On the ‘narrative front’ of the war in Tigray and beyond – fighting the longest battle

In light of the Ukraine war, and the solidarity the country, its heroic defenders, and its beleaguered government, have rightly been getting, many have been wondering why the response to the Tigray war has been so different.

Instead of being met with solidarity and practical and moral support from an alliance of democratic countries from around the world, the situation in Tigray has been largely invisible internationally, while, in this conflict that can certainly be said to bear the hallmarks of nothing less than a genocide, Tigray has been under a brutal blockade, and society has been tormented for almost two years now.

Some have speculated that the reason – at least in part – might simply be racism. Others have taken what is, perhaps, a more nuanced view, and postulated that, though there may well be a ‘racism aspect’, the main difference is more likely to be a lack of understanding: while Ukrainian society, and the rise of the autocrat, Vladimir Putin, have been well understood and analysed in the West, the same can, in no way, be said of Ethiopian society, let alone Tigray. Indeed, the opposite is the case. Even now, many Western observers, and so-called ‘Ethiopia experts’, are still not clear about the most basic facts, such as which side must be considered the attacker and which the attacked, that Tigray has been under a near total communications and electricity blackout, right from the start of the war, or even whether Abiy Ahmed should really be seen as an autocratic leader.

Thus, given the many parallels between the two conflicts and the leaders at their centre, with no end in sight to the Ukraine war, and Nato rightly pledging solidarity; the Tigray war approaching its third year, and a relentless onslaught once again in progress, with basic facts still mischaracterised by Western media, it is certainly imperative to advocate – and, indeed, demand – a better, more complete understanding of how Ethiopian society got to this point, which side actually is the attacked and deserving of international support, and whether or not Abiy, or the allies of his regime, must be considered autocrats.

In order to achieve this, it is necessary to take several steps back. So, how did the Tigray war actually start?

Obscure beginnings

It was the night from Tuesday to Wednesday, November 04, 2020, as the world had turned its attention to the presidential election in the United States, when Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed Ali, had claimed that there had been an attack on the Northern Command in Tigray, and announced that he had launched a military offensive in response.

Initially, this hardly made it into the international media, nor did the subsequent communications and electricity blackout and dubious-sounding claims by the government that were put out within hours of the start of this opaque military campaign; such as that ‘the TPLF’ was ‘dressing up its soldiers in Eritrean military uniforms’.

The government called it a ‘law enforcement operation to bring the TPLF to justice’, but, from the very beginning, it had to be considered a civil war, with dangerous potential. It was, by no means, an accidental escalation, but a meticulously planned climax of the sociopolitical developments that had started years before.

When news organisations finally reported on the fighting, it was a distorted picture, indeed, that they presented to their audiences.With the blackout firmly in place, Abiy’s government controlled the narrative, which was often simply echoed verbatim by international news outlets.

Misunderstood and mischaracterised

The EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) government, and its legacy, had been little understood by Western observers, the Western-minded, or critical Ethiopians. It was, thus, hardly surprising to observe how Western media, including trusted institutions like the BBC, regurgitated the government’s narrative that ‘the TPLF had seized an army base’, and that was what had triggered the war – even though, due to the blackout, nothing could be asserted or confirmed, and no news organisation could rightly claim to understand the reality on the ground during these first days of the war.

Within weeks, the BBC and others had begun to misguidedly refer to the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) – and later the TDF (Tigray Defence Force) – as ‘rebels’, ‘rebel forces’, or even ‘rebel group’, which has become standard practice in the reporting of the Tigray war by international media.

The autocrats’ playbook

Devious manipulator

When Dr. Abiy Ahmed, a long-standing member of the OPDO (Oromo People’s Democratic Organization), one of the four parties that had made up the ruling EPRDF coalition, was elected its chairman in early 2018, he preceded with skill. 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.

Almost at once, he was able to mislead large sections of society, with his smooth talk of unity, peace, and democratic and economic reforms. Western observers, too, readily bought into the narrative he was constructing, and further perpetuated and enforced the perception of him as a post-ethnic, Western-minded, dynamic young leader, who would ‘bring Ethiopia out of the shadow of dictatorship, and into Western-style democracy, where the market and the media would no longer be tightly regulated’.

