JOHANNESBURG — On the guidance of President Trump, the State Department said Wednesday that the United States was suspending some aid to Ethiopia over the “lack of progress” in the country’s talks with Egypt and Sudan over a disputed dam project it is completing on the Nile River.
It was an unusual example of Mr. Trump’s direct intervention on an issue in Africa, a continent he hasn’t visited as president and rarely mentions publicly. The dam dispute centers on two of Africa’s most populous and powerful nations, Ethiopia and Egypt, and some have feared it could lead to military conflict.
A State Department spokesperson told The Associated Press the decision to “temporarily pause” some aid to a key regional security ally “reflects our concern about Ethiopia’s unilateral decision to begin to fill the dam before an agreement and all necessary dam safety measures were in place.”
It is not clear how many millions of dollars in aid are being affected, or for how long. The decision was taken by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “based on guidance from the president,” the spokesperson said.
There was no immediate comment from Ethiopia’s government. Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United States, Fitsum Arega, this week tweeted that his country was determined to complete the dam, saying that “we will pull Ethiopia out of darkness.”
Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam has caused severe tensions with Egypt, which has called it an existential threat and worries that it will reduce the country’s share of Nile waters. Ethiopia says the $4.6 billion dam will be an engine of development that will pull millions of people out of poverty. Sudan, in the middle, worries about the effects on its own dams though it stands to benefit from access to cheap electricity.
Years of talks among the countries have failed to come to an agreement. Key remaining issues include how to handle releases of water from the dam during multiyear droughts and how to resolve future disputes.
The United States earlier this year tried to mediate the discussions, but Ethiopia walked away amid accusations that Washington was siding with Egypt. Now the three countries are reporting any progress to the African Union, which is leading negotiations.
Ethiopia had said it would fill the dam with or without a deal with Egypt and Sudan. The dam’s 74 billion-cubic-meter reservoir saw its first filling in July, which Ethiopia’s government celebrated and attributed to heavy rains, while a startled Egypt and Sudan hurriedly sought clarification and expressed skepticism.
A former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn, had warned against an aid cut, writing that “playing political hardball with Ethiopia will not only fail to obtain Washington’s desired result but will probably ensure that the Ethiopian diaspora in the United States rallies against Trump.”