How TPLF Took Reputation Laundering from Dedebit to ‘K’ Street
By Workie Briye Retta
March 17, 2021
It was in Addis Ababa, sometime not more than three years after TPLF came to power. One of my friends, a lawyer, had another close friend of Tigrayan origin who was also a lawyer; let’s call him Gebre, for the purpose of this story, not his real name though. One Friday evening at Lalibela Restaurant near La Gar, our chat turned into politics, as usual. In the middle of our discussion my friend raised a question to Gebre; why TPLF leaders were so visibly and noticeably deferential and well-mannered, to the point of appearing submissive, to the west in general and the United States in particular, while abusing its own citizens verbally and physically. Gebre, who had turned into a staunch TPLF supporter after the overthrow of the Dergue regime said something along the following lines: “We [the TPLF] are from a minority region. It would be almost impossible to stay in power for us without a blessing from the US and support from European countries.” Gebre did not mince his words to tell us that TPLF needed benedictions from western powers to stay in power in Ethiopia.
Few years after that, a close friend of mine shared with me what another friend of his, who was also privy to some of the exclusive TPLF circles, once told him. The story goes like this: my friend’s friend was once at a party where Alex De Waal was the guest of honor. The late Kinfe Abraham, PH.D. (Dr. Kinfe Abraham was an Ethiopian academic and politician who also was president of the Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development.), Seyoum Mesfin and Gen. Tsadkan Gebretensay were among the guests at the dinner party. At the end of the reception, Dr. Kinfe presented an enormous bullion of gold bar necklace pendant chain and other wrapped gifts including solid silver replica of the Axum Obelisk. After the gift ceremony, Alex De Waal made an impromptu thanking Gen. Tsadkan and other officials for a guided tour they gave him around military installations and the palaces in Mekele and Addis.
Few years after that, in 2004 to be specific, I remember a conversation I had with another co-worker (now deceased), who used to be a member of the SEPDM (Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement). He told me that while serving at an Ethiopian embassy in Europe, he and other members and supporters of EPRDF member parties (the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and (SEPDM)) were told to deposit membership dues and donations to a London based account owned by TPLF. He also confided me that the money from members and supporters was spent to fund public relation activities and property acquisition in London and Washington.
You might wonder why I am flashbacking to these anecdotes that took place several years ago. These are just few dots but it does not take a genius’ IQ to connect the dots to realize the full schema of TPLF’s huge venture in wealth accumulation, networking, and reputation laundering that has been in the making for decades.
TPLF came to power at the beginning of the 1990s, a time of unprecedented political and social changes at international level as it was the end of the cold war following the crumbling of the Soviet Block. Most dictators around the world including Mengistu H. Mariam lost power partly because they lost their guardian and bankroller, the Soviet Union. The 1990s, which many call the “good decade” was indeed a good decade in many ways. Perhaps that was why, in 1992, Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history, published a highly influential book by the same title, and everyone believed it and thought that democracy anchored in liberal ideals and characterized by multi-party system would be the only game in town. However, the new era of democracy many hoped for did not come true for many people, only tyrants richer and smarter than their predecessors emerged.
Tyrants who came to power after the end of the Cold War turned out to be cunning unlike the communists and other forms of tyrants who dominated the scene during the cold war. Early on, due to the rise of new forms of communication such as internet and the early forms of social media, the new breed of tyrants such as Meles Zenawi realized that suppression and corruption could not indefinitely dodge western media spotlights. Accordingly, they did not leave any stone unturned to whitewash their names to cover up corruption and political suppression. These regimes not only reorganized and reoriented their regular diplomatic channels but also created parallel frequencies, irregular avenues, networks and connections designed to camouflage their real image. They paid money generously and curry other forms favors to forge political allies, align with ideological buddies, and identified sympathetic ‘analysts’. These new breeds of tyrants realized early on that they do not have the luxury of their predecessors, the likes of Mengistu or Mobutu, who could have easily hid behind the iron curtain of East-West division without losing sleep over negative media reports. The new generation of tyrants learned that network and connections are crucial in the unfolding era characterized by the absence of ideological God Fathers whose support could be taken for granted no matter what. Some of these regimes such as TPLF’s played the new game so well and finetuned their ideological jingles using the language of reform, democracy, peace, and development. They crunched development statistics, embroidered their rhetoric, and used international spin doctors so that they could continue killing opponents and jailing journalists at home and get away with it.
