Let’s face it: Ethiopia is at a crossroads, unsure if it will continue to exist as a coherent nation-state or if it will crumble into a collection of regions that variously fight each other or the rump leftovers of the central government. Two big words are knocking on Ethiopia’s door with increasing impatience: FAILED STATE. We only need to look across our border with Somalia to see what this pitiful reality looks like. Of course, you may well be thinking: ‘we’re not Somalia, we’re different’. So is Yemen and South Sudan, so is Congo. And look where they are. And look for how long they have been there. The prospects of ‘fixing’ these countries are dim.
In Ethiopia, the war in Tigray has undergone a dramatic turn. The TPLF has claimed victory after having regained control of Mekelle, the regional capital, and it would seem that the central government has sued for peace by declaring a unilateral ceasefire. (1) For eight months, TPLF forces have fought Ethiopia’s national defense forces, leading to an ‘unprecedented civilian death’ toll as well as mass displacement and the alleged use of sexual violence. All of which has, obviously, caused international outrage.
At the start of the conflict, Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed sold the war against the TPLF as a sort of police operation to remove what was presented as a criminal organization. But from the very beginning it was clear that the conflict in Tigray was, in fact, one of ‘total war’ –that is to say, a war that is fought on all fronts. It is fought with weapons, of course, but also with the ‘reality of hunger and prospects of food aid’. Another noticeable aspect of this ‘total war’ has been the continued use of disinformation and outright fake news. This media battle has only occasionally been directed towards an internal audience: the real target were the Western news outlets and their trail of Western aid organizations and Western policy-makers.
For many Ethiopians and foreign observers, the most striking element of the news coverage of the Tigray war was the fact that it took such an obvious anti-government point of view. The idea that media outlets fail to grasp the complexities of a conflict is hardly news, but the bias in favour of the TPLF was striking nonetheless. (2)
We can certainly point the finger at Abiy Ahmed: the story of a ‘Nobel Peace Prize laureate’ waging war is simply too good to refuse. Who cares about wars in other parts of Africa? They are too messy and convoluted. Mr. Saint turning out to be a Dr. Devil is a far juicier story. What every single media outlet failed to consider are the opponents in this terrible war. Variously described as rebels or as the elected government of Tigray region, their questionable track-record during their 30 years in power are never mentioned. It would seem the TPLF is a democratic movement struggling against the onslaught of a dictatorial monster. Not a word about the fact that the TPLF ruled Ethiopia as one of the continent’s most autocratic regimes: it resumé includes political persecution, outright ballot-rigging, widespread corruption and two full-scale wars in just over a decade: against Eritrea in 1998-2000, and in Somalia in 2006-2009. Not exactly peace-makers, to be fair.
Every single aspect of the war has been automatically blamed on the central government. The refugees are fleeing because of them, not because the TPLF is recruiting en-masse in village after village –and good luck refusing their requests. By this stage, some of you must have concluded that I am defending Abiy Ahmed. Not in the slightest. I have no sympathy for an opportunistic politician whose ethnic juggling has led to mass killings across other regions of Ethiopia and whose reckless policy in Tigray may succeed where the Italians failed: in actually destroying Ethiopia.
My main take on all these is the role of media. Following a relatively brief period of euphoria about the possibility that social media might usher in a golden age of global democratization, there is now widespread concern in many segments of society that social media may actually be undermining democracy (Tucker et al. 2017).(3) This fear extends not just to new or unstable democracies, which are often prone to democratic backsliding, but also to some of the world’s most venerable and established democracies, including the United States. Indeed, in little more than half a decade, we have gone from the Journal of Democracy featuring a seminal article on social media entitled “Liberation Technology” (Diamond 2010) (4) to the same journal publishing a piece as part of a forum on the 2016 U.S. elections titled “Can Democracy Survive the Internet?” (Persily 2017).(5)
In Ethiopia, concerns over disinformation, fake news and grievance politics by ethnic-nationalist groups such as the TPLF and OLF have intensified in recent years. Policymakers, researchers and observers worry that these groups team up with notorious Western journalists to spread false narratives and disseminate rumors in order to shape international opinion and, by extension, government policies. The available evidence suggests that the strategic effects of disinformation are real in the Ethiopian case. Fake news, hate speech and misinformation is creeping through all social media platforms and regular media outlets. With more and more people relying on social media as a source of news, there are legitimate concerns that such content could influence audiences unable to distinguish truth from fact or news from propaganda. This “infodemic,” as Dustin Carnahan calls it, puts misleading information front and center —adding fuel to politically contentious fires and escalating social issues to the level of crises. Instead of being places where people stay connected and share the details of their lives, modern media/social media platforms are increasingly being used as sources of information.
