Bekele (53) was a much-loved public figure. He was seen as embodying a vision for Ethiopia’s political independence and economic development. The hydroelectric dam he oversaw was his life’s work and he was revered by the wider population for his dedication.
Now what appears to be his cold-blooded murder has shocked the nation.
The killing comes amid concern that a newly appointed prime minister is part of a geopolitical shakeup of Ethiopia to bring the country under the geopolitical sway of Washington and its Arab regional clients, away from Ethiopia’s recent strategic alignment with China.
In African security matters, Ethiopia may have been an ally of the United States for the past three decades. But in terms of its more important economic development, the country has relied on China.
China’s growing stature in Africa – much to the chagrin of the US – has been largely prefigured by its close strategic partnership with Ethiopia.
Ethiopia is long seen as the spiritual and diplomatic leader of the 54 nations of the continent, proudly standing as being the one nation never historically colonized by European powers. Through its economic partnership with Beijing, Ethiopia was in many ways China’s gateway to the rest of Africa.
The coming into office of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali – by parliamentary selection – nearly four months ago has signaled a shift in the internal and international politics of Ethiopia. That change appears to be giving the US a greater role in the economic development of the country in a way that relegates China’s erstwhile dominant role.
The murder of chief engineer Bekele last Thursday casts a foreboding shadow over the future of Ethiopia. It also casts a shadow over the new prime minister and his much-vaunted leadership.
Youthful premier Abiy Ahmed (41) has up to now won glowing praise in Western news media as a “reformer”. He has promised to open up key sectors of the economy to foreign capital and to broaden its multiparty democracy.
Since Ethiopia’s revolutionary war against the Derg dictatorship nearly 30 years ago, the country has been ruled by a coalition government largely dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The Tigray are a minority ethnic group from the north of Ethiopia which led the revolutionary war against the despotic Derg regime.
Premier Ahmed was previously part of the ruling coalition government, having served as a minister, and in military intelligence. But he comes from the Oromo ethnic group, which is the most populous in Ethiopia’s nation of 100 million, comprising some 84 different ethnic groups. The Oromo are associated with supporting the former Derg regime.
For the past three decades there have been ongoing acrimonious tensions between the Oromo and Tigray people. Since Ahmed came to office, there are fears among the Tigray especially that he is stealthily rehabilitating remnants of the old regime. He has released hundreds of political prisoners in the name of “reforms”, but several of these figures are accused by the Tigray of having committed past acts of grave violence against the state.
Courted by Washington
Internationally, premier Abiy Ahmed has been courted by Washington. Upon gaining office, the US has gone out of its way to patronize the new leader, saying that the shift in Ethiopia’s politics heralds a closer partnership between the two countries.
What the US is seeking to do is oust China from its role as the pivotal foreign partner in Ethiopia’s development. Ethiopia has been the African model of Chinese-assisted development for the entire continent.
In recent years, it is China and its massive financial and technological investment that is the main driver for the continent’s prodigious potential, overtaking the Americans and Europeans as foreign players. Ethiopia, situated on the eastern Horn of Africa, has been a vital link to China’s ambitions for integrating Africa into its global plans for reviving the ancient Silk Roads from Asia.
Since taking office, Abiy Ahmed has made some rather discordant public announcements. He has reportedly criticized flagship infrastructure projects overseen by China, such as the mammoth railway system linking the capital Addis Ababa to the neighboring coastal state of Djibouti.
Ethiopia has been landlocked since its 1998-2001 border war with Eritrea to its north. The recent opening of a rail line to Djibouti to the northeast of Ethiopia was seen as a breakthrough strategic link for access to the Red Sea and international trade. It was a vital corridor too for China’s access to East Africa.
Premier Ahmed has also taken a strangely dim view of Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam project which aims to harness the water of the Blue Nile for hydroelectric power. Under construction for the past seven years, the dam was slated to begin production by the end of this decade.
