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GETTING ETHIOPIA DEAD WRONG
They rank among the great and the good of our media, academia, humanitarian work, politics and diplomacy. Yet they demonized a friendly people and fueled a big war with dire mispredictions and shocking lies. Who were they? How could they get away with it? What was the full picture that they so distorted? And why?
“There is no military solution,” Western diplomacy droned on. But a military solution was exactly what Ethiopia sought when, in October 2022, its army pushed back into Tigray, the northern region where an insurrection had begun and expanded out from, some two years and countless lives earlier. Half-way into the fratricidal war, the rebels had even closed in on the capital city and were hailed in the world press as the imminent victors. Now Ethiopians became cautiously optimistic that the federal government would finally prevail with a prospect of stability.
However, across the world, this sigh of relief was drowned out by alarm bells ringing.
UN Chief António Guterres said on October 17 that the war was “spiraling out of control”. A senior Africa expert with an illustrious resume, Cameron Hudson, speculated out loud that the hundreds of thousands of people in the newly taken Tigrayan city of Shire might be about to be put to death. A tale of kill quotas with limbs and skulls on display graced newspaper columns. Do-gooders cried out for foreign intervention.
By now, global audiences had been primed for the slaughter of the six million or so inhabitants of Tigray. A natural authority on this subject, The Holocaust Museum, weighed in on October 25, announcing a “heightened risk of genocide”.
This echoed rebel leader Debretsion Gebremichael, who, the day before, had delivered a doom-laden speech to his comrades: “Their plan is not to administer or enforce the law on us. (…) It is to wipe the people of Tigray off the face of the earth. (…) The only option we have, so that we may not be annihilated, is to fully resist.” His chief general, Tsadkan Gebretensae, at the behest of the American Heritage Foundation, had just said: “Their desire is not only to dominate and control Tigray, but to exterminate the population.”
On a calmer note, The Ethiopian Government Communication Service released a statement saying fighting in urban areas had been avoided in order to spare civilians. Now the task was to coordinate relief aid and restore public services. Not a flicker of attention was given to such reassurances in international media. Their preferred Ethiopian source was Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO). He had often anguished about the fate of his relatives in Tigray, and on October 19, he warned of a “very narrow window left to prevent genocide”. On October 30, he tweeted about “Ethiopian soldiers torching an entire town in Tigray”, illustrated with a shaky video. A frame-by-frame examination showed up nothing more than a bonfire at a safe distance from a house. Nonetheless, when Dr. Tedros speaks, the world listens.
World’s doctor or local warlord?
Notwithstanding criticism over his handling of the Covid pandemic, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has recently built an image in the West as a donor darling. His initial hiccup of appointing Robert Mugabe as a WHO Goodwill Ambassador is long forgotten, as is how he picked a fight with Taiwan to ingratiate himself with Beijing. Since the war began in Ethiopia in November 2020, he has blended in among liberal democrats and accrued a shining halo, as he professes that “peace is the only solution”, flashes Greta Thunberg’s book, and spends MLK Day “reflecting on the interconnections between love, trust, peace and justice”. He is showered with accolades, from an honorary degree in Scotland to a $50,000 prize in the US. Dr. Tedros is not a medical doctor, but holds a PhD in Community Health, so The New York Times calls him “the world’s doctor”, portraying him as a stoic victim who towers above the dysfunctional politics of his country of origin.
But there he is seen as a chief instigator of the war, whose own children go to Western universities, while he sends the young in Tigray to kill and die for him and his clique. His job description of caring for global health is considered a mere smokescreen for his real vocation as a local warlord. Even his most innocent-sounding platitudes are read as coded messages to egg on the bloodshed.
Around the globe, many interpreted this cryptic Tedros tweet as an appeal for compassion. But in Ethiopia, it was heard as a cry for war. It came out on the exact same day that the WHO Director-General’s ethnically-exclusive party launched what was to become a march on the capital with the declared aim of overthrowing the multiethnic coalition in government. The offensive was codenamed: Operation Mothers of Tigray.
These contrasting views of the same man illustrate the theme of this paper, which is the even wider gap in the understanding of the war. The fact that Ethiopians have known Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus much longer and better than Westerners also foreshadows a broader point.
Dr. Tedros hails from the inner circle of Ethiopia’s dictatorial old guard, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, TPLF. From 1991 to 2018, this highly disciplined party, with Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist roots, ran the country’s military, dominated its governance and held sway in its economy, despite Tigrayans making up only about 6% of the population. Many an Africa reporter has jumped to the conclusion that those 27 years of authoritarian rule by Tigrayan elites drove Ethiopians into genocidal rage against the entire Tigrayan people.
Identity politics is a big deal in Ethiopia, as it is in many countries. A picture-perfect of interethnic and interreligious harmony presents itself in the day-to-day of neighborliness, business, friendship, even in marriage and kinship. But chauvinism is a powerful political tool. Anti-Tigrayan revanchism is one of many extremist minority currents, but it was far from the driving force, let alone the root cause, of this war.
Diverging from the single story about Africa
The foreign correspondent struggles to convey a context unfamiliar to the audience in brief dispatches. It saves words to build upon the widely-known elements of “the single story about Africa” that the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has warned against. There is also a huge cultural meme on Ethiopia and man-made famine that is easy to tap into. And parallels to the Rwandan genocide are much catchier than explaining the complexities of Ethiopian affairs.
However lightly sourced, a quick fix of horror is intensely emotional. This longread also aims to be moving, but on the basis of patient insight. Part 1 goes through the predictions and mispredictions that revealed so much about correct and incorrect models of Ethiopian reality. Part 2 examines the widely-overlooked history that led to the conflict. Then Part 3 exposes some eye-popping contrasts between the claims and the evidence, between the high repute of the communication channels and the lowliness of the slander. Finally, Part 4 analyzes the incentives behind getting Ethiopia dead wrong. Without denying, trivializing, let alone justifying, any of the crimes that were indeed committed on both sides in the course of this brutal war, the conclusion is as scandalous as this: The media-borne narrative that Ethiopia’s motivation was to commit genocide was concocted to confer legitimacy on the violent pursuit of power.
This was always obvious to the majority of Ethiopians, and to foreigners like me, with longstanding immersion into Ethiopian society. What we said all along has today been confirmed, namely that the federal forces’ victory was not a recipe for genocide, but the only realistic path to peace. By standing in its way, Western powers caused immense damage to Ethiopia and to democracy worldwide, as pointed out by the largely ignored scholars who did get Ethiopia right.
I tried to get the message through as well, although newspapers that had previously published me and recognized my Ethiopia expertise could not let me write for them on this war. They would have come under accusations of propagandizing for the most heinous acts, without the background and confidence to argue back. Thus, however right I was on Ethiopia, I totally misjudged the West. I assumed that my own cultural realm, the world’s strongest democracies and our free press, would, by and large, have the back of an elected government against an authoritarian aggressor. This overestimated the power of context analysis and underestimated the single story about Africa.
The facts are appalling enough without exaggeration. Genocide became an activist mantra and a media buzzword, but failed to become an official designation. And, in fairness, the most knowledgeable diplomats privately shared our perspective and worked behind the scenes to soften the betrayal of Ethiopia. After all, TPLF supporters are also angry with the international community. Sending arms to the rebels was something proposed only by the craziest of crazy journalists. And yet, the politician braving the cries of “genocide denial” was a rarity.
Spoken on the US Senate floor on May 27, 2021 by one of the most conservative members of Congress. Though there has been no clearcut left-right divide on Ethiopia policy, the accusations of genocide have mostly come from center-left people, who often staff media corporations and international organizations.
A paralyzing fear of standing with Ethiopia was instilled by big media trumpeting the stereotype of dark-continent savagery. Supposedly serious organizations favored anonymous witnesses over forensics. Body-snatching hyenas were repeatedly conjured up. Into this sensationalist slipstream jumped a string of noble-cause-hunting public figures with vivid ideas but little knowledge about Ethiopia. Many of them may have been well-meaning and deceived by disinformation that played skillfully to their prejudices. I have a naïve dream that just one of them will be moved by this paper to apologize.
When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about the danger of the single story about Africa, I assumed it was the danger to non-Africans of not understanding Africa. Today I realize that, to the Africans who are not understood, this danger is deadly. Luminaries in rich and powerful countries poured obscene amounts of fuel on the fire. Their demonization of Ethiopians was less about Ethiopians than about self-projection. They pontificated about peace, while passing off the alternative to war as extermination. They waxed indignant about hate speech, while saying the enemy is a genocidal rapist. They preached international humanitarian law, while conniving with the recruitment of child soldiers. They fancied themselves as championing minority grievances, while siding with extremist ethnonationalism. They radiated charitable zeal, while pushing for the misery of some of the poorest people in the world. There are an inordinate number of such opinion formers who abused their establishment position and moral authority for a rotten cause, even more than the many who will be named and shamed here. Above all, lazy journalists took their cues from a handful of openly pro-TPLF academics and UN high-ups, who were elevated to neutral experts, even to moral arbiters, and whose disgrace, nothing less, this paper aspires to bring about.
Despite the heartbreaking sacrifices borne by her children, strong and single-minded Mother Ethiopia survived this attempt at her life. She has become warier, but remains friendly. It is high time to respect her and make amends. One way is to give aid. Even better are trade and investment. But most important is understanding.
INTRODUCTION ABOVE: GETTING ETHIOPIA DEAD WRONG
An Ethiopian photo collage associates Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus with the TPLF troops' destruction of health facilities in Amhara and Afar Region. The WHO Director-General would only ever talk about violations of international humanitarian law in the Tigray Region.
PART 1: PREDICTIONS AND MISPREDICTIONS ABOUT THE WAR
A death wish foretold
“Why Ethiopia is spiraling out of control” was explained by the English academic Alex de Waal for the BBC and others in gloomy terms, when war broke out in the northern region of Tigray in November 2020. He scolded the Trump Administration for “indulging” the Ethiopian leadership, and pleaded for Biden, the incoming president-elect, to take a tougher line. During the two terrible years that followed, Alex de Waal became perhaps the most prominent Ethiopia pundit worldwide. He was a fixture in media big and small by November 2021, when the advances of the insurgent Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) caused him to wax lyrical, literally, as we shall soon see. However, by October 14, 2022, with all the fighting back where it began, he was again warning of “another genocidal onslaught on Tigray”. His conclusion was that, whatever the outcome of soldiery and diplomacy, Ethiopia was now doomed to become a failed state. He elaborated in a live interview two days later, saying that it had “essentially collapsed already”, while dismissing the African-Union-led peace negotiations as “a fraud” and “a sham”. This is when he finally admitted that the rebel army was being overrun. Yet he insisted that morale remained high, presaging a bloody showdown: “The Tigrayans have every motive to fight to the death”, he wrote.
And then, it turned out, they had more motive to live! Doomsday in Tigray was called off with the polar opposite of fighting to the death against a failed state, namely yielding to state monopoly on violence. Because this was the gist of the agreement announced in Pretoria, South Africa, on November 2, 2022, mediated by the African Union. The most salient provision was the disarmament and demobilization of the TPLF’s irregular army. This had long been Ethiopia’s declared war aim, but it had never been taken up by the international community. It was clearly enabled solely by the Ethiopian state prevailing militarily.
All the nations of the world rushed to praise this “African solution to an African problem”. The WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, uncharacteristically, kept quiet. The day after, he put a brave face on it by retweeting a congratulatory message from the EU foreign-affairs supremo, Josep Borrell.
How could he not? Mr. Borrell had consistently backed Dr. Tedros’s views on the war. Only three weeks before, Mr. Borrell had even been acclaimed by the TPLF’s top negotiator and spokesperson, Getachew Reda. Recent appearances may deceive, as Dr. Tedros has been tweeting out mind-numbing pacifism and Getachew Reda a lot of military bravado. But these two are on the same team, and still profess brotherhood and mutual admiration. This goes back to 2012-2016, when they served together in the cabinet of Ethiopia’s central government. Both were renowned as hardliners against the pro-democracy protests.
Now Alex de Waal entered the fray again from his important BBC platform. He rained criticisms on the permanent settlement, calling it a mere truce. He stated candidly: “Tigrayans at home and in the diaspora have greeted the [peace] deal with dismay.” As per his custom, he equated Tigrayans with TPLF supporters.
While Tigrayans in the street expressed relief, they did indeed have cause for dismay too. The TPLF had accepted to lay down arms as a last resort to survive. This showed its leadership never really believed that the enemy had “genocidal intent”, as claimed by Getachew Reda just two days before signing. It raised the question: Why were so many sent to die for terms that could have been easily obtained without violence? Some two months earlier, on August 24, the TPLF had launched a second offensive outside of Tigray, right after rejecting negotiations. Getachew Reda had even penned an opinion piece headlined: “The African Union cannot deliver peace in Tigray”.
As a face-saving device, humanitarian access was touted as a concession to the TPLF. However, as military strategists know, making life bearable for the locals is key to countering a popular insurgency, which was the TPLF’s remaining card. We shall return to the crucial issue of what caused so much hardship in Tigray, as well as in the neighboring regions. The point here is: humanitarian access was never thought of as a concession by anybody in the Ethiopian camp, where celebrations of the peace agreement were tempered only by distrust of the TPLF’s readiness to comply.
By contrast, angry and bewildered TPLF activists in the diaspora, many of them children of ancien régime officials, protested by taking their cars to block a highway in Seattle and a bridge in Washington DC. Mr. de Waal speculated that “some Tigrayan commanders would rather continue guerrilla war than submit to what they regard as humiliating terms”.
Getting Ethiopia right
Senior officers on both sides of the war used to study under Professor Ann Fitz-Gerald, currently the Director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs. In 2004, she came to Ethiopia from a background in NATO to teach security governance and strategic planning for 15 years. This made her exceedingly well-versed in Ethiopian politics and military matters, talking to key actors on a daily basis. During the escalation process, she published specialist articles on the looming threat. When war broke out in November 2020, she too was pessimistic about a prompt resolution, but, by late August 2022, on the verge of the federal forces’ decisive ascendency, she expressed faith that the AU-led peace negotiations could soon succeed.
A few months earlier, in March-April 2022, she presented a survey titled “The frontline voices: Tigrayans speak on the realities of life under an insurgency regime”. It was based on visits to communities and IDP camps, interviewing 162 persons both individually and in focus groups. These were mainly civilians who had fled from Tigray into the Amhara Region, in addition to a smaller number of forced TPLF recruits who had been taken into safety at a camp in the Afar Region.
This treasure trove of heart-breaking as well as heart-warming personal stories led her to the opposite conclusion of Alex de Waal, namely that morale was sinking among the rebels, who were resorting to ever-harsher coercion to conscript their foot soldiers, including denial of food aid and imprisonment of family members. Many interviewees had run away because their name was on an arrest list, or for finding out about the fabrication of evidence for war crimes. Shortly after, a Tigrayan doctor, Aregawi Hagos, also escaped, telling the Ethiopian press about the TPLF’s misuse of humanitarian supplies and medicine, while lamenting that his family back in Tigray would be punished for his saying so. The TPLF’s increasingly draconian recruitment drive, described by Professor Fitz-Gerald’s informants, was later borne out by journalistic reports.
As Getachew Reda put it on November 7, justifying his acceptance of disarmament to disgruntled hardliners, many of them living in the West: “Our people (…) have suffered beyond what ordinary mortals can endure”.
Nobody could dispute the suffering. But throughout the war, Alex de Waal and like-minded analysts pointed to this suffering as the reason why Tigrayans had no choice but to keep fighting. Then, it turned out, they stopped fighting precisely to end the suffering.
Mr. de Waal can say, as he did, that an impending famine was what subdued the insurgency (a central allegation that will come under the microscope in Part 3). But he had insisted that Tigrayans would fight to the death, because the concession demanded of them was also death. The moment this was proved wrong, it pushed Mr. de Waal’s justification for running an irregular army onto much rougher terrain, on which he had consistently avoided treading, namely some unspecified “political claims”, in other words, the violent pursuit of power, which, as will be demonstrated in Part 2, is what this war was really about.
Struggling to accept peace
Martin Plaut is a well-connected former BBC Africa Chief Editor, still featured as a pundit on the BBC and elsewhere, just as he will reappear throughout this paper as a major shaper of the news agenda. He was a pioneer in predicting, as early as July 2021, that the rebel army’s march on the capital would be a walk in the park. On November 3, 2022, the day after the Pretoria Agreement, he was interviewed by Tigrai Media House. He portrayed this latest development as the TPLF leadership reckoning without the people of Tigray, who are “all those that could conceivably fight, [and] went to fight, because they knew the alternative was death, or worse”. Like Alex de Waal, Martin Plaut could not adjust so quickly to Tigrayans rather fancying their chances of living without walking into the killing fields. On November 8, he tweeted “worth a listen”, linking to an anonymous voice with a southern drawl. It called the peace deal “the extermination agreement”, suggesting that the TPLF’s negotiators in South Africa had signed under duress. It also claimed that clashes were still going on and could not be stopped. Martin Plaut would continue into 2023 to toy with the idea that the war was about to rekindle.
However, the TPLF seems to have exhausted its military means, practicing politics in more modest ways. On December 26, 2022, a federal-government delegation travelled to Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, where the TPLF’s number one, Debretsion Gebremichael, thanked his partner in peace, no longer a genocidal dictator, but “Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed with high regard”. Not long ago, Abiy Ahmed’s narrowly-missed top target for assassination was Getachew Reda. He, in turn, would call the prime minister a “child killer” who will “get it in the neck”. An appalling amount of dying later, the two met for a talk on February 3, 2023, albeit with stern faces, which relaxed into big smiles on April 24, when they shared the stage at a self-congratulatory peace ceremony in the capital, Addis Ababa. Foreign dignitaries present beamed over this new spirit of reconciliation.
Meanwhile, Ethiopians on both sides rolled their eyes. The TPLF’s supporters find it hard to stomach the embrace of their archvillain. And the TPLF’s detractors had expected the senior rebel leaders to be punished. The old guard’s continuing dominance of Tigrayan governance, with Getachew Reda named the interim regional president and Debretsion Gebremichael still heading the TPLF, also means the Tigrayan population stays under the party’s iron rule. Then again, this may be preferable to victor’s justice, which could well provoke a smoldering insurgency in Tigray.
On the other hand, the perception of indulgence towards the defeated side, aggravated by a series of other controversies, has dented the popularity of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali. It has even been a factor in opening up a rift with former allies from Amhara Region, which has recently taken a violent turn, frustrating the much-needed demilitarization of Ethiopian politics. The hope of building a democracy lives on, but the term ‘Abiymania’ today describes a closed chapter in history, to be revisited in Part 2. Finding one’s way around a complex society takes a good rearview mirror.
A remarkable Prediction Prize win
It is fair to judge analysts on the accuracy of their predictions (or their warnings of what will happen absent corrective action). The ability to see what comes next is the hallmark of a good model of reality. Conversely, mispredictions call for revising the model.
Digging into the past to check for the most detailed foresight, one analysis stands out, authored by the American Horn of Africa specialist, Bronwyn Bruton, as early as July 2018, when the world had just warmed to the fresh face of 41-year-old Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, installed three months earlier in the wake of years of popular protests. He had wasted no time in breaking with an oppressive past and embarking on liberalizing reforms. The freshly coined word ‘Abiymania’ was all the rage. There was exuberant optimism. Ms. Bruton begged to differ. I remember reading her in Foreign Policy at the time, finding her insightful, but overly alarmist. Tigray was uncooperative yet stable, unlike some other regions, where violent ethnic chauvinism was displacing millions. The grumpy old warhorses in Tigray looked like a dying breed and the least of Ethiopia’s many problems.
However, as it turned out, Mr. Bruton’s premonition of slowly-escalating tensions between the federal government and the Tigrayan regional government, with potential for full-blown civil war, was eerily prophetic. In making her case, she described the future causes of the war, which were later to be terribly misrepresented by lesser pundits. Her list was topped neither by ethnic animosity nor disputes over regional autonomy. The most immediate concern was that the new civilian authorities in Addis Ababa would be unable to control the army, a risk to peace that is as big as they come to a poorly consolidated regime. After all, the vast majority of senior officers were not only Tigrayan, but also staunch TPLF loyalists. She then correctly foresaw that the TPLF leadership would seek to retaliate for its loss of monopolistic economic power by activating its well-established and still well-funded patronage networks to whip up ethnic pogroms across the country.
She even foreshadowed Western cluelessness: “the White House and European leaders appear unaware of the life-or-death power struggle that is unfolding”. In the looming turn to violence, she cautioned against American bothsidesism, yet lamented that: “If history is any guide, however, Washington will prefer to hedge its bets.” She anticipated that the US would be “maintaining ties with the TPLF”, whose “shocking human rights abuses” had long been “blithely overlooked” due to reliance on its extensive security apparatus in the fight against radical Islamism in Somalia. On a final note, she warned that TPLF hardliners “may be desperate enough to act irrationally”, but would do well to notice “how many enemies they have”. Indeed, there was prescient advice in there for everyone.
In laying out the timeline for the next couple of years, only the Covid-induced election postponement caught Ms. Bruton unawares. After all, she was not a psychic, just a rock-solid connoisseur of Ethiopian politics and a razor-sharp analyst. Alas, there were to be more missed chances to listen to her and save lives.
With foreknowledge of what lasting peace was going to look like, this last warning was issued nine days into the war (when disarmament was not yet achievable through negotiation).
Bronwyn Bruton, Ann Fitz-Gerald and others kept contributing their expertise throughout the war. However, their view that the TPLF’s leaders were the main spoilers remained on the fringe. What was amplified the most was the judgment of those who got it consistently wrong. And not only about the peace. They were even further off the mark about the war.
Rebels at the gate, reportedly
The Norwegian Kjetil Tronvoll is a New York Times-quoted, The Guardian op-ed-writing, internationally sought-after Ethiopiologist, also presented as a neutral academic, even though, like Alex de Waal, he is not coy about his closeness to the TPLF hierarchy.
Kjetil Tronvoll is also a bit of a clairvoyant. For a long time, he has proudly pinned this on top of his Twitter profile, announcing the imminence of war.
We shall return to the information that this was based on, and what happened after this tweet.
Fast forward to October 2021. The war has now been raging for nearly a year, moving from Tigray towards the east into Afar and towards the south into Amhara.
The astonishing advances of Operation Mothers of Tigray has Getachew Reda, chief TPLF spokesperson, referred to by Mr. Tronvoll as “my brother”, gushing with confidence in his troops.
The cities referred to lie about 400 km from Addis Ababa, and are taken ten days later. For over a month, the TPLF army keeps approaching the seat of government, until reaching Debre Sina, some 200 kilometers away, in the last week of November 2021.
The TPLF is not the only ethnic militia closing in on the center of power. On November 8, Jaal Marroo, commander of the Oromo Liberation Army, OLA, claims that his fighters are within 40 km and is confident of “victory very soon”. He reports that government soldiers of Oromo ethnicity are defecting en masse to his side, which, if true, means Ethiopia’s unitary state is doomed. After all, while Tigrayans are only 6%, Oromos are the most numerous ethnic group, making up about a third of the population. Oromo extremists like to say the real share is up to 60%, so as to make the case that Oromos, for all their success integrating into Ethiopia’s multiethnic mainstream, are still underrepresented, and that Oromos in senior positions are token collaborators.
However, while the TPLF of today has a long record of governing, building international networks, accumulating wealth in foreign currency, and communicating with skill and sophistication, the OLA comes across more like the TPLF in its infancy in the 1970s, that is, as a ragtag bunch that finances itself by robbing banks and kidnapping for ransom. The OLA is a recent splinter group from the Oromo Liberation Front, the OLF, which was in exile until 2018, when it accepted an invitation from the new Oromo prime minister to participate in the fledgling democratic framework. The OLA, also known as Shene, has by now built a reputation for massacring civilians, especially among the ethnic minorities who inhabit the vast, lush and otherwise diverse and welcoming Oromo Region, called Oromia.
At this decisive stage of the war, in October-November 2021, the pressing question about the OLA is this: Given its repulsive methods, its new-found alliance with the TPLF so shortly after Oromo protestors were at the forefront of dislodging the TPLF from power, and with an Oromo leading the country, flanked by numerous Oromo ministers and Oromo senior officers, does the OLA really enjoy much popular support among Oromos? Mr. Tronvoll believes that it does.
Ordinary Oromos are onboard with the OLA, Mr. Tronvoll assumes.
TDF: Tigray Defense Forces, the TPLF army. ENDF: Ethiopian National Defense Force.
At this point of the international press coverage, it has become a truism that tribal affiliation overrides loyalty to the multiethnic federal setup. Moreover, this comes hot on the heels of Kabul falling to the Taliban in Afghanistan on August 15, creating a sense of foreboding.
Another historical parallel is frequently brought up in the news. In 1991, the TPLF marched from Tigray to Addis Ababa to overthrow the Derg, the Soviet-aligned communist dictatorship under Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam. The big difference is that, in 1991, they were greeted as liberators, whereas this time, in 2021, fierce resistance is expected. The US State Department appeals to both parties for ceasefire and negotiations. Kjetil Tronvoll, having now accumulated 31 years of research to back up his analysis, will have none of it.
By comparison, the leader that The Economist publishes on November 4, 2021, is less cocksure of the outcome. It has the sensible headline: “Act now to avert a bloodbath in Ethiopia”. But then it trains all its verbal firepower precisely on those who are acting now to avert a bloodbath. Ethiopians’ ongoing mobilization to defend their capital is portrayed as a craze of persecution targeting the city’s numerous ethnic Tigrayans, incited by a leader who uses “dehumanizing language” about them. This is cause for alarm, if true, but both defamatory and inflammatory, if untrue, so Part 3 shall look carefully at this and other grave charges leveled by The Economist at this dangerous crossroads for Ethiopia.
Admitting to cluelessness as to how to avert a bloodbath, The Economist suggests “outside powers” applying “a determined mix of pressure and persuasion”, though it thinks those well-intentioned Westerners might find Abiy Ahmed difficult to even converse with, as he is “exuding a Messianic zeal”. This judgment is backed by an unnamed diplomat saying: “He can’t understand why the West is not supporting him in fighting the forces of darkness.”
But is it really so delusional to think that the West would support an elected leader with a liberal reform agenda against an armed assault by the dictatorial old guard? The answer turns out to be: yes, totally delusional! The Economist leader’s preferred source, labelled “diplomats”, also believes that the TPLF “may be holding back from an immediate attack on the capital so as to give Abiy a chance to give up and escape.”
The proverbial CNN fake news
On November 5, 2021, CNN, its website having two days earlier quoted an unnamed “senior diplomatic source” saying that the two rebel groups were on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, announces this as news on live television, though this time only for “Tigrayan troops”.
CNN’s shocker, using old and unrelated footage. Notice the use of “Tigrayan” rather than TPLF or Tigray Defense Forces (TDF). A consistent trait of CNN coverage has been to portray the conflict in crude tribal terms.
This provokes some anxiety. It would have induced all-out panic in a city of about six million inhabitants, had CNN not taken care to destroy its trustworthiness among Ethiopians over the previous two months.
First, on September 5, 2021, its star journalist Nima Elbagir had reported on dead bodies floating down the Tekeze River from Tigray into the Setit River in Sudan. This claimed “to reveal what appears to be a new phase of ethnic cleansing in Ethiopia’s war”. The corpses were presented as civilian Tigrayans killed by Ethiopian death squads for their ethnicity. However, intriguingly, a first version of the article (still available on the CNN Philippines website) mentioned some experts affirming that all the corpses had been exposed to a chemical agent to preserve them after death. What could possibly explain this? No theory was presented, but it confirmed the suspicion voiced by Ethiopians that these were the TPLF’s war dead used to play a propaganda trick on the international media. Moreover, about ‘Gerri’, the Tigrayan inside Sudan who was featured as a key witness, the article said: “his community usually finds the exact number of bodies it has been told to expect”. This indicated coordination between the people dumping and collecting the bodies. Worse still for CNN’s credibility, on September 10, it discreetly edited out the crucial information about the chemicals. However, it admitted there had been an elaborate process to preserve the bodies lasting “at least three months”. This sat oddly with the article’s headline and its anonymous testimony, which suggested that the victims had been marched out of prison moments before floating down the river. And why would murderers go to such lengths to preserve the evidence, then dump it into an international river and let others downstream know with numerical precision what to pick up? Rather than attempting to make sense of it, Nima Elbagir stood by her blaming of Ethiopia and contextualized it as a genocide.
Incidentally, this is just a foretaste. Part 3 will present a whole pattern of shocking accusations that cannot be sustained, yet are just papered over by diverting the attention to new ones.
The primary CNN source for the floating-corpses story was Gebretensae Gebrekristos, or ‘Gerri’. He is seen in the interview video wearing a ballcap with the TPLF’s founding date and insignia. According to the Ethiopian diaspora site, abren.org, this shows he was a TPLF fixer. But his community was probably not supposed to reveal it knew exactly how many bodies to collect and when.
Nima Elbagir went on to attack Ethiopian Airlines, the national flagship carrier, which is a major source of foreign currency (incidentally with a Tigrayan CEO at the time). CNN had played dirty with this company before, coming after its safety record over a crash on March 10, 2019, which turned out to have been caused by Boeing’s defective software. Now the accusation was of transporting weapons, prompting the Biden administration to threaten more sanctions. Ethiopian Airlines denied it, and no charges were ever brought before an international entity, probably because, even if it did occur, it was not against aviation law. One year later, when CNN received an award for this story, Nima Elbagir would be heartily praised for all of her reporting by Getachew Reda.
It is now November 5, 2021, the day when CNN announces that rebels are at the gates of Ethiopia’s capital, the seat of the African Union. Up next should be chaotic scenes in the airport. Will there be people clinging to and falling off planes, as in Kabul? No, because most of the inhabitants of Addis Ababa shrug it off as just some more of the proverbial CNN fake news. And yet, for nearly a month, the pundits’ cliché continues to be that Addis Ababa is falling in “a matter of weeks if not days”. The rebels put it more modestly: “A matter of months, if not weeks”.
“Face your day of reckoning”
Also on November 5, 2021, a farcical spectacle is acted out in Washington DC, playing up the notion of oppressed Ethiopian ethnicities scrambling to join the TPLF-OLA victory parade. A massive press corps attends, as the leaders of seven more rebel armies sign on to join in the new nine-group coalition of ‘Revolutionary Front’ this and ‘Liberation Movement’ that.
