State mega-infrastructure projects in developing countries evoke challenges to citizenship and reconstruct the imagery of statecraft. The Ethiopian government's construction of a large dam in the Omo River evoked contesting accounts of development and legitimate governance among a variety of actors. Debates between relevant actors centre on classic topoi of the 'development' discourse but present seemingly irreconcilable views. In the process, discourses of technocratic expertise claiming to evade 'politics' as well as culturally grounded socio-economic narratives are mobilised. They are juxtaposed here to develop an anthropological interpretation of the discursive positions, connecting the analysis to a consideration of precarious citizenship and coercive state consolidation in Ethiopia. © 2012 European Association of Social Anthropologists.