Yonas Biru, PhD
When we talk about #NoMore, we need to separate its intellectual leaders who frame the ideological undergirds of the movement’s narrative structure, and its social media connoisseurs who choreograph the chorus of its protest voices and the art of its street defiant dances. The movement’s problem resides in its intellectual genesis and theology that see the West as Ethiopia’s adversary, if not an outright enemy. This has prohibited the movement from developing diplomatic strategy and skills to influence geopolitical developments and capitalize on global opportunities. Time has proven that the movement’s underlying narrative is misguided. The movement needs to rebrand itself with a robust narrative and sound guiding principles.
One example suffices to make the case for transformation. Before the TPLF triggered the third war on August 24, the IMF and the Paris Club were finalizing a debt relief and restructuring program for Ethiopia. Ethiopia is one of the only three African countries that is under consideration for such a generous initiative. In addition, the IMF was ready to disburse a new and unprecedented multibillion dollar loan. After the war, some countries, including the US put the break on the IMF and Paris Club initiative to use it as a leverage of influence to get Ethiopia agree to a ceasefire.
The #NoMore movement has two options: To continue its protest, accusing the US as an enemy or adopting a strategic campaign to influence its decisions. In choosing its options, it needs to look at Ethiopia’s Net Official Development Assistance historical data. During the TPLF era, Ethiopia received $2.2 billion annual average in development assistance and official aid. For the years 2018 to 2020 (since PM Abiy took office) the annual average was $5.0 billion per year, significantly more than twice the figure during TPLF’s era.
Net Official Development Assistance data is not available for 2021. However, in 2021 Ethiopia is the number one aid recipient from the US ($1.13 billion) followed by Jordan ($1.03 billion) and Afghanistan ($860 million). The #NoMore narrative that the West has harmful intentions toward Ethiopia is divorced from reality.
This proposal offers an alternative narrative that can help the #NoMore movement to transform itself from an impassioned and reflexive protest platform to a reflective and adoptive influence maker. The movement has a powerful platform and capable social media connoisseurs. What it needs is to repurpose its raison d’etre to advance Ethiopia’s geopolitical and diplomatic interests. Put differently, it needs to free itself from አቱቶ ቡቱቶ peddling intellectuals whose paranoic hysteria leads them to see foreign powers as Ethiopia’s natural enemies. Only then the movement can play a pivotal role to pave the path for peace in Ethiopia and leverage Ethiopia’s geopolitical engagement as a resource base for its development.
The proposal is based on my forthcoming article that will appear in Inside Policy Magazine. It argues “A lasting peace can come only if the international community takes deliberate actions to alter the TPLF’s political calculus.” The article makes the case that the international community must recognize that its bothsidesism has created false equivalency and encouraged the TPLF to stay the course of destruction. The international community does not have leverage against the TPLF, but it has the threat of sanction against the government of Ethiopia. The TPLF is capitalizing on this asymmetry of international peace enforcement mechanisms. In a sort of a subversive way, by delaying the IMF’s debt restructuring process and withholding critically needed international loans to Ethiopia, organizations like the IMF are doing the TPLF’s bidding.
Ethiopians need to go beyond protest rallies and articulate Ethiopia’s narrative. The thinking that the world knows the truth and therefore there is no need to spend time and energy reiterating its story is otherworldly and detached from global practice in the 21st century. The world’s most recognized brands spend billions annually in advertisement to protect their brands and control their narratives – Coca Cola ($4 billion), Toyota ($3.6 billion) and Apple ($1.7 billion). Nations do the same. They hire lobbyists, international PR houses and media influencers to narrate and propagate their profiles and national interests. On this front the Ethiopian government lost to the TPLF by forfeiture. The #NoMore movement was born out of this vacuum to lash out against the international community.
The Misguided Ideology that Pushed the #NoMore Movement into a Rabbit Hole
Allow me to summon Professor Al Mariam as an alibi. In March 2021, he wrote: “The U.S. and E.U. want a weak, famine-stricken, ethnically fragmented vassal state in Ethiopia. That is why they are desperate to restore the TPLF regime.” In December 2021, he explained: “What is happening in the relationship between Ethiopia and the U.S. is a clash of civilizations. It is a clash between a civilization founded on white European supremacy and an African civilization deeply rooted in black independence.” In May 2022, he added: “US Senator Jim Risch is doggedly committed to destroying Ethiopia because he wants to avenge the humiliating and devastating double loss of a white army in Africa in recorded history.”
