Ethiopia’s perilous propaganda war

Eritrea Ethiopia Tigray

Late last month, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed finally admitted the worst-kept secret in Africa: that soldiers from neighboring Eritrea are fighting alongside Ethiopia’s military in the Tigray region of the country. For the last five months, Abiy’s government has waged a military offensive there against the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which once dominated Ethiopia’s government and regarded Eritrea as an enemy. Numerous eyewitness and media reports had documented Eritrean involvement in the war, which erupted less than a year after Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize for his historic rapprochement with Eritrea. Yet the Ethiopian prime minister had been reluctant to acknowledge Eritrea’s role, both because it would open him up to accusations of compromising Ethiopian sovereignty and because he has gone to great lengths to portray the conflict as a necessary, proportional, and swiftly resolved military action against a recalcitrant regional government.

Even as he admitted that Eritrean troops had been in Tigray, however, Abiy sought to control the narrative, manipulating the facts to counter unflattering reports from the war and protect his increasingly battered reputation. On the one hand, he claimed that Eritrea’s soldiers had entered the country only to control the border, securing trenches and other installations that Ethiopian troops had abandoned during the fight. On the other hand, he effectively blamed Eritrean forces for “atrocities … committed in Tigray region” in order to exculpate himself and his army from responsibility for possible crimes against humanity. While the two claims contradicted each other and likely infuriated Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, they had one thing in common: they put distance between Ethiopia’s prime minister and the increasingly horrific reports emanating from Tigray.

For the duration of the war, Abiy’s government has sought to censor any independent or critical coverage of the conflict. And through a combination of Internet blockages, intimidation of aid workers and the media, and restrictions on foreign journalists, it largely succeeded in effecting a news blackout. On the other side of the conflict, the TPLF has had difficulty propagating its own narrative. Several crushing defeats have forced the Tigrayan group to flee its base in the regional capital of Mekelle and adopt guerrilla tactics. TPLF supporters in the diaspora have used social media effectively to try to keep the conflict in the public eye, but the group has no central information agency to provide an alternative to the Ethiopian government’s narrative.

The combination of government censorship and TPLF fragmentation has meant that news of grave human rights abuses and war crimes initially trickled out slowly. Even now, the world’s understanding of what has happened in Tigray is patchy. Journalists and human rights investigators have unearthed strong evidence that both Ethiopian and Eritrean troops have massacred large numbers of civilians. But these alleged atrocities may be the tip of the iceberg, and their details remain murky. Even in the age of smartphones and social media, Ethiopia’s authoritarian government has exerted remarkable control over the flow of information. As a result, the two camps and their supporters disagree on even the most basic facts of the conflict. How it started, who is to blame, which country’s troops are involved, the relative strength of the combatants, the opinions of the people of Tigray, and whether any atrocities have been committed (and if so, by whom) are all matters of vigorous dispute.

Such a contested information landscape has profound implications not just for outsiders’ understandings of the war but for the prospects for conflict resolution. After all, those who don’t see eye to eye on how a war began or why it is still raging are unlikely to agree on how to end it.

Tigray goes dark

Abiy achieved his near-total news blackout in Tigray through a mix of old and new strategies for controlling information. He blocked mobile phones, landlines, and the Internet, choking off most communication from the region from the earliest days of the conflict. “Overnight,” the journalist Simon Allison reported, “the region went silent and has remained so.”

Abiy’s government later buttressed this strategy with intimidation of the media, threatening and detaining local journalists who sought to investigate the conflict or questioned the blackout. For their part, foreign journalists were told they needed special permits to go to the front lines—permits that many of them were denied. Embarrassed to tell foreign correspondents already in the country that they were being prevented from covering the conflict, the government repeatedly claimed that the necessary permits could not be issued because “the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority has run out of ink.” When the government realized that foreign journalists were reporting on the situation in Tigray by interviewing Tigrayan refugees who had crossed the border into Sudan, it began attempting to block Tigrayans from using that route out of the country.

Together, the Ethiopian government’s repressive tactics not only prevented firsthand reporting from Tigray but made it impossible for journalists outside the region to speak directly to a sufficient number of people there to publish with confidence about what was happening. As a result, many media organizations pulled their punches, reporting on alleged abuses but failing to substantiate their existence with hard evidence.

Propaganda war

The news vacuum in Tigray set the scene for a full-fledged propaganda war. In a speech to parliament soon after the fighting began, Abiy compared himself to Abraham Lincoln and the situation in Tigray to the American Civil War. His government held mass rallies to build support for the war. Meanwhile, the government propaganda machine pumped out positive stories about the conflict—50 a day according to some estimates—for domestic and international audiences. The government even set up a “State of Emergency Fact Check” that sought to undermine criticism of the government, including by spreading disinformation.

Meanwhile, some TPLF sympathizers in the diaspora began to circulate stories—some true, some exaggerated, and some entirely made up—that diverged sharply from the government’s version of events. Activists on social media spread harrowing pictures—some real, some taken from other conflicts—as part of a campaign to demonize Abiy, pressure Western governments to intervene in Tigray, and even push the Nobel committee to rescind Abiy’s prize.