A society deceived

In the months that followed, he declared his political philosophy to be that of ‘medemer’, ‘Synergy’. As soon was evident, it was meant to be of ‘national importance’ – for his book with the same title   was made available everywhere. “From Revolutionary Democracy to medemer,” government media had proclaimed, and, without many even realising it, one man’s pseudo philosophy had become a pseudo political programme.

The TPLF’s criticism of ‘medemer’ as indistinct was ignored by many Ethiopians, and, if they took notice at all, not taken particularly seriously by Western observers, some of whom chose to misguidedly ‘pay homage’ to what clearly was, at best, a pseudo philosophy. At the same time, legitimate questions as to whether or to what extent it was justified to sideline – and increasingly demonise – the TPLF, and abandon party principles, were not even articulated.

Despite criticism and warnings from principled EPRDF and TPLF members, but with the backing of neoliberal pundits and ill-informed Western media, Abiy now set out to dismantle the anti-neoliberal position of his party – announcing deregulation and privatisation, and portraying himself as a ‘capitalist’, to further establish his reputation as a Western-minded neoliberal, which many unquestioningly accepted – while he continued to tighten his grip on power, skilfully orchestrating the exclusion of all who opposed him. Erstwhile OPDO colleagues, who had been instrumental in his rise to power, first in the OPDO, then on a national level, were soon disposed of, once they dared to voice any criticism. By late 2019, he and his accomplices had prepared the ground sufficiently to dismantle the coalition itself.

The strategy of delegitimisation and the dictators’ pact

To the mounting horror and dismay of many party loyalists, veterans, public servants, and concerned citizens, the strategy proved to be 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 – raising life expectancy, literacy levels, and smallholder production, and resulting in a fast-growing middle-class, while allowing the government to retain control of key enterprises, and regulate the economy in the interest of the public – were being consigned to history, he was misguidedly 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 this strange peace deal with Isaias Afwerki.

The TPLF leadership had been quick to point out Abiy’s apparent friendship and worrying rapport with the calculating autocrat. But many Ethiopians – who tended to view the TPLF with suspicion or hatred – did not take much notice. In the West, the TPLF, and the EPRDF coalition, had generally been perceived as ‘dictatorial’, and what they said was hardly ever worth mentioning, let alone to be taken seriously.

Western commentators had been quick to heap praise on Abiy for what can be described as a neoliberal position. When the privatisation of Ethio Telecom and the ‘opening’ of the telecommunications market was announced in June 2018, it was instantly hailed as ‘economic liberalisation’ by neoliberal pundits and economists.

Some Western observers also made much of the fact that Abiy is of mixed Amhara and Oromo heritage, mistakenly believing that this would, somehow, in and of itself, positively impact the balance of power and ethnicity.

Construction of the propaganda narrative, sidelining critics

By the time the duplicitous manipulator received his Prize – which gave a veneer of legitimacy to his leadership and his actions, and made it still easier for him to discredit any criticism – he and his accomplices had already succeeded in creating a false narrative, unquestioningly accepted by many gullible Ethiopians and the international community.

Put simply, “Everything the previous government did from 1991 to 2018, 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. The TPLF is to blame for all the country’s problems; Abiy and the Prosperity Party are never to blame.”

This distorted, plainly propagandist narrative overlooks basic facts, such as that Abiy and many of his Prosperity Party colleagues had been influential members of the EPRDF; those who now opposed his increasingly autocratic leadership or politics were sidelined, demonised, and, ultimately, removed, while those who proved to be willing accomplices were promoted or given positions in the government.

Similarly, the downsides of privatisation, for instance, were conveniently ignored. The fact that releasing thousands of prisoners, allowing exiled groups and parties back into the country, or deregulating the media – so lauded by the West – had increasingly destabilised and dangerously polarised society, was never even admitted. What economic model Ethiopia should adopt, and whether, or why, neoliberalism really was the right way, was, save a few lone opinion pieces, never even so much as articulated, let alone debated, in the public discourse.