In Ethiopia, nobody has ever heard of these outfits. Officials roll their eyes and call it “a publicity stunt”. It is indeed, and not a sophisticated one at that. But the world press laps it up and spreads it across the globe. No major news outlet cares to conduct any research into these entities, or to listen to Ethiopian researchers who easily dismiss their threat level. The story is good, and it is at least nominally true, even if giving it any importance is actually a deception. Worse still, no editorial finds fault with the capital of the free world hosting a pledge to snuff out an elected government with machineguns, artillery and tanks.
On November 10, Alex de Waal writes: “The Tigray Defense Force has comprehensively defeated the Ethiopian National Defense Force. Abiy has lost the war”. Little does he know that, less than a year later, when it is the TPLF that is on the verge of losing, he too shall resort to saying that “there’s no military solution”. Now it is November 16, 2021, as he live-streams an exultant victory address. It includes a short message to the presumably already toppled prime minister, quoting a poem about a dying despot, composed by Rudyard Kipling (somewhat inappropriately also the author of ‘White Man’s Burden’). Mr. de Waal asserts that Ethiopia is about to change into something radically different, perhaps “a commonwealth of independent states”. And with an austere expression, he rubs it into the faces of the vanquished: “Face your day of reckoning!”
Meanwhile, the approximately 15 million people in Amhara and Afar who live under TPLF occupation are suffering pandemonium. Already in August 2021, USAID Mission Director Sean Jones had stated that the TPLF loots food-aid warehouses wherever it takes territory outside of Tigray. There is no attempt to administer those areas, let alone win over the local population, but only to extract resources for the TPLF war machine. All equipment in hospitals and other health facilities, pharmacies, schools, universities, offices, factories, even waterworks, is plundered, and, if it cannot be transported to Tigray, it is destroyed. Rapes and executions are reported, though we also hear about TPLF child soldiers asking locals to hide them in order to defect. We get a foretaste of what to expect if Addis Ababa falls.
This is when Alex de Waal tells the TPLF army: “You have won the respect of everybody. The doctrine of a just war has rarely had so clear an exemplar.”
A few months later, when the regime change that he so jubilantly poetized has turned out to be a pipedream, Alex de Waal will strike a more somber note, always prefacing his interviews with “condolences” to the Tigrayan people. But had he cared for their lives as he did for the political goals of their leaders, he would not have said that they had “every motive to fight to the death” two weeks before a peace agreement, which he then poured scorn on.
Not feeling oppressed
I was in Addis Ababa when the city was being marched upon. I experienced none of the pessimism, chaos and disunity anonymously reported in The Guardian. On the contrary, it was a moment of urgent fraternization across every divide. People here have fresh memories of the TPLF-led regime and the sacrifices made to get rid of it. They were in no mood to let it back in. Even chubby, well-to-do family fathers vowed to pick up a gun if the enemy came to town.
Conducting politics along ethnic lines has been the hallmark of the TPLF, and on this occasion, it pinned its hope on driving a wedge between the two big ones, the Oromo and the Amhara, playing up Oromo grievances and appealing to Oromo revanchism. This tactic played not only on the questionable notion that the Amhara were once an oppressor people, but also on the dangerous falsehood that they are still so today. This kind of thinking does indeed have eerie echoes of the Rwandan genocide. But the TPLF and its new ally, the OLA, had to contend with the strong Oromo representation at the central level, starting with an Oromo prime minister.
The analyst Rashid Abdi has won the ear of The New York Times, the BBC, and CNN, among others, by presenting Ethiopian politics in crude tribal terms, casting the Amhara ethnic group as perennial oppressors who are also puppeteering the Oromo prime minister.
Here, he plays up Oromo victimhood and taunts Oromo leaders serving in the federal government as being “complicit”.
A few years back, when the self-same TPLF leaders held power in the federal government, they would accuse armed Oromo factions of being foreign-backed terrorists. However, alliances shift quickly and opportunistically in times of war. For its assault on the capital, the TPLF was looking to fellow violent ethnonationalists in order to expand its recruitment pool.
Stirring the pot, Mr. Tronvoll retweeted a video of unknown origin, showing mothers from an Oromo village weeping as their sons are carried away by bus, with an accompanying made-up story that they were being forcefully recruited for war by Abiy Ahmed.
In contrast to the total-war regime suffered by the population in Tigray, there was no conscription for the federal army. However, a maxim of the disinformation war was: Show any picture, make any claim. There has been no accountability for such blatant lies, not even for bigtime media pundits.
Declan Walsh of the New York Times, who, as we shall soon see, led the pack in forging the war narrative for mass consumption, also bought into the notion of age-old resentment of the Oromo masses, who would not be fobbed off with an Oromo prime minister.
The Oromo cause spans a wide spectrum. At one end, it promotes cultural pride as part of Ethiopia, chanting “peace and unity”. At the other, it warps a complex history of empire to wallow in victimhood, hankers after an ethnically homogenized, militaristic utopia, and rejects the multiethnic state as an Amhara or an Amhara-Tigrayan colonial project, even when Oromos play leading roles in it. There are many shades of Oromo ethnonationalism that lie in-between. But the big fault line here is not between Oromos and other Ethiopians. It is between Oromos cultivating their Oromo identity within and against the Ethiopian unitary state, without violence and with violence.
Recently, OLA terrorists have been getting frighteningly near multiethnic Addis Ababa, on which they make a tribal irredentist claim going back to before the capital was even founded. Though this conflict is not the topic of this paper, there are some applicable lessons from the vitriolic propaganda being cooked up to nurture it. It follows a recipe that brews hate from historical half-truths, is artificially flavored with the struggle of black Americans and spiked with collective guilt, so that, hey presto, it can be served up as intellectually respectable grievance to the taste of The Conversation, a Western mainstream magazine and Gates Foundation grantee. Such exotic yet lethal fare is also apt to become glorified by a former US ambassador, romanticized by the Swedish state broadcaster, hyped in an American fashion magazine, and poetized in The New Humanitarian. As this paper shall demonstrate in much more detail with the TPLF narrative, too many Westerners lap it up, because they find fulfilment in handing out medals at the African Oppression Olympics, even if all they have to go on is the artistic-impression score.
Oromos have a wide variety of religions and political views. But every single one of those that I have met, in my frequent visits to Oromia, is happy to mix and mingle with the many other ethnicities that live among them. They may lament how the Oromo language, Afaan Oromoo, is losing out in their towns and cities to the national lingua franca, the Amhara language, called Amharic, which they are nevertheless perfectly comfortable speaking and singing along to in their favorite pop music.
Oromia promotes itself, rightly, as the land of diverse beauty and multilingualism
While marching on Addis Ababa, the TPLF and its supporters were keen to exploit this rift by pandering to OLA ideology, and especially by promising the OLA and its might-be recruits that they would be rewarded with Ethiopia on a platter. Thus, in a podcast in Norwegian on November 12, 2021, Mr. Tronvoll reaffirmed the dubious talking point that, upon taking the capital, the TPLF would stay out of central government, whereas: “The Oromo people’s army, the OLA, they see Addis Ababa as Finfinnee. Finfinnee is the Oromo name for Addis Ababa. This was originally [over 130 years ago, ed.] an Oromo village, as it lies in the middle of the Oromo heartland. So the OLA is there to liberate Finfinnee, to liberate the Oromo capital, and take control of the Oromo capital, not as Addis Ababa, not as the capital of Ethiopia, but as Finfinnee, the capital of Oromia.” He expressed no concern about this ruthless gang imposing its angry ethnonationalism on a multiethnic megacity against the will of virtually all its inhabitants, including the 20% or so identifying as Oromo, most of whom would have been deemed ‘complicit’. He even echoed the extremist historical narrative, saying the Oromo people had suffered “black-on-black colonization”.
Generalizing freely, Mr. Tronvoll also explained that the Oromo people had expected to rule the country, as one of their own became prime minister and seemed an authentic-enough Oromo: “But then Abiy turned around after six months. Suddenly he was no longer an Oromo. He was an Ethiopianist. And this is what set off the new internal Oromo conflict.”
The intellectualized insult for an Oromo deemed not Oromo enough is ‘assimilated’. This label was also stuck on Abiy Ahmed, who grew up in Oromia, identifies as Oromo, speaks Oromo, but fails the tribal purity test by having an Amhara mother and Amhara wife. And yet, Oromos were certainly no less active than other Ethiopians in mobilizing, when, on November 1, the prime minister called on citizens to prepare themselves to repel the invaders. One recruit was Feyisa Lelisa, an Oromo marathon runner. He had won silver at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where he crossed the finishing line with the “handcuff-me” gesture of crossed wrists over his head, symbolizing the peaceful protests at that time against the TPLF-led regime. Another volunteer was the legendary long-distance runner Haile Gebreselassie. He had previously gone to Tigray to try to mediate and avert war.
My own predictions
On the one-year anniversary of the war, November 3, 2021, the prime minister gave a stirring speech. With a clumsy, literal translation of the various idioms in Amharic, one sentence was rendered in Western media as: “We will sacrifice our blood and bone to bury this enemy and uphold Ethiopia’s dignity and flag”. Mr. Tronvoll’s podcast host, Bjørnar Østby, jumbled this into: “We will bury you in our blood”. Facebook censored it for “inciting violence”. I wrote acerbically about Winston Churchill inciting violence on the beaches. Then again, the social-media giant was not really drawing a line for acceptable language, but reacting to bad publicity. For years, it had been chided for lending its platform to the instigation of murderous ethnic pogroms and mass displacement across Ethiopia. It had to be seen to do something. Compared to monitoring millions of messages in dozens of languages, the cheap option was to remove one high-profile speech.
In late October 2021, just as Ethiopia was in the throes of a near-death experience, the International Crisis Group, a prominent thinktank funded by Western governments, warned of disaster if federal authority continued to weaken. If, however, the federal authority tried to assert itself and its constitutional monopoly on violence, the recommendation was to punish it economically.
Ethiopia retained tariff-free access to the EU market, but some 200,000 poor people, mainly young women, lost their jobs due to Ethiopia being suspended from AGOA, a scheme granting duty-free access to the US market. Of course, this had no effect on the course of the war. Ethiopians were not about to commit collective suicide over lost opportunities for trade. Beyond a harsh yet unenacted US bill, the sanctions and aid cuts were not crippling. They were like a quack doctor slapping the patient in her pain, because she refuses to entrust her survival to his magic spells, preferring to swallow the bitter but tried-and-tested medicine, that is, military mobilization.
“British nationals should leave [Ethiopia] now!” said British Minister for Africa, Vicky Ford on November 24, 2021, along with the other Western governments, who had not only abandoned solidarity with Ethiopia, but also lost confidence in its viability, scaring off foreign investors, tourists, even transit passengers using its hub airport.
However, moving around the capital, I continued to perceive an atmosphere thick with unity and grit. The most knowledgeable commentators, that is, not international pundits but Ethiopians with their fingers on the pulse, were anxious, but definitely not panicking. This brought me to stick my neck out in my first journalistic work on the conflict, “Do-gooders doing bad”, published in Danish and in English on November 11, 2021. Contrary to the consensus of the world press, I stated that the fall of Addis Ababa was “still unlikely”.
A year later, as the Holocaust Museum was putting the world on genocide alert, I assured (on Ethiopian television, no less) that “there won’t be any genocide”. And just when the UN Secretary-General saw the war as “spiraling out of control”, I said: “it looks like the war is over.”
And my mispredictions
But before asking where I got my crystal ball from, consider that only a few months into the war, all my anticipation as regards the crucial geopolitics had been categorically refuted. And yet, I continued to be in denial for at least a year.
Never mind the somewhat simplistic question of ‘who started it’. Part 2 will look at the process of escalation. The moment the parting shots were fired on the night between November 3 and 4, 2020, I predicted, nay blindly assumed, that the West would support those Ethiopians who support the West, that is, those who most subscribe to the current Western ideals. These are supposed to be democracy, human rights and equality, our foundation for settling differences in peace and freedom, to which one might add a market economy, the key to our prosperity. The TPLF had a record of the opposite, namely dictatorship, brutality, chauvinism and statism. Overcoming these scourges had been the promise driving Abiymania. This may have been an overdose of wishful thinking, but at least, as of 2020, substantial headway had been made and amply recognized, as we shall also see in Part 2.
Nobody expected Ethiopia to achieve high standards of rule of law overnight, even less so in wartime. The country’s historical image problem gave credence to the first reports of atrocities committed by members of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), and especially by its allies, the Eritrean Defence Forces (EDF), Special Forces under the Amhara regional government, and Fano, a volunteer militia from Amhara. It provoked anger and a sense of dread among Tigrayans. It also sapped Ethiopian morale. Defeating the TPLF insurgency was a popular cause, but, contrary to the single story about tribal rage pushed in international media, to be scrutinized in Part 3, there was no public support for going into Tigray to kill civilians.
Back then, I accepted these stories as the hard truth coming out. I cringed when the prime minister claimed, implausibly, that “not a single civilian has been killed” in the first month of the campaign. The government’s communications were generally abysmal, playing down the human costs, including its own massive losses, but succeeding mainly in coming across as callous and untrustworthy, since everyone knew the country was bleeding and headed for tough times. This hollow triumphalism reflected an old-fashioned military mindset in an era when an honest and empathetic style was sorely needed.
It was encouraging, however, when, in March 2021, the prime minister admitted that war crimes had taken place and promised accountability. And even more so when Ethiopian courts began to indict and sentence its own soldiers for criminal conduct, something unimaginable in previous times, and a healthy sign of expunging an authoritarian legacy. However, as will be clear from Part 3, countless wild accusations against Ethiopia, even from supposedly respectable quarters, have since turned out to be pure disinformation, and so the utmost distrust is warranted. Still, we should all want to know the truth, of course, whatever it is.
Back then, I envisaged that the West would step up support for Ethiopia’s justice system, which had long been awful, but had been showing signs of gradual improvement. It dumbfounded me whenever, throughout 2021, the West wielded sticks instead of carrots. Surely, the priority should be to bolster the federal government’s authority, since weakening it would only push it even deeper into dependence on allies who were less disciplined and largely beyond its control.
By mid-2021, I acknowledged that international media, including some that I had long trusted and treasured, were sensationalizing rather than analyzing. Story-telling works well with dramatic closeups. Zooming out to see the bigger picture was rarely attempted, and when it was, Ethiopian affairs were simplified to absurdity. A galling fixation on the prime minister’s eccentricities substituted for political and historical background. But at least, I thought, serious people were not suggesting it would be better if the TPLF won the war.
Or were they? It became increasingly hard to tell. Discussing who was in the right was almost considered in bad taste. ‘Who cares about petty politics, when our people are getting massacred’, was a TPLF talking point that made an impression.
Then a Zoom meeting was leaked of senior diplomats who both wanted and expected the TPLF to return to power soon. I put this down to individuals whose views had been colored by personal friendship with TPLF leaders, often cultivated during the Obama administration. I kept laboring under the illusion that reality would dawn on the chief Western policy-makers as the rebels closed in on the capital.
Instead, it became a cliché about the conflict that “there are no good guys”, when really it ought to have been about good and bad outcomes. Any analyst worth his salt, I reasoned, knew that the TPLF and OLA had no prospect of ruling in peace. In fact, Kjetil Tronvoll made no bones about it.
Mr. Tronvoll said: “If Addis falls, the war will go on. There won’t be peace because you take Addis”. Indeed, he foresaw that it would open up new, destabilizing fronts: “The war, or the wars, will carry on in new phases and with new intensities.” This was spot on. The many ensuing wars between militias of ethnic statelets with undefined borders would have been as intense as during the breakup of Yugoslavia, but with five times the population, four times the territory, ten times the number of ethnicities. Mr. Tronvoll seemed upbeat about this, but the West as a whole did not want to deal with 120 million refugees. Right?
Surely not. And while the initial optics, just glancing at the map, were of the Ethiopian behemoth swatting the Tigrayan minnow, by now the international community could see that the TPLF rebellion was truly an existential threat. Right?
Preaching to the savages
Well, rather than coming to grips with Ethiopian politics, influential Westerners assumed a stereotype of the African tribal war that civilized beings should not take sides in, but wag their fingers at.
With exemplary neutrality, the EU opposed both the attack on the capital and the defense against the attack on the capital. Four months later, Mr. Borrell would sing to a very different tune on the war in Ukraine.
“It’s time to put our weapons down. This war between angry, belligerent men – victimizing women and children – has to stop,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US Ambassador to the UN, demanding “negotiations without preconditions”, just when the TPLF was as close to the capital as it would ever get.
The old adage of peace through strength is only for rich countries, went the logic. A poor one must make do with peace through power-sharing with its strongest warlords. The predominance of aid officials in charge of relations with Ethiopia gave the impression that, rather than using aid in pursuit of foreign-policy principles, foreign policy was being used in pursuit of aid principles. This may sound altruistic, but it is really just condescending, born of a sense of pity and charity rather than solidarity and shared interest. Thus, in order to guide development cooperation, there is an elaborate ‘peacebuilding framework’ in place under UN auspices. It generalizes about conflicts in poor countries being caused by resource scarcity and intercommunal animosity. These primitive motives contrast with how rich countries will invoke some high ideals for their own resort to violence. Top of that list is usually democratic legitimacy. But Edward Hunt, writing in The Progressive Magazine on November 18, 2021, had no time for that, and actually criticized the Biden Administration for wanting “to prevent the overthrow of the embattled Ethiopian prime minister, whom they see as the key to strengthening U.S. power in the region”. Mr. Hunt classified the TPLF as leftist, that is, like himself, and held that, rather than having humanitarian concerns, “what they [the US government] really fear is that the rebels will seize power and reverse the neoliberal and [pro-American] geopolitical agenda of Abiy”. This is interesting, because most Ethiopians had the opposite view of the American role. By then, their overwhelming perception, right or wrong, was that the number one superpower was not just neutral, but actively sponsoring the TPLF.
Keen to dispel this, President Biden’s then-Special Envoy, career diplomat Jeffrey Feltman, held a press briefing in Addis Ababa on November 23, 2021. He was mistaken to rule out Ethiopia solving the problem militarily, but no, he was not crazy. Rather than entertaining regime change, he acknowledged the unconscionable danger of Ethiopia “unraveling”. He said the TPLF had invaded Amhara and Afar, and ought to withdraw to Tigray. He understood that the Ethiopian view had been shaped by a long history of oppression under the TPLF, and observed that Addis Ababa would react “with unrelenting hostility” to a TPLF takeover, referring to such an event as “a bloodbath situation”. Most importantly, he accepted the democratic legitimacy of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his government: “Whatever the imperfections are in the elections, I think that they, in general, his premiership reflects a popular mandate that we recognize”. And yet, he said over and over: “we are not taking sides here”.
My model of reality upended
This made it official. The US was not taking the side of a fledgling democracy against those out to commit a bloodbath in its capital. And the main Western opinion formers did not even remark on it. At the UN Security Council, the US tried to have Ethiopia censured, because “it has publicly called for the mobilization of militia”. Russia and China came to Ethiopia’s rescue, so WHO’s Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus changed overnight from friend to foe of China.
The world had turned upside down! I pinched myself. Ouch. No, I had not entered an alternate reality. I had erred in my model of reality.
By the end of December 2021, it was clear that, hypothetically speaking, had Ethiopia refrained from mobilizing, as The Economist and the West more generally demanded, and even if negotiations from such a position of weakness had, against all odds, succeeded in freezing the frontline rather than ending in that “bloodbath situation” inside the capital, then millions in Afar and Amhara would still be displaced, living or dying under a nightmarish occupation. It has now been proved that the path to end this war was what Ethiopia did instead. And yet, Ethiopia is still waiting for an apology from all these trend-setting news outlets and powerful nations.
The concluding Part 4 will discuss why the geopolitics of the conflict played out the way it did, and what historical, ideological and psychological factors blocked our understanding of Ethiopians in the same way that we Westerners understand ourselves, that is, as reluctant yet principled users of armed force. Suffice to note here that, if someone had told me before the war, or even several months into the war, that in an imminent bust-up between Ethiopia and the West, I would basically take Ethiopia’s side, I would have scoffed and said: “get real!” I could have seen myself ending up on the opposite side of Alex de Waal and Kjetil Tronvoll, given their closeness to the TPLF, but never ever imagined that their perspective would get nearly all the talking time, whereas mine would be relegated to the fringe.
I continue to believe that a home-grown democracy along with the old-school definitions of human rights and equality are universal values. Violence against the state can be justified only as a very last resort to achieve these ends. My ideals have not changed. But my worldview has been shattered. Putting it back together remains a work-in-progress, though one conclusion is clear: the Western narrative about the war in Ethiopia says a lot more about the West than it does about the war in Ethiopia.
But before digging deeper into this, it helps to have a clearer idea of what the war was about and not about.
PART 2: CAUSES OF THE WAR
Dumbed down by the New York Times
What were the issues underlying the war? First, let’s take a look at what became conventional wisdom in newsrooms.
Across the globe, American cultural influences dwarf knowledge of Ethiopia. It is not just Hollywood. The New York Times has particular brand value, and its articles are routinely translated into many languages. This is how, in December 2021, its Africa correspondent, the young Irishman Declan Walsh, having already scripted a David-and-Goliath-themed war romance, starring himself as the intrepid reporter from inside the camp of the plucky rebels, cooked up a backstory to match, which has infected pop journalism ever since, like some awful Disney-movie adaptation of real history.
It goes like this: “It was a war of choice for Mr. Abiy”, who plunged his country into it because he felt “emboldened”. Why? Because he had received the Nobel Peace Prize in late 2019. Those who did not tune into the grand ceremony in Oslo live have seen the video clips, so this has got to be factored into the cause of the war. And not only those gullible Nobel Committee members, but the West in general “got this leader spectacularly wrong”, since “the peace deal” that Abiy Ahmed struck in 2018 with Isaias Afeworki, the authoritarian leader of Eritrea, was really a sinister pact for these two “to secretly plot a course for war against their mutual foes in Tigray”.
Naming one disaffected government official as his source, this affirmation is based on testimonies of prior preparations and purges: “New evidence shows that Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, had been planning a military campaign in the northern Tigray region for months before the war erupted one year ago”, writes Mr. Walsh.
Really, only for months? More like for years!
Abiy Ahmed emphatically did not come to power in 2018 by promising war. But the old guard responded to his reforms with saber-rattling from the get-go. It took less than three months for the first attempt to assassinate him. We shall soon see how the TPLF refused to let go of its control of the military. So how could the prime minister not be planning for the eventuality of war? He was also sending delegations to Tigray to try to negotiate. If anything, he could be criticized for insufficient planning, given the massive losses of his forces during the initial clashes. The purging of the army was a delicate but vital task, which had been proceeding in the public view.
Nor was Mr. Walsh the first to observe that the new-found warm relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea were driven by the TPLF being a common enemy. This was the headline of Bronwyn Bruton’s aforementioned prescient article published fully two and a half years before the war. In 2019, Ann Fitz-Gerald had mapped out the growing threat to national security from regional militias, proposing urgent measures to defuse the tension between the federal and the Tigray regional government. People with firsthand knowledge of Tigrayan politics warned, as early as 2018, sometimes even in English, that the TPLF was mobilizing for war, and that it was framing the purges of its loyalists from the security apparatus, and of its agents of corruption from the economy, as “ethnic-based attacks”.
Declan Walsh’s brief is to cover the vast continent of Africa. He could not be expected to specialize in 54 different countries, but he should have had the humility to study some of the vast public record of social, economic, political and military developments that led to war in Ethiopia. Having no patience for the complexity of a true story, he went for freestyle psychoanalysis to build a villainous character for a cinematic drama, which, alas, captured the popular imagination much better than the serious scholarship, probably because it plays up the role of the West, and also fits the stereotype about the African war as a purely emotional affair ignited by big men on a whim.
Small wonder Mr. Walsh is constantly taken aback by events. After the TPLF’s march on the capital was repelled, he wrote of “a stunning reversal”. He gave short shrift to the explanation obvious to those of us who had believed in the eventual failure of the TPLF’s march on the capital, namely the high morale of soldiers in a country pulling together to face down an existential threat. Instead, he put it down to other countries’ determination to keep the bad guy in power by supplying him with combat drones, even though this trade had been written about since the beginning of hostilities. He also assumed Ethiopian arms purchases to be inimical to conflict settlement, although, quite predictably, they ended up shortening the war. After the peace deal was signed, he tweeted that it was “a huge surprise”, though it was not so for Ethiopians or even for lesser known Western journalists, like Alastair Thompson.
Two and a half years of escalation
In contrast to Declan Walsh, Kjetil Tronvoll has followed Ethiopian politics for years. He is not a great forecaster, as when he expounded on how the AU-led peace process was doomed to fail two weeks before it succeeded. But in that same interview, he was correct in stating that the buildup was gradual. Though no shots were fired when Abiy Ahmed took office, Mr. Tronvoll had a point when he suggested that this was when the conflict was set in train. He was also not far off in placing the origin story of the war as the end of the reign of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the TPLF strongman who passed away from disease in 2012, aged 57. Pro-TPLF Ethiopians, including many a self-proclaimed human-rights advocate, see him as a visionary father figure, while anti-TPLF Ethiopians mostly remember him as a tyrant, who enriched himself, his wife and his clique, put ethnicity on ID cards, played ethnic groups up against each other, and ruled through force and fear. Adding nuance, a stable dictatorship can feel safer to live in, and throughout Ethiopia, far beyond the TPLF heartland, Meles nostalgia is not uncommon. His tomb remains well guarded in the holiest of places of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity in Addis Ababa.
One could also date the first escalatory step to the election held on May 15, 2005, when an almost free and fair campaign descended into a vicious crackdown after Meles Zenawi clearly lost. It was at that point that Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus joined the cabinet, first as Minister of Health.
Tedros back in the days, flanked by the TPLF power couple Azeb Mesfin and Meles Zenawi.
In 2006, a judiciary inquiry led by senior Ethiopian judges documented summary executions of teenagers who had protested the election fraud. Needless to say, the investigators went into exile on the eve of publishing their report.
The leader of the 2005 EU Election Observation Mission, a Portuguese named Ana Gomes, is still an esteemed figure in Ethiopia.
There were harsh words of condemnation from Western capitals and a few months’ lull in the increase in aid budgets. Then it was back to business as usual. If we insist on centering the role of the West, it did incur some blame by cozying up to the TPLF-dominated regime for those 27 years from 1991 to 2018. The lesser evil, the devil you know, all such excuses have validity. After all, many Ethiopians also collaborated with the regime, or worked to change it from the inside, which is what would pave the way for Abiy Ahmed’s takeover. Moreover, international isolation is rarely helpful.
There were embarrassing excesses, however, particularly under the presidency of Barack Obama, who said, in 2015, that the government of Ethiopia had been “democratically elected”. In 2012, the American then-Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, eulogized Meles Zenawi at his funeral, calling him “a true friend to me”. Whatever Ms. Rice’s role in US policy on this war, her presence in the Biden administration became a source of Ethiopian distrust.
Nevertheless, it is easy to overstate Western power, whether it be denounced as the problem or promoted as the solution. Ethiopian politics is conducted mainly by Ethiopians in Ethiopia. Accordingly, here are the actual political flashpoints as reported in Ethiopia, by and for Ethiopians, prior to the war.
Not everyone was an Abiymaniac
Certainty that the war was coming, more than a year before it did, was expressed by Sebhat Nega, cofounder and grand old ideologue of the TPLF, who led a purge in the military as late as February 2018, just before Abiy Ahmed took over. In an interview with the BBC in Amharic on October 17, 2019, he said: “It’s clear that we are headed for civil war”, adding that there would be “carnage within and between the regions”.
This raised some eyebrows, but nothing more than that. It was at the point of peak Abiymania. Only six days before, Abiy Ahmed’s Nobel Peace Prize had been announced. One month earlier, the prime minister had invited the public to see the inside of the infamous Maekelawi Prison, whose torture dungeons had featured in a documentary shown on Ethiopian television, recounting what happened there to regime opponents, from sodomy to amputation of limbs. The prime minister joined the first group of visitors, flanked by ordinary Ethiopians and Supreme Court President Meaza Ashenafi, who had recently been appointed for her distinguished career in the field of human and women’s rights. Former political prisoner Daniel Bekele was also present. He had just become the head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. He praised the government for closing this detention facility, yet also complained about a continuing lack of due process, highlighting that democratizing Ethiopia was an ongoing challenge. He has kept up his critical stance towards the government ever since.
These new establishment figures were illegitimate, according to Sebhat Nega, who is commonly referred to by his adversaries as the “godfather of the TPLF”. He used the BBC interview to accuse the USA, under the Trump administration, of masterminding “coups” in plural, first by bringing Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to power on the national stage in April 2018, and then by ridding some regions of TPLF-loyal governors. The most notorious case was in the Somali Region (not the country of Somalia, but Ethiopia’s arid east with mostly Somali-speaking people). Despite Governor Abdi Illey’s belated conversion to Abiymania, he was deposed and arrested in August 2018, after it was revealed that he had housed wild animals together with political prisoners. His defense was that he was just a pawn of the TPLF’s man, Getachew Assefa, once a powerful torturer-in-chief, who was described by one Ethiopian journalist as: “de facto leader of the nation since the death of Meles Zenawi in 2012”. This was probably an exaggeration, but Getachew Assefa was undoubtedly a menace to the transition of power. He was fired as Intelligence Director as early as June 2018. He took as many secrets and assets as possible with him to Tigray, where he was shielded from arrest by the TPLF-led regional government. He became a suspect in the aforementioned attempt on the prime minister’s life, when a bomb blew up at a public event on June 23, killing two and injuring some 150 people. Then he was wanted for instigating ethnic pogroms around the country, not to speak of his horrendous human-rights violations during the TPLF’s heydays. However, rather than handing him over to federal prosecutors, on October 1, 2018, the TPLF reelected him to its Executive Committee. It was reported that he died from illness in March 2021.
Sebhat Nega’s BBC interview also took place in the dying days of the long-ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, EPRDF, a coalition of ethnically-based parties, which was dissolved on December 1, 2019 and replaced by the Prosperity Party, a single outfit for all ethnicities, albeit divided into regional branches. The TPLF was invited to join, but declined. The ruling-party name change — do notice how ‘revolutionary front’ turned into ‘prosperity’ — chimed in with a drive to replace militaristic statism with economic liberalism. At the World Economic Forum in 2019, the annual shindig for globalized capitalism in Davos, Switzerland, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was the toast of the town, buzzing about “vibrant democracy” and “opening up the economy”. It was a radical break with EPRDF ideology.
