The age of disinformation: what exactly is happening in Ethiopia? (Professor Bahru Zewde)

The age of disinformation: what exactly is happening in Ethiopia?
 Professor Bahru_Zewde

Following the reported capture of the strategic towns of Dessie and Kombolcha by the forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front/TPLF/, the world is abuzz with the imminent fall of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
CNN and the rest have been describing the events in lurid terms. The U.S. Embassy Addis Ababa has issued an advisory to all non-essential staff to leave the country.
This is not surprising, as the US state department has chosen to side with the TPLF from the outset. Yet, indications from the front are that the ride is not going to be an easy one for the TPLF forces.
Apart from the Ethiopian National Defense Force, they will have to contend with Amhara and Afar militia as well as Amhara fanno (guerrillas). They will also have to protect their overstretched rear, which is exposed to a resurgent Amhara force as well as potential attack by Eritrean forces.
The context
Since the outbreak of the war in Tigray exactly a year ago, the world has been inundated with misinformation and disinformation.
What is abundantly clear – but is deliberately ignored by Western media – is that the war started not on November 4, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered the military operation, but on the night of November 3, when Tegrayan elements of the elite Northern Command treacherously murdered their non-Tegrayan comrades while they were asleep, and tortured others. The murderous attack was accompanied by a seizure of the sophisticated weaponry of the command.
In a recent interview, General Tsadkan Gebre Tensai, the commander of the Tegrayan forces, tried to convince the audience that it was a pre-emptive strike to avert an impending invasion by the government. Assuming that this had some validity, should the midnight attack have been conducted in such egregious fashion? A lengthy TPLF document that was issued one month before the attack makes its objectives clear.
It included the removal of Abiy and the setting up of a transitional government. Thus, the attack on the Northern Command might well have been a prelude to the march on Addis Ababa. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence to show that TPLF supporters both in Ethiopia and in the diaspora were gearing up to celebrate the imminent victory.
Yet, for the Western media, what could be more newsworthy than a Nobel laureate waging war?
As if winning the Nobel Peace Prize comes with an obligation to turn the other cheek. As if he was not the prime minister of a country and commander-in-chief of its armed forces! For the record, Barack Obama won the prize in the middle of the infamous surge that he had just authorised in #Afghanistan.
Another thread of Western media reportage highlighted atrocities committed by the Ethiopian and allied Eritrean troops. The CNN even went into the trouble of staging a simulation of a reported massacre at a place called Dengelat.
Atrocities are to be deplored under any circumstances. And the recently released joint report by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has come up with graphic details of the atrocities committed by all sides, including the Tegrayan Special Forces.
Indeed, the first case of an egregious massacre (reported by both Amnesty International and EHRC) was conducted by TPLF-affiliated youth (with the connivance of Tegrayan militia and police). It took place on November 9 in the border town of Mai Kadra. The victims, numbering more than 200, were Amhara seasonal migrant labourers.
Yet, it was the massacre in Aksum of more than 100 Tegrayans by Eritrean forces on November 28 that was selectively beamed across Western media.
Many Western governments, led by the US, have chosen to side with the TPLF against the Ethiopian government.
It is largely thanks to the Ethiopian diaspora (particularly the large component in the US) and a few foreign friends of Ethiopia (Jon Abbink, Jeff Pearce, Lawrence Freeman) that the alternative voice has been heard in some measure.
Recently, a powerful voice has been added in the journalist Hermela Aregawi, an Ethiopian-American of Tegrayan origin, who, totally disgusted by the brazen bias of mainstream media, took the courageous step of distancing herself from the tight Tegrayan network and began speaking the truth.
History not repeating itself
Some facile parallels have been made with the TPLF march to Addis Ababa in 1991 soon after the fall of Dessie. Yet, 2021 is not 1991. Then, it had the full support and collaboration of the forces of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, which was waging a parallel war to achieve Eritrean independence.
Now, the two former friends have become sworn enemies. Then, the Amhara people, who had their own grievances against the ruling Derg, paved the way to the capital for the TPLF. Now, the TPLF seems determined to march over Amhara corpses. The TPLF spokesperson is on record for saying, on more than one occasion, that they still have accounts to settle with the Amhara elite.
From its inception, the TPLF has harboured a visceral hatred of the Amhara. The manifesto with which it launched the armed struggle in 1976 bristles with anti-Amhara rhetoric.
The strategic document cited above sees the period from the ascent of Emperor Menilek in 1889 to the TPLF/EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) takeover of power in 1991 as the Age of Darkness. Two years had not elapsed when it sacked 43 academics (a number of them at the professor and associate professor levels) in 1993 for no other tangible reason than that most, if not all, happened to be Amhara.
The current situation
The current phase of the war began last July, after the government withdrew its forces from Tegray and declared a unilateral ceasefire. Rather than reciprocating, TPLF called it “a sick joke” and set out a number of preconditions before it could agree to a ceasefire. If there was a will to end the conflict and bring much-needed humanitarian assistance to those in dire need in Tegray, it could have brought the issues that it set as preconditions to the negotiation table.
Instead, it began an offensive into the Amhara and Afar regions.
Its strategy has been one of a total war, mobilising children and the elderly. In the process, thousands (both combatant and non-combatant) have died and hundreds of thousands displaced.
The humanitarian disaster that began in Tegray has now spilt over to the two neighbouring regions. The situation is becoming unmanageable. True to its promise, TPLF has massacred hundreds of Amhara peasants, refugees and youth in the areas that it came to occupy.
The Afar have not been spared either, with the shelling of a refugee camp that claimed hundreds of lives, including children. The latest report is the execution of over 100 youth in the recently occupied town of Kombolcha.
The endgame
In a situation so filled with many variables, it is difficult to predict the final outcome. This is especially the case with a complex country such as Ethiopia. The TPLF commander wants us to believe that the war is over and what remains is the setting up of a transitional government. Indeed, the TPLF has assembled a handful of organisations (just as it did in 1991) and set up an anti-government alliance, presumably as a stepping stone to the projected transitional government.
The fact of the matter is that TPLF faces the united opposition of almost all Ethiopian nationalities. This is because the organisation has such a dismal record of governance in the nearly three decades that it was in power (1991-2018). And they do not want a second edition of it.
The only election that was openly contested was the third one in 2005, which the opposition almost won.
Thereafter, the TPLF vowed to itself never again and promulgated a series of laws crippling the opposition, muzzling the media and shackling civil society.
That was the background to the widespread popular protests of 2016-2018 that brought Abiy to power.
Soon a standoff developed which reached its climax when Abiy scrapped the EPRDF in favour of a new party, Prosperity Party, which the TPLF refused to join. Various efforts were made to bring the two estranged parties to the negotiation table, to no avail.
Things took an almost irreversible turn when TPLF conducted its own elections in September last year, in defiance of the federal government and the National Election Board, which has been forced to postpone them because of the outbreak of Covid-19 – as so many other countries have done.
A great national tragedy
Whichever way you look at it, the situation in which Ethiopia currently finds itself is tragic in many respects. Tegray has been an integral part of Ethiopia, indeed a vital component of its culture and civilisation.
Yet, now, Tegrayans are pitted against non-Tegrayans. Old friends are no longer on speaking terms. The possibility of living together in peace and harmony is receding.
The war should never have come to pass. And it should have been halted at the first opportunity.
[ Bahru Zewde, Emeritus Professor of history at Addis Ababa University and currently a fellow of the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study ]
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