‘A priceless modern Ethiopia heritage: GERD’ Yonas Desta, Director General of ARCCH

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Ethiopia has enjoyed rapid economic growth since 1991 and is in dire need of development projects which require huge dams like the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The construction of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) beyond its economic benefit pronounces Ethiopia’s prolonged history in connection with the River Abay, Nile. It is also a testimony to the unique experience and wealth existing in the country. GERD, within its three years of construction progress, has also become a historic treasure.  Yonas Desta, Director General of the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH) had a stay with The Ethiopian Herald about the historic and cultural dimension of the dam.
Herald: Great to have you as the Ethiopian Herald guest
Yonas: My Pleasure.
Herlad: There is only one longest river that flow from South to North
Yonas: You mean our Abay the Nile, the Blue Nile where now we have the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
Herald: Yes I am going to interview you about that. What the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam mean to you?
Yonas: GERD is meant to me that Ethiopia has no time to theoretical discourse. All Ethiopians are working hand-in-glove. Each village and community is working for the realization of this Dam, and the change is, will be, visible. This change has its own positive dimension; the government of Ethiopia has put development a priority task for safer and peaceful Ethiopia and Africa. It is a testimony that Ethiopia is on the right track of development.
Herald: Some people question whether Ethiopia has the capacity to look after the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam? Do you agree about that?
Yonas: No. No question about the capacity of Ethiopia and all Ethiopians to realize the construction of GERD. There should be no question about that at all, for that matter. GERD is our symbol of identity and oneness in building modern Ethiopia. This generation is making, will absolutely make, history. Very simple, the completion of GERD is our duty. We have the capacity to build it, the past three years have shown that Ethiopians are capable of practically realizing their age-old dream of having a dam that helps develop its economy. At the same time we are working to build this capacity in various sectors.
Herald: How do you see the realization of this Dam from the perspective of history?
Yonas: First and foremost, ever since time immemorial Ethiopia and Egypt have had a very strong historical and cultural ties along the River Nile and of course the Red Sea. It is undeniable fact that due to religious motives there had been competition over resource utilization particularly over the River Nile during middle ages up the fall of the 19th century. Some Egyptian leaders were widely believed that the Emperor of Ethiopia could shut off the waters of the Nile. The great Arab Historian Al-Umari once wrote that ‘the Ethiopians claim that they are the guardians of the course of the Nile for its descent to Egypt, and that they further its regular arrival out of respect for the Sultan of Egypt’. Starting from middle ages confused by the myth written by some Arab historians who prefer to depict the relationship from the perspective of religious motives, Egyptian politicians were confused and had a blurred attitude towards the utilization of the Nile River. This blurred image and confusion of Nile had also brought historical mistake by some Egyptian leadership. For instance, Muhammed Ali felt that the security and prosperity of Egypt could only be assured fully by the conquests of Ethiopia. Khedive Ismail launched military expedition in 1875 and 1876. However he suffered the reverse at the Battle of Gundet and at the battle of Gura. The military expedition led by Munzinger was also decimated in north-eastern Ethiopia by the Afars. Munzinger himself was killed. They also occupied Harar in 1875. All these raids and military expedition halted by the occupation of Egypt when Britain occupied Egypt in 1882.
Herald: What would, do you think, be the role this Huge Dam play in alleviating poverty in Ethiopia?
Yonas: The GERD is a symbol of turning point in the history of modern Ethiopia. It is a point of reference for Ethiopia that once depict as a reference of famine and poverty is geared now towards economic development and success. In this regard, the construction of this Dam can play a very important role in our poverty reduction strategy.
I am also hopeful that the Dam will also generate a lot of income not only from the sale of electric power to neighboring states but in the long run from tourism too. Therefore, speaking about the GERD is speaking about the fingerprints of all Ethiopians on its construction. GERD is a heritage like any of our historical monuments. One can see the restless efforts of those who are working on the site; in addition to the moral and financial support of citizens. Ethiopians once again shown that they make landmark monumental support to realize the age-old dream that bear their identity. GERD is a heritage. It is a priceless heritage of modern Ethiopia. It’s not only the symbol of our economic development; it is also a symbol of our cultural heritage development. It is all about our renaissance, the renaissance of our working culture. The revival of the spirit of our forefathers, we had during the Axumite, Laibela and Gonderine dynasty. By constructing this Dam we also show for the world that we are working to liberate ourselves from poverty.