The real question that arises: what comes next?
Social media platforms have come to take up so much of our lives that the decisions these platforms make could have a significant impact on how we understand and engage with our world. In a democracy, we need to experience a plurality of voices and, critically, to have the skills, experience and knowledge to gauge the veracity of those voices. While the Internet has brought many freedoms across the world and an unprecedented ability to communicate, it also carries the insidious ability to distort, mislead and produce hatred and instability. It functions on an unprecedented scale and speed.(6) What is most depressing is that journalists actively become part of this misinformation and disinformation or low quality reporting. They have become a vehicle for misinformation and disinformation. They collect data from the wrong people and write skewed stories in which quotes are misremembered and facts are twisted.
Western media and Western scholars
In the Ethiopian case, some of the notorious include Alex De Waal, a scholar on African political affairs who has openly mentioned, in his books, his admiration for former Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi and his TPLF party.(7) Kjetil Tronvoll is another such case: in his many media appearance, he can barely hide his satisfaction at being in daily contact with the TPLF leadership.(8) In both cases, these scholars have hours to fill explaining the perfidy of the Ethiopian central government, and not a word to say about potential TPLF misbehavior and crimes. Their silence, in this regard, is deafening. As for the BBC, which likes to see itself pontificating from the summits of good journalism, its BBC Tigrigna editor recently joined the TPLF fighters.
A recent report — Disinformation in Tigray: Manufacturing Consent For a Secessionist War (Published on May 9, 2021) by New Africa Institute — vividly showed the tragedy that is unfolding. The report has shown how the TPLF started the Tigray conflict by attacking the Northern Command on November 4, 2020 with the goal of triggering an ethnic war that could potentially pave its way back to power in Addis Ababa.
According to Bronwyn Bruton (2020) (9), despite the massive human rights violations that were associated with TPLF rule—despite the authoritarianism and theft, the imprisonments and the torture that have been laid at its door—TPLF international allies have neither repudiated those well-founded concerns, nor have they examined their own inappropriate investment in the TPLF welfare. International analysts, in their assessments of the current crisis, have pointedly and repeatedly failed to even raise any concern about any aspect of the TPLF dishonorable maladministration and intransigence. (10) (See also Nemozen, 2021/06/24 Pay any price, bear any burden and Al Mariam, July 2, 2021) (11)
France 24’s recent report on the current situation in Ethiopia is based on comments by Awol Allo, a lecturer at Keele University in England whose Twitter feed makes it sufficiently clear that he is an OLF advocate who enjoys dabbling with ethnic hate speech. My observation is that most media outlets and aid and human rights organizations do not seem to take this insanely complex situation and the future of the whole country into account. I am personally shocked/ surprised and unsettled by the sheer extent of media space the unbalanced, some fake and doubtful accounts took including evident bias and dubious journalistic quality, or lack of journalistic/research ethics and standard. According to many observers, even more alarming is that both the European Union and the United States have been engaging with Ethiopia in a manner that does not focus on the greater good and could not bring peace and unity in Ethiopia and stability in the Horn of Africa.(12)
The general observation is that homework not done by Western powers has led to misguided policy actions. (13) Ethiopians feel betrayed and disappointed by this biased reporting and policy measures. (14) For instance, crimes against humanity in Mali and Myanmar are being investigated by the office of the United Nations, whereas the ethnic cleansing of Amharas is ignored. They are still massacred, displaced, and threatened in the Western, Southwestern, Eastern and Central Ethiopia, but the central government, and the rulers who govern these regions of genocide are still minimizing it as a low-key “ethnic conflict.” (15) Other ethnic groups are also targets and in continuous threat especially in Oromia and Benshangul –gemuz region.
