suggested that the Ethiopian government’s change of mentality surrounding the UAE base was due to having been given a copy of the UAE-Somaliland treaty document by the Somaliland delegation. The deal includes a clause forbidding the UAE from allocating use of its base by any third party. It’s this clause that would prevent Egypt from setting foot in Somaliland. This appears to have reassured Hailemariam Desalegn, who had been fretting over the reports of an increased Egyptian presence in the region looming large.

BPLM plot: Excuse to extend Ethiopia’s State of Emergency     

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Ethiopian troops on the streets of Addis Ababa. The current state of emergency status gives them the right to detain individuals without constraints of the national constitution (Image: Karel Prinsloo AP)

Another reason why the Ethiopian government seeks to convince the world that a real terrorist attack was nipped in the bud is that it would serve to legitimize an extension of the national state of emergency mandate. As a result of the uprisings that engulfed the country last year, the government announced in October that the national constitution would be suspended and a six month state of emergency would be enforced.  Prior less to the original mandate’s expiration, it became clear that the government was reportedly less than keen on reactivating the constitution and losing its extrajudicial powers. The existence of a terrorist threat could be used as a ploy to extend the state of emergency for an indefinite period of time. Barely a couple of weeks after the arrest of the BPLM members, the country’s Defense Minister Siraj Fergessa told reporters that the government had conducted surveys and the “majority of the people” supported the extension of the state of emergency beyond the original six month period. The state of emergency gave security forces to search homes and arrest anyone without a warrant or a court order, leading to thousands of people being detained for the flimsiest of reasons. Its enactment is known to be widely unpopular, despite the Minister’s claims. After the Minister’s ominous comments, as per the “people’s wishes” the state of emergency was extended by another four months. Fabricating a story of marauding militants stopped en route to the dam would be much more believable than talk of a “survey” being conducted. With the alleged BPLM plot, the Defense Minister and other members of the government in Ethiopia can now attempt to justify the decision by saying they were “forced into it” by the existing terror threat that saw the breaching of the country’s borders on March 2.

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Ethiopian Defense Minister Siraj Fergessa. He recently claimed the majority of Ethiopians support an extension of the nationwide State of Emergency. It was eventually extended for another four months

 

These and other realities point to the likelihood of the BPLM plot to cross into Ethiopia from Sudan attack the GERD being untrue. The idea to sell the story appears to be hatched by an urgency to do something about Eritrea’s fostering of new military alliances and Egypt’s perceived conniving attempts at isolating Ethiopia from its neighbours. But of course, there is nothing definitive about this view, nor is there any concrete proof destroying the Ethiopian government’s version. How do we know for sure? What if Eritrea really did send all those men into Ethiopia with the purpose of attacking the most talked about dam project in recent history?

If there is any truth to the claims of a foiled armed assault upon the dam, we should be able to see some evidence real soon. This isn’t the first time Ethiopia has accused Eritrea of dispatching agents of local groups with instructions to create mayhem and destruction. In 2011, Ethiopia detained members of the OLF it accused of taking part in an Eritrea sponsored plot to set off explosive devices at the African Union summit building and “turn Addis Ababa into Baghdad.” The whole thing did seem surreal. But a United Nations investigation into the plot found that weapons and explosives found at a safe house used by the detained OLF members in Addis Ababa, all had serial numbers tracking their purchases by the Eritrean government. These included a sniper rifle whose serial number sourced the weapon as being sold to Eritrea by Romania in 2004. Phone records, travel documents and money transfer receipts were compiled in a massive treasure trove of evidence proving that the detained individuals were in Addis under the orders of handlers in Eritrea, seeking to set off bombs against soft targets in the Ethiopian capital. The UN investigators validated the Ethiopian claims and the failed 2011 AU summit plot would strengthen the case for the renewal of sanctions against Eritrea. United Nations Security Council Resolution 2023 was passed as a result, in December of 2011. The entirety of the UN’s report into that foiled plot can be downloaded from the UN website.

If on March 3rd, Ethiopian government forces took action as a result of the culmination of an investigation determining that there really was a security threat to the dam, they won’t hesitate in making evidence of their claims readily available to the UN. After all, it’s through the UN that Eritrea has been repeatedly sanctioned, and if they seek the extension or even the upgrade of sanctions against Eritrea, they would eagerly submit anything that would prove Eritrea’s status as a terrorist sponsoring threat to the region. If the UN isn’t called in to Ethiopia to investigate the involvement of Eritrea in a destructive plot as they were in 2011, the possibility of there being no evidence of any plot is a real one, giving weight to claims that the 2017 BPLM dam plot was a fabrication. If Ethiopia truly has nothing to hide, independent investigators will be allowed access to the detainees and the weapons cache without any inhibitions. If there is any minuscule possibility of the official story being true, we should be able to find out via credible international organisations in the near future.

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Arms cache recovered from the BPLM rebels after their detention (Image: EBC)
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The alleged BPLM fighters silently gaze into space as EBC cameras come in for a close up (Image: EBC)

 

However, the way the events have played out suggests it would be sensible to stick with the theory that there was no attempt by armed BPLM fighters to reach the dam construction site. It was a part of desperate measures by a paranoid leadership to heap scorn on Eritrea and slow down an Egyptian diplomatic offensive that may be gaining ground in the region. The portrayal of Ethiopia as the underdog striving to build a dam in its effort to tackle chronic droughts could push the world to sympathize with the Ethiopian dam cause, and simultaneously oppose the one country that is the most opposed to Ethiopia using up Nile River resources, Egypt. The Nile Basin state negotiations appear to have been superficial, and the Nile River players have resorted to backhanded tactics to get their way.

As mentioned above, exactly what the troop of men had planned to do after crossing into Ethiopia into Sudan remains unknown to the public, but Ethiopian security forces who have been interrogating the detained group and Eritrean security elements, who house and support the BPLM without a doubt could provide us with all the answers.

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FINISHED: Media has its pictures, the men walk away in the direction of their prison cells to most likely never be heard from again (Image: EBC)

In this scenario, the truth doesn’t serve either camp. Hence my belief that the details that led to the capture and killing of some thirty armed rebels on Thursday March 2 2017, are likely to remain concealed.

My name is Zecharias Zelalem.

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