The slippery slope: From democracy to autocracy

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 criminal elements within a party, that really means that the whole party, including its political programme, deserves to be demonised.

But, once his power was consolidated sufficiently, Abiy no longer pretended to be interested in dialogue or ‘Synergy’. Now, as soon became apparent, all who continued to oppose him were to be obliterated. No even slightly dissenting voices were to be tolerated in his vision of a monarchy-like state, where he rules supreme, by ‘divine grace’.

Tigray’s Regional President, Dr. Debretsion Gebremichael, whose government had prepared a rapturous reception for him, when he visited Mekelle to give a stirring speech in Tigrigna in mid-2018, and his party colleagues, were no longer considered legitimate politicians. The constitutionally mandated election, held in Tigray in September 2020, was conveniently declared null and void. In in unprecedented, escalatory move, amounting to nothing less than a declaration of war, Abiy’s government now simply withheld Tigray’s budget, as a ‘collective punishment’ for having dared to hold the vote. Western media, however, would often misleadingly report this along the lines of “Tigray defied the government”.

As the mandate of the federal government neared its expiration, and the legislative period its end, the option that elections could be postponed yet again, this time ‘due to Covid-19’, without the government resigning and continuing as a caretaker government with limited powers, was first given the veneer of international scrutiny, and then, unsurprisingly, the go ahead by parliament. The fact that this was a glaring violation of Ethiopia’s hard-won federalist Constitution was not understood by many Ethiopians, and ignored by Western observers, some of whom did not even seem to be aware that English translations of Ethiopia’s 1995 Constitution exist; whether or not it was being violated by any party could easily have been verified.

By the time the election was finally held, around one and a half years after it had first been announced, in the midst of an increasingly horrific civil war, the winner was certain. It was boycotted by opposition parties; once full of praise for Abiy, they were now being harassed and intimidated by the accomplices of his regime. Many people could not participate due to the security situation, while the whole region of Tigray was completely excluded. Yet, some Western observers, apparently still enamoured with the smooth-talking Abiy, did not seem to understand that this was not a ‘democratic election’, but the work of an autocrat determined to consolidate his power. Still, many Westerners believe that the Prosperity Party is, somehow, ‘the elected government of Ethiopia’, that can actually claim to have a popular mandate.

Misinformation, revisionism, institutional crackdown

Within days of the start of the war, dangerously emotive 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 by the EPRDF government, such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), would no longer get published, or were crudely edited, to remove any references that did not fit the narrative. 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. While, on the ground, the atrocities and human rights violations continued, in the information space, whole sections of online government media content were removed. Soon, all traces of opinion pieces that no longer fitted the regime’s narrative would disappear from the internet.

But, this trend, too, had started years before. As early as mid-2019, government media journalists had been blatantly asked to produce articles exalting the virtues of Oromo culture, while being discouraged, if not yet forbidden, from pointing out achievements of the EPRDF government.

Coinciding with this war, the beginning of which had been so masterfully timed, at the ‘journalistic front’ of this battle of narratives, incendiary content was now being published. Government media finally descended into incitement, misinformation and disinformation. If they had not already left, journalists either agreed to participate, managed to flee the country, ‘were disappeared’, jailed, or charged with ‘being anti-state’. The same fate now awaited members of the military, police, diplomats, academics, 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 out of their jobs. Huge segments of Ethiopian society were thrown into disarray. Hundreds of thousands went from being government journalists, diplomats, or peacekeepers abroad, to refugees with little financial means, almost over night.

Universities, too, would not be spared. A crackdown on all critical voices within academia began to gather pace. Competent bureaucrats, conscientious public servants, trained to act in the interest of academia and tertiary education, were replaced with regime loyalists, Amhara nationalists, and incompetent inciters. Once rightly a source of pride for many, universities were being turned into tools of an autocratic regime.

