The armed conflict that erupted on the evening of November 3, 2020, between forces loyal to the TPLF and the Ethiopian federal government-led has unleashed significant propaganda and disinformation campaigns. Each side has used social media platforms, satellite radios and televisions, phone communications, rallies, protests, and so on to communicate information to their supporters and the wider world.
But it is now becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate propaganda from facts or reliable information. Governments have privileged access to information and accounts and they have the power to deny open access to the public or media. Even if it’s hard to verify information broadcast by warring sides or belligerents, propaganda can be identified by observing the presentation, intention, or manipulation of certain information.
Degrade enemy's capabilities
Nicholas Spykman, an American political scientist, enumerated five dimensions of warfare: military, political, economic, ideological, and psychological. The political, ideological, and psychological warfares are called, in today’s terms, propaganda.
Propaganda is now a tool to intensify your war efforts. It is also one tool to deceive and mislead the enemy. Propaganda can mean spreading information, through lies or manipulated facts, to help one's cause or to damage an opponent’s during a war.
Propaganda can be directed inward or to external audiences. Propaganda to internal audiences is meant to produce a manufactured consent of the general public to the war or a certain decision.
The invention of mass communication tools such as television, the radio, and cell phones revolutionized the dissemination of propaganda and disinformation.
Propaganda has been employed throughout history whenever a war breaks. However, there have been few that happened to have ever effectively mastered propaganda in history.
The Nazis are best known for their effective employment of propaganda to manipulate public opinion and conquer the state apparatus and power.
Likewise, the belligerents in the Tigray armed conflict have widely used propaganda to gain an advantage over the other side. This has been done to mislead the enemy, distort facts, mobilize popular support, and gain international help. They have used mainstream and social media, public gatherings, and so forth to broadcast their propaganda efforts. The propaganda machines have hugely contributed to the waves of disinformation during the last 11 months of armed conflict.
The armed conflict in Tigray and the belligerents’ propaganda machines have fueled threads of disinformation.
The propaganda efforts by both sides started even before the war broke out at midnight on November 03, 2020.
Both sides began this element of media warfare when the newly appointed Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (Ph.D.) merged the then Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Party (EPRDF) into the Prosperity Party (PP). The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) openly opposed the merger of EPRDF into one party and refused to join the camp.
Thereafter, the relations between Addis Ababa and the Tigrayan state capital, Mekelle, has worsened. Initially, both sides condemned each other for conflicts and instabilities that have surfaced across the country. TPLF accused Abiy Ahmed and his administration of failing to protect peace and security and exposing the country to foreign forces. On the other hand, the federal government, led by Prime Minister Abiy, accused TPLF of instigating conflicts and instability across the country using the financial and intelligence capabilities it built during its three-decades-long dominance of national politics.
Both sides have rushed to manipulate certain events to their advantage. When an incident happens, they instantly issue statements that accuse each other.
The federal administration in Addis Ababa and TPLF organized rallies in which they denounced the other side.
Rallies had been the main tool of propaganda during Nazi Germany. The Nazis effectively used rallies to persuade the public that Germany had been ‘backstabbed’ during WWI and they are the only messiah that will deliver the country from the horrors of a post-war socioeconomic and political quandary.
The Nazis accused the civil government of betraying the nation, the Allied Powers, the Jews, the Communists, and other minorities. They built the brand of the Nazi Party and the messianic image of the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, through relentless rallies.
The rallies organized by both sides, especially by TPLF in Tigray, were intense. The rallies were organized under various contexts and pretexts. But the theme and messages of the rallies have almost been the same: condemning and accusing the other side.
Rallies in Addis Ababa and other areas under the realm of the Prosperity Party denounce and accuse the TPLF of alleged acts of instigating ethnic conflict and instability across the country so as to delegitimize and overthrow the federal government and restore its 27 years of dominance. The rallies held by the TPLF in Tigray accused the federal administration, particularly the Prime Minister, of failing to keep peace and stability Messages they spread included exposing the national security of the country to foreign forces, conspiring with external forces to destroy TPLF, [in extreme senses, the Tigray people], plotting and instigating mass violence against ethnic Tigreans, and even betraying the country (treason).
Persistent rallies have been organized at the federal level too. The intention of the rallies was to mobilize support for the government, opposing the enemy side, and protesting alleged interventions from abroad. The rallies were also used to demonstrate that they have popular legitimacy.
They both cited the constitution to legitimize one’s side and call upon each other to respect and protect the constitution. TPLF and the federal government condemned each other for plotting to undermine the ‘constitutional federal system’.
The lower house, the House of Peoples Representatives, decided to postpone the Ethiopian Sixth General Elections citing the COVID-19 global pandemic. During the session in the Prime Minister Office, TPLF delegates and MPs fiercely opposed the motion, arguing the disease still was not a pandemic and accused the federal government of illegally extending their span in power.
TPLF then declared that the postponement was unconstitutional and illegitimate.