The EPRDF had been founded in 1988 on the TPLF’s initiative as a vehicle of power, which it assumed in 1991, after winning a long guerrilla war under the leadership of Meles Zenawi. When Meles passed away in 2012, Hailemariam Desalegn was installed as prime minister. He came from a small ethnic group, the Wolayta, and was widely considered a puppet of the TPLF powers-that-be ensconced in the security apparatus. Popular protests and regime crackdowns intensified in a vicious cycle that was finally broken in March 2018, when Mr. Hailemariam mutinied simply by resigning. At this point, Abiy Ahmed became the new EPRDF leader with support from EPRDF-affiliated members of parliament from every region, except Tigray.
It was not obvious that he would become a reformer. Sebhat Nega may even have had some hopes for the new national leader, who, interestingly, started out in politics as a 14-year-old child soldier in the TPLF army. This is how he became fluent in Tigrinya, the language of Tigray, which served him well in his career as head of the regime’s cybersecurity.
However, Abiy Ahmed presented a vision for the country that differed from the TPLF’s. He started off by asking forgiveness for past oppression, releasing thousands of political prisoners and inviting exiled politicians back home for dialogue. In contrast to the male-dominated culture of the TPLF, he appointed women, not just to the ceremonial presidency, but also to the most powerful positions in the cabinet, to preside over the Supreme Court, and as chairwoman of the National Election Board. Within a year, Ethiopians enjoyed unprecedented press freedom.
All this was music to the ears of the Ethiopian masses, and to Western media and governments too. What the international community failed to hear was the background grumbling of the old guard. On June 12 and 13, 2018, the TPLF held an emergency meeting in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, to address the two latest policy measures that had provoked their ire: implementation of an old peace deal with neighboring Eritrea and privatization of state corporations.
Obstructing peace with Eritrea
The peace deal that matters between Eritrea and Ethiopia was not actually the Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship of July 9, 2018, as Declan Walsh implies, but the Algiers Agreement signed as early as December 12, 2000 to end a catastrophic two-year border war between the two countries. It provided for a Boundary Commission to have the final say on the demarcation. However, when its ruling came out in April 2002, awarding the most disputed areas to Eritrea, Meles Zenawi refused to abide, unable to acknowledge that his poor reading of international law had sent some 70,000 young people to their deaths. Thus, the border remained tense and sealed. This separated families and had a militarizing influence on Eritrea, living in the shadow of an enemy with over twenty times more population.
These two nations are historically and culturally entwined. What sets Eritrea apart is not ethnicity, but having been an Italian colony from 1882 to 1941. In fact, the dominant language in Eritrea is Tigrinya, that is, the same as that spoken by Tigrayans. In 1950, Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia, and in 1962, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie removed its autonomy altogether. A long independence struggle ensued, culminating with secession in 1993. Its new leader, Isaias Afeworki, was initially a friend of the West. He has since alienated nearly everyone by turns.
As of today, there is gratitude in Ethiopia for desperately needed Eritrean assistance in the war against the TPLF. Though some may subtly qualify this sentiment with expressions such as ‘we thank the Eritrean people’, the current etiquette in Ethiopia is to back off from denouncing Isaias Afeworki. It is not illegal or risky to do so, but it may irritate. This is understandable. A nation that has its capital marched upon does not filter its allies for good governance. Western critics deserve to be reminded of their own countries’ continuing record of forging unholy alliances with autocrats. Besides, as we shall see, Eritrea had perfectly valid reasons to enter the war.
Nevertheless, the aim here is not to chase popularity in Ethiopia, so I shall not economize with the truth about Eritrea. It is a dictatorship in every sense of the word. It does not do elections, not even sham ones. It has no parliament, not even a rubber-stamping one. Military service for men and women goes on more or less indefinitely, and the punishment for deserting is harsh imprisonment. To visitors from abroad, and here I speak from personal experience, Eritrea is extraordinarily beautiful, safe and welcoming. To the locals, it is a suffocating garrison state. This has resulted in a decades-long exodus of refugees, preferably to developed countries, but also in vast numbers to Ethiopia.
And yet, ostracizing Eritrea and illegally occupying some of its territory had only made matters worse. Thus, when Abiy Ahmed began the rapprochement with Isaias Afeworki in 2018, it was welcomed by the international community without exception, and by most Eritreans in exile as well. This continued to be the case over a year later.
In 2019, this became the chief motivation for awarding Abiy Ahmed the Nobel Peace Prize, at the expense of odds-on favorite Greta Thunberg, no less. This was a nice little recognition for him and his reform agenda, though hardly the policy-defining moment that the navel-gazing West, exemplified by Declan Walsh, has since made it out to be.
Of greater import on the ground was that TPLF members of parliament reacted to the very first peace overtures in June 2018 with fury, saying Abiy Ahmed had no right to give up sovereign Ethiopian territory, and Tigrayan territory at that. The Prime Minister averred that the territorial concession was really made by the TPLF’s greatest idol, Meles Zenawi, as far back as 2000.
The potential benefit from the détente with Eritrea was not only to reunite families and resume trade and transport links between two brotherly countries, but also to relocate the Ethiopian military away from Tigray, so as to address worsening security problems in other parts of the country. Except the TPLF would resist this through its continued control of the army and the loyalty of many officers. Only with the Pretoria Agreement would the TPLF finally (Article 7): “Respect the constitutional authority of the Federal Government (…) to control (…) the international boundaries of the country.”
In 2018-2020, the central government was reluctant to admit its weakness vis-à-vis the regions. Its struggle to assert control over the army was seen as an internal wrangle best kept under wraps, lest tempers flare. Nevertheless, what we now know about the military disobedience in Tigray helps explain why the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea kept getting closer, despite their dissimilar styles of rule. It was not until February 2020 that Isaias Afeworki complained publicly that Ethiopia was still occupying Eritrean territory, but with troops that were under the TPLF’s control, in defiance of Ethiopia’s federal authorities.
Impunity or Armageddon
As to why the Americans had instigated a “coup” against the TPLF, Sebhat Nega indicated that “they do not like the developmental state”.
Meles Zenawi cherished his version of ‘the developmental state’, which he presented as an alternative to neoliberalism, and elaborated upon in extensive conversation with his adoring friend, Alex de Waal. It has the trappings of a market economy, but with government-linked corporations holding vast ownership stakes in nearly every industry. In his long career, Sebhat Nega became a chief exponent of this policy, as he was put in charge of the Economic Affairs Department that ran the sprawling business empires under TPLF control.
This included the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray, EFFORT, founded in 1995. Mr. Sebhat was its CEO until 2009, when he was replaced by Meles Zenawi’s wife, Azeb Mesfin. She, in turn, was ousted in late 2017 in an internal TPLF purge. EFFORT continued to operate under Abiy Ahmed’s premiership, though its accounts were frozen when the war started, as it was accused of funding the TPLF’s nationwide destabilization activities.
Another big player has been the Metals and Engineering Corporation, METEC, founded in 2010 and run by the TPLF-dominated military. It also spans far and wide, but has been especially known for entering into contracts with the government for major infrastructure projects. After Abiy Ahmed became prime minister, its complex embezzlement schemes came under the microscope of prosecutors, as portrayed in a documentary aired on Ethiopian television in late 2018. Its CEO, Major General Kinfe Dagnew, fled arrest, but was caught in dramatic fashion.
The developmental state produced lackluster results in the 90s, but high rates of growth from around the mid-00s. This progress, however, began from an extremely low baseline, since Ethiopia, having endured communism on top of feudalism, was one of the least developed countries in the world.
A rigged market economy was a good fit for a regime that saw wealth expansion chiefly as a means to wield power through patronage. Even the most inefficient public enterprise can become profitable. It needs not be a formal monopoly, if the bureaucracy and government-controlled courts make life hard for its competitors. In fact, this will deter investors from mounting a challenge in the first place. Under the TPLF/EPRDF, high tariffs on imports added yet another layer of protection.
A couple of weeks into the war, an Ethiopian intellectual, Kassahun Melesse, got this point through in an article published in Foreign Policy, setting out how the conflict was mainly about economic power. He also took issue with another common interpretation, phrased by Declan Walsh in The New York Times as: “Tigray emerged at the vanguard of a movement pressing for greater autonomy for Ethiopia’s regions”. While Mr. Walsh could only point to the extremist OLA as a strong TPLF ally in this “movement”, Mr. Kassahun showed how Abiy Ahmed had refrained from adopting centralizing policies. This included sticking with ‘ethnic federalism’, introduced by the TPLF/EPRDF under the Constitution of 1995. The main controversy around this system is not about centralization versus autonomy, but rather how a political map based partly on ethnicity creates high-stakes border disputes within the same country, since there is no neat way to divide up territory between ethnicities who have been moving, mixing and mingling for centuries. This problem could worsen, if demands for ethnic autonomy grow, as there are currently only eleven regions, plus two chartered cities, for a total of over 80 ethnicities. A nuanced discussion of the tension in Ethiopian society, not so much between ethnic groups as between identity politics and unity discourse, between chauvinism and coexistence, might have brought us closer to understanding the war. Mr. Kassahun’s economic explanation was also to the point, but proved no match for narratives foregrounding hate and bloodlust.
Although the war has stalled the liberalization agenda needed to rouse the country’s enterprising spirits, the Abiy administration did slaughter an old cash cow, Ethio Telecoms, which has been part-privatized and forced to drastically reduce the price of internet access to compete with a Kenyan entrant, with a third operator about to be licensed. It was also announced, just before the peace agreement, that some foreign ownership of banks will be allowed, hopefully improving service and expanding credit.
In conclusion, the ‘developmental state’, to which Alex de Waal still, in 2023, harks back, was a euphemism for tying down the country and milking it dry. David Steinman, writing for Forbes in March 2017, stated it bluntly: “Ethiopia’s far-left economy is centrally controlled by a small ruling clique that has grown fantastically wealthy. Only they could be responsible for this enormous crime.”
According to vox populi, the TPLF leader who most incarnates self-enrichment through combining political and business power is, precisely, Sebhat Nega. Asked about accountability for corruption in the BBC interview one year before the war, he snapped back that those making such accusations were “leading Ethiopia into Armageddon”.
Final trigger: takeover of the army
Mr. Tronvoll explained his ten-day prophesy in a little-noticed thread added underneath.
Kjetil Tronvoll attributed the final trigger to a dispute over control of the military and weaponry. He had yet to receive the brief that the war was about ethnicity and genocide.
In fact, just one day before Mr. Tronvoll’s predicted an imminent war, a bombastic TPLF statement categorically rejected the authority of the “personalistic dictatorship” and the “illegal group in power”, ending on a note of “eternal glory to our martyrs”.
The TPLF argued that Abiy Ahmed’s constitutional mandate had run out, since elections for the House of Peoples’ Representatives, the parliament which appoints the prime minister, had not been held as required by September 2020. Going to the polls had been postponed for the same reason as in so many other countries around the world, namely the Covid pandemic. Security challenges in some constituencies may have been an unofficial factor in the decision, which had been approved by the proper institutions. Ethiopia lacks an unquestionably neutral constitutional tribunal, so the TPLF elevated itself into one. On September 9, 2020, Tigray went ahead and voted for its seats in parliament, won overwhelmingly by the TPLF. Kjetil Tronvoll was proud to be there as the only accredited international observer.
A region holding unauthorized elections and no longer recognizing the central government was obviously a major escalation. In response, the Ethiopian parliament cut off federal funding of Tigray’s budget. This was also an escalation. So was the sudden change of all banknotes, capping the amount of old money that could be swapped for new, which rendered the cash in national currency stashed by the TPLF worthless overnight. At this late stage, it was reasonable to assume that such funds would ultimately be spent on killing Ethiopians. It did not testify to a wish for war to start taking the danger seriously.
On October 25, 2020, on the same day that Mr. Tronvoll declared war to be imminent, Daniel Berhane, a longstanding pro-TPLF blogger, tweeted that the federal army stationed in Tigray had, in effect, been taken over.
The only pertinent correction to this tweet is that the former command head, General Diriba Mekonnen, did not resign. He lost consciousness during lunch with TPLF leaders, was flown to Addis Ababa, and took months to recover. Abiy Ahmed would later confirm that he was almost certainly poisoned.
All this would have been plenty of cause for war in any country. By then, preparations were certainly intense and troop movements took place. Nevertheless, given the high stakes and, as mentioned by Mr. Tronvoll, since 80% of the federal armory was in Tigray, Ethiopia’s government continued to show restraint. It took a horrific act of aggression to unleash the fratricidal war.
The attack on the Northern Command
On November 3, around one thousand senior Ethiopian commanders stationed in Tigray went for a dinner party with regional government officials. The invitation, however, was a ruse to take them prisoner.
That same night, while the world was focused on vote-counting in the US presidential election, a total of five federal military bases in Tigray came under fire. Defenders were killed or captured, though those in the Sero Base, near the border with Eritrea, held out for a grueling ten days. Tigrayan soldiers turned on their comrades of other ethnicities, many of whom had lived in Tigray for decades, working alongside the local communities. Reports about soldiers killed in their pyjamas and arbitrary cruelty shocked the Ethiopian public.
Thankfully, Michael Pompeo, Secretary of State under the outgoing Trump administration, condemned it immediately.
Wisely, Secretary Pompeo left it open to interpretation how to “de-escalate tensions”, but surely “immediate action to restore the peace” meant arresting those responsible for such a ferocious assault on the constitutional order.
For the first year or so, the world press downplayed or omitted this manifest casus belli altogether, even in longreads on the war, which focused obsessively on the prime minister’s personality and on how the Nobel Peace Prize had gone to his head.
The Economist, for instance, as late as October 2021, while TPLF troops were marching on Addis Ababa, published a shockingly defamatory and inflammatory leader, to which we shall return in Part 3, attributing the cause of the conflict to an “increasingly paranoid and erratic” Abiy Ahmed deciding to attack the regional government of Tigray, “which he accused of rebellion”. This shallow phrasing amounts to speculating that the attack on the Northern Command was made up.
In fact, only ten days into the war, the high-ranking TPLF leader, Sekoture Getachew, speaking on Tigrayan television, confirmed that an elaborate plan had been executed, using soldiers from inside and outside the bases, with the aim of taking over the firepower of the Ethiopian army. Some two weeks later, this was admitted by Getachew Reda, with the excuse that “whatever we did, we did in self-defense”. In January 2021, Kjetil Tronvoll mentioned it in an article, as did, in March 2021, the diehard pro-TPLF magazine Tghat, albeit portraying it as a preemptive strike justified by an enemy plan to commit genocide. Accordingly, the world press eventually began to incorporate this event into its timeline.
From the first day of the war, Declan Walsh and co-author Simon Marks, writing in The New York Times, put the war down to the notion that “Mr. Abiy presented a radically different face”, from his Nobel-Peace-Prize face that was. They studiously ignored the crucial dispute over the control of the army, except for stating that “Mr. Abiy said his hand had been forced by Tigrayan leaders who brazenly defied his authority”. Of course, there is no quotation mark around the prime minister saying: they brazenly defied my authority. But this is how The New York Times interprets his denunciation of the attack on the Northern Command, which it does not even bother to mention. What the New York Times would take for granted at home in the US, namely state monopoly on violence under democratic rule of law, is reduced for Ethiopia to the big man exercising “his authority”.
Eleven days into the war, Mr. Walsh and Mr. Marks did report “a purported Tigrayan attack on an Ethiopian army base in Tigray early this month”. This is when Kjetil Tronvoll is introduced in the New York Times as a “a scholar of Ethiopian politics”. Conversations with him might have colored Mr. Walsh’s views, as he continued to overlook not only the foregoing two and a half years of political developments as the source of the tension, but also the attack on the Northern Command as the point of no return. The New York Times explanation would continue to focus on the “messianic” prime minister, who had “plunged Ethiopia into a war”. Finally, by December 2021, Declan Walsh must have felt challenged, as the attack on the five federal bases had become acknowledged as fact and was getting more mention in the media. This accounts for the timing of the “new evidence” that the prime minister “had been planning a military campaign in the northern Tigray region for months before the war (…)”. Mr. Walsh was rationalizing his early choice of virtually ignoring the attack on the Northern Command.
That this is how the war began is no longer controversial. Yet even as of 2023, The Guardian’s official view frames it as a mere accusation: “Fighting broke out in November 2020 when Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed deployed the army to arrest Tigrayan leaders who had been challenging his authority for months and whom he accused of attacking federal military bases.”
Once again, legitimacy to rule Ethiopia is reduced to the big man exercising “his authority”. And “challenging his authority” is a hell of a euphemism for raiding national armories and usurping the command of the national army.
The Mai-Kadra massacre
On November 9 and 10, 2020, less than a week after the attack on the Northern Command, the first big massacre of unarmed civilians took place in the small town of Mai-Kadra, near the border with Sudan. The various investigations range in their estimates between 600 and 1,100 deaths. The killings were perpetrated by TPLF-loyal militia members with rudimentary arms, accompanied by gun-carrying policemen, who were formally under the command of Tigray’s regional government, and who spent the morning of November 9 locating those to be killed. These were all or nearly all Amharas.
The Mai-Kadra massacre ended when various forces loyal to the Ethiopian constitution arrived. Reuters did a fairly thorough journalistic report, although it has been criticized for the testimonies about revenge killings coming from refugee camps in Sudan, full of escaped militia members and under TPLF control. Like countless other media throughout the war, Reuters also used a source exclusively interested in Tigrayan casualties, who is located in Belgium, though he used to reside in Tigray. His name is Jan Nyssen, a geography professor from Ghent University, who gives speeches at TPLF rallies and events, yet passes off his ‘research’ as neutral. We shall look more at his incredibly successful propaganda role in Part 3.
In general, TPLF-friendly analysts have glossed over their misprediction that Ethiopian military victory would lead to genocide, by going for a more expansive definition. Thus, in an interview eight days after the peace deal, Kjetil Tronvoll said: “Definition of genocide does not rely on numbers killed, but the intent behind why they were killed.”
If this is so, the Mai-Kadra massacre qualifies as genocide. Ethnonationalist extremists went from door to door to kill men and boys solely for being Amhara. The use of knives, machetes and rope is indeed reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide. So are the many incidents of Tigrayans who risked their lives by hiding their Amhara neighbors. This paper presents enough outrages to emotionally drain the reader without the need for personal closeups. War crimes, it cannot be repeated enough, occurred on both sides, having been widely reported in graphic detail, albeit mainly to attract audiences and score partisan points rather than to present evidence that can hold up in court. Suffice to note that, although Martin Plaut tried to obscure the culpability for some days, the atrocity in Mai-Kadra was thoroughly investigated on the ground, including by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, OHCHR. There is also abundant photographic and forensic evidence.
The Mai-Kadra massacre may have sought to turn the war into an ethnic one, sowing terror and provoking acts of revenge. Sadly, it had some success in the north-western corner of Ethiopia where Mai-Kadra is located, compounded by a brutal history in the pre-war years and a still-lingering territorial dispute, which will also be addressed in Part 3.
On November 13 and again on November 20, 2020, the TPLF fired missiles against two airports in Amhara Region, arguing that this was retaliation for air raids in Tigray, which the federal government, in turn, said were intended to blow up arms depots. Getachew Reda also threatened cross-border strikes into Eritrea, which were carried out on November 14 and 27, when multiple rockets hit the capital, Asmara. This internationalization of the conflict was condemned by Secretary Pompeo.
Declaration of a people’s war
Even after the TPLF had started the war by killing hundreds of soldiers and civilians, and while it was firing missiles north and south, some of the Ethiopians that I talked to disagreed with sending soldiers to Tigray. This was not because they supported the TPLF, but because the insurgency seemed to have been too well-prepared, be too heavily armed and have too much popular backing in Tigray for the government to deliver on its promise of swift victory. This apprehension turned out to be well-founded, as the federal takeover of the region only held out for seven months. There was also concern that the war would strengthen the hand of extremists and undermine the already-fragile process of democratization by compelling the leadership to become survival-oriented rather than reform-minded. Arguably, this has also come true.
But was there an alternative? Could Ethiopia have contained the TPLF from lashing out from Tigray? Could the TPLF have been left in control of the border with Sudan without weapons being smuggled in? Without more Mai-Kadra-style massacres? Without missile strikes? Without sponsorship of the OLA’s offensive in central Ethiopia? No, this is illusory. The two realistic prospects were to defeat the rebellion or to plunge the country into warlordism.
As hostilities intensified, the President of Tigray Region, Debretsion Gebremichael, said in a speech to his people: “This war is not going to be conducted by special forces or a militia. All the people will take part. This is why we call it a people’s war. An invasion is on its way, and so we will start a people’s war. A people’s war means a war fought by the people. It means everyone will get involved, starting with the children.”
This call for total war, drawing on every resource of Tigray, down to the children, was bound to cause immense hardship and suffering. The key question is: was it justified? ‘Yes’ has been the answer given to this day, not just by TPLF recruiters, but also by numerous Westerners in positions of influence and power. Their failure to call for the TPLF to lay down its arms conferred legitimacy on an irregular army. And based on what?
As we have seen, the pattern of escalation was complex. But the TPLF’s steps along the way were consistently contrary to legal means of settling disputes. Yes, Eritrea is under one-man rule, but its armed intervention originated in defense of internationally recognized borders and in response to missile attacks on its capital. And Ethiopia had every right and reason to enforce the rule of law against a massively destabilizing terrorist act. Given the TPLF’s long history of corruption and oppression, it was also out of the question to pretend that it was fighting for ideals like democracy, human rights and equality. Or for liberal economics for that matter. Instead, the rationale put forward was that the Tigrayan people, led by the TPLF, had no option other than to resist extermination.
What were the truths, the half-truths, the lies and the still-unknowns about this narrative? Who shaped it and, given that it was overwhelmingly and demonstrably false, if not outright self-projection, how could they be so successful at it?
PART 3: NARRATIVE ABOUT THE WAR
Who are the Tigrayans?
Before addressing the most serious accusations of genocide, weaponized rape and man-made famine, let us look at what was said to underlie it, namely Ethiopia being in the grip of hate and hate-speech-fueled persecution directed against a vulnerable minority, the Tigrayans.
There are approximately six million of them living in Tigray. In the rest of Ethiopia, a guestimate is around two million. Do notice that the intensity of their Tigrayan identity varies, as ethnicity is not as rigid as people assume (see the comment to the figure below). Certainly, Tigrayans in non-Tigrayan Ethiopian communities do not live in segregation.
In Eritrea, around half the population, some two million people, speak Tigrinya as their first language and have cultural similarities with the Tegaru, the Tigrinya term for ethnic Tigrayans.
This box only provides a rough idea of the composition of Ethiopia’s approximately 120 million inhabitants. Ethnic identity can be mixed and fluid due to intermarriage, internal migration and assimilation. City dwellers, in particular, often see themselves as just Ethiopian.
The national language Amharic was originally the tongue of the Amhara people, but is today spoken by nearly everyone, including as a first language by many who are not of Amhara descent.
As Alex de Waal often emphasizes, Tigray is the heartland of Ethiopia. This goes back to long before the ethnic identities of the current era. Around the time of Ancient Greece, Tigray was the birthplace of the Axum Empire, which made Orthodox Christianity the state religion in 330 AD and welcomed Prophet Mohammed’s exiled followers in the 610s. Tigray also has the city of Adwa, where Emperor Menelik II’s army, composed of all the ethnicities, Christians as well as Muslims, defeated the Italian would-be colonizers in 1896. The decisive Battle of Adwa was on March 1, but it is celebrated every March 2, because proudly independent Ethiopia decided to keep its own calendar, also invented in Tigray, which has since had one leap day more than ours. Tigrinya is the living language closest to Ge’ez, or Classical Ethiopian, which has played a role in the country’s history similar to Latin in Europe, and which is also related to Amharic and, more distantly, to fellow Semitic languages like Hebrew and Arabic. Tigrayan culture is celebrated throughout Ethiopia. Its folkloric music is played in restaurants, cafés, even gyms and discos, including at the height of the war. On their part, educated Tigrayans speak native-level Amharic.
Conflating the TPLF with the Tigrayans
The TPLF was set up in 1974. Despite its Marxist roots, it was born in opposition to Ethiopia’s Soviet-aligned 1974-1991 Derg regime. An old joke goes that, whenever TPLF forces seized a town, they would topple the statues of Marx and Lenin. So as to make room for even bigger statues of Marx and Lenin.
After taking power in May 1991, the TPLF did have the good sense to get rid of those statues for good. However, the party held on to certain ideas “On the question of nationalities in Ethiopia”, the title of a brief but influential paper by radical student, Wallelign Mekonnen. Published in 1969, it proposes to complement scientific socialism with ethnonationalist grievance politics, dismissing the shared Ethiopian identity as a ruse by the ruling class. Mr. Wallelign died young, in 1972, while attempting to hijack a civilian passenger plane, but he made it into the TPLF’s pantheon of martyrs.
This is the ideological baggage for which there is widespread contempt in Ethiopia, exceeded only by bitterness over the TPLF’s oppressive and corrupt record in national government. Has this gone hand in hand with simmering enmity towards Tigrayans as a people?
This is not the impression one gets from daily life in Ethiopia’s ethnically mixed cities. Back when the TPLF held sway in Addis Ababa, some would utter subtly resentful comments to me along the lines of “it’s easier to get a job/permit/benefit if you’re Tigrayan”. And yet, to this day, basically everyone has Tigrayan friends. Many also have a Tigrayan branch in their family tree.
On the other hand, extremists victimizing Tigrayans for TPLF’s misrule were not unheard of. Mobs torched businesses and houses of random Tigrayans after the election fraud in 2005. Extremist anti-Tigrayan hate has indeed been expressed and amplified online, in one instance with slander and incitement on Facebook leading to the gruesome murder of Meareg Amare, a chemistry professor and accomplished researcher from a Tigrayan family, who was otherwise admired and beloved in Amhara and in the rest of Ethiopia.
But here is some background knowledge that was absent from the insanely overblown media reports soon to be addressed: Tigrayans are everywhere in Ethiopia, from homeless beggars to the maximum elite. The Tigrayan CEO, until recently, of Ethiopian Airlines has been mentioned.
On Christmas Day 2021, less than two months after suggesting that the prime minister was on his way into exile, Rashid Abdi – the aforementioned analyst so often quoted in big media, e.g. in The New York Times from Day One of the war – presented yet another of his trademark “unverified reports”, which always fit a current-affairs narrative, and are never taken up again after being proved wrong.
The Ethiopian Minister of Defense since October 2021, Abraham Belay, is Tigrayan. The biggest name to speak out against the TPLF in English, the massively adored Ethiopian-American journalist Hermela Aregawi, has Tigrayan parents. As she has explained at length, nearly a year into the war she was still under fierce tribalist pressure to echo the TPLF narrative. She ended up battling it instead, giving interviews in established media and running her own online channel, for which she gave up a career as a CBS news anchor.
Famous Tigrayan athletes also spread the love. Long-distance running is one global scene in which Ethiopia cuts a stellar figure (others are gourmet coffee, Ethio-jazz and fashion modelling). The Athletics World Championship held in Oregon, USA, in July 2022 was no exception, as Ethiopia took second place in the medal table after the host nation. However, while the Ethiopians sprinting first across the goal line had historically tended to come from Oromia, on this occasion, most of them were from Tigray.
How did non-Tigrayan Ethiopians take this? Everyone bar none celebrated the new national heroes. The President of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation, Derartu Tulu, herself a legendary runner, made a widely-shared statement about how Tigrayan athletes were worried sick about their families in Tigray, suggesting ways to alleviate their plight. Some reproached her for not placing the blame squarely on the TPLF, but most saw it as proper of her to express humanitarian concern without any of the politics. Many changed their profile picture on social media to a photo of a radiant Letesenbet Gidey draped in the Ethiopian flag.
I wrote a short piece about the heart-warming people-to-people peacebuilding aspect of this. Non-Ethiopian readers were surprised, because they assumed, based on recent media reports, that Tigrayans were running from, not for Ethiopia.
On the whole, Ethiopian slogans during the war were neither in denial about the hardship in Tigray nor directed against Tigrayans for their ethnicity.
One hashtag was: #TPLFisthecause
Cranking up the narrative
Not just TPLF activists, but respectable Western media, painted a picture of persecution as in the grimmest annals of history.
On November 4, 2021, The Economist reported that “all ethnic Tigrayans” were being detained in the capital, whether on indirect or direct orders from up high, and went into graphic detail. “Tigrayans were grabbed and shoved in warehouses and old factories. Even doctors and nurses were dragged out of hospitals if they were Tigrayan.”
On November 28, the young Africa correspondent for The Telegraph, Will Brown, went further. In an article that pieced together mistranslated quotes out of context, ironically to expose “inflammatory rhetoric”, he casually added that “ethnic Tigrayans are allegedly being rounded up into concentration camps and murdered”. What to make of the little caveat “allegedly”? The sentence is so extreme it brings to mind Nazi Germany and the Jews. Can such an alarming and also incendiary claim just be ‘alleged’ without a shred of evidence? Would it be legal for me to publish, without any source, that Will Brown is allegedly a … (let your darkest imagination run wild)? And yet, the only thing that might have surprised a Telegraph reader at this stage was that any Tigrayans were still alive. From his perch in Nairobi, Will Brown had been throwing everything plus the kitchen sink at Ethiopia. On the basis of “exclusive footage and accounts of witnesses and victims smuggled out” – read: probably TPLF disinformation – he had even experimented with an accusation that the Ethiopian air force was using chemical weapons against Tigrayan civilians. It was vehemently denied, and soon fizzled out in the absence of proof. So Will Brown left it at that, and, as we shall see later, moved on to the next defamatory and inflammatory claim, until he came to this one about a supposed extermination campaign.
Around that time, I would take strolls through Addis Ababa, using my white face to draw attention and making the most of my Amharic, which is just good enough for a leisurely one-on-one. Addis Ababans do not sound off about their ethnicity, but a chitchat may go into which parts of the country they have travelled to, where their relatives are from, and whether they speak any language other than Amharic. It may be a factor that I am a foreigner, but nobody seemed afraid of saying: ትግርኛ እችላለሁ. I speak Tigrinya. So I did my best to pronounce “ጽቡቕ”, which means great, nice, beautiful in Tigrinya with a tricky throat sound at the end. I struck up such conversations with the taxi driver, the shopkeeper, the hotel manager, a café-goer, a friend of a friend. Tigrayans are an industrious people who move around for job and business opportunities, particularly in urban centers. These people were not in hiding or looking over their shoulders, but they did have strong and understandable concerns.
Those were the days when the prime minister was calling on citizens to mobilize against two advancing militias, the TPLF and the OLA, which posed a terrifying threat to life and liberty. Tigrayans knew that fear can make people callous. There was indeed a sense of vulnerability among them. Even those who just had Tigrayan-sounding names told me about experiences similar to those of Muslims in New York in the days following 9-11: angry stares, rough service, bigoted outburst, colleagues demanding loyalty oaths, neighbors no longer greeting them. This does not amount to being rounded up into concentration camps and murdered, but it is nevertheless profoundly unsettling. One day, you feel perfectly at home in your own city. The next, you are being eyed up as a might-be infiltrator.
