The long battle of narratives

On the night from Tuesday to Wednesday, the 4th of November, 2020, as the world was looking to the US to see whether Trump would get another term, Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed declared that, at the Northern Command, there had been an unprovoked attack on the defence force, and a military response was necessary.

Obviously, this hardly made the news internationally, nor did the subsequent communication and electricity blackout and suspiciously dubious-sounding claims by government media. When news organisations finally started reporting on ‘fighting in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region’, it was a distorted picture that they presented to their audiences. Given how little the EPRDF government had been understood, and how misguidedly it was portrayed – by Western media, the Western-minded, or critical Ethiopians – that was hardly surprising.

The ‘law enforcement operation to bring the TPLF to justice’, as government media called it – but which, from the very start, had to be considered a civil war – was not an accidental escalation, but a meticulously planned climax of the sociopolitical developments that had started two and a half years before. And, as is usually the case, this war has been waged on multiple fronts.

When Abiy Ahmed was appointed Prime Minister by the EPRDF coalition, he preceded with skill.
Initially, he could often be heard praising the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, and did not clearly break with party principles, leaving room, for those who wanted to, to believe that he was positioning himself as a loyal member of the EPRDF, and for others to see in him the zealous reformer.

He was able to mislead large sections of society, with his smooth talk of unity, peace, political and economic reforms, and then, ‘medemer’ (an Amharic word that roughly translates to synergy), which he declared to be his political philosophy, and which – as soon became evident; for his book with the same title was made available everywhere – was meant to be of ‘national importance’. “From Revolutionary Democracy to medemer”, rejoiced the government media, and, without many even realising it, one man’s pseudo-philosophy had become a pseudo-political programme.

Few may have recognised it at the time, but, despite criticism and warnings from principled EPRDF and TPLF members, he started dismantling the anti-neoliberal position of his party, so that the West would take a positive view of him, while he continued to tighten his grip on power, skillfully orchestrating the exclusion of all who opposed him. Erstwhile party colleagues, who had loyally supported him in his rise to power, were soon pushed aside, once they dared to be critical.
By late 2019, he and his accomplices had prepared the ground sufficiently to dismantle the coalition itself, increasingly side-lining – and demonising – the TPLF.

This strategy was evidently effective. As the party that had elected him its leader only one and a half years before, and its programme of ‘Revolutionary Democracy’ and ‘developmental state’ that had so benefited society, were being consigned to history, he was rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize. But, by the end of 2019, it was already plainly obvious that there must have been ulterior motives behind ‘making peace with Eritrea’.

The TPLF leadership had been quick to point out Abiy’s apparent friendship and worrying rapport with President Isaias Afwerki. But many Ethiopians – who tended to view the TPLF with exaggerated suspicion or hatred – did not take much notice. In the West, the TPLF, and the EPRDF coalition, were generally seen as ‘dictatorial’, and what they said did not matter in the least.

When the outstanding orator and devious manipulator received his Prize, he and his accomplices had already succeeded in creating a false narrative, all too unquestioningly adopted by gullible Ethiopians and the international community.

Put simply, “Everything the previous government did over the last decades”, that narrative goes, “was either bad, corrupt, or dictatorial, while everything the current government has done since the beginning of 2018 must be viewed entirely positively. Now, the last vestiges of dictatorship are being removed.”

On closer inspection, this turns out not to be true; neither is it legitimate to make the connection – from the last 30 years to the events leading up to the outbreak of war.

In this narrative, the downsides of privatisation, for instance, were conveniently ignored. The fact that releasing thousands of prisoners, or deregulating the media – so lauded by Western observers – had increasingly destabilised and polarised society was never even admitted. What economic model Ethiopia should adopt, and whether the neoliberal one really was the way forward, was, save a few lone opinion pieces, never even so much as articulated in the public discourse.

In light of the position Abiy’s government now found itself in, there were legitimate questions to be asked of it, such as whether, if there are ‘bad guys’ within a party, that means that the whole party, including its political programme, deserves to be demonised.

But, with his power now consolidated sufficiently, Abiy no longer pretended to be interested in dialogue and ‘Synergy’. Now, as soon became obvious, all who continued to oppose him were to be destroyed. Finally, with the outbreak of war, he could precede with his deeply unpatriotic, treasonous plan. He and his accomplices had succeeded in misleading society to such an extent that, when it was faced with the choice, it turned on the people of Tigray, rather than on them.

