Renaissance Dam’s Unnoticed Impact on Ethiopian Psyche
By Merkeb Negash
“The humiliation of a thing is sufficient to stimulate it; the humiliation of a country is sufficient to rejuvenate it” – Book of Rites (Chinese literature)
When the late prime minister came up with the idea of building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (then known as Project X), many considered it as an ambitious project that emanated from naivety. Many wondered why the government would want to build such a grand project of high cost and high stakes while it could have started with small projects that are both affordable and less sensitive.
Some ‘analysts’ even went further and dubbed it with every pejorative expression they could get: an unwise political game intended to divert the attention of the public from the rampant inflation and the Arab Spring; a naïve project that relied on an unreliable domestic revenue; and, above all, a grave foreign policy miscalculation that would take us to war with our arch-foe Egypt, and so on.
The majority of these views emanated from the historical Ethiopian mind setup: Abay is a taboo not to be discussed in public let alone build a dam on it. The Nile has always been a source of disappointment for Ethiopians. This disappointment had grown into consensus in public opinion that the only thing Ethiopians could do was sing about it and provide a lip service. This was why it took many Ethiopians many nights to realize the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (hereafter the GERD) was not a dream nor their prime minister dreaming.
However, even those who welcomed the project only praised it for its economic benefits. The major significance of the dam has not been given much focus, if any.
In this piece, I will try to show what the GERD meant for the late prime minister beyond its economic benefits. Since the GERD was only part of the big picture and long game of the late PM, I will try to elucidate its significance from the developmental state perspective.
The success of a developmental state depends on two underpinnings: ideological and structural. Experiences show that the unprecedented economic performance of the East Asian Tigers was the result of this ideology-structure nexus. The former is considered as the software of the latter (the hardware). My focus will be on the software that drives the hardware.
China’s economic miracle was the result of Chinese nationalism (Chinese Big Think) that emanated from its pride in its history as well as its century of humiliation at the hands of the West and Japan. This yearning for lost glory was accompanied by the story of victimization in the past. This discourse of national humiliation was not just material, a matter of catching up to the west economically and militarily, but symbolic.
The Chinese discourse of nationalism generally tells the tale of China going back from being at the center of the world to being the sick man of Asia after the opium war (1840), only to rise again with the communist revolution (1949). According to William Callahan, many Chinese books on the topic include the phrase “from humiliation to glory”. China even had an official holiday called National Humiliation Day from 1927 to 1940.
National humiliation discourse involves a very active notion of history and recovery. In other words, the narrative of national salvation depends upon national humiliation. This is what Mao Zedong’s speech in 1949 symbolizes: “ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation. We have stood up”. It was this humiliation that drove the Chinese leadership and public to work hard so as to catch-up to the West.
Not only Mao made such pronouncements: Other countries’ literature also link national salvation with national humiliation. During the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln declared April 30, 1863, to be the “day of national humiliation” in order to encourage “the restoration of our now divided and suffering country, to its former happy condition of unity and peace.”
In a similar vein, Gandhi declared a “National Humiliation Day” of mass demonstrations in April 1919 to inspire the Indian nation to fight against British imperialism. Mao’s speech recorded how China had overcome the humiliations of both civil war and imperialism to found the PRC.
It has been this national humiliation that has been guiding the narratives of developmentalism in Ethiopia.
Like China, this yearning for lost glory was accompanied by the story of victimization in the past. A proud people of an amazing civilization have become the textbook example of famine and hunger. A people who accepted Christianity long before Europeans have been asked if “they know it is Christmas”! The world sang “Feed the world, let them know it’s Christmas time” to the people who started farming long before the birth of Christ! A historical nation of Axumite Civilization, of a uniquely African script and calendar, the cradle of humanity, has been called the “Poster Child Nation”.
Meles Zenawi’s speech during the Ethiopian millennium perfectly depicts this national humiliation:
“We can’t but feel deeply insulted that at the dawn of new millennium ours is one of the poorest countries in the world. Over the course of our second millennium we have gone from being one of the most advanced nations on earth to that of being one of the poorest…
A thousand years from now, when Ethiopians gather to welcome the fourth millennium, they shall say that the eve of the third millennium was the beginning of the end of dark age in Ethiopia…the beginning of Ethiopian renaissance.”
Slogans such as kuchit (humiliation, for lack of a better term), hidase (Ethiopian Renaissance), talak neberin talakim enehonalen (we were great and we will be great again), endegena (rising again), and so on have been used as buzzwords that symbolize our national humiliation and yearning for lost glory.
However, there was one big issue remaining that symbolized our national humiliation above anything else: Abay!
An un-colonized, proud people with an amazing ancient civilization have become the textbook example of famine and hunger. And, nothing symbolized this national humiliation more quintessentially than our inability to utilize our great river we call Abay-Great in geez! Conquering Abay had been more difficult for Ethiopians than conquering European colonizers. Defeating Egypt with Abay had been more difficult than defeating Egypt on battle fields.
As the Chinese saying goes, “[t]he humiliation of a thing is sufficient to stimulate it; the humiliation of a country is sufficient to rejuvenate it”. Abay symbolizes both our national humiliation and future salvation.
Imagine what the national psyche would be if we reclaim Abay at a time our country is in the midst of the biggest transformation in its entire history and, Egypt in the midst of a revolution! The timing couldn’t get any better and there was a great leader who strikes while the iron is hot! The naming couldn’t be better either: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam!
The GERD has ended the millennia-old humiliation, has heralded the rebirth of Ethiopia, has knit all Ethiopians together and has become the symbol of our salvation! This is by far greater than a 6000 MW electric supply. This is why the GERD is not just material, a matter of producing electricity, but symbolic.
Abay is now the foundation of our nation, our future. Abay is now a synonym for our resurrection. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is Grand, is Ethiopia, is Renaissance! Hence any threat to the GERD would not be any less than an active invasion on our nation.
This is why we should tell everyone- both at home and abroad- that when it comes to Abay, either you are with our humiliation or our salvation! This is why anyone who threatens our dam- our salvation, our future Ethiopia- should be reminded, time and again, that “no one who has tried that has lived to tell the story”!
* The author, Merkeb Negash, is a Lecturer of Political Science and International Relations at Jimma University. He is a bloger in this blog and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org