However, there was also the opposite, a determined friendliness towards Tigrayans to prove the ethnic-hatred narrative wrong, as we saw with the celebration of the Tigrayan athletes. ‘Non-Tigrayans hate the TPLF, but a majority of them also put themselves into the shoes of ordinary Tigrayans’ would have been the accurate way to report the predominant mood, though it did not make for a storyline as catchy as ‘Ethiopia in the grip of tribal rage’.
What these Tigrayan Addis Ababans told me they were most scared of was not the government or even the police, but an extremist mob. And the government was afraid of this too. It would have been blamed for it, whether for instigating it or for not preventing it. It was in its vital interest to avoid incitement to civil disorder. Remember, the focus on what ethnic group was doing what to what other ethnic group was the strategic framing of the TPLF, an ethnically-based militia with ethnically-based allies, whereas it was a recipe for splintering the multiethnic federal government and army. This explains why the official media was remarkably low-key about the war crimes of the TPLF going on in Amhara and Afar at that time. Even private newspapers and television channels held back. Yes, the TPLF was consistently referred to as “terrorist”, but on the whole, the coverage of the Addis Ababa-based press was surprisingly non-jingoistic and gave a wide berth to the sensationalized gore that was all over the Western media landscape. Mobilizing for war without stirring up hate is a tough balancing act. So how did Ethiopia do?
Well, there were horrendous incidents around the country, such as the murder of Professor Meareg Amare, as well as mob killings of suspected infiltrators in rural areas. But there were no riotous attacks on Tigrayans in the cities, thank God. Although the mobile network in Tigray was down during most of the war, there would be exchange of messages with fellow Tigrayans in other parts of Ethiopia, for instance through satellite connections provided by aid organizations. The inhabitants of Tigray also shared in the news of Tigrayan athletes’ triumphs in Oregon, competing as members of the Ethiopian team. This served to rebut the propaganda that being Tigrayan in Ethiopia had become criminalized. It undermined Alex de Waal and his ilk’s message that: “The Tigrayans have every motive to fight to the death”.
Erring on the side of fear
Across Ethiopian cities, the TPLF counted on an extensive network of Tigrayan businessmen, who got rich during its long reign. There were also civil servants still in service, who had been promoted chiefly for their political loyalty. It is unsurprising that many of them were minded to pay back their old patrons, and also that, when caught and having their businesses closed and positions stripped away, this was put down to ‘ethnic profiling’. Terrible mistakes and outright discrimination cannot be discounted. It happens even in the most advanced nations on Earth. But I do know for sure that plenty of Tigrayan businessmen and civil servants were not accused.
In addition, so-called ‘sleeper cells’ of local Tigrayans were reported to have committed war crimes in Amhara and Afar in coordination with invading TPLF forces. Even if this was hard to verify, an enemy marching on the capital would have provoked angst and overreactions in any country, and so it did in Ethiopia.
As an activist, I would love to say that Tigrayans were overwhelmingly anti-TPLF, as many patently were. But as a journalist, my first loyalty is to the truth. I am not going to venture a percentage figure, but, unfortunately, the TPLF does have widespread support among Tigrayans, incomparably more so than, for instance, what the OLA has among Oromos. During the TPLF-led dictatorship, I often heard non-Tigrayans observe about their Tigrayan friends that “we get along by not talking about politics”.
In 2021, while debating TPLF supporters online, I would ask: “Do Tigrayans living around Ethiopia mostly want the TPLF to win this war or not?” They would dodge the question, because it put them in a bind. If they answered that ethnic Tigrayans outside Tigray had little sympathy for the TPLF army, that would contradict the narrative about the TPLF’s sole war aim being the survival of the Tigrayan people, because what Tigrayan, except a self-hating collaborator, would not be in favor of that? But if they said the TPLF had widespread support among Tigrayans throughout Ethiopia, that would admit to the uncomfortable reality that many of these people posed a security risk. I know firsthand of pugnaciously pro-TPLF Tigrayans walking freely around in non-Tigrayan Ethiopian cities, and I will not be more specific than that, lest I be accused of setting a mob on them. Ethiopian lives matter, so we need to think through the huge stakes and tread delicately here.
Or we can just assume the worst about Ethiopians and take zero interest in their security. This was the approach of my country of origin, Denmark, along with the UK, US, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands, in their ‘Joint Statement on Detentions in Ethiopia’ released on December 6, 2021. It accused the Ethiopian government of “detention of large numbers of Ethiopian citizens on the basis of their ethnicity”.
It came out while Ethiopians were sacrificing their lives to repel the TPLF’s march on their capital and to avert the “bloodbath situation”, as President Biden’s envoy Jeffrey Feltman had phrased it. All that these rich and powerful nations had to say about this was: “It is clear that there is no military solution to the conflict” and “all armed actors should cease fighting”. What this expressed was not humanitarian concern, but disinterest in who had the legitimacy to use force, and hence disdain for Ethiopian lives.
Just to get an idea of how Ethiopians reacted to this open letter, picture a collection of whatever countries that see themselves as the vanguard of morality, writing to the US government right after the 9-11 attacks, not to utter one word of solidarity, not even to perform perfunctory condolences, but to state some pacifist inanities and sternly reprimand the US over reports of rampant Islamophobia, demanding that the FBI stop arresting people for their religion. Surely, American middle fingers would have flicked skywards. Well, Ethiopian middle fingers sure did, and many have been stuck in that position ever since.
Meanwhile, there was public discussion of this life-or-death moral dilemma. Yes, extremism and paranoia drove some voices to call for the internment of every single one of the two million or so Tigrayans outside of Tigray, modelled on the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. But there is no indication that the government ever considered this. It would have been a logistical nightmare, a humanitarian catastrophe, and everlasting poison for coexistence.
Even dismissing the official version that all arrests were by the book, let us put this into perspective.
The TPLF’s ethnic-persecution narrative has been full of self-projection. The 1998-2000 border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia did not threaten national survival, but was fought over some slivers of territory. And yet, the TPLF-led regime arrested at least 52,000 Ethiopian citizens, expropriated their homes, cars and other assets, and deported them on a grueling bus journey, with people lined up along the route to throw stones at them. Their crime? Being of Eritrean descent, including children and youth who had never set foot in Eritrea. Meles Zenawi justified it with this infamous quote: “If we say ‘go, because we don’t like the color of your eyes’, they have to leave”.
The flawed Ethiopian state
Now, two wrongs do not make a right.
The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) understood the difficulty of respecting individual rights while dealing with security threats in a state of emergency. Nevertheless, it complained, on November 8, 2021, that ethnicity had become cause for suspicion in itself, criticizing the detention of children, obstacles to family visits, and poor prison conditions. Two months later, it reported encouraging developments, as many had had their day in court and been released. It called for speeding up investigations to release more.
This was not so different from what Reuters conveyed in a lengthy article in June 2022, stating that as many as 18,000 Tigrayans had been arrested during the state of emergency, of whom some 9,000 were still detained. This is probably many more than what was warranted by evidence of wrongdoing, yet a far cry from media reports, such as the sweeping arrests of all Tigrayans claimed in The Economist, let alone the extermination campaign conjured up in The Telegraph.
Much of the abuse reported by Reuters would have been recognized by Ethiopians as an age-old feature of their police and judicial system, namely arbitrariness, appalling detention facilities, heavy-handedness and demands for bribes. Were some innocent Tigrayans targeted for extortion? Yes, the only question open to debate is how widespread this was. Abiy Ahmed has often vowed to combat corruption, though this is obviously easier said than done, and starts with empowering the citizenry to denounce it.
It is possible to side with Ethiopian self-defense against the TPLF, yet also be sympathetic to Tigrayans who were punished without committing any crime. Among these were senior army officers and civil servants, who were dismissed, placed under house arrest and interned. Reuters’ Special Report from May 2021 reproduced many such people’s profession of innocence and counteraccusation of ethnic profiling. Undoubtedly abuse occurred here too, but it did not descend into a ‘witch hunt’, as TPLF supporters and Western human-rights activists claimed. And, again, it must be seen in the context of an existential threat. When the war began, the TPLF not only killed and captured Ethiopian officers in Tigray, but also got its supporters in other parts of Ethiopia to send money, commit sabotage and escape to Tigray to join the rebellion. The Ethiopian army must have had rather reliable intelligence on who was likely to heed such calls. Reacting on this deprived people of liberty without due process, but also saved Ethiopian lives, including, with a high likelihood, the lives of the interned officers themselves.
Was there hate speech?
In 2020, just two months before the war, Abiy Ahmed was given space in The Economist to make the case for tolerance, denouncing those out to derail the transition to democracy by sowing hatred and division with violence. He also wrote: “For those accustomed to undue past privileges, equality feels like oppression.” This was a dog whistle to stir up hatred against Tigrayans, TPLF loyalists would say. Others would describe it as just the truth of the situation after 27 years of favoring the members of an ethnically-exclusive party that had captured the state. It certainly passed muster for publication in The Economist.
A year later, as Ethiopians were mobilizing to defend their capital, the aforementioned editorial in The Economist “Act now to avert a bloodbath in Ethiopia” accused the prime minister of, among other outrages, “dehumanizing language” that could herald “widespread ethnic killings”. It spelt out the two offending words, namely “cancer” and “weeds”. In contrast to other news outlets, at least The Economist specified: “His office insists that he means only the armed group, not all Tigrayans. But some of his followers make no such distinction.”
It is unclear who “some of his followers” are, but if we widen it to everyone who had taken his side in the war against the TPLF, then, of course, there were Tigrayan-hating extremists among them, just as some Islamophobes in the US must have been inspired to hate all Muslims, even more than they already did, when President Obama called the Islamic State a “cancer” that “it will take time to eradicate”.
Much of what was supposedly hateful sprang from absurdly bad-faith interpretations. On this account, once against The Telegraph’s Will Brown deserves an additional award, on top of all the others he has accumulated, for Most Dishonest Translation. On October 18, 2021, some five weeks before he would casually suggest that Tigrayans were being “rounded up into concentration camps and murdered”, he wrote an article headlined “Ethiopian PM threatens to stop food aid entering the country”. This followed the most highly profiled accusation against Ethiopia of them all, to be dissected later, namely that of ‘starvation used as a weapon of war’, which Mr. Brown had just levelled, albeit with only one source, the senior UN official Mark Lowcock. Thus, Mr. Brown may have felt compelled to come up with something to back it up. The claim that the prime minister was cracking down on food aid was based on a quote: “If we make sure that this thing called wheat [food aid] does not enter Ethiopia, 70 per cent of Ethiopia’s problems will be solved.” The square bracket was inserted by The Telegraph, but the prime minister did say wheat, and he did not mean food aid. The sentence was taken out of a long speech about aspirations of self-sufficiency, tackling the single story about Ethiopia and food.
The Telegraph ignored the scathing Ethiopian reply and never apologized. This is a general theme: libeling Ethiopia is a free-for-all. There is no cost to being proved wrong. You just stop talking about it and move on to the next accusation. Yes, perhaps one day this will end up in court. It certainly should. But today’s Western media see no such threat from a developing country with an historical image problem as big as Ethiopia’s. The Western public is ill-equipped to judge whether words are hateful or not, when they are spoken in a very different language, and when the implicit context is the single story about Africa and tribalism. This leaves the field open for activists and journalists to fabricate evidence for their preferred theses.
There has, as mentioned, been real hate speech uttered with fatal consequences in Ethiopia, the worst of which has been published anonymously on social media. However, to the extent that ethnonationalist extremism exists in Ethiopia, this ought to have been one more reason to rally behind the multiethnic coalition in charge of the federal government.
So the aforementioned BBC veteran, Martin Plaut, went out of his way to stick it to Abiy Ahmed’s social affairs advisor, Daniel Kibret, who had supposedly engaged in what was “plainly hate-speech” and “an open call for genocide”. Mr. Plaut starts off his article with a falsehood that distorts everything else in his presentation. He translates “Weyane” into “Tigray”. But Weyane (or Woyane) is part of the TPLF’s name in both Amharic and Tigrinya. It is unambiguously a reference to the TPLF. After that, Mr. Plaut pieces together disparate elements of a barely comprehensible, ultra-literal translation, full of his own insertions in square brackets, so as to change meanings and impute sinister motives. Whether or not the religious Daniel Kibret’s fire-and-brimstone rhetoric is worthy of some censure, he absolutely did not call for genocide.
The Ethiopian government blamed it on Google Translate, but a multilingual Ethiopian, Awol Allo, Senior Lecturer at Keele University, UK, understood the original Amharic and backed up the hate-speech accusation against Daniel Kibret live on the BBC. Mr. Awol is a high-flying intellectual, who trades accusations of “epistemological violence”, but he is also one of those aggrieved Oromos, mentioned by Kjetil Tronvoll. He wrote that Abiy Ahmed has “completely betrayed the Oromo cause” by espousing liberal ideals while lending himself to “the old assimilationist Amhara-centric model of the state”. Mr. Awol has also defended the word ‘neftegna’, used historically to whip up hatred against Amharas living outside of the Amhara Region, playing down its polarizing effect to that of ‘whiteness’ and ‘white supremacy’. However, there has been nothing supremacist about the ordinary, humble, unarmed citizens of Amhara origin suffering massacres at the hands of extremists in certain parts of Oromia in recent years. And Mr. Awol greeted it with enthusiasm when the worst of these radical groups, the kidnapping-funded OLA, “that is widely supported now by the Oromo population”, as he claimed on Al Jazeera, entered into a military alliance with the TPLF to violently overthrow the elected government.
Awol Allo, who chairs the Equality and Diversity Committee at Keele University, knows a thing or two about hate speech.
Nevertheless, war does harden our mind and language, as happened in Ethiopia on both sides. How are we Westerners doing, when it comes to separating an innocent ethnicity from its guilty leaders in the way we talk about an armed conflict that impinges on our security? Petr Pavel, shortly before he became the Czech president, said that young Russian men are fleeing military conscription because they are too cowardly to do any killing themselves, but they still want Putin to kill Ukrainians. He knows this, because they are Russian. Nobody batted an eyelid over those comments.
It is not just the odious selectiveness in the definition of hate speech. Those who accuse Ethiopia of hate speech should actually take a good look in the mirror. What could possibly be more hateful than to reduce your disagreement to the disagreed-with side’s pathological hatred? It declares your enemy to be beyond reasoning, thus dispensing with the one big humanizing tool, which is engaging in a good-faith exchange of arguments.
Good people are against hate speech, but contrived and malicious accusations of hate speech are, well, a form of hate speech. And we have still only scratched the surface of what became relentless demonization of Ethiopians, painting a picture so hideous and hostile that it became, in effect, a call for total war.
Trigger word: genocide
Equating anti-TPLF with anti-Tigrayan, anti-party with anti-people, must be the oldest trick in the book of authoritarian scoundrels. The TPLF, however, refined the concept by framing political adversaries as nothing less than genocidal as early as 2005, when its strongman, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, faced with complaints of ethnic favoritism, called the opposition “Interahamwe” (after the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide).
The hashtag #TigrayGenocide was launched exactly as the first shots were fired on the Northern Command bases. Clearly, the accusation that this was about a genocide was prepared before any Ethiopian act of war.
Ethiopian data analysts from GETFACT.et have mapped out social-media trends during the war, showing that the creation of new accounts using the hashtag #TigrayGenocide spiked with the onset of armed hostilities, and not with the reporting of atrocities.
A ‘Tigray genocide’ was never alleged by any government or intergovernmental organization (except when Dr. Tedros spoke for the WHO), despite this being pushed for by TPLF activists and a handful of politicians. The Economist, for all its unproven accusations, was among the few big newspapers that did not use this term. The NGO Genocide Watch declared a ‘Genocide Emergency Alert’, though this was not exclusively for Tigray, and it also implicated the TPLF.
Still, the TPLF’s claim about a ‘Tigray genocide’ was relentlessly promoted by most of the media and by its preferred academics, even after the peace agreement. It came to suffuse mainstream coverage, and was often stated as fact, including in the headline.
Western diplomats had to be seen to ‘do something’ or at least ‘say something’, but they usually avoided the genocide label. As Alex de Waal admitted on May 29, 2021, there was fear in official circles that it would “inflame emotions that would impede, not facilitate, a solution”. And yet, soon after, the Finnish foreign minister and special EU envoy to Ethiopia, Pekka Haavisto, all but spelt it out. On June 15, 2021, he held an online briefing with a European Parliamentary Committee. During the final Q&A, he made all hell break loose: “When I met Ethiopian leaders in February, they really used this kind of language, that they are going to destroy the Tigrayans, they’re going to wipe out the Tigrayans for one hundred years and, and so forth.” He then asked rhetorically: “If you wipe out your national minority, what is it?” Well, everyone knew which word to fill in. And nobody cared for his little caveat, “if this is true”.
Kjetil Tronvoll, among many others, pounced on this with glee, saying it “revealed” that “Abiy Ahmed had told him [Mr. Haavisto] quite clearly that we shall wipe them out, we’re gonna kill them all.”
It is highly improbable that the Ethiopian leadership would talk in such terms to anyone, let alone to an EU envoy, but even if, hypothetically speaking, they did, what brought such a senior diplomat to make such a serious claim fully four months later? Notice, it was not scripted. It was a spontaneous response to a question from Irish MEP Mick Wallace, an anti-Western firebrand who sat in the parliamentary chamber wearing the Tigrayan flag as his face mask. Mr. Haavisto was manifestly not quoting but paraphrasing (“they really used this kind of language”). This is a remarkably flippant manner in which to accuse of plotting genocide!
The Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted strongly, calling it “utterly irresponsible, outrageous and undiplomatic”. Mr. Haavisto seemed genuinely perplexed that his words had such an impact, not only as a propaganda coup for Mick Wallace and for the TPLF, whose supporters never cease to bring it up, but also as an infuriating insult to Ethiopians.
Mr. Haavisto has never elaborated on who said what to him. He may have heard something and made the usual mistake of conflating the TPLF with the Tigrayan people. There is actually no evidence that Pekka Haavisto was in cahoots with the TPLF. Because, in another part of his briefing that got no attention, he described how humanitarian aid had improved somewhat, but that the main impediment was the danger of moving around inside an unpredictable war zone. This was off-message with the TPLF line, which sought to blame the lack of access on government obstruction. Most likely, Mr. Haavisto fell for ‘the danger of the single story’, as his memories got intertwined with his impressions from Western media about public discourse in Ethiopia being full of hate speech.
Nevertheless, it ought not be so hard to understand the sheer recklessness of a foreign minister accusing another country’s leaders of declaring genocidal intentions in private, and to do so without proof, or even a name, time and place. Pekka Haavisto never apologized or paid any professional price for it. Remember: libeling Ethiopia is a free-for-all.
Incitement in The Guardian
One highly influential opinion piece was “The warning signs are there for genocide in Ethiopia – the world must act to prevent it”. As nearly all articles in The Guardian about Africa, it was sponsored by the Gates Foundation. This one was also promoted by every TPLF supporter. Dr. Tedros would even tweet it out a second time nearly a year later, as his side was losing the war.
It was published on November 26, 2021 by Helen Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand and head of the UNDP, who used the opportunity to call for the UN Security Council to intervene; Michael Lapsley, an elderly South African priest with an anti-Apartheid past; and Lord David Alton, a veteran British politician. We shall see more examples of how Helen Clark and Lord Alton spent the war hate-mongering in a tone of sanctimony, dodging the politics to play on the single story about Africa. In addition to being card-carrying members of the great-and-good club, all three authors have one thing in common: no particular insight into Ethiopian affairs, or at least none that they will confess to. Thus, the op-ed had nothing to say about the causes of the war, let alone about who had the legitimacy to use armed force. They had followed the news about atrocities, and now they wanted to warn that “there may be much worse to come”. This was released when big media had spent the past three weeks abuzz about the imminent fall of Addis Ababa. It was two days after President Biden’s envoy Jeffrey Feltman called this scenario “a bloodbath situation”. But the authors clearly implied that such a bloodbath situation would be justified in order to prevent an even worse horror, namely “a possible mass killing of interned civilians in Addis and elsewhere”. As evidence, it cited “hate speech against Tigrayan people as an ethnic group”, resorting to the usual ruse of conflating statements against the TPLF with ditto against Tigrayans. Interestingly, although this is not exactly the main takeaway, the piece admitted it could be wrong: “We hope that the worst will be avoided. But to prevent genocide, we must sound the alarm before we arrive at certainty.”
On the scale of potential liabilities, it must have seemed safer for these big-name pursuers of noble causes to make one accusation of genocide too many than one too few. The journalist Martin Plaut called it a “precautionary principle” to have Ethiopia punished diplomatically, economically and militarily for genocide. And despite the awkwardness of this op-ed mixing extreme alarmism with heavy caveats, there is no doubting its strategic brilliance to shut down debate. The word genocide infuses the public space with dread.
Let us go into the head of a reasonable newspaper editor. Imagine she is approached for a response to this op-ed from, say, me. She hears me out arguing that baseless speculation about “mass killing of interned civilians in Addis and elsewhere” is not to “sound the alarm”, but to demonize and incite. She takes in my broader point that the genocide accusation distracts from the core issue of legitimacy to use armed force. This intrigues her, but she has limited knowledge of Ethiopia, and the tiniest risk of me being wrong daunts her. What if there is a big massacre with gruesome pictures the next day? She will be hung out to dry. It can end her career. Her newspaper will be left to apologize for years. It seems safer to misjudge the conflict along with nearly everyone else and give a wide berth to dissenting views.
However, the miseducation of international audiences was not the worst consequence of the genocide accusation. The real harm was that it boosted the TPLF’s mobilization drive among Tigrayans by echoing the lie that that this war was not to avenge the TPLF leaders’ loss of wealth and power, but about the survival of the Tigrayan people, about their only choice being to kill or to get killed.
I introduced this paper with examples of such doomsday rhetoric, and could produce countless more. “We are left with one option – changing the situation; otherwise we’ll all be massacred”, was how the former Ethiopian foreign minister and senior TPLF leader, Berhane Gebre-Christos justified the march on the capital in The New York Times back in November 2021, that is, one year before military defeat made him see state monopoly on violence as the better option.
The genocide narrative is like a moral nuke. Every ethical consideration is blown apart, if the alternative is annihilation. This explains why Declan Walsh seemed to be onboard with the TPLF using child soldiers, calling them “highly motivated young recruits”.
Once the genocide narrative is believed, sending children to the front becomes, at the same time, deniable and justifiable, even to this Canadian academic and editor of the website Ethiopia Insight. However, he has since deleted this tweet and changed his Twitter handle.
Kjetil Tronvoll made a valid point when he admitted that, yes, the TPLF ruled in an authoritarian manner, “but that was then, and this is now”. Indeed, if the genocide label can be made to stick, then the TPLF’s awful record against democracy, human rights and equality is no longer a big deal. Mr. Tronvoll explained how his contacts inside Tigray operated “with an understanding that this is not a conventional war, but a genocide-driven war. So their feedback has been, Kjetil, listen up, we have two choices. Either we can sit in our homes and watch our mothers or wives or daughters get raped. Or we get killed. Or we can go and enlist in the army. And they choose the latter. Tens of thousands of Tigrayans have joined the army. They have no other alternative. If you sit at home, you starve to death. Or you get killed or raped. And this gives them a unique fighting spirit. This has proved to be so, and there will surely be many stories written about the heroic struggles waged by this army.”
Do we know what happened in Axum?
To give minuscule credit where minuscule credit is due, responsible governments and less sensationalist media, including The Economist, stopped short of using the genocide label. And they were undoubtedly correct in stating that war crimes occurred on both sides. Probably the most iconic of these became known as ‘the Axum massacre’, dated to the early days of the war, when Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers had just entered Tigray, struggling to suppress the TPLF insurgency.
As of today, the short answer is no, we do not know what happened in Axum. And we ought to find out. If just a fraction of what has been claimed is true, it cries out for justice. However, after the first horror story turned out to be blatant disinformation, the media instantly forgave and moved on to another, still unproven version of events. Thus, not only mispredictions and misreporting from the front, but also thoroughly debunked atrocity testimonies, have been loudly spread and then quietly abandoned without the slightest follow-up, let alone accountability. This has been symptomatic of the war coverage, which makes the Axum massacre worth zooming in on.
It all exploded on January 9, 2021 by means of a tweet by journalist Martin Plaut.
Axum is the cradle of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, famous for its ancient obelisks and stones with inscriptions in classical languages. The holiest of holy relics, the Ark of the Covenant, containing the original tablets of the Ten Commandments, is believed to be stored in the city’s Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion (‘Maryam Tsiyon’), shown in the picture.
At first, the gruesome martyrdom of 750 church-goers was divulged by a long list of mainly Christian news outlets. At this early stage, the misdeed was attributed to “Ethiopian federal troops and Amhara militia” and dated December 15, 2020. This was put out, for instance, on January 11, 2021, by Lord David Alton, one of the three authors of the genocide warning in The Guardian. The Polish government issued a condemnation, but stopped short of placing the guilt. Noticeably, one analyst in the Jesuit America Magazine let the accused side get in a word. He remarked on the lack of material evidence, and asked for withholding judgement. In January 2021, the only big newspaper to mention the point-blank slaughter of the 750 seems to be The Guardian in two articles, one of which was more concerned with the danger to religious artefacts, such as the fabled ark, while the other took this precaution: “The report has not been independently verified.”
The Guardian should have dug deeper into the original source, which was, as per Martin Plaut’s original tweet and article, a report by EEPA. This acronym stands for the official-sounding ‘Europe External Programme with Africa’ and also for ‘Europe External Policy Advisors’, two closely related Belgian-based NGOs, whose joint website recently removed the names of those behind the outfit. Other pages, however, still reveal, as confirmed in the database of deleted internet pages, that its founder and leader is Mirjam van Reisen. She was registered as director and legally responsible in 2020, although a few months into the war, her position was officially taken over by the Irishman Paddy Maguinness.
A lineup of like-minded speakers.
The Dutch university professor Mirjam van Reisen has long been known for activism alongside the Eritrean exile community, a small part of which, and her more than anyone, saw the war through the lens of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. Thus, she spent the war churning out pro-rebel disinformation, including on Twitter for others to retweet. Here are some examples, which have since been deleted.
Sensible observers, whether or not they knew about Mirjam van Reisen being behind EEPA, or were aware of Martin Plaut’s penchant for fanning the flames, dismissed the initial report, seeing it as an attempt to stir religious emotions.
A fabrication and a fig leaf
Then, on February 18, 2021, an outlet as big and reputed as Associated Press took the bait. Reporting all the way from Nairobi, Kenya, correspondent Cara Anna started out: “Bodies with gunshot wounds lay in the street for days in Ethiopia’s holiest city. At night, residents listened in horror as hyenas fed on the corpses of people they knew.” Apart from changing the perpetrators from Ethiopians to Eritreans and the date from December 15 to “late November”, Cara Anna confirmed Martin Plaut’s and EEPA’s version of the bloodbath in the central square by quoting the deacon, “who spoke on the condition of anonymity” about “soldiers bursting into the church, cornering and dragging out worshippers and shooting at those who fled”, with a death toll of “some 800”. When this was published, the federal government was tenuously in control of Axum, where it had restored the communications network. This enabled Cara Anna to conduct phone interviews with various unidentified people from the city. She concluded that: “Ethiopia’s narrative, however, has crumbled as witnesses like the deacon emerge”. It was later discovered that Alula Solomon, a prominent figure in the TPLF propaganda apparatus, had tweeted in Tigrinya about Cara Anna reaching out to him for sources on the Axum massacre.
Such a prestigious news agency lending its credibility to the story opened the floodgates. The tabloids went wild, and several others followed, always referring to Associated Press or to its sources, showcasing either the hyenas or how it happened in a place that is to Ethiopian orthodoxy what Saint Peter’s Basilica is to Roman Catholicism. Some continued to describe the perpetrators as Ethiopian troops.
The story was drawing massive attention, so the world-renowned human-rights organization Amnesty International launched an investigation. On February 26, it published its report. It contained enough horrors for Martin Plaut to boast about being vindicated, which testifies to how little he cares for accuracy, because it was about bloodshed that had been spread out all across Axum, with absolutely nothing about any church congregation being dragged out and gunned down.
That initial version of the Axum story was not only a fabrication, but also a poor one that could not be sustained over time. There is no precedent of 750-800 people being murdered in one go in the most central open space of a relatively modern city, and remaining a secret for over a month. There are plenty of cameras, and many people had been travelling in and out of this urban area of about 67,000 people. The new claim about a citywide killing spree, by contrast, could make a case for plausibility.
According to the Amnesty report, after causing random casualties by “indiscriminately shelling the city”, Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers entered Axum together on November 19, 2020. Witnesses say that Eritrean forces then committed extrajudicial executions, as well as widespread looting. On Saturday morning, November 28, a group as small as 50-80 TPLF fighters attacked an Eritrean position at a nearby mountain, and were joined by local youths “with improvised weapons, such as knives, sticks and stones”. This was as suicidal as it sounds, and the response of the Eritrean soldiers, still according to the Amnesty report, was to go on a revenge rampage inside the city, killing “hundreds of civilians” during a 24-hour period on November 28-29. As a side note not mentioned in the Amnesty report, early on Sunday, November 29, TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael texted to Reuters that his forces had retaken Axum, but presumably this was just more smoke in the fog of war. What the Amnesty report describes going on at that time is a frenzy of house-to-house searches for teenage and adult men, who are summarily executed. This was reminiscent of Tigrayan militiamen’s massacre two and a half weeks earlier in Mai-Kadra.
So how did Amnesty gather this information? With the war still raging, there was no question of travelling to Axum. Instead, eleven days were spent talking to “41 witnesses and survivors of the massacre”, who could not be named “given security concerns”. Testimonies were either delivered face-to-face in a refugee camp of Tigrayans in Sudan, or by means of “numerous phone interviews with witnesses in Axum”. Crucially, it says nothing about how these 41 persons were identified or by whom, which obviously raises suspicion that they were selected and coached by the TPLF.