Re-elected in September 2020, Regional President Debretsion Gebremichael, whose government had prepared a rapturous reception for him in Mekelle, just two and a half years before, and his party colleagues, were no longer legitimate politicians. The constitutionally mandated regional election was conveniently declared null and void.

The option that elections could simply be postponed yet again, this time ‘due to Covid-19’, without the government resigning and continuing as a caretaker government with limited powers, had first been given the veneer of international scrutiny, and, in a second step, unsurprisingly, the green light. The fact that this was a clear violation of the Constitution, was either not understood, or ignored by many, Ethiopians and Western observers alike.

Within days of the start of the war, terms like ‘TPLF operative’, ‘criminal junta’, ‘fascistic organisation’, and ‘genocidal rampage’, were being used by government media, as the propaganda machine – so well prepared and meticulously constructed over more than two years – sprang into action.

Months earlier, opinion pieces acknowledging obvious achievements of the EPRDF government, such as the GERD, would no longer get published. History was being rewritten. There was to be not even a hint that the ‘pre-reform’ government might have done something that was not dictatorial or corrupt.
But, this trend, too, had started years before. As early as mid-2019, journalists had produced blatantly pro-Oromo articles, while being discouraged, if not yet forbidden, from pointing out achievements of the EPRDF government.

At the ‘journalistic front’ of this battle, incendiary content was being published, to coincide with this war, the beginning of which had been so masterfully timed. Government media had become a mere propaganda weapon. It finally descended into incitement, misinformation and disinformation.
Journalists either agreed to participate, ‘disappeared’, or manage to leave the country. The same fate awaited members of the military, police, diplomats, and other public servants. Unless they agreed to ‘sing the praises’ of Abiy and his Prosperity Party, Tigrayans, now collectively, and clearly with official approval, considered ‘TPLF junta sympathisers’, were driven from their positions, forced to flee the society they had served just days before.

What is left of the military has been reduced to a mere shadow of Ethiopia’s multi-ethnic defence force, as Tigrayan members – all, from long-serving veterans to young privates – have been systematically removed, or agreed to serve in a military abused to hunt down their compatriots, and committing human rights violations on a scale unimaginable just weeks before.

The ENDF, a symbol of national unity and Ethiopia’s federal system, whose mandate had always been to safeguard and protect the Constitution, and which could never have been employed for an unsoldierly purpose like ‘exterminating those deemed anti-reformist’, has been changed beyond all recognition. Only the name remains.

Led by a new Chief-of-Staff, it has been duly participating in this unprecedented war, aided by nationalist Amhara militia, and, crucially, by the conscript soldiers of Isaias – something that had been utterly unthinkable, right up to the start of the war. Never could this disciplined defence force, trained to follow the highest standards of military ethics, and at the forefront of international peacekeeping missions for decades, have turned against its own society, let alone forged an alliance with Ethiopia’s worst enemy!

For these developments to take place, the ground had to be laid.
First, veteran and Tigrayan General Seare Mekonnen, an honourable soldier and pragmatic patriot was assassinated in broad daylight. If he had still been alive and leading the defence force, subsequent developments would not, and could not, have taken place. He was quickly replaced by General Adem Mohamed.

As General Adem evidently refused to go along with Abiy’s war plans, at last, the willing accomplice General Birhanu Jula was given command of the defence force.

He immediately began not only the actual war against his own society but also the propaganda war, baselessly accusing Tigrayan and former government minister and TPLF member Dr Tedros Adhanom of supporting the violently deposed party, which Abiy and his accomplices suddenly considered to be a ‘terrorist junta organisation’.

Those now found to still be loyal to the political programme, or legacy, of the ‘pre-reform’ government, will be suspected of being ‘TPLF operatives’. If they still voice opposition to privatisation or deregulation, that will likely make them ‘anti-reformist’ suspects.

With the election finally held, when the winner was certain, many, including former public servants, have been reduced to lying low, ‘keeping their heads down’, and hoping that, someday soon, the people of Tigray will be able to again enjoy peace, security, and stability, and the perpetrators of the atrocities will be brought to justice, by a society that has recognised the narrative of a self-serving autocrat for what it is, by a world that no longer labours under misguided narratives and assumptions.

There will, assuredly, come a time in history, when the battle of narratives will be won by those who can claim the moral high ground. They will have their victory, even if they may not live to see it.

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