The western media’s reporting on the conflict both in northern Ethiopia and the rest of the country has been unbalanced and consistently biased against Ethiopia. This should come as no surprise. The western media is doing little to no investigative reporting. (16) It does not even try to give a complete picture of the conflict. It has not looked carefully at the role that the TPLF has played in the Ethiopian problem. (17) A senior defense analyst, Gregory Copley, considers Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy’s caving to US pressure on the problem of Tigré as “Opening the Region to Major Instability”. Copley has further stated that what is significant is that there has been no independent verification of the claims of Ethiopian and Eritrean government atrocities against the Tigrean population. The TPLF has, with some of the estimated $30-billion stolen from Ethiopian funds (and much of that coming from US direct and covert aid during the US Barack Obama-Joe Biden Administration), engaged in a major, professional information warfare campaign against the Abiy Government which replaced the Marxist TPLF Government. This has been assisted by the reality that the TPLF retained great friendships in Washington, DC, as a result of the deal which the former TPLF Meles Zenawi Government did with Washington to train and equip the TPLF’s private, 30,000-man army in exchange for US use of Ethiopian air-force bases, particularly at Arba Minch, in Southern Ethiopia. (18)
George Monbiot of The Guardian (19) just reported that the looming famine in Tigray is an avoidable catastrophe. “It is hard to believe it’s happening again, even harder to believe that so few people seem to know or care. A massive famine is unfolding in Tigray in northern Ethiopia. Five million people are in need of food aid, and perhaps 900,000 are already starving” Any evidence? Source? (20) Similarly, The Economist (July 3rd 2021 edition (21)) reported Defeat in the mountains. Tigrayan forces have routed the Ethiopian army. Their victory may reshape Ethiopia—and the region. Once the history of Ethiopia’s latest civil war is written, the battles of June could well be recounted as one of the great rebel victories of recent years. For it will explain how a group of insurgents in the mountains of Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray routed two of Africa’s largest armies, Ethiopia’s and Eritrea’s, to reclaim Mekelle, their capital. As Jeff Pearce (July, 2021) accurately captured the biggest problem with Western reporting on Ethiopia is nobody ever learns a damn thing.(22)
The intensity of the one-sided Western reaction to the recent hostilities in northern Ethiopia is extremely worrying. Jeff wrote that what is truly scary about Ethiopia is that maybe in the first time in history, the tangible stakes for a war happening in the real world might be decided, or at least severely affected, by the narrative progressing on the digital battlefield.Just one good example is: Barely a week after the start of the war, with the TPLF insurrectionists still in control of Tigray, CNN printed an inflammatory headline: Mass Killings of civilians in Tigray region, says Amnesty International. CNN writing on the cruel massacre of 600 Ethiopians on the evening of November 9, in the town of Mai-Kadra, south-west Tigray, blatantly failed to report; that it was forces loyal to the TPLF, not the Ethiopian NDF, who committed this atrocity. In this horrible scenario where a nation’s fate is at risk, a terrorist oligarchy is using the United States and EU as its proxies. High time the rest of the world saw the enemy for who it really is. Like all hatemongers and terrorists, they are ultimately afraid of the light. And all their phony, noisy outrage, so full of hate and bile, can at last be reduced to a defeated whimper. (23)
Ethiopian Government: Public relations, Communications and Diplomacy pitfalls
On the part of the Ethiopian government, diplomacy, political caliber and Public Relations or Communication work is almost absent. What little is produced is infantile. Only in Abiy Ahmed’s misty mind can it make any sense: for the rest of us, it is like his book: a balance between laughable and pitiable. Ethiopian foreign affairs office and its embassies abroad are packed with cadres and unmotivated bureaucrats who are appointed not on the basis of merit or credentials but raw ethnic affinity.
I want to summarize my paper with Peter W. Esmonde’s (2021) (24) insightful, fair and balanced assessment of the governance in Ethiopia under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s regime. The only apparently decent top leader in the whole country seems to be the President of Somali Regional State. Recently he survived an assassination attempt. Apart from him, Ethiopian authorities have chosen lawlessness – even in Addis Ababa, where a number of citizens going about their daily business have been liquidated by them. In most of the country, by attitude and deed, the government is deliberately ‘absent without leave.’ Meanwhile, it has reportedly brought into the capital a large number of Oromos to alter its demography. Ethiopians have a long-standing default attitude of trusting governments. I am one of them. These days, federal forces often tell people in advance of an attack that they will protect them. This is clearly to lull them into a false sense of security, for soon afterwards the massacre starts. Even when witnessing the killings, so-called security forces are willing to turn a blind eye, sometimes waving in a friendly manner to the killers. When victims beg the government military to help before they are killed, the response is typically ‘Without orders, we can’t get involved,’ as happened in the Shashamene area in July 2020. (mg.co.za/africa/2020-07-14). Finally, we have to remember that Abiy’s generation of younger cadres was tutored by TPLF/EPRDF, whose internal constitution and agenda influenced the whole of EPRDF, including each constituent party. So it should not be a surprise that OPDO/PP is pursuing the logic of the same programme against the Orthodox Church and the Amhara, though it is also doing so way beyond just the Orthodox and the Amhara.(25)
*About the author: Girma Berhanu, Department of Education and Special Education (Professor), University of Gothenburg