The first part of the Amnesty report mostly reproduces the testimonies verbatim. Then it tends towards its own narration of the witnesses’ accounts, tacitly assuming that all 41 speak the truth, albeit still garnished with quotes, such as this from a man who said he saw six men killed through his window on 29 November: “They lined them up and shot them in the back from behind”, he says. This must be the inspiration for a leader in The Economist on October 9, 2021. It stated as fact, without indicating any source, that: “Late last year in the city of Axum, for instance, Eritrean troops fighting alongside Ethiopian forces murdered hundreds of civilians, mostly men and boys. Some were lined up and shot in the back.” In the Amnesty report, the same witness goes on to say that the soldiers killed three people with one bullet. “They were lined up perfectly”, he explains.
Amnesty makes no mention of hyenas, but says that, on Sunday morning, November 29, Eritrean soldiers were still preventing residents from picking up the bodies. Then: “On the request of local elders, Ethiopian soldiers gave permission for people to bury the dead in the late afternoon on 29 November. Most of the dead bodies appear to have been buried on 30 November, but witnesses said that people found many additional bodies in the days that followed. (…) The bodies were brought to the Arba’etu Ensessa Church (next to the Axum Tsion St Mary Church), as well as [various other churches].” One witness said up to ten bodies at a time were piled onto carts. Another “estimated that he saw 400 bodies on 30 November alone”.
The conclusion is: “Amnesty International was unable to calculate the massacre’s precise death toll, but estimates that hundreds of people were killed”.
The Amnesty report includes two satellite images with three places of recently “disturbed earth” consistent with mass graves. But this is a moot point. Nobody denies that there was a war going on at the time with a high death count. And no other photographic material was even mentioned. Ethiopian city dwellers do have smartphones. The power grid might have been down for days, but this is so frequent that many have generators, power banks and solar chargers. It stretches belief that the people attacked a fortified position of a professional army, but nobody took sneak photos or videos of piles of dead bodies spread all over the streets for days.
Human Rights Watch did indeed present five videos one week later, on March 5, as part of its Axum massacre report, which was even shorter than Amnesty’s and based on 28 witness statements. The first is of Brana Hotel hit by artillery on November 25. The other four were accompanied by bold claims, but showed absolutely nothing, even supposing that they were authentic, correctly dated and without soundtrack alterations. Anyone can examine them. The toughest image to watch is that of a group of people carrying a dead body on a stretcher, though only the hand is visible.
Returning to the mass burials as recounted in the Amnesty report: “30 November marked the anniversary of St Mary, a major celebration in Axum, which on another year would have drawn the faithful from across Ethiopia and tourists from around the world. In light of the exceptional circumstances, the celebrations were canceled.”
This is demonstrably false, because the religious festival was held. Fana Television, a state-owned channel, had a crew in Axum to cover it. A clip was soon after uploaded to YouTube, and later translated from Amharic into English by the Eritrean foreign service. It shows 100-200 people dressed up for the occasion. An Ethiopian flag can be glanced in the background. The faithful interviewed on screen lament the war and the consequent poor turnout for the event, but say that things are now peaceful.
It is not completely impossible, albeit hard to imagine, that simultaneously, just across the square from these celebrations, carts were being pushed around with up to ten bodies each, while others were lying around decomposing, and hundreds of victims were being laid to rest. At least this is what we should now believe, according to the numerous respectable media and personalities invoking the Amnesty report.
But nobody ever tried to contend that the festival was held where 750-800 worshippers had just been sprayed with bullets and eaten by hyenas. That incendiary version with religious overtones had to be definitively abandoned. Yet it had been propagated by the EEPA report, amplified by Martin Plaut (some allege that he wrote it himself), and then given so much credence by Cara Anna from Associated Press that it was splashed on headlines across the world.
So how did the world’s media, big and small, face up to having run way too fast with a fabrication? Did they do a mea culpa? Did they learn a lesson about sharpening their critical faculties so as to give the public a reason to trust them again?
Not at all. They quietly ditched the church massacre and loudly adopted Amnesty’s completely different story. And they did so instantly and uncritically, so as to forget and dissipate accountability for a month and a half of spreading a barefaced lie. There was not a hint of regret or retraction. In fact, Cara Anna had the jaw-dropping chutzpah to write: “The new [Amnesty] report echoed the findings of an Associated Press story last week”. And a few days later, she went on: “The Associated Press and Amnesty International have separately documented a massacre of several hundred people.” She actually insisted that she had “documented” something! These were the truth contortions with which she wiggled out of avidly endorsing a macabre false testimony, which had sent shockwaves around the globe. The Amnesty report served as a fig leaf. It was an ill-fitting one for sure, but good enough for other big media to go along with the pretense that the Associated Press article and the Amnesty report had sort of shown the same thing, as if all the hair-raising specifics had been just a little innocent adornment. Thus, Cara Anna could carry on producing vaguely-sourced reports of insane cruelty against Tigrayans, winning accolades and being paraded before the next generation of journalists as an idol and an inspiration.
Though Cara Anna’s church-massacre story was taken to be true for only a week, it lives on in the realm of myth. It continues to pop up, usually with a touch of ambiguity. For instance, speaking in the British House of Lords shortly after the peace agreement, Lord David Alton conjured up Cara Anna’s anonymous deacon saying “800 civilians had been executed”, albeit this time without specifying the location or the perpetrators. He added the Amnesty version on top.
As soon as the security situation allowed, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) dispatched a rapid investigation mission from February 27 to March 5, 2021. It also relied mainly on eye witnesses, who could have been coached to lie, given the TPLF’s tight control of the population. But at least they were interviewed face-to-face and comprised a large and diverse group of people in Axum. They talk of Eritrean soldiers committing extrajudicial executions, identical or similar to those in the Amnesty report, albeit without any claim to have seen hundreds of dead bodies, or to have carted ten at a time. There are also testimonies about looting both by Eritreans and by locals who took advantage of the breakdown in law and order. While the Amnesty report often summarizes its sources, as if they had spoken with one voice that could be distilled into an indisputable finding, the EHRC report contains more individual and often differing accounts. This makes for fewer conclusions, but also comes across as more credible. While the locals decry the inaction of the ENDF (federal army), they recount that “on December 23, an attempt by Eritrean soldiers to enter Aksum Tsion Church to loot it was foiled by the combined efforts of ENDF and residents.” The EHRC report suggests a more moderate estimated death toll of “over a hundred civilians”. When this came out, once again, Martin Plaut expressed a sense of vindication, blithely passing over his previous claims.
The EHRC hit a compromise note as regards the festival: “Although the November 30 Aksum Tsion holiday was marked within the Church’s compound, they [residents of Axum] have been saddened that the media did not report the state of grief the city was in.”
Finally, Ethiopia’s Attorney General sent a team of criminal investigators to Axum who spoke to 95 witnesses and gathered “documentary evidences” up until May 3, 2021. They gave a completely different account of what caused the deaths. The Ethiopian army had withdrawn from Axum on November 27 to fight elsewhere, leaving a small number of Eritrean troops “stationed in the mountainous area of the city”. They were attacked, not by 50-80 TPLF soldiers, as claimed in the Amnesty report, but by 1,500 local youths, who had been trained and armed by the TPLF. Heavy fighting ensued, resulting in a death toll of 93.
The Attorney General also received 116 denunciations of rape, and identified some perpetrators as members of the federal army and police, transferring the prosecution of these cases to the military courts. The investigation blamed the TPLF for some of the increase in crime due to its “release of tens of thousands of notorious criminals from prison and attiring them with ENDF’s and Eritrean military uniforms”.
Again, I make no claim to know what happened in Axum. The point is that finding out calls for hard-nosed investigators on the ground. What they must look for is not the stories that will grab the attention of the international community, but the kind of evidence that will hold up in court. Even the EHRC’s effort falls short of that. It is also fair to dispute the impartiality of the EHRC and the Attorney General. But nor will it do for activism-oriented human-rights organizations to draw exclusively on anonymous witness accounts from one side.
On April 3, 2023, Human Rights Watch (HRW) Director for the Horn of Africa, Laetitia Bader, and Amnesty International (AI) Researcher for Ethiopia, Fisseha Tekle, were invited by a fiercely pro-TPLF organization to discuss ‘justice for war crimes’. Fellow panelists included Getachew Reda, who needs no further introduction, Michael Rubin, the one journalist who advocated for the West to arm the TPLF, and Millette Birhanemaskel, a prominent champion of the TPLF insurgency. The debate was moderated by Melat Habtu, yet another ardent pro-TPLF activist. Although HRW and AI have also denounced TPLF’s war crimes, there is no example of their representatives attending similarly partisan events with the other side in the war.
There is nothing about Amnesty International today that justifies accepting its claims so readily. Over the past decade, this worldwide entity, with a vast contingent of volunteers and some pampered executives, has expanded its founding focus on prisoners of conscience to every issue under the sun, advocating for sex work to be legalized, demanding medicalization of trans children, campaigning for a far-left constitution in Chile, fighting for a feminist internet. As a result, its saintly aura has worn off, as it is being increasingly treated with the same suspicion as any other big player with an ideological agenda. For instance, in 2022, after it accused Ukraine of violating international humanitarian law, it was blasted for lack of professionalism, thanks to its arguments being carefully dissected and fiercely challenged.
Alas, there was no chance of its work on Ethiopia being subjected to such scrutiny. With the notable exception of Francesca Ronchin reporting for Italy’s Panorama magazine, established media gave Ethiopian and Eritrean objections short shrift. The framing of the war within the single story about Africa laid the groundwork for believing the worst. No matter how flimsy the evidence, news editors’ backs would be adequately covered by pointing to a Western-based organization as the source. Thus, Amnesty International basked in the glory of yore, when its moral authority went unquestioned on all things human rights. Only a big war in Africa could have provided such an opportunity. Inability to meet basic standards of proof was not going to get in the way.
The strategic importance of Welkait
When the war broke out, military strategists zoomed in on the north-western corner of Ethiopia. Not only is it fiercely disputed between Amhara and Tigray Region. It also borders Sudan, where the TPLF had a safe haven to run camps and procure weapons. Within a few weeks of hostilities, the TPLF had been dislodged everywhere west of the Tekeze River. Thus, its arms supply line was reduced to secret flights from Sudan that would get shot down. To dissuade the rebels from trying to retake the area, a vast contingent of mainly Amhara and Eritrean troops took up defensive positions there. This may well have decided the outcome of the war.
Alas, this land could also become the spark that ignites the next war. It is green and bountiful, yet also low-lying and hence hot, malaria-infested and sparsely populated. It has been known for ages as the provinces of Kafta Humera, Welkait, Tegede (Tsegede in Tigrinya) and Telemt (Tselemti). Ethiopians refer to these four provinces collectively as Welkait (also transcribed into the Roman alphabet as Wolqayit, Walkeit, etc.). However, during the war, international media and organizations consistently called it ‘Western Tigray’. This term was coined by the TPLF as late as the 1990s in pursuit of an ethnonationalist agenda that is the root cause of the current tragedy in this territory. We shall return to this in a moment.
Although reliable investigations so far have been scanty, there is no doubt that atrocities were committed on both sides during the war in Welkait, starting with the Mai-Kadra massacre. The widely-quoted figure of 700,000 Tigrayans who fled from there is more than the total population according to the census, but the testimonies of such displaced people about property crimes, violence and threats of violence against them for their ethnicity are simply too numerous, and also contain too much nuance, to be written off as all TPLF propaganda. Civil war tends to empower the extremists. Even if truth became mixed up with propaganda, I do believe that innocent Tigrayans in Welkait suffered gut-wrenching injustice.
What should be the solution then? The new Tigray Interim Administration demands the reincorporation into Tigray. “Over our dead bodies”, say the Amharas who now control Welkait and equate a TPLF takeover with more Mai-Kadras. But if Amharas and Tigrayans get along in Addis Ababa and elsewhere, why is there so much bad blood between them in Welkait?
As mentioned in Part 2, when the TPLF took power on the national stage in 1991, it introduced so-called ethnic federalism. Still in force, this system currently provides for regional autonomy to seven of Ethiopia’s over 80 ethnicities (though the Harari are actually a small minority in the tiny Harari Region), while two cities and four regions have been conceived as multiethnic. Sadly, this placing of ethnicity on the political map, however half-baked, has given rise to a series of border disputes within the same country, incentivizing demographic engineering by force. A particularly brutal case became the TPLF’s drive to stamp out the Amharic-speaking Welkait identity. It began with the incursions of TPLF guerilla fighters in the 1980s, when the area was administered from the Amhara city of Gondar. It culminated with the Mai-Kadra massacre in the dying days of rule from the Tigrayan capital Mekelle.
I lack the knowledge to weigh in on the hotly-debated demographic composition of Welkait throughout the centuries. But whether it is ‘Western Tigray’ or ‘Northern Amhara’, it is important to ask why the ethno-linguistic map of Ethiopia has become so obsessed over. Historically, borders between provinces have been soft, or determined by aristocracy and geography, not ethnicity. In parts of the country, the norm is multilingualism, mixed families and fluid identities.
Tigrayan ethnonationalists have been editing many Wikipedia articles into crude propaganda pieces. This is from one on Tigray’s ‘Western Zone’.
In addition to both Amharic and Tigrinya, it has long been common for people in Welkait to speak Sudanese Arabic. What matters is that, as of today, different Ethiopian citizens wish to live there, and are supposed to have the freedom of movement to do so. To the extent that foreigners involve themselves in this, it ought to be in favor of peaceful coexistence, caring about civil rights, not ancestral rights. Alas, some are busy fanning the flames of identity politics instead.
“This land is ours”
The signature ink had barely dried on the peace deal, when the TPLF activist and Belgian academic, Jan Nyssen, dug even deeper than he had done already into the files of ancient Africa explorers in order to publish a “comprehensive analysis of historical maps and records”. Though he found no old usage of ‘Western Tigray’, this is what he argues that it has been historically and should be today.
Professor Nyssen was particularly eager to correct Tibor Nagy, a former US Ambassador to Ethiopia. Mr. Nagy also served as President Trump’s Assistant Secretary of African Affairs, and had just written: “When the TPLF came to power, they transferred a fertile section of Amhara State (Welkait district) to Tigray, renaming it Western Tigray, and brought in ethnic Tigrayans to displace ethnic Amharas”.
Indeed, the TPLF imposed an unprecedented regime of ethnic chauvinism on the population of Welkait. This crucial background was not, however, what Jan Nyssen was moved to address. Instead, he pointed out that there was no ‘Amhara State’ prior to 1991. This is true. Because, again, the country’s political map was not based on ethnicity. Arguably, pre-1991 Tigray merely describes a geographical area, whereas the TPLF’s new Tigray was conceived ideologically as an ethnic homeland. Accordingly, if this is phrased as Tigray expanding westwards into Gondar Province and southwards into Wollo Province, it is only fair to mention that Tigray also shrank in the east to make room for the new Afar Region.
Leave aside the complex arguments over ethnic federalism. Whatever region Welkait is a part of would barely have been an issue, if the TPLF had ruled it with a hands-off approach to language and identity. The renaming to ‘Western Tigray’ may be no big deal by itself, but it expresses the intent. For over three decades, Welkait was turned into a laboratory for ethnonationalist extremism, which was drummed into the Tigrayans, including former TPLF fighters, who were rewarded with land there and, not least, into the local administrators. Jan Nyssen does not care to deny any of this, but he does write: “The 1994 census data collected by the EPRDF [the TPLF-led government coalition, ed.] shows ethnic Tigrayans constituted 96.5% of the population in the disputed areas, while only 3% were Amharas.”
Well, yes, because in 1994, to identify as Amhara in Welkait was to invite trouble. By then, many Amharas had been pushed out. However, the most common survival strategy was simply to identify as Tigrayan in public, sometimes with a name change. For those few who did not already speak Tigrinya, their life suddenly depended on learning it, which is, after all, no harder for an Amharic speaker than, say, learning French is for a Spanish speaker. Those who were vociferous about their Amhara identity would be rounded up and imprisoned, tortured, and killed. When Abiy Ahmed took power, he promised to address this festering sore, which only hardened the TPLF’s oppression in Welkait.
Breaking the cycle of revenge
The history taught by Tigrayan ethnonationalists takes the cycle of revenge further back, ascribing the original ‘annexation of Tigrayan land’ to Emperor Haile Selassie as punishment for the first Woyane Rebellion in 1943. Point taken. Haile Selassie must never again rule over Tigray. But by that same token, the TPLF cannot rule over Welkait again. Of course, Tigrayan refugees should be able to return to Welkait without fear of Amhara ethnonationalist violence, in return for Amharas in Welkait feeling safe from Tigrayan ethnonationalist oppression. Building the trust to enable this will take patience.
Instead, alas, Welkait has already become a significant underlying issue in dreadful clashes, going on since April 2023 in the officially recognized territory of Amhara Region, between the federal army and its former ally, Fano. This Amhara militia has refused an order to demobilize, citing, among numerous other complaints beyond the scope of this paper, that the TPLF has not completely disarmed, remains unreformed, and threatens yet another devastating attack on Amhara, including, as they see it, on Welkait. They are also afraid that the federal government will give in to international pressure, such as that exerted by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in May 2021, when he urged Ethiopia to let “western Tigray” be ruled from Mekelle again.
Though outsiders have no business drawing Ethiopia’s internal borders, they might support dialogue to halt the violence in Amhara, which is exacerbating toxic identity politics across the country and poses a huge threat to stability. Unsurprisingly, hardcore TPLF supporters would rather see their two former enemies carry on killing each other. And also unsurprisingly, the crudest of them all is Martin Plaut.
Stirring the pot was the essence of this fake-news tweet from Martin Plaut in May 2023. It played on Amharas’ distrust regarding Welkait to incite more clashes between Fano and federal forces.
Even the TPLF-supporting follower who replied was skeptical. She, along with everyone else, should take this as yet another lesson about Mr. Plaut’s unscrupulous character.
One Ethiopian who became lionized in the West
Since the 1990s, the ‘Tears of Welkait’ has been a prominent and emotional topic for Amharas, though it has rarely featured on the international stage. At first, the West was grateful to the TPLF for getting rid of the Derg regime. And over time, the oppression in a sparsely populated north-western corner was drowned out by so many other horrific human-rights violations across the country. Besides, the TPLF did not allow access to investigators.
But in 2021, the University of Gondar was able to move in its team of researchers, who mapped out changes of placenames, collected testimonies from locals, located holes in the ground used as prisons, and, most noticeably, dug up mass graves. Though this was covered intensely in Ethiopia, only minor Western media paid attention.
Until May 2022, when the BBC ran a shocking story suggesting that these graves were, in fact, filled with much more recent Tigrayan victims, and that the real purpose of digging them up was to do away with the evidence, carried out by security forces from Amhara supervised by the professors from Gondar. This allegation was based on telephone interviews with 15 unnamed eyewitnesses. It was backed by such journalistic research as: “experts have confirmed that it is possible to dispose of human remains using certain chemicals”. The claim was that the academics had gone to “western Tigray” to give specialist advice on doing away with the bodies, Mexican-mafia-style.
The conflation of 1-year-old corpses and 30-40-year-old bones would have involved a vast number of accomplices, and the story was so unsubstantiated that someone at the BBC seems to have gotten cold feet. Because, rather unusually, the University of Gondar’s indignant reply was also covered. However, the university’s full letter is not available on the BBC website, and the BBC has not, it appears, taken up the offer of going to the site with university staff. It is a safe bet that no attempt will ever be made to prove the accusation, which became quickly and quietly archived, just like, for instance, the massacre of the 750-800 Axum church-goers, and the chemical-weapons story, which, incidentally, Will Brown did not author alone for The Telegraph, but alongside the same journalist who implicated the University of Gondar in a grisly conspiracy.
Her name is Lucy Kassa, and she became massively sought-after during the war. In addition to the BBC and The Telegraph, she delivered reports to The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Los Angeles Time, VICE, The Globe and Mail, and many more.
Born and bred in Ethiopia, she speaks both Tigrinya and Amharic. Thus, she should have been better equipped to deliver context analysis than, say, Declan Walsh. However, she never tried her hand at edifying zoom-outs, specializing instead in horrifying closeups. In the casting of heroes, it fell to the white man to be “knowledgeable” and to the black woman to be “courageous”. Lucy Kassa got her big break by masterfully pushing the buttons of the single story about Africa: famine, tribalism, savagery.
One of her honors became the Magnitsky Human Rights Award, bestowed upon her shortly after the peace agreement. One reason given was: “She debunked misinformation, lies and propaganda on both sides”. In June 2022, to acclaim from Lord Alton, a whole BBC Assignment program was dedicated to her supposedly doing so.
What it really did was to distill the media manipulation thus far into 26 minutes. For instance, it has the standard mistranslation of Daniel Kibret to pass him off as a genocidal maniac. It omits the BBC’s and Lucy Kassa’s hastily aborted accusation against the University of Gondar levelled just one month earlier, ascribing opinions “rooted in conspiracy theories” to someone else, namely the Eritrean-American Simon Tesfamariam, who is introduced as the cofounder of “a means to popularize war-crimes denial”. Representing the opposing view, he is allowed a brief mention of the globally-publicized yet demonstrably made-up massacre and hyena feast of the church-goers in the central square of Axum, after which the producer and presenter, Chloe Hadjimatheou, remarks: “By the way, the Ethiopian government’s own Human Rights Commission has now admitted that the massacre in Axum took place, but for some reason Simon Tesfamariam is still denying it.” This obfuscation is followed by Lucy Kassa complaining that those people will never believe her, no matter what.
Indeed, any claim should be fiercely tested. With so much killing and dying going on, we should expect the crucial battle for the hearts and minds of the rich and powerful nations to be dirty. And what is the difference between Lucy Kassa debunking and creating misinformation, lies and propaganda? It is the truth. And what is the standard of truth? It is proof. Yet Lucy Kassa is no criminal investigator. In the BBC Assignment program, she replies to the token critical question on this by referring to medical records of rape being “smuggled out”, that is, out of a region where the TPLF’s propaganda apparatus has hundreds of doctors at its disposal.
Lucy Kassa wrote her stories based on personal testimonies, usually gathered by phone and presented anonymously. It is a common narrative technique to sprinkle articles with unverifiable quotes from unnamed people to provide a vox populi perspective. But Lucy Kassa did so to accuse of crimes against humanity in harrowing detail. She did it as stirringly as the best fiction. But was it real? Was it even realistic? Take what was allegedly asked by a four-year-old Tigrayan boy who crosses path with Ethiopian soldiers: “Mummy, are these the ones who were bombing us with planes? Are these the friends of Abiy and Isaias? Why don’t we just beat them with stones and go?” This quote was published in June 2021 as part of an autobiographical piece by Lucy Kassa in The New Humanitarian, a magazine with roots in the UN humanitarian system. The Amharic-speaking soldiers get the gist of the toddler’s Tigrinya, and subject the mother to a vicious grilling as to what was said. She desperately tries to placate them, but their hearts are cold as stone, as they sentence the little boy to death and shoot him right there, threatening to kill one more child if the mother takes the dead body with her for burial.
Did this happen? Or was it made up to provoke the emotional response that would draw in newspaper readers and justify war by an irregular army? If the answer to this question is not about solid proof, it all becomes a matter of preconception. The New Humanitarian needed but one woman’s word to paint Ethiopian soldiers as subhuman. Ethiopians would need much more than this retelling to accept that a whole group of their countrymen in public service could be so evil. Try, for instance, to replace it with American soldiers singling out a Muslim toddler for execution before the eyes of his mother. A potential Islamic State recruit might well accept that on faith, and even consider the author a champion of human rights, like The New Humanitarian did with Lucy Kassa. Western audiences, on the other hand, would have no trouble calling that out as incitement.
The other prominent Ethiopian journalist on the international stage was Zecharias Zelalem. He also stuck mostly to the TPLF-friendly narrative, but he did report, as early as August 2021 and in The Telegraph of all places, on TPLF troops’ “horrific revenge attacks” on Amhara civilians. Lucy Kassa, on the other hand, showed no interest in the rebels’ massacres during their victorious spell in 2021, such as those in Galicoma, Chenna and Kombolcha. At the height of the bloodshed, she even slipped up by mocking the enemy people with a classical ethnic slur in a tweet, which she quickly deleted. None of this would dent her heroine status with big media.
Among the last to join in the adulation of Lucy Kassa was The Economist, which invited her to present her working methods. It resulted in a brief article that was, characteristically, rich on accusations and poor on specifics.
Lucy Kassa was correct in stating that the Ethiopian government would not let journalists wade into war zones. Her more dubious claim that Ethiopia was under a “communications blackout” will be addressed in a later section.
“The Ethiopian reporter lives in exile because of her articles from Tigray”, announced the Economist, though Lucy Kassa never went to Tigray during the war, which she began to cover from Addis Ababa. She says her home was ransacked three months later. Concerned about her liberty and safety, she decided to leave the country.
In an ideal world, this should not have been necessary, but what is it fair to compare this to? Picture a Ukrainian journalist of Russian ethnicity who reports from Kyiv, based on phone calls to the Donbas Region, which she calls ‘western Russia’, about, among other outrages, a group of Ukrainian soldiers who gun down a Russian four-year-old after a sadistic mock trial. She would probably run into trouble with the Ukrainian authorities, which would seem perfectly understandable to us, just as we would expect her to be a shoo-in for the Putin Prize for Courageous Journalism.
If courage is to shirk the burden of proof, yet win raving reviews by pandering to the darkest prejudice about Africa, then Lucy Kassa is indeed singularly courageous. As we shall see later, there was to be an interesting twist to her work towards the end of the war, auguring a long and illustrious career, with more prizes yet to come.
It is as if Lucy Kassa being Ethiopian gave her license to go one up on her colleagues in portraying Ethiopians as depraved, fiendish, diabolical. In her depictions, civilians would not only be rounded up and murdered, but also mutilated and dismembered. Women and girls would not only be raped, but gang-raped with a hot metal rod being inserted to burn the uterus for the purposes of genocide.
Was rape used as a weapon?
Rape is even more taxing on the human heart than murder. We feel both empathy with the horrified victim and revulsion that a mind could be so sick as to obtain sexual gratification, or whatever it is, from such a misdeed. So when a woman accuses a man of rape, we do not jump to the defense of the accused, but listen to the accuser. This is how it should always be.
Nevertheless, before judging whether a man is guilty or not, civilized societies will hold a trial. Even in countries with well-funded legal systems, rape is notoriously difficult to prove in the courtroom. The presumption of innocence gives the defendant the right to have his accuser cross-examined, and material evidence will usually be required, or certainly looked into. This precaution against miscarriage of justice is taken despite how little a rational woman would gain from sending someone innocent to prison. The appropriate standard of proof is a hotly-debated issue, but few would suggest there should be none at all.
When it comes to sexual violence in a war scenario, however, lying does not require a crazy or vindictive woman, but merely a cold political calculation. And rather than one person shouldering the burden of deceit, a propaganda department can be at hand to reward and organize it.
The Tigrayan populace had many friends and relatives among fellow Ethiopians of other ethnicities further south, as well as among Eritreans to the north. This was an obstacle to mobilizing the anger required for a “people’s war”. To overcome this, the TPLF knew exactly which buttons to push.
The 120k and 130k figure became widely megaphoned by activists. Nobody knows the exact number, but Der Spiegel ventured ‘tens of thousands’.
There is no doubt that rape was committed by soldiers, and yes, on both sides. The best way forward is to support Ethiopian civil society and legal practitioners in investigating cases and bringing them to trial. What we have seen thus far, alas, has not allowed for distinguishing between facts demanding justice and disinformation to dehumanize, let alone for determining the extent of this ugliest of crimes.
This does not hold back the BBC, which reports, in 2023, that “systematic rape” has been “documented by the United Nations, human rights organizations and journalists”. The meaning of ‘documented’ and ‘systematic’ is left unclear. The article adds its own case, an anonymous woman who testifies from Tigray “on a crackly phone line”. The fact is that, while Ethiopian courts have tried and convicted a handful of its own soldiers of sexual violence, the media’s concept of documenting a litany of rape horror stories has never gone beyond gathering evidence that an organization as resourceful as the TPLF could easily have fabricated. These are mostly the statements of women, doctors and aid workers on TPLF-controlled territory.
On this basis, in April 2021, Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand, who would seven months later put her name to the genocide alert in The Guardian, co-wrote an emotional piece in Foreign Policy about mass rape of Tigrayan women. The first few lines dismiss the problem of equating accusation with proof during an intense disinformation war: “It takes courage for any woman to speak about her experience of rape. In a conservative society such as Ethiopia’s, it takes special bravery for a woman to share the most intimate and agonizingly raw details about her ordeal.”
It is easy to foresee any qualification of this half-true statement being branded as a heartless apology for rape. So when a Tigrayan journalist deserting from Radio Dimtse Woyane (‘Voice of the TPLF’) testified on Ethiopian television (incidentally to a famous interviewer who is also Tigrayan) about Tigrayan sex workers being paid to pose as university students and tell rape stories to foreign NGOs, nobody in the Western media or human-rights circles would touch it with a bargepole.
There were, however, seven African UN professionals serving in Ethiopia in 2021, who privately discussed the difficulty of sorting facts from fabrication, feeling under pressure to feed the media sensationalism and thus fuel the war. The audio of their meeting was leaked by a pro-TPLF website, indignant that Letty Chiwara, representative of UN Women to Ethiopia and to the AU, had used language such as “take it with a pinch of salt”. While the sensationalist press ignored it, it still caused a bit of a stir. Once again, one scholar had the guts to swim against the current.
It is precisely the heinous nature of rape that makes the accusation so incendiary, and no less so in a conservative society. There is a reason it was the Ku Klux Klan’s standard recipe for instigating lynchings of Black men in southern USA. In the phrasing of her op-ed, Helen Clark was oozing benevolent concern, so it may seem harsh to say she was really being a KKKesque hate-monger. But, hand on heart, who thinks she would have applied no higher standard of proof for soldiers from Scandinavia?
Moreover, the title of Ms. Clarke’s article strikes a more demonizing tone than criminal indiscipline by individual soldiers: “In Tigray, Sexual Violence Has Become a Weapon of War.” This explosive accusation was repeated, for instance, by Declan Walsh and Simon Marks, who exemplified it with the case of Mona Lisa Abraha, an 18-year-old Tigrayan. According to her harrowing story in the New York Times, she was shot and had her arm amputated after fighting off a sadistic Ethiopian soldier, although it was a whole group of Eritrean soldiers who had attempted to rape her in the version published by Al Jazeera one month earlier.
Mr. Mulueberhan Haile was one of many Tigrayans who risked their lives by serving as interim administrators during the seven months, from November 28, 2020, to June 28, 2021, when the federal army tried, but largely failed, to take charge of security in Tigray. Talking to Voice of America a few months into the war, he said: “When we started investigating, we found out there were women instructed to make false claims of rape and to engender a feeling of anger and resentment in the Tigrayan youth. (…) The evidence we did find was that there were local thugs, affiliated to and ordered by the TPLF, wearing Eritrean and Ethiopian army uniforms and carrying weapons, who were involved in burning crops, raping women and knocking on doors claiming they were Eritrean forces.”