Professor Al is not an exception. He is a reflection of the general sentiment. In July 2022, the Ethiopian Reporter accused the US of trying “to reinstate TPLF in Ethiopia at the expense of the life of tens of thousands of Ethiopians.” In August 2022, Ambassador Mohamed Hassan held Biden responsible for “instigating the TPLF to start [the] war in November 2020.” Others see the US’s intervention as an attempt to keep the TPLF strong enough to use it as a check against PM Abiy.
Young leaders of the #NoMore movement relied on such groundless and irresponsible narratives to build a powerful social media platform to fight back. #NoMore became a protest movement when it could be a force of influence. The young activists lost themselves in a hall of mirrors, becoming a reflection of አቱቶ ቡቶቶ intellectuals who are themselves a reflection of hermitized souls from centuries past – a reflection of a reflection of reflection.
The TPLF Sees the West’s Interest as “Saving Aby”
What does the TPLF want and where does the West stand? Let us hear what the military and political leaders of TPLF and pro TPLF Tigrayan and foreign intellectuals say.
Tsadkan Gebretensae, December 24, 2021: “The Tigray Central Command pursued the war in order to compel the government to negotiate on equal terms and, failing that, to replace it with an all-inclusive Transitional Government. Washington DC openly opposed the advance of the Tigray Defense Force (TDF) to Addis Ababa, threatening the government of Tigray with sanctions if our forces approached the city… Tigrayan people do not even receive humanitarian aid… They appealed for a cessation of hostilities and for humanitarian access, but in practice these were empty gestures.”
Getachew Reda, November 10, 2021: “Most ‘peace initiatives’ are mainly about saving Abiy, not about addressing the most critical political challenges in the country. Efforts that fail to address our conditions & the tendency to conflate humanitarian issues with political ones are doomed to fail!”
Samuel M. Gebru, Sr. Fellow at Tufts University, September 13, 2022: “There is something worse than #Ethiopia’s Abiy regime. It is the people at @StateDept, @AsstSecStateAF, @WHNSC, @UN, @_AfricanUnion, @WorldBank, & elsewhere who enable his reign of terror. #Tigray isn’t the only casualty either. The entire country is on fire. May God judge you.”
Samuel M. Gebru, September 23, 2022: “The European Union was right to criticize @WorldBank funding to #Ethiopia. Sadly, the United States did nothing to block the vote at the Bank’s board meeting, a decision that was advocated by Germany, Italy, and France. #Tigray”
Professor Mehari Taddele Maru, Fellow at UNUCRIS, September 2, 2022: “Despite 13 Security Council meetings, 4 Special Envoys, over 500,000 deaths, 5.4 million IDPs and refugees, International Community failed to end the siege, ensure full access, and prevent relapse to war. It is criminal for Council members to continue to arm the regime in Addis.”
Rashid Abdi, Chief Analyst, Fellow, Rift Valley Institute, September 24, 2022: “In Ethiopia, international peace diplomacy now driven exclusively by realpolitik. No one gives a fuck about 2 years of world’s deadliest conflict, mass rape, mass starvation, genocidal siege. That is the depressing reality.”
What is the Source of TPLF’s and Its Advocates’ Frustration?
For starters, let us divide the timeframe since the war started into five blocks: (1) November 2020 to January 2021 when Ethiopian and Eritreans forces were obliterating TPLF forces; (2) January 2021 to November 2021 when TPLF gained momentum, forced the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces to leave Tigray, and marched toward Addis reaching Debre Sina; (3) November 2021 to March 2022, when ENDF inflicted heavy damage to TPLF forces and compelled them to retreat to Tigray; (4) March 2022 to August 2022 when both parties agreed to a ceasefire; and (5) August 2022 to present days when the TPLF got defeated in the war it triggered and proposed a unilateral ceasefire but the Ethiopian government ignored it and continued pushing deep into Tigray territories.
TPLF is frustrated because the West is relatively quiet when TPLF is losing the war as was (and still is) the case in the first and fifth blocks of time noted above. In both cases the TPLF appealed to international military interventions and no fly zone to no avail. On September 15, 2022, René Lefort, a lifelong TPLF advocate expressed frustration, tweeting: “Finally, the first international reaction to the bombings in Mekele, but very soft. The EU “regrets” the bombing (and not “denounce” or “condemn” for example) and “encourages” (and not “urges” for example) the two parties to negotiate.”