The project was the innovation of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi who was the leader of the revolutionary war against the Derg regime. Zenawi died in 2012 at the age of 57 from a rare brain illness. He was replaced by Haile Mariam Desalgn who resigned earlier this year, in March, over Oromo civil strife, paving the way for Abiy Ahmed.
Dam Delayed, Engineer Killed
The new prime minister made an unexpected announcement last month that the dam’s construction could be delayed by 10 years. That announcement caused much public consternation.
Shortly before his killing last week, the chief engineer Simegnew Bekele, who was appointed in 2011 to lead the project, also hinted in media interviews that his work was being undermined by certain government figures.
Prior to that, in early June, premier Ahmed’s first overseas official visit was to Egypt where he was warmly greeted in Cairo by President al-Sisi.
Egypt has long protested the construction of Ethiopia’s dam out of apprehension that it would drastically reduce the flow of water to the Nile Valley, essential for Egyptian agriculture.
During his visit to Cairo, both leaders talked about a new beginning in friendly relations. It is believed that Ethiopia’s Ahmed privately gave al-Sisi concessions on the future of the Blue Nile dam. Subsequent talk about an unprecedented delay in the construction seems to be part of the concession.
Surprise Peace Initiative
The next major international development came last month, mid-July, when premier Ahmed finalized a sudden peace initiative with Eritrea. The two countries were gripped by a border war nearly two decades years ago. That conflict followed the overthrow of the Derg regime which resulted in the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia. Ethiopia became landlocked, cut off from the Red Sea.
The feting of Eritrean leader Isaias Afwerki in Addis Ababa was hailed by international media as another sweeping “progressive reform” under premier Ahmed.
But many people in Ethiopia are not so approving, especially among the northern Tigray population who lost up to 150,000 people during the bitter three-year civil war with Eritrea. The Oromo prime minister is proposing to hand over disputed border lands to Eritrea as part of the peace settlement. That is being viewed as a betrayal by the Tigray.
Geopolitically, it is also suspected that the peace initiative with Eritrea is being driven by a US-led plan to carve out a new trading route for Ethiopia through Eritrea to the Red Sea. In that way, the importance of neighboring Djibouti and the Chinese-led trade route to East Africa would be sidelined.
US Move To Sideline China
The surprise peace opening between Ethiopia and Eritrea followed the visit to East Africa by former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in March. During his trip, Tillerson made some provocative statements demeaning China as a partner to Africa. That was only three weeks before Abiy Ahmed’s accession to power on April 2.
There then followed, according to Ethiopian sources, low-key visits by US State Department officials to Addis Ababa and the Eritrean capital, Asmara. The US contact with Asmara was particularly remarkable because for years Washington has been sanctioning and isolating Eritrea over alleged human rights abuses under its longtime leader Afwerki.
Eritrea’s tiny economy has largely subsisted in recent years under the patronage of the Gulf Arab states. As well as Washington’s bidding, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have also played a behind-the-scenes role in facilitating the rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia. A week after the peace deal was sealed in mid-July, the two leaders were afforded a congratulations ceremony in the UAE during which they were presented with ornate gold medallions by the Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
Two days later, on July 26, Ethiopians were shocked to hear that the chief engineer of the Grand Renaissance Dam was found dead in his car in the main public square of Addis Ababa. Simegnew Bekele had been shot behind his right ear at close range. A handgun was found in the car, with its engine still running. Few believe it was suicide.
Bekele was the public face of the dam project, which many Ethiopians were hoping would promote the development of their country. The engineer was highly regarded by the public for his dedication to the flagship project. He was widely seen as being free from corruption.
His death has raised concerns that the hydroelectric dam will be disrupted with long delay, or that the financing of it will be radically overhauled.
There seems little doubt that the killing of the master-engineer was a political assassination. In the days before his fatal encounter, CCTV cameras were inexplicably disabled in the area. His personal security detail was also relieved from duty to accompany him.
On the morning of the shooting, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed flew to the US. In an unseemly response, Ahmed ignored a public outcry for him to return to the country on the appalling news of the engineer’s death. His absence from the high-profile funeral on July 29, which was mourned by the nation, was seen as unbecoming.