The government responded to these messages by throwing mud in the other direction, in particular by emphasizing the abuses the TPLF committed during its decades in power. The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s central government from 1991 until 2018, when Abiy came to power, committing acts of mass repression that Abiy’s government is now using to fan popular resentment of the region. The TPLF has also played into this narrative by apparently committing new atrocities during the current conflict, including playing a role in the massacre of some 600 people from the Amhara community in the town of Mai Kadra.

Ethiopians fleeing the fighting in Tigray and gathering on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, December 2020
Ethiopians fleeing the fighting in Tigray and gathering on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, December 2020 Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters

At the same time that it has sought to demonize the TPLF internally, Abiy’s government has tried to downplay and even conceal the extent of the conflict on the world stage. On November 28 of last year, Abiy declared victory and an end to the conflict, his propaganda trolls pushing hashtags such as #EthiopiaPrevails and #RisingEthiopia on social media. Since then, officials in his government have stopped referring to “Tigray” at all, speaking instead about the “Northern Region” or “Northern Ethiopia.” This attempt to write Tigray out of existence is particularly sinister in light of recent reports that the neighboring Amhara regional government has effectively annexed parts of Tigray, and the growing perception that the interim regional administration led by the Tigrayan Mulu Nega is loyal to Abiy rather than to the Tigrayan people.

In the absence of on-the-ground reporting, human rights bodies and journalists have had to try to piece together a picture of the conflict and its related atrocities like a jigsaw puzzle. Following weeks of speculation and accusations on social media, Amnesty International concluded, based on 41 survivor accounts and satellite imagery, that Eritrean soldiers had massacred hundreds of unarmed civilians in the town of Axum in what “may amount to a crime against humanity.” The BBC likewise unearthed video and other evidence that Ethiopian soldiers executed as many as 73 civilians near the Tigrayan town of Mahbere Dego. Other journalists, drawing on the testimony of doctors, have built up a persuasive body of evidence that both Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers are using rape as a weapon of war.

These revelations of human rights abuses finally forced Abiy to begrudgingly acknowledge late last month that “reports indicate that atrocities have been committed” and to pledge that any soldiers who raped women would be held accountable. Yet he continues to deny that major massacres have taken place, claiming they are the product of the “propaganda of exaggeration.” His government has also ignored or refuted reports that “soldiers, paramilitaries and insurgents” have killed more than 1,900 civilians in over 150 massacres and that it is deliberately creating famine conditions in the region in order to starve its people into submission. As a result, the perception gap between the two sides endures, even as more evidence of atrocities trickles out.

Vanishing common ground

Abiy’s efforts to control the news cycle around Tigray, and the propaganda war that has erupted as a result, will only make the crisis harder to resolve in a sustainable way. The two sides now have diametrically opposed narratives of the conflict—narratives that will preclude any shared sense of atonement or responsibility for what has happened. This total disconnect means that one of the most important foundations of a lasting peace—a common understanding of the past—is slipping further away by the day.

In the absence of a negotiated settlement, Abiy will fall back on repression to manage the conflict in Tigray. A cycle of abuses and attempted cover-ups will ensue, with horror stories occasionally appearing in the press. The TPLF likely cannot defeat the Ethiopian government militarily at this point, but it can be a constant thorn in Abiy’s side. Berhane Gebre-Christos, a close confidant of the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi who served as foreign spokesman for the TPLF when it was in power, has claimed that TPLF forces have broken the backbone of the Ethiopian military, making Abiy even more dependent on Eritrean troops. This is clearly an exaggeration, but it suggests that the TPLF may try to gradually tarnish Abiy’s image by making him more reliant on Eritrean forces—a position that the prime minister’s rivals can exploit to paint him as a national traitor.

Given these circumstances, Abiy is playing a dangerous game by blaming Eritrean troops for human rights violations in Tigray. Doing so might absolve him of responsibility, but it could also create a major rift with the Eritrean government, especially if Eritrean troops are subjected to an international investigation for crimes against humanity. Indeed, a recent announcement by the government-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission that its investigators have concluded that “Eritrean soldiers killed more than 100 civilians” on Ethiopian territory could prove to be the beginning of the end of the Isaias-Abiy axis.

For all the success he has had in controlling the narrative in Tigray, Abiy is now in a surprisingly vulnerable position. As long as Eritrean forces help him to maintain military control of Tigray, Abiy will likely be able to maintain political control of Ethiopia. But should Eritrea turn from an ally into an enemy once again, the situation would look very different. Ethiopia’s military would suddenly find itself overstretched, unable to impose order in Tigray, quell growing unrest elsewhere in the country, manage an increasingly fraught border dispute with neighboring Sudan, and face down continuing Egyptian and Sudanese opposition to Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. In such a scenario, the TPLF and other anti-Abiy groups within Ethiopia would be emboldened to resist the prime minister. And from there it would be a short step to a wider civil war that threatens not just the survival of Abiy’s government but the stability of the wider region.

 

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