Above all, these tyrants have been using powerful PR firms in western Europe and the United States. In the United Kingdom, some of the most known and financially successful PR firms are those specialized in defending oppressive regimes. The main clients of these firms have been the regimes in Syria, Kazakhstan, Rwanda, Belarus, Venezuela, Ghaddafi’s Libya, and TPLF’s Ethiopia. Clients of these PR firms also include other regimes known for massive human rights abuse and corruption including money laundry. These PR firms publish Op-Eds sanctifying oppressive regimes, used social media, issue propaganda videos, publish misleading, false or exaggerated Wikipedia entries, and disseminate fake news. These powerful PR firms work with popular news agencies, editors and reporters. Those PR firms have the power to coerce, black mail, and, if necessary, eliminate reporters using third groups specializing in such a job. These powerful PR firms engage in hacking computers and networks of opposition groups, dissidents and human rights activists. They work with private spy agencies with capacity to conduct highly sophisticated detective and surveillance operations. TPLF has used, in some occasions successfully, working with hackers in Israel and spies in Europe. Some reports uncovered evidence that suggest PR firms massage Wikipedia entries about some of their clients such as the then president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Does that ring bell? If so, let me remind you what it is in particular. Some of the Wikipedia entries about the late PM Meles Zenawi not only put him in ways that cast his regime in a better light but some of the entries also look like a section from Einstein’s biography.
Over the last three decades, TPLF has availed itself of all of the above trickeries to stay in power and evade any form of accountability. Alex De Waal has been a faithful friend of the TPLF since the latter’s time in Dedebit. There are unconfirmed reports indicating that Alex De Waal and Matin Plaut arranged connection between TPLF and a London based small but highly effective spy group to produce fake Al-Shabaab videos for the consumption of western countries. Although cities such as Brussels, Washington DC, and New York are centers of PR firms, no western city compares to London when it come to the concentration and power of PR firms engaged in reputation laundering. It is not a coincidence that some of the most vocal apologists of the TPLF, such as De Waal and Plaut, and the media outlets serving as conduits for these individuals are either from or based in the UK.
Professional PR institutions are not the only ones engaged in reputation laundry defending tyrannical regimes. Mr. Anthony Blair is a British politician who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1997 to 2007 and Leader of the Labor Party from 1994 to 2007. Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change has been defending the regime in Kazakhstan for several years. Mr. Blair has provided consulting service to Kazakhstan’s dictators advising the ex-president Nursultan Nazarbayev how to handle the western media. Mr. Blair’s organization also drafted or edited speeches for the dictator targeted for western audience. Similarly, the relationship between Meles Zenawi and Mr. Blaire lasted very long after the later left Downing Street number 10. Only God knows what advice Meles Zenawi continued to receive from Mr. Blaire although we know that Mele’s camaraderie with Blaire helped him to elevate his profile in Europe.
Not only that, many western, some very famous, universities have wittingly or inadvertently fallen into this web of tyrants, money, politics, and, sometimes, organized criminal groups. It is well known that the main source of income for western universities is donations from alumni, sponsors, and other patrons. In return, in some cases, universities either produce or sponsor ‘research papers’ financed by benefactors. Although many big universities have committees to examine into sources before they accept donation, many others do not have the capacity to conduct sophisticated detective work or simply turn a blind eye even when they are alerted to red flags in connection with donations. Around 2011 or 2012 the London School of Economics (LSE) received a donation of 1.5 million pounds from Ghaddafi’s son, Al Seif Al-Islam. The dictator’s son had been awarded his PhD by the LSE before or after the donation.
Not only that! Some reputable international organizations have not been immune from these kinds of traps. Some 13 or 14 years ago, one African head of state who is in power for more than 40 years, offered to fund a UNESCO prize recognizing achievement in the life sciences;(I think UNESCO later declined the offer following media uproar and outcry from the scientific community.) The truth remains that some PR firms work closely with global governmental institutions to build profiles of some tyrants facilitating appearances before international forums such as the World Economic Forum and other elite clubs such as the Group of Eight (G8) Summit. Meles Zenawi’s close connection to Mr. Blaire helped TPLF as a group to stay in power as well as to raise Meles’ personal profile. Meles has been given audience and access to elite clubs and summits. This has allowed Meles Zenawi to achieve a series of near-Orwellian high-profile appearances on the international scene, such as speaking before the G8 summit, appearing as a panelist at the World Economic Forum, and chairing sessions at the International Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, in spite of staying in power through sham elections. In short, TPLF has benefited from the stature and charisma of figures like Tony Blaire and engaged topnotch public relations and lobbying groups to enhance its international profile, highlight its ‘economic achievements’, and deflect criticism of its failure to undertake democratic reforms.
In short, following the end of the cold war, all tyrants, dictators, and neo-communist regimes have powerful PR firms in London, New York, and Washington, effectively engaged in reputation laundering. TPLF has exploited all the amenities, connections and expertise money can buy. TPLF has worked closely with De Waal who in turn facilitated connection with important international figures in Europe, the United States, and the United Nations.
In some cases, Mekele university has been used as a cover up to establish illicit connection with some universities and professors such as Kjetil Tronvol. It is anybody’s guess what motivated some, if not all, of the professors of Universities in Belgium to sign a petition prepared on the basis of unfounded claims concocted by Digital Woyane.