Until Mr. Mulueberhan’s evidence has been properly assessed, it is, of course, just another witness account that could also have been shaped for propaganda purposes. Whether one considers him a Tigrayan dove or a traitor, I recommend listening to his testimony in its entirety (subtitled in English). He makes a point of not passing judgement on what he has not investigated. Indeed, prudence calls for being alert to the sophistication of the TPLF’s disinformation, particularly in an area as emotive as sexual violence. Such healthy skepticism may, admittedly, do injustice to real victims. It also passes up many a gripping human-interest story and slam-dunk virtue-signaling opportunity.
Accordingly, the coverage of this conflict has not only featured close-up-and-personal interviews with rape survivors, but also insisted ad nauseum on using the broader term ‘rape as a weapon of war’. Amnesty International also called it an Ethiopian ‘strategy of war’.
But how does this work? Assuming that there is the mental capacity for such inhumanity, not just among some bad apples, but in the high command of decision-makers, what can possibly be gained by ordering soldiers to descend into depraved cruelty? Yes, rape is life-destroying to be at the receiving end of, and yes, it can indeed terrify a whole community. But it does not make an insurgent population roll over and surrender. Quite the opposite. The TPLF used it as its number one recruitment tool: ‘Either you join us to kill the rapists, or you let those monsters have their way with your mother and sisters.’ It appeals to men’s honor. In some cases, it also appeals, alas, to their dishonor, as when some TPLF fighters invoked ‘revenge’ as a motive for raping women in Amhara and Afar. Yet, regardless of the side of the soldiers committing it, it is ill-suited to prevailing militarily and well-suited to undermining morale. The New York Times article tacitly conceded this point: “The sexual attacks are so common that even some Ethiopian soldiers have spoken out”. Why the word ‘even’? Of course, they will speak out! Ethiopian soldiers are human beings. Yes, sick bastards exist, and war can suppress their moral inhibitions and provide them with opportunities. But what is truly common is for human beings to abhor rape, including for soldiers on both sides of this war, many of whom were women.
To suggest otherwise is to dehumanize Ethiopians. A humanizing position recognizes that, while it is indeed in the mental-contortionist nature of our species to perceive reality as whatever suits our political biases, we want our own side to be the righteous side.
Thus, while ‘rape as a weapon of war’ works better as a shocking headline than as a meaningful strategy, how about weaponizing selective accusations of rape? How about weaponizing caring, compassionate, decent people’s gut desire to kill rapists? Yes, that sure makes a ton of sense.
Tony Magaña: From accused to accuser
Neurosurgeon and self-styled ‘Christian humanitarian’, Dr. Tony Magaña, was an American living in Mekelle, Tigray, when the war broke out. He was to be frequently rolled out as a truth witness, including to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, about such horrors as rape and its use as a biological weapon.
It is no secret that the full real name of this US citizen is Ignacio Antonio Magana. In Florida, he was arrested as far back as 2002 due to a series of sexual-assault accusations from his female patients. He was also hung out to dry in The Washington Post after he was suspended from practicing medicine in order to protect the public. In 2004, he pleaded guilty to battery and was sentenced to one year in the county jail (see image below). In 2005, he went on trial again for no less than ten women saying he forced himself on them across three counties in Florida, though he was cleared of the rape charges.
Ignacio Antonio ‘Tony’ Magana and his finger-printed sentence. The photos to the left were taken when he was in the dock in Florida. Those to the right are from his later years in Ethiopia.
The backstory of Dr. Magana has long been publicly discussed among Ethiopians on social media. He says he came to the country in 2012, and was recruited to work at Ayder Hospital in Mekelle, Tigray, “by leaders of the university, who were also members of the TPLF”. In a video from 2015, he presents his life story, minus the sexual-assault charges. While the war was raging, he said: “I know the TPLF leaders.” So how well did they know him? Since his sex-offender record was googleable and people knew about it on Facebook, the authorities at the time must have been aware of it, yet decided they could make him grateful, loyal and useful by taking him in.
To be fair, this Harvard graduate is probably an excellent neurosurgeon. He seems to have done some good work in Ethiopia. No complaint has surfaced that he molested women in Tigray. However, if he did, he is unlikely to go to Ethiopian prison, because the US embassy helped him leave the country early on in the war.
But such a character is clearly not a reliable truth witness. So did those august human-rights bodies believe in his testimonies? He has certainly been spreading the genocide narrative in graphic and horrific detail, hyenas and all.
Since fleeing Ethiopia, Dr. Magana has featured as a medical authority on Tigrayan suffering in a newspaper as prestigious as the Spanish El País. He has also provided input to the Belgian academic and activist Jan Nyssen’s ‘estimate’ of a death toll by March 2022 of about half a million in Tigray alone (Professor Nyssen was never interested in casualties in other regions).
For lack of other reliable data, this number, essentially plucked out of thin air, became fabulously widely-quoted. It was described as a study by “researchers”, in plural, at the University of Ghent, as it was co-authored by Tim Vanden Bempt, who also takes an openly activist approach. El País even referred to “Estimates by European institutions and academics” about what seems to be just the work of Jan Nyssen, assisted by Tim Vanden Bempt and Tony Magaña, albeit echoed by countless other actors in a kind of feedback loop that turned it into a truism. It led to the frequent statement that this war was deadlier than the one in Ukraine. This could well be true, but it is safe to assert that the vast majority of deaths occurred on the battlefield.
The total death toll was gradually revised upwards in the media, although The Guardian, interestingly, ended up changing it into a more noncommittal “tens of thousands”. Politicians and supposed statesmen would throw this and higher numbers around without as much as indicating a source. Alex de Waal made it a million for good measure, saying this was “according to research published by academics in Belgium”.
But where was this research published? I searched for it in vain. So I went undercover online as a naïve journalist to ask Jan Nyssen for the original study. He was keen to help out. But all he had to show for it was an update of the original brief article on Martin Plaut’s website with the link to Tony Magaña’s blog. The first piece from March 2022 estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 Tigrayans had died from starvation alone, while in October 2022, this was revised upwards to between 228,398 and 356,102. In April 2023, Tim Vanden Bempt suggested a total between 248,753 and 555,082 fatalities, again from famine alone.
This represents terrifying carnage with emaciated bodies on a scale impossible to hide. So where was the evidence for it?
The right honourable Lord Alton uses the right dishonourable Tony Magaña as his truth witness as a variation from the usual “experts” Jan Nyssen, Kjetil Tronvoll and Alex de Waal. One constant throughout the war became partisan voices bouncing off one another as sources of evidence.
Was famine used as a weapon?
Ever since the legendary 1985 Live Aid concert, with every good person singing along to “We are the world”, weaponized starvation in Ethiopia has been a huge cultural meme. And tapping into cultural memes is the number one effortless way to situate the public in a complex and little-known context.
Famine caused by Ethiopia starving Tigray on purpose was reported so many times, it turned into a truism. But was it true?
After the TPLF took possession of most of the nation’s heavy weaponry in the attack on the Northern Command, the Ethiopian government imposed a military blockade on TPLF-controlled territory. This was to prevent more weapons and cash from entering, as well as to control the flow of dual-use products, such as fuel. The need to smuggle in imports combined with the TPLF demanding, at machine-gunpoint, that all resources of little Tigray be dedicated to a big war. This crippled the economy and led to immense hardship among ordinary citizens throughout the Tigray Region, compounded by the degrading or the disappearance of public services, to which we shall return. The economy of Tigray sustained lives, but it also sustained a war machine that was taking lives.
This was the grim dilemma faced by Ethiopia. A brutal attack that posed an existential threat was the context in which to seek evidence for Ethiopia’s culpability, not just for extreme poverty, but also for a widely proclaimed man-made famine in Tigray. As it turned out, the burden of proof was simply pushed aside with the cultural meme.
I have subscribed for ages to The Economist, which has an admirable track record of challenging the consensus with empirical evidence and rational arguments. So it still had loads of credibility credit on my account when it wrote, 2½ months into the war, that “Ethiopia’s government appears to be wielding hunger as a weapon”, using that celebrated 1985 pop concert as the establishing shot. An accompanying article suggested that a million deaths were just a couple of months away. This was based on quoting an anonymous “Western diplomat”. At the time, I considered this worrying, yet implausible. Food crops are grown all over Tigray. And killing on such a scale has historically been committed by Utopian ideologues, not by liberalizing multiethnic coalitions.
Disturbingly, The Economist praised the EU for suspending aid to Ethiopia, making the case for even more financial pressure on its sputtering war economy, which was at odds with The Economist’s own reporting of government-appointed bodies that were seeking to address the humanitarian crisis. “It is possible that Ethiopia’s government is too incompetent to realise that its actions are likely to cause starvation. But it seems more likely that the authorities are deliberately holding back food in an effort to starve the rebels out”, said The Economist. The newspaper did not entertain the possibility that it could itself be too incompetent to see through the fog of war and comprehend the dilemmas involved. But at least its opinions at this point were littered with caveats, such as “if true” and “there are credible reports”.
Such doubt had been washed away by October 9, 2021, eleven months into the war, and three months after the fighting and misery had moved from Tigray to Afar and Amhara, with Addis Ababa looking exposed. Now The Economist leader was headlined: “No favours for killers: Ethiopia is deliberately starving its own citizens”. Among a string of terrifying claims, including the aforementioned one about the Axum massacre, was that more than 5m people did not have enough to eat, that 400,000 were facing catastrophic hunger, described as “the last step on the path to mass starvation.”
The other side of the story was presented thus: “Ethiopia’s government insists it is doing all it can to help the hungry in Tigray and, in particular, that it is letting aid pass through its blockade. Data from the UN tell a different story.”
What UN data? The UN is a vast organization, but one particular UN high-up became the source for the mass-starvation story that became a fixture in media big and small, namely the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, colloquially known as ‘the Relief Chief’.
Mr. Lowcock’s declared on June 10, 2021: “There is a famine now”, and “this is going to get a lot worse”. On BBC, Alex de Waal graphically described slow starvation death. For evidence, he referred to the “researchers” at the University of Ghent. He noted, however, that the technical report into the matter did not use the word famine, which he put down to it being “so politically sensitive – the Ethiopian government would object”.
Six days earlier, when Will Brown used Mr. Lowcock as the source for his piece in The Telegraph “Starvation used ‘as a weapon of war’ in Ethiopia”, he added that: “Senior observers have hailed Mr. Lowcock as one of the few senior UN voices speaking truth on the catastrophic situation on the ground.” Indeed, he was one of the few who said there was a famine. But the media and fellow high-ups from the aid world quickly decided to use him as the one and only authoritative voice of the UN humanitarian system.
An insider who served the people of Tigray
So did any UN high-up say that there was not a famine?
Yes! The foremost UN official specialized in this matter, someone on the frontline of organizing humanitarian access with leaders on both sides, the key person in the logistical thick of it all, would talk of “deep food insecurity”, but say this about Mr. Lowcock’s announcement of a famine: “To those of us on the ground in Ethiopia, it was an astonishing declaration. Not only was it not his role to declare a famine, we knew that he had no evidence to back such a declaration. There was no expert who could credibly support his claim. On the contrary, experts had just announced that there was no famine in Tigray. But the voice of the ERC [Mark Lowcock] could not be ignored. Every major news outlet carried the story.”
The quote is from the book ‘At the Centre of the World in Ethiopia’. The author is Steven Were Omamo, a Kenyan national with an accomplished career in agricultural development and food security, who became the UN World Food Programme (WFP) Country Director for Ethiopia in 2018. He concludes: “As I write this [in the second half of 2022], there is no famine in Tigray. During my service in Ethiopia [until the end of 2021], there was no famine in Ethiopia. Whether there was ‘near famine’ in Tigray will never be known. But we do know with certainty that every single one of the loudly proclaimed conditions for ‘near famine’ to turn into ‘famine’ came to be, but without any appearance of famine.”
Dr. Omamo’s written testimony is finally getting some attention, albeit a fraction of what it deserves, since it makes for uncomfortable self-questioning in newsrooms. It reveals how nuanced reality was consistently trumped by alarmist narrative, and also reflects more broadly on the UN humanitarian system, created as a safety net for the world’s most vulnerable people, yet run as a big-money industry by top-level careerists.
Dr. Omamo paints a picture of hard-working, committed UN workers on the ground in dire tension with senior UN political appointees, who prioritized moral grandstanding over distributing relief supplies, let alone being honest with the public. For instance, on June 8, 2021, the then-head of the WFP, David Beasley, tweeted that people were “dying of hunger in Tigray”. Dr. Omamo writes: “As usual, WFP Ethiopia had not been consulted. This tweet damaged our standing among important food assistance partners who, like us, were receiving reports from staff in Tigray that there was no evidence of famine at all. Zero. (…) I called trusted staff in Tigray. (…) There was no evidence at all of anyone dying of hunger. None. Zero. Yet here was the WFP boss claiming that there were. All without evidence. It was tough to explain.” Dr. Omamo did, however, have an inkling of what was going on: “The need to align science and politics for the benefit of the needy was ignored. Raw politics took over.” And: “There seemed to be only one acceptable narrative. Bad-guy Government, good-guy TPLF.”
To be clear, Dr. Omamo does write about obstacles that were not just the fault of the TPLF. To reach Tigray, the humanitarian convoys had to move through areas where the “WFP and other UN agencies were being openly vilified, threatened and attacked by the local population with the tacit encouragement of politicians.” And yet, under his leadership, solutions were negotiated with the Amhara regional authorities. Dr. Omamo saw his mission first and foremost as saving lives. This required the tough balancing act of getting on with both sides in a brutal war, adhering to ‘neutrality’ and ‘impartiality’, among other humanitarian principles. He had no choice but to take all perspectives into account. For Ethiopia, there were security concerns. And for the TPLF there were, as he recounts vividly, “more important strategic priorities” than food insecure Tigrayans, namely spending fuel and food on its army, which, by July 2021, began to advance into Amhara and Afar, causing humanitarian distress there too, aggravated by the TPLF’s aforementioned looting of food-aid warehouses.
Dr. Omamo describes how, during his coordination visits to Mekelle, he badly needed to get on with the TPLF’s man in charge of humanitarian assistance. But Dr. Omamo knew how edgy the Ethiopian government was about the risk of fuel for food distribution ending up in the TPLF’s war machine, that is, not to save but to take lives, so he pushed to get the TPLF to allocate some of its own fuel for humanitarian purposes. This was flatly refused. So was permission to bring food assistance by air or road into TPLF-held parts of Amhara. Dr. Omamo also got nowhere in the delicate task of complaining about TPLF soldiers who were harassing UN workers in Amhara, including sexually. On a more positive note, however, the TPLF representative admitted that Dr. Omamo had traveled to Mekelle with the purpose of serving the people of Tigray.
As fighting intensified in northern Amhara, an alternative route for relief supplies was through the hot desert in north-eastern Ethiopia, inhabited by the traditionally camel-herding Afar people. However, Afar was also attacked by the TPLF, mainly because a crucial supply line runs through this region from the port in Djibouti to Addis Ababa and beyond.
Incidentally, if the TPLF had been, as Declan Walsh claimed, “at the vanguard of a movement pressing for greater autonomy for Ethiopia’s regions”, Afar should have joined rather than resisted the invaders. The only Afar person to do so was the one who had been installed as regional president when the TPLF was in power at the center, namely Haji Seyoum Awel. He relocated to Mekelle and supported the TPLF verbally from there. The other Afar people fought tenaciously and paid with ravaged towns and innumerable lives.
SKY News published a report from the ground in Afar on October 21, 2021, which subtly challenged the narrative that Ethiopia’s central government was blocking food aid. It describes the fury of the locals who had been left hungry, exhausted and grieving after the TPLF’s raids, and now had to watch convoys of trucks driving right through their territory to bring food, even fuel, to their enemy. Unsurprisingly, some young fighters decided to distribute those supplies among their own people by seizing trucks along the narrow road.
Dr. Omamo’s diplomatic skills were sorely tested, but were up to the task. While his boss in Rome, David Beasley, was posturing with urgent demands for WFP convoys to start rolling “not in a month, not in a week, NOW”, they had in fact been rolling through Afar into Tigray for many weeks. Dr. Omamo elaborates: “This was made possible with support and facilitation from the Afar President’s Office and several federal authorities. We were receiving this support and facilitation despite the cognitive dissonance and political difficulties it created for them while the TF [TPLF] offensive into Afar and Amhara continued. (…) I had personally been negotiating with the Ministry of Peace and the NDRMC [National Disaster Risk Management Commission] for approval for the fuel tankers to go in.”
An official WFP press release in August 2021 provided alarming figures about malnutrition in Tigray and said it had been unable to reach “communities on the verge of famine”. However, it also reported feeding “another 1 million people in Tigray during June and July”. Several obstacles were mentioned, but the Ethiopian government was featured only as a partner, not as an adversary.
And yet, while Dr. Omamo pours praise on his team members on the ground for these impressive results under grueling circumstances, he writes that Ethiopia-based UN workers, especially African ones, were profoundly distrusted by the political UN leadership. Indeed, this tension was confirmed by other incidents, such as the firing, in October 2021, of Dr. Omamo’s compatriot, the UN Migration Agency’s Ethiopia Chief, Maureen Achieng, after audio was leaked of her complaining to a Canadian journalist, Jeff Pearce, that UN high-ups from outside of Ethiopia were aggressively pursuing a pro-TPLF agenda. Steven Were Omamo managed to keep his job, but was repeatedly berated for being “too close to the government”. He found this nothing to be ashamed of: “I had developed deep relationships with Government officials at all levels because that was my role. That was my duty. That was my obligation. I did it well. WFP was trusted and admired as an organization. How could that be a problem?”
This is a crucial point. For it to make sense that starvation was being used as a weapon, the WFP staff moving the food on the ground should have been prevented from operating or kicked out by the Ethiopian government. Instead, they were treated as partners. Ethiopia’s beef with the WFP was exclusively with the leaders making incendiary statements from afar.
The self-serving glory-seeker
In October 2021, as the TPLF was pushing deep into Amhara and Afar, Helen Clark advocated for the UN to declare a famine in Tigray, linking to a BBC article by Alex de Waal that concluded: “The question is no longer whether there is famine in Tigray, but how many people will starve to death before it is stopped.”
Starting in September 2021, it transpired that of the 466 last trucks entering Tigray, only 38 had returned. They too were commandeered for “more important strategic priorities”. Mark Lowcock’s new replacement as UN Relief Chief, Martin Griffiths, insisted that the central government was at fault. About the missing trucks, he speculated that “they probably don’t have the fuel to come out”, as if this were not his responsibility.
Dr. Omamo’s book confirms that Tigrayan drivers had been harassed by local militia along the route, so some of them stayed in Tigray. If this was voluntary, it was their right, but keeping the trucks was not. The Ethiopian government proposed a buffer area for the swapping of drivers, which was ignored.
According to the NDRMC, by June 2022, a total of 1,128 UN food-aid trucks had not returned from Tigray. There was hardly any UN protest, let alone self-reproach, over its capital stock thus contributing to taking rather than saving lives. The Ethiopian government was not impressed. However, even with a shortage of trucks and battles raging along all access points, in December 2021, the government reported a substantial number of flights and truckloads of humanitarian supplies going into Tigray. This did not make the news.
Compared to UN bosses working from Italy, Switzerland and the USA, the Western diplomats living in Ethiopia tended to express more understanding of the Ethiopian perspective and to praise cooperative Ethiopian officials. Dr. Omamo observes how their embassies would steer clear of controversial relief-aid and human-rights issues. Yet the UN humanitarian system was squeezed to the last drop for “overt politization”.
Steven Were Omamo’s book does not mention Mark Lowcock by name, but he is easy to identify by his title. He must also have inspired Dr. Omamo’s witty archetype of the “glory-seeking self-serving cowboy”, who gets easily bored reading, fact-checking and getting the life-saving job done, but relishes the chance to hog the limelight with histrionic declarations about himself fighting for good against evil.
Never mind Lowcock lying
In April 2021, ‘Mark Lowcock says’ was once again headlined as ‘the UN says’ that there is weaponization of rape. Helen Clark’s aforementioned piece affirmed that, speaking behind closed doors to the UN Security Council, Mark Lowcock had said that “there is no doubt that sexual violence is being used in this conflict as a weapon of war, as a means to humiliate, terrorize and traumatize and entire population today and into the next generation”.
It was nigh-impossible for the UN Security Council to verify Mr. Lowcock’s retelling of an anonymous Tigrayan woman’s ordeal of being gang-raped by Eritrean soldiers after her baby and husband were killed. But there was one detail in his testimony on April 15, 2021 that was relatively simple to check, or at least should have been easy to back up with piles of evidence. He had received reports of 150 people starving to death in a district called Ofla, just a little south of Mekelle. This was immediately spread across the globe, as one would expect. Only Ethiopian media gave serious consideration to the Ethiopian government’s vehement denial. Next up should be the harrowing photos, like the ones from 1984-85, of throngs of villagers with emaciated bodies roaming the highway.
Except such pictures were never produced. USAID Chief Samantha Power tweeted a distressing picture of an emaciated child (from an Associated Press article written in Nairobi). It had been “provided anonymously” with an unverifiable claim about where and when it was taken. The children in the group photos and their mothers appeared to be of normal body weight.
As for Mr. Lowcock’s claim about Ofla, Steven Were Omamo’s book notices in passing how it was “shameful” that Mr. Lowcock “had falsely claimed that the UN knew of ‘more than 150 people’ who had ‘starved to death’ in a place called Ofla, south of Mekelle. Mr. Lowcock had added that he believed ‘many more people’ had died but could ‘not provide a figure’, and that he was already seeing echoes of the ‘colossal tragedy’ of the 1984-85 famine in Ethiopia.”
And yet, Lowcock dropped it right away when pushed by the government to produce the evidence for the Ofla tragedy. He did what everyone has done throughout this conflict after failing to back up their wild accusations against Ethiopia. He just stopped talking about it and moved on to the next accusation. Thus, Mr. Lowcock’s climbdown was not splashed on the front pages, or even made searchable online. In fact, the story of the 150 deaths from starvation in Ofla continues to be presented as fact to this day, for instance, in a book from 2023 by Martin Plaut and Sarah Vaughan.
A special report on the Tigray situation, published by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs in August 2021, treats the veracity of Mark Lowcock’s claim as an irrelevance: “In response to UN Representative Mark Lowcock’s statement that 150 people had starved to death in the Tigrayan woreda of Ofla, the Ethiopian authorities claimed that no one in Tigray had died of starvation and that humanitarian assistance in the region was going well. However, a confidential source stated in May 2021 that humanitarian aid was still insufficient to help the 4.5 million people in need properly.”
Is this saying that the Ofla story was true or untrue? It is remarkable how little interest there was in finding out whether or not Mark Lowcock was lying to the UN Security Council and, in effect, to the whole world about this matter, and whether he should thus be trusted or distrusted on so many others. The media were fed what they needed for a horror story that was a cultural meme, and this time not from the undeniably partisan Jan Nyssen, but from such a respectable-seeming ‘neutral’ as Mark Lowcock. There was no appetite for digging into the real scandal here, namely that the UN Relief Chief was violating every humanitarian principle in the book to demonize one side in the war and politicize the UN humanitarian system, instead of reporting the knowable facts.
Conversely, there was a burning hunger for activism on what seemed like a slam-dunk issue of good against evil. For instance, in June 2021, the trendy leftist columnist George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian about “the looming famine in Tigray”. He is not exactly an Ethiopia specialist, but he was already adventurous and idealistic back in 1984, when communist dictator Mengistu Hailemariam lied to deny that starvation was being used as a weapon. And so he slammed Abiy Ahmed for doing the same again. “There is great weight of evidence”, he claimed, with reference to – surprise, surprise – the statements of Mark Lowcock. Linking to the works of assorted TPLF propagandists, he then waxed lyrical about pre-war Tigray being a “world-renowned success story” and “outstanding example”, so full of communal spirit that “every fit person over the age of 18 spends 20 days a year on collective projects to rehabilitate the land.” Watch out for Mr. Monbiot’s next attempt to romanticize some authoritarian clique’s power games as a progressive cause.
Relief aid fuels the war, literally
Apart from its continued raids into Afar, the TPLF was pushed back into Tigray at the end of 2021. However, the federal government decided not to pursue the rebel army into its home region. In explaining why, the government was candid about its failure to win over the local population during the seven months when it controlled Tigray, from November 28, 2020 to June 28, 2021.
On March 24, 2022, the Ethiopian government declared a unilateral truce. During the lull in fighting that followed, the WFP convoys rolled unhindered. The feeding of millions was proudly announced by the UN in June. And yet, without becoming more specific than “according to the UN”, a “de facto humanitarian blockade on Tigray” continued to be the go-to-truism in mainstream war coverage, and has remained so ever since. This would not only ignore official Ethiopian sources, but also WFP Ethiopia’s steady stream of announcements of food being transported into Tigray, as well as Afar and Amhara.
At this point, Mark Lowcock, now former UN Relief Chief, accused the humanitarian system of bowing to Ethiopian pressure by not officially declaring a famine. This was reported by Will Brown in The Telegraph, on June 8, 2022. As the source for “estimates of hundreds of thousands facing famine”, Mr. Brown linked to an article that his own newspaper had published in March, right before the truce. It invoked the authority of the WHO, whose Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, blasted Ethiopia for “the blockade, the siege”. It was mentioned that he grew up in Tigray, but not that he had dedicated his adult life to rising through the ranks of the rebel group.
Dr. Tedros would press on with the same successful formula of claiming that a famine was ongoing, and even that medical doctors were collapsing from hunger.
Then, on July 15, 2022, the WFP declared that famine in Tigray had been averted! Apart from Ethiopian media and one BBC podcast (since deleted), this was not found newsworthy. The attention it did get was from Getachew Reda describing it as “gross”. He now insisted the problem was a lack of fuel for distribution. “The claim that they have averted famine is the height of irresponsibility!” he tweeted. Dr. Tedros chipped in with a video of a crying mother and the message that “the siege must end”, emphasizing the lack of fuel, without which the food could not be distributed. Because, by then, the massive inflow of humanitarian supplies, albeit played down in the world press, was being officially recognized.
This is when a new narrative was created, echoed by the EU Commissioner for Crisis Management, Janez Lenarcic: “So now we have a situation, where humanitarian houses in Mekelle are full, but the people out there in the countryside are still hungry,” he said when he visited Ethiopia, including Tigray, in late June 2022. “There's a need to lift restrictions, especially on the provision of fuel.”
This showed not only that the TPLF’s humanitarian discourse was purely instrumental, but also that the Ethiopian government had good reason to be apprehensive about unrestricted fuel deliveries to Tigray. Because the fuel heist on August 24, 2022, was immediately followed by the breaking of the truce. Both sides blamed each other for starting hostilities, but the TPLF moved south of Tigray and captured Kobo, a town in Amhara Region. This was, rather predictably, a last-gasp offensive that would only worsen the TPLF’s position in the later negotiations.
Alex de Waal, however, responded to the rekindling of war by blaming the international actors who had tried to bring the parties to the table, foreseeing that fighting would now carry on to the bitter end.
Kjetil Tronvoll, meanwhile, declared that the TPLF was within its rights to take the fuel.
From then on, no truck would make it through the frontline until after the peace agreement on November 2, 2022. And yet, on November 1, the WFP boasted of mass distribution from its warehouses in Mekelle.
The food-for-cannon-fodder scheme
In late December 2021, just when the war had turned against the TPLF, Getachew Reda intoned the musical lyrics of the cultural meme: “Children in Tigray have no clue if it’s Christmas”. As someone often mocked for being overweight talking about famine, he might have pondered his own culpability, not just for starting the war, but for Tigrayan misgovernance. Even in the absence of war or famine, child malnutrition has long been a huge problem in the region. George Monbiot’s vision of a community-spirited Tigray contrasted with a reality in which the TPLF leaders’ own children were living abroad, while the rich could buy freedom from military service. Young people running away would have their parents imprisoned.
This graphic meme became popular among pro-Ethiopian activists during the war.
The Tigrayans interviewed by Ann Fitz-Gerald in Amhara and Afar in March-April 2022 testified that the TPLF leaders appropriated food aid, making its distribution conditional on families enlisting their children in the rebel army. The report says: “Sixty percent of the respondents described how any individuals inquiring about food directly to aid organizations would be arrested.”
This was confirmed from an unexpected quarter, the aforementioned massively sought-after, Tigrinya- and Amharic-speaking journalist Lucy Kassa, who invalidated the fuel pretext by writing, a whole week before the robbery and final TPLF offensive, that warehouses in Mekelle were full of food, while people living in the same city were “dying unable to receive the aid they are entitled to”.
Not that Lucy Kassa ought to have had any credibility left by then to accuse either side. But the fact is that she had acquired superstardom in big media, so her holding the TPLF rather than Ethiopia responsible for the hunger made quite an impact. Her reports against the TPLF did not take off until June 2022, and were never to become as graphic and grisly as the ones she did against the federal government and its allies. Nonetheless, people on both sides of the war were astonished to discover that she was not actually a dyed-in-the-wool Tigrayan ethnonationalist. Her main desire was to be the “courageous” one, which was ill-served by staying wedded to the TPLF’s increasingly discredited cause, and brilliantly accomplished with a claim to have exposed both sides.
A gut-wrenching BBC documentary, however, slammed only the Ethiopian government for the misery in Tigray.
The BBC ‘Africa Eye’ program titled ‘Tigray under Siege’ premiered in October 2022, using Arte TV footage from July. It featured many hungry people and a couple of starving individuals. A Tigrayan girl blamed “the enemy”. The regional president, Debretsion Gebremichael, portrayed it as an attempted genocide. An African-accented voiceover said the Ethiopian government started the war. No alternative viewpoint about the conflict was presented.
So many reputable voices echoing the propaganda lie that Ethiopia was creating a famine in Tigray provoked angst and sowed hatred, especially in the Tigrayan diaspora. Thus, the urgent conversation about the political causes and the democratic solutions was shouted down by a crude victimization discourse, which tore into so many interethnic friendships. It also served to mobilize, fundraise and lobby for the TPLF’s military campaign, bringing death and destruction, including to the people in Tigray who were supposedly being championed, but, as anyone with eyes can see today, would have been spared a lot, if the TPLF had given up sooner.
Was Ethiopia responsible for services in Tigray?
The Irish MEP, Clare Daly, summed it up when she accused the Ethiopian government of weaponizing “all basic services [in Tigray] such as water, electricity, communication, and even access to bank accounts”, describing it as “collective punishment”. This sounds like something out of a vicious occupation regime. However, Ms. Daly said this on October 5, 2022, when the Ethiopian army had not been in control of Tigray for over 15 months, rendering it unable to provide the one service more basic than those she did mention, the sine qua non for all the others, namely security.
When Ethiopia tried to take charge of Tigray’s security after November 28, 2020, it fully understood its obligation to provide all those services and more. This was despite the fact that the TPLF, simultaneously with the attack on the Northern Command, shut down the region’s mobile network, among other acts of sabotage. Should Ethiopia have carried on providing services after its troops were pushed out by the insurgents on June 28, 2021?
This is what leading voices in the international community consistently demanded, the idea being that the services were not so much produced on site as enabled simply by not switching them off remotely. And yes, the telecoms network was probably deactivated by Ethiopian troops before retreating from Tigray, seeking to hamper enemy communications. Nevertheless, keeping it activated would always have required maintenance. The Tigrayan water supply comes from Tigray. The power grid in northern Ethiopia is fed almost exclusively by the Tekeze Hydroelectric Dam on Tigray’s border with Amhara, which the TPLF invaded with Operation Mothers of Tigray on July 12, 2021. Interestingly, Dr. Aregawi Hagos said, after he escaped from Tigray around April 2022, that water was scarce, but electricity in Tigray was “fully available”.
And yet, in a declaration on October 7, 2021, while the TPLF troops were marching on Addis Ababa, the European Parliament: “Calls for basic public services such as electricity and banking services to be fully reestablished, and for restrictions on telecommunications and internet access in Tigray to be lifted.”
This held the Ethiopian central authorities to account for not providing services in an area in which its representatives were being paraded as hostages in the street! Actually, at that stage of the war, it was the TPLF which was responsible for providing services to the 15-million-strong non-Tigrayan population under its control in Afar and Amhara. But nobody even mentioned that.
Of course, the hardship of living without those amenities was real, not just for the city dwellers, who were used to them, but also for rural folks, who had their economy crippled and, for instance, their teachers and doctors going without pay. Using the non sequitur that this suffering was proof of Ethiopian perfidy, the uppermost voice of the UN insisted, only one day after the Ethiopian government’s unilateral truce declaration on March 24, 2022:
“The Secretary-General [António Guterres] therefore reiterates his call for the restoration of public services in Tigray, including banking, electricity and telecommunication.”
Well, good luck with that. By then, the special legal regime in rebel-controlled territory banned anyone from collaborating with representatives of the federal government, with penalties ranging from 15 years in prison to death. These were not mere words. In the seven months when Ethiopia was tenuously in control of the region, Tigrayans working with the interim administration were killed as traitors.
The one move that Ethiopia could have made was to deliver truckloads of cash for the TPLF to run banking services. This is when we get to the should. The Ethiopian people were angry enough with their government over its “goodwill gesture” on January 7, 2022, of releasing Sebhat Nega, the aforementioned “Godfather of the TPLF”, who had been captured in the early stages of the war. They would have been livid, had their rulers also replenished the banks of a region whose entire economy had been repurposed to kill and conquer them. Incidentally, in August 2022, Lucy Kassa also wrote that cash was being confiscated arbitrarily by the Tigrayan authorities.
In a press briefing in Addis Ababa on September 20, 2022, Mike Hammer, the latest of a string of US Special Envoys, said that the TPLF leaders, when they talked to him during his trip to Mekelle back on August 2, had made it “very clear that they were preparing for potential hostilities if there wasn’t a restoration of services, as they were making the case that Tigrayans were suffering badly. I mean, it’s not only Tigrayans; in fact, the Afar and Amhara people are without services as well.”
Thus, Mike Hammer not only placed the blame for breaking the truce on the TPLF, but also pulled the rug out from under the notion that the lack of services in Tigray was down to Ethiopian truculence, even more so, as he commented that the Ethiopian government had “recognized their responsibility for trying to provide services for all Ethiopians. But you need a conducive environment in order to do so. You need a conducive security environment.”
Admirably, Mr. Hammer stuck to this line, whereas USAID Director, Samantha Power joined Dr. Tedros in continuing to scold Ethiopia for not providing banking, telecoms etc. in Tigray. So did a Western-sponsored UN resolution, which also called for the lifting of restrictions on cash and fuel supplies into Tigray, all this simultaneously with the fierce battles that would soon after end the war and enable the gradual restoration of normality.
Understandable though the frustration over lack of services was, holding Ethiopia responsible for providing them inside rebel-held territory lay somewhere between disdaining its security and demanding the impossible. It was not the most virulent scapegoating of Ethiopia in the war, but it was the most preposterous.
As law and order returned to Tigray, technicians were brought in to repair broken infrastructure. As it turned out, this was going to take some time, but has today been largely completed. Some Ethiopians mutter that the government is prioritizing the rebuilding of Tigray over equally affected areas in Afar and Amhara. If this is true, it could be both to respond to the international focus on Tigray and to prevent the conditions for an insurgency.
While Ethiopian battlefield heroics and African Union leadership were decisive in ending the war, the socially awkward Mr. Hammer, finding that this problem was not a nail, did contribute more to peace than his predecessors. To the chagrin of Alex de Waal, he declined to back the TPLF’s wildest claims. In particular, he repeatedly stressed that the US opposed the breakup of Ethiopia. This made sense. A newly independent Tigray would have been landlocked, in territorial disputes with its neighbors, and even more of a refugee-producing garrison state than Eritrea.
A stubborn myth about the right of secession needs to be dispelled here, widely believed among Ethiopians themselves, and spread by sloppy foreign journalists and academics. For instance, Alex de Waal expounded, in his basic explainer for the BBC early on in the war, that the ethnic autonomy enshrined in the Constitution of 1994 was the real bone of contention. He even set out the historical rationale for its unique provision of allowing “a region to go its own way”. Well, he just forgot to read it. Because the relevant Article 39 is not about secession for the regions (called ‘States’ in the version in English), but for: “Every Nation, Nationality and People”. Section 5 clearly defines this as an ethnic group. There are over 80 of these, but only six of the eleven regions are conceived as the homeland of one majority ethnicity, and even they have many minorities in their midst, who could in turn, as per Article 47, carve out their separate regions. In theory, Tigrayans could break away as a Nation, Nationality and People, but without any automatic right to the Tigray Region’s territory.
Human-rights processes: the joint report
Notwithstanding the propaganda lies disguised as human-rights discourse, there is no doubt that real war crimes were committed that cry out for justice.
Online debate between supporters of the TPLF and of the federal government has mainly consisted of trading accusations of atrocities, usually based on eyewitness accounts, occasionally on photographic materials. Ann Fitz-Gerald was quick to point out how only advanced forensic instruments can see through the fog of war, in which each side is convinced that the other side’s claims are fabrications and that their own side always speaks the truth. Indeed, nearly all Ethiopians would support justice, including against individuals from their own side, for outrages like rape, murder of civilians and of prisoners of war, provided that guilt is ascertained in an impartial manner.
From the moment the war broke out, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) intensified their communications. In March 2021, they agreed to conduct a joint investigation, carried out from May 16 to August 30. We shall soon look at the criticism of it, which was intense already prior to its findings. These were presented on November 3, 2021, that is, at a highly sensitive moment, just as the TPLF’s Operation Mothers of Tigray was advancing dangerously towards the capital and committing atrocities in Afar and Amhara, none of which was covered in what was to be dubbed ‘the joint report’, as it dealt only with events until June 28, 2021, the date when federal forces withdrew from Tigray and declared a unilateral ceasefire. Nevertheless, it remains by far the least-bad study of human-rights violations during the conflict, with access to some of the crime scenes and face-to-face contact with some of the witnesses. It described incidents of shocking contempt for the laws of war, such as extrajudicial executions and rape committed by soldiers on both sides. There was plenty in there to tarnish the rebel army as well as the federal army and its allies.
The Ethiopian government’s extensive reply basically accepted the report, expressing partial vindication. It was established that the war began with the attack on the Northern Command. Genocide was discussed, but not applied to the Ethiopian war effort. Nor was it claimed that rape had been ordered from above. Investigators looked into the strong accusations leveled by Mark Lowcock. Not only did it find no evidence of “starvation as a weapon of war”. It also “could not confirm deliberate or willful denial of humanitarian assistance to the civilian population in Tigray” by the Ethiopian government, although more research into this subject was suggested.
Incidentally, this meant that The Economist’s claim, less than a month earlier, that “Ethiopia is deliberately starving its own people” had now been tested and found unproven by a UN-sponsored investigation that was, whatever its flaws, much more thorough than any journalistic research conducted into the matter. So I sent an email to The Economist correspondent in Addis Ababa at the time, Tom Gardner, who, to his credit, responded with a good-faith exchange. I asked him whether there was now going to be a retraction and apology for a grave and consequential accusation not being backed by the verifiable facts. He replied categorically in the negative, not because he had any better evidence, but solely because he had “absolutely no doubt that it [starvation] is a weapon of war”. He and his employer were just too comfortable floating along with the cultural meme to be weighed down by the burden of proof.
The TPLF outright rejected the joint OHCHR-EHRC report as biased. The intense criticism from this side focused on the EHRC being based in Addis Ababa and forming part of the Ethiopian state apparatus. This is actually common in established democracies, which have taxpayer-funded watchdogs to uphold citizens’ rights. But fair enough, Ethiopia is not an established democracy, and so does not qualify for such trust in its institutions. So how independent is the EHRC?
Once again, the TPLF’s complaints are full of self-projection. Under the TPLF/EPRDF regime, and especially during the brutal repression of the popular protests starting in 2015, the EHRC was indeed toothless. In July 2019, the Ethiopian legislature appointed a new chief commissioner, Daniel Bekele, a former employee of Human Rights Watch. The TPLF had reason to distrust him, because they used to imprison him for years. Nevertheless, under his leadership, and before the release of the joint report, the EHRC had denounced both the Eritrean and Ethiopian army. This had caused rows with enraged senior officials and hardliners, who threatened to close the EHRC down. And yet, the EHRC has survived and kept up its habit of embarrassing the authorities, operating with state funds and foreign donations. Following GANHRI’s rigorous international review process in 2021, it received ‘A-status’ accreditation for compliance with standards of independence.
Even so, the doubt over the EHRC’s impartiality was precisely why the investigation was joint, that is, closely overseen by the UN body OHCHR, which had to endorse the findings. How is Ethiopia supposed to become a human-rights-respecting country if not by using and building the capacity of its own institutions? Some aid donors have been wise in supporting such institutional-reform processes with Ethiopians taking the front-row seats.
At first, the diplomacy of major Western powers rushed to commend the joint report, acknowledging the official Ethiopian commitment to its recommendations and urging the TPLF and Eritrea to respond likewise. However, for all the horrors depicted, the joint report failed to live up to the media narrative, in which many within the Western establishment had by then become profoundly invested. Thus, rather than deepening the collaboration between the OHCHR and the EHRC, contributing much-needed forensic resources, lobbying was set in train to create a UN pronouncement that could be spun as per the narrative.
The ICHREE: making it easy for journalists
The campaign to discredit the joint report culminated with the appointment of a completely different setup, namely the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) through UN Resolution S-33/1 adopted on December 17, 2021. Notice that none of the thirteen African countries on the UN Human Rights Council voted in favor, not even those that usually vote with their biggest donors. This pattern was repeated on October 7, 2022, when the ICHREE’s mandate was extended. These no-votes and abstentions from usually sympathetic African governments must have worried Western diplomats seeking African support for the standoff with Russia.
The ICHREE was composed of three experts, including its chairperson, the Kenyan national Kaari Betty Murungi. It soon transpired that she had, as early as April 2021, invoked R2P in Ethiopia, which is UN-speak for demanding foreign military intervention. Other tweets of hers condemned the Ethiopian army by taking the truthfulness of media stories for granted. Thus, nobody was surprised when the resulting report, released on September 19, 2022, closely mirrored the media output as well, including the context analysis, which was the single story about Africa, focusing on ethnic hatred rather than political and military affairs. The start of the war was correctly dated to the nightly attacks on five bases of the Northern Command, but this massive event was described in just two words: “fighting erupted”.
The Ethiopian UN Mission in Geneva drew up a lengthy reply. It was completely ignored by the world press, though for an official communique, it was extraordinarily impassioned and eloquent. It highlighted the much greater depth of the joint OHCHR-EHRC investigation, and lamented how the ICHREE was failing to disclose the methods used to arrive at findings and conclusions, which “greatly resemble a rough-patching of news columns and informational pieces”.
The background provided in this paper helps understand why the Ethiopian government, despite acknowledging some hard truths in the joint report, had come to see Western-media-driven human-rights denunciations and Western-instigated human-rights processes as politicized and dishonest. This resulted in distrust, reluctance to cooperate, even two failed attempts to have the ICHREE defunded, whether or not active engagement might have been the more advisable strategy.
Thus, in its report, “the Commission [ICHREE] deeply regrets that the Federal Government did not grant it access to any areas outside of Addis Ababa” and that “the Governments of the Sudan and Djibouti had not granted the Commission access to interview Ethiopian refugees within their borders”. For this reason, the ICHREE was limited to “carrying out the bulk of its investigations remotely” in the shape of 185 phone interviews. Unable to prove or disprove anything substantial without access to crime scenes and without any forensics, it embraced the standard of “reasonable grounds to believe”. This expression was used fully 12 times in the report, such as in “reasonable grounds to believe” that Ethiopia had sought to “systematically deprive the population of Tigray of material and services indispensable to its survival, including health care, shelter, water, sanitation, education and food”. With these words, and although the OLA and the TPLF (consistently called “Tigrayan forces”) were also accused of war crimes, the federal government alone was held responsible for the misery in Tigray, even for the failure to maintain water infrastructure, all the way down to Tigrayan children not going to school. There was no mention that it had cooperated with the WFP and other agencies to let relief supplies in.
To spare journalists the effort of reading through the full report, a tiny textbox in the beginning said: “The Commission concludes that there are reasonable grounds to believe that violations such as extrajudicial killings, rape, sexual violence and starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare have been committed in Ethiopia since 3 November 2020.” With this snappy sentence, the ICHREE could be easily quoted by Alex de Waal and like-minded public figures as an authority for their claims, which seemed to be the sole point of this exercise.
So, is there anything better on the justice horizon? The peace agreement implies that those at the top have been granted impunity. There will be no accountability for the attack on the Northern Command, nor for the murder of civilians in Tigray, Amhara or Afar, if the orders came from up high. Whoever is convicted will be the lesser criminals. Still, this would be better than nothing. Ethiopia is officially committed to its own “transitional justice”, which may yet hold some of the perpetrators of looting, rape and extrajudicial killings to account. As with the Axum investigation, seeing through the fog of war requires serious forensic resources. There is really no need for more human-rights specialists with long Twitter records and ‘reasonable grounds to believe’, but for legal professionals, untainted by activism and agendas, who can demonstrate guilt ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.
Was there a media blackout?
What a contradiction, said newspaper articles and activists in the days following the Pretoria Agreement, that a “UN body devoted to promoting broader and better access to the internet is about to hold its annual meeting in Ethiopia, whose government has cut off internet in its northern Tigray region during a two-year war there.” Although satellite phones became widely used by aid agencies, allowing ordinary Tigrayans to send occasional messages to loved ones, communications were severely rationed. Activists alleged that this was a “weapon to control and censor information”.
Once again, yes, Tigray was under a military blockade, and no, Ethiopia was not minded to boost a deadly enemy’s war economy. However, the idea propagated by Dr. Tedros and others that such a large part of Ethiopia could be “sealed off from the rest of the world (…) for more than 20 months and counting” needs to be put into perspective. This is the 21st century. There were hundreds of UN staff and aid workers in Tigray with their own power generators, smartphones, and access to satellite internet. Jan Nyssen’s data set was supposedly based on “thousands of phone calls” to Mekelle. Needless to say, the TPLF leaders and their Tigray-based media never ceased to upload their contents. The strict censoring of what came out of Tigray was their doing, and nobody else’s.
In response to the armed threat, Ethiopia did restrict the freedom of its own media. We should not be so surprised. The crackdown on the free press was a lot worse last time an enemy threatened Western capitals. Addis Standard, an opposition newspaper whose editor-in-chief, Tsedale Lemma, generally blamed the Ethiopian government for the war, had its media license revoked, and then a week later reinstated. It continues to have reporters on the ground and to be sold in the street. On the other hand, in Davos in 2019, Abiy Ahmed said: “Today, we don’t have a single journalist in prison, and we’re proud of that.” He could no longer say so, which is certainly a cause for concern, even though the situation is not yet comparable to the bad old days, when Getachew Reda was in charge of the Ethiopian Ministry of Communications.
As for the international media during the war, they were, as the reader will have noticed, extremely hostile to Ethiopia. And yet, the truism spread by the international media was that Ethiopia was hostile to them, and even that it imposed a “blackout” on them. Cara Anna from the Associated Press, who, as we saw, played a pivotal role in spreading the initial, since discredited version of the Axum massacre, was indeed barred from the country, a fact that served to boost her brand. And a handful of Western journalists were deported. We shall soon look at one notorious example, The Economist’s Tom Gardner. However, there were plenty of accredited foreign news outlets at all times. They needed a journalism visa and a permit to travel to war-affected areas, and it is possible that these were more easily obtained by the few who sided with the federal forces. Do the Ukrainians, for example, let pro-Russian reporters roam freely? Of course not. They ban foreign press over the slightest failure to identify with their national cause. This is what happens in the context of a war for survival.
And yet, in Ethiopia, CNN’s staff were only really prevented from wading into war zones to take pictures of dead bodies, as they were recently found doing on the sly in Thailand. They were free to conduct research and talk to people in places that were under the rule of law. Regrettably, the channel showed no interest in learning about Ethiopian society, as it quickly made up its mind to sell a simple story about a persecuted ethnic minority being the victim of a genocide. And yet, despite the channel’s shrill and activist stance, it was not kicked out of Ethiopia, not even after being caught in reckless fabrications that imperiled the country’s security, such as announcing that the rebels had reached Addis Ababa. The Ethiopian government’s means of retaliation against the onslaught of bad press in its hour of need was to write a strongly-worded statement.
For safety reasons, but undoubtedly also politically motivated, there was no access to TPLF-controlled territory via Addis Ababa. Does Ukraine permit foreign journalists to cross into Russian-controlled territory to cover the Russian side of the story? Of course not. And yet, countless journalists, documentary teams and so forth were smuggled into Tigray, where they were escorted around under the watchful eye of their TPLF-affiliated fixers, participants in an entrenched intelligence system known as ‘1-in-5’, where one out of five Tigrayans serve as the elite eyes and ears of the TPLF. For instance, the Arte.tv documentary “Chronicle of a Massacre”, released on September 1, 2022, featured Ethiopian soldiers in TPLF captivity being pressured to confess to war crimes in facial close-ups.
The expulsion of The Economist’s man
A prominent voice in the chorus protesting poor treatment of the press, and especially of his own person, became the correspondent for The Economist, Tom Gardner. He arrived in Ethiopia in 2016 and was expelled in May 2022, although his employer was allowed to send a new journalist.
Mr. Gardner’s subsequent piece “I was a war reporter in Ethiopia. Then I became the enemy” takes the Grand Award for Pot Calling Kettle Black. One sentence is particularly soot-stained: “That an established journalist would spread such lies, and in a publication that many thought was respectable, marked a disturbing shift.” This is a perfect description of the aforementioned leader in The Economist, which stated as fact that Ethiopia was out to starve every Tigrayan to death.
But no, what disturbed Mr. Gardner was a comment against him and like-minded colleagues in the local press, claiming that they were in on the attempt to violently overthrow the Ethiopian government. To be fair, there is no indication that Mr. Gardner was an agent, or that he had any agenda other than going along with the narrative expected of him by his superiors, just as in 2018, when he went through the Abiymaniac phase that was in vogue back then.
Mr. Gardner goes on to berate the Ethiopian leader: “Abiy himself poured fuel on the fire of the propaganda war. In April 2021 he urged Ethiopians not to ‘bow’ to Western media ‘campaigns’. In August, he called for a mass social-media campaign to counter ‘lies’ in the Western media.”
At the time, Mr. Gardner was still being treated politely at press conferences in Addis Ababa. Yet he puts a dark spin to his own international audiences being reached by ordinary Ethiopians through the new channels for people-to-people communications. To him, The Economist making unproven allegations with the opening line “no favours for killers” is within the bounds of respectability, but fuel is being poured on the fire, when citizens are encouraged by their elected leader to express their frustrations with The Economist.
About the last straw that triggered his expulsion, Mr. Gardner writes: “I was interested in how research conducted in Ethiopia by a Western scholar seemed to be enabling the government to whitewash war crimes, which included the use of hunger as a weapon against Tigray. A polite email I sent on May 1st to a Western think-tank sparked yet another online campaign, this time against me personally, lasting two weeks.”
The scholar referred to is Professor Ann Fitz-Gerald and the research is “The frontline voices: Tigrayans speak on the realities of life under an insurgency regime”. Mr. Gardner had good reason to be uncomfortable about this. The Tigrayan informants contradicted his blaming of Ethiopia’s government for the suffering in Tigray. They also suggested a dimension of class divisions in Tigrayan society that undermined his insistence on seeing the conflict chiefly through the lens of ethnic rivalry.
If Mr. Gardner believed Professor Fitz-Gerald’s scholarship had the potential “to whitewash war crimes”, he could have put some hard questions to her, as he was invited to do. I would personally have loved to have the opportunity to interrogate him about his work enabling an irregular army to pass off its violent pursuit of power as a choice between killing and getting killed. As for “hunger as a weapon”, Mr. Gardner could have directed his concern to the WFP, which declared, just three weeks after he published about his expulsion from Ethiopia, that federal-government-approved deliveries into Tigray had averted famine.
Policy-makers paying attention to Ann Fitz-Gerald’s work from April 2022 would have been a step ahead of events. On the eve of the August 24 offensive, the top TPLF leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, said to his own people that those staying out of the fighting “will not have an equal place in Tigray”. Other speeches of senior officials confirmed that forced conscription was becoming ever harsher. Ironically, Mr. Gardner’s interview with an escaped Tigrayan published in December 2022 would confirm Ann Fitz-Gerald’s finding about the TPLF imprisoning the parents of children refusing to serve in the rebel army.
Mr. Gardner’s account of his deportation is a tour de force of sanctimonious self-projection. However, it worked with most Western readers by being premised on the ingrained assumption that our media are, sort of by definition, the free-speech good guys. It comes naturally to us to suspect an African leader, and never The Economist, of fueling a war with lies. Thus, outside Ethiopia it was misread as, not the pot, but the shiny white knight calling the kettle black. Part 4 will grapple with the Western moral-superiority complex that lies at the root of getting Ethiopia so dead wrong.
Activists part ways with story-tellers
While the TPLF had plenty of heavy weapons and military expertise, it had no fighter planes or drone capabilities. The federal army did. And, of course, it made use of it to degrade the enemy’s assets. According to the TPLF-controlled Tigrayan press, the bombs would always hit a university, a hospital, a refugee camp, and, the biggest story despite many question marks over its veracity, a kindergarten. After that airstrike, Reuters news agency showed a touching video of Tigrayan mothers grieving over loved ones, copied from a TPLF-controlled channel. When the footage was revealed to be from before the war, it was quietly removed. Meanwhile, on the same day, children killed in Afar by TPLF shelling was only local news.
The TPLF man with the biggest international platform, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, tweeted about “daily carpet bombing” in Tigray. Tragic mistakes may have been committed, but it would not have been in Ethiopia’s interest to spend expensive bombs on anything other than high-value military targets. Nor did pictures emerge of residential buildings in ruins, like those that we have become used to seeing from Syria and Ukraine.
Indeed, what photographic material of civilian damage was presented did not even look like bombing, which causes smoke, fine rubble, charred materials and melted plastics. But there was always a UN high-up at hand ready to believe the TPLF account so as to put “the UN condemns” in the headline. And Declan Walsh continued to present the TPLF version of the air raids as fact in The New York Times. Nevertheless, to be fair, this last stage of the war saw the world press becoming warier of copy-pasting from official Tigrayan media, and giving just a little space to Ethiopian counterclaims of fabrications.
As the fortunes of war turned, the David-and-Goliath theme lost its shine. Journalists who had thus far focused on demonizing Ethiopia began to de-romanticize the TPLF. This was read as betrayal by the activists. Case in point once again: the ever-rising superstar Lucy Kassa.
After the TPLF launched its last-ditch offensive on August 24, 2022, the ubiquitous Lucy Kassa performed a daring U-turn, remaining loyal to her shocking style, but incurring the wrath of TPLF supporters, as she started to portray life in Tigray as not just miserable, but also oppressive. This provoked Jan Nyssen, the massively-quoted academic from Ghent University, into sending her this confidential email, which Lucy Kassa then published on Twitter on August 26, 2022.
Unfazed, she went on to report, for instance, that the TPLF was torturing and executing captives in Amhara Region. The aforementioned so-called analyst Rashid Abdi, faithful to his habit of misrepresenting battlefield developments, was especially upset over her suggestion that the TPLF was losing and demoralized.
Anything goes for reporting on Ethiopia
Immediately after the Pretoria Peace Agreement on November 2, 2022, massive inflows of all kinds of relief supplies were proudly announced by the big aid agencies. And yet, speaking in the name of the WHO, Dr. Tedros and his sidekick, Michael Ryan, still lamented some unspecified insufficiency of humanitarian access. Even more worryingly, stories about continued looting, abductions, rape, and outright massacres were still pumped out by the world press for months, now pointing the accusing finger at Eritrean troops. The sources indicated were TPLF-controlled Tigrayan authorities, anonymous aid workers and eyewitnesses. The Associated Press, never held accountable for spreading the church- and hyena-centered rendering of the Axum massacre, once again lent its credibility, and was uncritically cited by senior human-rights figures.
In early 2023, Professor Kindeya Gebrehiwot (named as the high-ranking TPLF man who brought the disgraced American neurosurgeon Tony Magaña to Tigray) presented the Tigrayan authorities’ figure as 3,708 Tigrayans killed by foreign troops after the peace deal. He also published a photo of some donkeys, supposedly documenting Eritrean troops looting people’s livestock.
As mentioned, Mirjam van Reisen’s EEPA organization was the source of Martin Plaut’s original fabricated version of the church massacre in Axum. When she reported yet another massacre on November 28, 2022, her credibility had finally been exhausted. Her fans would still retweet eagerly, but no serious news outlet picked up this latest piece of disinformation.
She has since deleted this and countless other such tweets.
I cannot know for sure if any of these horrors might have occurred, but this war has taught me to exercise caution in trusting poorly sourced reports, even when coming from reputable news organizations. And yet, mindless repetition can turn anything into a truism. Thus, on January 12, 2023, The Economist did not even bother with a source, but stated as fact that Eritrean troops “have continued to loot towns and rape and murder civilians”.
While the media had little concern about running with odd claims that were later called out as hoaxes, and routinely repurposed photographic material to fit their stories, they bothered even less with the quality control of their analysis. This gave free rein to glory-hunting Africa adventurers. Declan Walsh is a textbook example of the so-called Dunning-Kruger effect. He was referred to as “knowledgeable” by Mark Lowcock, who was returning the favor after Declan Walsh had just quoted Mark Lowcock suggesting that Abiy Ahmed’s war aim was to “destroy Tigray” and predicting that he was going to lose. Indeed, all the analysts and academics ever quoted in an authoritative manner by Mr. Walsh have been of the same pro-TPLF bent. He has clearly never researched Ethiopian affairs in any depth. Yet he devised a grand unified theory about the cause of the war being Abiy Ahmed’s mental state, addled by the Nobel Peace Prize. For this baloney he won the ultimate trophy of authoring the triumphant journalistic school of thought about the conflict.
However, Michael Rubin takes First Prize for Self-Overestimation, which he boasts on top of the previously awarded title as Craziest of Crazy Journalists for calling for the US to arm the TPLF. He also bought into the notion that “prior planning” was tantamount to starting the war, and it is remarkable how little his publisher, the American Enterprise Institute, cared to follow up on his mishits. It began with his assurance that Abiy Ahmed had “condemned Ethiopia to dissolution”, which was not just a looming danger but had now gone “beyond the point of no return”. He went on to compose the most extreme version of every TPLF-sponsored falsehood, fixating on the personality of the prime minister, whom he compared to Idi Amin, Mohammed bin Salman, Robert Mugabe and Saddam Hussein. As the TPLF’s last-gasp offensive was obviously running out of steam, and most media were becoming more nuanced, he persisted in his alternate reality: “The simple reality is the United States, European Union, and many African countries no longer see Abiy as redeemable. For peace and prosperity in Ethiopia, the only course of action is Abiy’s exit.” Ironically, he pontificates about learning from mistakes. So what can we learn from his mistakes? That there is zero accountability for an opinionated journalist who is proved even more dead wrong than anybody else.
No apology, just more getting it wrong
As the end came into sight, I looked forward not only to Ethiopian military victory, but also to the media having to accept that the Ethiopian war aim had all along been peace and not genocide.
Just as I correctly foresaw the war was drawing to a positive close, I let down my guard and tweeted out this misprediction. As pointed out by an astute commentator, I was engaging in wishful thinking about the media being about to admit to its mistakes.
Some may remember Elizabeth Shackelford from 2017, when she resigned from US diplomatic service with great fanfare in protest against the Trump administration.
After her macabre smear job on the very soldiers who would bring peace, she had to block a stream of Ethiopians from her Twitter feed, all of whom had infinitely more insight into the conflict than her.
This was my last pang of being in denial about the media’s stubborn commitment to narrative over truth-seeking.
For instance, as late as July 27, 2023, US National Public Radio put out a slick and shiny 52-minute program for mass consumption. It gives special thanks to Martin Plaut, who might as well have scripted it. It starts off with audio from the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, before portraying Abiy Ahmed as a centralizing, religious fanatic, who rode to power on a popular wave of resentment against Tigrayans as a people in order to snuff out the 27 years of progress under the TPLF/EPRDF. The historical context description goes back to pre-Biblical times and covers everything until the war, except the crucial 2½ years of escalation and the attack on the Northern Command. The fighting is presented as a one-way street of ethnic violence against Tigrayans. There is no mention that the rebels marched on the capital, or that their military defeat brought peace, not genocide. The main interviewee is Gebrekirstos Gebreselassie, the Netherlands-based founder and editor of the fiercely Tigrayan ethnonationalist magazine Tghat. He gets to end it on a note of “it’s not over”.
