The US-based actress Tiffany Haddish has incurred the wrath of Ethiopians for using social media to voice disputed claims about the Tigray region. But her thoughts on the conflict in Ethiopia’s north have also prompted a debate around the rights of those in the public eye to shape debates around political topics.
Haddish, whose father was an Eritrean refugee, was born in Los Angeles. Following his death in 2018 she became a naturalized Eritrean citizen.
The 41-year-old performer has previously been criticized for defending Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki who has ruled his country without an election for 30 years. Now the actress’s use of a simple but emotive Eritrean phrase has brought her controversial opinions to wider attention.
On June 2, Haddish tweeted “Awet N’ Hafash!!!” to her 564,000 followers. Roughly translated as “Victory to the Masses,” the phrase has become a slogan of Afwerki’s administration since it was used as a rallying cry by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front during the country’s war of independence.
Later the same day, Haddish quote tweeted an article headlined: “A Morally Bankrupt Institution: How the UN is Betraying Ethiopia.” She added above the link: “While people trying to make me look like the bad guy pay attention to who is really behind all this. This is a great read.”
Much of what is happening in Tigray has been disputed with multiple news agencies accusing Eritrean troops of murdering Tigrayans and carrying out mass rape.
Haddish has maintained that she is using her voice to speak for Eritreans supposedly upholding justice in Ethiopia for the common good. She added on Twitter: “There is no proof that the Eritrean troops are hurting the Tigrayan civilians, so I can’t believe that the people are really facing genocide as it is being said.”
Even though Buzzfeed ran an article that suggested Haddish has been naïve in her support for a dictator, she has not wavered and continued to support Afwerki and his government’s policies on Tigray. However, many Ethiopians are responding to her saying she is being offensive and disrespectful to the victims with a hashtag campaign that says "#Tiffany_supports_genocide".
Eritrea and Ethiopia have put aside previous differences to send troops to battle against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said Eritrean troops crossed into Tigray in November 2020. This was undertaken to support the Ethiopian government in its efforts to rebuff a military offensive allegedly carried out by the TPLF.
Recently, the government has announced that it has started a process with the Eritrean government to withdraw the latter’s forces from the territory of the regional state.
Addis Zeybe spoke with Agegnehu Adane, a Director and Lecturer at Addis Ababa University Alle School of Arts. Mr. Agegnehu Adane was asked whether artists should voice political opinions.
“To argue that artists should not be able to give their view on current affairs or even their own political stance is wrong,” he says.
“It might be said that some artists simply state their take on current politics to spark attention. But everyone is entitled to their opinion and whether they decide to talk about it openly is their own choice. Many artists have huge platforms that they feel the need to give their opinions on around political situations, which should be mostly seen as a great thing.”
“Artists have the power to cause a change to happen, so why shouldn’t they use it? Whether people agree or not with her political stance, those in the public eye shouldn’t be stripped of their ability to speak freely on such matters. They have the ability to change the world and inspire millions, so if they want to, they should.”
Addis Zeybe asked Ethiopian actress Segen Yifter, seen as a voice to “Tigrayans” (Ethiopians who speak the Tigrayans language) about her thoughts.
“When we address our opinions on some activities of our country I know that we get targeted by some group,” Yifter says.
“However, the times we live in are so horrible and the news is so unbearable, that it seems strange that everything is connected with politics. That’s why you can't avoid it even if you want to.”
“I believe it has been a terrible time for ‘Tigrayans’ and I will continue voicing for them. The same way Tiffany is doing her thing, whether I like her opinion or not, that’s how it is supposed to be.”
Tiffany Haddish is not the first artist who spoke out her opinion on the Ethiopian current situation.
Will Smith, Abel Tesfaye (The Weekend), Kevin Hart, and others have tweeted and blogged about their feelings on the war with their social media even though their attitudes are different on the subject.
As claims and counterclaims are shot back and forth, social media users will have to accept the right of those in the public eye to voice their opinions however objectionable they think they may be.