On the other hand, the US’s pressure on Ethiopia to engage in a negotiated settlement was the loudest during the time when TPLF was advancing toward Addis, not when Ethiopia is winning. This can easily be verified by comparing the number of press releases, tweets, and sanction threats during the five blocks of time. For example, the US Senate S.3199 – Ethiopia Peace and Stabilization Act of 2022 was introduced on November 4, 2021. The bill was shelved after TPLF’s advance was thwarted. Though there is the AGOA sanction laid on Ethiopia in January 2021, it was no more than symbolic. Ethiopia continues to get billions in aid and new loans.
As The TPLF marched toward Addis, the US went as far as threatening to send American troops to Ethiopia to stop the TPLF from entering the capital under the guise of forming a provisional government consisting of various tribal opposition forces. We have not heard the US threatening to send troops after the TPLF lost the momentum and retreated to its regional enclave. The US was unequivocally and publicly opposed to TPLF’s advance and TPLF’s attempt to form a provisional government with OLF-Shene and others. Here are some examples.
Ambassador Jeffry Feltman, November 1, 2021 – “Prosperity Party has significant support across Ethiopia as reflected in the election results… The PM indeed has a mandate he can draw upon, and a new cabinet composed of hand-picked, trusted allies and partners.”
General William Zana, Commander of Joint Task Force for the HOA, November 12, 2021: “What happens within Ethiopia is inexplicably tied to the security and the safety of the rest of the region. The crisis can change the regional political calculus with respect to GERD. There is a risk that other countries may look at Ethiopia’s internal focus as an opportunity to take whether a military action or strong political action… The US forces are ready to respond.”
US Congresswoman Karen Bass, November 13, 2021: “I denounce the threat to ‘oust Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed – through political negotiation or military force if necessary – and install a transitional government’ made by the alliance of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front with the Oromo Liberation Army and other opposition groups throughout Ethiopia.”
Secretary Blinken, November 17, 2021 – “it is very important that the differences, the conflicts be resolved by people sitting down at the table, talking, discussing, negotiating. And that needs to be done, in my judgment, pursuant to the constitutional order, including with the duly elected leaders of the country – Prime Minister Abiy.”
Ambassador Herman Cohn, September 12, 2022: “In #Ethiopia, the best that the #TPLF can expect from an African Union peace process will be the dissolution of the movement and amnesty for the leadership. The cost of rebuilding the Tigray state will be formidable.”
How Can Both Ethiopia and TPLF Fail to Understand US’s Strategic Interests?
The TPLF thought the public relations victories it gained through lobbyists and hired international media were strategic victories against Ethiopia. Its leaders believed international condemnations against Ethiopia and press releases and bills introduced by US lawmakers signified an opportunity to overthrow the Abiy administration and establish the EPRDF 2.0. The US’s threat to sanction TPLF and send American troops threw a wet blanket on their hopes and enthusiasms.
On the Ethiopia side, the apprehension and confusion come from a disconnect between the US’s strategic interests and policy actions during the Biden administration. In my 14-page article titled “Ethiopia’s Failed Public Diplomacy…” I started with factors that DO NOT explain the US intervention. These are: Thwarting China’s influence in Ethiopia; doing Egypt’s bidding in the Nile conflict; destabilizing Ethiopia, fearing its potential in becoming a black power; and planting TPLF back to power as an agent government to exploit Ethiopia’s resources. None of these explain the Biden administration’s interventions.
Those who are not well versed in geopolitics and lack a clear understanding of American policy making processes may wonder what explains the Baden’s seemingly pro TPLF policy in 2020 and 2021. The issue is two layered. To understand Biden’s seemingly counterintuitive policy we need to tease out and separate strategic and tactical factors. For an in-depth explanation, see my article titled “What Explains Biden’s Counterintuitive Policy on TPLF’s War on Ethiopia.”
What Needs to be Done?
The first task is to develop a narrative upon which the #NoMore movement can rebuild its campaign to become a platform of influence. I hope my forthcoming article in Inside Policy Magazine can serve as a starting point. If not, I hope the movement develops its own narrative. Once the movement reinvents itself, its first campaign should be exerting pressure on the IMF to approve the debt restructuring and relief. May God help the brilliant young activists to free themselves from hermitized intellectuals who have deafened themselves with the cacophony their own አቱቶ ቡቶቶ.