The Economist did not go that far in getting captured by the TPLF propaganda apparatus. It refrained from using the term genocide, and it was too highbrow to report, for instance, that hundreds of people had been eaten by hyenas in the central square of Axum. But it did level shocking accusations. On July 9, 2023, it set about justifying its inability to produce the evidence by writing that war crimes in Tigray were now being “covered up or forgotten”. Apart from the usual unnamed sources, fantastical readings of satellite pictures and insinuations that would provoke scorn in a serious courtroom, this latest claim was backed by reference to two other media stories, both of which have been looked into in this paper. One was about the bodies floating down the Tekeze River. The source for this must have been CNN dispatching from eastern Sudan with a backstory that contradicted the channel’s own forensic experts and ignored the signs of coordination between those dumping and those collecting the bodies. The other was that “the BBC reported that security forces from Amhara (…) had been digging up mass graves and disposing of bodies”. Invoking the BBC sounds more respectable than what the BBC based it on, namely Lucy Kassa’s anonymous witness statements, which also featured professors from the University of Gondar as body-dissolving specialists in a vast conspiracy to pass off 1-year-old corpses as 30-40-year-old bones. In practice, rather than digging any further, CNN and BBC have since abandoned these two stories by no longer talking about them and by not awarding any prizes for them. This does not stop The Economist from keeping them reverberating inside the media echo chamber.
Meanwhile, The Economist’s harshest war-crimes accusation of all, namely that humanitarian aid was being blocked by the federal government wielding starvation as a weapon, seems to have been quietly ditched. Who knows, some diligent editor might have gotten a bad taste in the mouth after reading former WFP Country Director Steven Were Omamo’s testimony about overt politicization to fabricate a famine. Having read and loved The Economist for decades, I cannot put it completely beyond the human beings who work for it to have a conscience.
Nonetheless, it was always too naïve of me to expect The Economist, or any other media, to examine their own role in channeling lies and fueling war, let alone to apologize to the victims, unless something forces their hand. They are also unlikely to engage in good-faith debate over this paper. I have learned the hard way that they are not genuinely interested in putting their narrative to the reality test, at least not as much as they are in their careers in the story-telling business.
The real hyenas
In conclusion, the real hyenas in this conflict were big media. From beginning to end, they howled as a pack, lacking the instinct for individuality. When Ethiopia’s experiment in democracy set off, strutting with youthfulness and promise, they bowed to it and purred. But as soon as it came under attack, was weakened and fighting for survival, they bared their teeth and salivated in anticipation of it succumbing for them to devour the pieces. Since the attackers were fought off, they have been perplexed and sullen, but not the least contrite over their hyena-like nature.
This creature is not that clever, not even in human form. As the historian Noah Yuval Harari has highlighted, Homo sapiens is less of a truth-seeking than a story-loving animal. It is not the ambitious reporter’s fault that that portraying suffering up close grabs more attention and wins more prizes than painting the bigger political picture. We have seen time and again how easily the media will fall for the most ridiculous hoax, as long as it fits their plotline. The TPLF’s well-oiled disinformation machine had a field day, playing deftly to the prejudices of Westerners ready to always believe the worst about Ethiopia.
Big media and activist hangers-on hitching their wagon to the TPLF propaganda train put pressure on Western politicians and diplomacy to get tough on Ethiopia. It also served to sow fear, division and hate in Ethiopia, making the Russian-funded fake-news trolls undermining Western societies look like complete amateurs by comparison. But the worst consequence was probably to strengthen the hand of the TPLF against the Tigrayan people. From the perspective of worldly Tigrayans, that is, those best placed to challenge the narrative with some healthy skepticism of the old, discredited leaders and their shrill tribalism, it must have made a huge impression that the ethnic-war narrative was echoed by the New York Times, The Guardian, the BBC, CNN, Der Spiegel, El País, The Globe and Mail, The Telegraph, The Economist, you name it. Among those living in Tigray, it reinforced the ‘kill-or-get-killed’ choice presented to them. And among those in the diaspora, it mobilized to send money and advocate for the rebel army.
Their brief was simple: Vilify the enemy, play on the stereotype of the African genocide; make the emotional appeals to humanity that are so associated with Ethiopia; distract from the politics to focus only on atrocities. As this strategy worked its magic with the sources that Westerners trust, the steps required for rebuttal by those of us who knew better became tricky: Explain the intricacies of Ethiopian affairs and how this is no longer the 80s; convey the nuances of relations between as well as within numerous ethnicities; condemn unjustifiable acts yet dispute that killing civilians is the government’s war aim; complain, like some far-right or far-left conspiracy theorist, about the uniformity of mainstream media; and tear into a string of figures with shining halos, such as well-established academics, award-winning journalists, and humanitarian high-ups.
This is why, outside of Ethiopia, we were so few who insisted that Ethiopian military victory was the path to peace and not genocide. Even though we were proved right in the terrain of northern Ethiopia, we are still facing an uphill battle in the media landscape of our post-factual world.
And frankly, if I had not known Ethiopia personally, I doubt I would have been able to resist the massive imbalance of forces in the overall narrative about the war. I do like to think, however, that I would have questioned the scant attention being paid to the legitimacy to use force. That I would have been curious about dissenting views. And that I would have distrusted the most blood-curdling accounts.
Part 1 ventured that the Western response to the war in Ethiopia says a lot more about the West than it does about the war in Ethiopia. So what does it say about us?
PART 4: LESSONS ABOUT OURSELVES FROM THE WAR
Why was Ethiopia gotten dead wrong?
Part 3 suggested that the media put pressure on Western policy-makers to let down Ethiopia. But many Ethiopians suspect it was the other way around, that is, that the powers-that-be in the West directed the media to make up justifications for their anti-Ethiopian designs. From this perspective, it was not that the stupid West got Ethiopia wrong, but that the evil West got Ethiopia right.
Just as the West has its single story about Africa, in Africa there is a bit of a stereotype about the West as a calculating pursuer of self-interest. After all, you do not become rich and powerful by getting things wrong and messing up. Moreover, although Ethiopia is socially conservative, it has one of the youngest populations in the world, and the numerical superiority of activists at or near university age makes for radicalism. Thus, especially within the #NoMore mass movement, which mobilized Ethiopians at home and abroad against the narrative in the West, one broad-sweep explanation became popular. It held that this was yet another neo-colonial regime-change proxy war to install a pliant puppet in place of a strong, proud, sovereign Ethiopia. In some variants, it was even a Western goal to keep the country poor and divided, so as to be able to dominate it.
Does this way of thinking have a point? Well, the West evidently had a number of very bad actors. As we have seen, they brilliantly managed to shut out friends of Ethiopia from the public debate, defame sensible people and inflame a senseless war. They had less success in weakening the federal government. And, there are no two ways about it, they fervently desired but abysmally failed to make the TPLF win the war. They were not only opportunistic journalists and activist academics, of whom I have presented a considerable list. They also included senior political and diplomatic figures, of whom the reader has met, and shall soon meet again, Lord David Alton, Helen Clark and Mark Lowcock.
However, the idea that the media took their cues from a higher level of power play is contradicted by the fact that the Western policies never became half as bad as the Western rhetoric. An example was CNN’s failed campaign to get the US government to destroy the world-class status of Ethiopian Airlines, which would have been the easiest way to deal a massive blow to the country. And despite the best sabotage efforts of the bad actors, Western diplomacy has been keen to repair relations quickly after the war.
Wiping the slate clean? The Ethiopian first couple was hosted in the White House on December 14, 2022, to the chagrin of journalists wedded to the genocide narrative. A TPLF-hired lobby firm reacted with denial followed by incredulity and protest. But now when the war is over, Tigrayans also stand to benefit from their country being in good standing in Washington.
This puzzlement about Western motives gave rise to a low-key debate internally on the pro-Ethiopian side, often conducted with more open-ended curiosity than clarity of mind, as to whether the West was, to put it crudely, stupid or evil. A fair compromise position would be ‘both’, because even the most well-meaning stupidity manifested itself as self-righteous delusion, which was also what got women burnt at the stake for witchcraft and indeed has caused most of the evil in history.
Wary of the isolation and unfreedom that would follow from joining the anti-Western camp, and pragmatically wishing to move on, most Ethiopians place themselves cautiously in the the-West-is-stupid camp, which is also where I find myself, wanting to slap the West back to its senses, and not to bring it to its knees. Nevertheless, in terms of argument, the the-West-is-evil-camp has the upper hand. Their anger comes with a sense of vindication, whereas ours is tinged with disillusionment. Their worldview has been confirmed, whereas ours has been put to shame. They can disown the evil Western mind for its evil, whereas we must x-ray the stupid Western mind for pathologies that may help us understand, but can never excuse, the stupidity.
When the survival of a beloved country is at stake, one learns to appreciate those of very different ideologies being on one’s side, such as the far-left channel BreakThrough News, which is no stickler for liberal democracy, but contributed desperately needed counternarrative in Ethiopia’s darkest hour. However, while they saw the conflict through the anti-Western lens that they call anti-imperialist, I will try my hand at explanations suited to my worldview, which some would call pro-Western, but is only so to the extent that pro-Western means pro-democracy, pro-human-rights and pro-equality.
The broader point is this: had these bad actors had their way, Ethiopia would have been ripped apart. The tolerant majority would have sought refuge abroad, leaving the minority of radicalized ethnonationalists to slog it out atop the ruins. Such a catastrophe was indeed promoted by Western actions, but it takes a sinister outlook to consider this to be in the Western self-interest.
Moreover, as we saw in Part 1, other left-wingers found more basis for championing the TPLF as anti-imperialist, and associated Abiy Ahmed with neoliberalism. Overall, the relationship between the West and TPLF/EPRDF-ruled Ethiopia from 1991 to 2018 was no rose garden. There was cooperation on security, there was friction on economics, democracy and human rights, and there was a bit of both on development aid. The West would gain nothing from destabilizing the Horn of Africa in pursuit of an impossible return to this far-from-ideal past. And, frankly, the commentators at BreakThrough News also seemed mystified as to why the Western establishment would try to oust the Ethiopian leader so shortly after awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize and toasting him in Davos.
Geopolitics versus geopoliticians
One remotely plausible geopolitical rationale for betraying Ethiopia is the longstanding Western priority, particularly of the USA, to reward Egypt for making peace with Israel. Egypt has been opposing Ethiopia’s giant hydroelectric project, the Grand Renaissance Dam, which is temporarily withholding some of the flow of the Nile. But this is far-fetched compared to the tangible Western interest in stability and in the hope, however distant, for building a fellow democracy.
Another line of reasoning is that the West wished to punish Ethiopia for teaming up with Eritrea, which has come to be seen as a rogue state. In this light, the TPLF goading Eritrea into the war by firing rockets at its capital makes sense as a way to attract Western sympathy. On the other hand, as we saw in Part 2, the West heartily endorsed the pre-war rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Enmity towards Eritrea was undoubtedly a factor in Western attitudes, but the rational way to pry Ethiopia away from Eritrea would have been to provide diplomatic and military support with strings attached. Instead, Ethiopia was pushed further into gratitude for vital Eritrean assistance.
In a nutshell, though some influential Westerners, the bad actors, were fully devoted to the TPLF’s cause, the West as a whole did not just gun for Ethiopia, or for the TPLF. It fired in many directions, and mainly hit itself in the foot. Right after EU envoy Pekka Haavisto made his flippant accusation that Ethiopian leaders “used this kind of language” about plotting a genocide, he went on to complain that “there is this kind of hostile language against Westerners now in Ethiopia”, saying the Ethiopian government was “turning it into some kind of hatred campaign against the Westerners.”
Being in the capital city while it was threatened with a bloodbath, and while the official Western reaction oozed disdain for Ethiopian lives, I can testify that this newfound hostility towards the West was a popular sentiment, and not government-directed at all. Ethiopian hospitality never faltered, but, yes, my white face occasionally elicited an acerbic remark or a frustrated outburst. I just listened to people, finding that Ethiopia still was and always will be friendly to Westerners who are friendly to Ethiopia.
Mr. Haavisto also expressed concern about Ethiopia moving closer to Russia and China. The irony is that Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping could not have dreamed of a better campaigner for that than Mr. Haavisto. In the many UN votes on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ethiopia has generally abstained, except for one minor occasion where it voted with Russia. This is the inevitable result of Russia protecting Ethiopia from Western censure at the UN Security Council. There is little doubt that Ethiopia would have remained reliably in the Western camp, if the West had backed Ethiopia, at least diplomatically, in its war with the TPLF. Though Alex de Waal made much of one Russian flag being waved at a rally in Addis Ababa in October 2022, the Ukraine War is very far from the Ethiopian people’s minds. Anger and disappointment with the West, by contrast, looms large.
So why did the West behave so stupidly? Perhaps the question is the wrong one. The West, each and every country, and even all the organizations, are not sentient organisms. We should not expect them to rationally pursue their ideals or self-interest, because they have no self at all. Only the individual human being has that.
Colonialism in progressive clothing
Western journalists, academics, aid officials, politicians and diplomats do chase their self-interest, as we all do, such as prestige, money, job promotion, and what not. As for their ideals, whatever their political leanings, they do not perceive themselves as cogs in the wheel of a world order, but they do carry ideological baggage from their societies about what it means to be a good person. This ranges from deep-seated prejudice to the latest social fads. So which of these factors could have influenced their views and behavior in the case of Ethiopia?
Some of it brings to mind the current culture wars, but may have existed throughout the ages, such as the aura of virtue bestowed upon an accuser, and, for those who merely refrained from asking critical questions, the paralyzing fear of being labelled with something nasty. Other aspects seem unique to our era, such as victimhood as the hard currency in the attention economy, which incentivizes extremists to trade in counterfeit, and gives rise to such a fine line between championing human rights and inciting hatred and violence, with institutions as venerable as the Holocaust Museum falling plainly on the wrong side. But, yes, and here is another point of agreement with those anti-Western radicals: there has also been plenty of that plain old, smug, arrogant, domineering colonialist mindset!
In describing the power imbalance, we have gone from “white man’s burden” to “partnership for development”. This is more than a churn of the euphemism treadmill, because it is now essentially up to them to improve their political culture, grow their economies, and become our true equals. But the steps turning us from colonial powers into donor countries has further inflated our moral-superiority complex.
“Everybody wants the best for Ethiopia”, was how CNN anchor Becky Anderson attempted, on November 10, 2021, to soften a tense live interview with Ethiopia’s spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, who took CNN to task for its fake-news psychological warfare on Addis Ababa, yet got belittled rather than apologized to. The reward for charity is a sense of doing right, which can be wholesome when mixed with humility, but becomes toxic when it interacts with a widespread mental disorder, hyper-charged by the outrage algorithm of the social-media era, which is, as pointed out by Sam Harris, the taking of strong stances on issues we know very little about.
Thus, the editors and journalists of big media were not only eager to sell horror that rhymed with a cultural meme and built on the single story about Africa. They also felt so overconfident in their righteous calling that they rode roughshod over standards of proof for rape and atrocities, man-made famine and genocide. Those accused of crimes against humanity are not considered to deserve the right of response. So there was no bias control, no follow-up to one glaring misprediction after another of the types that would have been pounced upon mercilessly, if the sloppy reporting had been about any of the armed conflicts in which we, the rich and powerful nations, are involved.
And just as the colonizers of yore had an incentive to portray the natives as brutes in need of civilized administrators, there is a vested interest today among the individuals who staff the aid-industrial complex to exaggerate both the distress and the relief. Former WFP Country Director Steven Were Omamo addresses this in his book: “There is a multi-billion-dollar hunger industry in which the ‘risk of famine’ is a powerful hook for generating money. If you can say you have averted one famine, then the case for more money to avert others is easier to make. Even if it is all fabrication.”
Donors have long talked about the importance of recipients taking ‘ownership’, but he who pays the piper calls the tune. It is against human nature to give something away for nothing, or, for that matter, to receive without feeling an obligation to give back. This is how the concept of ‘African voices’ has degenerated into a patronizing alibi and a cynical farce. For example, a knowledgeable and gripping open letter to Dr. Tedros by Ethiopia’s own healthcare staff, reporting from the red-hot frontline, had to make do with an easily ignored space in the small English-language part of the Ethiopian press. But a week later, twelve obviously donor-funded and donor-pleasing so-called “African civil society groups”, with zero firsthand experience of Ethiopia and absolutely nothing novel to say, made it into mighty The Guardian, once again sponsored by the Gates Foundation, with the tired fallacies about “hate speech” and the standard comparison between Ethiopia’s war effort and the genocide in Rwanda.
The new-fangled, advocacy-centered, so-called rights-based approach to aid may have a point in prescribing social change as the recipe for pro-poor development. But buying social change is a bit like buying love, that is, what you get is lip service to it rather than the real thing. Worse still, it cultivates the ethos that we bring them not just our superior resources and superior knowhow, but also our superior morality. This self-image may soothe our guilt over being so well off, but it damages the standing of the West.
Western conservatives, on their part, have been asleep at the wheel, closing their eyes to the villainous treatment of Ethiopia by so many of their usual bugbears from mainstream media and globalist elites. Notable exceptions were US Senator Jim Inhofe, presented in the introduction, and The American Conservative, which published the argument against imposing sanctions on Ethiopia, penned by Jon Abbink, a veteran Dutch Ethiopiologist, who contributed several insightful papers during the war. Going forward, conservative ideals would be better served by building alliances with conservative Africans than by fretting over African migration.
In conclusion, ‘the West’, defined as a geopolitical force that pursues a mix of ideals and self-interest, stood to benefit the most from staying on reasonably good terms with the Ethiopian government and especially with the Ethiopian people, minding the difficult balance between democracy-building and security, and addressing human-rights concerns by supporting the country’s newly independent institutions with money and technical expertise. But this concept of ‘the West’ is an abstraction. The flesh-and-blood Westerners reporting on the conflict and dealing with its fallout had more to gain from “self-serving glory-seeking”, as Steven Were Omamo puts it, by sensationalizing and sermonizing. And the Western public went along with this, supposing, in the words of Becky Anderson, that “everybody [in the West] wants the best” for those poor and troubled Africans, because our societies are successful and we give them aid, which shows that we are kind and wise.
What struck me in my email correspondence with The Economist’s Tom Gardner during those anxious days of November 2021 is not that he wished ill on Ethiopia, but that he viewed Ethiopians as being in the grip of irrational emotions, even claiming that “civilians are going to the front carrying machetes and knives”. This was contrasted with Westerners’ sober advice to appease the advancing rebel army through “negotiations to work out a new configuration of power”. Mr. Gardner would twist both facts and principles for the sake of assuming Western kindness and wisdom. And, yes, had I not personally experienced those facts and the struggle for those principles in Ethiopia for so many years, I would have assumed Western kindness and wisdom too. The difference between Mr. Gardner and me is that I searched my soul and revised my assumptions, because there was clearly nothing kind or wise about getting Ethiopia dead wrong. It was not kind but malicious of our media and so many of our great and good to spread incendiary lies in cahoots with a brutal assault on the Ethiopian people and their elected government. And it was not wise but reckless of our diplomacy to prescribe condescending clichés like “there is no military solution”, as if our own security policy consisted of holding hands and singing together around a bonfire.
Three do-gooder baddies
Lowering the level of analysis from grand geopolitical interests to petty individual incentives also helps appreciate the power of personal connections, which is, after all, how we often form our opinions, particularly on issues that we are unfamiliar with. The TPLF, throughout its long reign in Ethiopia, placed its people in positions from which to exert influence within rich countries and international organizations. It is not fair to list names, because their ethnicity and family relations combined with my suspicions are not proof. But certainly, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was their number one. As the WHO Director General, his agenda was packed with meetings with senior figures, leaving him uniquely placed to reach beyond academia and journalism all the way into global politics and diplomacy.
Thus, Helen Clark’s closeness to Dr. Tedros was a matter of public record already before the war. Together, they published a research paper in 2021, and co-authored an article in 2022. Of course, these texts were not about the war in Ethiopia. But given how much both of them dedicated themselves to that topic, they probably discussed it intensely, giving him the opportunity to influence her. They still seem to be getting on.
In Ethiopia, Helen Clark is seen as an unscrupulous hate-monger. Yet in the eyes of the international community, she came across as compassionate and caring. This sets the scene for a vital exchange of views, if not to settle who is right and wrong, at least to try to understand what is behind this remarkable contrast in perception. However, the whole point of dehumanizing the adversary is to avoid this. You do not reason with ‘supporters of genocide’ and ‘apologists for rape’, do you? As with nearly all the exponents of the TPLF narrative, Helen Clark would thunder and pontificate, but never deign to debate. Even little me found myself blocked before I had commented on any of her tweets. I would have told her that there was one realistic solution, namely for the legitimate side to prevail over the illegitimate side, but she deluded herself that the war was “one of the most intractable in the world”.
As we have seen in Part 3, Helen Clark was, to all effects and purposes, one of the shrillest propagandists for the rebel army. Nevertheless, she wanted to have her do-gooder cake and eat it by feigning impartiality. Thus, in a foreword to a paper titled “Starving Tigray”, published by the Alex de Waal-led World Peace Foundation, she prefaces her usual accusations of Ethiopian barbarism: “Whatever political differences may have sparked the outbreak of armed conflict in Tigray (…)”. This studied ignorance conveys an exclusively humanitarian concern that falls apart in a subsequent sentence, in which she praises the TPLF/EPRDF regime for “decades of hard-earned gains” and “slow and painstaking human development progress”. During eight of those years, she led the UNDP, which had a vast portfolio of human-development cooperation with Ethiopia, so she had her legacy to protect.
Another top diplomat who gave the game away was Mark Lowcock. He also once co-authored an article with Dr. Tedros. In July 2021, he left the UN Relief Chief position, which, as described in Part 3 and in more detail in Steven Were Omamo’s important book, he had been abusing to spread lies and grandstand at the expense of food-insecure Ethiopians, only to become even more overtly pro-rebel with his widely publicized opinion piece on October 6, 2021, titled: “How to destroy a country”. It was a generalized attack on the Abiy-led government, all the way down to its economic policy, which he contrasted with the “huge economic progress Ethiopia has made over the last 30 years”. He then patted himself on the back for working with the TPLF/EPRDF regime from 2011 to 2017, when he was the most senior civil servant in the UK aid apparatus: “Western countries are (whether they should be or not) proud of the contribution they have made to progress in Ethiopia in recent decades, especially what their development aid has helped achieve,” he wrote, loth to face up to how the vast majority of Ethiopians had despised his TPLF partners all along.
At any rate, these peeps on policy were drowned out by his roaring accusations of government-ordered rape, starvation and genocide. In an interview as late as October 26, 2022, one week before the peace agreement, Mr. Lowcock was still putting on his do-gooder face to amplifying the TPLF’s kill-or-get-killed message: “For them [the Tigrayans] this is an existential struggle. They genuinely believe, and, you know, I understand why they believe this, that there’s an attempt going on to exterminate them.”
This is not the first time, and unlikely to be the last, that the great and the good run with a narrative instead of following the evidence. Lord David Alton personifies this. As a veteran politician with a life peerage in the UK House of Lords since 1997, he rarely bothers with the nitty-gritty of governance in his own country, but scours the globe for evil to condemn, from China to Iran, from Turkey to Cuba, from Niger to, alas, Ethiopia. As the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has observed, framings within the emotion of ‘good against evil’ tend to sacrifice the intelligence of ‘true versus false’. Then again, if the good pursued is democracy, human rights and equality, it may well be that Lord David Alton usually gets it right. But obviously he cannot be familiar with so many different countries. And if he knows anything about Ethiopian politics, he is good at hiding it. In November 2020, he talked before his peers about the war that had just begun. He said nothing about what had led to it, or who was fighting for what. He did not once pronounce the acronym TPLF, but he already used the word genocide three times. He would always imply that this was a purely tribal conflict, for instance by referring to the TPLF supporters coming to meet him as just “Tigrayans”.
I have no inkling what brought Lord David Alton to his stance on this war. Perhaps, while out hunting for noble causes, he fell into the TPLF echo chamber by chance. Like Helen Clark and Mark Lowcock, he made a bit of a pose of standing aloof from the power games underlying the violence. However, also like them, he would withhold condemnation whenever his own side stood accused of atrocities. Moreover, he immediately endorsed Jan Nyssen’s take on the territorial dispute over Welkait, thus descending from the moral high ground of humanitarianism into the muddy terrain of this-land-is-ours ethnonationalism. Just four days before the Pretoria Agreement, he tweeted that there should be a “just and durable settlement”. He did not specify what that might be, but it does suggest a political agenda. He subsequently deferred to Alex de Waal’s skepticism about the peace deal. The fact that Ethiopian military victory brought peace, not genocide, provoked not one iota of self-reflection.
In the House of Lords on November 15, 2022, on the occasion when he alluded to the discredited testimony from the deacon about the Axum massacre, he invoked the “expert analysis” of Alex de Waal, Kjetil Tronvoll and the Holocaust Museum to insist that this had been a genocidal war. He described rape and other horrors in graphic detail, ending on a note of “this isn’t over”. Since it really is over, his continued talk about Ethiopia starving Tigrayans on purpose is no longer so inflammatory, but it is still defamatory. It is as if he can say anything in that august yet clueless chamber. Nobody would suspect an honorable member of making such grave accusations with so little care for the evidence.
I have thus far been at pains not to use the R-word, racism, there, I said it. It has, however, been a subtext throughout this paper, as when suggesting that historical, ideological and psychological factors have blocked our understanding of Ethiopians in the same way that we Westerners understand ourselves as reluctant yet principled users of armed force.
Calling someone a racist has lost its sting in the process of ‘label inflation’. For sure, when it sticks, it ruins reputations, but mostly it can just be shrugged off as a slur. Moreover, its actual meaning has been expanded and diluted by ‘concept creep’. This makes it more intellectually rigorous to find other words for it. I have previously used the established term ‘saviorism’ and ‘the savior complex’. The standard ‘white’ can be attached in front of this, but strictly speaking, it is not a racially-defined but a general rich-country phenomenon. Thus, Ethiopians made many attempts to rally blacks in the West to their anti-TPLF cause, which generally failed. After all, fighting among Africans does not appeal to black pride. Movement for Black Lives, a major leftist African-American umbrella organization, was keen to cast blame on the West, yet uncritically swallowed the Western media narrative about the war. The Black Lives Matter organization made one tweet foray into the war early on, attaching a typical mainstream article, which prompted TPLF supporters to applaud and other Ethiopians to frown. Black Lives Matter never again mentioned the conflict.
My final and most important reason for holding back with the overt racism accusations is that an argument is stronger when it concedes the benefit of the doubt. Were they stereotyping the African race or the African political culture? The latter is also dangerous, but tarring it with the racism brush compounds the label inflation and the concept creep. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has said, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” Romanticizing Ethiopia’s political culture would land us in the opposite elephant trap.
Nonetheless, one might have thought that center-left news outlets, having tied themselves in knots to expunge racism from within their staff in response to the 2020 George Floyd protests, would be wary of bias against the second-most populous Black country. For instance, they could have taken its official statements seriously and cared for equal standards of proof. But no, the anti-racist sensitivities of today’s ‘liberals’ are exhausted in the policing of taboo words and in the taking of offense to jokes. In the 2020s, an old geezer can be disgraced as a racist over a dumb compliment to an African supermodel, but public figures in their prime can play shrewdly on every anti-African prejudice in the book, fan the flames of hatred and pour fuel on a fratricidal war with speculative demonization and outright malicious lies, and yet be celebrated as humanitarian progressives.
One person who had no hesitation about accusing the Western response to the war of being racist was Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. He complained both in April and August 2022 that racism was behind Ukraine getting much more attention than Tigray. In a way, the only good thing about big media’s coverage of the war in northern Ethiopia was that there was so little of it. The less people followed it on the news, the less they were disinformed. Then again, had the conflict featured more prominently on the public agenda, the many commentators left, right and center, who are sometimes critical of the establishment and its narratives, would have taken issue with the wildest claims, rather than allowing, for instance, Cara Anna from Associated Press to emerge unscathed from her church-massacre fabrication. Regardless, what should alert us to racism is not that a war in Europe interests us more than another in Africa, but that we are perfectly capable of distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate use of force in Ukraine, but not, alas in Ethiopia.
I overheard Ethiopians, blissfully ignorant of Western progressive fads, wondering if Dr. Tedros’s racism accusations meant he was now throwing his white accomplices under the bus. The answer is: not at all. He is merely feeding them material for some performative white guilt tripping. This aims to absolve them of their real racism of not holding a black man to the same standard as they would a white man, as they overlook the shameful record and the violent associations of Dr. Tedros, who knows exactly how to charm them by talking the talk of a simple-minded donor darling and doing a victim impression.
How long can Dr. Tedros continue to hang out with the cool guys?
No regret, almost
When I first got involved in opining on this war in November 2021, I set myself the goal of getting through it without regret. Notwithstanding some quick-tempered tweets, the only thing I would change, if I could go back, would be the headline of my speech for the Danish Society of Engineers in March 2022, in which I characterized Ethiopia as “a fellow democracy”. This was overselling a point in the heat of the propaganda battles. Building an Ethiopian democracy, let alone a democratic culture, remains a daunting project with no guarantee of completion. It tends to backslide under pressure and polarization. Many tensions lurk and erupt into violence that may lead to the next big war. Making the most of peaceful avenues for change is not traditionally the strong suit of Ethiopian challengers to authority. Likewise, it is hard to find Ethiopians who envisage that their government will, any time soon, allow itself to be defeated at the polls and then gracefully swap places with the opposition. Of course, this is a case of wanting to be proved wrong.
Anyway, the point of this paper was never to vouch for the incumbent government, beyond its right to rule and its duty to win this war, but to demand accountability for the immense harm of outsiders’ interpretation of the conflict within the single story about Africa, which has, incidentally, given Western support for democracy a very bad name in Ethiopia.
With this in mind, the final word goes to Dr. Steven Were Omamo, the results-oriented humanitarian sabotaged by self-serving, glory-seeking cowboy humanitarians during the war ‘At the Centre of the World in Ethiopia’: “I also lament how the politics of major powers was allowed to infiltrate and corrupt a fragile but promising science-based process, destroying hard-earned credibility, along with the trust that went with that. Nobody has admitted that ‘the people are dying of hunger in Tigray’ narrative was total fabrication. There were no consequences. There are never any consequences as the ‘international community’ recycles itself from crisis to crisis. Incompetent and unethical people who lie, distort, and mess up can just walk away and do the same thing somewhere else. To me, that is annoying. For the world, it should be unacceptable.”
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