A military destroyed

What is left of the military, too, has been turn from a highly disciplined, multi-ethnic, internationally recognised force, into the tool of an autocrat. Tigrayan members – all, from long-serving veterans to young privates – have either been systematically removed, managed to leave what must essentially be considered ‘Abiy’s military’ to join the TDF and become partisans fighting for Tigray, been incarcerated without even the pretence of due process, or made to serve in a military abused to hunt down and massacre their compatriots, encouraged and expected to commit atrocities and war crimes, on a scale utterly inconceivable just weeks before.

The ENDF (Ethiopian National Defense Force), once a symbol of national unity and Ethiopia’s federal system, whose mandate had always been to safeguard and protect the Constitution, has been changed beyond all recognition. Only the name has remained.

Led by a new Chief-of-Staff, it has been participating in this genocidal war, aided by nationalist Amhara militia, hastily trained recruits with no understanding of the concept of military ethics, and by the conscript soldiers of Eritrean President Isaias, that most important ally – unthinkable, right up to the start of the war. Never would this defence force – well disciplined, trained to follow the highest standards of military ethics, and at the forefront of peacekeeping for decades – have battled to destroy its own society, let alone forged an alliance with Ethiopia’s worst enemy and his conscripted troops.

Preparing the ground

For these developments to take place, the ground had to be laid: First, in June 2019, the Tigrayan General Seare Mekonnen, a loyal soldier and pragmatic veteran, had been assassinated in broad daylight. Within hours of his death, before naming Asaminew Tsige as the coup leader, government media had speculated that it might have been the General’s own compatriots, Tigrayans, angry at him for joining Abiy’s government, who wanted him dead. As soon became obvious, this, too, had been part of Abiy’s strategy to whip up anti-Tigrayan sentiment, and polarise and destabilise society.

As General Seare’s successor, General Adem Mohamed, evidently refused to go along with Abiy’s war plans, he was disposed of within hours of the start of the war.

Now, at last, the ground was prepared, and 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, accusing Tigrayan and former government minister and TPLF member Dr. Tedros Adhanom, who had been elected Director-General of the WHO in mid-2017, of supporting the suddenly deposed party.

Genocide – the dictators’ ‘final solution’?

Month by month, this polarised society at war continues to tear itself apart. Many, often feeling betrayed by a leader they once supported, and by their society, have had no choice but to keep their heads down, wishing desperately that peace, security and stability, would, somehow, return to Tigray; either the Abiy regime might fall and Ethiopia’s unity be preserved, or Tigray would emerge as an independent democracy. If they, despite constant government pressure and intimidation, have remained loyal to the political programme, or legacy, of the ‘pre-reform’ government, they will be branded ‘TPLF operatives’. If they still voice opposition to privatisation or deregulation, or support the Constitution and ethnic-based federalism, they will be declared ‘anti-reformist’ suspects, likely in danger of being deported to one of several World-War-Two-style concentration camps, erected for Tigrayans since the start of the war.

Once again, a renewed offensive has begun, with yet more brutal indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets, including a kindergarten, and the mass mobilisation of Eritrean soldiers, while the blockade remains in place, and the last food supplies are dwindling. Abiy and Isaias seem determined to implement their ‘final solution’, starving, bombing, and shelling the government and people of Tigray into submission, or out of existence – whichever comes first.

And yet, some, among them gullible Africans and Western governments, still find the idea of ‘African solutions for African problems’ appealing in this context. On closer examination, though, it turns out that, as tempting as it might have been to leave this to the African Union to sort out, this has never been a viable option. Although not well understood by Western observers and ‘Ethiopia experts’, alas, the AU has clearly shown itself to be all too willing to accept the narrative of the Abiy regime. From the very beginning of this war, it has acted anything but impartial, and more than disqualified itself as a mediator. Certainly, it was never reasonable to blame Tigray for ‘being the obstructing party that, until recently, insisted on this unnecessary hurdle to peace negotiations’, as some international journalists have consistently done.

The world’s broken promise – time to act!

Day by day, hunger, Isaias’ mass mobilisation, and the ferocious bombing and shelling exact their relentless toll on the people of Tigray; week after week, the Ukraine war drags on, and Europe is faced with the prospect of a hard winter, dwindling energy reserves, an anachronistically slow transition to renewable energy, and the ever-present fear of the nuclear threat – unfathomable scenarios, when that ‘shaking of the ground’ was first felt at the start of the corona crisis, not yet three years ago.