Herald: For many people it is a bit difficult to make a link between economic development and cultural development? What’s your opinion regarding the link in this regard?
Yonas: Various scholars have their own say regarding these two issues. In terms of the term ‘Hidassie’ the Renaissance Ethiopia is engaged now, we cannot separate the economic renaissance to that of the cultural renaissance. I know that various scholars have their own academic perspective. However, as Ethiopians we all have one common agreement Ethiopia must rise. It is about liberating our people from the shackles of poverty. This can be done through the development of culture too. These two terms are inseparable. GERD, as I mentioned earlier, is a turning point that heralds the start of the beginning of modern Ethiopia. It’s all about the rebirth of Ethiopia in the foundation of its colourful past. Using Hidassie as a movement we hope to bring our lost values. We Ethiopians are one when it comes to our national interest regardless of our political, cultural and religious diversity we have one common vision regarding the GERD.
Herlad: Ethiopia and Egypt are nations and foundations of African and World great civilizations. From time antiquity, the people of Ethiopia and Egypt are sharing cultural, historical and economic legacies. Can you draw any parallel aspect between the Great Egyptian pyramids and the newly built GERD?
Yonas: It's really a great question, Haile. Yes, not only are we Ethiopians but also the whole world is proud of the great Egyptian pyramids. We are proud of the Aswan Dam and the great Egyptian people too. You as a historian and journalist do know these legacies. To be honest, I ask Egyptians to be proud of the GERD. There is no threat that is posed on Egypt from the construction of this Dam. This is a Dam of peace and development. It’s a hydraulic Dam that only generates electricity. It is difficult to me to speak on the fears some Egyptian politicians expressed. The renaissance of Ethiopia is the renaissance of Africa and Egypt too, unquestionable.
Herald: How would you describe the GERD to someone who is unfamiliar with it?
Yonas: GERD is a success story beyond compare. I am proud of the late Prime Minister who three years ago laid the cornerstone, who said with all our resources we Ethiopians build this historic Dam. The Dam is a symbol of our rich culture and heritage. It is our spirit of enterprise, our political stability, our visionary leadership, our religious and cultural tolerance, and our relentless pursuit of quality and excellence.
Ethiopia should not be portrayed as a land of misery or poverty hereafter. The construction of the GERD shows that Ethiopia is a land of opportunities for everyone, irrespective of their ethnic, religious, and political or gender background. From an economic perspective, Ethiopia has grown at a phenomenal rate in recent years, diversifying significantly from a coffee, hides and skin and cash crop economy -launching several pioneering development projects, especially in the construction and energy sector.
Herald: The annual celebration of the commencement of the GERD observed over the weekend at the site. How would you describe the impact of the event?
Yonas: More than 90 million spectators all around Ethiopia watched the event live on ETV. The courage of the construction workers at the site and its three years successful accomplishment surprised many. Ethiopians understood that this is a unique chance aside from the energy sector development. The accomplishment of this heritage site will one day contribute for tourism industry. GERD is a long-term investment into the country’s image as an emerging Africa’s oldest but modern state. Since the commencement of the construction of the Dam, rumors were spread particularly in some of Egyptian press as if Ethiopia posed threat to the livelihood of Egyptians. This is not true. Technical experts approved this. However, the rumours still continue tarnishing our image. Haile, we Ethiopians have not had to struggle to explain what GERD is and what it has to offer. It is obvious today that there’s an understanding of what is meant by GERD.
Earlier, uncertainty expressed by Egyptian media and some Ethiopian opposition forces about Ethiopia’s ability to deliver on all its commitments regarding the GERD. But fortunately, with the rapid progress of the construction success, Ethiopia has proved that it can host any large-scale projects.
Herald: There is huge support for the constructions of the GERD all over Ethiopia. Can you say something about your impression about that?