This was a new chapter of large-scale media warfare between the federal government and TPLF.
The Tigray state council decided to conduct a regional general election. The federal government condemned the regional election in which TPLF won in a landslide and threatened to take measures in return. The House of Federation nullified the Tigray regional election. The federal government froze a budget subsidy that was due to be provided to Tigray during the 2020/21 fiscal year.
Later on, TPLF declared Abiy’s administration illegal beyond October 04, 2020, and then cut its relationship with the federal government. It recalled officials who are members of the party at federal offices.
TPLF officials compared the budget subsidy suspension to a declaration of war.
The propaganda warfare became even more intense. Controversies arose over a refusal of the newly appointed army chief. The army chief, Major General Belay Seyoum, was appointed and delegated to command the Northern Command of the Ethiopian Defence Forces whose headquarters was in Mekelle, Tigray. TPLF refused to endorse the new army chief and automatically returned to Addis Ababa. The news was compared to deportation in Addis Ababa, although TPLF claimed that he wasn't deported but only told him his appointment was not legitimate as the constitutional span of the federal administration is over.
Days before the war broke out, incidents, in which many civilians were killed, occurred in Benishangul Gumuz, South Nation, Nationalities & Peoples Region, and in Guliso, Oromia regional state.
The Guliso attack was a major setback to the federal government that even regional state-affiliated media outlets like Amhara TV harshly criticized the federal government and the Prime Minister for failing to protect the lives of civilians.
The federal government accused the TPLF of engineering the attack to delegitimize the government and illegally seize the federal power. State-affiliated media outlets echoed the accusations.
A few days before the war broke out, TPLF chairman and then Tigray regional president, Debretsion Gebremickael appeared on television and stated that the federal government has already waged a war over TPLF and called upon his government to get ready.
The Northern Command Incident
When war broke out, propaganda from both sides surfaced on mainstream and social media channels.
TPLF then stated that the strike was an “anticipatory self-defense attack'' claiming the federal government was planning to attack them using the Northern Command. Furthermore, they claimed that the Northern Command defected to their side.
The federal government accused TPLF of attacking the Northern Command to illegally seize munitions and began a military operation against them.
Since then, the Ethiopian social and mainstream media landscape has been contaminated by propaganda and disinformation semination. Information and incidents were weaponized to take advantage of and deprive the enemy side.
The war generated wide-scale social media warfare and online activism between the belligerents and their supporters.
The capture of Army Generals and Civil Officials
As the skirmishes continued, claims of the surrender of army generals widely emerged on social media. The claims stated that Lt. General Bacha Debele was captured by TPLF forces. Such claims expanded and later claims of the capture of Lt. General Abebaw Tadesse came out. The claims were blistering.
Social media platforms had been infested with claims alleging senior TPLF civil and military leaders were killed or arrested. In fact, senior TPLF leaders were killed and arrested. However, the claims go extreme to say many such as Debretsion Gebremickael, Getachew Reda, Tsadkan Gebretensae, and so on were killed or captured.
The social media disinformation claims mostly use false or manipulated images and video clips to prove the information. HaqCheck has fact-checked and debunked many claims of such kind.
Massacres and Mass Atrocities
Reports and claims of mass atrocities and massacres have come out and no one could exactly know the facts.
News of Mai Kadra Massacre, Mahbere Dego Massacre, Axum Massacre, Debre Abay Massacre, Agamsa Incident, Humera Massacre, Galicoma Massacre, Chena Massacre, and so on have surfaced. The reports of massacres have been accompanied by hashtag campaigns/activism on social media platforms, mainly Twitter.
They were used as a weapon to demonize the other side in the public mind, to mobilize infinite support from one’s social base, tear the enemy’s reputation and image at the international level, and gain sympathy and support from the international community.
Prisoners of war
Both sides claim they have gained thousands of prisoners of war from each other. The claim is behind an argument that ‘we are destroying the enemy side and are going to win the war’. They broadcast interviews of so-called prisoners of war with an intention to demoralize the other side and its social base.
They both also condemned each other for using underage, fresh recruits as cannon fodder and for using human shields. They denied that the prisoners of war interviewed by the other side belonged to them.
Federal Troops Withdrawal from Mekelle
The Ethiopian Defense Forces announced that it had withdrawn from Mekelle and major areas of Tigray following a sudden unilateral ceasefire by the federal government at the end of June 2021. They both tried to manipulate the event to their advantage. They struggled to give their own version of the narrative to the event.
The federal government and TPLF forces rebranded themselves as Tigray Defense Forces, have come up with their narratives. The federal government said that its forces withdrew from Tigray for humanitarian purposes and partially due to growing diplomatic pressures and sanctions.
The forces in Tigray, on the other hand, stated that the federal army was routed in Tigray with a fresh offensive called ‘Operation Alula’ indicating why the federal government declared a unilateral truce and pulled out its troops.