May 22, 2021
There is no question that Ethiopia has won the military battel with the TPLF. But it has failed to counter the TPLF’s ferocious, multipronged, and well-orchestrated propaganda campaign. The campaign targets Western governments, multilateral agencies, and NGOs. The TPLF is utilizing its well-placed connections and stashes of looted money to present itself to the outside world as a victim and the sole representative of the people of Tigray. It has enticed and worked with major news organizations to produce streams of reporting based on questionable sources, half-baked truths and sometimes outright falsehoods to concoct and spread a sinister message: in the war against the TPLF, the Ethiopian government and its allies are targeting the people of Tigray and committing gross human rights violations and creating a humanitarian crisis. Therefore, the international community has an obligation under international law to stop the crisis by pressuring the government. The Government of Ethiopia has not effectively challenged these assertions, and in fact, seems to be ignoring them at its own peril. Unchallenged, these assertions have morphed into a narrative that the TPLF is not completely defeated and Abiy’s military operation has created a humanitarian and human rights crisis. Therefore, the government must be pressured to negotiate with the TPLF to bring an end to the crisis.
Plan B of a Defeated Foe
Realizing it lost militarily, the TPLF launched plan B — a desperate propaganda blitz to salvage itself through help from the West. So far, it has succeeded in getting its sinister message out and in tarnishing the image of Abiy and his administration. Not sufficiently contested, the false narrative has created pressure on some in the West to condemn Abiy’s government and to ponder punitive measures. The whole thing seems unfair, especially considering the TPLF instigated the conflict and that its 30 years of misrule, corruption, and gross human rights violations have brought Ethiopia to this stage. But we know fairness is not a highly valued commodity in international relations.
Ethiopia is not an island. It needs allies and partners to foster trade and economic development, respond to humanitarian disasters, and strengthen peace and stability. The irony is Ethiopia has the truth and facts on its side and huge domestic support for its actions against the TPLF but is not effectively using them to tell its side of the story and garner international support. Ethiopians were liberated three years ago from the TPLF’s decades of repressive rule, although that freedom from repression did not reach the people of Tigray until the TPLF’s military defeat earlier this year. The liberation from TPLF dictatorship didn’t come without cost, and the transition hasn’t been smooth. Many have sacrificed their lives. Tigray and several other regions are experiencing humanitarian disasters and human rights violations. The TPLF and others molded by it have made the transition difficult. The TPLF instigated the conflict and is now calling foul when it’s confronted with evisceration. It wants to also avoid responsibility for the crises happening in other parts of the country, results of its disastrous ethnic policy that purposely pitched one ethnic group against another. Any sincere attempt at reconciliation must first admit these two fundamental crimes.
Do Sanction Really Work?
The remnants of the TPLF want to see the West weaken Ethiopia by imposing sanctions on it. The history of the world shows that in general sanctions are not terribly effective in bringing about desired behavioral change in targeted countries. In Ethiopia’s case, sanctions may make things difficult but would not result in restoring the TPLF back to power. The only way this could happen is by changing the military balance of power on the ground. This would require Western boots on the ground and a huge sacrifice. The TPLF is not that important and the cost of intervention too high to justify direct Western intervention, making such a foray outside the realm of possibilities. Also, Ethiopians across ethnic and religious lines have rejected the TPLF. In fact, they want the organization to be held accountable for the crimes it committed while in power. Most of its leadership is either arrested, dead or on the run, its domestic organizational network is dismantled, and its economic lifeline severed. So, practically speaking, TPLF’s chances of returning to power are nil. The West knows this very well and might be trying to leverage the crisis to seek concessions from Abiy in other areas of interest.
Nonetheless, Ethiopia needs to rump up its media, public diplomacy, and lobbying efforts to bring the truth to the world and stress the need for a fair and balanced understanding of the situation and policy positions. Policies founded on a false premise and half-baked truth with sinister motives will not result in sustainable peace and stability. In fact, they could be counterproductive and further aggravate things and could introduce instability beyond Ethiopia in a volatile region. Ethiopia serves the West’s interests best as a reliable regional anchor of peace, stability, and prosperity. Instability in Ethiopia could open opportunities for malign actors to take a foothold in the critically important region straddling Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
Need for a Course Correction
In contrast to the TPLF’s well-oiled and huge propaganda operation, the Ethiopian government seems to rely on occasional briefings to local and a few international media outlets by a lone diplomat sitting at its foreign ministry. Shackled perhaps by dysfunction and incompetence, the government is being shellacked by the TPLF in this version of the war. It’s sleeping while Ethiopia’s image is being defiled on the international stage. In fact, the government seems to be ceding the propaganda war to its militarily defeated foe.
Given the void, the Ethiopian diaspora is trying to do what it can to help counter the TPLF’s distortions and disinformation. This is good but insufficient and has risks too. Sometimes, well-intentioned but misguided patriots, restore to name calling and demonizing influential personalities in Western governments and institutions they see as sympathetic to the TPLF. This, in my view, is wrong, counterproductive, and plays directly into the TPLF’s trap — that the diaspora is hardcore irrational bunch, not worthy of engaging to seek solutions. Besides the diaspora is not in a position of authority to speak on behalf of the government and articulate its positions. The government should be leading the effort. The best the diaspora can do is play a supportive advocacy role.
Where is Ethiopia’s Chief Spokesperson?
It is perplexing that Ethiopia’s public face and chief spokesperson, the charismatic and articulate Abiy Ahmed, hasn’t engaged the international media on the war and articulated his vision to the world. Beyond the prime minster, Ethiopia needs sophisticated, seasoned, and experienced diplomats to roam the halls of legislative and executive bodies in the West and build strong relations. They need to sell Ethiopia’s uplifting message of peace, stability, unity, and prosperity to the world. Ethiopia, armed with facts and a coherent and persuasive story, should defend itself and quickly go on a public relations offensive.
Overall, Ethiopia’s government pubic and diplomatic relations performance or lack thereof has been pathetic and harmful. It is confounding to see the government struggling to tell Ethiopia’s story to the world and cultivating friendly and reliable international relations founded on common interests. The government needs to make an immediate course correction to effectively combat the sinister TPLF propaganda war. It should assemble skilled, sophisticated, and seasoned media, public diplomacy, and government relation experts to develop and execute a winning media, public, and government engagement strategy. It must strive to win the hearts and minds of the Western public and establish positive and mutually beneficial relations with their governments. After all, the Ethiopian government represents a very important country with a huge potential. It has the truth, facts, and 115 million people behind it for crafting and telling a coherent, uplifting, and persuasive story.