Yonas: Of course it is impressive. Encouraged and highly inspired by the prospect of Ethiopia’s bright future, Ethiopians at home and abroad did not hesitate in making pledges to buy bonds for the Renaissance Dam project, which symbolizes a viable and prosperous Ethiopia. We are one. They are diverse, they are based on the notion of our diversity – the diversities we have in unity. We are always together. This gives meaning. You cannot get diversity without unity and vice versa.
Herald: Tell me the role of cultural centres. How are they responding to the GERD?
Yonas: As I mentioned earlier they are at the fore front. We are always interested to work together with our Egyptians counterpart strengthening our cultural ties. A lot is remained to be done. At the same time, the cultural centres in Ethiopia are working in an advocacy activity educating the public about the benefits of the GERD. Cultural centers are engine for the moral of our public. They did well in the past three years. Recently, the National Museum of Ethiopia hosted a big Art Exhibition in honour of the GERD. This is a good instrument so as to meet people's needs. We aspire that our activities regarding the Dam would not be confined to cultural centres; but to cover schools, universities, public squares, including Fine Arts exhibitions, book fairs, concerts, and theatrical performances, even cultural lectures, in pursuit of a wider audience. Hope is pinned on disseminating our cultural activities in relation to the GERD in collaboration with our partners in education and local administration institutions.
Herald: Do you think the Culture sector is able and ready to pursue a role in national reconciliation?
Yonas: Absolutely, yes. I call on all intellectuals to make all efforts in order to support the construction of the Dam with all their capacity and knowledge. The Culture sector is at the forefront of the construction of the Dam. The role played by the sector can be characterized, as one of the levers of national interest. It also strengthens the sense of national belonging in commitment to the identity and in promotion of the values of citizenship. All these values are but an integral part of our cultural heritage.
Herald: Here at home there is an organized effort to help every sector and all citizens who have contributed to the construction of the GERD visit the Dam on the spot with a view to witnessing the progress of the project. How about the Diaspora?
Yonas: Indeed, that is true all Ethiopians have the same attitude and vision about the Dam. This will help redouble the effort of citizens. The feeling both at home and abroad is the same. There is a crucial role that the Ethiopian Diaspora plays in the successful implementation of the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP). The GTP propelled Ethiopians march ahead joining hands to defeat poverty and entrench development. To be frank, in Ethiopia everybody has been a winner, leaving poverty and backwardness as the major losers. Recently, Ethiopian economy categorized as the fastest growing in Africa. Ethiopia today is a model of transformation which brought a massive change in the life of its people. The construction of the GERD is among the national drive they have set in motion with the Growth and Transformation Plan. GERD is one of our blueprint which is on the ground now. It is a symbol and reference point to what we embrace in the massive infrastructure development. Yes GERD will help transform the lives of the Ethiopian people.
HERALD: What does construction of this Dam contribute to further technological and scientific progress ? Can we say the GERD is innovative?
Yonas: Yes, it will contribute a lot for further scientific research particularly in the energy sector. But we had to be completely focused on the completion of the Dam. Because, the Dam is evidence of our renaissance, the return of Ethiopia’s glorious past. It is the foundation for large-scale development projects. So, when I am asked, what was your feeling about the GERD? I said goodwill can do more. GERD is all about the dynamics of Ethiopian accumulated knowledge. Through the construction of this Dam, we also integrate wisdom from individual know-how and foreign specialist at the site. I am proud to say that it is ground-breaking. The spirit is gained from our forefathers but has been completely internalized in modern Ethiopian life today.
Such an industrious spirit of development will help advancement in all sectors. As it is the process through which individuals or groups discover or develop new and better ways of managing resources in order to be self sufficient.
Herald: Any message to convey for Ethiopians
Yonas: I am confident that the hard working people of Ethiopia, have a great vision of making Ethiopia an even more vibrant and fast growing economy, a stable democracy and a nation where citizens will benefit from on-going development at all levels. I am hopeful that Ethiopia, at the end of the five-year plan, envisages joining the community of middle-income nations, ensuring people from all walks of life will enjoy benefits accruing from Ethiopia’s continuing fast economic growth. (EH)