Moreover, Ahmed’s perceived lack of civic duty has sparked widespread public anger especially among the Tigray people. For the past week, the country has witnessed mass demonstrations, with many people suspecting the new ruling faction around Ahmed of having sanctioned the murder of engineer Bekele.
During his US tour, the prime minister has been hosted by the large Ethiopian diaspora. Some of the rallies, including one on the day of Bekele’s funeral in Addis Ababa last Sunday, have featured prominent members associated with the outcast Derg regime sharing the stage with Ahmed.
People in Ethiopia have been aggrieved by what they see as insensitive behavior by the prime minister in not immediately returning to the country to share in the nation’s sorrow over the renowned engineer’s death.
Greeted by Pence & IMF’s Lagarde
While in the US over the past week, premier Ahmed also had a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence, during which Pence talked effusively about future economic ties with Ethiopia.
Another engagement was with Christine Lagarde, the head of the Washington-based International Monetary Fund (IMF). Up to now, the IMF and Western finance capital have been kept at bay in Ethiopia’s development. Projects like the Grand Renaissance Dam have been either self-financed or have relied on China for investment. Lagarde, like Pence, hailed a new future of tighter partnership with Ethiopia.
With the killing of engineer Bekele, the $4 billion dam project in the northwestern region of Ethiopia near the border with Sudan has been thrown into disarray. The unprecedented delay in construction that premier Ahmed controversially announced last month now seems a certainty. If and when it goes ahead, the financing arrangement may require the IMF to step in. The involvement of Western capital is what the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi strenuously sought to avoid. His vision of independent financing was shared by the deceased engineer.
To sum up, Ethiopia appears to be undergoing a deep geopolitical realignment. However, the realignment seems to be going ahead without national consensus, albeit praised on the surface by Western media as “reforms” under the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The United States is assuming a greater role in the country’s economic future in place of China.
As a strategically important African nation – the African Union’s headquarters are in Addis Ababa, built in 2012 by China with a $200 million grant – an increased influence of Washington in Ethiopia will have repercussions across the continent.
The apparent US-led rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea is key to the intended ouster of China’s foothold on the continent via the Djibouti port, where China last year opened up its first overseas military base.
This shifting geopolitical rearrangement also gives the US and the Gulf Arab states greater dominion over the Red Sea chokepoint in global trade, especially for seaborne oil. That may account for the US-backed Saudi war to control Yemen, which sits opposite to Eritrea astride the Red Sea on the Arabian Peninsula.
New Geopolitical Configuration
In this new geopolitical configuration, Ethiopia under Abiy Ahmed Ali appears to be moving away from its strategic partnership with China to align with the US and its Arab regional allies, Egypt and the Gulf oil sheikhdoms. Abiy’s Muslim heritage is thought to make him amenable to embrace America’s Arab client regimes.
The apparent assassination of engineer Simegnew Bekele is given significance by this strategic power play.
But this US-led orchestration against China, or as Washington would say “great power competition”, is unleashing dangerous political tensions within Ethiopia.
The federal Ethiopian state formed after the revolutionary war against the former Derg regime is severely straining because of premier Ahmed’s perceived favor of sectarian interests under the guise of “reforms”. His premiership appears to be more weighted by Oromo political figures. Given the large Christian-Muslim composition of Ethiopia, there are also fears that the country could be incited into religious conflict.
There is simmering anger that the hallowed public figure of engineer Simegnew Bekele may have been a sacrificial victim in order to assist the US geopolitical power play.
Across Ethiopia there is growing trepidation about the future direction of the country. The dark days of political murder and sectarian persecution, which previously abated after the overthrow of the Derg regime, are haunting Ethiopia once again.
Poignantly, the murder of Simegnew Bekele, whose Christian name means “hope” in his native language, has grievously struck the country’s sense of nationhood and its once bright aspirations for independent development.
This article was originally published on Aug. 2, 2018, and has been republished with permission of the Strategic Culture on-line journal www.strategic-culture.org.