JON ABBINK: Tendency to demonise Ethiopia and give free pass to TPLF is false narrative
Tigray People’s Liberation Front propaganda has been repeated as truth by global media and is driving policy responses
For nearly a year Ethiopia and its people have been the victims of a devastating insurgency, a propaganda campaign spreading harmful misinformation, and political prejudice in international policy circles. Since losing power in 2018, the dictatorial elites of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) have committed themselves to undermining the democratically elected government of Ethiopia.
However, to listen to much of the world’s media and policy establishment is to think that the almost year-long conflict is the fault of the democratically elected Ethiopian government. The current [tendency] of demonising Ethiopia and giving a free pass to the TPLF is doomed to fail because it is a false narrative, one that is prolonging the conflict and increasing the suffering.
On November 4, TPLF insurgents attacked federal army soldiers, commencing the current conflict. On June 28 prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s government offered a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew federal forces from Tigray. This offer of peace was wholly rejected by the TPLF, which responded by attacking the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar. The TPLF has since forced children to fight, been accused by USAid of hindering humanitarian aid, and indulged in significant human rights abuses, including killing noncombatants and using “scorched earth” tactics. TPLF insurgents even stole kitchen utensils and families’ vital grain supplies.
First, how did we get here? As the TPLF’s domestic armed insurgency started it also launched an extensive propaganda campaign in cyberspace and directly to global political networks, including in US and EU policy circles, built up during TPLF’s 27 years of governance. The sad success of this campaign has meant TPLF propaganda has been repeated as truth by global media and is driving policy responses. The US and EU are now in the strange place of helping the TPLF, an organisation listed as a terrorist group in the Global Terrorism Database and in several US Citizenship and Immigration Services documents, in its attempt to restore an authoritarian grip on Ethiopia as a whole.
Authoritative voices from within Ethiopia, including local journalists and commentators, have been all but ignored in reporting on this conflict. The views of the vast majority of Ethiopia’s citizens and the Ethiopian diaspora across the world are equally not much present in media discussions and seemingly not considered by policymakers. Instead of a reasoned evaluation of the facts on the ground, too many are letting the TPLF get off scot-free and accuse only the federal government of wrongdoing.
While there has been a modicum of improvement, with some within the US government and media recognising the mistaken narrative around this conflict, too many have still been taken in by the TPLF — mistaking an armed insurgency for a grass-roots movement. This has now led to what I refer to as dangerous and unproductive “both-side-ism”. Despite recent news, like that from Ch’enna village where over 200 civilian noncombatants were massacred by TPLF insurgents, and in Qobo town, where more than 600 people, again noncombatants, were killed in house-to-house “searches’” the US and EU seek to treat the TPLF as benign underdogs in this conflict.
A critical view on the activities of both sides is of course necessary. The Ethiopian federal government has made mistakes, including serious transgressions in the early stages of the conflict. However, any reasonable analysis reveals that the TPLF is the real problem. It was the initiator of the conflict with a violent insurgency against the federal government on pretexts that cannot stand up to scrutiny, and has undertaken ongoing acts of repulsive violence and humiliation. Its expansion of the conflict since June 2021 adds to this bad record, but remarkably in the global media and international policy representations the Ethiopian government is scapegoated, and at best presented as 50/50 with the TPLF.
Where do we go from here? It is clear the current US and EU policy is not working. The conflict and TPLF atrocities continue with no end in sight. The delisting of Ethiopia from the African Growth and Opportunity Act and other sanctions will only punish the livelihoods of ordinary people not involved in a war imposed on Ethiopia by the TPLF elite. Supporting and condoning TPLF, a movement that has brought mayhem and instability to Ethiopia and the wider region, is unproductive and politically and morally questionable.
Instead, the US, EU and other “concerned” parties, including global media, would do well to restore balance and change course in their policy towards Ethiopia, including getting fuller evidence of all relevant facts on the ground. This shift must start with an appreciation from the international community, including the Western donor countries and the UN, that one cannot work with the TPLF as a “political partner”.
Attempts to force negotiations between this insurgency and the Ethiopian government are simply rewarding violence. Instead, US and Western policy must focus on securing TPLF acquiescence to a ceasefire, disarmament of insurgents and delivering humanitarian aid across the entire region. The international community must start to work constructively with the Ethiopian people and the country’s federal government — based on critical, new information gathering and a longer-term strategic appraisal.
The process of normalisation and the restoration of a workable peace (including punishing proven abuse by federal and Eritrean soldiers during the conflict) is the task of Ethiopia itself. It is in the interests of the country, its people, the region and Africa as a whole, to say nothing of Western nations, for the international community to act as a partner in this task.
• Abbink is professor of politics and governance in Africa at Leiden University and chair of the Researchers' Assembly of the African Studies Centre in Leiden. He is author of “The Politics of Conflict in Northern Ethiopia, 2020-2021: a study of war-making, media bias and policy struggle”.
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