Confronted with a new reality, concerned observers, from Western journalists to governments and aid organisations, have been pondering the world’s broken promises, once enshrined in the Convention for the Prevention of Genocide; the long-established concept of the international community’s moral obligation to prevent any situation that might turn out to constitute genocide, wherever in the world it occurs – as relevant now as it was in the years after the Second World War.

Still, as the EU, Nato, and countries around the world pledge to stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, against the common enemy Vladimir Putin and his accomplices, in Tigray, the genocide continues, invisible to the world, the suffering continues.

And still, Western diplomats and concerned commentators seem to believe in Abiy Ahmed, and that there exists a moral equivalence between his regime and the government of Tigray. Still, many believe in mediation – despite all evidence that, just like Vladimir Putin, Adolf Hitler, and all the autocrats of the world, passed and present, Abiy Ahmed will never negotiate in good faith, and all mediation attempts would necessarily be fruitless endeavours, that would only give the autocrats time to pursue their inhumane goals of war, annihilation and genocide. And still, the question of whether mediation of any sort, and no matter who conducts it, can realistically be expected to produce any tangible results, remains unanswered internationally. This becomes even more pressing, considering that, for almost two years, the people of Tigray have been facing nothing less than the threat of ‘total annihilation’, cities destroyed, infrastructure in ruins, a health system smashed to pieces, a society, once so well, so prosperous, so stable, so hopeful, traumatised for decades to come.

Societies in ruins

The Tigray war rages on, now soon in its third year. Ethiopia’s economy collapses under the strain, with rising inflation, increasing food insecurity, the horrific backdrop of the man-made starvation to crush Tigray, present all the while.

And when, at last, Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine under a pretext, once again, parallels were revealed; for, at the UN, the world stood united against the autocrat’s invasion, witnessing the worst autocracies of the world standing in isolation, voting not to condemn Putin’s war of aggression: Russia, Belarus, Syria, North Korea, and Eritrea – Abiy Ahmed’s key ally in the Tigray war; Vladimir Putin’s supporter in the Ukraine war.

And as it went on, very much not according to plan, a deranged phantasy of an increasingly irrational autocrat, the victim of his own propaganda, Ethiopia’s position, too, would become clear: Just days after the outbreak of the Ukraine war, the Russian language was added to the Ethiopian Airlines app. A source of pride for decades, this well-established state-owned company, once a symbol of the EPRDF’s anti-neoliberal politics, too, had become a propaganda tool.

As Putin’s genocidal war torments the people of Ukraine, in Ethiopia, stability, peace, and security are now memories that belong to the past, as is a growing middle-class and rising living standards, or the constitutionally enshrined guarantee of self-determination that came with federalism. Achievements of the last 30 years have disappeared into nothingness, and history is made.

Those who have the good of society in mind are left with only the illusory hope that the international community might, at some point, decide to no longer abandon the people of Tigray, and courageously take action – even if to prevent their once ‘favourite neoliberal student’ Abiy, and his ‘elder mentor’ Isaias, from carrying out their deranged plans, that the perpetrators of atrocities might yet be brought to justice, by a world that has recognised the narrative of another self-serving dictator for what it is, by Western governments that, conscious of the legacy of Nuremberg and international justice, no longer seek to misguidedly position themselves as ‘neutral’ in the Tigray war due to a lack of understanding, while rightly siding with the attacked in the Ukraine war because they understood basic facts.

But, still, there is as little reason for optimism as there was a year ago.

Historic victory

Yet, like Ukraine, Tigray and its allies are left with no choice but to fight, and to emerge victorious in this war of societal and cultural survival. And a victory is certain. For there always comes a time when the battle of narratives is won by those who could claim the moral high ground. Throughout the history of the world, this has been proven to be true, and it will be proved yet again. They will have their victory, whether they live to see it or not. History itself will deliver it. History itself will judge them to be the victor at last. That, too, is the legacy of genocides from decades and centuries passed.