PR firms and individual sycophants of dictators do everything including inciting civil war to defend their financiers. About a year ago, one of the PR firms, Bell Pottinger Private, based in London has been exposed for running a behind the scene social media campaign to stir up racial tensions in South Africa. The PR firm wedged this campaign on behalf of the wealthy Gupta family to defend the latter’s secretive but lucrative business secured as a result of its connection with ex-South African president Jacob Zumma. (This same PR firm has represented Egypt for many years. It is not clear if this firm’s Egypt account is still active.) The same firm has also performed many operations defending Alyaxander Lukashenko of Belarus, who is often considered Europe’s last dictator. As indicated above, some of these PR firms not only attempt to cleanse the filthy names of tyrants but also organize sophisticated political schemes to ignite civil war in their target countries. Individuals like Alex De Waal and Martin Plaut are currently inciting violence and civil war, including genocide against the Amhara community of Ethiopia.
Although the group invested a great deal of money for image building, TPLF’s success in Washington is a result of a combination of factors including role played by individual flatterers of Meles, a skillful use of PR firms, as well as manipulation of the geopolitics of the Horn of Africa in the aftermath of the 9-11 tragedy. It is well-known that TPLF has used the crisis in Somalia to its advantage for the last 30 years. In particular, reports indicate that TPLF has even passively working against the interests of some western powers to prolong the reality on the ground that made TPLF indispensable partner in the region. In addition, since Herman Cohen took TPLF under his wing, the group has made use of all resources in its disposal to acquire more friends and allies. For many years some US figures have been shown a surprising and unsettling sympathy for Africa’s despots such as Meles Zenawi, defending them when they kill their own citizens and sanctifying them when they die. These friends of Meles who, for many years, argued for “constructive engagement, not public censure,” to defend TPLF, have suddenly turned into idealist champions of human rights calling for intervention into the internal affairs of Ethiopia simply because the country happened to be led by a man who only has the national interest of his country at heart. These same individuals turned a blind eye when TPLF imprisoned 100s of thousands of dissidents and journalists, used food aid and fertilizer distribution as a political tool, and prevented the United Nations from demarcating its border with Eritrea.
In conclusion, the post-cold war era is characterized by a perfect marriage of western PR firms armed with a master key to open any door, on the one hand, and tyrannical regimes such as the TPLF who have the money to buy their service, on the other. Billions of dollars of money looted from Ethiopia, most of it in cash, laundered through western banks, businesses and real estate, ended up in the pockets of individuals such as De Waal and Martin Plaut. Since it came to power in May 1991, it has been critically important for TPLF to remain as the absolute dictator of Ethiopia. TPLF spent millions of dollars demonstrating to its cronies that it has the network and credibility to protect its reign of Revolutionary Democracy designed to last several years into the future, TPLF version of ‘Tausendjähriges Reich (“Thousand-Year Reich”). Alex De Waal, Martin Plaut, and Tronvol, came into the picture at different phases of TPLF’s life but have been playing the same role for many years, a cheerleading team in the past and professional mourners at present.
The conspirators against Ethiopia are not only of PR firms and paid advertisers. It includes some powerful individuals who, for some reason, admire dictators. In particular, Meles Zenawi was successful in hypnotizing some western politicians and ideological allies by filling them with his own desires, ideals, hatred and resentment. Meles Zenawi, many say, had a special gift of reading people’s personalities and used this skill to find “good” supporters. In this regard, few individuals have gone further than others in defending TPLF in all forms of its existence. It is worth recalling at this stage that, the New York Times once called Mrs. Susan Rice, “a sycophant of dictators”.
Western media and politicians need to be reminded of the consequences of appeasing dictators, be it the big and powerful such as Nazi Germany, or miniature versions of the Nazis such as the TPLF. Western politicians and leaders who attempted to appease the brutal dictators of Germany and the USSR in the 30s, 40s, and 50s deserve to be remembered. The difference is that those leaders, such as Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier, at least had the perceived immediate national interest of their respective countries in mind. But today’s US and EU position on Ethiopia is not in the long-term and strategic interests of the United States or EU countries, rather driven by a personal passion of few powerful individuals. We have to remind them full well that authorities in the UK and US had been indifferent to the sufferings of millions of Ethiopians and given a veneer of respectability to TPLF officials during the multiple rounds of crackdown on human rights. US officials, Senators, and Congresspersons need to be reminded that Ethiopia still remains an irreplaceable ally to the US and a bulwark against extremism in the Horn of Africa.
There is ample direct and circumstantial evidence indicating that individuals like De Waal, Plaut, Tronvol and others have been on TPLF’s payroll for quite some time. In fact, we do not need a smoking gun to prove this truth to expose these individuals and the dangerous role they play by disseminating fake news and providing propaganda coverage to one group’s atrocities against others. Over the years, many investigative journalists have uncovered the underworld of the complex interplay between powerful individuals like De Waal, as well as politics, media, business and tyrannical regimes. Ethiopians must continue talking and marching, twitting and asserting, and do everything else possible to call these individuals by their real name, digital mercenaries paid-per-click.
Workie B. Retta
(aka, Amanuel Retta)
The writer can be reached at: