Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister warned Tuesday that if there’s a need to go to war over a dam project disputed with Egypt his country could muster millions of people, but he said only negotiation can resolve the current deadlock. Egypt’s government said it was “shocked” by the remarks.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed spoke during a parliament question-and-answer session, his most prominent public appearance since winning the Nobel on Oct. 11. On Wednesday he and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi are expected to meet on the sidelines of a Russia-Africa summit in the Russian city of Sochi.
Abiy also defended his Nobel win after some have debated whether he deserved it: “Some individuals are finding it hard to accept about the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s already given to Abiy, and it won’t be taken away from him. That’s it! This is a dead issue! Now our focus should be on how to motivate other youths to win the prize. People who continue to dwell on this are wasting their time.”
The 43-year-old, who was awarded the prize for sweeping political reforms and for making peace with longtime rival Eritrea after taking office last year, faced lawmakers’ questions about a number of sensitive issues — notably the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
Talks collapsed earlier this month over the construction of the $5 billion dam, the largest in Africa, which is around 70% complete and is expected to provide much-needed electricity to Ethiopia’s 100 million people.
Egypt, with a similar population, fears the Nile dam will reduce its share of the river and leave the country with dwindling options as it seeks to protect the main source of freshwater.
Pro-government media in Egypt have cast the issue as a national security threat that could warrant military action.
“Some say things about use of force (by Egypt). It should be underlined that no force could stop Ethiopia from building a dam,” Ethiopia’s prime minister said. “If there is a need to go to war, we could get millions readied. If some could fire a missile, others could use bombs. But that’s not in the best interest of all of us.”
Abiy stressed that his country is determined to finish the dam project, which was initiated by former leaders, “because it’s an excellent one.”
Egypt’s government said in a statement it was “shocked” by Abiy’s remarks and called it inappropriate to talk about military options. It also said it has accepted a U.S. invitation for a meeting in Washington between the foreign ministers of the countries, plus Sudan, to break the deadlock. It was not clear when the meeting would occur.
Posing another major challenge for Ethiopia’s prime minister are the country’s deadly ethnic tensions as people once stifled by repression now act on long-held grievances. Some 1,200 people have been killed and more than 1 million displaced in the greatest challenge yet to Abiy’s rule.
Some observers warn that the unrest could grow ahead of next year’s election in May.
Abiy told lawmakers he hopes the vote will take place according to schedule and that a flawless process is not the goal. He previously said the election would be free and fair.
“A record budget has been approved and the electoral body is set up by making it as independent as possible. There are some voices who are calling for its postponement but that’s not convincing,” the prime minister said, adding that a democratic process cannot be halted because electoral violence is feared.
“The government is ready to hand over power to anyone that comes out as a winner,” Abiy said.
In response to questions about the ethnic violence raging across the East African nation, he said that “there are individuals and groups that are trying to stay relevant through the years by instigating violence among the public. The youth should wake up and face them.”
He expressed his hope that the situation will calm down soon.